Teacher's Reflection (Archived)

In a Dream...

There's an old Zen story about the teacher walking in an early summer garden with a student. He eventually points to the newly blooming peonies and says "people, these days, see these flowers as if in a dream." At home, our peonies are blooming. I always park so I can stand next to them in awe for a moment each day. If you look closely at the photo here, you can also see that the blackberries have gone wild.

What we see has to do with our level of wakefulness. Do we see the blackberries and the work yet to do or the amazingly stellar blossoms?

A new acquaintance asked what I'd learned from all my years of Zen. I answered, "how selfish I am." It just tumbled out without thinking. How can we sit so many hours and not know everything about ourselves? Eventually, we become quite accepting.

Today I yelled at a man on the beach who kept insisting on walking right up to a stranded newborn seal pup. The mother seal was twenty feet away waiting till all the spectators left to come inland. I thought how selfish this man was - he wanted a nice photo. I was being selfish too - I'm also the pup, the mother and the man.

There's nothing wrong with selfishness. In a way, it's what brings us to practice. We want to heal ourselves, be free from suffering, maybe save the world. After years of practice, it's possible to see just how wonderfully selfish this is and that all along the 'self,' the separateness, was an illusion. Maezumi Roshi always said 'appreciate your life.' Enjoy the peonies -

It's a good dream.

You are a revolutionary!

A dear friend once came to an evening meditation and called it "a sleeper cell of contemplatives." I laughed at her statement but she said "no, no - it's truly like the opposite of a terror cell. You are a group silently dedicated to ending fear and suffering." I've thought about that.

Last week Time Magazine's Cover called to the world's attention, not the current hot conflict, not hostilities across the globe but a woman quietly in meditation and the headline noted that there's a Mindfulness Revolution afoot. It spoke of how Americans are discovering these age-old practices that are quietly changing the world from the inside out.

We just had our annual Sangha dinner and as I looked around at everyone - I saw our contemplative companions telling their personal stories and finding such joy in each other, it reminded me of how the Buddha must have felt. Why is it he got back on the path after realizing profound enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree? It's so easy to sit alone under a tree...there's a particular reason he returned to the world. I love to remind everyone that the word 'Buddha' was really just the nickname his friends gave him - seeing him again on the road and that so clearly his life had been transformed, they called him "the awakened one."

Looking around last night, I saw 30 something Buddhas! Somehow we see this Buddha, this awakening, in each other's faces so so clearly. It's how and why we celebrate Sangha.

One of us is working on a little song and dance called "Hey Buddha, Hey Buddha" and involves doing a little joyful bow to everyone you encounter. Imagine a life based on that dance - bowing to whatever appears before you as Buddha, the potential to wake up to our lives - without the often obnoxious overlay of running commentary. This Sangha, this life, is a quiet contemplative revolution that's starting to make headlines. You are the Buddha, the revolutionary, the comrade many of us had hoped for.


It was in the middle of a Zen retreat that my teacher, Habito Roshi, used the word 'companion' in his afternoon Dharma talk. He explained that pan was translated as bread and com meant to share. At this moment it was as if I awoke form a dream. There was something about how he kept saying these words - about our companions in the way....that we are the bread that is shared. It was as if I finally understood what communion (I was raised Episcopalian) had been alluding to.

The rest of that week it felt like walking on water. There was no separateness of me and the other meditators. The trees and animals and the wind and rain all were my true nature. Something about this sense of breaking bread, broke me open.

When I was very young, my mom and I would watch old movies almost every weekend. It was her way of transmitting the 'culture' of the 40s and 50s to me. My fondest memories are of the movies about the French underground, how close-knit, caring and dedicated these small bands of comrades were.

I gave a talk two years ago about the seven fundamentals of how to keep the practice alive in your life and this new year whittled it down to two things: having a teacher and a Sangha. Really though, if you simply go find your Sangha, your spiritual home. It all evolves from there.

These last few weeks the Sangha has been reflecting on what it takes to maintain a real steady Zen practice. I like that some of us don't even call it 'Zen.'

Have a Cup of Tea:

The invitation, of course, is to truly taste the tea....to stop time. It takes practice.

This year, I've asked formal students (those seeing me in Dokusan regularly) to take up tea practice within their daily life. If you wish to be included in this, just ask. It involves a simple little thermos and the art of drinking tea. When practiced there is a great mystical ability to call upon the Sangha with one sip of tea. It takes practice. It's communion.

There was a certain Zen teacher that when a student came to call - he'd say "have a cup of tea!" It didn't really matter if a deeply enlightened person appeared or a newbie....his response was always the same.

