Tag Archives: nature

The Bigger Picture

In Zen we often speak about the study of the self, about checking into our experience and what it really means. Yet, if the study of the self begins and ends only with this body and mind, only with the perceptual realm that you can explore, then it will always be a limited view, a biased view, and a one sided view. It will never be able to fully encompass all that is the Self. Pointing at this Dogen writes, “…the true human body is the entire universe.” One could equally say that the true human mind is the whole universe.

So what is it to study the true human body, the true human mind?

Recently, I read a Facebook post by a friend in which she shared a quote about finding your soul and your soulmate. But what if you are so completely interconnected with all things that there is nothing permanent about you? What if you are so completely defined by the temporal arising of all things known and unknown that you cannot even identify something that is the core? Wouldn’t that be a world in which you become incredibly vast, incredibly fluid, incredibly connected?

More poetically, Dogen describes it thus, “…mountains, rivers, and the Earth, and the sun, moon and stars are mind.”

Earth Sept 2 2014 c. NASA

Earth Sept 2 2014 c. NASA


And yet you certainly can’t deny that there is a particularity about you. There is a grouping of physical attributes which tend to hang together to form your body. There is a consciousness, one that is full of thoughts, feelings, tendencies, history, hopes. So there is no reason to deny the unique temporal arising that is bounded by your physical and mental state. It is as much as anything else is, which isn’t much.

From the perspective of Zen Buddhism, holding both of these perspectives simultaneously is a sound view. Both things are true; they, in fact, inform each other and rely on each other. Together these perspectives enable a view that brings you into harmony with the true nature of reality. It is a view that enables you to be in accord with everything, whether you are attracted to or aversive to it.

This view of the interdependence of all things has many implications. It implies that what you do matters, because it impacts all other things. It implies that there is nothing that is static or independent or permanent. It implies emptiness inherent in form.

However, the aspect that I want to focus on today is that this view implies that there is more to life than what meets the eye. It implies that our bodies and minds can be vehicles for transformation, and for experiencing even things that are completely beyond the realm of what we can perceive. This is not mysticism. It is simply acknowledging that the human sense experience is limited, but what it means to be human is not. And that teaching is important, because without that context we are simply swirling around in the world of our biases, and our psychology, and the arbitrary boundaries that we draw around ourselves and others. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with that swirling, but to say that simply abiding there doesn’t lead to freedom from suffering.

Solar flare Aug 2014 C. NASA

Solar flare Aug 2014 C. NASA

Thus, Dogen Zenji states, “Neither the great elements nor the smallest particles can be wholly realized by the common person, but they are mastered in experience by the sages.” Sekkei Harada Roshi intones, “This thing, which you think is yourself, is neither you nor anyone else.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi explained, “Don’t be bothered by your mind.” I say do not be defined by your mind.










Night of Fire

The red, hot light filled

the sky space between mountain

and dark black clouds,

as if some hell had opened up behind it,

threatening to swallow up

this town and my car and the whole length of road.

Its name is devil mountain

but not because of this,

more because of the sunscorch

that happens when you try to look it in the eye.

This night there is dancing on the other side,

those that cackle at

our plans to picnic and claim it as ours

this place of indescribable…

too hard to ponder.

Now urgent this question of demons

and the swift sloping flight of bird.

Now ashes

mount diablo fire image from isciencetimes

Mount Diablo 2013 fire image from isciencetimes

the side that

I never dreamed of.


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.

Leadership on the Eightfold Path

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Eightfold Path of practice as the Fourth Noble Truth, as a path of liberation from suffering. Though this occurred more than two millennia ago, these teachings are relevant to leadership in modern times.

NOTE: The word “right” is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word “samma,” but that is a bit rough. The word samma does not have the understanding of right versus wrong. It has the meaning of integral or whole. Some have used the word “sound” as a translation. As in, “that is a sound decision.” This more closely reflects the sense of skillfulness that arises from the Path.

Right View – Our way of being in the world can be a way that increases our suffering, reduces our suffering, or liberates us from suffering. It is our fundamental view of the world, of our experience, that makes the difference. The Buddha taught that the view which would liberate us from suffering, rather than make it worse or mitigate it temporarily, is the view of emptiness. When Buddhists speak of emptiness it simply means empty of inherent existence, empty of the ability to arise completely independently. This makes sense intuitively. All things arise due to causes and conditions. They cannot come into being or cease to be without reliance on causes and conditions. Then, from this standpoint, you can begin to see why the corollary to emptiness is impermanence, the fact that people and things are always changing. The conditions of each instant are shifting and moving, in ways that you can see and in imperceptible ways. The ability to accept change, and understand that it is inevitable and neutral, is the starting point for sound leadership. That is, sound leadership accepts that change will occur. Sound leadership incorporates this fact in planning and makes the most of change.

Example: State governments requiring electric companies to develop wind turbine farms.

