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?

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?


We Are Blind

“Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ inconceivable qualities, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but just looking through a bamboo tube at a corner of the sky.” – Zen Master Dogen


Every World Religion has gone through a period of claiming itself as the only true path.  This was necessary for their initial survival and development, just as a toddler needs to exert her or himself as the only one worthy of the mother’s attention.  World Religions are slowly emerging from their toddler stage, and there is no going backwards.  It’s obvious, the more globalized our world becomes, that no one religion has a foothold on reality.  The world is too big to fit inside our small thoughts.  Our eyes just cannot take in everything.  We need each other, we need the wisdom of other faith traditions to remind us of our incompleteness as individuals and as societies.


This butterfly appears to have eyes on its wings.  It’s a means of self defense or disguise.  They don’t really see.  In the same way, our proclamations of truth, while very beautiful like the marks on a butterfly, are often used to disguise our own vulnerability.

Solid ground for our next toddler steps as a species can be found in three practices.  These three are the meeting places of all the world’s Great Faiths:


  1. Restraint from harming self and others.
  2. Compassion.
  3. Selfless service.


Which religion does not teach these three?


We can certainly find examples of intolerance, violence, and ego expansion in the texts and actions of all the major faiths if we wish to.  According to Neuroscientist and Buddhist practitioner, Dr. Rick Hansen, our brains are wired to absorb bad and minimize good.  That is how we evolved as a species.  We are genetically programmed to remember bad things that happened to us, more so than good things.  It’s a matter of survival.


However, it’s increasingly clear that what one person (or one nation) does has an effect on everyone else.  The pursuit of individual happiness is an illusion if we discount the wellbeing of others.  We are in a place now to focus our attention on the good – both within us and around us.  This seems counter-intuitive to our genetic coding and may feel very awkward because old habits die hard.  But what neuroscience is teaching us is that our brains are pliable.  If we change the places where we direct our attention, then we can actually influence our own evolution as a species on a genetic level.


Both optimism and pessimism are unhelpful.  We need realism.  Thinking we need to feel positive in order for us to effect change is naïve.  People are suffering all around us.  The plants, animals, and ocean life is disappearing.  We are in the midst of a mass extinction on par with the dinosaurs’ termination 65 million years ago.  Hope lies not in the future, but in our present moment activities, what we choose to do and not do – with our thoughts, words, and actions right here and now.  We can draw inspiration from the World Religions to measure our present activities and see where we line up, and also be humble enough to recognize where we fall short.


The Prophet Muhammad said, “All creatures are God’s children, and those dearest to God are those who treat His children kindly.”


How well do we treat our children and those of others, not just individually but as a society?  What’s our record?  Public outcry for the separating of families of immigrants is a compassionate response.  Kindness can be fierce, strong, demanding and powerful.  Can we find kindness in our own heart?  Or do we numb ourselves from the pain?


Jesus affirms this kindness when he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”  How thirsty are we for righteousness?


The Buddha said, “let one be strenuous, upright, and sincere.”  This is the path to loving kindness.


Apathy leads to chaos.  It is seductive because it sits like ripe fruit that falls right into our hands.  No effort is required to eat of it.  Positive change – individual and collective – requires effort.  It is the fruit that has us get a ladder and climb the tree, picking it before it rots.


Our worst enemy is not outside of our self.  Thinking we know everything and everyone when we really don’t is at the root of our problems.  Accepting our blindness, while uncomfortable to say the least, is where promise for the future begins.

The Role of the Teacher in Zen


Warm hand to warm hand.

“I am embarrassed to say this, but I read pretty Zen books for twenty years before I met a teacher.”  – Dai-En Bennage Roshi


Most of us in the West begin a meditation practice by reading books, through the internet, through apps, or maybe through a teacher-less meditation group.  These are all fine ways to begin.  When I began practicing Zen in 1994 it was preceded by taking a Philosophy of Religion class, being totally turned upside down by the Philosophy professor, and then seeing a video of John Daido Loori of Zen Mountain Monastery giving instructions in Zazen.


