RSS Feed

Category Archives: precepts

everything’s not “all good”

Posted on

Nathan recently drew attention to “excessive positivity” found in many yoga communities. My sense is that such chatter, along with “OMG” and “totally awesome,” reflects an undercurrent of suffering. What, for instance, do people mean when they toss me an “it’s all good” response to a personal  lament? Do they truly believe that everything is flawless, that there’s no pain, depression, and loneliness in their world? I think not. I sense something unhealthy – disillusionment and sadness perhaps — dressed up as aggressive graffiti, mindless texting, and disfiguring tattoos.

The Encyclopaedia of Mental Disorders describes denial as “the refusal to acknowledge the existence or severity of unpleasant external realities or internal thoughts and feelings.” It’s easy to detect denial in my life, starting with what’s right before me. I know, for instance, that too much sugar in my diet is potentially life-shortening, yet I give in to cravings regularly. I also know that not keeping up correspondence with overseas friends and family bothers my conscience and alienates me from people who care for me, yet letters sit unanswered for months. There are potentially more harmful instances which I won’t admit to publicly.

“The closer you look, the more clearly you see that denial is part of the uneasy bargain we strike to be social creatures,” a psychologist is quoted in the NY Times. The same article claims that

In the modern vernacular, to say someone is “in denial” is to deliver a savage combination punch: one shot to the belly for the cheating or drinking or bad behaviour, and another slap to the head for the cowardly self-deception of pretending it’s not a problem.

One of the Buddhist precepts I vowed to uphold is to “avoid lying, hurtful speech, and harmful thought.” Is that even possible?



get off yer cushion! [revised]

Posted on

I’m troubled by how little attention the Buddhist community pays to the needs for food, shelter, and care by people all-around — while busily gathering funds to purchase and maintain properties where a select few can sit and get to know the self (in Dogen‘s words).

Here just three examples. In the mail a plea to contribute to a centre’s annual mortgage payment of $100,000 and for an additional building at $200,000. Then, in the news, the announcement of a $14-million project to house 60 monks and 200 guests and “provide seminars dealing with issues such as conflict, anger or grief.” Also a Buddhist center that offers retreats on such topics as “sacred feminine” and “spirit of creativity,” charging $685 for five days plus voluntary giving for teachers and staff.

How many meals could a soup kitchen serve with that kind of money, how many homeless people receive decent shelters, how many families feed their children, how many sick, lonely, and dying people be cared for? How many opportunities, right where we live, to practice compassion and generosity?

Back in the 1980s, Zen teacher Bernie Glassman created housing for the homeless and started businesses for the unemployed. “Social action,” he writes, “grows naturally out of … spirituality and livelihood. Once we begin to take care of our own basic needs, we become more aware of the needs of the people around us. Recognizing the oneness of life, we naturally reach out to other people because we realize that we are not separate from them.” 

Naturally, my worldview is blurred by personal opinions and limited information. So please, if you’re aware of Buddhism-inspired social action projects that address real suffering of real people, kindly send details and web links. Thank you.

later that day: there are now several ideas and links in the COMMENTS.

text source: Glassman, B., & Fields, R. (1996). Instructions to the cook: a zen master’s lessons in living a life that matters. New York: Bell Tower, p. 8. image: “world’s largest Buddha statue” at

time to set down that baggage?

Tanzan and Ekido, two Zen monks of old, were travelling together down a muddy road. A heave rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross a flooded intersection. “Come on, young lady,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go for females,” he told Tanzan, “especially young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left her at the puddle,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?

text source: Reps, P. (1961). Zen flesh, zen bones: a collection of zen and pre-zen writings. New York: Doubleday Anchor, p. 18. image credit:


what’s the point

… of wishing “peace on earth” when history teaches us that we’re unable to get along without bloody conflicts? What is it that draws us to hatred, aggression, and prejudice? 

Yesterday I assembled and planted a peace pole: dug a hole, walked a 8 foot 4×4 cedar pole from the lumber yard to my house, sanded it, affixed signs in four languages, mixed the cement, levelled the pole in the ground, waited for the cement to set, put a cap on it — and there it sits. Neighbours and passers-by stop to inspect and read the messages to their young ones: in English, Japanese, German, and Sign Langauge. 

As I look down from the bathroom window to see the pole proclaim universal wishes, it occurs to me that all the things I’ve said in the first paragraph above apply to me. What is it with me and war … hatred … and prejudice? A good place to start: right here.

