Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

June 24, 2022

Zen: Actualizing the Noble Eightfold Path

The ancient Chinese Zen master Lin Chi once told a monk, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." Though easily misinterpreted, such startling statements are intended to wake us up. Still, as iconoclastic as many Zen teachers may appear, Zen practices actually have their roots in Buddha's original teachings.

Buddhism is comprised of many different lists — the two truths, the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five aggregates, the six paramitas, the seven factors of awakening, the noble eightfold path, and so on. It’s helpful to know that each teaching in Buddhism contains all the other teachings because ultimately, they all have their source in meditation, and they all point toward the salvific quality of reality, just as it is. 

Still, there are a few Buddhist teachings that are foundational. The four noble truths explain that life includes suffering, suffering has causes, suffering ends, and there is an eightfold path of practice to alleviate suffering. The noble eightfold path is the heart of Buddha’s teachings.

Today, I’d like to explore how the eightfold path is deeply woven into the Zen tradition, even if it is not always explicitly named. The key guidances of the eightfold path manifest in Living Vow Zen's sutras, vows, and practices. To practice Zen is to embody and actualize the noble eightfold path.

The elements of the eightfold path are: right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right thought, and right understanding (or insight). The eightfold path aims at promoting the three aspects of Buddhist training: ethical conduct, meditation, and wisdom. These 3 aspects contain all the elements of the eightfold path and are interdependent practices. Ethical conduct is inspired by the wisdom that we are deeply interconnected, which we clearly see for ourselves in meditation. 

The Eightfold Path and Zen
Yet we can also explore each aspect of the eightfold path separately. There are 3 ethical commitments in the eightfold path: right speech, right action, and right livelihood. In the Zen tradition, we find our ethical guidelines most explicitly stated in our bodhisattva precepts, and four of our sixteen vows specifically address right speech because it is so important. In those four precepts, we state:
I vow to take up the Way of Not Speaking Falsely.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Finding Fault with Others.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Elevating Myself at the Expense of Others.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Defaming the Three Treasures.

Right action is another ethical commitment in the eightfold path that "aims to promote moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct, encouraging us to abstain from destroying life, from stealing, from dishonest dealings, from illegitimate sexual intercourse, and encouraging us to help others to lead ethical and peaceful lives" (Walpola Sri Rahula).  Though in Living Vow we avoid using the term "illegitimate" regarding sexual intercourse, Zen's bodhisattva precepts offer corresponding guidelines for ethical behavior:
I vow to take up the Way of Not killing.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Stealing.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Misusing Sex.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Intoxicating Mind and Body.
I vow to take up the Way of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets (meaning, in part, that we vow to be of benefit by sharing the dharma, as appropriate, with those who are suffering).

Right livelihood, the third ethical commitment of the eightfold path, means that we should abstain from making our living through any profession that brings harm to others, such as trading in arms and lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks or poisons, killing animals, or cheating, and we should earn our living in a profession which is honorable, blameless, and innocent of harm to others (Walpola Sri Rahula). In our Zen tradition, as mentioned above, we vow in our precepts to avoid killing and intoxicants, and a deep reading of these precepts suggests that we should do all we can to promote life and avoid any activity that leads to the taking of life, such as selling arms or intoxicants. In our precepts, we also vow to cease from evil and to practice good, including in our professions.

The second aspect of the eightfold path is meditation, or as it is traditionally named, “mental discipline,” in which three other guidances are offered: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Traditionally, right effort is “the energetic will to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising, and to get rid of such evil and unwholesome states that have already arisen, and also to produce, to cause to arise, good, and wholesome states of mind not yet arisen, and to develop and bring to perfection the good and wholesome states of mind already present” (Walpola Sri Rahula). In Living Vow Zen, we remind ourselves of this guidance during every sutra service when we recite our Gatha of Atonement, in which we state, “All evil karma ever created by me since of old, on account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance born of my body, mouth, and thought, I vow to atone for it all.” This chant, followed by meditation in our services, helps to illuminate these painful states of mind — the "three poisons" of greed, anger, and ignorance. In my tradition, we do not try to prevent such states from ever arising. Such a practice can lack compassion, be repressive, and lead to spiritual bypasses of appropriate feelings. However, in meditation, we consciously decide not to fuel or act on these painful states when they arise. Instead, we sit still and bear witness to their arising and their dissolution, revealing that we need not be enslaved by such mind states. 

