Dharma Talks

Audio Talks


Dharma talk given in December 2008 by Kaigen Roshi on the subject of doubt in Zen Practice.

Life and Death

Dharma talk given in October 2008 by Kaigen Roshi on the subject of Life and Death.

Chance vs Destiny

In this dharma talk given in March 2008, Kaigen Roshi explores the two main questions of human existence. That is, is this life merely the result of random chance, or is there a larger framework that might imbue our lives with the meaning we so desperately seek. In this talk he uses examples that vary from the actual lives of those he knows, modern physics, and the sayings of ancient Zen Masters to look into the mystery, and the miracle of our existence.

Transcribed Talks

Ordinary Mind is Dao

Ordinary Mind is Dao

by Annie Sensei

Case 19 Wumenguan

Here’s the case:

Zhaozhou asks, “What is dao?”
Nanquan responds with: “Ordinary (or everyday) mind is dao”
“Should I direct myself toward it or not?” Zhaozhou asks.
“If you try to turn toward it, you go against it” is Nanquan’s reply.
“If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is dao?”
Nanquan answers: “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion, not-knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the dao beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on the level of right or wrong?”

Let’s take a look at this famous koan found in the Wumenguan (Gateless Gate). It involves Zhaozhou at a tender age, perhaps only 19 or 20.  Traditional sources tell us he lived from 778-897-- during the Tang era--so in the dramatic frame of this story he is just beginning a Dharma journey that will last for another hundred years. He is known to many people by the Japanese name of Joshu. His teacher, Nanquan (748-834), is in his fifties. We might imagine them enjoying a close, familial relationship, playing distinctive but mutually supportive roles not unlike father and son.  You may recognize Nanquan from other koan cases. He is known in Japan as Nansen.

Zhaozhou asks, “What is dao?”

Dao (道) is at the center of virtually all philosophies and traditions of self-cultivation in China.  Asking about it shouldn’t be equated with asking abstract questions about Reality, Truth, or Being, as might be supposed in the cultural West.  It’s really a where question. For millennia, the Chinese have taken pragmatic approaches to life, and dao carries a host of meanings associated with following or making a way that will help people be happy and effective and harmonious.

Zhaozhou’s question probably includes layers of nuanced and ancient associations with dao, for example: dao as life’s way of ceaselessly transforming and tending towards balance (dao as “how it goes”); dao as a way of human conduct transmitted from those who lived in the past (dao as “how it has been done”); and dao as the way or course we might innovate and establish as we live our lives (dao as "how we’re doing it now"). We are all prospective “way-makers,” but some people do it better than others. Certainly Zhaozhou’s question about dao has a prescriptive dimension: “Where do I find the optimal way of being human? Whose way should I emulate?”

Traditionally, people in China have looked to ancestral heroes or exemplars (ancient sage-kings and teachers like Confucius often play this role) for sources of transformative resonance. One looks to these cultural models to discern a way or dao, although the Daoists also looked to nature.  In this case, Zhaozhou is probably hoping to learn the way of his Dharma ancestor, the Buddha, but he is also exploring his relationship with his new teacher, Nanquan. What is Nanquan’s dao?

Zhaozhou had travelled south from Northern China (present-day Shandong Province) to study with Nanquan in what is now southern Anhui Province.  It couldn’t have been an easy trip to make around the year 800, and he was so young. Surely, he was looking to Nanquan to be an inspiring model, someone who could demonstrate an exemplary way.  Zhaozhou is asking his teacher something that has deep existential and aesthetic/ethical importance: “How should I conduct my life? What kind of person should I be?”

Nanquan responds with: “Ordinary (or everyday) mind is dao”

Following his own teacher, Mazu, Nanquan proposes something that surprised and even offended many Buddhists of his day. This is the notion that all of life is dao. Nothing excluded. Being angry, building a fire, sleeping in the city dump, entertaining unwholesome thoughts, eating rice, going to work, acting on a generous impulse, being stingy, getting drunk, meditating.  Wumen’s verse is suggestive of this inclusive notion of dao:

The spring flowers, the moon in autumn,
The cool breezes of summer, the winter’s snow
If idle concerns do not cloud the mind,
This is man’s happiest season

Every season, every phase, is the happiest, but it may matter from which perspective you enjoy its magnificence. Idle concerns are dao too, but they have to be fully seen through like everything else.

