29 November 2010


It's the opposite of high noon in the Wild West.

There's a standoff, all right, but rather than making sure to get off the first shot, it's a matter of simply putting the gun away, and, in so doing, reducing all vanity and conceit of the self to nothing.

27 November 2010

"Full-Time Job or Avocation?"

I was asked recently whether being a priest at a Zen center was a full-time job or more of an avocation.

How could I explain that, when at the end of my ordination ceremony my preceptor said, "You have now entered the Way as an ordained Buddhist priest," it means something like
I sit, stand, walk and lie down as a priest
I breathe as a priest
I eat as a priest
I pursue my employment as a priest
I do zazen as a priest
I pursue relationships as a priest
I am a son, brother, father and uncle as a priest
I drive as a priest
I lose my temper as a priest
I get lazy as a priest
I get lost in habit energy as a priest
I have moments of insight as a priest
I am a real pain in the ass as a priest
I am confused as a priest, and
I suffer and will die as a priest?
So we talked about our day jobs, the ins-and-outs of commutes and family life, and I would say that that was just fine.

25 November 2010

Thanksgiving: Torei Zenji's Bodhisattva Vow

When I humbly observe the true nature of things, all are the marvelous manifestation of the Tathāgata's truth.  Atom by atom, instant by instant, all are none other than his mysterious radiance.  Because of this our virtuous ancestors extended loving care and reverence toward even such beings as birds and beasts.  How, then, can we be but humbly grateful for the food, drink, and clothing that nourishes and protects us throughout the day, these being in essence the warm skin and flesh of the great masters, the incarnate compassion of the Buddha?

If it is even so with inanimate objects, how much more should we be kind and merciful towards human beings, even those who are foolish.  Though they become our sworn enemies, reviling and persecuting us, we should regard them as bodhisattva manifestations who, in their great compassion, are employing skillful means to help emancipate us from the sinful karma we have produced over countless kalpas through our biased, self-centered views.

If we awaken in ourselves this deep pure faith, offering humble words and taking sincere refuge in the Buddha, then with every thought there will bloom a lotus flower, each with a Buddha.  These Buddhas will establish Pure Lands everywhere and reveal the radiance of the Tathāgata beneath our very feet.  May we extend this mind throughout the universe, so that we and all sentient beings may equally bring to fruition the seeds of wisdom.

23 November 2010

I Saw the Bodhisattva of Compassion

It's that time of year when the red-kettled bell ringers of the Salvation Army elbow out the StreetWise salesfolk in front of the local grocery stores.  

But yesterday in front of one of the local grocery stores there was another person.  She didn't work for StreetWise, and she didn't ring a bell for the Salvation Army.  She was just sitting silently against one of the pillars outside the store with a found empty Starbucks iced coffee cup in her hand, begging money.

And as I came closer from where I had parked the car I saw another woman.   That second woman went past the red-kettled bell ringer and past the StreetWise salesperson, went right up to the woman at the pillar with the cup, and bent down.  She touched the woman seated there.  She spoke with her, stroked her hair, heard her voice.  I saw the woman with the cup reach up and touch the other woman's hand.  I didn't see how it ended, because I kept walking into the store.  Maybe she put something in her cup, and maybe she didn't.  Doesn't matter that much, really.

A few nights ago I resolved not to withhold spiritual or material aid, but to give them freely where needed, and I was ashamed to realize that it would have never occurred to me to do what that woman had done. 

But it will now.

It will now.

22 November 2010

In Due Time

Now that I'm living at the center I get to see every new face that shows up at our door.  In the last couple of months we've been receiving a good number of first time visitors.

Most never come back.  Some come for a time or two after their initial visit.  Only a very, very few show the first signs of making practicing here a part of their weekly or monthly schedule and an important part of their life. 

I sometimes fret about this, but yesterday I heard from one of the newbies (now back for a second time, and this time with his wife) the best way to think about people coming here or not coming here.

This guy came to the center some 30+ years ago and hasn't been back again until now.  He remembers people maybe only one or two others still here remember.  He's lived in Evanston pretty much the whole time since, and he works only five blocks from the center.

At brunch one of the members asked him why the 30 year lapse.  He answered, "I wasn't ready."