Additionally, in our bodhisattva precepts, we say, “I vow to take up the Way of Not Harboring Ill Will.” We notice ill will arise in us, then we let it go rather than investing in it. By no longer adding fuel to the flames of division and by allowing the three poisons to arise and dissolve rather than acting impulsively on them, we open beyond these painful states to our inherent interconnection with all beings, resulting in a deepening sense of compassion and care. Having paused to realign with our vows, we can often take more skillful and less harmful action to address injustices and alleviate suffering. Of course, being human, sometimes we make mistakes. One thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes. So we also practice atoning and renewing our vows. This is how we actualize our compassionate true nature.

Which leads us to the second guidance in meditation, right mindfulness, which is to be diligently aware of the body, sensations, feelings, the mind, and all things. In other words, we practice awareness of life, just as it is. In this practice, we see that all things come and go, even senses of self. Everything dissolves into what is.

The third and last guidance of meditation within the eightfold path is right concentration. In Zen practice, to cultivate concentration, we begin with counting the breath. We may find that feelings and thoughts naturally settle during this practice, but we do not explicitly aim to silence our minds, for doing so is buying into yet another idea that simply leads us away from realizing the true nature of what is present. It can also foster a belief in a fixed self that needs to be eradicated when there is no fixed self to begin with. So we do not aim to be anything and instead notice the ever-changing constellation of processes that we used to identify as a self. As concentration naturally develops, we might open our awareness to noticing the sensations of the body, ideas that come and go, shapeshifting feelings, and the dance of life around us. We call this expansive practice “shikantaza,” where we simply notice whatever is present. This practice cultivates a profound equanimity that does not depend on the content of our hearts, minds, or experience. This is liberation in the deepest sense.

The remaining two guidances of the eightfold path, namely right thought and right understanding, constitute the aspect of wisdom. Right thought suggests thoughts of love and compassion, which extend to all beings. In the Zen tradition, we cultivate this sense of care in our bodhisattva precepts when we “vow to save all beings.” We remind ourselves of this vow every time we recite our four bodhisattva vows at the end of every service. We also dedicate our practice during sutra services to those who suffer. This is how we practice in the realm of relative truth.

Finally, right understanding, the last guidance of the eightfold path, is the profound realization of the exact equality of emptiness and form, ending all suffering and distress. This understanding is the highest wisdom which sees the ultimate reality. According to Buddhism there are two sorts of understanding. What we generally call understanding is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called “knowing accordingly” (Walpola Sri Rahula). I refer to this as the “relative truth.” It is important but not very deep, and when we attach to particular ideas and mind-states, we project selfhood into things and lose the deeper insight of emptiness. Deep understanding is opening beyond names and labels. It is intimacy with all beings exactly as they are, beyond conceptions. In meditation practice, we learn to relate with all ideas and compass points as provisional, and we practice opening beyond all such ideas to encounter reality in a more intimate way. Trungpa calls this intimacy “compassion-compassion,” which is beyond dualistic thoughts. Beyond self and other, this inherent intimacy with all beings is the deep source of compassion for all beings, without exception.

As you can see, though we do not necessarily cite the eightfold path very often in Zen, it is deeply woven into our liturgy, vows, practices, and teachings. I’ve only scratched the surface of the many ways the eightfold path manifests in Living Vow Zen. To practice Zen is to walk Buddha's noble eightfold path.

May 24, 2022

Announcing Living Vow Zen

In a formal ceremony on May 28, Bob Waldinger and I will receive the final Zen teachers' transmission, called Inka Shomei, from Melissa Blacker and David Rynick. Henceforth, we may be referred to by the title "Roshi," meaning "old teacher" -- or "old fart," as James Ford likes to say. (I prefer the latter.)

It is traditional for Zen teachers at this step to leave the temple where they received their training and establish practice centers on their own.  Bob and I will each continue to lead our respective practice groups, Hank and Morning Star Zen Sanghas of Newton Massachusetts, but as of June 1, those groups will no longer be formally affiliated with Boundless Way Zen. They will become part of a newly established Zen collective called “Living Vow Zen.” In addition, the BoWZ Tulsa practice group will be renamed "Shining Window" and join Living Vow Zen.

Why Living Vow Zen?

Living Vow Zen
According to mythology, in a previous life, the one who would become Buddha reflected that, were he to practice diligently, he could free himself from Samsara in that very lifetime. But rather than practice for his liberation alone, he decided that it would be better to delay his liberation to train for many lifetimes so that he could guide others across the river of suffering to the farther shore.

In his final incarnation, Shakyamuni Buddha was born into nobility and great wealth, but he again renounced that place of comfort when he saw that others in the world were suffering. Once more he vowed to attain enlightenment so that he might conquer suffering not only for himself but for all beings.

Upon awakening, Buddha was true to his vow. He returned to his sangha that he might share with them his teachings. Because of his generosity, Buddha’s awakening reverberates to this day, and it is in the spirit of his living vow that we practice not only for our own awakening but to alleviate suffering in the world. Those of us in Living Vow Zen aim to embody the Mahayana Way by cultivating compassion and wisdom for the sake of all beings. 

