Shut Up

My father came to see me at the Zen Temple because he thought I had joined a cult.  He was worried that I was being brain-washed, being told what to think and what to do.  He had the notion that Zen is the equivalent of taking away one’s ability to think for oneself.  My choice to be living and studying in a Zen Center was not considered normal by him.  In fact, he even suspected I had schizophrenia and thought I should get that ruled out by a medical doctor.  Apparently, he was more okay with me being mentally ill than of me consciously choosing my own path.  To him, I was throwing away my life as well as the money he had spent on my college education.  In his defense, growing up Irish Catholic in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and having an Engineering background, he had no context for understanding what I was doing.


When my teacher met him she said, “We are the least proselytizing religion there is.”  Dai-En Roshi had no interest in keeping me around forever.  The door was always open.  I could leave anytime I wished.  This is not to say she was unappreciative of my presence and what I did for her and the Temple, but her aim was not in creating a mirror image of herself, nor in preventing me from thinking for myself.  In my early years with her, she frequently told me to find a job and look for a partner.  I never found a partner at that time, but I did find work as a Certified Nurse’s Assistant, which I loved doing, and discovered it complementary to my practice.


If practiced true to form, Zen can feel misleading to both non-Zen and Zen folks alike because it is so non-proselytizing.  Students of Zen are implored (at least in my lineage) not to speak about their practice or their experience and not to teach anyone, particularly in the early stages, which can range from three to ten years.  Dai-En Roshi was told by her teacher to “Shut Up” for ten years.  In other words, don’t offer interview to Japanese reporters (she was living in Japan), and don’t teach.


Why is this?


It’s common to find western students of Buddhism from a Christian background wanting to proclaim their experiences of meditation far and wide.  Christian or not, it’s ingrained in many of us to want to share something that addresses our ill-being, our spirit, or our sense of greater purpose.  This is totally logical and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this impulse as long as it’s not used to manipulate or coerce others.  If we find something that addresses our needs mentally, physically, or spiritually, we want to express our gratitude by sharing how we came to that place.  I certainly felt this way when I came to practice.  In fact, I didn’t realize my own proselytizing bend until I was confronted by a Japanese monk who said, “Eric-san, don’t try to teach Zen.”  When I heard him, I was incredulous.  I thought he didn’t know what he was talking about, or he just didn’t get American culture.



Jesus and Buddha sitting together with certain hand gestures.  What are they doing?  What do you see happening?

This wish to share and to teach soon after practicing meditation shows up very clearly in secular based mindfulness practices where doctors and therapists are eager to have their clients learn to calm their minds with meditation.  Yet doctors and therapists themselves may have only had a couple weeks of training in meditation and not much of a relationship with a teacher.  I am grateful to clinicians who are open to meditation and mindfulness for themselves and their clients, but there remains ignorance for some around the various Buddhist traditions and how practice is actually done.  Knowledge of Buddhist tradition may not be of great relevance for people wishing simply to calm their minds and self-regulate.  Indeed, some clinicians have found very skillful ways of offering meditation to particular populations that should be learned from.  I myself am studying these techniques as I share mindfulness practices in secular environments.


However, one of the problems I continue to encounter is a societal wide misperception that all Buddhists are calm and nice.  People who learn that I am Buddhist expect me to perpetually fit that stereotype.  They also think that if they in turn practice mindfulness, they too will be in a continual state of bliss, and if they are not, then they must be doing something wrong or that they just can’t “do it”.  This misperception stems from a deeper misunderstanding that meditation works like a drug.  You just choose to “take it” or do the method correctly and you’ll have that calm.


Dai-En Roshi often said with regards to our practice, “You have to pay a price.”  She wasn’t talking about money.  “The only reason I kept practicing is because the pain in my heart was greater than the pain in my knees”.  In Japan, most temples expect you to sit full or half lotus.  This can be quite demanding on the knees.  “If the ratio [of pain between the heart and knees] was any different I would have quit,” she further elaborated.


