“Conversion” to Buddhism

 “How did you feel about transferring from one religion to another?  Have you found any conflicts between the two religions?  What have you learned from Zen Buddhism in contrast to Catholicism?” 

These were questions asked of me by a student in my World Religions class at the Des Moines Area Community College.  I hope that sharing my response here could be helpful to more than this one thoughtful student.

To give a little context, I was raised Catholic (on mother’s side) and agnostic (on father’s side).  Thankfully, I was spared speeches of fire and brimstone.  I feel for those who experienced the negative aspects of religion – especially being forced to think or behave in ways that were not chosen, or did not come naturally, or based in fear.  For many, the mere word “religion” is a potential trigger.  This is really unfortunate because the study of religions can be healing and transformative.  What often happens instead is that people just reject religion altogether, and are understandably suspect of those who express a positive experience with religion.

I had a fairly positive experience of Catholicism, and I did not embrace the teachings of the Buddha as a rejection of Catholicism but as a continuation of my life’s journey.  I had questions that I did not feel had a place in Catholicism:  does God exist?  Why am I here?  What should I do?  It’s not that they don’t have a place in Christianity, it’s that I did not see that they had a place, and did not feel comfortable asking them to any authorities within the Church.

I turned to people who called themselves “Buddhists” because I felt the freedom to ask them those questions, and not necessarily be supplied with a ready response.  The Zen teacher I studied under actually encouraged such questions saying that, “this is your koan.” (A Koan is an enigmatic question that can’t be answered with the intellect alone.)  She encouraged being in the mystery, sitting with it, not trying to solve it with my head.  Because of this – the space to both question my life’s purpose and simultaneously find refuge in the ritual of meditation – I immediately took to Zen.

I also came to my Buddhist teachers with a fair amount of suffering.  Not suffering of a profound nature.  Just the ordinary suffering of a romantic relationship that went sour.  I was getting more involved with the use of illegal drugs and alcohol as a means to deal with this kind of suffering as well as the existential suffering of yearning for a deeper understanding of who I am and what I should do.  I didn’t think I would benefit from simply confessing my sins of taking intoxicants and of out of wedlock sex to a Catholic priest.  Right or wrong, I had emotions that needed to be dealt with.  Sitting in stillness and silence gave those big feelings a place to be.  I did not need to be afraid of feeling shame, anger, confusion, nor did I need to act on them.  I could simply watch these feelings as they coursed through my body/mind.

When I met my teacher, 4:15pm in the meditation hall of Bucknell University’s Rooke Chapel, I felt relief in an hour.  Just her presence and sitting in silence was healing.  It was not a high, nor did it answer my questions, but I had a sense of equanimity and of inner control.  It was as though my teacher pointed out where the gears of my own mind were, and how to operate them.  I had never learned that I could influence my own mind simply by sitting still, being, and watching my breath. 

Our educational institutions in this country teach us about things in the external world.  This is important.  We need to have a basic understanding of how the universe works though, biology, chemistry, physics and math.  We need to understand history and economics.  However, this is only half of what we need to know.  We need to learn about our interior landscape – our mind, breath, feelings, and body- as well, and how the external world connects with our internal world.

Even the formal study of religion, whether it be our own religion or that of another, does not require us to take stock of our own mind.  We can study religion as any other object, such as a table, a rock, or an ant colony, without the feeling that we are studying our self, or worse, putting people into categories they may themselves object to.  However, it’s only when we encounter the subject of religion as the study of our self, of the way our own mind works, that we begin to discover its relevance to our personal life as well as the external world.  Before that happens, though, we remain as an observer with no creative hand in it, nor a sense of belonging to something bigger than our mentally constructed world.

If we want to understand an authentic “conversion” experience, then we need to first look at the motivation for why someone like myself would “convert”.  As an aside, the word “conversion” (or as my student said, “transfer”) itself is a problem because it comes from a practice among Christians of converting people to Christianity.  I did not convert to something called “Buddhism” in the same way that a non-Christian becomes saved through Christ.  I simply took interest in the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha.  When I put them into practice, they worked to alleviate suffering, immediately in many cases.  The Dharma made logical sense to me.  It was not a matter of taking faith in an external figure, as it was simply taking greater responsibility for my own life.

