Tag Archives: comparing

The Opportunity of Now

The third topic in this series of six posts about the bodhisattva practices known as the paramitas is kshanti or patience.


Overall, I think of kshanti as an aspect that balances the others. Generally one can see the first two paramitas – giving and ethics – as compassion in action, and the last two – meditation and wisdom – as equally expressions of wisdom. Balancing compassion and wisdom, the two broadest areas of Buddhist practice, are the two paramitas in the middle of the list – patience and effort. Effort, or virya, is our topic for next time. For now, I would like to say a few words about kshanti.

Kshanti is the practice of patience. You might say that it has two primary aspects. The first aspect is that of forbearance. This may be closest to its original meaning, when the teaching was developed, around the beginning of the Common Era. This means that when you practice kshanti, you cultivate the ability to endure hardships. You practice being present with even the most difficult things in your life, receiving them in a way that doesn’t reject them or turn away.

This way of practice brings to mind a teaching by Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian sage whose teaching was very encouraging. Shantideva taught, “If you can do something about it (your problem), why be discouraged? If you can’t do something about it, why be discouraged?” One can equally say, either way, why be impatient? Either way, you don’t turn away.

frog in India

The second aspect of kshanti is allowing. That is to say, the patience you are practicing is specifically patience with what is. It is a practice of acknowledging what is, as it is, without judging whether it is good or bad. It is the practice of allowing what is to be what it is.

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And how is it? It is changing, always changing. Nothing remains in one state forever; nothing is permanent. In fact, each moment is a completely new state, the result of innumerable conditions that have arisen and dissolved.

Thus, many centuries after the teaching of kshanti was first expounded, Zen turned it, bringing forth another aspect. Putting the two sides of kshanti together – not turning away from what is, and seeing it as a new expression in each moment – Zen Masters understood that each moment is an opportunity. In deed, each moment is an opportunity to awaken to the true nature of things, to see how your life is teaching you about suffering and freedom from suffering. Each moment is an opportunity to awaken, if you are able to truly be present with what is. This is the opportunity of now.

Seeing it in that light, it’s easy to understand why sitting zazen is so important to Zen practice. For it is in sitting that you find the capacity to encounter your life. It is in zazen that you learn that you can face whatever is in this moment. It is in zazen that you find, again and again, that the opportunity of now is always available.


So I hope to encourage you to practice patience and, to do that, I will  share a quote from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. “If you become too serious, you will lose your way. If you are just playing a game, you will lose your way. So, little by little, with patience and endurance, we must find our way for ourselves.”

Finally I would add, moment by moment, we do find our way for ourselves. The question is, which way?

The One who is Really Busy

It is so easy these days to get caught up in thinking that you are busy. Maybe you feel there are lots of chores to do, or emails piling up in your inbox, or texts arriving on your phone. Maybe you feel that you simply don’t have time for everything, that you simply can’t keep up with all of the people who need or want something from you. When this happens, the thought, “I don’t have time for that” can arise even when “that” is something you want to do, like answer the phone when your loved one calls or clear a space on your desk. But the pressure you feel is too high, so you cannot connect to the positive in that moment. As Zen Master Dogen says:

You fail to experience the passage of being-time and hear the utterance of its truth, because you learn only that time is something that goes past.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

What Dogen is pointing at here is the fact that we live in each moment, and the moment is expressing the truth of interrelatedness, the truth that we are actors in our world. So your experience of time could be entirely different. You could turn that thought of not having time into your helper. You could see “not having time” as something of a tool for discerning what is skillful in your life. This is called “turning on the basis,” a practice of shifting perspective so that it aligns more closely with the Dharma. You could have a shift that enables you to live within the moment now, with all the results of the past and the possibilities of the future.

A shift in the view of not having time often happens to those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Suddenly a person comes to the realization that life is precious, and that they must be thoughtful about the way in which they live. Many times, for the people I visit, this creates a sense of sadness as well. If you have been postponing the things you really want to do for a long time, when you find out that you no longer have the time or the health to do them, it can be a big disappointment.

Yet you don’t have to wait for that moment to begin changing your perspective on “not having time.” You can simply take up a practice of acceptance, discernment and skillful response. Seeing clearly the moment as it is, you hold it up to the light of the Dharma, and then make a conscious choice about whether and how to respond.

For example, how would it be if you simply said, “I don’t have time for that worry” or “I don’t have time to watch violence for the sake of entertainment.” Or “I don’t have time to be angry with that person that just walked too close to me,” or “that person who took the parking place I had my eye on.”

So you can see that, with a bit of a twist, not having time can begin to open up new potential for presence, patience and for letting go of pettiness. It can help you stay focused on responding, rather than reacting. It can put things in perspective – which reminds me of a saying that a friend of mine who is a nun mentioned many years ago:

“In Zen three minutes is an eternity.”


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.

Your Most Present Concern

So often, in everyday modern American society, we receive the message that we are defined by what we don’t have – the latest cell phone, the ideal job, the perfect family, the nicest car or the right insurance. We judge each other by our failure to acquire these things. And we judge ourselves equally harshly, fueling a drive that is based in anxiety and comparing mind. This message is encapsulated in commercials, in packaging, and in the ways we talk about what it means to be successful. For most of us, not a day goes by that we don’t receive this message.