19 November 2010

Jukai 2010

Tonight I served for the first time as preceptor at our sangha's fall Jukai.  This was my first Jukai since taking the precepts at my ordination.

Taking the precepts again tonight, I am further resolved to follow the path, no matter what it means for my life as I have lived it up until now.

Śāntideva's lines come to mind:
Today my life has borne fruit;
Having well obtained this human existence,
I've been born into the family of Buddha
And am now one of Buddha's Sons.

Thus whatever actions I do from now on
Must be in accord with the family.
Never shall I disgrace or pollute
This noble and unsullied race.
May all of us live up to the dignity of our birthright!

18 November 2010


Mountains of sweet potatoes and yams.  Stacks of bags of cranberries.  Bins full of nuts in the shell.  Endcaps laden with evaporated milk, brown sugar, and canned pumpkin (after two years of bad harvests it's back in abundance).  Piles of broccoli and green beans and more 3lb bags of onions than you can shake a stick at.  Clementines (at last! – I really like clementines).  Apples and squash, butter and eggs, chocolates and cookies.  And then the special cardboard display cases with roasting pans and pie tins and basters and pins to make it all happen, and storage containers and foil and freezer bags to make it all last. 

Yesterday I went to the grocery store, where I was awestruck to the point of tears over the vast amounts of food that lay before me.  I literally lost it in the produce section.  So much bounty, so many bellies about to be full!  And it's so very much "our food," too: how much of what we will eat in the next short while is indigenous to the Americas – all of the squashes, all of the potatoes, the corn and anything chocolate.  So many good things!  So much nourishment!  So much great taste!

So I say:
I will remember the work of those that brought all this forth.
I will strive to be worthy of such great gifts.
I will enjoy just enough so there's still plenty to share.
I will be thankful for this food and the life it makes possible.
I will eat this great food for the strength to live the Dharma.

17 November 2010

Repentance and the Three Poisons

In the translation used at our temple, the "Repentance Gatha" runs like this:
All my ancient twisted karma
Stemming from greed, anger and ignorance
Arising in body, speech and mind
I now fully repent.
It identifies the source of what is repented in the Three Poisons: greed, anger and ignorance.  I'm given to understand that there's some question about whether 'ignorance' is the best English rendering of moha.  Other candidates might be 'confusion' or 'delusion.'  In any case, it is, in the tradition, not merely an absence of knowledge but rather an active mistaking, a willful refusal to see past where I am now, a complicit unknowing.  'Greed' for dosa and 'anger' for lobha are clear enough.

I seem to find myself in the middle of a discussion that began when I questioned the view that there might be such a thing as "loving-anger" by asking if 'loving-greed' and "loving-ignorance" would be on the list as well.  I don't know whether there are or are not such things, but I do know why I'm not all that interested in finding out.

It has been my experience that every time I acted out of greed, anger and ignorance it did not go well for me or for others.  I don't mean that sometimes there weren't some real, concrete good things that came out of so acting, for sometimes there were.  I do mean that every act of mine that stemmed from greed, anger and ignorance had the certain effect of clouding and hindering Mind: when I acted from greed, anger or ignorance, I sooner or later came to see that in so doing I had moved in a direction away from the realization of prajña wisdom.   What might have looked like a bright (loving?) idea at the time proved itself to be just another turn of the wheel of saṃsāra.  I had gotten nowhere.

Taking on a human birth is rare, and the span of this life is short.   I've got my work cut out for me, for I've spent more than ample time walking down dead-end paths.  The world is filled with enough suffering, and I really, really don't want to be adding more.  I repent the time and energy wasted on anything that has kept and still keeps me from doing what needs doing, and I resolve not to continue in this way.

I'm certainly not going to try to pass off dross as gold.

16 November 2010

Back in the No Comprendo Zone

Most of the world's great ethical systems and religions were formed in an age before the internal combustion engine, electricity, nuclear power and space travel.  They addressed issues that confronted human beings who moved much more slowly, covered less turf, owned vastly less, and killed by the dozens rather than by the scores of thousands.

They also called forth action that could best benefit those close by and few in number.  It would have never entered the mind of Moses, Buddha, the Christ, or the Prophet (Peace be upon him) to envision right action at a distance of thousands of kilometers.

Yesterday I received an email from a student group asking me to be on a committee to decide whether to fund
a) MAVCODEG/Mandaka Primary School- finishing building the school in Tanzania that is currently just cement walls
b) Lahasha International- Helping to build community homes and a garden for HIV-positive women in Tanzania
c) Vision for Kenya- providing a needed well for a hospital and community in the western district of Kenya, or
d) Roots of Peace- providing cacao seedlings and fertilizer to farmers to farm land previously destroyed by land mines in Vietnam.
I won't be sitting on the committee.  I can't even begin to think of what would stand as selection criteria.  I've never been to Tanzania or Kenya or Vietnam.  I often wonder what happens after the initial flush of funds is gone.  Is this a kind of popularity contest?

More importantly, I'm finding it hard to get past the idea that it's ok to walk right past someone in need on your way to help someone else in need.  Tanzania sounds a lot nicer of a place to help out than Toledo, OH; Kenya has an air of the exotic to it while Kansas (most will agree) does not.

And even Toledo and Kansas are a hike from where I sit.  So how about 139th St. or Kedzie Ave.?

This isn't an "America first" issue, either.  It's more of a "How can I love the brother or sister I don't see while not loving the brother or sister I do see?" issue.

I feel like a heel for even suggesting that the efforts of the student group that invited me are misguided, but I'm not trying to be mean or contrary.

I just don't understand.

15 November 2010


The gardening year is winding down, and I'm doing everything I can to get the beds taken care of before the real cold comes in.

The past months have been spent eyeing what comes up when, where the sunlight falls at the summer solstice and at the equinoxes, where it's dry and where it's wet.  The last month and a half has been spent digging up more rogue short bamboo than I ever thought imaginable, lifting the irises from their too dry, too sunny locations to more favorable terrain, cleaning up some forgotten corners of the front and side beds, and now I'm getting a lot of new bulbs in.  I split up the bleeding heart into about 6 new clumps.  I expanded the small bed in front of the back door, and I edged the bed where the short bamboo had been.  A sangha member contributed some tall ornamental grasses, and they went in yesterday.  Today I hope to get the last of the bulbs and relocated irises in.  If I have any luck at all, the leaves from our birch and the neighbor's sycamore will have fallen so I can have them all cleaned up before the first snow. 

I know my gardening violates the noble code of the Vinaya.  Before all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and before the Mahasangha I therefore openly confess my transgressions, and with hands pressed palm-to-palm I repent of the karma that makes me so inordinately fond of digging in the soil and working with plants.

13 November 2010

Two Options

Seems I'm always facing a choice: either take what I know and talk about it, or take what I know and become it. 

I can blab about peace.  Or I can be peace.
I can blab about truth.  Or I can be truth.
I can blab about Buddha.  Or I can be Buddha.
I can blab about justice.  Or I can be justice.
I can blab about responsibility.  Or I can be responsibility.
I can blab about insight.  Or I can be insight.

And yes, I can't shake the idea that the two options stand in inverse proportion to one another, are mutually incompatible, are at odds with one another.  Time spent on one is not time spent on the other.  Attention spent on one is not attention spent on the other.

I'm getting close to undoing my whole professional life!  I never did metaphysics.  I gave up epistemology.  I'm close to being done with ethics and political theory, too. 

Whatever will become of me?

12 November 2010

The Bodhisattva Koan

There is hurt all around me.

• I have a sister who is having a very hard time accepting that her marriage has fallen apart largely because of her actions.
• I have a Dharma brother who has everything going for him yet has something within him that keeps him feeling inadequate and under-accomplished.
• I have a colleague who, after a routine health screening, was diagnosed with liver cancer and has been given four months to live.
• I have a friend who is a gifted, conscientious teacher, yet receives scant support to do his best in an overcrowded classroom with a higher than average number of behavior-disordered students and students with learning disabilities, and it is draining him.

It is no cop-out to say that I cannot fix them or their situations.  Nothing in my experience tells me I'm any kind of messiah, and I'm old enough to know something of how the world works.   So if I say, with Śāntideva,
May I be protector for those without one,
A guide for all travelers on the way;
May I be a bridge, a boat and a ship
For all who wish to cross (the water).