All who come and practice even a few times with Hank, Morning Star, or Shining Window may consider themselves part of our sangha, and everyone's participation is valued and appreciated. Everyone is welcome in our inclusive Zen community. 

You may also wish to become a formal member of Living Vow Zen to support its central mission and participate in its governance. You can learn more about Living Vow Zen and how you can join our community by visiting Morning Star Zen Sangha's website.

*Painting by Noah Klavens

January 27, 2022

Moving Forward with Bows of Gratitude

The time has come for the next step on my journey as a Zen teacher. I will be stepping away from Boundless Way Zen to focus on leading Morning Star Zen Sangha. 

It has been a blessing and deep learning experience to teach alongside my teachers, Melissa Blacker Roshi and David Rynick Roshi, in Boundless Way Zen. Our eyebrows are forever entangled. My gratitude knows no bounds. 

I am also grateful to my first teacher, James Ford Roshi, who introduced me to mu. We have never separated. 

Deep bows to the sangha of Boundless Way Zen, my extended family, my roots, my dear friends. This is not a good-bye. 

And, it is time for me to cross the river into new lands, though our paths will intertwine endlessly.

Here is the announcement we shared with the Boundless Way Zen Community about this time of transition:

It is with great joy and some sadness that we announce the transition of Bob Waldinger Sensei and Mike Fieleke Sensei from the position of Boundless Way Zen Guiding Teachers to fully independent Zen Roshis.  Bob and Mike have devoted years of their lives to supporting BoWZ, first as dedicated beginning students through countless sesshin and leadership roles, through to their most recent roles as members of the Guiding Teachers Council.  We have come to know them as wonderful and generous human beings as well as determined and wise people of the Way.  While we will miss them as official parts of BoWZ, we look forward to their coming adventures and to staying in close contact with them through the years. 

This evolution to full teaching independence is a tangible realization of the Boundless Way Zen mission to train teachers and cultivate the practice of Zen.  This move to greater autonomy is also in alignment with the Zen tradition of transmitted students leaving their home temple and striking out to establish practice centers of their own.  We honor and celebrate this evolution as a natural progression on the Way. 

In recognition of their senior teaching status, their deep understanding of the Zen Way, and their ongoing commitment to nurturing their respective practice communities, Melissa Blacker Roshi and David Rynick Roshi will be giving Bob Sensei and Mike Sensei Inka Shomei in a public ceremony later this spring.  This is the final ceremony of Zen transmission after which they may be referred to as Roshi (old teacher).

Bob Sensei and Mike Sensei will continue to lead Hank and Morning Star respectively.  Members of those groups will be warmly welcomed at all BoWZ activities and BoWZ members will be welcomed there, like extended family. 

Over the coming months, Bob and Mike will continue collaborating with Melissa and David on the Boundless Way Guiding Teachers Council, in coordination with the Boundless Way Zen Leadership Council, to work out the specific details of the transition.  Please reach out to teachers and sangha leaders with questions and for further clarification.  The Boundless Way Zen Leadership Council and the Guiding Teachers Council will continue to update you on details of the transition.  

In appreciation of the unfolding way,

Craig Dreeszen, President, BoWZ Leadership Council, Melissa Blacker Roshi, David Rynick Roshi, Bob Waldinger Sensei, and Mike Fieleke Sensei

April 13, 2021

Save All Beings

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I offered to Morning Star Zen Sangha on April 4, 2018.

From The Way of Tenderness, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel: ”Complete tenderness trusts the fluidity of our life energy and its extension into those around us. It allows rage and anger to flow in and out again without holding on to it as proof of being human. The way of tenderness is an elixir for the clogged arteries in the heart of our world. The way of tenderness does not equal quiescence. It does not mean that fiery emotions disappear. It does not render acceptable that anyone could hurt or abuse life. Tenderness doesn't erase the inequities we face in the relative world. It doesn't encourage a spiritual bypass of the feelings, we experience.”

I've been feeling really grateful to be here tonight with all of you sitting together and getting to hear the ringing of the bells. How lucky we are to take refuge in the presence of one another, in our sangha. We have this remarkable, safe space to allow ourselves to unfold. Not everyone is so fortunate. 