Returning to the question of motivation – what motivates someone to learn something about themselves that they’ve never learned before?  Suffering.  Suffering, if we are totally honest, is at the heart of learning anything.  If suffering is not motivating the learning process, then no learning is really taking place.  Both Jesus and Buddha wielded immense power to attract and influence vast numbers of people both during and after their lifetimes.  They both had different ways of responding to a time of intense suffering on the social and personal levels.  They lived lives attempting to respond humanely to that suffering.  We can learn something from them here.

Buddha and Jesus both practiced austerities and were tested before they began their ministries.  Matthew 4: 1 – 11 gives an account of Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days and being tempted by greed and power.  This story demonstrates the human side of Jesus.  He was able to be tempted by Satan, and he had to wrestle with and reconcile his own desire for power over people.  Jesus had to do some internal work before he could begin his ministry.

There is a similar story about the Buddha being tempted by Mara (the Buddhist name for the devil) prior to his Enlightenment.  In the case of the Buddha, he nearly starved himself to death before realizing a path of moderation.  He, too, was tempted by greed, hate, and delusion to give up his quest for complete perfect Enlightenment.

Both these teachers demonstrate the need to know our self and our own motivations before we carry out any endeavor – religious or secular.  The traditions that cropped up around them, Christianity and Buddhism are what they are now referred to as, have customs of training its adherents and not allowing them to teach until they are able to display some degree of being settled with themselves, and some degree of humility.

Introspection is essential to the successful study of any Religion.  We need to know what our underlying motives are, and we need to question if we are influenced by greed, power, or hate in any way.  What do we want to get out of a Religion?  Are we genuinely trying to understand cultures/religions, or are we just trying to box whole cultures into categories that they themselves would not choose?  Are we studying in order to justify our own feelings of superiority over another culture or religion?

I chose to study with a Buddhist teacher because I was in pain.  While I feel it’s important to be aware of our interior landscape, we also need a guide along the way.  This is particularly important when we first get started with a practice of meditation.  The guide can take many forms, including the practicing of the 5 precepts:  not to kill, lie, steel, commit sexual misconduct, or take intoxicants.  To not have a guide is risky because we can easily succumb to the dictates of our own ego.  Without being held accountable to some higher standards, we can easily fool ourselves that we are practicing Buddhism (or Christianity). 

I lived and breathed the same air as my teacher and American Sangha for a long time.  I purposely put myself in this situation so that I could be shaped by her as well as the Japanese Zen tradition.  I lived in Zen temples in Japan and learned directly from Japanese Zen Masters, as well as the many Japanese peers that helped to guide me.  I am grateful for having had so many opportunities to study deeply, and I have been profoundly changed by these encounters.  I no longer consider myself a Catholic in the way that I thought of being Catholic when I was 14 years old, and at the same time I’m not a Zen Master like one would find if they travelled to Japan.  I’m a human being both literally and figuratively impressed by both Zen and Christianity.  What religion am I?

We change and evolve over the course of our life.  I came to a Zen teacher at a time in my own evolution of thinking about God, and she helped me to live with the questions I was asking, and to see the world as whole and complete as it is, outside of the category of “religion”.  As I continue to explore the Dharma, I feel a deep desire and commitment to share the healing aspects with the wider society – whether Christian, atheist, secular, etc.  The practice of Zen does not make you into a Buddhist.  It only makes you more of who you are already.  Christians become better Christians.  Jews become better Jews.  Agnostics become better agnostics.  Humans become more themselves.

Questions to reflect on:

  1. Can you benefit from Buddhism without converting to Buddhism?
  2. If you do “convert” to Buddhism, do you have to give up your former religion?
  3. What has been your journey with religion?  Positive?  Negative?  Neither?  How has your own understanding of Religion and God evolved since you were a child?
  4. What questions have you been afraid to explore because of fear of asking them?
  5. What does it feel like in your body to live with your life’s questions, not having them answered, just being with them?

Field of Awakening

Logic is ill

Rationality makes no cents

Divorce “The Thinker”

Embrace the body

Green is just green

White is just white

Sit tall like a pine

Notice breath

You are never alone


Learn from bees. They take what they need without damaging the flower.

Can a Buddhist Become a Marine?

Typical Buddhist deity found at the front of many temples in Japan. They are said to protect the Dharma.

My nephew is in the R.O.T.C. program at University of California, San Diego.  He is planning to enter the Navy afterwards and possibly be a fighter pilot.  Like his grandfather, his time in the service gives him a full ride, an option that makes total sense when money appears to be scarce.

