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Category Archives: Buddhist practice

soixante huit

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What do you make of birthdays when you’re getting old? I’m told that Zen practitioner no longer mark the occasion (although some make a fuss about the Buddha’s own). I woke up this morning with the familiar mix of physical and emotional aches, made the same cup of tea and pot of oatmeal as I often do.

Same old, same old — yet new and for the first time. This is a day like any other, yet it is not. I’ve never been here (nor have you, come to think of it). Celebrate? Why not celebrate this moment? And say a prayer of thanksgiving —

Praised be your father and mother,
Who loved you before you were,
And trusted to call you here
With no idea who you would be.

Blessed be those who have loved you
Into becoming who you were meant to be,
Blessed be those who have crossed your life
With dark gifts of hurt and loss
That have helped to school your mind
In the art of disappointment.

On this echoing-day of your birth,
May you open the gift of solitude
In order to receive your soul;
Enter the generosity of silence
To hear your hidden heart;
Know the serenity of stillness
To be enfolded anew
By the miracle of your being.

source: O’Donohue, J. (2008). To bless the space between us. Doubleday, p. 51. image: self-portrait walking along the camino.


fun and games at the zen monastery

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Four of us are planning a long retreat in the fall. You may think of a zen monastery as a somber place, with bald people scurrying to and fro, sitting for hours on black cushions, chanting in Sanskrit and Japanese, bowing to everyone and every thing, eating out of wooden bowls and drinking the wash water oryoki-style, getting up at 3:40am and collapsing into bunk beds by 10pm, working in the garden, kitchen, housekeeping, or sewing room, and did I mention bowing? Yes to all that, and then some.

Also a fair amount of smiling, laughing, and chatting (except during the monthly week of silence and between lights-out and that nasty wake-up bell). One of the fun activities at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I trained ten years ago, is their marimba band. Go figure. See YouTube of a concert given at a meeting of (dancing) Zen teachers. My spiritual teacher, the monastery’s Oh So Venerable roshi (japanese word for ‘old teacher’) Chozen Bays MD, plays in the second row, starting things off with “a-one, a-two.”


loving eyes

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Seven of us met for mediation last night: twice 25 minutes of sitting and 15 of slow walking in the garden. Afterwards someone serves sweets and tea, bowing before each cushion, with a bow in return … a simple formality to savour this simple exchange. We end with a brief go-around to share insights or questions. Awaiting my turn, eyes brimming with tears, I resist the habitual urge to analyze. For an instance, the capacity to empathize is boundless. Lingering at the door with good-byes, I notice a gentle intimacy — within me, towards others and every/thing.

I thought no more of this until I saw, just now, the mention of “loving eyes” in a review of my Zen teacher’s new book:

Seeing with loving eyes is not a one-way experience, nor is it just a visual experience. When we touch something with loving eyes, we bring a certain warmth from our side, but we may also be surprised to feel warmth radiating back to us. We begin to wonder, is everything in the world made of love? And have I been blocking that out?

source: Review by Bodhipaksa of Jan Chozen Bays. (2011). How to train a wild elephant & other adventures in mindfulness. Boston: Shambhala (due in July). 

can you sit still for 3 minutes?

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I’ve been reading about Christian mystics and was struck by Apostle Paul telling the flock to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). In the 3rd and 4th century, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who lived solitary lives away from communal bustle, recited all 150 Psalms every day. A recent 60 Minutes piece showed the Greek Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos continually praying while doing routine chores. Talk about being focussed, about bringing monkey mind back to the centre, moment by moment. I admire such dedication and concentration and, in a romantic moment, wish I could be one of them. I tried it 10-15 years ago, spending guest-time with Benedictine and Franciscan monks and training at a Zen monastery for a year.

What can we busy bees — with jobs, studies, relationships, and assorted worries — learn from people living in monastic seclusion? For many of us, meditation appears to be a route towards stilling the mind and finding some peace amid everyday chaos … but sitting still for 30 minutes or an hour isn’t working out. We try … and then give up, discouraged. We join a sitting group … and gradually stop coming. Many practical explanations, all good. Net result: new disappointment on top of old.

Here then is my suggestion: “meditate every day for three minutes.” That’s about as long as it takes to drink a quick cup of tea, make a short phone call, or reply to a couple of emails. Is that something you could do — would like to try? Can you find a quiet place somewhere (at home, in your office, the college library, a bathroom, on a bus, before getting out of the car)? Can you sit upright or lie down, on a chair or meditation cushion? Close your eyes or lower your gaze? Notice your body’s sensations: aches and itches, tensions and pleasures? Sense your breath, even half a breath? Do this for three (3) minutes, no more. Do it every day, ideally at the same time.

Let that be your meditation practice, gentle and kind.

image: monk at Mt. Athos

victoria day parade

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Two of us (plus a dog named Jakob) walked a few blocks to watch bits of the parade: many American marching bands (they sure know how to do it well), interspersed with grown men on tiny scooters and big trucks blowing their horns. Standing in the sun amidst the happy crowd, many with lawn chairs and drink coolers, I inhaled the carefree atmosphere. Even cops driving their shiny motorcycles up and down the parade route, each earning double overtime and having fun waving at people, added to the festive mood. For split seconds, I felt none of the associations that crowds, busy streets, and police sirens usually convey.

“Good things keep happening all around us,” neuropsychologist Rick Hanson reminds me, “but much of the time we don’t notice them; even when we do, we often hardly feel them.” To counterbalance the built-in negativity bias, the brain’s tendency to scan for, register, and recall negative experiences, he suggests that we bring mindful awareness to positive facts, thus turning them into positive experiences. “Let the experience fill your body and be as intense as possible. …

“The rebuilding process gives you the opportunity, right down in the micro-circuitry of your brain, to gradually shift the emotional shading of your interior landscape. … Every time you do this … you build a little bit of neural structure. Over time, the accumulating impact of this positive material will literally, synapse by synapse, change your brain.” 

All this requires effort: I have to remember to pay attention, to spot and internalize moments of happiness, and to bring awareness to the bodily experience of being free of stress. Old habits (and ancient wiring) resist all change, even if it’s for the better.

See also my previous post on re-wiring the brain. source: Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom.  New Harbinger, p. 68-71. image:

finding a spiritual teacher

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There may come a time when a meditator stands to benefit from a relationship with someone who’s further along the path. Reading books, attending lectures, or watching Mr. Tolle on YouTube can point the way, but the right guide will take you deeper.

My suggestion is to ask friends for their first-hand experiences and to sample local people. If you live away from urban centres, try the Internet for online instruction. I’m currently auditing a by-donation course with the Insight Meditation Center, with daily practice tips, optional reading, and access to teachers via Skype or email.

My own journey evolved in stops and starts. Fifteen years ago someone suggested that I might benefit from meditation and took me to a 10-day silent retreat as taught by N.S. Goenka. That made me curious but didn’t cause me to meditate on my own. A year later I googled ZEN and TRAINING and MONASTERY and soon found myself on the other side of the continent for two intense months of what felt like Zen boot camp.

Soon afterwards — while working full-time and doing graduate studies — I found a group in Oregon who were looking to start a monastery. When a former elementary school became available I was invited to contribute my hotel management experience and stayed for a year to help get things started. Since then I’ve attended retreats with different teachers, but continue to return to Great Vow Zen Monastery and consider my teachers there as spiritual guides for life.

How did you get to where you are on your meditation journey?


this too

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this hungry monk
chanting by lamplight
is Buddha
and he still thinks of you

Ikkyu Sojin 一休宗純 (1394-1481), eccentric Japanese Zen priest and poet