50 years ago tonight, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated. I've been listening to stories about him on the radio. I’ve been recalling Black people who have been unjustly killed. Aura Rosser. Philando Castille. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. 12 year old Tamir Rice. The anniversary of Dr. King’s murder reminds us of what he was fighting for. At the moment of his assassination, it was economic justice. He was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers of the city. And it's frustrating to look out into our world now and see that economic justice has not come, that we have actually maintained economic disparities between the races. It's staggering. I recently read that the average white family in Boston has about $250,000 in equity, and the average Black family has $8. King also fought against mass incarceration and violence against Black people, yet assassinations and imprisonments continue. One in four young Black men go to prison. We have a name for it: the school to prison pipeline. We can either think that there is something wrong with Black people, or we can think that there is something wrong with our society that these continue to be the outcomes. I believe the latter.

Some of us may also be tuned into the injustice facing a voiceless constituent: the environment -- the way that environmental protections are being stripped away one after another even though it's clear that this causes great harm to us all, and disproportionate harm to the poor and people of color. And worldwide, we see great suffering -- refugee crises, war, genocides, starvation. As King said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." So much of it is driven by the 3 poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, but mostly greed. And the greedy suffer too. In Buddhism, this endless longing to possess is personified as hungry ghosts, creatures with a huge bellies and tiny mouths who cannot ingest as much food as they desire. This rampant longing to consume the world could destroy us all. 

Our practice on the cushion is not about escapism or denial. We are called to alleviate suffering for all beings. That is the heart of this practice. The mind sometimes wants to jump ahead. How do I do it? And then, of course, we run up against inevitable failure and may feel that the next best thing is to just give up. And yet, here we come, week after week, and make our bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings from suffering. How is it that we fulfill our vow to free all beings? Faced with this living koan again and again, do we go to a place of denial, a place of quietism, or do we practice the brave way of tenderness, of being awake? 

Part of the reason we do not practice turning away from our own suffering is so that we can bear the suffering of all, so that we don't have to turn away, so that we can bear witness to it, feel it ourselves and not be completely overwhelmed. Or if we are overwhelmed, even in being overwhelmed, to realize that this being overwhelmed is impermanent, that we can re-engage for the sake of those who are suffering. 

One of the great, powerful images of our tradition is Avalokiteshvara with her thousand hands reaching out to help others, tears streaming down her face. Ours is not a practice of closing our eyes to the pain that we find in the world. We come here and sit on the cushion week after week, night after night, because it gives us a great capacity and remarkable faith that we can indeed bear this pain, that we actually don't need to turn away, that we are indeed saved by the beautiful sound of the bell, that each moment, we are actually saved by all beings. We are saved because we are not separate, and it's precisely because we are not separate that we are called to serve.

Some of us in BoWZ just studied a book by Oluo called So You Want to Talk about Race. Really interesting book. One theme was that those of us who are privileged in some way can recognize that that privilege gives us inequitable access to power that we can use to help others. I could use my position in the public schools to help change systems that have not benefited many Black and Latinx children. It's a simple and brilliant concept, deeply empowering, that we might be able to use privileges that we have -- in the same way we might be able to use this fortunate gift that we've been given of a Buddhist practice to tolerate and bear witness to the suffering of the world -- that we might be of service. 

This does not mean that we have to constantly be thinking about the problems of the world. There are times when we sit and we just hear the bell, and we are saved. By allowing ourselves to be saved in our practice again and again, by allowing ourselves to simply bear witness to what is, we find something quite indestructible: the nonduality of our heart-minds and the universe, a salvific revelation that fortifies us and nourishes us, a deep sense of connectivity and compassion that fills us up again and again as we sit on the cushion. 

We don't have to think about this to make this happen. This is the sometimes sudden, the sometimes gradual realization of our true nature, already true, that nourishes our capacity to step forth in the world and be of service. None of us, with all of our effort, could ever erase all of the suffering in the world. But each of us can do something, and collectively we bring about change. 

Each of us will be called to quite different forms of service, and this is as it should be. So the question is, what is it that calls to you? In what ways can you be of service? Can we all take this precious gift that we are given in our sangha, in this restorative practice, and bring it forth into the world in service? This is the way of tenderness. 

It's hard. I don't know about you but I am so often so sad and sometimes angry about injustices in the world. Sometimes I realize that I am unconsciously participating in injustices. But witnessing is just the beginning. Each of us can return to the cushion and be saved, be restored, be renewed, then each of us can do something to alleviate the problem. This is how we save all beings, by seeing the child in front of us who needs our help and offering that help. Or perhaps it's by getting involved politically, supporting a campaign, or writing to congresspeople. 

What is your path? What is this practice nourishing you to do?

April 11, 2021

Compassion for Delusions

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I offered to Morning Star Zen Sangha on January 3, 2018.

