“Conversion” to Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions to reflect on:

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

Can a Buddhist Become a Marine?

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

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

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

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

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

Karma and the Koan of our Lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is true compassion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Web of Life

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


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


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


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


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




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


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




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




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

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

Practices to try either on or off the meditation seat:

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


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


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



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.

A Dharma Doorway

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.


Children have been by far my best teachers.  Jesus said that if we can learn to have the mind of a child, then we will enter the kingdom of heaven.  The child’s mind is open, receptive, and sincerely curious about life.  When sitting zazen, Dai-En Roshi would encourage us to sit with “kindergarten mind,” a phrase she received from her teacher, Aoyama Roshi.

Upon leaving Japan as a teacher of English, I had a plan to enter graduate school and to pursue a Master’s Degree in Theology.  I knew within the first few weeks of study that I was in the wrong place.  I felt the need to be working, earning money, and experiencing life, and not thinking about it.  I dropped out of graduate school and began working as a substitute teacher for the West Contra Costa School District in California.  I was considering becoming a full-time elementary school teacher at that time.

I found substitute teaching exciting because I did not know where I would be going next, or what kind of children I would be teaching.  Some of the classes were wonderful, and others were absolutely dreadful.  I enjoyed the younger kids much more than the adolescent children.

At the beginning of the summer I returned to the east coast to live with my parents in Maryland.  My sister-n-law, Lois, helped me to find full-time work as a teacher in a Catholic school that served children with autism.  The work was not bad, but the opportunity arrived for me to work as a 5th grade teacher at another Catholic school in the area.  Because I had not yet made a signed commitment to the first school, I abruptly left it to teach at the other school.  I later regretted this move because I realized that how I leave one job effects how I enter another job.

I was unprepared to take on two classes of 30 children ten years of age.  As much as children can be looked to as examples for developing curiosity, their egos are in full swing.  I realized the need, personally, when working with kids, to be able to recognize my own ego, my attachments and aversions, and to be able to drop ego identification frequently.  The training in Zen I had done up to that point was not sufficient in addressing this need.  I had, after all, spent little time actually training with a Zen teacher, or living in a monastery.  The intellectual foundation for practice had been laid by my academic training, but it did not address the down-to-earth practice that I needed to do.

For the five months that I taught the Catholic school children, I came home exhausted everyday.  I struggled with holding their attention and getting them to do and behave the way I wanted them to.  Yet I was teaching them material from religion and biology, all things I loved.  I was not able to convey my love for these subjects in a way that justified my continuation in this work.  I spent what I later determined to be too much time disciplining children, and not nearly enough time affirming them.  This lesson came at a great price, and thanks to practicing Vipassana with Tara Brach’s meditation group at a Unitarian Universalist church near Washington DC once a week.  Because I felt so much better, so restored, after practicing with this group, I made it a point, no matter what, to attend her class every week.

One of the weeks that I attended, Tara had us split off into smaller groups to talk about a Dharma subject.  I shared my frustration in working with the children and I received very helpful feedback from my group.  I realized that I might not be doing the kids any favors by my demonstrations of anger towards those who were misbehaving.  I bought a Dharma talk by Joseph Goldstein that addressed the mental component “fear,” and ways of working with it.

I saw a direct connection between my anger towards misbehaving children, and my own fears of being inadequate to actually directing and having compassion toward children.  Determined not to act from a place of anger or fear anymore, I came into the classroom Monday morning with the goal of remaining calm and looking at my own ego attachments in the process of working through my fears. 

This worked well for my first class, albeit in a strange way.  I decided not to say anything to this class until I could be calm and feel at peace.  I waited for their attention without saying a word.  I did not realize that I would be waiting for a full 25 minutes to do this, and probably most teachers would not have this patience.  As I continued to calm myself, looking at my ego, and my desire to control the kids, the children were busy talking amongst themselves waiting for me to “lose it,” as I had usually done at this time.  But I was determined to change, even if that meant losing my job.

I did not care at this point, if I lost my job or not.  I was too exhausted to continue teaching in the way that I had been, and felt that if I can not change, then perhaps I should not be working as a teacher.  I had nothing to lose in remaining silent and, in effect, waiting for their attention. 

After 25 minutes of me standing in front of the class, still, calm, and not speaking, all of the children, to a tee, noticed that I was waiting for them.  They had been expecting me to discipline them as I had been ineffectively doing.  I managed to trick them by not behaving in my usual pattern.  They noticed the change and all of them stopped speaking and began looking at me in wonder.  The silence was palpable.  The kids were wondering, “is he going to reprimand us?”  I could see it on their faces.  They were anticipating my disciplinarian action.