V838 c. NASA

V838 c. NASA

Right Intention – Naturally, it is not enough to know how to view the world. You must put it into action, but action stems from intention; it starts with our motivation. A great practitioner once famously said that he wakes up every day and cultivates his motivation. This is because actions and speech reflect intention, even when you don’t want them to. So it is important to establish right intention, which stems from the fundamental acceptance of change and the vow to work in harmony with it. This is not passivity, but rather seeing clearly what actually is, so that you can respond most skillfully. Right intention is based in the ability to respond, rather than react. Sound leadership flows from the motivation not to ignore or resist change, but to respond in a skillful manner.

Example: Establishing Virgin Galactic even while developing Virgin Atlantic.

Right Speech – The extent to which your words express acceptance of what is, and an intentional response, is the extent to which those words express right speech. There is a lot that can be said about right speech, but the Buddha offered five simple guidelines. He said that right speech is timely, helpful, truthful, kind, and not spoken out of ill will. These aspects of right speech remind you that words are meaningful, and it is important to consider their impact, both on yourself and on those who hear them. Sound leadership knows the impact of speech and uses it skillfully, to express an understanding of impermanence and an intention to harmonize with it. It uses speech to bring clarity to any situation.

Example: “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber

Right Action – Based upon a sound view of emptiness and impermanence, and a sound intention to live in accord with that view, your actions must also be in accord with the Way. As with speech, right action will provide clarity and harmony. Thus, right action is usually associated with ethical action. It involves finding a skillful way to operate in the world, guided by what is most fundamental. It acknowledges ambiguity, and does not use it as an excuse to set aside the necessity to respond. This is why the Buddhist precepts, or moral guidelines, are not commandments but rather vows, expressions of your underlying intention. Sound leadership recognizes ethics as an integral aspect of life. It acts in harmony with life.

Example: After finding a handful of bottles poisoned, Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off the shelves.

Right Livelihood – This teaching is specifically about work. It is based on the understanding that, in emptiness, each instant contains within it the causes and conditions for the next instant. So this is the teaching that the work that you do has consequences, and it is important to consider those consequences and ensure that they create harmony in the world. Sound leadership recognizes that work is not different from other action. Sound leadership takes responsibility for its results.

Example: If you are a fisherman, not fishing a particular species into extinction.

Right Effort – This is the teaching of sustainability. The Buddha practiced asceticism to the point of death, and then realized that this kind of effort would not lead to liberation from suffering. So he taught the Middle Way. This is the way of wholehearted engagement, because anything less than that is not enough. Yet, it is also the way of embracing limitations, because your effort should not damage your capacity. It must be sustainable, or it misses the mark, risking the full rewards due to shortsightedness. Sound leadership knows that effort must be balanced in order to be effective.

Example: Staying home sick, instead of vomiting at a fancy dinner.

Right Mindfulness – While much of the Eightfold path is focused on activity, right mindfulness is about finding the still point in each moment. It is discovering the inherent steadiness of the mind, and the way that can be a foundation for everything else. This teaching is typically associated with meditation, stripping away momentary distractions to encounter the essence of what is already there. It is pausing to gather the mind, living in the present moment. Sound leadership values steadiness and a clear head.

Example: Phil Jackson teaching the Bulls basketball players to gather themselves before a game.

Sunrise c. NASA

Sunrise c. NASA

Right Awakening – The teaching of Buddhist wisdom is that this very life can be one of awakening to your innate freedom and the abundance of the world. It is within your capabilities, if you are willing to live in the present moment and respond skillfully, in harmony with the natural function of cause and effect. Wisdom is not something that can be given to you, yet it is manifest in relation to others. In Zen it is sometimes expressed as “not one, not two.” Wisdom is both an individual experience and a group function, and it is based in true discernment. Sound leaders are like great conductors, they help to make a symphony by energizing many individuals.

Example: Cooperative competition all over Silicon Valley.


Your Personal Messengers

It is said that Shakyamuni Buddha received four messengers: a sick person, an old person, a corpse and a monastic. Seeing the suffering of the first three, he was moved to pursue the life of the fourth, transforming his body and mind to discover a new way of experiencing the way things are. It is that way for each one of us as well. We encounter people or events that reveal some vitally important information, and it is up to us to receive and actualize those messages. In my case, one such messenger was a little fish.

It was New Year’s Day at Tassajara, the monastery in the mountains just inland from Carmel, California. I was walking alone toward the western edge of the land on which the monastery sits. There the creek is fairly shallow and narrow. It was a bright day but I didn’t have a lot of time, so I had chosen a short walk. Arriving at the stream, I stood there for a moment, taking in the warm sunshine. Then, a small fish seemed to jump right out of the stream – hop, hop, hop – landing right at my feet. baby salmonIt was grey with dark stripes and pink spots all lined up on its side. I looked at it for a second before realizing that it was lying there dying, gasping for air.