My nephew shared with me recently that a friend of his, Tiffany, who is Buddhist and in training to become a full-fledged Marine is beginning to question the military training because some of it seems unnecessarily harsh and also at odds with her Buddhist practice.  How can a Buddhist justify going into the military still being Buddhist?

Many Buddhists face a similar conflict between their daily lives and Buddhist ethics, thinking they are not supposed to do any number of things – such as be the CEO of a billion-dollar company, or work with nuclear weapons, or make airplanes for the Air Force, or just plain not get angry when things don’t go their way.

I don’t have any adequate answers for Tiffany’s quandary.  Ultimately, she has to figure this out for herself. 

Karma and the Koan of our Lives

Part of the reality of Tiffany’s koan, and actually any adult – civilian or military – has to look at here is that there are two levels to the koan of what to do with our lives. The first has to do with the personal. This is the perspective that comes from one’s own way of seeing the world, and how best to deal with whatever situation arises as an individual, apart from any kind of organization.

The second level is about the organization of which the individual is a part. Karma is generated by an institution itself. The energy of the individual is merged with the activity of a whole organization. The individual and the organization are two separate entities, however, the individual feeds the organization becoming an integral part of it.

The first level is related to the karma generated as the result of one’s personal actions. The second level is related to the karma generated as a result of the actions of an entity––an institution, an organization, or a larger system.

Sometimes the distinction between the individual and the organization is not important. At other times, they appear to be two separate things. As a Buddhist priest, for example, I am both responsible as an individual for my personal actions. However, I am also a member of the Soto School, an entire organization, and when I act on behalf of that entity there may be at times little to no separation between me and the Soto School of Zen. Anyone who works for an institution such as the military is working in both levels simultaneously.

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Master in exile for 40 years in France after protesting the Vietnam-American War in the 1960’s. We was nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the Noble Peace Prize.

I am inspired by a response that the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh gave to a man who was considering quitting his job in the nuclear arms industry. Apparently, he had a similar question whether he could ethically continue to do what he was doing. Thich Nhat Hanh, after a long pause, suggested he continue doing his work because someone who is less ethically inclined may fill his position if he lets it go. He suggested that we need to have morally thoughtful people working in this field so that the culture of that organization remains balanced.

Likewise, we need calm and clear-headed people in the military, and in all jobs and activities.  We need leaders who are compassionate both in and out of battle, that understand the dangers and the consequences of our actions, and that are not reckless.

The Buddha taught that hatred cannot dispel hatred.  Only love can dispel hatred.  We need people in the military and in all jobs and activities that understand this teaching.  It is possible to be both a warrior, or many other roles, and have compassion at the same time.  We talk about this as fierce compassion, and it’s in contrast to what’s called “idiot compassion”.  Idiot compassion is when you view yourself and act as though you are separate – inferior, superior, or equal to the person you are helping.  In reality, such distinctions are arbitrary.  Buddha teaches that there is no separation between self and other.  So when we act, can we come from a place of seeing others as an extension of our self?

What is true compassion?

At the gate of most Buddhist temples in Japan are fierce beings with huge muscles carrying thunder and lightning on their shoulders and ready to protect the Dharma at any cost.  A military leader can also be that Dharma protector. Being compassionate does not necessarily mean being soft.

Yet, this fierceness is not a sanctification for war.  The question of whether we should enter war is complicated and requires deep thought by everyone in the nation.  It may seem that there is no choice.  However, we are often not given enough information about the situation to make a truly informed decision. 

Being in the military makes one vulnerable to the choices and whims of others, who may not be well informed, or may be motivated by fear and greed. Anyone in the military needs to know this and be willing to accept this on some level if they are going to do their job effectively. The military is analogous to a knife. It can be used with both the intention to heal or to harm. Is it in a surgeon’s hand or a felon’s hand? The knife is simply an instrument for the person wielding it. Whether it’s used for good or bad is not the fault of the knife. In the same way, soldiers are not the focal point for evaluation and judgment.

However, as mentioned before, the first and second level – the individual and the system – often merge and are indistinguishable. The reality is that Veterans often do blame themselves for what they have done, even though they were just following someone else’s orders. Some, not all, have been forced into situations where they have had to take innocent lives. PTSD would not be an issue for Vets if they could simply accept and carry out orders without thinking about or agreeing to them on a personal level. But history has shown us this is an impossible expectation. In that sense, the analogy of the knife falls short.