Instead, I began with the lesson, asking them to take out their books and turn to a certain page.  They seemed somewhat disappointed and perplexed not to see more drama on my part.  But they paid marvelous attention during the last part of the period, attending to their work, without complaint or question.  It was beautiful.  I could not have asked for a better outcome.  I had found the secret to working with kids: patience with myself.

I decided to use the same strategy for the next class.  I had high hopes.  Anxiety was running through my veins with the same kind of anticipation that accompanied me before a swim a race.  I did not realize, however, that the previous class would tell the children in the next class about my plans.  This class was a different kind of beast all together.  I waited even longer, almost 45 minutes, without saying a thing, and nothing of note happened other than the kids continuing to talk without giving me an ounce of their attention.  One child, in fact, decided to leave the class at this time to let the principal of the school know what I was doing. 

Upon reflection, I could see how my own karma was ripening.  I had lost the trust of these children long ago.  They had not forgiven or forgotten how I had been treating them, and they seemed determined in making me pay for my mistakes.  I was now beginning to feel like the children I had sent to the principal’s office for punishment.  The only difference was that instead of me going to the principal, the principal was coming to me.

I felt as if I had completely failed in my objectives.  My peace of mind was nowhere to be found as I contemplated what to do next.  What would the principal say about this?  What would he think about me?  How can I explain myself?  I felt very stuck.

The principal entered the classroom and sat down in one of the desks in the middle of the room.  The whole class was quiet.  I picked up on their quiet and began the lesson as if nothing prior had happened.  Somewhat defeated, acting as though I planned all of this, but on another level knowing something was wrong, I walked through the rest of the day wondering what would be the result of all this, and how to explain my actions.

It dawned on me that I needed, rather than punishing the “bad” kids, to reward the “good” kids.  Tuesday of the same week I instituted a reward system where I gave tickets to the kids who were, “caught being good.”  They could cash in the tickets for prizes that were to be determined.  I found, hands down, that this had more consistent results then my experiments with silence.  I was now actively seeking out the children that were behaving, and actively ignoring the kids that were being rude.  This shift of focus was noticed by the children.  They changed.  Even the “bad” kids began to consider how they could be, “caught being good.”

I felt that, thanks to my experiments with silence, I was able to see the need and implementation of a reward system.  I had effectively taken control over this class.  It took me a grueling five months of struggle with myself to come to this place, but I did it.  The one thing that was worrying me, however, was the principal.  Since that fateful day when he had come into my class I had not heard a word from him.

Friday afternoon of that week he called me into his office.  It was during a break before my last class.  The principal asked me to resign.  He told me that he had found my replacement, and that the incident that Monday morning convinced him I was unable to control the class. 

I was speechless.  I did not know how to respond.  I did not want to resign.  Why?!  I tried to explain feebly how I had finally gained control of the class.  It was too late though.  He asked me to tell the kids that I would be leaving after today.  That was the end of it.

Thrust into a maelstrom of confusion and anger I proceeded to return to my class.  I had about 15 minutes before the children would be arriving for their last period with me.  Not knowing exactly how to conduct the class, I hinted at my departure by talking about how all things change, and ended with a sincere prayer straight from my heart saying,  “Sometimes we feel lost and confused in this world.  It’s at these times that we can look to God and cry out, ‘God, help me.  What should I do?  Where should I go?’” 

The children knew what I was talking about.  They could not say it directly, but they knew.  Some looked at me quite seriously and understood that a big change was about to happen.  I did not need nor feel obliged to say more.  The only thought that came to mind after the prayer was to visit that teacher (Dai-En Roshi) up in Pennsylvania who was trying to start a Zen monastery.  What did I have to lose at this point?  I had no job, no girlfriend, and no children to take care of.  If I was going to study and practice Zen for real, this would be the time to do it.  I would learn what I had not learned while practicing by myself.  I would learn how to really practice and teach meditation.

What these children taught me was the importance of not trying to control anyone.  They showed me how controlling I was, they shined back to me my own anger and delusion.  They taught me, too, that I needed to learn how to control myself.  Three years of meditating mostly on my own was insufficient to work through these issues.  I needed a teacher to work with at this point, to show me how to meditate, and to show me how a teacher conducts him/herself in daily activities.  Though the way I was treated by the principal reflected his own weaknesses, what turned out to be a loss in this world enabled me to more fully study, practice and eventually teach the Dharma.  One Dharma gate had closed and another Dharma gate had opened.

Where is my mind?