“If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.” ~ Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama
“If you wish to experience peace, make peace in your heart.” ~ Peter Daishin


which way to the railway station?

The Tao te Ching is a collection of verses dating back to 300 BCE, translated into Western languages over 250 times. Several versions sit on my bookshelf and the one I reach for most often is by Stephen Mitchell. Critics argue whether it’s the best, most accurate, or most genuinely Chinese version, while for me it’s been a silent guide along the Way (tao) for 30 years. It brims with wisdom, grace, and generosity. You won’t understand most of what I have to offer, it seems to be saying, but in some respects you already know.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

How straightforward and yet unattainable; how contrary to our Western ways. Taoism is said to have influenced many Asian religions and philosophies, including Chinese Buddhism from which Japanese Zen was born. What I write about and how I approach my spiritual practice is informed by this.

Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate towards yourself,
you reconcile all being in the world.

If I had only these words to guide me — if they were the only text from which to learn about living a good life — I could think of no better instructor.

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These are our greatest treasures.

text source: Excerpts from Mitchell, S. (1988). Tao te Ching. New York: HarperPerennial. image credit: Frankfurt/Main railway station, NY Times AP Photo.


marketing buddha

The Dalai Lama has dedicated his life to the practice and spreading of Buddhist teachings: how wonderful! And he’s become a media star, filling large venues and appearing on talk shows*. Victor Chan, his Canadian promoter, refers to him and others (including Desmond Tutu and Eckhart Tolle) as the “spiritual dream team.” 

Tickets for October’s two-hour public audience in Toronto (Tibetan language only) sold at $50; the following day’s “empowerment” was priced at $100 (general) and $200 (premium). The small print states that “a reasonable fee structure has been implemented … to defray the cost of organizing these auspicious teachings and ceremonies” and the less-than-wealthy were asked to submit a Financial Hardship Form for case-by-case consideration.

A recent organizer‘s website explains that “His Holiness the Dalai Lama does not accept a speaking fee ….” Then who, I wonder, is profiting from the Buddha’s teachings?

Gautama Shakyamuni (who became known as Buddha, “the awakened one”) spent forty years walking around India teaching his basic message of suffering and liberation. We’re told that anyone could attend such outdoor gatherings; anyone could step up, ask questions of the man, and receive careful and repeated explanation. Kings, scholars, householders, nuns, beggars — anyone! No charge. No premium seating. No financial hardship application.

Ken Wilber is a scholar and author on developmental psychology, philosophy, ecology, and spiritual practices. On the topic of money and dharma (the Buddha’s teachings as transmitted from teacher to student for 2500 years), he writes

The dharma is free. No one should charge money for the teaching or transmission of Dharma. Dharma that touches money is no Dharma at all. Selling the Dharma — there is the root of all evil. The Dharma offered freely and without charge to all who seek it: there is purity, nobility, an honorable disposition. And so goes the strange antagonism between Dharma and dollars. 

What are your thoughts on this?

* I mean no disrespect for the Dalai Lama — he’s simply the most visible among pricy dharma teachers; others include Pema Chödrön, Thich Nath Hanh, and such heavy borrowers as Eckhart Tolleimage credit:


going into battle with kindness

(Further to the two previous posts.) To situate the sidewalk incident in a broader context, I turn to an ancient text on Japanese swordsmanship. Zen master Takuan (1573-1645) writes that “adepts do not use the sword to kill people; they use the sword to let people live. …. Whoever attains this freedom is invincible against anyone on earth and is utterly peerless.”

According to Thomas Cleary, the translator, the moral basis for this approach comes from Taoism: “Good warriors are not militaristic, good fighters don’t get angry, and those who are good at defeating opponents don’t get caught up in it.  … If you go into battle with kindness, then you will prevail; if you use it for defense, then you will be secure” (Tao te Ching).

Taking ‘warrior’ and ‘battle’ as metaphors for life in an essentially chaotic world helps to unfetter my thinking. Comments to yesterday’s post reminded me that “you’re human” and “not the Dalai Lama.” What a relief, I thought when I read that, even if my intentions — to save all sentient beings, for instance — are as unattainable as his. “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness,” the Dalai Lama says, “in the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.”

text source: “Tai-a ki: notes on the peerless sword” by Takuan, in Cleary, T. (2005). Soul of the samurai: modern translations of three classic works of Zen & Bushido. Rutledge, VT: Tuttle, p. 144; image credit: