April 21, 2019

Transforming the Three Poisons through our Bodhisattva Vow

Our environment is in terrible shape.

But I believe there is still hope.

We need to transform the three poisons of greed, ignorance, and aversion into generosity, wisdom, and loving care. And I believe this can happen. This is the power of the bodhisattva vow. 

The Three Poisons

Plastics fill the bellies of whales. Run-off from factory farms pollutes our waters. And most harmfully, the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change by releasing CO2, which blankets the atmosphere, trapping in warmth.
A Zen Buddhist's plea to save all beings from global warming
The Greenland ice-sheet has lost 
trillion tons of ice in recent years. 

Climate change has already contributed to serious problems: more powerful storms, greater floods, rising sea levels, intensified heat waves and droughts, climate refugee crises, and species extinctionsClimate change has been linked to the drought, mass migration, and civil war in Syria. Sea levels have already risen 20 centimeters in the last hundred years, displacing hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Indonesia and Bangladesh. Droughts and floods will lead to hundreds of millions of climate refugees unless we take radical action immediately. Entire ecosystems are at risk. If we do not take urgent action now, we may face the mass extinction of species. We even risk collapsing our earth's ecosystem.

So what is stopping us from saving ourselves?

Buddha understood human nature. He pointed out that we suffer from 3 poisons: greed, ignorance, and aversion. We see all three playing out in the climate crisis.  

ExxonMobil knew back in the seventies that greenhouse gases were a problem. Motivated by greed, they undermined climate science in order to sustain profits. Through their propaganda, Americans were kept ignorant about climate change for years. In fact, nearly a third of Americans, despite clear evidence, still believe climate change is a "hoax." Perhaps we are also ignorant about how interconnected we are with the environment. Maybe we still imagine that there is an environment "out there" that is separate from ourselves, then imagine that if environmental catastrophes ensue, "I will be just fine."

But ignorance is abating. What is perplexing is that even though a majority of us now comprehend the devastating significance of climate change, few of us are willing to make sacrifices to address the issue. In fact, 70 percent of Americans would not even pay $10 per month to combat global warming. Corporate and personal greed appear to be a hindrance for us. As Christian theologian Sallie McFague says, "We human beings are so embedded in the culture of consumerism that being asked to consume less makes us almost gasp. And we do; we stop for a moment, and then we... get back in our cars and our airplanes, and continue on."

Aversion may be the subtlest sticking point preventing Americans from dealing with climate change. The challenge sometimes seems overwhelming. It can seem like my actions make no difference in the face of powerful energy lobbyists. It is disheartening watching environmental regulations be overturned in this time of crisis. I am averse to discouragement and uncertainty. Sometimes it is easier to slip into forgetfulness. 

I am also averse to taking personal risks. I recognize that life on this planet is in jeopardy, but I am hesitant to risk being called alarmist. Thirty years ago, I wrote an email asking for support in an environmental cause and sent it to a group of friends. One "replied all" with a scathing (and brilliantly funny) satire about tree hugging teachers. I didn't write to that bunch of friends about the environment again.

But maybe the biggest challenge is that we are averse to doing the work. That form of aversion we call laziness.


Unfortunately, due to the three poisons, we need greater motivation than awareness of climate change provides. We need some call of the heart that helps us transcend our self-centered greed, ignorance, and aversion. 

In Buddhism, the bodhisattva vow is to save all beings. It is based on the wisdom that we are "empty" of separate, fixed selves. We are actually dependent arisings. We are literally made of the earth, sky, air, and rain.

The bodhisattva vow expands our circle of concern from ignorant self-centeredness to an infinite circumference. Based on our wise understanding of how interwoven we are, this commitment to ALL beings transforms greed into generosity and aversion into inspiration.

Transformation of the three poisons is not about feeling better personally. Sometimes it makes us feel worse as we face into great challenges. But our bodhisattva vow wakes us up to the way things actually are and moves us to do whatever we can to be of service.

Together Action

While other important causes also move me to take action, for me, the priority is environmental activism. If our environment renders life unsustainable, nothing else will matter. 

I am inspired by Greta Thunberg and many of her generation. She has exhibited the three virtues of generosity, wisdom, and loving care. Having learned about climate change, Greta stopped going to school in order protest global warming. Driven by her vow to save future generations, Greta made significant personal sacrifices. Greta shows us that where there is will, there are ways to engage.

Most of us already know what we should do. Think globally; act locally. Insulate our homes, reduce fuel consumption, eat less meat, and waste less food and material goods (including plastic). We can also make donations to organizations fighting climate change and join local protests and coalitions. But if we hope to save future generations, we must also support representatives who will shift our energy production from fossil fuels to renewables. 

We cannot know in advance what the outcome will be. But in caring for something greater than ourselves, we manifest our true nature, and this has immeasurable value. 

It begins with our earnest vow to save all beings. 

Whether you have never made this vow or have made it a thousand times, you can take this bodhisattva vow right now. Consider repeating this every day: "I vow to save all the beings of the world." 

Let this vow touch your heart where all beings reside, and it will fuel our transformation. 

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

April 18, 2019

Meditating with Feng-hsueh

Let's play with a koan. 

Case 24 in the Gateless Barrier reads:

A monk asked Feng-hsueh: "Speech and silence are concerned with equality and differentiation. How can I transcend equality and differentiation?"

Feng-hsueh replied: "I always think of Chiang-nan in March. Partridges chirp among the many fragrant flowers."

Upon first reading such a koan, one might find it quite impenetrable. How might we engage? How do we enter this conversation? 

To begin, it helps to have a sense of what the monk is asking. 

What matters here is not some historical question about the monk's intentions. What matters is what comes alive for you as you ponder his question. 

With that, here are some possibilities.... 

For starters, the monk seems troubled by the way speech and silence are concerned with equality and differentiation, for he wants to transcend both. Perhaps he hopes his teacher will respond using neither language nor silence? 

This gives us a sense of just how exasperated the monk may be. He may just be at the end of his rope. "I've tried everything! Don't give me any more of that 'go sit with it in silence,' and your jib jab won't do either!" 

You have to admire a monk like this. 

But what has him so worked up? What does this monk hope to transcend?

Equality here may refer to the oneness of all things, as "all things by nature are Buddha." Differentiation is what allows us to tell a poisonous weed from a cucumber. So the monk might be saying, "if all things are one, how are they also two?" It is not infrequent that Zen practitioners are blocked by this logical contradiction.

Or it may be that the monk has seen that all things are one and two, but he still struggles with this paradox. "I see the oneness of reality in which self and other fall away. And I see that things are separate entities as well -- that there is you, and there is me, and we are not the same. I fall into one perspective, then the other. How can I transcend this pendulum in my practice, where I get caught in emptiness, then caught in form?"

Other possibilities regarding the monk's quandary can be found in different translations of the koan. I won't go into them all, but one translation goes like this: "Both speech and silence are concerned with ri (subjectivity) and mi (objectivity). How can we transcend them?" So the monk may be asking, "I have my own separate consciousness, yet there is also an objective reality 'out there.' How can I transcend this duality? How can subject and object be one?"

Perhaps you have other ways that his question comes alive for you? 

It is worth spending some time inquiring into the aliveness of the monk's presentation. The monk is not asking a question just to be playful here. He sees that his life depends on finding his way through this bramble. So yet another, perhaps more fundamental way of hearing his question is this: "Help me! I am lost in dualistic thinking! Show me Nirvana!"

Feng-hsueh responds with cutting directness, I always think of Chiang-nan in March. Partridges chirp among the many fragrant flowers.

If his answer is not immediately apparent, this case has a gift to offer you. 

You might try sitting. Be upright, still, and silent. Pay attention. 

Take your time. 

Then, let the monk's question penetrate you. How can I transcend equality and differentiation? What is he really asking? Do you feel the fire in it? 

Once the question is alive for you, let Feng-hsueh's response fall like a gentle rain. 

Let his answer float in your open awareness. The koan can do the work for you. 

When you leave the cushion, allow Feng-hsueh's words to walk with you. 

