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Category Archives: Zen practice

sunday poem

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Feeling deeply appreciated and nourished by the comments to my previous post, I dip into The poetry of Zen* —

Whatever it is,
I cannot understand it,
although gratitude
stubbornly overcomes me
until I’m reduced to tears.

* by Saigyō Hōshi (西行 法師, 1118–1190) in Hamill, S., & Seaton, J. P. (2007). (trans.). Boston: Shambhala, p. 112. image: “Old Man Weeping” after Van Gogh by Gordon Christie when he was still a teenager.


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.”


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

face it: you are alone

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In her latest blog post, our friend Tess reports on changes in her life: she’s got a full-time job and is able to pay her bills. For that she has to get up before 5 in the morning to catch several bus connections, only to return 12 hours later, exhausted. “And trust me,’ she writes, “I’m eternally grateful … really I am. It’s just been a shock to my system and I’m finding a real test to staying present. My ego is having a heyday in convincing me that … I deserve better, that I should be … living over a bakery in Paris.”

O how I know that voice! There’s always something lacking, be it food, love, health, money, things, or enough rain for the garden. What is this dissatisfaction, I wonder, this longing for what is not, all the while dismissing or overlooking that which is? There’s a line in a long Buddhist sutra:

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.
Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

In her book on Mindful Eating, Zen teacher Chozen Bays offers clues as to the cause of my pervasive dissatisfaction. “Heart hunger,” she suggests, “is satisfied by intimacy. 

Each of us is fundamentally alone in the world. No one can know us to the bottom of our being. No one can know all our thoughts. No one can know completely the deepest longings of our hearts. No one, not even the person we are closest to, can experience life as we do. The realization that we are fundamentally alone can be a source of sadness, or grief.”

So, once more, instead of looking for magic explanations I’m called to take refuge in simple awareness. Not to make loneliness to go away, but to welcome it unreservedly. This alone feeling is neither a personality flaw nor a curse inherited from my family of origin (as I’ve always thought). It comes with being an authentic human being.

source: Bays, J. C. (2009). Mindful eating: a guide to rediscovering a healthy and joyful relationship with food. Boston: Shambhala, p. 58. image: when I googled for an “alone” image, I found mostly people in tears: sad and miserable. Photo above taken during week-long walk along the Mosel River: alone and happy.  

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

why open the gate and ring the bell?

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After last night’s meditation, two of us stayed to talk about our zendo. Why is it, I wondered, that so many people come to sit for a while and then drop by the wayside? Years ago my monastic teacher told me not to worry, but to announce the times, sweep the walkway, unlock the gate, light a candle, and be ready to receive whoever comes to the door.

If one person shows up, he said, be glad and ring the bell. If ten or twenty come, likewise. But what if no-one comes? Ditto: light incense, bow, ring the bell, and sit. Make sure you meditate regularly and don’t get hung up on numbers. Concern yourself with your own salvation and leave everyone else to attend to theirs. People will come when they need to. 

My zendo friend and I also touched on the weight of having a teacher present, and of following certain forms and rituals. Might that be the reason people flock to centres  where there’s someone in a robe and a title? How is that people spend hundreds of dollars to travel and sit among a large audience to hear someone speak in translation — but won’t sit on a cushion once a week, free of charge? We both agreed that yes, a teacher is important and sooner or later most everyone can benefit from being pointed along a path, but that meditation, the fundamental ‘work’ of awakening from delusions, requires individual effort. The purpose of a sitting group, then, is to bring together a group of people — a sangha in the Buddhist tradition– to support and accompany each other.