Each week we have tea. Each week different folks jump up to serve. At SZC we have no one formally assigned to serve the tea. It's just dependent on someone standing up. I totally love this. It's rather lively. Serving tea can be rather humbling. There's no instruction on how to do it. We each learn by taking a risk and working cooperatively.

Each Sangha has its own way of tea. Marcel Roshi, with whom many of us sit, does Chado - formal traditional tea ceremony. However it's done, it's about letting go of the storyline and tasting the tea. It's a gesture of aliveness and gratitude.


Every new year we spend a few weeks on bowing practice. We do this to practice humility, to lose ourselves in a gesture and to be deeply thankful that we are not trying to do this practice (of simply waking up) alone. My favorite question is 'who are we bowing to?' Usually a Zen student bows at the door (to the Buddha), then at their seat (to the Dharma - the things that are helping us wake up) and then turns and bows across facing the Sangha. But at SZC there is no Buddha on an altar. This has truly confounded a few Buddhists who sit with us. Why? Why, they ask don't we have a Buddha?

Well, of course, we have a hall full of Buddhas.

And for those that really want to know....we do tend to make an altar during formal retreats. Our lack of a formal altar usually has to do with the amount of time and effort it takes the two folks appearing an hour before the Sangha to totally transform the empty space and manifest a Zendo.

But I've loved the conundrum (aka koan).

We do sit under this very lovely painting of a forest. It was done by one of our early UU meditators. The title is 'Seven Generations.' It's a lovely altar. Imagine bowing to the seven generations awareness...that we practice for past, present, future and then some. I've loved that the Buddha studied with many teachers, was acknowledged by quite a few but was not satisfied at all. He simply, at a certain point, sat down.

He knew intuitively, that he had to be intimate with himself...that this was the path home....that this was the temple all along. He sat and he sat and he sat. He took nourishment and was kind to himself. And over time he saw through all the illusions that had run his life - his past karma.

This, if anything, is what we bow to.

What Kind of Bodhisattva Are You?

One of the fundamental illusions in Zen is that we are sitting still in order to get really quiet. Our sitting does tend to get quieter just as a byproduct but it's really not the point. In the beginning (while counting the breath) it's about developing the ability to notice we've wandered off, let go of where we've wandered to and return again and again to the breath.

Now in Zen, we realize that we are Kuan Yin. It's not that there is a goddess somewhere. When she's on our altar, she is there to remind us of who we are.

For me, the dragon is about entering the fray - our crazy lives. Kuan Yin is cavorting freely with all the drama. She does not represent the world leaver, as the Buddha does. She's there helping everyone. I love traveling in Asia and seeing her in people's homes. Some folks just talk to her - 'Oh my god, today was awful Kuan Yin help me!'

This is the opposite of an 'I, me, mine' kind of life....a consumerist driven culture....a life only about getting what we want.

What would it be to simply be a Bodhi - Sattva? In the Flower Garland Sutra you can see that there are an infinite number of Bodhi beings. The sutra's name is like a Hawaiian lei. The implication is that each flower opens in its own unique way and that together their fragrance surrounds us, informs us and brings delight.

Often we want to use an overlay to define our lives. And this gets applied to spiritual practice too. It's human to define ranks and stages to segregate everyone into categories. Now, of course, in some ways and at certain times this is very helpful. Daido Roshi used to have all of us stand in the Zendo for sutra service in accord with our current insight. If you were able to let go of getting tripped up with this, it was fine....if it bothered you, it was hell. I used to laugh (silently) as the chant leader would re-arrange us. It was good training - is it possible to simply adjust, hear our stories arise, abide and pass away - with complete freedom?

Here at SZC, we enjoy the mystery. There are quite a number of students who've practiced for 30-40 years. There are several totally new folks who've seen deeply as well. And of course, there are many of us simply struggling in the trenches of our lives. Here, you only know who's standing up to serve tea, who's ringing the bell, setting up the zendo.

We have simple categories: formal & informal students for those working with the teacher and everyone takes care of the hall from the first night they arrive...we wash our bowls and sweep up after together.

The Tibetans have these wonderful categories of practice. It's something like 200 lifetimes to simply notice how cause and effect function and another 200 to find a place of serious practice - to sit down in community and study. Then there's an eon or so of spiritual development.

According to one Mahayana text there are just three particular types of Bodhisattvas:

The King - who seeks to get clear him/herself and then take care of others.

The Ferryman/woman - who piles everyone into the same boat and gets to the other shore en masse.