Partridges chirp among the many fragrant flowers.

meditating with a koan
Partridges chirp among the many flowers.

We can entrust our practice to these koans. We don't need to solve them. Let the koan clarify the great matter.

As things become clear, you might visit a Zen teacher who is trained in working with koans. This is worth sharing.... 

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

April 15, 2019

Acceptance of the Five Remembrances

The five remembrances challenge us to reflect on old age, sickness, death, loss, and our own actions.

After an athletic, 51 year-old friend had heart surgery and a stroke, and after another close friend passed out potentially due to a heart issue and fell down the stairs causing a severe concussion and back injury, I decided that maybe I should address the heart palpitations I've felt with increasing frequency over the last year.

I called the doctor, who surprised me by taking my condition seriously and telling me to stop doing vigorous exercise till we sort this out. I had been training for a half marathon. After hearing this advice, I skipped the race.

I have been an athlete my whole life. As a child, I would sprint barefoot through the grass just for the joy. (I can still feel the soft, wet blades of grass between my toes!) In middle school, I played soccer for a team that won the State championships. As a high school student, I lettered in swimming and track. In college, I won national championships in rowing, then trained for the national team and won elite nationals and the Canadian Henley. A few years later, I ran the Boston Marathon in under 3 hours. Training has been a great joy and has generated pride in my healthy body.

Perhaps you have heard the Buddhist teaching of "anatman" -- no self. This was Buddha's response to the Hindu teaching of Atman, or true self, which some Hindu practitioners sought through meditation. According to Buddha, there is no separate, fixed, unchanging self. This does not mean there are no senses of self, but that they are changing, ephemeral, without fixed substance, and made of non-self elements. My sense of self as a competitive athlete depended on my being able to train hard and race. There was never anything permanent or intrinsic about it.

When I realized I had to give up competing (at least for now), I watched my sense of self as an athlete cry out, "Don't abandon me!" A part of me was reluctant to accept my present condition and wanted to protect this sense of myself.

In Boundless Way Zen, we chant "The Five Remembrances" every time we gather together. The first four are that I am: of the nature to grow old, get sick, die, and lose everyone and everything I love. The last is that my deeds are my companions, and I am their beneficiary. These remembrances are found in a sermon of the Buddha called the Upajjhatthana Sutta, an early Pali text.

The first three remembrances, that we are all of the nature to grow old, to get sick, and to die, were what Buddha learned when he left his sheltered palace life for the first time. Buddha was motivated by recognition of these facts to overcome the accompanying suffering, so he left his palace to practice.

For Buddha, to overcome suffering did not ultimately mean what we might imagine. It did not mean that these truths no longer affect us. It means that we can turn toward these truths and accept them. So Buddha taught that we should remind ourselves every day of impermanence as a skillful means to allow us to accept our changing nature. Otherwise, we are prone to move into protectiveness and denial, which cause far greater suffering. After all, that which we run from controls us.


To "overcome" suffering is not to defeat circumstances but to acknowledge them. There is something about acceptance that transforms the heart. Shundo Aoyama writes that "True happiness means no matter what happens, it’s all right. If you become ill, just be ill. When it’s time to die, just die.... To face any situation and accept it with open arms molds the attitude enabling you to see that a wonderful way of living is possible. This is indeed something of consequence. As soon as this attitude is achieved, you have reached paradise, anytime, anywhere, and in any circumstances. Once this idea is accepted, spring must be everywhere" (adapted from Zen Seeds).
The Five Remembrances
Spring everywhere

For me, this attitude of acceptance is not a change in how I think. In fact, my initial reaction to the news that I should stop training was not pure acceptance. It was the opposite! But I could bear witness even to my resistance and accept it as just thoughts and feelings, as just a sense of self crying out. It was like a light show, or like a dog barking in the neighbor's yard.

When we bear witness to the "full catastrophe," when we open our hearts to things as they are (including our reactions), the world offers itself to us as a sacred presence. Like Zorba the Greek, we can dance on the beach with tears on our cheeks. 

