Think not thinking

September 14, 2011

Gotta love this.

(via The Worst Horse)


Poo poo zen

August 7, 2011

My daughter (nearly 5) just informed me that “poo poo zen” is “when you poop while doing zazen.” Kids love potty humor.

(And, yes, I laughed. Suzuki Roshi probably would have too, right?)


Anxiety: the second rhythm of the heart

July 26, 2011

I really liked this description of anxiety:

To understand the predicament of anxiety, we need only sit down quietly, draw our attention inward, and watch our thoughts as they tumble by. Our fears and concerns need not consume vast proportions, but beneath the melody of constantly changing thoughts, punctuating them like the thumping of the bass in a jazz quintet is the persistent throb of worry and care, the second rhythm of the heart.

– Bhikku Bodhi
(via the “Anxiety” podcast episode from Against the Stream by Matthew Brensilver (mp3))

Anxiety, the worry over a future that will likely never come to be, fills in every empty space in our mind. It elbows silence out of the way and slowly chews away at us, causing that darn discontentment/suffering/desire.


Have a seat

July 21, 2011

Last week, I read this great post over on John’s blog about a black female Buddhist’s (grumpyzen) search for diversity at local sanghas. It’s a wonderful post, you should read it, and yes, most sanghas are pretty homogeneous. I think that will continue to change with time.

In any event, it inspired me to shake the dust off around here and write a post of my own about my experiences with different sanghas. Not necessarily from a diversity perspective, but just from a “searching” perspective.

I don’t have a local sangha. Despite living in one of the continually fastest growing counties in the country, there are no zen groups less than 45 minutes or an hour away. There is a Thai temple only a few minutes from where I work, but it kind of intimidates me.

So, while the zazen part of my practice is limited to my house, when I travel, I like to seek out nearby sanghas to sit with. Here are a few that I’ve visited over the past few years:

Jizo-An/Pine Wind Zen Community, Medford, NJ

This one is in the town that I grew up in, so when I visited family there a few years ago, I stopped in for a visit. I wrote about it afterward:

While most of the ten people there sat facing the center of the room, one woman faced the wall for two of the three sessions in a more traditional Soto style. I decided to face the center of the room even though it’s not how I usually sit. It didn’t bother me in the least. While I didn’t really talk with anyone other than Ninshin, who was the one I spoke with over e-mail before attending, everyone was seemed very friendly. I didn’t feel that awkwardness I remember feeling when visiting friends’ churches (or—ack—youth groups) as a kid.

I haven’t been back to this unique, unaffiliated zen center, but I plan to stop by there again soon.

Zen Center on Main, Northampton, MA

This center is affiliated with the Village Zendo in NY.

On my visit here, I had trouble finding the entrance to the building and just barely made it upstairs before the first bell. It kind of sucks walking in for zazen, winded and stressed, but the nice folks there quickly put me at ease. They were happy I stopped in on my vacation to sit with them and the gentleman who led the session commented about how impressed he was that someone could carry on a practice on their own without the support of a sangha. That surprised me.

I remember that session of zazen quite well because next door, someone was playing the guitar loudly and singing very badly.

This was also the first time I took a few minutes to sit with a teacher and talk about challenges in my practice.

A very nice group of folks. As a result, I’d really like to sit at the Village Zendo in NYC sometime in the future.

Zen Center of Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV

A zen center in Las Vegas of all places! It’s a nice spot in a residential neighborhood. They were still building their new center (which looks to be complete), so we sat in the living room of the residence.

I didn’t quite know what to expect coming here, as they’re part of the Korean Chogye order (Zen Master Seung Sahn). From what I can tell, it’s very similar to Soto zen, though the emphasis is very much on what Master Seung Sahn called “don’t know mind.” Conceptually, it seems pretty close to “beginner’s mind.”

Again, everyone here was very nice. I even got one very odd compliment from the gentleman leading the session. “You sit very well!”, he told me, apparently impressed that I didn’t fidget for the two 20-minute periods. I did get gently prodded, though, to walk faster during kinhin. Kinhin at Pine Wind moved almost literally at a snail’s pace, whereas here it was just short of a light jog!

There was more chanting here than at the other two spots, which was OK. I, personally, don’t chant in my own practice, but I can see some benefit in it.

I took a few minutes to sit and speak with a teacher. It was kind of an uncomfortable give-and-take, actually, as it felt very student-teacher-ish, rather than the more casual conversation I had in Northampton. At one point, he even struck me with a stick on my thigh! But, these discussions aren’t always supposed to be comfortable.

I left, pondering a simple question from the teacher that I couldn’t provide a satisfactory answer to: “Where do you go when you die?”

The next day while I was still in Vegas, my dog passed away.


Daddy Buddhist

February 22, 2011

My 4-year-old daughter told me tonight, after looking at a picture of Shunryu Suzuki, “You’re not a real Buddhist [like him], you’re just a Daddy Buddhist.”