Members of the military are thinking and feeling people each with their own sense of direction and intuition. Military personnel ignore this at their own peril. Unlike the knife, people generally (and eventually) take personal responsibility for their actions. This is karma or cause and effect.

We cannot ignore our intuitions. When something feels “off” that is a signal to pay closer attention. This is not only true in the military, but in any institution. The U.S. was built on the slaughter of native peoples and on the backs of slaves. Many of the institutions that form the backbone of our country are struggling to come to grips with the way the country was formed, and how systemic racism and other oppressions still play out in those institutions. We know that something is not right with our institutions.

Entering or staying within the military, or any institution, is a difficult decision to make physically, psychologically, and spiritually. I cannot say what is right for anyone else to decide. I’m not in control of anyone but myself… on a good day. My wish for Tiffany and for everyone of us is that we make conscious choices with clear and open eyes knowing as best we can the fullness of what we are choosing to be a part of. Regardless of the choices we make, I wish that we each know that we will always be loved, that we always have the possibility to tap into that love where ever we are and in whatever we choose to do, that we are ultimately in charge of our own decisions and destiny and that we have the capacity to change and make different choices at any time.

The Web of Life

We think we exist as some kind of solid independent reality.  Funeral ceremonies of loved ones have always served to remind me of the dream-like quality of life.  Recently, a beloved aunt of mine passed away.  Her husband, children, and grandchildren all eulogized her in a profound way.  Her grandchildren played music, sang, and offered their own poetry.  Her children offered the back story of my Swedish-born aunt.  My uncle filled in the blanks about her coming to America and how they initially met.  The ceremony was a crescendo of beauty.  Everyone’s attention was held rapt all the way through.  Though it was called, “A Celebration of Life,” I also felt the opportunity to grieve in the presence of family.  After all, a life came to an end.  I was glad to be a part of this monumental transition.


From a Zen Buddhist perspective, life and death are not an individual matter.  It’s not that a person is born into the world and then dies out of this world.  It’s that the whole of the universe is born into existence through an individual, and the entire universe dies when that person no longer is.


The Zen worldview has no room at a table where, as a culture, religious or not, we have as our assumption that the earth is separate from us, has been around for a long time, and will continue on for a long time after us.  From a religious perspective, God created the earth, animals, plants and humans, and there is a hierarchy of relationship:  God on top, then angels, then humans, then animals, then plants, and finally the earth.  Even in a secular worldview this hierarchy remains if we just delete God and angels.  Or for some, maybe replace God and Angels with a sense of mystery.


Buddhism is offering the west a remarkable departure from this hierarchical view of life if we are open to seeing it.  It’s not that the Western religious and secular view are wrong or bad, by any means.  It has served us well in understanding our place in the world, and finding meaning to our lives.  For many people, it is sufficient.


I would like to engage, however, those who find the western view not working for them, and yet don’t have an adequate framework upon which to conceive of something else, nor a set of lenses with which to re-imagine themselves, their place in the universe, and their purpose.




Imagine a spider web.  The threads crisscross each other creating points along the web – nodules, nodes, nexuses.  The distances between each of the nodules vary.  Some are shorter, and some are longer.  Now, imagine taking that web and stretching it out without damaging it so that it’s as large as the universe.  From a Buddhist perspective, each of the nodes along the web is occupied by one being.  All the beings in the universe each have their own nodule on the web.  This is a huge web with billions of billions of intersecting points.  There is no hierarchy of existence.  Instead, there is a network of relationships.  What happens to one node has an immediate effect on the surrounding nodes, and the vibrations emitted from any particular happening in the web is sent out along all the threads into infinity, including past and future.


Again, imagine what happens when an insect gets caught in a spider’s web.  The whole thing moves.  In our daily life there is constant pulsing along the strands in the web, almost like nerve cells receiving signals, and then adding its own frequency to the signal and sending it on.  Each one of us is like a nerve cell of the body of the universe, continually responding to our environment – being informed by what comes in, and also putting our own vibration out there.  What goes out is necessarily informed by what comes in.  The incoming and outgoing messages are not separate.