Time will tell, but I may not be able to compete anymore. And I am getting older anyway. I was already starting to slow down. But acceptance makes a new way of living possible. For the last week, rather than training as an athlete, I have taken gentle walks in the woods as the spring arrives. My deeds are my companions. I have appreciated slowing down. There are big, red buds on the trees that are just opening, and shoots topped by violet flowers sprout from the mud. Rather than running past them, I pause. I hear the birds chattering away with one another. Fields are greening, and water rushes past me down the hillside after the rain.

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

April 14, 2019

Empathy and Compassion


When we feel empathy, we vicariously enter someone else's experience and emotions. Empathy has its good side. It opens us beyond our self-centeredness. For example, I might see an interpersonal conflict with a friend from only my own limited perspective. If I can imagine my way into their shoes, this helps me grow in understanding. It widens my sense of reality, and it helps me consider issues from a different point of view. If both people in a relationship are empathetic with one another, empathy helps us come to a deeper understanding of one another. Maybe we can come to a compromise and find a way forward that meets both of our needs.

But research into empathy (see here) also suggests that empathy can lead to increased bias. This is because we tend to identify through empathy with those closest to us and with those most like us, then take one side in an argument, ignoring the "other side's" perspective. This can happen in interactions ranging from world affairs to our own children, where we pit ourselves against "others" for the sake of the one with whom we most empathize. This can lead to policies that are unfair, privileging those most like us, and even neglecting others' rights.

When arguments are fueled by "extreme empathy," which I would describe as a form of identification that decreases our capacity to hear different perspectives, it can be nearly impossible to find common ground. We get so caught up in defending our own views that we shut out anyone who disagrees. This often happens through dismissive judgments of other people's character.

I have seen good friends disassociate from one another because they empathized quite lovingly with different people. One friend might empathize most with the working class who have suffered from technological advances, globalization, opiate addiction, and a sense of betrayal by corporate owners and government representatives. Another friend might empathize most with the plight of people of color who suffer from the legacy of slavery and hundreds of years of systemic racism, right to this day. While there can be overlap in these concerns, what can happen is that each person, whose "heart is in the right place," might prioritize one group over another, dismissing the unique concerns of the other group. Empathy with one or the other can fuel competitiveness that escalate, all in the name of love and justice.

Or it can simply lead to neglect of those with whom we least relate.


In Mahayana Buddhism, our call is not to repress our empathy but to cultivate a wider circle of concern. Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion. (S)he hears the cries not just of one side or another in a conflict but "hears the cries of the world." 

Empathy and Compassion

Avalokiteshvara embodies the mantra, "there but for the grace of God go I." Were I born into the exact same circumstances -- the same body and mind, the same upbringing, and the same causes and conditions affecting me -- then I would embody the other person's perspective. This does not mean that people have no personal responsibility for our views and actions. But without being touched by some sort of opening encounter, it is very hard to open beyond one's conditioned perspective. Can we recognize that the person with a different view also has reasons for feeling as they do?

Mahayana Buddhism calls us to open beyond our conditioned, limited perspective to hear all the cries of the world. This is an incredible challenge, given the power of self-centeredness and given the power of empathy. We have a strong tendency to empathize with those ideologically closest to us and to polarize against those at a greater distance.

What would it look like to expand our circle of concern to hold all beings in our hearts? Perhaps our fear is that we will then abandon our values. But my experience is that this is not what happens. Compassion for all beings does not render one's sense of right and wrong meaningless. One can still take a stand for the sake of non-harm, for example. And one can still advocate for those who suffer injustices. Empathy for those who suffer is not erased by compassion for all beings. But we can gain a wider, more inclusive understanding.

Compassion opens us beyond identification with one side's feelings. Compassion opens our hearts to the plight of all beings and allows us to care even for those with whom we disagree. If we can open to the possibility that we don't actually already know everything, by listening, we can develop a greater understanding of the motives of people on all sides, and perhaps we can also find ways to address the needs of everyone involved. Rarely is it actually a zero-sum game in the way that politicization tends to suggest. Rarely is it true that we must meet one person's needs or the other's. We can address both the poverty of the white working class and the unique, systemic injustices of racism, and to set these two up as oppositional is a success of limited empathy, but a failure of compassion.