Shortly after, I met my teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, and learned directly from her how to sit and walk.  For the next three years I occasionally sat with teachers, but I mostly sat on my own until I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I don’t mean that “I wasn’t getting anywhere” in the Ultimate sense.  From the relative dimension my practice had grown stale.  There was no sense of vitality to it.  As I look back, I seriously lacked compassion for people because I was so caught up inside my head that I had little understanding of how others may be suffering and what my role in their suffering was.  Zen Master Dogen said that it is better to give up Zen practice than to practice without a teacher.


The role of the teacher is to wake us up to our own ego – the ways in which we selfishly seek fame and personal contentment.  The teacher is there to help us see that our vision is too narrow and that we have the potential to see a wider swatch of the population.  We literally don’t notice what and who are in plain sight.  Mentally, we are not able to see beyond the confines of our own concepts.  Spiritually, we don’t feel at home with who we are and where we are.


Our vision may get a little better when studying with a teacher.  We may be a little more aware of others.  We may get out of the prison of ego sooner.  However, that is not the point of being in a teacher-student relationship.  It’s not self-improvement.  The point is to see that we don’t see, to humbly realize our limitations, and to redouble our efforts to transform ourselves from ego-centered to reality-centered.


After losing my job, having no commitment in a relationship, and no children to take care of, I decided to live with Dai-En Roshi – a residential training that lasted 15 years.  During this time, I gave Dai-En Roshi permission to teach me.  I allowed her to see me in my actions – everything from washing the dishes, eating, gardening, working on the computer, talking on the phone, interacting face-to–face with sangha members, and, of course, meditation.  She could see how I did things and then offer me feedback.  As a student, my role was to chew on what she said and try to implement changes.  Zen Master Dogen wrote, “To learn the practice and maintain the Way is to abandon ego-attachment and to follow the instructions of the teacher.  The essence of this is being free from greed.”


Meditation retreats and even shorter sittings are an opportunity to develop this student-teacher relationship, but only if the student wants this.  It is the student’s responsibility to ask for this either formally, by receiving precepts, or informally by expressing the desire to study with a teacher.  The depth in which one can go depends on the depth of the commitment and the aptitude of the student.  There is no “one size fits all” kind of relationship.  There is no clear-cut path that gets you to an end.  It’s a relationship that is built together through trial and error, making mistakes – by both the student and the teacher, building trust, seeing the humanity of the teacher, and being willing to let go again and again of ideas of who you are and what your life is about.


This is not an easy path because it involves honest looking at yourself – thoughts, words, and actions, and being willing to change, or at least recognize your misconceptions.  As Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh would say in certain contexts, “You are a victim of a wrong perception.”  Nonin Chowaney Roshi, another teacher I studied with, said it to me more bluntly, “You know nothing.”


Zen is a transmission beyond words and letters.  Words and letters, like this article, are simply a finger pointing to the moon.  They are not the moon itself.  Reading can be helpful.  Apps can be helpful.  Meditation done by oneself or in a group can be helpful for getting started.  The short side of them is that they are impersonal and can become ego-enhancing rather than ego-dissolving.  A book can’t know you and give you personalized instruction the way that a human being in the same room can.


If there are any ends to practice, it is a transmission that occurs from warm hand to warm hand, warm heart to warm heart.  The title of one of Dogen’s writings is “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha.”  Zen is not about meditating and then getting up to leave and do something else.  Zen is about how we are in relationship with everything, off and on the cushion.  Dai-En Roshi said our practice is “omoiyari”.  This is a Japanese expression which means “consideration”.  It’s about noticing others and demonstrating consideration for their needs.

Be Teachable

Be Teachable


The sound coming from my teacher’s desk


Stiff and inflexible head


Softened by Dharma rain only


One dies not by oneself only


But with all beings together


One learns not by oneself


But by the authenticity of another learner


This learning goes on




Have you graduated?  Have I graduated?


I think not


Dropped out, or no, never entered in the first place


The mind of another


Returns you to your True Self


Pain is not a sign of failure


Good health is not success


Just open your earie eyes


And notice the globe encompassing you


Like a protective invisible shield


Or the inside of a chick’s egg




sat on