In the last meditation period, I was reflecting a little bit on what I was going to talk about, and I thought I would call this talk, “compassion for delusions.” I love that beautiful poem called, “The Ship of Compassion,” by Miaoshi, from a book called Zen Women. She writes, “Words are inherently empty, and yet still I am fond of brush and ink. My mind like ashes after the fire, and yet still I am tied to the world.” There is a kind of samadhi, the cessation of dualistic notions, that we can practice, and yet still I am fond of brush and ink, fond of words and language and thoughts that come. Still I am tied to this world. Still I find myself caring about things. I'm not the stereotypical hermit Zen monk, but a priest who commits to the bodhisattva vow to help heal this suffering world. 

And really, these "two" orientations toward samadhi and saving all beings are not contradictory. For me this practice of sitting is really one of integration, so I have a story I want to read to you. I mentioned before that I was reading this book called Thousand Peaks about Koreans Zen which is one of the tributary streams of our of our Boundless Way Zen lineage. I received transmission from David Rynick who received transmission from George Bowman who received transmission from Seung Sahn. Seung Sahn generously shared his Korean tradition in the United States. So I found myself quite curious, since this is one of the streams of our lineage, to learn more about this Korean heritage, and one does find a slightly different emphasis, or I should say a little bit more of a willingness to acknowledge a samadhi practice that we don't talk too much about in Boundless Way Zen. 

Samadhi is a practice that we fall into. One might deeply unify with the sensation of the breath till even the breath falls away. One might open beyond all thought and unify with the vastness. But there are shadows to cultivating a samadhi practice. One of the shadows is that we can get very attached to ideas of samadhi, and our attachment makes us suffer. Any experience that is different from our idea of samadhi may feel unsatisfying, but life is always changing. We can become more concerned with our own mental state than with everyone's well-being. We become "state-chasers," consumed with desire for our next "fix." We may lose touch with compassion, and our practice can become selfish and cold. 

There’s a wonderful koan in which Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, cannot awaken a woman from a deep, deep samadhi. Buddha’s and bodhisattvas are called to help, and none of them can awaken her. They have to get the bodhisattva of delusive wisdom, who resides in a hell realm, to come snap her out of samadhi to engage her in life again. So we actually need our delusions, we need our thoughts, to exist and take action in this world. Otherwise, we would starve. And we would abandon those we love. 

So for me, practice is about integration. Here's a story that I think helps illustrate this this kind of practice where we can both cultivate some capacity with prajna, with the sword of wisdom that recognizes delusion as delusion, but also that does not abandon the heart of compassion, the heart of care. There's a story of a teacher in the Korean lineage named Won Hyo (from the book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha). One evening as Won Hyo was crossing the desert, he stopped at a small patch of green where there were few trees and some water and went to sleep. Toward midnight he awoke thirsty. It was pitch dark. He groped along on all fours searching for water. At last his hand touched a cup on the ground. He picked it up and drank. Ah, how delicious. Then he bowed deeply in gratitude to Buddha for the gift of water. The next morning when Won Hyo woke, he saw beside him what he had taken for a cup during the night. It was a shattered skull, blood-caked and with shreds of flesh still stuck to the cheekbones. Strange insects crawled or floated on the surface of the filthy rain water inside it. Won Hyo looked at the skull and felt a great wave of nausea. He opened his mouth. As soon as the vomit poured out, his mind opened and he understood. Last night, since he hadn't seen and hadn't thought, the water was delicious. This morning, seeing and thinking had made him vomit. Ah, he said to himself, thinking makes good and bad, life and death. Without thinking, there is no Universe, no Buddha, no dharma. All is one, and this one is empty. There was no need now to find a master. Wan Hyo already understood life and death. What more was there to learn. So he turned and started back across the desert to Korea." 

He was on his way to China to find a great teacher and instead he found a skull. And the skull taught him about thinking. So this is no small insight that Won Hyo had here. What follows it is a kind of arrogance, a sense of “now I've got it all figured out,” and he doesn't at all! But he has had a taste of awakening. He suddenly recognized thoughts as thoughts rather than seeing them as the nature of reality in and of itself. Life and death simply as ideas, good and bad, right and wrong, our most dearly held delusions, he saw them simply as thoughts. This was profoundly liberating. 

You have probably had this experience before. There is great power in seeing mind states as mind states, in seeing thoughts as thoughts. Sometimes just naming them is enough. It's a skillful means. 

The other day I was feeling ashamed about something that's happening in my family life related to my son, a parenting issue, and I felt like a horrible father. I got on my phone between classes and I texted a good friend and I said, "I am so ashamed right now." So powerful to simply name what has arisen as a mind state and recognize it as a mind state. There is a kind of liberation in that. 

