Monthly Archives: July 2012

Practice in the modern world?

Lately the question of practice in the modern world has been on my mind. This is because, in six weeks, I will begin a new training program, working as a Chaplain Resident at a local hospital. I’ve had this role before, but as a volunteer. Each time I returned to City Center to continue the practice of zazen and ceremony together with the sangha (practitioners) here. Now all of that may change.

Within the monastery, life is simple. There are only a handful of activities that take place on a given day, and they are largely conducted in silence, except for the harmony of chanting in a group. In contrast, the modern world offers myriad things to do, the rise and fall of mechanical and human sounds, and the motion of technology which is much faster than the humble pace of walking. City Center, as an urban temple whose residents work within and outside the building, can be said to be midway between these two realms.

All of these activities and sensations can be thought of as forms of stimulation. So there can be a subtle, or not so subtle, sense of agitation that comes with modern life simply because of the amount of stimulation you experience. For that reason, it’s sometimes said that practice outside the monastery is an advanced form.

Yet Buddhist practice has flourished in every kind of civilization that human beings have developed. How? By pointing us again and again to our true selves, our fundamental nature.

There’s an old story that can give us a sense of this. In ancient India there was a great Teacher whose name was “Wisdom Jewel,” Prajñatara.

Prajñatara, thanks to Shoalindo

Prajñatara, thanks to Shoalindo

For many, many years Prajñatara was thought to be a man, but recent scholarship indicates that Prajñatara was a woman. It’s not clear to me whether this is simply a result of the confusion surrounding Bodhidharma, this Teacher’s disciple, or whether it’s a more accurate understanding than before. In any event, we know that Prajñatara was an extremely skillful practitioner whose teaching reverberates to this day. One conversation in particular is very revealing.

Prajñatara had been invited by a local King to dinner one evening. The King must have spent some time with the Teacher because it seems that, at this dinner, a question arose for him. He asked, “Why do you not study the Sutras?” This question demonstrates the King’s own practice, an awareness of Prajñatara’s forms and an inquiring mind about even something as fundamental as what practice might be. And it’s certainly a reasonable question. The Sutras are said to be the words of the Buddha, foundational instruction in the way to lead an awakened life. So how could Prajñatara be such a great Teacher without the benefit of that history?

Prajñatara replied, “This poor wayfarer does not dwell in body and mind when breathing in, does not get involved with myriad circumstances when breathing out; this way I recite the sutra hundreds, thousands, millions of times.” Ah ha! Here we see the Ancestor telling the student that practice is not some secret that resides in a musty, old book. It is this very life itself, unfolding breath by breath, yet not identified with the conditional world. This is practice that is available to us at any moment, in any place. In fact, it’s a practice which requires a presence that is sustained and intimate with the moment now, regardless of whether the moment now is standing at a street corner while the ambulance screams past you, or sitting on a cushion in a firelit cabin in the mountains.

So when living in the modern world, it’s helpful to foster the mind of inquiry, like the King, and it’s helpful to remember that practice always occurs right where you are, like Prajñatara. This is not to say that you shouldn’t study the Sutras. That musty, old wisdom can be inspiring, like a window into someone else’s insight. But you should know that an awakened life is not something that is attained through scholarship; it’s freedom and stillness within the very activity of the moment. And that’s not anything to write home about.

Practicing Patience with Not Understanding

Here is the link to a talk that I recently gave at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center:,10&pageid=3327

My previous talks at City Center are posted here:,10&pageid=440

Next up, talks with the Redwood City Zen group on July 22nd, and with the Gay Men’s Buddhist Sangha on August 5th.

Looking Backward in the Mirror

This morning, in conversation, I found myself receiving the admonishment of Shakyamuni Buddha. “There is no need to convince another of Right View. Simply conduct yourself in such a manner, and the world will co-create itself according to the Way.” Ahhh yes. The desire to have a positive influence, to leave a legacy, to be seen as offering discernment – these desires are all simply an expression of the ego self. They reflect a wish to protect some small-minded identity that habitually defines the world in a way which is incredibly petty when placed into the real context of a universe of co-created activity. Wow! Thank you to the vehicle of the Dharma, a long-time practitioner who is himself humbly finding a path amidst mind, small and large and beyond measure.

This offering arose in the midst of a conversation about how to have a conversation. Recently I’d been approached by a person under whom I have worked. She wanted to talk about disappointment and an expectation that had not been shared. She was direct, but gentle about it. Still, I hesitated because I feel that once the decision is made and the first steps are taken, it’s a little too late to offer feedback. It’s a bit like asking someone what they think of your new hairdo. Once the hair has been cut, to criticize can only be painful. There’s no putting it back, at least not until it grows out. Asking for input before the haircut is more likely to elicit a constructive response.

So the question arose: what is a skillful way to talk about a state of affairs which you undoubtedly view differently, and which is not likely to be undone anytime soon? And what my friend suggested this morning is to avoid trying to convince the other person of my view, or to show the other person who I am by expressing my view. This is a great reminder about renunciation, in this case renunciation of the view of self. That is to say, he recommended that I not impose my view of myself on the situation, but simply express the experience of it.

In this way, if I can cleanly describe my feelings and thoughts and perceptions and respond to what arises in that moment – not the moment that is already history – then the self that arises is simply a skillful interaction, and can be characterized but what’s seen and heard. This is a very different self than the one that is a fixed view, set up in advance and defended over the course of many interactions. So, for example, if I think that I am a compassionate person, then I must always be trying to say something or do something compassionate, and I am constantly judging myself against this view. I will want to hear feedback from others about how compassionate I am, and I will want to see myself as behaving in a compassionate way all the time.

Looking backward in the mirror – c. PR Newswire and American Broadcasting

But, if I forgo the fixed view of myself, and simply act in a skillful and compassionate way, then I can be authentic in the moment and know that sometimes I will act compassionately and maybe sometimes I won’t. But it doesn’t define me or define the world in relation to me except, perhaps, in retrospect, as the consequences of my words and actions have their impacts. This is like looking in the mirror backwards. If you want to see who you are, “you” can only be defined arbitrarily as an accumulation of activities of body, speech and mind. Even this activity of looking back is not necessary, but it can be helpful as a form of studying the self in order to forget the self.