Being a Daddy Buddhist is good enough for me.


Turning clear and transparent

November 4, 2010

From Daily Zen, something from one of my favorite poets:

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.

– Ryokan Taigu (1758-1831)

As we work our way through life’s trials, carefully taking note of its twists and turns, our minds quiet and the nature of things becomes more clear.



August 11, 2010

June was a strange month.

It was partially strange because my wife and I spent almost a full month apart (I spent a week in Vegas and she spent three weeks overseas with family right after I got back) for the first time since we spent summers in college at our respective homes. But it was also strange and difficult because our dog unexpectedly died while I was in Vegas.

She’d been sick for a while and had been really worn down from the medications she was on as part of her treatment, but we thought she was on the upswing. We were doing physical therapy with her, reducing her dosages, etc., but one day in June, that was it. She was gone. It crushed all of us to lose a member of the family like that.

Since this blog is where I (occasionally) write about zen/Buddhist-y stuff, I thought I’d take a few minutes to write about death from that perspective. This is the first major loss that I’ve dealt with since I started my practice a couple of years ago. And I really didn’t know what to expect.

Shortly after getting the news from my wife over the phone, I got back to my hotel room and didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I couldn’t go out and be in public. I really needed to be alone. I decided I was going to try and sit, feeling whatever came and letting it be. I lasted less than three minutes propped up on a couple of pillows on the floor. I just couldn’t take it.

For the rest of the day, I made a conscious decision to just stay in and be with my grief. There were moments that I felt momentarily OK, but for the most part, there were waves of sadness hitting throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. I didn’t fight them, try to think my way through them, or suppress them. Would I have had I not been practicing zen for the last few years? Maybe, maybe not.

Where the real difference came was in the days and weeks that followed. The Old Me would have spent a lot of time groaning, “Why? Why did this happen?” Instead, after the initial bout of that and the anger that came with it, I found myself feeling melancholy and contemplative. The waves of sadness would hit, but they’d be short-lived and manageable. It’s not that I was mourning less or that I was somehow feeling less pain, but that I was more equipped to deal with it moment-by-moment. It’s a hard phenomenon to explain, but it was there. I didn’t try to comfort myself with thoughts of “she’s in a better place now” or anything like that… if that comforts you, no problem, but I think I’m at the point where I don’t need those thoughts to help me through my grief.

From the point of view of attachment, I made it a point to not hold too tightly to the sadness but also not to grasp for relief from the pain. It really does make everything much more manageable and real to take it a moment at a time, without judgment. And there is a lot of judgment that happens with the death of a loved one. There’s the inevitable guilt that you should have done something differently or that you should have treated them better before it was too late. There’s the anger at the mistakes others made that contributed to the end result. There’s more guilt that comes with the feeling of relief. That last one’s kind of a doozy, actually. When our dog was going through her treatment, we had to take her outside 8-12 times a day. It was exhausting, but it was what we did for her because she needed it. So, sure, there was a relief at not having to constantly worry about her anymore — I was doing a lot of worrying — but the guilt hits for feeling that relief. It’s OK, though. It’s OK to feel relief because you know you’d gladly do it for weeks or months or years more to get to spend more time with them. It’s like a realization that hit me a few months ago: you can be happy and still feel worry and concern. You do have to give yourself a break and let yourself feel happiness/relief.

That last paragraph was a mess. But hopefully it makes some sort of sense.

There were a few things that really came in handy during June. I thought I’d share them here on the off-chance they might be useful to someone else going through the same thing:

  • Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. I’d never read anything of Pema Chodron’s before — I had this impression that because she practiced in a Tibetan lineage that her writings would be dealing with mysticism, reincarnation, etc. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. When Things Fall Apart is one of the most important books I’ve ever read and is absolutely essential for anyone looking for ways to work through difficult times and learn from them. As an example of something from this book that helped me out more than I would have imagined: tonglen. The basic idea: breathe in the pain of everyone that’s suffering the way you are and then breathe out compassion and healing for everyone. I know, I know… total touchy-feely stuff. But what’s key for me is that moment of breathing in. It’s so easy when you’re caught up in grief to feel like you’re the only one who’s ever felt this pain. That moment of breathing in helps act as a reminder that we’re all connected, we all suffer, and often we’re suffering for the same reasons. We’re not alone.
  • Gil Fronsdal’s dharma talk on grief (mp3). Absolutely wonderful. Gil discussed a quote he remembered from a teacher along the lines of, “The first person you meet after finishing your grieving is the recipient of a great compassion.” The idea being that grief, when you take the time to really feel it and examine it, can lead to increased compassion for others in your day-to-day life (not just when you see someone else suffering).
  • Roshi Joan Halifax’s dharma talk on grief and Buddhism. Roshi shows an amazing tenderness and debunks myths about the grieving process (there are no “stages” – we waver back and forth and move in between) while talking to a group of caregivers that deal every day with death.