Tag Archives: stress

Turning Toward Radiance

I recently paid a visit to the nuns at Aloka Vihara. They are ordained women in the Thervadan Buddhist tradition who are starting a new monastery in the northern hills of California. While I was there they spoke about their home and so many unknowns in their future. So when I was asked to give a talk, I chose to speak about the unknown, and how to practice with the uneasiness that might arise in those circumstances. Deep bows to the nuns for their warm hospitality and sincere practice, and for being willing to be pioneers of the ancient Way.


cave buddhas

Busy, Not Busy

This post is especially for the many readers who live outside the San Francisco Bay area, though some locals may also be interested.

Hartford Street Zen Center

Hartford Street Zen Center

In June I gave a Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center on the “One Who is Very Busy.” Deep bows of gratitude to Reverend Myo and the sangha for inviting me to speak, and for being such an attentive audience. If you would like to hear the talk, it’s on their podcast page.

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.”


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!

Getting Up from Your Seat

It is said that the Buddha did not immediately begin teaching after he awakened to ultimate wisdom. Several weeks passed before the Buddha arose from his seat, and it is believed to have been several months after that before he offered his first talk. Yet arise he did. And, in doing so, he again expressed his own unshakeable conviction that mankind is fully capable of transcendent compassion and inconceivable wisdom.3559084-Ruins_Sarnath

This is an important point to remember these days, when I often encounter people who worry about the state of the world and the people in it. They read the newspaper, watch television and talk to their neighbors and co-workers about unspeakable acts of violence and terrible natural disasters. They hear of murder and rape, and of theft on a scale so large that it becomes unimaginable. They talk of hurricanes, and earthquakes, and floods, and all manner of disease. They say to one another, “These things are wrong. The people who do these things are evil and the world is getting darker every day.”

Yet this is the same world that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of when he said, “I and all beings are fully awakened on this day,” a day that is now celebrated as Bodhi Day, December 8th. He was not speaking of some world outside of this one. The beings that the Buddha spoke of are all beings; those of the past, present and future; those with and without understanding; those male, female and something else; those who are good and those who are bad.

So how do we discover this teaching for ourselves, right in the midst of so much troubling news? How do we learn to see the Buddha in every face, no matter how contorted or stunningly beautiful? In the 13th Century Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Zen Master, said “Without exception everyone is a vessel. Do not ever think that you are not a vessel,” expressing the same understanding as the Buddha, but in a different way.buddha bust That is, Dogen was pointing at each and every being as an expression of the great teachings of impermanence, emptiness and freedom from suffering. But you might say that you don’t feel free from this realm, that you are completely trapped in this world full of troubles and people with intent to kill. In one sense that is true; you are a function of millions and millions of conditions that happen in each instant, each dependent on the others. You exist only to the extent that you interact with the world around you, within you. Yet it is precisely because of this state of being caused and created by the myriad things that you are also completely free of them in each moment. That is, as an expression of the fully interconnected universe you are, in essence, stillness in the midst of motion. There is nothing you have to do to make this true. However, that truth explains why we sit zazen, the form of meditation which allows for transcendence of the moment through complete presence in the moment.

Now all of this may be starting to sound very theoretical. So I’ll offer an example. Take the example of spitting. Once I was walking along the street very early in the morning. It was dark, and I was in a town that I don’t live in, visiting a family member. I was wearing my work clothes, which to many people look like a karate outfit, and I had my hair shaved to something like 1/8th of an inch, what is referred to by folks in the armed forces as “high and tight.” A man was walking toward me in the opposite direction. I could tell that when he looked at me he didn’t like what he saw. I was a bit nervous as he approached, but decided that he didn’t look like he would get violent. Still, he came closer and yelled at me, “Go home, alien,” as he continued to walk past me on my left. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head toward me and spit. Thankfully it didn’t reach me. Yet it left a very strong impression. I have thought about that morning many, many times. And I’ve seen others spat upon. What is an appropriate response? Would it be different if it were a woman? Certainly, when someone spits at you, you might have thoughts of retaliating in some form. Certainly you can be expected to feel some “fight or flight” energy. But, actually, you express and experience the most freedom when you do not do anything. By not attacking the person or groveling to the person, you simply stand still and express your own powerful ability to be the skillful response. You allow that person who spit at you to completely receive their own consequences. You kill them with kindness.

This is not to say that the appropriate response is always to do nothing. Sometimes the most skillful thing is to do or say something. However, even then, you cannot relinquish your potential to express the stillness of the moment. Even then, you do not relinquish your authority to express the freedom that interconnectedness allows. Sometimes kindness expresses itself by not yelling at a spitter, and sometimes kindness expresses itself by stopping someone from shooting more innocent people. I’m reminded of an attack that took place at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee a number of years ago. The Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the church, said of the shooter who had been subdued by the churchgoers that day, “He was a victim of his own hatred.”

So, when you learn about people that are doing great harm in the world, you can ask yourself what kind of response you want to offer. You can ask yourself whether you want to respond by offering kindness, freedom and skillful means to everyone you encounter, or by offering worry, and a sense of further separation and judgement. You can ask yourself how to best express your interconnectedness to them and to those that they harm. Then, just be it, knowing that the Buddha has already said that you can, knowing that the Buddha has already said you are.

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.

On the Spot

In Zen practice it’s very common to put people on the spot. For example, when a student is leaving the temple to go to practice somewhere else or to return to a lay life or simply to take an extended rest, there is a “Departing Student Ceremony.”

Scene from "Zen" depicting Dogen as a pilgrim

Typically, the Abbess, Abbott or teacher of the student will thank them for their contribution and ask them a single question. This takes place in the zendo, in front of the entire assembly, who stand at their seats and observe silently. It can be a very poignant exchange, and it’s made more significant by the fact that it takes place in public. Students often express some concern in the days leading up to it. They worry that they won’t find an answer, or that their answer won’t be insightful enough. And yet, this is an activity that is well known throughout the community, as anyone who happens to be in the zendo that morning will witness these events. It doesn’t come as a surprise to the students, and many of the people who have been in residence for years come to appreciate and look forward to these exchanges. It can be a pivotal moment, one which can inform practice for years to come.

In fact, in my own experience, it was during a departing monk ceremony that the seed of a koan was planted. I was leaving San Francisco Zen Center to practice in Japan. My Practice Leader Shosan Vicki Austin asked how I could “eliminate the separation” and I replied with “just this breath.” But, on reflection it occurred to me that there is more to meet than just the breath. So the koan arose, “what is this moment?” It is that which we must meet completely, eliminating the sense of one who breathes and one who observes breathing.

But why the stress? Why do people whose stated intention is to be at ease with their own bodies and minds put each other on the spot like this? I think of it like thumping a melon. You thump it and hear what sound it makes, rather than paying attention to its outward appearance. And when a student is presented with a situation in which they feel some pressure, they learn about how they practice with pressure. That is, they learn whether they’d rather shy away, or burst forth with something funny, or simply stand still when the moment is intense. They may even say something without considering the question or choosing their words, possibly expressing themselves with a minimum of conceptual thought. This is where something other than the ego-self can come forth.

So, in Zen, practice is to put yourself in situations where the immediacy of the moment might allow you to forget yourself, allowing the non-self to be expressed more clearly. At that moment being on the spot is the only place to be.