Or perhaps a more relevant example is in driving.  Say you were to be going on a road trip about 60 miles away.  If the speed limit is 60 mph, then you could get there in about an hour.  But what if, when you were about 30 miles away from your destination, there happened to be an accident?  You would see red brake lights and cars slowing down.  Your car might come to a holt.  You may have no idea what happened ahead.  But, if one car in a stream of cars stops or gets into a wreck, it has a reverberating effect on all the cars behind it.    In traffic we have the opportunity to remember how inter-connected we are even with the people in the cars around us that we’ve never met.




The universe is filled with invisible threads that run between us all.  We can’t see them, but if we are attentive enough we can certainly feel them.  What happens to one of us happens to all of us.  Moreover, in the Buddhist scheme of the universe, there is no need for a creator to have started it all, or put it into motion.  Unlike the spider web, the spider is absent.  Buddhists take the universe as a given.  There is no need to assume a creator that put it all into action at some point.  Contemporaries of the Buddha wished to engage him in debate about the origins of the universe and what would happen upon death.  His response was, “I teach one thing and one thing only:  That there is suffering and there is the end of suffering.”  How is knowledge of how life came to be or of what will happen after death help us live a good life right now?  How will that knowledge end suffering?

In contrast, in the web model of life each action has an effect on everything else.  Just simply breathing has an effect on everything else.  To sink into despair or succumb to anxiety is to ignore or be unaware of this constant interpenetration of beings and doings.  Awareness of the web of life requires that we consider the impact of our actions moment after moment.

Practices to try either on or off the meditation seat:

1. When you are feeling anxious for whatever reason, imagine yourself as one of the nodules in a spider web, connected to all the other nodes, ad infinitum.  You can imagine invisible strands connecting you to everything and everyone around you.  Get a sense of not being separate from your surroundings, and even having an influence on what’s around you.  I find when I do this exercise, my anxiety level lowers.  Even as you read this there is an invisible thread connecting you and me.  We influence each other.


2.  When you are feeling lethargic for whatever reason, imagine yourself as one of the nerves in a long train of nerve cells, constantly receiving and emitting energy from the cells around you. What and who we surround our self with has an effect on us.  Consider changing your environment for a little while or getting some exercise.  Sometimes even a 5-minute change of space can make a world of difference.


3.  The next time you are on the road, imagine invisible threads connecting you to all the other drivers on the road. Your body-mind is constantly evaluating how to move based on your immediate surroundings.  Are you simply a separate driver trying to get to your destination, or are you a part of a larger organism that has a bigger plan that you may not recognize?  Consider this quote from Zen Master Dogen: “That you go forth and experience they myriad things is delusion.  That the myriad things go forth and experience themselves is awakening.”



The Tree of Life


In light of yet another round of shootings, this time at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh killing 11, and in the African American community in Jeffersontown, Kentucky killing 2, what is a Buddhist response?  How do we make sense of the level of hate that we are witnessing in our country?  What should we do about it?

I don’t have the answer to these questions.  I don’t know the right way forward.  I don’t know what the Buddhist response is.  I do know what I’m feeling inside about it, and what my response looks like.  If it’s helpful to anyone, I am grateful to be of service.  If it is not, please discard what you read here.

Three normal responses that I am feeling are anger, numbness, and denial.  By “normal” I mean that these may be the initial impulses that I feel when first encountering the news.  There is nothing inherently bad or good about any of these three.  They are the first steps in a process that helps me make sense out of what’s happening.

Anger and outrage are totally appropriate feelings to have at this time.  I want to do something to rectify things.  Anger is filled with a lot of energy toward action.  This is its positive aspect.  The negative aspect of anger is that it is short-lived, like the boost that comes from a sugar-high.  You have a lot of energy for a short time and then you crash.  In the short-term anger may help to get me motivated to do something, but if the energy of anger does not get regulated properly it will lead to crash and burn.  Then it transforms into a kind of despair.  I may feel helpless to respond effectively, one, because I don’t have the energy to act, and two, because I don’t see what would actually solve the situation.

From a Buddhist practice perspective, I look at anger as an energy that courses through me.  It can initially help me to remember why it’s so important to take my life seriously.  People are dying unjustly around us.  I could be next.  I must do everything I can to orient my life toward social justice.  This can be manifested in the way I think, speak, and act.

Zen Master Dogen, from the 13th century, implores me to practice as though my head was on fire.  If your head were on fire, wouldn’t you act to put it out as soon as possible?  This is the kind of energy that’s needed in our practice when we are suffering acutely.

