Slackin’ Off in the Summertime: Cycles of Spiritual Practice

I've come to trust the cycles of practice.I know that sometimes I'll be on fire for the Dharma - acutely aware of the impermanence of life and willing to devote time and energy to meditation and study.I also know that, at other times, I'll be caught up in enjoying my life and... well... practice? What's that again?I am a Zen priest, and when I run into members of my Zen community "out in the world," such as in the grocery store, in a restaurant, or on the street, people often feel … [Read more...]

Don’t Think You Understand

Don’t think you understand It. On the other hand, don’t think you don’t understand It.It? What is It, a pronoun capitalized this way? What is It, pronounced with the kind of emphasis that communicates great significance?Alternatively It is called the Great Matter, the Divine, Prajna Paramita, Enlightenment, Emptiness, Suchness. These are ways we refer to different aspects of It.When I write these words, what do you think to yourself?You probably think to yourself EITHER that you d … [Read more...]

Enlightenment Is Real

In Buddhism we have a very useful but tricky concept called, alternatively, Enlightenment, Nirvana, Liberation or Awakening (in addition to countless other terms and phrases, like seeing your own Buddha-nature). As a practitioner or investigator of Buddhism, you probably find the concept of Enlightenment enticing, confusing, troubling or irrelevant - or some combination of those. You may believe Enlightenment is real and possible, and you work diligently at your spiritual practice inspired by … [Read more...]

From Delusion to Illusion: The Freedom of Disbelief

I used to believe that life was pointless. Sure, there were enjoyable moments in life, but the hard work life required didn’t seem worth it when I saw all the cruelty and greed at work in the world, or when I contemplated the inevitability of old age, disease, loss and death. This bleak view of the world pervaded all of my activities. It drove me to a despair that, at times, led to suicidal ideation.All of us hold countless views that we believe are more or less true. They are views about t … [Read more...]

What Is Meant By Zen “Practice”?

If you have spent any time in a Zen community, or reading Zen books, you will have encountered the term “practice” countless times. Zen ancestors and teachers exhort us to practice diligently. Fellow practitioners talk to one another about their practice: “I have been practicing 20 years,” or “I just started practice,” or “Lately my practice has been focussed on an acceptance of change.” We say it is hard to practice without a Sangha, or community. When facing challenges in life, we say, “It’s go … [Read more...]

You Have to Be Your Own Fan (Even If You’re Pathetic Sometimes)

If your self-confidence never wavers, if you are thoroughly convinced of your own worthiness – whatever that means to you – than this essay is probably not for you. Most Americans are very familiar with self-doubt in all of its forms. We continually examine the circumstances of our lives, and the opinions of those we come in contact with, for the answers to questions like, Are we worthy of respect, esteem, love? Are we competent, intelligent, reliable, useful? Are we insightful, deep, spi … [Read more...]

Being Real Rather Than Happy

Sometimes I shock my students and the other people who come to my Zen center by suggesting our spiritual practice doesn't change us or make us happy. People usually argue with me, which is a good sign, I guess. It means meditation and Zen practice is doing them some good. I certainly don't deny that's possible.What strikes me as less than useful is our tendency, especially as we get older, to have an increasing level of investment in having things all worked out. Each of us is supposed to … [Read more...]

Daring to Speak about Our “Buddha Nature”

Today I am giving a short talk at a nearby Zen center as a visiting teacher. I asked ahead of time what they wanted me to talk about and one of the suggestions was "How to Realize Your Own Buddha Nature."Oh heck. The Buddhist concept of buddha nature is a doozy. "Buddha" means awakened, and in Buddhism it is a central teaching that all beings have buddha nature whether they realize it or not. The father of Soto Zen Buddhism, Dogen, turned that teaching on its head and said, "Living beings ar … [Read more...]

The Radical Effort of Non-Effort (Meditate Is Not a Verb)

I teach 8-10 new people to "do" Zen meditation every month. At times I feel kind of radical, but more and more I just want to tell them to sit still and do nothing at all. After 20 years of Zen practice, 14 years as Zen priest, and 5 years as a Zen teacher, I am becoming deeply convinced that the transformative and healing power of meditation has little to do with what we consciously do. Basically, just deliberately put yourself in the position of not doing anything, and everything takes care of … [Read more...]

Missing Kyogen Carlson and His Dharma

At my Zen Center last Sunday we read and discussed a beautiful teaching from Kyogen Carlson, one of my Zen teachers. It was from the chapter "Dharma Realm" in a little booklet Kyogen wrote called Zen Roots. I called this excerpt "Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha." We lost Kyogen suddenly last September to a heart attack, and rediscovering this teaching from him made me miss him terribly.It isn't so much that I miss him personally, in the sense of regular interactions, although he was g … [Read more...]