True compassion is challenging. In my experience, it is very hard to have compassion for people with whom I disagree. Arno Michaelis is the founder of one of largest white supremacist groups in the world. He admits to severely beating people because of the color of their skin. He said that when he was called a racist, his hatred only grew, and he reacted with greater intensity, becoming even more violent. The confrontational approach failed with him again and again. But when he was met with compassion, he softened. He tells the following story of how compassion began to transform him: "One time I was greeted by a black lady at a McDonald’s cash register with a smile as warm and unconditional as the sun. When she noticed the swastika tattoo on my finger, she said...: ‘I know that’s not who you are.'" He described himself as "powerless against such compassion." Michaelis went on to found a group called "Life After Hate" which, through compassionate witness rather than harsh judgment, helps people abandon white supremacist groups and find a healing path.

Compassion "as warm and unconditional as the sun" does not mean abandoning our sense of right and wrong or even empathizing with those with whom we disagree. Nor does it mean remaining in abusive relationships. But when possible, I think it means not "writing off" or looking down on those with whom we disagree. Instead, we hear them and treat them with dignity and respect. We bear open-hearted witness.

One recent study examined a new approach to canvassing. The canvassers, advocates for transgender rights, [didn't] judge others or their opinions or "try to build rational arguments for why someone should think one way or another." Instead, they listened respectfully to the opinions of those they met. One canvasser said, "There's something special about caring about why [people] feel the way they do. You can connect to their values in that way.'"  Canvassers then shared some thoughts of their own. This form of canvassing reportedly had a more positive impact than traditional forms of canvassing.

Save all beings

Buddhist practice is meant to challenge us to open our hearts. Can we remain open to all beings even as we advocate for justice and kindness in the world? In such polarized times, this is no easy task. I am not always able to live up to this teaching. But the teachings are meant to awaken us to what we do so that we can atone and vow to do better. Perhaps practicing compassion for all beings can increase our own equanimity and contribute to a more more civil society.

Our bodhisattva vow is not to save some beings but to save all beings. It may be worth reflecting on those we have shut out of our hearts. 

The root of the word, heal, literally means "to make whole." When we divide the world into inherently "good" and "bad" people, the divisions we make in our own heart-minds manifest in the world. In allowing all beings to reside in our hearts, we heal ourselves. If we can stay in respectful relationship with those with whom we disagree, perhaps we increase the possibility for healing in the world.

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

April 10, 2019

Boundless Way Zen

Boundless Way Zen is my practice home.

Boundless Way Zen (affectionately known as BoWZ) is an emerging school of Zen Buddhism whose practices are informed by multiple lineages, including Japanese Soto, the Soto reform Harada-Yasutani School, and Korean Seon. Our school's ancestors include Soto priest Peggy Houn Jiyu Kennett, John Tarrant (dharma heir of Robert Aitken), Korean Zen master Seung Sahn.

Boundless Way Zen has changed over the years, but our core mission still inspires us to: establish and support inclusive local sanghas; train dharma teachers and practice leaders; and provide sesshin and other intensive training opportunities. Most fundamentally, the project of Boundless Way Zen is awakening with all beings. 

Local sanghas

Boundless Way Zen
Morning Star Zen Sangha

Presently, there are seven Boundless Way Zen local sanghas (with an eighth potentially starting soon). Morning Star Zen Sangha, my practice group, is based in Newton and Waltham, Massachusetts; other sanghas are located in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, and Denmark. Six of these practice groups are governed and financially administered by the member-elected Boundless Way Zen Leadership Council. These practice groups meet weekly and offer a liturgy service, sitting and walking meditation, dharma talks, and sometimes, dokusan, or private meetings with a teacher.

Boundless Way Temple is Boundless Way Zen's only "affiliate." The Temple is a separately incorporated legal entity with its own members, bylaws, board of directors, and finances. David Rynick, Roshi and Melissa Blacker, Roshi are the founding teachers of the Temple and are intimately involved in its daily operations. The Temple hosts practices nearly every day.

Boundless Way Zen's local sanghas are vibrant, warm, and welcoming communities where lay people and priests join together in friendship to practice the dharma.

Dharma teachers

The second aspect of Boundless Way Zen's mission is training dharma teachers. First, a note on our transmitted teachers. James Ford is a Guiding Teacher Emeritus and a founding teacher of Boundless Way Zen. We are deeply indebted to James for his clarity of vision in helping develop our mission and for the legacy of his teaching.

As of today, the active guiding teachers of Boundless Way Zen are Melissa Myoun Blacker, Roshi, who received transmission from James Ford, and David Dae An Rynick, Roshi, who received transmission from George Bowman and James Ford. Having received Denbo transmission, Bob Waldinger, Sensei and I (see here, and here) are also fully authorized Zen teachers, able to independently name our own successors and teaching in the BoWZ school.

The Boundless Way Zen Leadership Council, in addition to overseeing local practice groups, has the power to appoint and dismiss guiding teachers and thus plays an important role in teacher accountability, as do the ethics code and Ethics and Reconciliation (EAR) Committee. Ultimately the guiding teachers serve at the pleasure of the BoWZ Leadership Council. These important checks and balances help protect Boundless Way Zen from the kinds of abuses of power that have harmed some Zen sanghas.

In order to fulfill our mission to train dharma teachers, the guiding teachers, who are the spiritual directors of BoWZ, may grant incremental levels of teaching permission for maturing practitioners and mentor them in their development. The levels of teaching permission include: practice leaders, who offer orientations to new folks and who lead weekly practice meetings; dharma teachers, who are authorized to offer dharma talks; and senior dharma teachers, who are also authorized to offer dokusan (practice interviews). The next level of teaching authority in Boundless Way Zen is dharma holder. A dharma holder has received Denkai, the first stage of dharma transmission, from their individual teacher and may have their own shoken students and offer the precepts to their students, though they may not offer transmission.

Boundless Way Zen also includes a lineage of ordained priests. While being a priest and teacher are by no means mutually exclusive, in BoWZ, a person may be a priest but feel no calling to serve as a teacher. To be a priest is to feel a particular calling to serve others and to manifest our Soto forms. It is a lifelong commitment of the heart.


Boundless Way Zen
Sesshin Photo from Boundless Way Temple,
a Boundless Way Zen Affiliate

Part three of Boundless Way Zen's mission is providing sesshin and other intensive training opportunities. Presently, the Temple administers and hosts sesshin to which both members and non-members of the Temple are invited. Melissa and David, as the resident teachers of the Temple, are the guiding teachers at these sesshin, but they consistently invite one or two guest teachers to lead sesshin with them. Generally, there are at least five sesshin at the Temple each year, including a three week intensive "Coming and Going" sesshin each winter. The Temple also hosts a "beginners mind" retreat for new and old hands alike, along with many other programs.

Boundless Way's local sesshin and intensive practice offerings are expanding as we now offer sesshin and day-long sits in Newton and Waltham, co-hosted by Hank Sangha and Morning Star Zen Sangha, and taught by Bob Waldinger and myself.

Boundless Way Zen's numerous intensive retreats provide many opportunities for sangha members to deepen our practice and touch the heart-mind.

Growing pains

Over the last year, there was a split in BoWZ turning on different conceptions of leadership responsibilities (including a lack of clarity regarding the independence of the Temple) and interpersonal conflicts on the expanding guiding teachers council. No single narrative could possibly capture the complex dynamics at work. But people were hurt, and some teachers and members left BoWZ. I wish healing for all and hope there may be reconciliation in time. In that spirit, Boundless Way Zen made a significant grant to support departees in recognition of all they historically gave to BoWZ, and so that they too can cultivate Zen in the West. While this was a difficult transitional period for Boundless Way Zen, our organization has grown in understanding, and we remain deeply committed to carrying forth our mission.


Ultimately, the project of Boundless Way Zen is awakening together. We in Boundless Way Zen are devoted to this inclusive, heart-opening project.