So tonight I want to offer you a completely different message.  I want to encourage you to release yourself from a life driven by a sense of inadequacy, and to turn instead to a life that revels in the incredible fullness of all that you are simply by being human. Tonight I want to release you from living a life defined by what you lack.

Mural of Life at SFO

Mural of Life at SFO

At times I wonder whether the modern day preoccupation with distraction and material acquisition is actually based in a fear of death, a fear of facing that which is inevitable for each and every one of us. Perhaps, you might think in secret, if I just have that big, beautiful house and a device that gives me driving directions, then I won’t have to worry about the fact that I am passing out of this existence.

Yet even death is not our most present concern. Our true concern is to live fully while we are alive – to release ourselves from a limited view of who and what we are – to reconnect, over and over again, with that which is greater than our self, but arises through it – to discover that the true meaning of enlightenment is a direct experience of the wisdom that runs through all things, even the horrible ones.

Mind you that by ‘living fully’ I do not mean living large, or fulfilling all your sexual and material desires, or even being the most calm or the most wise. I mean actually experiencing firsthand the incredible fullness of each moment, the magnificent transformation that is taking place in every instant. Notice the incredible revelation of truth that is expressed by the fact that everything is dependent on everything else – not some things are dependent on some other things, but everything needs everything else in order to exist. This noticing is the foundational Buddhist practice of mindfulness – paying attention to this very moment so clearly that there is no one who pays attention and no moment that can be measured. Life is simply the bare threads woven together to make an infinite fabric.

Sound impossible? Well, consider how many times things have actually turned out exactly as you expected them. They may be something like what you expected, but are they truly arising exactly in ways that you can predict with precision? I didn’t think so. This unpredictability is the weaving, the activity of impermanence, that change upon change. Still, we know that things do not change at random, but are governed by the laws of cause and effect. Awakening to these laws at work in our lives, we can find bright clarity about how to live and we can find deep compassion in understanding that nothing separates us.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross put it beautifully when she said,

“It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather our concern must be to live while we are alive – to release ourselves from the spiritual death that comes from living behind a facade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are.”

So please check in with yourself. What is your most present concern?

On “Shobogenzo Juki,” Eihei Dogen’s words on Buddhahood

Takuhatsu in the snow

“The Great Way that has been singularly transmitted by buddhas and ancestors is giving the prediction [of buddhahood]….the prediction is given to beings who have not yet aroused [the wish for enlightenment];…the prediction is given to beings with a body; the prediction is given to beings without a body; the prediction is given to all buddhas. We should not learn that we become buddhas after receiving the prediction; we should not learn that we receive the prediction after becoming buddhas. At the time of conferring the prediction, there is becoming buddha; at the time of conferring the prediction, there is practice. For this reason, there is the prediction in being buddhas; there is the prediction in going beyond buddhas.”

Commentary: Are you a being without a body? Our practice and our life’s experience is itself the expression of buddhanature and it’s actualization, but do not think that there is nothing to discover. Each moment is leaping directly into the fire, so why worry about the cold? It will still be cold when all is said and done.

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.

The Other Side

It began for me when I came home the night of the Dharma Inquiry Ceremony (Saturday, March 31st). I’d been out with a few friends but, glancing at my watch on my way up the stairs, still found that it was not even 9:00 pm. Even more surprising, however, was the thing I found at my doorstep – a note from the Ino (Head of the Meditation Hall) reminding me *not* to ring the wake up bell on Monday morning.

Of course, I thought. I’m no longer leading the life of the Shuso (Head Student or, more literally, Head Seat). I’m no longer the person who gets up before the required time to help everyone else by eliminating their need for an alarm clock and, thereby also eliminating their excuse for not being in the zendo (meditation hall) by 5:20 am. I didn’t need to be home early. And when I did get to the zendo, I would no longer seated facing into the room, toward the other sitters, the better for them to study my mudra (hand position) or facial expression while sitting in zazen (roughly, zen meditation). Strange.

I feel a bit like Alice after she fell into the rabbit hole. These days there seem to be some references to my previous life, but mostly it’s a curiously new world that I now inhabit. I suspect that this is really only my own perspective shifting to accommodate a lot of new experience crammed into the past 10 weeks, with a big bang at the end. But a few other people seem to be in on the trip too.

Funny, this sense of being spun around, especially since I had been forewarned by other shuso (the singular and plural are the same). One woman friend said, “Watch out. It’s not easy coming down off the mountain.” At the time I thought that it wouldn’t be so hard for me, as the one who is a bit wary of being put on a pedestal. And that part is more or less true.

But…now I am starting to see how comparing mind arises and wants to scrutinize each day to see how different it is than it was before. It wants to look for clues in words and phrases, and put together a picture of how the world will be now. The mind wants to find some security, building a framework so that all the new pieces will fit together in a tidy and orderly way. A brick here, a window there, and a roof, and soon enough I’ll have a house.

The only problem is that this is not reality. What really happens is that things change constantly, so constantly that I can’t even put my finger on one instant and say that it stays the same. So building a house, while a common and fairly normal thing to do, is actually making it harder to live. It blunts my senses. It reduces my ability to respond completely to the momentary arising.

So, if I’m smart, I’ll sit outside tonight and marvel at the clouds and the stars, and allow the simplicity of it to put my mind at ease.