If we come to zazen to fix or get rid of our heart’s pain or to feel better, we are already off to a false start.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t feel better when we do zazen.  We are just not the director of our mind-state, and it may be asking too much of zazen to make you feel good.  Zazen is about confronting our suffering.  We need to really take a good hard look at the pain deep inside of us and be willing to stay with it.  The pain in our heart is not something extra that has to be put up with, but is essential to meditation.  We can skirt around this pain for a long time, mentally fooling ourselves, but confronting it is where the practice really is.  When we truly face our heart’s suffering, we are less likely to talk about how great practice is to others.


Keizan Zenji says we should allow “moss to grow on our lips”.


When Dai-En Roshi was asked by Daito Roshi to “shut up”, he explained to her that speaking too soon or eagerly about her practice would spoil her understanding.  When we talk too much about something, it indicates a lack of depth in the matter.  Better not to talk about something.  Better to just practice it.  Daito Roshi didn’t care what Dai-En Roshi’s present understanding was.  He wanted her to settle more deeply into who she already was, and to him this meant shutting up for a while.  If we are clear about who we are, there is no need to convince others.


In the West, however, we learn through dialogue and the Socratic method.  We learn by asking questions and having conversations.  There is nothing wrong with this way, and it is also employed to some degree in Zen circles both East and West, but we need to understand that this is a cultural bias in the West, and we will be missing a whole worldview in discounting learning methods other than the Socratic way.


Dogen Zenji further elaborated on “shutting up” by his insistence on forsaking fame.  It’s clear from history that religious and spiritual practices can be practiced with the mind of wanting to gain more attention, prestige, self-esteem or followers.  There are people who call themselves Zen teachers or other kinds of spiritual teachers that have had very little training, sometimes none at all under the guidance of a certified and recognized teacher, yet they may have a large following and a lot of money flowing into their centers.


This is not to say that there are no authentic teachers out there whose life experiences themselves woke them up.  However, I am skeptical of self-proclaimed teachers who seem to have awoken outside of a teacher-student relationship, and who see themselves as authentic because they have a large following or are generating a lot of money.


The question Dogen Zenji asks is, have you manifested virtue in your practice?  Do you live with integrity and benevolence in your relationships regardless of your life circumstances?  He writes:


Only if you practice the Way inwardly, will the virtue of the Way naturally manifest itself outwardly.  Without expectations or a desire to be known by people, if you just follow the teachings of the Buddha… people will believe in the virtue of the Way of their own accord.


Benevolence or Virtue is composed of “person” and “two”.

“Virtue” is a concept derived from Confucianism, and I cannot overstate its importance in the practice and study of Zen.  The Chinese character has in it the word for “person” and “two”.  It’s very simple.  It has been translated as virtue, but also as benevolence.  The idea is that virtue cannot manifest outside of a relationship of at least two people.  It’s not something we possess as individuals.  We are not by ourselves benevolent.  Benevolence manifests more or less in the quality of our various relationships.  Benevolence can be manifested in some relationships while malevolence shows up to a greater degree in others.  We are not inherently benevolent outside the engagement of another person.  Our benevolence is continually tested depending on who is with us in the moment.  A person of the Buddha Way allows virtue to manifest in relationship when their ego gets out of the way.



Regardless of how much we have practiced meditation, or how much we intellectually grasp the Buddha’s teaching, allowing virtue to emerge is not guaranteed.  This quality needs to be cultivated.  We can be very arrogant meditators, proud of our understanding.  This is where having a guide can be useful to our practice.  Our guide can test our degree of virtue.


Moreover, virtue is not something we either have or don’t have.  The idea that we are either virtuous or not is just black and white, either/or dualism.  No matter our depth, we can always deepen.  Dai-En Roshi received a gift of a kyosaku from Narasaki Ikko Roshi that had written on it in Japanese, “Never cease cultivating”.  This means that we are never done with our practice.  This attitude of being incomplete needs to manifest itself in the way we talk about our practice and in the way we conduct our life.  I don’t mean that we should purposely fall short or make mistakes, but we do need to sincerely recognize our errors – particularly within our relationships with each other and the natural world.  This is not just for students of Zen, but also for teachers to do.  A teacher needs to continually recognize and confess her or his own errors, perhaps more so than her/his students.