I recognized the need to do something to help the fish. So I knelt down and tried to pick it up, but the fish struggled with all its might and wouldn’t let me get a hold of it. I tried again and again, but the fish wouldn’t allow it. What to do?! Suddenly, I had the idea that I’d try to scoop the fish back into the water, helping just enough to let it swim away on its own. So I cupped my hands together and, gathering a bit of water and a bit of fish, I pushed it away. It worked! The fish landed in a bit more water and, with a swish or two of its tail, was hurtling itself down the stream. I cheered and wished the fish well.

In the next moment it seemed to me that this was just a small detail, and I looked around for other fish in the creek. After several minutes I still hadn’t seen even one more, though the water was clear to the bottom. There was only the one little fish. Then the message was instantly clear to me, and I laughed out loud and started yelling again, “Yes, yes, I will! Yes!” I grinned from ear to ear, and couldn’t contain the feeling of joy in my heart, because for me the message was so clear. The message I heard was that it is my job to help free all beings, just as in the first of the Four Bodhisattva vows. In each and every moment I have the intention and the opportunity and the responsibility to carry out that vow. And in each and every moment I am in exactly the right place to fulfill the vow, if only I am awake enough to see it and to be of service without interfering. Wow! This tiny, fierce fish was my personal messenger and I had received the message, loud and clear. I couldn’t prevent the fish’s suffering, but I could help it to perform its natural function, and thereby ease its own suffering.

So I invite you to consider the messengers in your life, and the messages that they are offering. May you all discover your oneness with the stream.

Reflections Over a Meal

The verses chanted before meals at Zen temples include a section called the Five Reflections. The first Reflection is, “We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.” Performing this reflection is itself a complete practice.

When I reflected on the effort that resulted in the food on my table I thought of:

  • migrant workers in Florida fields
  • corn grown in Iowa and potatoes in Idaho
  • a forest in France where a farmer and a pig search for a truffle
  • soy beans and failed GMO labeling legislation
  • dairy cows not fed growth hormones
  • earth worms making compost into soil at Green Gulch Farm
  • bees on the roof of San Francisco Zen Center

Food offers us many opportunities for discernment. And humility. And awe. Today I give thanks for the vast field of interconnectedness that is life.

The Bird and the Ox on Waking Up

Last weekend I was enjoying a discussion about ego with the Dharma en Español group, a gathering of practitioners who study the Spanish translation of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind at SFZC City Center on Saturday mornings. We were exploring the ways in which our views about the world reinforce the idea of a separate self, which is THE fundamental delusion of our lives. Eventually an example was needed, and I offered this one:

You are sitting zazen, and begin to hear the chirping of a bird. You think to yourself, “Ah, this bird is trying to help me wake up!”

Can you find the ego-self in this scenario? It reminds me of the 10 Oxherding pictures – particularly number 9, which appears after the empty frame…

Ox herding picture no. 9

Do you see the bird? Do you see the one who sees the bird? Or the one who hears it? Which is to say, the bird does not appear to arise in order to teach you something. The bird is simply bird; it is there to be the bird it must be, due to the coming together of the particular set of circumstances of the moment. The same applies for the hearer, who is an aggregation of a set of circumstances of the moment, which include a bird sound. This is not to say that the bird and the hearer do not influence one another. They most certainly do if there is any sense contact, or even thought of sense contact. So it is clear that they do not apparently arise independent of each other in the moment of contact. They co-arise in the moment. Yet, there is an aspect of the unknown. The hearer cannot know all of the conditions which appear to create bird or even appear to create self in that moment. This is what Dogen meant when he said, “When one side is illuminated, the other is dark.”

The difference between a deluded view of this event and an awakened view of the event is the perspective. One perspective thinks that the bird exists only in relation to the hearer. The other perspective is that the bird and hearer are in relation to one another and to the myriad circumstances of the universe, with neither apparently arising solely based on itself or the other. So the hearer cannot hear oneself in relation to bird. One can only hear bird. And at the moment of hearing bird, the hearer is one with bird, inseparable from bird, and from all the other conditions of the moment.

This phenomena is especially important to consider when dealing with other people. We can have a perspective of them which is totally caught up in the way we believe that they are serving us, or not serving us, rather than taking the view that we are together co-arising in the moment. In fact, our view of them is as much a factor in each others co-arising as some physical factors.

This kind of discovery happened to a friend of mine who recently wrote to me about his practice. His intention was not to be a cause of suffering for others. He had this wonderful intention, and was very aware of it in his day-to-day life. However, one day it dawned on him that this view was based on his idea that he could control the suffering of others. It became instantly clear that this was an ego-based intention. So, acknowledging that error, my friend could take up the same vow but with Right View, the view of the fundamental interconnected, and yet unknowable nature of those he wants to serve. Now that intention can take flight!