It's hard to describe but when you’re sitting on the cushion and you can do nothing about it, sometimes when you recognize a mind-state as a mind-state, you realize that it's not reality. It's something that is arisen as a set of thoughts and feelings that have taken possession of the heart-mind, that have created a kind of small world for us. Sometimes naming that is enough. It just begins to evolve. Just noticing, just paying attention, everything goes its own way. Everything is intrinsically impermanent, empty, without fixed nature, and everything exists in the fabric of the whole universe. When we name these claustrophobic mind states, sometimes they just open up and we see, this is a mind-state. Sometimes they evaporate, like what happened here to our ancestor Won Hyo. The mind-state utterly evaporated. Great clarity! Suddenly, pure presence, the skull neither good or bad, just the sound of water. 

This is the liberating truth that he woke to in that moment, the falling away of mind and body, the falling away of differentiation, the falling away of good and bad. A kind of existence before thought. 

Now to get stuck to this mind state of "beyond good and bad" is just another mind state. It’s a hell-cave. Like for the woman stuck in samadhi, nothing can happen from this place. We are of no service to the world. It is of course quite compelling. There is a part of me that has the stereotypical mountain monk in him, the hermit, the one who wants to go find a cave in the mountains just like so many of these teachers, to go tuck myself away and practice in nature, no more worrying about the struggles of society. This is the recluse, the practice of the arhat, where practice is not concerned with saving all beings or with engaging in the world but simply concerned with one's own personal salvation.

Awakening to the true nature of reality is a kind of liberation. When we taste it we feel that freedom. We may find ourselves feeling somewhat attached to it and abandon the search for a teacher, abandon care about the suffering in the world as we simply want to give it up. 

But our ancestral teacher goes on. After his return to Sila, Won Hyo’s activities became more and more unorthodox, and the following encounter happened. “There was a very famous monk in Sila, a little old man with a wisp of beard and skin like a crumpled paper bag. Barefoot and in tattered clothes, he walks through the town ringing his bell, calling ‘dae on, dae on, dae, on.’”  It means great peace and happens to be David Rynick’s given Buddhist name. “‘Dee on, don't think. Dea on, like this. Dae on, rest mind. Dae on, dae on,’ he called. Won Hyo heard of him and one day hiked to the mountain cave where the monk lived. From a distance he could hear the sound of extraordinary lovely chanting echoing through the valleys, but when he arrived at the cave he found the master sitting beside a dead fawn weeping. Won Hyo was dumbfounded. How could an enlightened being be either happy or sad since in the state of Nirvana there is nothing to be happy or sad about and no one to be happy or sad? He stood speechless for a while and then asked the master why he was weeping. The master explained, he had come upon the fawn after its mother had been killed by hunters. It was very hungry, so he had gone into town to beg for milk since he knew that no one would give milk for an animal. He said it was for his son. ‘A monk with a son? What a dirty old man,’ people thought, but someone gave him a little milk. He had continued this way for a month begging enough to keep the animal alive, then the scandal became too great and no one would help. He had been wandering for 3 days now in search of milk. At last he had found some, but when he returned to his cave the fawn was already dead. ‘You don't understand,’ said the master. ‘My mind and the fawn’s mind are the same. It was very hungry. I want milk. I want milk. Now it is dead. Its mind is my mind. That is why I am weeping. I want milk.’ Won Hyo began to understand how great a bodhisattva the master was. When all creatures were happy, he was happy. When all creatures were sad, he was sad. Wan Hyo said to him, ‘please teach me.'"

I find that to be a very moving story. Won Hyo was open enough to see this great compassionate, awakened heart, a manifestation of non-duality. He saw that love and care and the suffering that accompany them are manifestations of the Dharma, manifestations of non-duality, manifestations of emptiness. Even this mountain monk was filled with love and care. 

So actually, in my view, this represents an integration of samadhi with the heart of compassion. It is actually a ripening of samadhi, samadhi without bounds, samadhi without limits, not simply the samadhi of attachment to peacefulness, but the samadhi of oneness with all beings, the samadhi of interwovenness with this world! We are this world. And this is true whether we are thinking or not. So there is no need to get rid of thoughts. Just wake up! 

We do not exist separately. Our hearts and minds are literally made of this world. Sometimes “what is” manifests as peace: dae on. Sometimes “what is” manifests as great sorrow, as great care, as great delusion. Our practice is not to attain a particular state of mind and reside in it permanently. Our practice is to keep turning toward whatever is. 

When we have moments of great peace, we can appreciate and celebrate the vastness, the great emptiness of our being. Sometimes what appears to us is a starving fawn, great love, and great sadness, and in these moments, this too is the presence of emptiness, of non-duality, of awakening, of our interwoven nature, impermanent and yet manifesting. 

Our job is not to find any fixed mind-state but to continue turning toward whatever is with an open heart. In this way we will find ourselves sometimes called to a practice of silence and peace. Sometimes we need that peace. We need to find a places in our lives where we can recover our strength, be in touch with that part of ourselves that is just nurtured and fed by the simple presence of the sound of heat pulsing through a building, to just receive those moments when they come with great gratitude.

And sometimes the world needs us. It needs us to give back. Nurtured from our practice, called by the world, we get off the cushion and go begging, begging for milk. Whatever little thing we can do. 

April 1, 2021

Practicing Zen with Depression

All kinds of studies point to the health benefits of meditation, and as a Zen Buddhist priest, I am not surprised. I have long found meditation to be a healing salve. 

Once we taste the fruits of meditation, it can be tempting for spiritual seekers to imagine that it will save us from all forms of suffering, including sadness, anxiety, and mental illness. Using meditation to avoid pain is so common that it has a name -- "spiritual bypass." But we suffer more when meditation inevitably fails to relieve all pain because we feel like we must be doing it wrong. On top of feeling depressed, we end up feeling like failures in our spiritual traditions. 

But it is not a flaw of practice to feel pain. A few years after his enlightenment, Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, likely suffered from depression. Hakuin's autobiographical accounts describe awakenings followed by intense periods of suffering. And Zen teacher Reigetsu Susan Moon has written extensively about her struggles with depression. Though not so enduring, I suffered from situational depression brought on by a divorce and the concurrent deaths of three loved ones. If you are a Zen practitioner who suffers sometimes, you are not alone.

I am a Soto Zen priest in Dogen's line, and the emphasized practice in our tradition is a meditation practice called shikantaza. In shikantaza, we sit still, stop talking, and pay attention to whatever arises. Shikantaza, or silent illumination, allows us to open our hearts to life just as it is and recognize our intimacy with all beings, including our pain. Rather than avoid, we turn toward whatever is arising and open our hearts to things as they are. Acceptance of our condition gives birth to compassion. This is no small thing. 

But a complete Zen practice also includes mindfully using skillful means to alleviate suffering in ourselves and in the world. The practices of opening our hearts to things as they are and taking action to improve things may seem contradictory, but they are actually complementary. Bearing witness and practicing skillful means are like the foot before and the foot behind in walking, and a complete Zen practice includes both.

Bearing witness


In Zen practice, the first step is to see what is present. From this perspective, whatever arises is a dharma gate. As James Ford writes, "We are completely subject to the vicissitudes of our lives. Zen is not an escape hatch from this. This is the field of enlightenment." Rumi writes, "Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor... invite them in."

Just acknowledging pain can be a relief. Giving ourselves and others permission to be exactly as we are in any given moment is the heart of compassion and opens the door for us to respond with loving kindness. It also invites more openness and curiosity about our experience. 

If depression is severe, it may be counter-productive to meditate. It may be necessary to seek medical attention and postpone practice until symptoms are reduced.* But in my experience with depression, meditating has been beneficial. 


In meditation, without trying to control our experience, we compassionately attend whatever arises as a dharma gate, as an opportunity to comprehend the true nature of phenomena. As we pay attention, we first might notice our thoughts. For example, we might think that our situation is hopeless and that life is meaningless. Especially while depressed, our thoughts often become sticky as shameful senses of self arise. We may think, "I am a failure," identifying with our feelings. Meditation brings this subtle identification with feeling states into awareness. We do not need to manipulate the content of our thoughts while meditating. In paying attention, we just see that even painful thoughts come and go. We notice the space between thoughts and begin to recognize thoughts as thoughts rather than as the absolute truth, and this opens up some space between the brain and the skull. "Opening the hand of thought" allows new possibilities to arise. 

Curiosity also helps release our identification with thoughts. We may diagnose ourselves as depressed, but what is depression? Thinking that we already know the answer can exacerbate our suffering. We may think of depression as a static "thing" or mental state that cannot shift or change, especially when we identify with it. One practice is to drop the hwadu, "what is this?" into our meditation and look beyond our thoughts into the sensations of our body for what is actually present. We'll likely notice a set of feelings that we associate with depression, but it is important to keep paying attention. For me, one sensation is something like a slowly shape-shifting, dark cloud in my brain. This "moving fog" pressures and heats my skull. Sometimes there is also a heaviness in my heart, hollowness in my gut, and pressure behind my eyes, like I might cry at any moment. But with close attention at the cellular level, I see that sensations keep changing moment after moment. The way I'd describe my experience one second is not quite the same the next. In opening awareness beyond thoughts to ever-changing sensations, we see that depression has no fixed essence. Everything changes. Depression is not a constant expression of some underlying, permanent self. When we are suffering, recognizing impermanence is a relief. 

