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Category Archives: Zen teachers

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.  


good ‘as is’

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Comments to yesterday’s post brought me to an insight. The ways I see myself, alone and in relation to others, is informed by early childhood experiences. Over the years I’ve tried to shape-shift by means of schooling, therapy, travels, relationships, spiritual practice, volunteering, etc. And all along this belief — imprinted on the psyche — that much was wrong with me and that effort and luck might make a better person of me.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer (1788-1860) writes: “Everyone believes himself to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life. … But through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity, that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns …” (Schopenhauer, A. [1851]. The wisdom of life. Dover edition 2004, p. 147).

That may be so, Herr Professor, except for the condemn part! Turns out that I have the freedom to accept all that has happened, all I have done or left undone, and all that I cherish and detest. Years ago, one teacher told me to “welcome everything and to push away nothing,” and another that “you’re not an improvement project.” What’s beginning to emerge is a view of myself as a good person — not good as in “as compared to” or “good enough, considering …” but as an innately blameless, ethical, and worthy being.

Not a bad way to start a Thursday, eh?

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?



what moon?

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previous post touched on the role of teachers in our psycho-spiritual unfolding. Being human, they deal with the same stuff as anyone else. Most keep personal thoughts and feelings to themselves so as not to cloud the relationship, while we all brush up against boundaries of intimacy and confidentiality. 

I’ve done my share of placing teachers on pedestals: a difficult thing to avoid amid the ritual, titles, and robes. Inevitably it creates distance and separation, with me at the lower (lesser) level. Occasionally, as a meditation teacher, I find myself wishing for that very distance to protect my privacy. A tricky dance. It helps to see the teacher’s role as the hand pointing to the moon and not to confuse the hand for the moon.

image: moon-pointing Hotei at


frequently dumbfounded …

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… I find comfort in a line Steve sent this morning: “The deepest truths disclose themselves naturally.” So it’s okay to cut myself some slack for ‘not knowing,’ to sit in childlike wonder and see what the day will bring.

source: Thich Nhat Hanh. (1974). Zen keys. New York: Doubleday, p. 192. Click here for Steve’s comment and the context of the quote. image:


an old man’s view

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Further to yesterday’s post, Steve sent these lines by Taigu Ryokan, nicknamed Great Fool (1758-1831), a Zen poet who lived simply. 

An old and useless body,
I have seen many generations of flowers in this
    lonely, borrowed hermitage.
When spring comes, and if I am still alive,
Surely I will come to see you again–
Listen for the sound of my staff.

Stevens, J. (1988). (trans). One robe, one bowl: the Zen poetry of Ryokan. New York/Tokyo: Weatherhill, p. 27.


gotta have

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Dan took this photo at a weekend garage sale and my immediate response was, “did he buy it for me?” It’s just past 6 in the morning and already I must have something that’s not mine, already this deep-rooted greed.

It’s everywhere. When my back aches, I want to be young again. When my lover gets up without a word, I wish she’d tell me why. When my retirement portfolio takes a dip because of something that’s happening in Lybia, I feel deprived. One thing after another, never quite enough. Fact is, I have plenty. Plenty of love, strength, and security. Much to be grateful for, even more to give away.

Greed, along with anger and ignorance, is one of the Three Poisons in Buddhist practice. “They are based on separation,” explains Daido Loori, “on the illusion that things are separate from ourselves. When you turn them around, [they] become the Three Virtues. The virtue of compassion, the virtue of wisdom, and the virtue of enlightenment.” Thanks for reminding me, silly plastic monk.