This inclusiveness was opposed and deemed offensive by Zongmi and other Buddhists of the time (and even today some scholars deny that Mazu and Nanquan could have taught such a notion) because it included even the traditional Buddhist defilements: anger, greed, ignorance. Some feared the ethical consequences of such a view.

You might wish to reflect on this for a moment. How does that resonate with you? Can you accept the notion that everything is the way? Is dao really everywhere?

It’s not surprising that Zhaozhou asks for some clarification:

“Should I direct myself toward it or not?”  [seek after it] Zhaozhou asks.

Naturally, Zhaozhou wants some direction from Nanquan; he wants to know how to confirm this teaching rather than holding it as something he can only imitate or parrot. His cultural conditioning probably urged him to find confirmation by means of an ancestral model—Buddhist or otherwise.  But Nanquan won’t let him go down a dualistic road:

“If you try to turn toward it, you go against it,” is Nanquan’s reply.

As a teacher, Nanquan had lots of options here, and this is why it is important that he had a good sense of Zhaozhou. For example, he could have responded the way Bodhidharma is said to have responded to Huike, who was seeking resolution to his own Dharma struggles. He could have said, “Sure, go towards it, and bring it back here and show it to me.” In other words, Nanquan could have encouraged Zhaozhou to take a dualistic path until he exhausted it and realized he had never been apart from dao, that even his seeking was dao. But perhaps Nanquan thought Zhaozhou wasn’t ready for that or that he would get caught up unhelpfully in an idea of “ordinary mind” and seeking for it as an object to be gained. Sure, having a gaining idea and getting all gnarled up is ordinary mind/dao, but it’s also getting lost in a dream. My bedroom closet is fully a part of my home, but I don’t want to spend too much of my time there.

Zhaozhou presses Nanquan on this:

“If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is dao?”

Zhaozhou wants to know (zhi). And it seems Nanquan takes zhi to indicate a process—whether cognitive, affective, or somatic—that is dualistic and reifying. Zhaozhou’s zhi is some sort of grasping at substantial objects with the usual subject/object dichotomy and hierarchical valuing: “I know dao.”  “I have grasped the Buddha way and put it into action.”  “I realize this way as superior to other ways.” To know is to reinforce the notion of a self who can attain something that is fixed, solid and separate. To know is not only to grasp something under a concept or category, it is to rehearse an identity.

Nanquan answers: “Dao does not belong to knowing or not-knowing. Knowing is delusion, not-knowing is blank consciousness. When you have really reached the dao beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as the great empty firmament. How can it be talked about on the level of right or wrong?”

Nanquan says knowing is just delusion.  It’s a kind of enchantment with names and objects that are abstracted from the ephemeral character of each moment, and with these names arises a corresponding “I” who would know it.  Not-knowing (bu zhi) is not helpful either. It is possible that Nanquan is equating not-knowing with cutting off thoughts (something some people of the time advocated; it is strongly disdained in the Platform Sutra), but the resulting blankness or absorption isn’t helpful. Such a practice would be an attempt to cut off a natural function of life and source of realization.

It is true that the “ordinary mind” teachers resonated with a tathagatagarbha teaching that says we have a kind of luminous Buddha-tendency (foxing) that manifests as a way of functioning. This line of teaching holds that we all have the ability to non-discriminate, to simply open to life on its own terms, without forcing it through the thinking, grasping, judging, naming, conceptualizing, or differentiating process. Notice that if this is what Nanquan had in mind as reaching the dao beyond doubt, his view expresses a hierarchy that places non-discriminative awareness above the kind of thought that generates meaning and differences. It also places non-discrimination above not-thinking taken as some condition of body-mind that suspends or quiets thinking activity. We might re-think those hierarchies in light of our own experience.

