Tag Archives: everyday mind

Spanish Dharma Talk – Alentando a Practicar

I recently had the pleasure of giving a Dharma talk on behalf of my friend, Andrea Castillo, who guides the Spanish language Dharma group at the Insight Meditation Center in the Bay Area. Like Victoria Austin and Gil Fronsdal, our respective teachers, Andrea and I enjoy supporting each other on the Path.

The talk, in Spanish, can be found on the IMC website. Espero que le dé aliento a su práctica! I hope it supports your practice.


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.

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.

A Monk Points Out the Dust

In today’s modern American koan, “No Monk Clean and Shining,” we are presented with two practitioners who are standing next to a recently waxed black car.

Black Bugatti

The first monk says, “That’s as close as any of us will ever get to being free from dust.”

The second monk says, “I can only hope to find peace in the midst of dust.”

The dialogue is brief yet, like all koans, it says a lot and raises a few questions. So let me offer a bit of commentary.

The tone of sarcasm from the first monk is inescapable. Clearly her world is thickly covered in dust. Do I detect a note of despair? The second monk is not clear either. Looking for peace is like crying out for thirst in the midst of water. Yet he won’t just conjure a drink, will he? Both are right that dust is inescapable. But how to be peace in the midst of the world’s dust? By seeing dust as no-dust!

Sunrise 12/21/12

California Sunrise 12/21/12

This koan harkens back to the dialectic in the Platform Sutra of Huineng. It was the late 7th Century at a monastery in China. The Head Monk was expected to become the successor to the Abbot. Demonstrating his practice, he wrote this poem:

The body is the Tree of Wisdom.

The Mind is like a mirror bright.

Polish it, polish it at all times.

So that the dust will not alight.

Hearing the above poem, Huineng wrote the following demonstration of his practice:

The Tree of Wisdom does not exist.

There is no stand for the mirror bright.

Originally, there is not one thing.

So where could dust possibly alight?

In the end it was Huineng who became the 6th Chinese Ancestor. The Head Monk didn’t have it all wrong. He’s right that we must practice constantly in order to manifest our inherent wisdom. However, it’s his way of practice that’s a bit off. Practicing in order to get rid of the dust in our lives – be it difficult relationships, money problems, fear of losing a loved one or a cherished belonging, or despair over the state of the world – is a mistake. It ignores the fact all things are expressions of the truth.

The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that it’s possible to find complete peace and equanimity in the midst of a mundane life, which is inevitably full of problems and joys. For me, this is what makes the Four Noble Truths the inspiration of a lifetime. There is suffering (truth #1), and there is a path to the cessation of suffering (truth #4), not by getting rid of things, but by transforming that which causes suffering into that which manifests awakening. This is the true practice of the direct, embodied experience of emptiness, impermanence and the world as it is.

A few days ago I met someone who has a fervid belief in one of the Christian traditions. Inexplicably, as he was describing his faith he stopped and declared, “You must accept things as they really are.” How right he is! So, please, wash your car and see yourself as the pure activity of washing car, an expression of the perfection of a mundane life.

The Tea Kettle Theory

I recently attended a dharma talk on the topic of forgiveness. When the speaker finished her elegantly simple discourse, she invited those in attendance to ask questions and offer comments. One of the participants, a young woman who sat near the back, raised her hand to speak. She said that she’d found the talk difficult because she had been a target of harassment and intimidation at work until just the prior week, and she couldn’t find it in herself to forgive the person who had treated her this way. She said that she felt ashamed because she was so angry with the person who had done this to her. Others in the audience expressed their surprise, empathy and concern softly while she recounted the details, and then all eyes turned back to the speaker. There was a momentary tension in the room while we waited for the speaker’s response.

The Buddha is quoted as having said that unleashing your anger on someone is like picking up a hot coal and throwing it at someone – you have hurt yourself long before you’ve hurt anyone else. For this reason, anger or hatred is seen as one of the three poisons. Anger agitates the mind and body, and it can also be intoxicating, filling us with a sense of power or righteousness that expands the sense of separation from everyone else.

In fact I believe that it is just this sense of righteous anger that causes people who engage in war and torture to feel justified. Consider the word “mischling,” which the Nazis used to describe Jews as less than a full person. By taking the sense of righteousness and separation to an extreme, the people of Germany created great suffering for themselves and for millions of others.

Anger arises. In this case, the young woman seemingly has a very good reason to be angry. Surely the principles of Buddhism don’t encourage people to tolerate harassment or genocide. Or do they? With regard to this question, the Buddha is quoted in The Dhammapada as having said,

“He abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” For those carrying on like this, hatred does not end.

This is a very clear teaching. It points to the fact that we cannot blame our problems on others. We cannot correct hatred with hatred. We cannot address unskillful action with more unskillful action. We have to accept our feelings as our own, no matter how egregious the actions of others. And we can choose to set the feelings down, to allow the feelings in the body to subside and the feelings in the mind with them. In fact it’s said that a Bodhisattva, an “awakening being,” is able to have compassion for the person that is cutting her arm off. This is a very demanding practice.

However, even in the midst of that practice ideal, there is the question of what to do with anger that arises. So I would like to propose the Tea Kettle Theory. The Tea Kettle Theory goes like this: when anger arises, it is simply informational. It is like the whistling of the tea kettle – a signal to which you must respond. When the tea kettle begins to whistle, you don’t deny that it’s whistling, ignore the whistling, or complain that whistling shouldn’t happen or is too loud. You simply move to take the kettle off the fire. So in your life, when you notice anger arising, you can accept it as a signal, a way that your body/mind tells you that a response is needed. You can see that you need to respond, not react, to the signal right away. You can respond in a way that doesn’t burn you or others, but does skillfully address the information presented. There is no need for resistance to or judgement about anger. Anger is simply information that is encoded directly into the body/mind response. It is telling you something.

So, with that in mind, we can return to the young woman and to the Bodhisattva. They too can use the Tea Kettle Theory to identify the things with which they must practice, the situations that require a response. They too can study ways in which to show compassion for deluded beings – perhaps kind, gentle compassion, or perhaps the sword of compassion that cuts through delusion and unwholesome acts. They can discover the teaching that everything we do is a response to the contact we experience in the world and, when that contact causes anger to arise, we had better address it. So you might say that Buddhism teaches you to respond to oppression, violence and injustice not by blaming, but by acting from a place of acceptance, responsibility for one’s own emotions, and the wisdom that life is a study in skillful response. As we say in Zen, you have to say something.

And the wise speaker said this, “You have to show compassion, not just for the person, but for yourself.”

Practicing Patience with Not Understanding

Here is the link to a talk that I recently gave at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center:


My previous talks at City Center are posted here:


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