In our culture there is a major split between mind and body.  Generally speaking, the body gets treated one way and the mind another.  We go to a gym to develop our body.  We go to a classroom to develop our mind.  The body is considered physical: muscle, bones, ligaments, organs.  The mind is generally located in the head, associated with thoughts, and considered superior to the body.  But these two things – mind and body – are not separate, and treating them that way has created a dislocation between our thoughts and reality.

Breath brings body and mind back together so our thoughts are more in alignment with reality.  We can learn a lot about the body and mind from Zen Buddhism.  In Buddhism, breath is referred to as the royal road connecting mind and body.  According to Zen, there is no body separate from mind, and mind is not located only in the head.  When someone from Japan says, “I’m thinking,” they point to their heart.  So where is our mind?

One perspective – the teachings of Totality as found in the Flower Ornament Sutra – states that mind is in every cell of the body.  Every cell of your body carries memory.  This is why therapy that is based only on changing thinking patterns is often not enough for trauma patients or victims of abuse and violence.  The violence to which a person is exposed is carried in the muscles in addition to his or her thoughts and consciousness.  Asanas are powerful because they can, if done with compassion, help someone learn ways to gently hold the pain they are experiencing, rather than repressing it in  a self-destructive way, or expressing it in an other-destructive way.

Filling the body with breath and then releasing the breath through asana practice is a way to touch the pain within us and to acknowledge its presence in a loving way.  It does not guarantee the ending of or releasing of that pain, though much of the pain we hold on to is not caused by the pain itself but by the very fear of having or experiencing that pain.  So in touching the pain with our awareness we greatly reduce its intensity.

In Buddhism we are admonished to practice the Dharma for the sake of the Dharma.  In other words, practice without looking for the benefits – just practice.  Asana practice is also like this.  Just do the asanas without hoping for anything at all.  At the same time, I have found it inspiring to know the great benefits that come from meditating and yoga – reducing stress and chronic pain, boosting the immune system, coping with painful life events, working with negative emotions, improving concentration, etc – and they help me to keep at it.

In Zen practice we first use the breath to regulate mind and body.  We calm the body and mind with the breath.  This is the first half of the practice.  Once calm, we can begin looking into how everything is connected to everything else.  This is the second half of the practice.  The breath is used to calm us down so that we can gain insight into Buddhist teachings on emptiness, the teaching that there is no separate self that exists apart from anything else.

Isshin Denshin – “Mind to Mind Transmission”

“You can do anything you want in your life, but you have to know the price for it and be willing to pay it.”  -Mrs. Featherston

The town eccentric, Mrs. Featherston, wore bright, flowing gypsy skirts and Converse high top shoes because of her hammer toes.  She lived just on the edge of town before the Lewisburg Bridge crosses over the Susquehanna River.  The house where she resided is now referred to as Packard House and it became a museum filled with all the clothes and artifacts she and her husband collected on their world-wide travels.  Lewisburg is a small rural town in central Pennsylvania, noted for Bucknell University and the Federal Penitentiary.  It is also the hometown of my teacher, Patricia Dai-En Bennage Roshi.

As a little girl, Patricia was taking a walk with her mother, Evelyn, in town one day when they met Mrs. Featherston on the way.  Mrs. Featherston bent over and looked deeply and earnestly into Patricia’s eyes saying, “Hello Patty,” patting her on the head with one hand, then straightening back up and walking on. 

After this brief encounter she asked her mother, “How is it that Mrs. Featherston can say one thing with her mouth and another thing with her eyes?” 

Evelyn responded, “I have no idea what you mean, Honey.

Dai-En Roshi remembers in retrospect what she thought Mrs. Featherston said with her eyes: “You can do anything you want with your life, but you have to know the price for it and be willing to pay it.”

Zen is simple, Dai-En Roshi would often say.  “The way of the world is to, ‘Fly now and pay later.’  But the way of Zen is to ‘Pay now and fly later.’  We need to be willing to pay the price for what we want to do.”

Dai-En Roshi shared this story with me when I first came to Mount Equity Zendo as a 24 yearold young man.  This was her way of talking about the need for practitioners to build resolve.  We really need to want Enlightenment, to cultivate the mind that seeks after it, knowing that anything less than this mind will hinder us on the path.  “Hotsubodaishin,” the heart/mind that seeks The Way, Enlightenment, Truth, is the cornerstone of Zen practice.  My teacher planted a seed in my mind, suggesting ordination as a Buddhist monk as a pathway.  This seemed like a scary prospect.  Could I do it?  What would my family think?  What would society think?  Is this what I really want to do?  What would I need to ‘pay’ in order to ‘fly’? 

