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




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?

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

Ayiti and America

Climate changes people.

People change climate.

The fridge stays on

maybe 4/24

in Haiti.

Mosquitos bite and sweat

on forehead while half

asleep in disease.

The warmth connects the “I’s” in a way the economy cannot.


Like frogs basking in a slow cooking pot of cold water.

Too comfortable to change

bullet proof glass perception of the world

has yet to shatter this way of I’ing, not being.

Trauma Sensitive Zen


One mark of a well-polished Zen monk is the ability to accept any situation as it is, without trying to change anything.  The first line in the ancient Zen poem, “Faith in Mind” reads, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.”  A good chunk of Zen training is learning to let go of picking and choosing, and simply accepting what you receive.  One who can do this finds the Great Way easy.


In my own experience, when I finally realized that my teacher – Dai-En Roshi – was less interested in my opinions and more interested in me dropping my agendas and simply listening to her, my relationship with her began to improve quickly.  I was no longer burdened with having to prove myself.  My job as her student was to be an open ear.  My teacher described this phenomenon by making the analogy of pouring water from a full vessel into an empty vessel.  This is “shiho” or Dharma Transmission.  In order to receive from the teacher, we need to empty our self.


Aoyama Roshi in, “Zen Seeds” writes, “A monk’s mouth should be like an oven.”  In other words, just as an oven does not refuse what goes into it – cooking everything without discrimination – so too should a monk accept what comes to him or her without showing preference for one thing or another.


I remember hearing a story from my teacher about a Japanese Zen monk who tied bricks on to his knees in order to force his legs into kekkafuza (full lotus).  Monks and laypeople alike, in Japan, are expected to sit hankafuza (half lotus) or kekkafuza if they want to practice zazen at a temple.  Recently, I received a letter from Eiheiji, our head temple in Japan, inviting myself and my students to do a four day sesshin.  One of the requirements was the ability to sit hankafuza or kekkafuza for “a long time”.


When my teacher practiced in Japan at a Rinzai monastery, she was expected to sit at least hankafuza, even though one knee resisted touching the tatami.  It took several months before the muscles in her hips softened enough for her knee to touch the ground.  I remember her saying that the only reason she did not quit was because the pain in her heart was greater than the pain in her knees.  If the ratio had been the other way around, she would have quit.



Examples of Full and Half Lotus Postures


Forcing one’s legs into a lotus position may sound really harsh.  Most American teachers that I know encourage their students to sit in ways that work for their body, including in chairs.  I personally feel grateful to my teacher for requiring that I learn to sit hankafuza or kekkafuza.  If she did not have the faith in me that I could do it, I would not have attempted it.  There is something about sitting in a lotus posture that is quite grounding for me and really helps me to focus my attention.  But I also understand that this is not for everyone, and I would never force my students to sit in this way.  If their body was limber enough, however, then maybe I would encourage it.


While most Western teachers tend to be less rigid when it comes to how you sit, you nonetheless could find yourself sitting in stillness and silence anywhere from 20 minutes to 7 days.  This requires anyone to have the ability on some level to let go of picking and choosing.  This is how the Great Way becomes easy.  When we let go of what we want and learn to accept the situation as it is, peace comes to the mind.


Zen Master Dogen’s “Universal Instructions for Zen Meditation” claim to be universal.  Anyone should be able to do it.  They only need to follow his instructions carefully, dedicate themselves, and be still.  But can his instructions be applied to everyone?


For some people new to Zen, and even those who have been sitting a long time, expecting someone to sit for a long time without moving – regardless of posture – may be inappropriate, especially for those with a history of early childhood trauma, PTSD, or belonging to a marginalized community.


For a trauma survivor having the ability to choose is the pathway to healing.  Not allowing choice can actually exacerbate trauma symptoms.


Trauma is defined as, “extreme lack of choice by an individual in a chronic way” (David Emerson, author of Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga).  Trauma includes not only having one’s physical body hurt at a particular time, but also systemic forms of violence such as what the African American and Native American communities are presently facing as a result of the historical oppression they continue to experience.  The recent “Stand up for Standing Rock” and the “Black Lives Matter” movements serve as testimonies to a systemic form of trauma.