In one of the sections of Appreciate Your Life, Maezumi Roshi talks about “openness,” and he basically equates openness with “forgetting the self.” It’s not a stance that “I” take; it’s a subtraction, a letting go. Does this mean there is no discrimination, no “thinking” going on? Consult your own experience.  Perhaps it includes a different kind of thinking, a way of functioning that makes distinctions, but doesn’t make them into solid essences or objects with which we identify (e.g., “right” and “wrong”). Think, for example, of the kind of artistic discriminating you have experienced in the most creative moments of Practice of Immediacy in the Arts. This discrimination might take the form of poetic, imagistic, or playful movement with words, images or thoughts. This movement senses what is appropriate for the situation or artistic piece at hand, but that sense emerges from the activity instead of from a consultation with pre-determined standards. We have all tasted that, especially during retreats, but really, anytime we are truly curious and open to some situation instead of bringing a knowing and reifying stance to it, we may realize the dao beyond doubt. Perhaps this is what Nanquan is suggesting to his young student, but Zhaozhou will have to confirm this for himself, just as we must.

“Ordinary mind” is the wondrousness of our ordinary lives, including all defilements. We are never apart from this dao, and we accord with it experientially by coming from a place of non-knowing.(Notice the use of “We” here. It is simply a manner of speaking; no hard and fast identities or substantial selves are intended.) For Nanquan and his Chan predecessors, there is no need to cultivate that function. (But, indeed, they all meditated, something Peter Gregory has called “the house secret.”) Zhaozhou’s dao turns out to be what he—and we—are treading everyday. All of us together. There’s no need to climb to the top of a distant mountain. No need to turn towards anything. It’s your life. Enjoy!

Why Practice?

Why Practice?

by Nicolee Roshi

The heart of Zen practice is seeing into the unfixed nature of all things. When we really confirm that, then naturally every moment is a liberating moment. And the effect of that, one of the deepest effects, is compassion arising in a very natural way.

We use all kinds of skillful means in our practice, so that we can verify this for ourselves, in meditation, koan practice, religious service, student-teacher relationships and work practice. These help us to work on letting go of our fixed views and notions about who and what we are and who and what anything and everything else is.

One of the most skillful ways of practicing is in the community, the sangha, in our relationships with one another. When we turn around to face the wall, we see that what is generated out of our murky minds. But what happens when we are dealing with one another? That dealing with one another is a very scratchy place, a prefect place to practice, because we can see how we do not include or how we exclude. So how do we practice with one another, not just in our particular sangha but in the sanghas of our homes and families and our work and the larger sanghas of the world? How do we practice with them? How do we deal with greed and anger and ignorance? How does this greed turn into compassion? Anger into wisdom? Ignorance into liberation? And how do we cultivate respect for one another, especially when we are sure we are right? How do we include another person's point of view?

At the same time, Zen practice does not have to have any reason to do it other than to do it. And who knows what the effects are? Think of the chaos in the world, while we are meditating, trying to function in a harmonious way, being attentive to the moment, felling the sunlight and the breeze, hearing the birds, and just being here. What a gift that is to the world.

Home Temple Practice

Home Temple Practice

by TTZC Teachers

TTZC Mission Statement

To create a compassionate and open environment for all people interested in the study and practice of Zen;To offer a traditional Zen Buddhist approach to religious practice and understanding as well as other meditative and spiritual practices to help relieve the suffering of oneself and others; To foster the transmission of traditional Zen Buddhism to both lay and ordained students in a western context; and To offer a facility for these and other such activities as the board and teachers may deem appropriate.

Practicing Zen Buddhism in America has been a challenge since the first steps taken by various Eastern teachers almost 100 years ago. Many of the realities we face are quite different today than in the time and the land that brought Zen Buddhism to our shores. Among these differences is the absence of a strong monastic influence in our culture and the different attitudes between an individual and society, or between that individual and his or her spiritual teacher. In our particular situation at TTZC, after spending a great deal of time looking into the feasibility of having a separate center, it was decided that continuing to develop the Home Temple Model would be more suitable to our particular needs and realities.

Although our community began in 1986 as the Jo Ren Zen Center, we incorporated with the State of California as the Three Treasures Zen Community on December 11,1996. From the beginning we have practiced together as a non-residential Zen community in a home setting, with a strong focus on sesshin, the student/teacher relationship, and sangha. In Vista, Jake's home, the back room is generally set up like a zendo, and he also uses the room as a living space. In Rancho Penasquitos, Nicolee and Barry's home, they convert their family room into a zendo and at the end of the evening, the sangha turns the zendo back into the family room. In both locales, home as temple and temple as home are intrinsic aspects of practice at TTZC. The physical transformation of space encourages students to clarify that wherever you are, that's the temple.