My answer to those questions was found in the process of building resolve, a process that was, for me, six years in the making, and of daily living and practicing at Mount Equity Zendo.    What I wanted did not come easily.  Though she offered it as a road, Dai-En Roshi felt I was too young at 24 to ordain.  She had me wait in order that my resolve be deepened.  At the time, I had no idea how long I would need to wait.  There was no timeline put on it.  When I saw that my fellow Dharma sister was being ordained after one year, I got the gumption to ask my teacher if I could ordain as well.  She said, “No, I don’t want you ordaining just because someone else is ordaining.  Besides, she is much older than you and has considerable Zen practice and life experience.”

At the time, I didn’t think that I was asking because of my Dharma sister, but her ceremony certainly made me wonder when I could ordain, and initiated the conversation.  Her “no” response sent me into a tailspin for the next several weeks which initially deepened my confusion as to whether I was in the right place or not.  I decided, however, to stay put, and resolved, more deeply, to simply do the practice for the sake of the practice, without trying to become a monk, priest, or venerable person.

The years that followed allowed me to really consider what practice is and to let go of unhelpful notions about what constitutes a Buddhist priest.  Perhaps the most transformative thing I did during this time was zazen, and – at my teacher’s insistence – work as a certified nurse’s aide at the nearby nursing home.  I’d return to Mount Equity Zendo after an eight hour shift saying, “NiOsho [‘NiOsho’ means ‘female head of temple’ and is what Dai-En Roshi is referred to by her students], I’m so lucky–I can swallow!; I can dress myself and clean myself!”  While most of my work was with elderly residents, there were also three young men I tended to, only in their thirties, all of them paralyzed from accidents.  I realized the preciousness of the most simple functions, and how easy it is to overlook them when our mind is preoccupied with unhelpful notions of success.

Between zazen and work as a nurse’s aide I was able to see through the labels that society or I gave to me and to honor “the man of no rank” within myself.  Society feeds us with ideas about what it means to be prosperous.  Having a certain number of degrees, being a professional – a doctor, lawyer, chaplain, etc – can mask our vulnerability to being born human, and delay us from witnessing the True Self, the one not bound by hierarchical levels, the one that is the All.  This is not a condemnation of levels and positions, but merely a recognition of how limiting they can be when we identify with them as our self.

The six years of living in this way at Mount Equity Zendo formed a solid foundation for which I am now grateful.  For in that time I was able to let go of the idea of even wanting to be a priest.  I was able to end my grasping after something that was not me.  I was able to find satisfaction in who I am, without the need for a label or a person to affirm me.  Shortly after I came to the conclusion that I am fine just as I am, my teacher asked me if I wanted to ordain.  I had recently had my 30th birthday and she felt I had reached a level of maturity to make this decision on my own.

Having let go of my desires for becoming a monk was, paradoxically the doorway into being a Buddhist monk.  Let me say, however, that I found the thought of letting go not the same thing as the actual doing of it.  Simply knowing I needed to “let go” was not enough.  Letting go is not an intellectual process, but a fundamental change that occurs on the deepest level of mind and body.  It can be triggered gradually, suddenly, or both gradually and suddenly.  The price I paid was six years of daily introspection through zazen, Dharma study, manual labor, serving the infirm, and working hard to understand and communicate with my teacher. 

Shortly after Dai-En Roshi’s 15 years of training in Japanese Zen monasteries she returned to the United States in 1990 to teach.  A friend from Nagoya, Japan was visiting her at the time, and she decided to take her friend sightseeing around her home town.  Her tour included the Packard House in Lewisburg.   While inside the gift shop she inquired about Mrs. Featherston and was told, “Well, you know, in her old age, even though she had those hammer toes and was long widowed, she went in a wheelchair on her long dreamedof visit to, of all places, Tibet.”  Upon hearing this story, Dai-En Roshi reflected upon the message she held in Mrs. Featherston’s eyes as a young girl.  “You can do anything you want, but you have to know the price and be willing to pay it.”

The foundation for the work for me to be a Zen priest was the resolve that I built up over six years as a lay student.  I want to be a Zen priest!  I can, indeed, do anything I want!  I honor Old Mrs. Featherston, a lady whose eyes I have met.

Daishin Eric McCabe met his teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, in 1994 at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania while studying Religion and Biology.  He began his 15 year residency and mentorship with her at Mount Equity Zendo in 1998 and completed Zuise in 2009.  He is a present member of the Board of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, a member of the Association of Soto Zen Buddhists and has recently completed a one year Clinical Pastoral Education training program.  In August of 2014 he moved to Ames, Iowa with his wife, Jisho Sara Siebert.  This article is an excerpt from a book he is writing.  To learn more, visit him on the web at:  www.zenfields.org.

(This post was published in “Ancient Way” magazine which can be found at:  http://dharmalight.weebly.com/)