The Shepard - the one following behind, making sure everyone else goes first.

There is much humor about which one of these is the more advanced.

Whichever way we decide to define ourselves, the key is whether or not it creates suffering. Are we free from attachment in how others see and define us? Are we able to be the advanced adept and the newbie, the wise one or the fool? I loved that as we went around and chimed in after the talk that folks felt free to say "I don't know if I even am a Bodhisattva." Not knowing is of course very honest and intimate. Our deepest realizations often come from this willingness to not know or define things.

Be aware of how you answer this question of who you are/ what you do. Is it a koan? Is it something that offers a wakeful conversation instead of one between two people asleep in a dream?

Fundamentally this practice is about noticing the hilarious storylines and ways we define and trap ourselves into suffering rather than freedom. Formal students here are encouraged to ask "am I suffering?" And then to truly see why. The answer often has to do with clinging to a definition of self....including being a Bodhisattva.

Kvetching and Cavorting

(amidst a Salem windstorm)

We come from the lineage of the Maria Kannon Zen Center, so it's important to be familiar with the Bodhisattva of compassion - Kuan Yin. She is often represented as cavorting with dragons. She's kind of like a Zen superhero. No one ever really talks about what exactly the dragon represents.

It's always been a conundrum, how to answer this question in a truly alive way - one that can open up the conversation. Last night, I asked what would it be like if we said: "I'm a Bodhisattva!" It comes from the word for Bodhi, enlightenment and Sattva means 'being.' So what would it be like if that was our life....waking up and creating a world where everyone is being more compassionate, awake and aware?

This week, our practice focus was on the concept of being a Bodhisattva. It's got to do with practicing not just for ourselves - but on behalf of all beings...We wondered at the question we all get asked, perhaps most often in our lives: So what do you do? Someone wants to know who we are, and in our culture, we are most often defined by what we do. Now, this is rather funny for a contemplative - who practices 'not doing' some of the time.

Zen students often get very frustrated with their own minds. We want to find the 'off'' button. We want to stop kvetching when it's time to meditate and be sublime like Kuan Yin sitting on top of her subdued dragon. In the beginning, it's like herding cats for about 30 minutes, then you get up and walk and try it again.

Over time we become both more efficient and more accepting. We realize what we are in the Zendo for. We take sustenance from the Sangha. Eventually, we notice the kvetching as an empty phenomenon, like a cloud. If we work with a teacher, we learn the times to let go of these storylines and the times it's necessary to embrace them, enter them fully and let them wear themselves out.

Eventually, perhaps years of practice together, we notice that the kvetching is the cavorting....it is empty and marvelous - it arises abides and passes away. Sometimes it's trying to tell us something, sometimes not. But we develop the freedom to let it go and to see there was no one there underneath all our worries and concerns. Of course, this usually takes a good bit of zazen. We have to get our 10,000 hours in.

Kuan Yin subdues the dragon because of her familiarity with it. This familiarity comes from the sitting practice. We really get to know our own windstorms. We and the fray are no longer separate. We become at ease within the windstorms. We act compassionately because, after years of sitting and seeing the nature of our own mind, we know that everyone has this same challenge.

Kuan Yin also seems to have a particular joy in her cavorting. Being enlightened does not mean we stop kvetching on the way to the Zendo....'Oh God, I really don't want to go sit tonight...I've got all this stuff to do.' We just learn to laugh a little at the dragon, the fray, to kvetch and cavort. When blown by the wind, when the dragon is howling - be that wind through and through.

Then, bowing at the Zendo door, a superhero appears.

No thing

No one

Absolutely ordinary

Absolutely extraordinary

And yet,

and yet....

A Good Thing

When Gilda Radner knew she was dying, she said "it's always something."

There's a lovely old Zen koan - one line of which reads:

'A good thing is not as good as no thing.' In Zen this is a pivotal point.

Our American Sangha is aging. We are experiencing, perhaps what Gilda meant by it's always something. We face sickness and death. Many of us are drawn to practice because of this.

At the end of every evening we chant the Heart Sutra which is asking that we realize emptiness.

It's asking can we realize that a good thing (i.e. our success, our wealth, our health) is not as good as no thing (i.e. realizing these are impermanent things which will arise, abide and pass away).

There is a freedom (that many of us seek) which is beyond circumstance.

It's emptiness.

Returning Home

We've started to have distance students. I've been one for 29 years...Many of you may know 99% of my formal Zen study was done coming and going to Zen Mountain Monastery and Maria Kannon Zen Center. Recently a friend shared that she had figured out her Zen studies had cost between $250-300,000 to date. It was astounding.