Ours is a rich, deep tradition indebted to our historical and mythological ancestors, including Eihei Dōgen of Japan, Taego Bou of Korea, Bodhidharma of India and China, Shakyamuni Buddha of India/Nepal, and Great Mother Prajna Paramita.

We invite you to join us in this sacred work of awakening with all beings. This world needs us all. And we need each other. Nobody can do this practice for us, and none of us can do it alone.

May all beings be freed from suffering!
May all beings be liberated and brought to great joy.

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

April 7, 2019

Who Lives, Who Dies?

I sit on the deck behind my house this early spring day. A distant bird's chirp sounds like drops of water falling into a pool. The whoosh of distant traffic travels through the space of my heart. The adjacent fir tree's branches lift and dive in the wind, needles whispering, then settle into stillness.

"Who? Who?"
"Who, who?" asks the mourning dove in a nearby maple tree. Though its branches are bare, I cannot find the source of this downward spiraling call.

The sun illuminates streaming gray clouds, turning them silver and warming my face, then tucks behind another bank of dark clouds. A dog's bright bark cuts through everything.

And now, without words, what is this new fluttering birdsong piercing my skin?

Somehow each element is distinct, yet vanishes into this edgeless world where beginnings and endings no longer matter.

Who lives, who dies, in this place that has no name?

"Who? Who?"

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

April 2, 2019

What Happens if we Don't Turn Away?

I woke at 4 AM, and darkness took hold of me.

With dawn still hours away and my wife breathing softly next to me, it struck me that I had been with her for nearly six years, but it felt like maybe two. I wondered what happened to the other four. 

As a child, six years was a lifetime. Why did days now disappear without a trace? 

I wondered if perhaps I was no longer cataloguing memories in the same way as I did as a child when days made explosive impressions. Then, each day included firsts -- a first touch of snow on the tongue, a first bash of my head into a cabinet -- whatever it was, it struck me with awe and wonder. 

Do memories no longer generate a narrative in the same way? Is that why time seems to disappear?

Then a vague sense of dread arose as I peered into the dark. There was a lack of clarity in my brain, a blankness, a kind of fog. But an unrecognized thought circled in the depths as if in murky water till it rose and took shape in whispered words. 

This must be what my mother felt as her mind slipped with the rainwater down the sloped roof. Would that be my fate too? Could this be the early stage of Alzheimer's, when time no longer forms a story?

Nearly fifty years old now, and with a heart monitor on my chest due to recent palpatations, I wondered, are you already with me, death, taking one memory at a time?

In the nighttime, the shadows come alive. Ghosts of people we loved and lost take shape as our own fears. Shadowy anxieties gather in our bedrooms, and they see right through us as we try to make them out in the dark.
Dogen's ippo-gujin


Then Dogen's teaching came alive. What happens if we don't turn away? This is Dogen's notion, ippo-gujin -- translated as "studying one dharma to the very end" (here), or becoming one with "the total exertion of a single dharma" (here). This is the path of integration rather than escape; we meet each visitor as a sacred guest. 

I breathed. And the flutterings of my heart met advancing images from former lives. My mind's eye adjusted, and memories gathered in a procession of loosely associated griefs.

My mother and father now a few years gone were the first visitations. I let these incorporeal beings enter me, and sadness rose like sweet tidewater.

Then other unrecognized ghosts entered my heart. I did not put on my daylight armor. Another lost love sat beside me and smiled as new tears formed in my eyes.

This is how we sometimes receive the night.

I was not destroyed by these visitations. Maybe turning toward whatever arises is the greatest relief.

Gradually, the rain slowed to a drizzle on the roof. The ghosts, finally recognized, dissolved into the air. I once again heard the sweet quiet breathing of my wife. And new tears formed in my eyes for she who was with me.

As I drifted back to sleep, the early liquid song of a tiny bird poured into the hollow of my ear. "Just this," she sang again and again, accompanying me into a dream.

*If you found this post useful, you can sign up for email subscriptions or follow on Blogger. I also invite you to join us to practice at Morning Star Zen Sangha in Newton and Waltham, MA.

**Special thanks to Zach Horvitz for the pointer to Dogen's term.