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just a breath away

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Just back from a weekend at the monastery, where I sat on a cushion or chair for hours, didn’t speak to anyone, helped in the kitchen, ate meals out of wooden bowls, chanted in English, Pali, and Japanese, woke up around 4 am and didn’t get to bed till close to 10 at night.

For the first ten hours of that I was busy daydreaming, fantasizing, fabricating, worrying, and watching my mind doing useless acrobatics. Then late at night, well past worry about stiff legs and aching back, something happened, if even for a moment. For the duration of several breaths I sank into a vivid awareness of my physical body, followed each breath into the fibre of my being, noted tense spots and soft areas, letting go – o miracle – of wandering thoughts; sank past wanting to get anywhere, greeted sensations and feelings as they passed by, fell deeper and deeper into successive waves of being-alive, witnessing nothingness while being fully awake.

I came back to “normal,” back to wandering mind and obscured awareness. That’s to be expected. Yet a full day later I remain refreshed by the realization that light resides within darkness. Nothing profound perhaps — except that for someone prone to depressive swings, welcome evidence of spaciousness residing a mere breath-length away from everyday chaos.


i eat therefore i am, or is it the other way ’round?

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After meditation last night, B. described how she’s begun paying attention to food and eating in her busy life. My husband gives me strange looks, she told us, and my kids ask, What are you doing, mom? when she goes quiet at the start of a meal.

Eating, like so many things we do in the course of a day, happens automatically. It requires no special effort, no thinking. Maybe that’s why eating has become problematic for some. For me it’s anxiety, however trivial or complex, that makes me eat. Can’t find my car keys on the way out the door — and a piece of chocolate appears in my mouth and is gone before I know it was even there. Anticipating a difficult conversation — and a tub of hedgehog ice cream appears out of nowhere to cause brainfreeze. Gradually, over time and with effort, I’m becoming aware of how worry, fear, sadness, and joy trigger eating. Once I notice, I can make choices.

In her book Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays suggests ways to explore our relationship to eating and drinking by creating pauses of awareness. For instance:

1. Pause before beginning a meal. Look at each item of food, taking it in with the eyes. Notice colors, textures, shapes, arrangements on the plate or bowl. 2. Take a moment to say grace. Thank the animals, plants, and people who brought this food to you.Be aware of their gifts as you eat. 3. Begin the meal by pausing to inhale the fragrance of the food. Imagine that you are being nourished by just the smell. 4. If you notice that you are eating without tasting, stop and pause to look at the food again.

source: Bays, J.C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to redicovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 100. image:

hand-carved Jizo statues ~ the perfect gift

Jizo is a Buddhist bodhisattva much revered in South East Asia. Depicted as a monk, he serves as protector of all beings in transition —  particularly children who have died as well as women, monks, and firefighters. He represents the qualities of unflagging optimism, fearlessness, and gentleness.

Of the many styles available in the West, I have long been drawn to these charming statues carved in Bali. After bringing a few back from my home monastery, I wrote to Victoria, an American expat who helps bring the carvers’ work to market. The statues measure ca. 7½” in height and 5″ across the bottom and are made from dense wood native to Bali. If you like to have a look at the ones I have for sale, kindly contact me at

I sell the statues at cost (without mark-up) to cover materials and wages for the Bali carvers plus  air freight. Your cost in Victoria, BC is C$78. If you live in the USA, kindly contact ZenWorks in Oregon.

* Victoria writes: “So glad you have them! The carver is a man named Ketut I met maybe 12 years ago. I had heard he was carving nice Buddha statues and went looking for him. I wove my way down a number of small lanes in a village to find him, carving in his family compound (place where family has lived for many generations. Has a family temple where the ancestors are honoured on a regular basis and all the generations live there together. The sons stay with their wives and build another kitchen and the daughters go to their husbands compounds. The old generally die in the center of family activity.

“[At first Ketut] was shy and uneasy … Many years later his quality has improved over the years and he has become confident and happy and has a wonderful wife and son. Generally more than one person works on a piece. Someone roughs it in, someone does finish detail. Someone else may do faces because they are better at faces that other people. Someone else sands and waxes. Ketut always does the faces for these Jizos as he is the only one who can capture that particular wonderful feeling. Namaste.”

i’m aware, therefore …

A few days ago (Dec 13th) I wrote that “after a decade of practice, the one obstacles I seem unable to comprehend is the idea of a ‘self.’ A product of Western sensibilities, my perception of reality is based on a distinct self. Buddhist teachings, in contrast, claim that the self is an illusion created by society and an expression the desires and needs of the ego.”