There are Home Temple models from Japan as well. Yamada Koun Roshi, Robert Aitken's teacher, was a lay Zen Master who had a small zendo in his backyard that he used for sesshin. Koryu Roshi, one of Maezumi Roshi's teachers, and Barry's first teacher, had a temple that did house students of college age, like a residential center, but was geared mostly for commuters to come weekly and monthly for sesshin.

We have as many week- long retreats per year as the temples mentioned above, a favorite for many experienced students who feel that the two or three-day mark is where a major shift occurs and the practice really deepens.

Some of the disadvantages to home temple practice are: limited access to the center other than scheduled times, lack of ownership by the sangha of the physical space, and the lack of sangha interfacing with one another and teachers on an impromptu basis. Yet, we have found that we have been fulfilling our mission statement and that home temple practice is working quite well. The key ingredients seem to be one's commitment and intent.

To clarify the practitioner's intent, we found it important to create a curriculum so that practitioners could decide what level of practice they want to pursue. Whether a practitioner just wants to sit and meet with a teacher for meditation guidance or whether one wants to become a student to deepen one's practice and beyond, the curriculum provides a map for levels of training at TTZC. It also encourages participants to take responsibility for their training in much the same way as students in college do who participate in independent studies. Attending sesshin is core to training at TTZC. Participants who sit sesshin and work deeply with a teacher, are truly taking advantage of the riches Zen training offers. At TTZC the teachers are also available by phone, e-mail or in person if an appointment has been arranged. Traditional ceremonies and rituals are made available to students at certain times throughout the year and trainings to teach others how to carry on these practices are part of the program.

Some of the advantages of TTZC's home temple practice are: limited fundraising, low overhead which helps us keep participant contributions lower than other Zen centers, teachers provide for their own livelihood, and students take full responsibility for what they get out of the practice and their sangha connections. We have found that councils and sangha gatherings are providing a venue for participants to learn more deeply about one another which is helping to foster friendships and mutual support. These are important developments that help create a caring and open sangha. Because Zen practice is ultimately integrated as one's everyday life, the Home Temple Model makes this a "built-in" aspect of our practice and not something that has to become integrated at a later point in a student's life.

Zen Buddhism is still an infant in our society and the various methods of training and practice will continue to flourish and be refined. It is both inspiring and challenging to work with developing the Home Temple Model as Zen continues to spread in America.

Nicolee Jikyo McMahon, Roshi Barry Kaigen McMahon, Roshi John Jiyu Gage, Sensei

Authentic Zen

Authentic Zen

by Barry Roshi

At the White Plum Meeting in May someone told the story that she had been approached on the street one day and thanked for something she had said three years earlier. The man said that it had changed his life. She did not know the man or even remember him. This made her wonder if indeed his life had been changed. Could his life have really been altered by something she had said, without any real base of practice to back it up?? What did he, and we for that matter, really know about true Buddhism, real Zen? Was our tradition being watered down excessively with pop psychology and trendy therapeutic motivations, lacking the deeper spiritual quest that brought the tradition to us over thousands of years of serious practice?

It is an honest, and continuing, question for us in the West. Is what we’re doing truly authentic Zen? I like think of it in this way. I love to surf. And I take Duke Kanhanamoku as the father of modern surfing. He reinvigorated an ancient sport for us today. His ideas about board design helped revolutionize surfing and the power of his personality catapulted surfing forward to me and my generation. He is the modern god of surfing, and what when I surf I participate in an authentic recreation that dates back to the ancient Polynesians all because of him.

But if it were proven to me that my beliefs in this area were false, that Duke Kanhanamoku was more of a marketing tool than an important historical figure and that what I do today bares little or no resemblance to the authentic ancient tradition of surfing, it wouldn’t matter at all. I could care less.

Why? Because however it came to me in the present day, what I do in the ocean with my surfboard is so rewarding that whatever the historical facts of authentic traditional surfing might be are of little to no consequence. There are merely tidbits of information. I feel so blessed, so nourished by modern surfing that I find any discussion of its authenticity merely humorous.

I knew and studied with Koryu Roshi and Maezumi Roshi. I know Tenshin Roshi, and I certainly know Jikyo Roshi. What they represent and taught to me, and what I realized while working with them, is so valuable to me personally that any talk of authenticity, or lack thereof, fades from my concerns like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.

What can possibly make Zen authentic? What country does authentic Zen come from? From China…Korea…Vietnam….Japan? What robe, what haircut, what diet and daily regimen make it authentic? Chanting in Japanese or Chinese? Being able to sit on your knees for a long time without wincing? Being able to function without much sleep and not complain?

There is only one person who makes Zen authentic…and that, of course, is you. If your inner intention is clear, and your motivation is true, you will find what you seek and you will make it authentic. Lacking that, no robe or bowl, temple or master, not even Buddha himself, can help you.

Everything else is merely a discussion for scholars. Interesting perhaps, even worthwhile, but it has no control on your experience of life and of practice. What I know to be true requires no one’s agreement. What I’m unsure of makes me convert the whole world to satisfy my own self-doubt.

Gift of No Fear

Gift of No Fear

by Nicolee Roshi

One of the fundamental aspects of Zen practice is sesshin, "taking the backward step and turning the light inward" in an intensive way, as Dogen Zenji defines it. In Japanese the "se" comes from "setsu," meaning to join or unite, and "shin" means the mind.

Sesshin means "unite the mind." So much of the time we are extremely focused, pulled in many directions, scattered, at times overwhelmed. Sesshin creates a time set apart in an environment that is simple and in community. It provides a container that enables us to deeply realize what our life is. From one perspective, when we sit on a cushion, do work practice, eat, do service, clean up, it is "my" practice. But fundamentally it is "our" practice; we create sesshin, just as we create the world and the world creates us-moment by moment-together.

Committed Zen practice can cultivate qualities which are especially apparent in sesshin: commitment, responsibility, honesty, integrity, self-discipline, service, willingness to reveal ourselves, compassion. As the group lives and sits together, all kinds of things-joy, anxiety, agitation, anger, resentment, gratitude, fear, boredom, doubt, peace-may come up. We may feel challenged to our depths, not just from without, but from within. How we bind ourselves becomes more and more apparent. The terrain we may walk through can be like a desert or a rugged mountain range or a beautiful Hawaiian seacoast. The key to sesshin is to not know, to let go of expectations, to open to the unfolding moment. Unifying the mind, we realize "the gift of no fear."

As the days of sesshin unfold, the thick shell with which we separate ourselves soften, eliminating the gap between self-other-the world. As we let go more and more deeply, the settling in and stillness of sesshin can bring forth spaciousness, joyfulness and gratitude. We see that pain is not apart from oneself, nor is joy. As we slow down, what often emerges is a deep appreciation of the sound of the bell, of the taste of food, of sleep, of movement, of creativity, of being with others, of the sunlight and clouds and trees and wind against the skin.

Sesshin offers an opportunity to experience life in its simplicity and everydayness in a very receptive, open way. Becoming more keenly aware of life, and how we are all in this together, we refine our ability to take care of ourselves, the lives of others, and our world.

Give It Form

Give It Form

by Annie Sensei

Many thanks to Konshin for reminding us at a recent sesshin about the story of Maezumi Roshi and the student who had been a professional dancer. Apparently, the student had injured her foot in an accident and could no longer dance. When she came to dokusan expecting to talk about her practice, Maezumi Roshi would only ask her to talk about her foot, which she kept covered with a sock. Dokusan after dokusan was spent crying and touching that foot, teacher and student together.

Sometimes what we are carrying is so large and overwhelming that it has no distinct lines by which we can identify it and appreciate how it is functioning in our life. I think Maezumi Roshi was helping that student give form to the grief she was carrying, and in that way, she could finally become intimate with her life, just as it was.