For me, the pull to be doing something that society thinks is important has always been there.  Fame crops up for me every time I think I don’t have a large enough Sangha to support me.  I imagine this pull is something I’ll have to continue to monitor for the rest of my life.  However, a big turning point came for me when, after five years of living with my teacher, I spoke truthfully to my father about what our relationship had been up to that time.  I told him, “dad, you know sometimes I feel like you treat me like a soda machine.  You put a certain amount of money in me, and expect to get something out.  What you wanted did not come out.  Now you are kicking the machine trying to get the right thing out.”


My father quit getting on my case after that, and, to his credit, began to realize that I am my own person and need to figure out my life for myself.  In my father’s defense, I am incredibly lucky to have been raised, at the very least, without him ever being physically or verbally abusive.  He wanted me to go to college so that I would have more opportunities available to me.  He was the chief provider for our family.  He supported me, regardless of what he may have said, just by his consistent presence in my life.  For that I am eternally grateful to him.  I love him dearly, and there is no way I can fully repay his kindness to me in this lifetime.  However, like me, he is a product of his time and circumstances, and rarely gets a glimpse outside of those life circumstances.  For him, education and making money got him out of living in what he understood as poverty.  I am the beneficiary of his hard work, and could not be where I am now without him.


The question I keep circling back to is, what does it mean to live a virtuous life?  Is it about being successful in terms of being famous or wealthy?  Certainly, that is what our culture calls success.  What if, instead of this cultural pull, we were to just quietly practice without seeking fame or profit, getting out of our own way, accepting who and what comes to us as well as who and what does not?  Can I find contentment in the very fact that I am alive and breathing?  This is my understanding of what it means to “shut up”.


Questions for reflection, discussion and journaling:


  1. What or who impedes you from feeling a sense of belonging and purpose?  What one action can you take to reclaim that sense of belonging and purpose?
  2. How would it feel to consider remaining silent or not responding to your own wish to share your practice with others?
  3. What price do you need to pay to get at the root of your own suffering?

Identify Your Cows


I heard this story when I was training at Plum Village in France under the guidance of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh in 2006.  I am struck by how much I continue to reflect on its meaning.


One day the Buddha was out in the country side practicing walking meditation with his disciples.  They came across a cow herder who anxiously said to the Buddha, “Venerable monk, my cows all ran away.  I’m looking for them.  Have you seen them come by this way?”

The Buddha replied, “We have not seen any cows in this direction.  You might want to look in the other direction.”

The man hurried off.  Buddha turned to his disciples and said, “Aren’t we lucky, we don’t have any cows.”


A cow in this story is symbolic for those things that prevent us from experiencing real freedom.  They could be our material possessions.  Once you own something, you have to take care of it.  You have to worry about it.  In the time of the Buddha, monks owned three robes and one bowl.  They were forbidden to own anything else.  Food and shelter was freely given to them as needed by supportive lay followers.  Their practice had to be worthy enough to receive such offerings.


A cow could also refer to a rank or a position that one holds.  Once a person has a certain degree of status and power, it’s hard to let that go.  Yet, the holding on to that power often comes at a high cost. There is the constant worry that someone else will come along and displace you.  Or that you’ll eventually become ineffective in your position.  The stress from work can give us all kinds of physical, emotional, and mental problems.


Zen Master Rinzai, paradoxically, encouraged his students to be the person of “no rank.”  Even in the spiritual world our competitive natures can creep in.  We want to be closer to Enlightenment than other practitioners.  We might feel envious of students who are able to go on more retreats than we are.  This is all nonsense, though.  Our inherent Enlightenment is not affected by how much we practice.  Enlightenment is always there regardless of whether we recognize it or not.  The wave is always a part of the ocean, the question is whether the wave recognizes it’s “ocean nature” or not.  The practice of the Zen student is to touch their Buddha Nature in every opportunity available to them.  We don’t need to wait for the right time, the perfect teacher, or the right retreat to come along before we touch our Buddha Nature.  Buddha Nature is our birthright.