One dimension of trauma that has been well documented in trauma survivors is a poor ability to make choices.  Brain scans reveal, among other things, an under stimulated pre-frontal cortex in the brains of trauma survivors.  The pre-frontal cortex is where the executive function operates.  This is the place in the brain that is stimulated when decisions are made.


People with addictions (addiction often being the by-product of early childhood abuse or systemic trauma), have poor ability to make clear choices.  “Just say no”, or asking someone with an addiction history to be self-disciplined may be unrealistic.  Repeated lack of choice from an early age, or being constantly denied agency in one’s destiny has prevented the development of the ability to make sound judgements based on necessities or desires.


Part of the path to healing for trauma survivors, then is having opportunities to make their own choices.  In the Trauma Sensitive Yoga classes that I teach – both in prison and in the Mental Health Unit of a hospital, a large component of the class is giving individuals opportunities to choose how they would like to do a yoga posture.  I don’t have any expectations that they will follow what I’m doing or saying, and I tell them this explicitly.


This way of conducting yoga or meditation is not the way a typical mainstream yoga or mindfulness meditation class is taught.  Mainstream Yoga teachers, like Zen teachers, give instructions and expect students to follow them.  The more you are able to follow the instructor to the tee, the more of an adept student you are – the deeper capacity you have for “shiho”.  The mainstream student who can imitate the instructor precisely has shown evidence of being able to drop their ego.  This is considered a good thing in the Dharma world.


This is not so for trauma survivors who have not yet integrated their trauma.  In fact, if a trauma survivor shows up at a mainstream yoga studio or a Zen center that is not trauma sensitive, and is told to do things “this way and that way” and to let go of their choosing, they risk having old wounds reopened.  Furthermore, a teacher who is not sensitive to how trauma effects a survivor, may, at best, prematurely give up on the student, and at worst, re-traumatize them.


Dr. Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, writes, “No intervention that takes power away from the survivor can possibly foster her recovery, no matter how much it appears to be in her immediate best interest.”  For a survivor, it is deeply hurtful to be told what to do.  That is why, in the context of a Trauma Sensitive Yoga class, the teacher commits to empowering the students by not telling them what to do.  Rather, they use invitational language and offer suggestions.  Power is given to the students to decide, based on their own felt experience, what works and does not work for them.


Prior to studying Trauma Center Trauma Sensitive Yoga, as a Zen and Yoga teacher, I pretty much expected that serious students would simply follow what I ask them to do.  I assumed that the student was not ready if they could not do what I asked them to do.  It was a major bodily and mental shift for me to begin teaching in a way that empowered the students to make decisions for themselves.  I clearly remember a palpable shift in my body-center when I gave a student of mine a choice for how to proceed.  I was no longer in control of the situation.  I was not in control of the student.  It was liberating not only for the student, but for me, too!


In the past, because of my lack of understanding around trauma, not being in control would frustrate and seriously aggravate me.  I would feel imprisoned.  My thoughts were, “Hey! I learned to do this.  I learned to drop my own ego.  That’s what this practice is about.  Why can’t you do it?!  Just let go of having an opinion!”  Of course, I was not able to verbally articulate this, and I probably wouldn’t have even if I could.


Once I understood that people with trauma are suffering in the present moment because of earlier childhood experiences or systemic forms of trauma that remain lodged in their body, my heart opened up.  I realized that it doesn’t do any good to make a survivor conform to my will.  The kind response, rather, is to offer opportunities, within the student-teacher relationship, for making choices.  I empower the trauma survivor to create their own destiny, as opposed to me trying to shape it for them.


Given the widespread prevalence of trauma[1], my studies of the way trauma effects people have caused me to reflect on the way I teach Zen and the way that I’ve seen it taught in the United States. Is a blanket way of teaching meditation helpful for everyone?  Do we know the signs of trauma in our students?  Are we truly “liberating all beings” when we are not sensitive to those that come to us with a trauma history?  Are we causing more harm than good as Zen teachers when we do not take into account an individual’s trauma, or the trauma caused by systemic forms of trauma (e.g. racism)?


Are we fulfilling our calling to teach the Dharma when we turn away those with trauma?  Many Americans have some degree of trauma that goes unnoticed or undiagnosed.  How do we know, when a student offers resistance to a teaching, that this is because of their own ego?  How do we know when a student’s resistance may actually be a sign of their own healing?