With the emphasis on oneness that can occur in early Zen training, it might be a good idea to take some time to appreciate the other side of the form is emptiness equation: emptiness is form. I think it was Plotinus who said that we should not proceed too quickly to the One, and while he was working in a tradition and metaphysics that shouldn’t be conflated with Zen, I don’t mind adapting his phrase for our purposes. Opening to each moment requires the courage to fully attend to what’s happening, but sometimes it takes some work to bring what we are going through into focus; it needs to be given form or differentiation before we can be aware, and ultimately, intimate with it. Don’t be in a hurry to pass over form in pursuit of oneness; you may end up bypassing something deeply significant.

Zen offers us many opportunities to have our life mirrored back to us. Attitudes, ideals, mental and somatic habits, stories—these are reflected through the training process, and often we have not been aware of their role in everyday life. But the mirroring of these relative functions can only occur when they are afforded proper definition, as I mentioned above, and only then may we appreciate their unique way of coming forward. It is truly liberating when this happens, because we see how, in many cases, they are limiting us and hampering our freedom to move with the energy of changing circumstances. When we appreciate the forms of our subjugation, we can penetrate through their seeming solidity and realize them differently.

The Teacher/Student Relationship

It can be terribly difficult to reveal ourselves in the teacher/student relationship, so great is our desire to look good. But the context of this relationship is one of the most powerful resources for giving form to the inchoate energies that function as us, and the teacher is looking for opportunities to mirror them back for the student’s benefit (students also mirror the teachers’ processes). Whatever our practice—shikantaza, koan, mindfulness, practice of immediacy in the arts—if we really show up, the teacher can often assist in mirroring back what we are carrying in a way that gives it greater definition and focus. If we choose to hide instead, sometimes that very strategy can be reflected back, but really, when we have developed a certain trust in the teacher, it’s better just to show up

Are we willing to be intimate with all the messiness of who we are? If so, we can put ourselves in a better position to realize the dialectic voiced so eloquently by Huineng’s student, Qingyuan:

“When I first began to practice, the mountains and rivers were simply mountains and rivers. After I advanced in my practice, the mountains and rivers were no longer mountains and rivers. But when I reached the end of my practice, the mountains and rivers were simply mountains and rivers again.”
(Bill Porter’s translation)

What I want to emphasize is that sometimes were have to work hard just to get to the first moment of the dialectic. We may be so immersed in our ways of thinking/responding /strategizing, that we cannot appreciate them as simply thinking/responding/strategizing. If we are able to give them form and have them mirrored back to us by our teacher or another process, we may also take the next steps of penetrating through to their empty mode of existence and  letting go of emptiness in a mature affirmation of form.


Practicing with koan can also create awareness of our unconsciously held frameworks—that’s why koan can seem so difficult—and in the beginning series of Dharmakaya koan, we learn to assume different forms. Ideally, these forms—animals, plants, emotions, for example—are realized so intimately that they are enjoyed as fluid and changing, rather than solid and fixed. But to become a bird or a donkey in this strongly somatic way is to organize our energies in a manner that is novel for us, and the contrast with our usual ways of formatting our experience can throw habitual patterns into relief where we can see them. Take advantage! See what you are holding onto and what your habits are. Use the koan as a mirror for revealing what is binding you. We often suggest  that it’s good to be in a process of non-knowing and to have the rug pulled out from under you when you are working on a koan. The fruit of such an experience is that you get a glimpse of your limiting patterns, which puts you in a position to penetrate them thoroughly and carry them differently.

When we become fluent in the symbolic language of koan, we can pull out an image at any time to give form to some experience that is begging for examination. I have relied heavily on the images from Master Ma’s “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha,” “Man Up a Tree,” “A Buffalo Passes the Window,” “Baizhang’s Fox,” and others. They have provided me with a ready resource for articulating my own experience and becoming intimate with it. When we are able to use these resources of the Zen tradition, we can bring healing awareness to even our most intolerable circumstances instead of shutting down or perhaps hiding in zazen.

Practice of Immediacy in the Arts

Practice of Immediacy in the Arts—the practice developed by Nicolee Roshi, is another opportunity to give form to what we are carrying in an indistinct fashion. We start practicing by giving expression to whatever makes its way into our awareness: sounds, smells, sensations, thoughts, desires, sights. But very often, a felt sense of something alive but unfocussed emerges, and we are able to give it form using art media. This may initiate a profound process of recognizing and penetrating a really stuck place. Whether we are able to let go or not, it is helpful to see what is happening. As Zhaozhou indicated, even if we can’t let go, we can carry it off! I hope you will take some time during sesshin to explore PIA; it is a wonderful gift to practitioners.