The next day a reader directed me to Buddha’s Brain, a book by two neurologists who’re also meditation teachers. Drawing on recent brain research, they explain how and why a 2500-year old practice works physiologically. This is very helpful for someone who likes to know the whys and wherefores about something he’s told to do. The Buddha himself emphasized direct experience (“be a lamp unto yourself”) and Zen teachers play down book learning. While my preferred learning style leans towards experiencing, observing, and reflecting, I do benefit from science-based reasons behind things. On the topic of a separate self, the authors say that —

A person is a human body-mind as a whole, an autonomous and dynamic system that arises in dependence upon human culture and the natural world. You’re a person and I’m a person. Persons have histories, values, and plans. The person goes on being as long as the body is alive and the brain reasonably intact. But … self-related mental contents have no special neurological status and are just part of the ongoing stream of mental activity. …

Even those aspects of self that are stored in explicit and implicit memory take up only a portion of the brain’s storehouse of information about the world, perceptual processing, skilled action, and more. The self is just one part of the whole person (p. 211, emphasis added). …

… [A]wareness does not need a self to operate. …. [it] can do its job without a subject. … In fact, observing your own experience shows that the self — the apparent subject — often comes in after the fact. In many ways, the self is like someone running behind a parade that is already well under way, continually calling out: “See what I have created” (p. 212).

The first instruction my zen teacher ever gave me (during sanzen eleven years ago) was to use awareness of sound as a meditation practice. As we sat, facing each other on our mats, she drew my attention to the sounds of birds outside the open window. Listen, she said, listen to that sound. And then notice what the mind, the self, does with that sound. First it wants to give it a name, a category, make sense of the experience (a songbird, say, or a Western Warbler), and then to judge the thing as pleasant or perhaps annoying. It may also add “how clever I am to know its name” or similar such commentary. Meanwhile, the bird’s song, the pure phenomenon, has come and gone and we’re no longer in the moment, but trapped somewhere in our fabricating mind.

text: Hansen, R. with Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: the practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. image:

what vow is this?

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Till now our fledging meditation group has stayed clear of chanting — something that’s integral to monasteries and priest-led practice centres. We’ve limited rituals to ringing a bell here and a han there; we bow as we arrive and depart, when taking and leaving our seats, and as part of tea service. During this week of rohatsu, however, we’re adding the four-line chant of the Bodhisattva Vows to our morning and evening sittings. It begins with this line:

Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.

You what? Why not end world hunger or make peace on earth while you’re at it? Outright silly, you say? Meaningless? Get real! And who are you to “free” anyone? And free from what? Delusions? Greed? Illness? Sadness? Bad habits? Arrogance? Old age? Just a few that come to mind: states I wish I could be free of. Bingo! Start right here, right now.

What keeps me from being a kind person, a happy man, a good neighbour, a forgiving brother, a generous friend? How about this for a vow: May I be free from fear, anxiety, anger, hatred, prejudice. May I accept myself as I am, warts and all. May I cut myself some slack.

That’s a start: my mantra for today. May your day go well.

what to do?

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Writing helps sharpen my awareness of the everyday, the ways in which reality — seen straight-on with a clear mind — contains everything that’s needed for an authentic life. Suffering, yes, there’s plenty of it. The Buddha taught that much depends on our stance vis-à-vis suffering, our relationship to what causes heart-ache, loneliness, and confusion. In a nutshell: pain is pain, suffering is optional.

Looking back over the last 24 hours shows me ways in which people I know are dealing with adversity — how they’re seeing opportunities for growth in the midst of their suffering. [I use the term suffering as the Sanskrit dukkha, also translated as pain, anxiety, sorrow, misery, stress, angst, and frustration.] 

• A dharma friend tells me how her family is coping with the stress of inadequate funds to make ends meet. They’re working with their bank to consolidate debts, cutting up credit cards, restricting purchases to the essentials, and keeping a tight rein on spending. “It feels good to take charge.”

• A man who lives with his mom and poodle in a nearby apartment rides an electric scooter. He often stops at our fence and speaks of social issues, of poverty, living on the street, and activism. Today he holds a stack of leaflets: “Friday I’ll be filing my nomination papers for election to city council,” he explains with a grin. Seeing his cap-in-hand, two of us take the hint and give him a twoony (C$ 2) each towards his filing fee.

•  A café acquaintance put a letter into my mailbox. She writes of a dear friend, age 78, freshly diagnosed with brain cancer after spending the last two years looking after his 94-old mother. He never wanted to become old and feeble. What shall I say to him, what can I do — will you help me? I’ll meet with her tomorrow, ready to listen and to encourage her to do the same for her friend. What else is there when we’re invited into the intimate sphere of dying, but to arrive with unreserved presence?

image: Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump (1982); acrylic and oil paintstick, and spray paint on canvas. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was the first Afro-African artist to become an international art star. His began as a graffiti artist in New York City, he died due to a heroin overdose at age 27.