My thinking needs to be directed toward benefiting others.   A constant question I keep in mind is, “how can I be of benefit to others?  How can I serve others better?  How can I be more considerate to the needs of others?”  I don’t have to answer these questions, but it’s essential that I ask them and keep asking them, and do my best to respond to those in need.

My words, or my speech can help me to open conversations that help to publicly acknowledge the suffering – in places like our families, in our work, and in our worship spaces – and to lead us to positive action as a community, not just as individuals.

My livelihood directs my life energy.  How does my particular job help or hinder the suffering of the families involved – either directly or indirectly?  To what degree does my work lead to creating a more loving society?  Am I doing the work I am being called to do?  Am I asking for help from my higher power – Buddha, God, the Universe?  These are also questions I need to keep asking myself.  There is no right/wrong answer to them.  Again, it’s the asking of the questions that I find important.

When I look at anger more closely there is also a certain degree of grief that resides underneath.  It’s hard to see the grief when I am in the midst of anger and rage.  But it’s there nonetheless.  For some, anger is absent and grief is the more present emotion.  In some ways, the presence of grief is helpful in facilitating healing in ways that anger cannot.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7:3, says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.”  This is not to say that we should go around looking for grief, but when it comes there is the potential of this kind of growth to take place.

Numbness is another response I have had to these hate crimes.  I have a physical sensation in my heart, but I can’t quite name it nor can I feel it fully.  I think that I should feel something, but I don’t feel anything in particular.  Numbness, at its best, brings me to start questioning what’s going on.  How did something like this happen?  Numbness helps me to look at all the circumstances that led up to this.  The persons we blame for these shootings are only a small part of the equation, from a Buddhist perspective.  They pulled the trigger, but what about all the things in their life that led up to this?  This is not to get them off the hook, but it gets me to see that I can’t point the finger at one person, nor only at their mental illness.  A whole society has allowed this event to happen.  We are all to blame on some level.  We live in a culture that has virulent strains of antisemitism and racism in it.  It’s not only the United States that has this, it is in other countries as well.  I consider how the holocaust happened.  The United States government turned away Jews during the holocaust, forcing them back to Germany.

If we take seriously our inter-relatedness to everyone, then how can we not look at the perhaps more subtle ways that we have existed with and condoned racism and antisemitism?  We may not have pulled the trigger, but what have we done to acknowledge and speak out about the deep seeds of antisemitism and racism in our families, local communities, and country?  Keeping our mouth closed in the sight of injustice, however small, allows for a culture that supports ongoing injustice.  We can’t undo what’s been done, but we can align ourselves with the life-work, the work of generations, to build a more just society.

These strains of hate bubble up from down deep.  They leave for a while, and then resurface.  When I understand the recent shootings in this way, I double down on my work to end racism and antisemitism.  I’m lucky that I have a job where I teach about World Religions.  I take students in my community college class to the local Mosque, to the Gurdwara, to the Temple.  I see all the more the need to educate our youth about diversity, discrimination, as well as standing up for justice.  I also see the importance of going to the polls this and every election season to put forth my vote as a means of supporting those politicians who are sensitive, one, to our country’s history of racism, and, two, to the power of rhetoric to either diminish it or exacerbate it.

Denial is a third response.  I pretend like everything is still fine in my world because these things are not happening directly to me or to anyone I know.  The roof is not on fire in my home, so why should I worry about something that’s going on way over “there.”  Media is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand it prevents me from staying in denial.  I see images and sounds that I cannot ignore easily.  They are unpleasant and they wake me out of my slumber.  I remember that my sister-n-law, niece, and nephews are Jewish and are in this grieving process.  I begin to feel their pain.  I grieve with them.  I send them a note saying my heart goes out to the Tree of Life community.  My sister-n-law responded, “This is a tragedy for all.”

On the other hand, with regards to media, I get so inundated with repeat messages about what has happened that I want to shut it all out.  I just can’t take it all in.  It seems there is nothing I can do about it, so might as well get on with business as usual.  Denial prevents me from any deep looking at myself.  Some people may have to do that for a while – shut it out – especially if they lack a supportive environment in which to process what has happened.

My practice, however, is to take in the media in small doses.  I don’t need to sit in front of a screen for more than a couple of minutes before I’m fully caught up on the news.  It makes no sense to me to rehash the event again and again.  This would lead me to despair and apathy.  I need to have the energy to take good care of those things that I can take good care of – family and work.

Sacred spaces are places that create a safe container to look at these events.  Churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, are all places – potentially – where healing can begin.  In the meditation hall, we are encouraged to open our hearts to what we are actually experiencing in our bodies.  We are asked to remember the people that were killed, and to remember their families.  We offer our prayers in ceremony.  Ceremony creates the space for us to begin the process of making meaning about these events.  Ceremony puts lines around something that is too big for us to comprehend with our limited intelligence.  Ceremony gives voice to something larger than ourselves, but that something that lives also within us and needs to be heard.

My Zen colleague and friend, Hozan Alan Senauke, himself from Jewish origins, and Vice-Abbott of the Berkeley Zen Center, recently offered the following poem in light of the shootings:

Near the Tree of Life

We pass as refugees

The east gate of Eden is guarded

By cherubim with flaming swords

We can see the tree through the gates

But we cannot approach it

Nearby is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

And we are still choking on its fruit

Grasping for a life of kindness

That today seems

Far beyond our reach


Tree of Life guarded by two angels




Haiti is a Great Teacher


Malcolm with Ima in the back of her home in Port Au Prince.

“Beyond Mountains are more mountains” is a Haitian saying.  This proverb does not only accurately depict the Haitian landscape, but also the inner landscape of our lives.  We all have ups and downs, just like the mountains’ slopes.  There is no end to the highs and lows of our lives.  Haitians know this all too well.  They have something to teach us.

In Zen Master Dogen’s, “Mountains and Waters Sutra” he says that the mountains themselves expound the teachings of the Buddha.  Can we hear them offering a Dharma talk?  What are they saying?

Dogen says:

Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains.  Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk.  You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains’ walking.

This was written in the 12th century well before we had any idea of plate tectonics.  But the fact that mountains move comes of little surprise to a Buddhist with a worldview that has at its base a belief that all things are impermanent, there is nothing firm we can rely on.  Even though the qualities of a mountain include stillness and stability, these things cannot be depended upon indefinitely.


Haitian Mountains

Like Japan, Haiti is covered with mountains.  The indigenous people who lived there prior to present day Haitians, the Taino, knew those mountains well.  Unlike Japan, Haiti is geographically much closer to the United States.  Haiti is our neighbor.  While Zen Master Dogen admonishes seekers of the Way to quit traveling around to the far off corners of the globe to seek Enlightenment, who would think to look to Haiti, only a 90 minute plane ride from the city of Miami?

The United States and Haiti have an intimate relationship that I was unaware of until I began traveling there.  Columbus is credited with the discovery of the “West” because of his initial landing on the island of Hispaniola, which has become known as Haiti on the western part and Dominican Republic on the eastern part.



Haiti is just a 90 minute flight from Miami


The island was originally inhabited by the Taino, whom Columbus thought would make good slaves.  This was not the case.  Many fought colonial rule, and most succumbed to diseases brought on by the explorers.  This paved the way for France to colonize the western half of the island, cultivate sugar cane, and exploit slaves from West Africa to work the fields.

Haiti was a French colony during the time of Napoleon.  Many of the slaves that came to the United States were first brought to Haiti in order to “be broken”.  In 1791, one hundred years before our own Civil War, a most remarkable event happened on the globe.  The World’s first and only successful slave revolt ousted the French rulers from the island.  Haiti became independent of French control.

We do not speak French in Iowa because of the Haitian Revolution.  Napoleon made the Louisiana Purchase so affordable partly because he was afraid a similar revolt would take place in the United States, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

But how does this explain the poverty and poor infrastructure most of us associate with the country?

Shortly after the Revolution, the French exhorted huge sums of money from Haiti in order to insure they would not attack and reclaim the land.  This debt was paid in full by Haiti by the 1950’s and resulted in much of the poverty we witness there today.  That, in addition to interference by both European powers and the United States in Haitian politics, has essentially prevented them from standing on their own two feet to this day.

Despite the vast economic differences between Haiti and the United States, Haiti has something to teach.  Every time I enter Haiti I am floored by the generosity I receive, and the wisdom of the people, especially that of children.


On the drive from Port Au Prince to Jacmel.  Sebastian is pictured left.