The Great Way is not difficult when trauma survivors get to pick and choose.  However, for Zen teachers who are insensitive to trauma, the Great Way may be very difficult to teach effectively.  Buddhist teachers offer meditation in prisons, mental health units, hospitals, to veterans, and to special needs populations, and to the marginalized.  The prevalence of trauma in these circles is even higher than those of the general public.  A minimal understanding of how trauma affects neurology, psychology, and community are absolutely essential for Zen teachers.


I learned about trauma thanks to my connection with yoga, and thanks to the encouragement of a friend who is a psychologist.  I’m not presently aware of trauma education being offered for Zen teachers, so I feel an imperative to offer some of what I do know.


I have been teaching meditation in prisons for twenty years, and in Behavioral Health and Addiction Treatment centers for seven years.  It’s only within the past two years that I have been actively studying trauma, and this has deeply affected how I teach Zen to those populations.


I begin every meditation by reminding the participants that it is their choice to be here or not.  I make it clear that they can leave at any time.  They do not need to remain in the group.  Nor do they need to continue to do what I am saying, especially if they find it unhelpful.


By beginning my classes in this way, I am immediately handing my power over to the participants.  I’m empowering them to make the choice as to whether to remain in the class or not.  If the participants are in prison, then this empowerment through choice is even more precious.  They don’t have the choice to leave their larger environment, and often they don’t have choices even within the many activities that they do.  By making it clear that they choose to be doing meditation or not, I am letting them know they are in charge, and also not shaming them if they decide to leave.


When I teach meditation, I also incorporate choice into my instructions.  While the Buddha’s life, itself, is a model of experimentation to see what works and what does not, this attitude is not clearly reflected in Zen Master Dogen’s, “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen”.  Depending on the teacher, too, the degree of choices built into meditation instructions may be somewhat limiting for a trauma survivor. For example, Zen teachers insists on practicing with eyes open.  While having eyes open and noticing the external environment may actually be beneficial for addressing trauma, if it is done without choice it may become problematic.  I may say something like, “Zen meditation is traditionally done with eyes open.  You are welcome to close your eyes or have them open.  That’s your choice.  Feel free to try both ways and see which works better for you.”


Offering alternatives to posture can be incorporated into meditation instructions.  Students can be encouraged to change postures in the middle of meditation, to move to a chair, to walk, or even to lie down.  The point is to allow opportunities for the development of agency, a feeling that one has control over themselves and their environment, and can change how they are relating to the situation.  Expecting a survivor to “just sit” and not move does not foster agency unless that person chooses to do so.


Another way I foster agency in a prison setting is to hand the meditation bell over to the students.  I ask if anyone would like to be in charge of ringing the bell to start and end meditation.  I also have the students decide how long they will sit for.  10 minutes?  20 minutes?  This way, they take leadership in their own environment, rather than me telling them a proscribed length of time and expecting them to do it.  I am also conscious of the fact that whatever they decide in terms of the length of sitting may not be in their immediate best interest.  It may be too long for some, and too short for others.  Again, if I’m teaching from an empowerment model, this is not a problem.



A Trauma Sensitive Zen class may look different from a “normal” Zen meditation group.  “Daishu ichi nyo” means “everyone doing the same practice together.”  It’s about living in harmony in a cloistered environment.  Everyone meditates together when it’s time to meditate. They work together when it’s time to work.  They sleep when it’s time to sleep.  This is expected of anyone who practices at a Zen center.  To be lying down or doing walking meditation when everyone else is doing sitting meditation, for example, is not the practice of “Daishu.”  In a recent meditation retreat I lead, I gave students the opportunity at any time during the sitting period to practice walking meditation, to lie down, or to take a break all together from the group.


While “Daishu ichi nyo” may be absent in a trauma sensitive setting, if the teacher is actively empowering the students to explore different ways of being, then there will remain intact a strong spirit of inquiry which may otherwise be lacking.


I myself am still exploring ways of creating a safe, stable, and transformative atmosphere for practitioners with trauma.  The above are just a few examples of what I do.  Employing the element of choice in the context of Zen instruction, contrary to how it is often taught, can be healing and liberating both for those with trauma, as well as for those who teach meditation.

[1] According statistics found in David Treleaven’s, Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, one in five women in the United States will be raped, and it is estimated that every 28 hours a Black person is murdered by police, security guards, or State sanctioned vigilantes.