The question is, what prevents us from connecting with our inherent Buddha Nature?  What are our “cows”?


We all own things, and we all have certain positions or ranks we want to hold on to.  We may not have the luxury to just let those things go.  Or maybe we do, and we just have not looked carefully enough at our options, or we are afraid of changing.


Practice is about taking an honest look at ourselves and our lives and assessing what is a true need versus what is something we just want to have as a kind of security.  We may not be in a position to give up certain things.  But have we really looked carefully enough at our cows?


When I look at my own responsibilities these include my work as a Zen Priest and my duties as a father and husband.  These duties if abused or neglected will cause great harm.  But on a subtler level I need to be watchful that they don’t turn into “cows”.   In other words, I can identify myself with these roles and forget that these are not who I am.  Forgetfulness of this is where the “cow” comes in.  I need to remember that these roles are more like a mask that I take on and off, but sometimes the mask itself gets glued to my face and I can’t distinguish myself from the mask.  I remember a Catholic monk saying, “I’m not a monk, I’m a man wearing monk’s clothes.”  This expresses my sentiment exactly.


Which masks do you put on and take off regularly?

Prior to my “Home Leaving Ceremony” (priest ordination for lack of a better description) there were times that I felt that I had no real mask to put on.  I was a nobody.  My teacher had me wait six years until she offered me the “Home Leaving Ceremony.”  During that extended period, I felt extremely vulnerable, not having a secure identity.  I suppose my label could have been “student”, but I wasn’t a student in the way our society recognizes a student.  I wasn’t enrolled in a University.  I wasn’t getting a degree that I could then use to apply to a job.

At this time, I also had no steady work, nor did I earn income in the usual sense, nothing I could call, “my occupation”, and no family to support.  I was neither a husband nor a father.  I was doing work for my teacher and for the temple in exchange for receiving the Dharma, room, and board.  My work included cooking, cleaning, gardening, being the Treasurer, and attending to the needs of my teacher, including driving her to prison for meditation with the Buddhist group or to the airport for engagements further away.  I had no teaching responsibilities for several years.


I am eternally grateful to have been put in such an awkward position as a young adult.  Luckily, I was supported by a Zen community and a teacher so that I could really just practice Zazen and learn.  Being open to my own vulnerability is where a lot of growth happened.


Within Soto Zen there is a tradition for both lay and priests to help us identify our attachment to the label of “Buddhist”.  During the first meditation period in the morning Zen Buddhists sit without their outer Buddha robe on them.  Once the “Robe Verse” is recited, one is then permitted to wrap themselves in their robe.  So, we sit first thing in the morning without relying on our robe.  It’s a reminder that underneath our layers of clothing there is just this body wrapped in skin.  Even a Buddha robe is not going to protect us from our humanity nor our vulnerability as a human that lives and dies.


With regards to family responsibilities, questions I have found helpful in order to make the distinction between mask and reality are, “What does honesty look like when I am in front of my wife and son?  What if I shared my true feelings rather than pretended everything is okay?”  These are questions I continue to ask myself.  Like anyone else, family demands of me my time, energy, and effort to keep things moving.  There is no way I can maintain constant harmony.  The question is not if things fall apart, but when.  At those times, introspection rather than blame has always proved helpful for reestablishing connection.


The labels I have been given – Zen Priest, father, husband, son, brother, male, American, human – none of these will protect me from dying.  If I’m not careful in my practice, they all have the potential to become my “cows”.  I can’t lean on those roles when it comes to the “Great Matter of Life and Death”.  What I can do is tap more deeply into my own being, love myself more and do my best to show my concern for the wellbeing of everyone in my life.  Though I continue to strive to carry out the Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings, maybe, just maybe, I can be a little less of a jerk, and a tiny bit more considerate to one or two people in my life.

Questions for reflection, journaling, and discussion:

  1. What are your cows?  How can you relate to them differently?
  2. We all get stuck in habitual responses with those we love.  What would happen if you shared your true feelings instead of pretending everything is okay?