While sitting upright in the midst of depression, we may also be relieved to see that the fog of melancholia is interpenetrated by the sensory world. Depression is not a solid thing. The landscape of life also comes forth, like moonlight shining through clouds. It might be the sensation of the breath, a birdsong, the sound of rain, or a honking truck that opens our mind. Sometimes we describe this open awareness as "creating a bigger container," but we do not actually create this container. It already exists. We just notice what is already present. Our inner life is inseparable from the wider landscape of this sensory world. There is only an imaginary line between inside and outside, between self and other, and our intimacy with all beings is no small comfort. Even when we think we are alone, we are held by the boundless universe, and the universe resides in our hearts. 


And, as the koan says, "the clearly enlightened person falls into a well." Falling from grace, falling "from the hundred foot pole," is an opportunity to awaken again. Everything is changing before our very eyes, there is nothing that we can possess forever, and falling releases us from our attachments, the very ones that have made us suffer again and again. While falling, we can open our eyes to the way things are in this very moment of descent and maybe even pluck a strawberry on the way down.

But there is also the deep, dark depth of a well. And though we may surrender, stay curious, and even appreciate cold stone walls, sometimes depression feels relentless. The persistence of depression is not an indicator of a failed practice. While wide awake, we can be trapped in a well! We will need to do more than meditate to take care of ourselves. This is part of stepping off the hundred foot pole. When hungry, we eat. When tired, we sleep. When depressed, we employ skillful means to alleviate suffering. This too may be part of an awakened life.


Practicing skillful means


For me, when depression arises, it is helpful to bow, to accept the guest who is with me in the moment and offer a compassionate response. Though it may feel like my fault, I remind myself that nobody is at fault. There is no first cause. This is just how it is, the result of causes and conditions beyond counting. 


In these moments, faith sustains me -- faith that even depression is without fixed essence, faith that all things change, and faith in something bigger than my limited karmic self. We don't only save all beings but are saved by all beings. The universe is always holding us compassionately, and we are manifestations of its infinite presence. Like Buddha on the night of his enlightenment, we can touch the earth and feel it supporting us, moment after moment, even in our darkest hours. We can even cry out to this universe to save us, and in the moment of our cry, the universe responds, and the cry itself is the voice of Buddha. 


We should not pretend that meditating will cure medical illnesses. It would be absurd to tell someone suffering with diabetes or cancer that meditating would cure them. I would not even suggest that someone suffering from a dehydration headache should meditate to make it go away. The compassionate response is to offer a glass of water. To practice skillful means is to alleviate the causes and conditions that give rise to suffering. This means being aware of our symptoms in part through meditation and mindfully trying remedies to reduce our suffering. Depression, for example, may have multiple causes, one of which may be biological. In such circumstances, medication may be an important part of treatment. Other skillful means may include taking "opposite action" -- doing therapeutically advised activities even though we may not want to, such as exercising, seeing a therapist, joining sangha-mates to sit or drink tea, and asking for help when hurting. For me, a combination of meditation, exercise, sleep hygiene, counseling, and light-therapy offered some relief. Rather than view these activities as in opposition to some image of "pure" Zen practice, I consider them part of my practice. 


Though means vary, depression is treatable. Each of us is different, but through our ongoing attention, we learn which remedies work best. Caring for depression is a compassionate practice that cultivates insight, patience, responsiveness, and loving kindness. As we continue to practice meditation and skillful means, we find that our sense of interconnectedness and compassion naturally extend to all beings with whom we intimately share this life. Caring for depression is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a powerful way to manifest our bodhisattva vow to save all beings. 


*Please note that clinical depression is a medical condition. This article is not intended to provide or replace treatment for those who may suffer from clinical depression or other forms of mental illness. If you are in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to access free, 24/7 confidential service for people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them. The Lifeline provides support, information, and local resources. You can also text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for free 24/7 support with a trained crisis counselor right away.

**Note: this essay was first written in April of 2019 and has since been revised. 

December 17, 2020


Diamond shards tap the glass,

and wind whistles through cracks

in the window panes

as I resentfully pull on my boots

to shovel snow.

I call my 9 year old son,

"want to help me?"

"No thanks," he says,

wandering to his room 

to draw a treehouse

build an electric circuit

read Captain Underpants.

I wish I were so free.

But as I zip my puff daddy coat,

my father with his crooked back

steps forth from the darkened room where he sat,

looks into my eyes 

for the first time this visit and says,

"Son, I wish I could join you. I wish I could."

I open the door and step into the night.

The snow slants across the streetlights 

and stings my cheeks.

Lightning flashes in the sky,

and thunder rumbles through the darkness.

I carve paths in the snow,

reveling in how

white clouds of powder

fly like angels in the dark.