It's interesting what happens when we find our spiritual home. We know it. We honor it. We support it.

SZC and the UU Compassionate Mind are both set up essentially free. Donors help cover costs. After a lifetime of doing fundraising and development work for Zen Centers across America - it's interesting to me that this is our model. I wanted to see just how simply the Sangha could find a home.

We focus on a Wednesday program that runs from 4:30-10:30 p.m. to essentially provide a weekly zazenkai. These are the heart of our practice. It's midweek so you can have a life. So much of my Zen training was an either/or situation. I love that you can go hiking, attend to family, enjoy a hobby and still do this with integrity. And of course, some folks spend their weekends at Zen Monasteries too.

Wherever you are, what this practice is about is truly coming home.

Arriving thus, Departing thus.

In Zen arriving thus actually means entering the gateless gate, realizing emptiness and the freedom of your birthright....

to be truly at home - no matter what.

Departing thus has to do with letting this (insight) go.

Imagine a temple consisting of only a gate with this inscription:

Arriving thus

Departing thus...

Going Alone

There was a student who went every week to see his teacher. The student had asked many times why this practice was so hard, why it takes a long time and his teacher always answered him 'oak tree in the garden.' This of course only made matters worse for the student. He'd walk out of these meetings really confused....wondering why he was not given an explanation.

After 20 or so years of study, the student opened the door into his teacher's hut and simply found a giant oak tree.

Really, I should stop there. It's a lovely story. But I'd add that it's not the teacher who became the oak tree, nor that he was the tree all along. It's better said that it was the student who was that tree. Imagine realizing we are this well-planted sturdy Oak.

But be careful not to get stuck there....

At the International Lay Buddhist Forum last year I shared this story and invited us all to meditate together. We had spent several days exchanging ideas in academic Buddhist study. Yet, finally, for a little while, we yearned to return to silence. So with a bell, we each sat and truly appreciated our own unique lineages - the spiritual taproot from which we had sprung.

We released into the tradition we came from - that huge deeply rooted tree, it's trunk and branches. We appreciated the many beautiful leaves that change with the seasons, drop in winter and grow new shoots each spring. After grounding ourselves and hopefully even forgetting ourselves, we noticed the empty nature of our own traditions (that they arise, abide and pass away). Finally, we shifted into truly being all the trees in the forest of practice...some bearing fruit, .......others bearing nuts and knowing that their true nature is the same - well rooted yet not separate, each totally interdependent within the forest of life. We sat letting go of the 'I, me, mine' mentality that can attach itself to our spirituality. We were just the forest.

Finally, after this momentary vacation, we returned to the conference. All along, each participant, the tree and not ...and both and neither. And yet all our discussion could never fully express it. Isn't it wonderful?

A Fine Meal

There is a particular french bistro that my husband and I go to when we are on vacation. We try to go at the most unpopular time possible. Then, the chef does all the service roles himself. He greets everyone at the door, helps them find a table (I like the one by the fire), takes your order and then of course - cooks the meal. It is very intimate. He is a young chef and totally dedicated to his craft. I often wonder if 20 or 30 years from now we'll find him here still happy to serve, in any role at any time. In the Blue Cliff Record, there is an old story about Zen Master Kingyu who before every meal took up the bucket of rice and did a dance in the dining hall calling all the monks saying "come Bodhisattvas, come and take your meal!"

Every new year, I give a series of talks about what it takes to do long term Zen practice. In the beginning, I used to share a list of things like reading authors who inspire you, attending retreats, learning the various service positions within the Sangha (timekeeper, greeter, chant leader) or studying the Buddhist precepts. Now after a few years, it seems to have boiled down to one thing - Sangha.

If you are called to really investigate this path, then find your spiritual home. Sangha is the community, it is not only the ingredients for a

fine meal but the meal itself. It is what nourishes. Once we join, we naturally begin to serve....just like my favorite chef. We find ourselves there at the door welcoming newcomers, helping them find a seat, making sure the teacups and cookies are set out. We lose ourselves in the dance. We give ourselves away....eventually we become that meal, that one who naturally nourishes.

***this blog is posted in draft form. Please enjoy. Our proofreader will be along in a day or so and fix any humorous misspellings. I'm writing this to give a little flavor of what SZC/UU Compassionate Mind Sangha is about. Obviously the best way to know is by being on the cushion, in the Dokusan room and helping sweep up after the Sangha gatherings. I've truly learned more washing the dishes than most Dharma talks....and that's a good thing.