In summary, our practice provides us with many mirrors to reflect the functioning of our lives. But the mirrors only work when there is something sufficiently defined to be reflected there. The teacher/student relationship, koan, and other skillful means create contexts in which the processes of our life can be given form and appreciated. Enjoy!

Push the Button

Push the Button

by Barry Roshi

On a recent layover in Chicago I was walking down the main drag when I happened to spy a Starbucks. My 'caffeine low' light was blinking red so I made straight for it until I was stopped in my path. A beggar... young, skinny black man, mid 20s to early 30s, in a wheel chair, with a speech impediment, beseeching everyone who dared pass. I noticed an uneasiness inside. 'Oh no, NOT in front of STARBUCKS! There ought to be a law!’

Now, I'm not a great world saver. I don't sleep in the streets in my spare time. But I do give money to worthy causes from time to time, and I'm not averse to handing out cash to an honest beggar, someone who obviously needs it. And this guy needed it. "Anythin'... anythin....... Gawd bless ya..... gawd bless ya", was his constant refrain. I tossed some coins in his cup and asked him if he wanted a coffee. Without skipping a beat he looked at me and said, "Iced coffee, cream, no sugar." I saluted smartly and went inside to retrieve his order.

I stayed by his side as we sipped our shade grown, fair trade (or whatever the heck it is these days) drinks. I asked him about his life. He said he ended up this way because he was almost beaten to death. He admitted he'd been 'bad'. Perhaps a drug deal gone sour, I thought. But now all he could do was beg. I decided to help out and would call out to passersby from time to time..."Heh! Won't you please help ...HUH! What kinda sick people are you anyway. The man needs money!" And then I toned it down a bit, mimicking him, "Anything ..... anything .... god bless you.... god bless you....." He seemed to enjoy me helping out. I wasn't making fun of him at all, but I was intensely interested in the faces of those that passed by. A few gave money, most didn't. A few looked at me in confusion. Most didn't. I stayed awhile, enjoying his company, the coffee, and everything I was learning.

Before I left him I pulled out a twenty and slipped it in his cup. He quickly yanked it out and put it in his pocket. It's not good business to let people see you with too much scratch. Bad publicity. I wished him well and walked away.

But the faces of the people who passed by us that day stayed with me and taught me something. Looking at them as they passed, I realized that none of them was any less compassionate than I. Certainly, many were uneasy about having to be approached by a beggar, and his bizarre white companion, while they went about their business on a lovely Chicago day.

But I know how they felt, because we all feel that way. It's pointless. My small act of compassion is pointless in a world that's zipping along at warp speed toward the precipice. I can't save anyone. I can't even save myself.

But do me a favor. For a moment, picture an imaginary button before you right now. If you press it, all suffering will cease. No more child abduction, no more war, no more famine, no more hate. All suffering for EVERYONE will end. Would you push the button?

I think even Hitler would have pushed it. What he really wanted was peace and security for the German people. His crimes, his hate, his evil arose from a variety of factors, not least among them being his delusion, his inability to appreciate the interconnectedness of all life, and it's most logical tenet; the basic law of, ‘What goes around comes around'. But if you push that button there will be no more misery for anyone. All beings shall in peace.

But Hitler's delusion is also ours. We don't realize that Heaven and Hell are eternally present and enfolded into THIS, and can appear at any time according NOT ONLY to circumstance, but also to our choice, our intention. It's not our compassion that fails us, it's our understanding.

In modern physics, past, present and future don't really exist. All that is real is the totality of spacetime. And just as we feel that all of space really exists out there, so physics insists that so does all of time. And it’s there to be viewed by some observer in a particular place and state of motion. It is possible that from someone's perspective in the universe, my past has not yet happened. And likewise, from another perspective, my future is already finished. And since all measurements of spacetime are valid for all observers, what does this tell us about time?