Through my wife Sara, who speaks Haitian Creole fluently, I get glimpses into a worldview that I could never imagine without her.  On our most recent ten-day journey, we did the usual route of coming into Port Au Prince via plane and then driving the long road over the many mountains into Jacmel in the south.

Because they are part of our family and because Malcolm, our son, enjoys socializing with other children, we decided to invite Lelene and her household from Port Au Prince – her brothers David (pronounced “Da – veed”) and Sebastian, and her son Junior – to be with us for the week in Jacmel.  Sebastian came with Sara, Malcolm, and I ahead of the rest of the family because there was no room in the car for the others.


Statue of the Virgin Mary in a small grotto on the property of Rozalene Latour, a Vodou priestess*.

The fact that we were able to hire a driver and complete our journey in roughly four hours was no small miracle.  Most Haitians can’t afford their own personal driver and must ride public transportation.  Public transport could be a bus or small van so crammed that everyone remains knee to knee and upright the entire bumpy trip.  Some folks even resort to riding on the roof of the bus.  Often these vehicles break down due to flat tire or perhaps engine troubles.  In such a case, the trip may take all day.  Just getting out of Port au Prince itself can take up to three hours in traffic.  Haitians all know and accept this kind of travel as part of their reality.  Daily they live with uncertainty.  Plans get changed at the drop of a dime (or goude – Haitian currency).

The day after we arrived in Jacmel, awaiting Lelene and David’s appearance, Malcolm, Sebastian and I walked with Sara part of the way to her work.  We had no idea when exactly Lelene and family would be joining us.  At that time, Sebastian shared with Sara that he knew that David and Lelene were on their way because he could “feel them walking in my right foot.”  He said that, “that’s the foot they walk in when they are on their way.”



The path on the way to Sara’s work.

How can someone, “walk in your right foot”?  Your foot is your own.  Right?

When I asked Sara for an explanation, she said that this comes from the Haitian cosmology that does not exclude the body as a means for understanding one’s surroundings and from communicating with others.  In other words, the body is a vessel for communicating with people in this world, with our environment, and with the spirit world.

This view runs contrary to the idea that so called “mind” contains greater wisdom than the body.  In the West, we separate mind and body, putting mind over body, and placing intelligence in our head, the highest part of our body.  This is not an indigenous perspective of the world.  Body and mind are not two.

The oneness of body-mind is also in congruence with the Zen Buddhist perspective of the world.  Mind does not just exist in our head, but in all the cells of our body, including our feet.  In other words, our feet contain wisdom.

The first images of Buddha to appear in the world were not of a person meditating, but of the bottoms of the Buddha’s feet.  Our feet contain wisdom.


Furthermore, from a Buddhist perspective, mind does not stop with the physical body, but extends into the environment.  The physical world itself is mind.  This is why Dogen can say,

Mountains’ walking is just like humans walking.  Accordingly, do not doubt mountains’ walking even though it does not look the same as human walking.  (“Mountains and Waters Sutra”)

Humans and the environment are intimate with each other whether we are conscious of that connection or not.  Dogen expresses it saying that, “mountains walk.”

Sebastian, immersed in a different cultural setting, also acknowledged this deep connection between his own body and environment.  As a ten year old I doubt he was aware of the profundity he was speaking, but this does not make it any less insightful into a Haitian worldview.

The mountains over which Sebastian’s family were traveling did not keep them distant.  The land he was walking on was not disconnected from the mountains over which they were coming.  The land, perhaps, was like a telephone wire between him and them.  In his own steps, touching the earth, he could “feel them walking in my right foot.”


Questions for reflection, journaling, and discussion:

  1. Where do you place your attention when you meditate?  Do you give more attention to your thoughts or to sensation in your body?  What if you were to focus and sustain attention on your feet, especially during walking meditation?
  2. In what ways does your body speak to you about your environment? Has your body ever been a messenger for someone or something else?
  3. Do you see the physical world as inert matter, devoid of consciousness, or alive and watching us?
  4. What is your own perception of Haiti? Is it simply a poverty stricken or violent place, or does it contain great wisdom?
  5. What can we learn from the people responsible for the world’s first and only successful slave revolt?



* Vodou, the indigenous Religion of Haiti, has been widely misunderstood.  The Hollywood idea that sorcerers stick pins in dolls has no basis in reality.  Like many indigenous religions Vodou practitioners venerate ancestors, commune with spirits, and experience a deep intimacy with the natural world.

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?