Can a Buddhist Become a Marine?

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

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

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

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

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

Karma and the Koan of our Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is true compassion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.