Our usual appreciation of time is that it flows forward, like a movie where a frame that was lit a moment ago is now dark. But Einstein said, ".....the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent." All that is real is the totality of spacetime. As Brain Greene said in his wonderful book, "The Fabric of the Cosmos, “If you were having a good time at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, 1999, you still are...". Positions in space no more change than do moments in time. Positions may change, but they are no longer the same positions. Time may flow, but only to different moments in time. Dogen wrote, "Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separate from time .... The reason you do not clearly understand being-time is that you think of time only as passing away."

Every moment is a permanent, indeed eternal feature of the fabric of life itself. Even a so-called small deed of compassion is far from a hopeless act, vanishing from any effective consequence more quickly than a fog of breath from a silver tray. On the contrary, each moment, each thought, each act is a an absolute permanent fixture in the totality of spacetime, it's cause reaching back to the beginingless past and its effect shining forth toward the incalculable future. It vibrates through Indra's net forever. So go ahead, push the button. You already have!

This is much more that spiritual whimsey. It's an absolute fact of the Buddha Dharma. As Maezumi Roshi once said, "There's no such thing as a small thing." I know that when a small child smiles at me, all my sins are forgiven.

Family Practice

Family Practice

by Nicolee Roshi

Meditating in between my first child's naps was the beginning of a challenging and wonderful journey of integrating spiritual practice with family life. It was not easy. It has been one of the most demanding koans I have ever had to chew up and digest.

Contrary to what is generally recommended for practice, I did not make a special place to meditate. At night, after the children were in bed and the "good nights" completed, I would alternate each night meditating in one of the children's rooms. They liked this quiet presence so well that they would argue about whose room I was supposed to meditate in well into their teens. It has always been important for me to respect the natural spiritual direction of my children. This nightly practice provided an opportunity for my children to ask questions and in a simple way, without trying to influence them, I could share with them what was touching me. Finding ways to integrate practice into our family life in an unspecial manner seemed to help the children feel more naturally included, and was an essential part of my personal training.

When I began Zen practice, going to sesshin and studying one-on-one with my teacher was exactly what I was looking for. My pattern was to immerse myself in seven-day retreats throughout the year, study intensely with my teacher on a weekly basis, and integrate what I was learning by functioning in everyday life. What was driving me was an intent deep within the marrow of my bones to clarify some questions I had. At the same time there was an inner demand not to make my husband and children orphans to spiritual practice. I didn't know how to do both. This tug of war finally resolved itself when I realized that these two aspects of my life were not in competition with each other, there was no first and second place. My practice is to give fully to whatever is at hand. When I'm with family, I'm with family. When in sesshin, I give fully to sesshin. When working, give fully to work. Letting go of my ideas about time and how long it should take me to complete my studies, helped me work as well as I could with my particular circumstances. I found the 16 precepts, especially the precepts of not killing, not elevating oneself and putting other down, and not speaking ill of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, helped me realize that I am already living Buddha's life and whomever I am living with is also Buddha living Buddha's life. Practicing in this way reminded me again not to elevate my spiritual practice as being better than my family, because then I am subtly negating the life of those with whom I live. In the Heart Sutra we chant: "Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is related to everything else in function and position." The immediacy of these words came alive practicing within the crucible of family and relationships.

Each family's circumstances are unique, and for my particular family, my leaving and rejoining the family was especially trying for all of us. I felt guilty and selfish yet determined to go to sesshin. Working with the precepts reminded me not to kill my family's reactions by judging them or making them wrong. For me, this has been a very challenging part of family as spiritual practice. My family's reactions so clearly mirrored my own fixed ideas of how I thought things should be. Practicing with not knowing, learning how to keep my heart open, letting go of judgments, and not separating myself from their desires and pain deepened my understanding of the Buddha Dharma.

One's mate, or loved one, can especially feel left out, jealous, afraid of the practice when one leaves to train for an evening or for extended periods. It's very helpful to listen to their concerns, to talk with them, to assure them of your love for them, to invite them to sangha gatherings or to the center, or set up a time for them to meet the teachers. In this way they can have a truer understanding of what you are doing.

Zen training is always wherever we are, here, now. What a rich and fertile ground family and relationships are to open our hearts, cultivate compassion, patience and understanding; to not know, to be truly intimate in the midst of everyday life.