May I be an island for those who seek one
And a lamp for those desiring light,
May I be a bed for all who wish to rest
And a slave for all who want a slave.

May I be a wishing jewel, a magic vase,
Powerful mantras and great medicine,
May I become a wish-fulfilling tree
And a cow of plenty for the world
what am I saying, really, when the rubber hits the road?

And if deep down I also know that no one can be helped as long as there arises a thought of the helped, the helping and the helper, and that true giving, following Bodhidharma, is done "without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment," then...


10 November 2010


Growing up, I was encouraged to be grateful for the many good things I was able to enjoy.  It was sound enough advice.

But I found that the times I most felt gratitude welling up within me were not the times of plenty but the times of scarcity.  That I actually had just enough money to put just enough gas in the car to get to work and back brought tears to my eyes.  That I had just enough food in the cupboard to make it the few days until payday made the food taste like a feast for kings.  At those times, I began to know deep in the bones that my life has never been entirely up to me.  At those times, I knew I was this close to not having enough money, to not having enough food.  What utter fortune! What riches!  What wealth!

I am a conjunction of circumstances, all of which are pretty much beyond my control.  If on balance the gains currently outweigh the losses (I'm still drawing breath, after all), it is nothing for me to be proud of.  And when the day comes (as it must) when losses outweigh the gains, I know that I will have no reason to fight it or complain.  In fact, gain and loss, boon and bane, really lose their poignancy at this point, don't they?

So I say: gratitude isn't a matter of ticking off all the good things one has and saying, "Thanks."  Rather, gratitude is a matter of welcoming all circumstances with an open heartmind.  It is reflected in passing on one's excess to those who need it, and it is manifested in gracefully allowing the things that are going away to go away.

07 November 2010

Precept VI

I find I'm beginning to understand the refusal of the Amish to press a case in court and the general reluctance to appeal to governmental structures among some Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers and the like.  In some ways it's an embodiment of what we Mahāyānists resolve to do when we take the Sixth Precept, Not Speaking of the Faults of Others.

It's one thing directly to address someone with whom we have an issue.  It's another to appeal to a third party.  Would we hear as much of Hakuin if instead of replying with "Is that so?" to the charge of fathering the village maid's baby he had filed a counterpaternity suit and submitted to DNA testing?  The truth will out, so what's the rush?  And if the other side doesn't see it now, and even if it puts us out in the process, what's the harm in the end?

How much less would I speak if I set myself to doing a better job of observing this precept?  How much better off would I and the rest of the world be!

03 November 2010

The Bodhisattva Who Hears the Cries of the World...

...hears them one at a time and up really, really close.

I keep looking through the sutras to see if there's a Buddhist equivalent to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  What I have always found striking about that parable is not that it's a slam against the priests and scribes but that it was given in response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?" 

My neighbor is the first person I encounter in need of my assistance.  And my assistance to that neighbor, meeting his or her real live-time needs, is what is most required.

The Samaritan does not begin a letter writing campaign for safer highways and byways.  The Samaritan does not endow a foundation, build a hostel, or establish a clinic for the care of the many victims of the road.  The Samaritan certainly does not pass by the hapless stranger on his way to the ("more important") charitable work of his own picking and choosing.

Chancing upon the victim of the robbers was probably not in the Samaritan's plans for the day, but that didn't matter.  There was the situation, and there was only one thing to do.  To hell with the plans.

Getting caught up in the victim's blood and dirt was probably not high on the Samaritan's priority list that day, but that didn't matter, either.  To hell with the priority list.

I found myself tearing up today over the story of Mychal Judge, the RC priest who died giving aid to the victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  What got me was not the 9/11 part of the story but the pre-9/11 part of the story.  He was in the South Tower because he had always been where there was a need: among the homeless, among the forgotten, among the outcasts.  9/11 was just another day of more of the same.

He was victim 0001, the first listed among the dead.  There's nowhere more Ground 0 than to be the first among the dead.

I became all too aware of the many ways I hold back, all the excuses I make, all the plans and priority lists I create that keep me from jumping right in.

I wish I could describe this ache I sometimes feel, this dull ache of realizing just how far I am from what I know deep down is where I most need to be.  I feel it in the gut.  I feel it in my arms and legs and head.  I feel it one with the breath at the nostrils.