Sunday, June 3rd

Taken from the DMZGH Teachings page, some quotes about embracing diversity …


From a public statement by Myogen Steve Stucky and Ryushin Paul Haller, then co-abbots of San Francisco Zen Center:

Our bodhisattva vow is to include all beings, and our expression of this vow means to go beyond inherited cultural patterns.  We recognize that biases inherent in American culture are a karmic legacy that needs to be acknowledged and overcome if we are to become a sangha that truly reflects the boundless wisdom and compassion of all buddhas.


Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

‎I don’t see any particular problems in working with others. Just go ahead. Push yourself harder. Sometimes you find that you don’t like someone that you are trying to work with. But if you look behind their facade, you see that the person is, in fact, quite lovable. They do possess the primordial dot.

When you first talk to them, you might find them completely off-putting and irritating. You wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. But gradually, your pole becomes shorter.  You begin to do a double-take. You might even begin to like them. The point here is that you have to push harder, and then there’s no problem at all. You might be working with someone who is completely untrustworthy, but that doesn’t matter.  Trust begins with trusting in yourself, your dot, and your commitment.

You have to work hard to help others, directly, without even wearing rubber gloves to clean up their vomit. You’re not like an employer who is interviewing potential employees to decide which ones to hire. We are going to help others, regardless of their workability.


Dalai Lama:

I believe an important distinction can be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another. Spirituality I take to be concerned with qualities of the human spirit, love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of harmony, that bring happiness both to self and others.


Dedication:   In spirit, members of the sangha of Desert Mirror Zendo & Guest House are carrying a giant, beautiful rainbow banner and marching in the Gay Pride parade in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Maybe next year we can actually be there, live and in the flesh, expressing our love for and solidarity with all beings.  May it be so.

Happy Pride Day, everyone!


Love, Russ


Nobel-prize-winning NYT columnist:  Closet Buddhist?


From Eihei Dogen’s Genjo Koan:

Here is the place; here the Way unfolds.  The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of Buddha dharma.  Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness.  Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent.  Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

Tonight, I’d like to continue our study of Dogen Zenji’s waka poetry, and I will once again use Steven Heine’s excellent translation and interpretation as the basis for my talk.  There’s a traditional saying about Zen, ascribed to Bodhidharma, that says that Zen is a “special transmission outside the teachings, with no reliance on words and letters”.  This idea conforms to what may have been our initial idea about Zen, that enlightenment, whatever that is, lies completely outside of our words and ideas and that some sort of breakthrough into nonconceptual understanding is required.  This is the idea behind a lot of our clichés about Zen (and Zen-related themes) – David Carradine in Kung Fu, or Luke Skywalker being told to let go of the conscious mind and rely on instinct.

A unique part of the heritage of Soto Zen is Dogen’s radically different understanding of language.  For Dogen, all forms of communication, written or oral, and even discursive thought are part of our inherently awakened mind.  For Dogen, awakening must be expressed symbolically through language.  It’s not that language is some sort of a tool that is used for the higher purpose of teaching the dharma, it’s that language itself is the dharma.  Dharma is somehow embedded in language.  In his fascicle Bendowa, Dogen writes: “Let it go and it fills your hand – it is unbound by singularity or multiplicity.  Speak and it has already filled your mouth – it is not restricted by lesser or greater.”  If we can accept the notion of nonduality, then of course language is not something separate from awakening.  It’s simply the symbolic way that awakening expresses itself.

In Japanese aesthetics, the term yugen refers to the mysterious profundity of things that are only vaguely suggested in a poem.  The Japanese poet Chomei, who lived around the same time as Dogen, said that yugen conveys a profundity of mystery and tranquility “only when many meanings are compressed into a single word, when the depths of feeling are exhausted yet not expressed, when an unseen atmosphere hovers over the poem”.   This is related to another concept in Japanese aesthetics, yojo,  which refers to the abundance of  overtones of feeling in a poem.   Dogen plays around with many of these ideas in the following waka poem:

The dharma, like an oyster
Washed atop a high cliff:
Even waves crashing against
The reefy coast, like words,
May reach, but cannot wash it away

Now the conventional interpretation of this poem is in line with our simple ideas about Zen and language, that the dharma resides on a lofty peak, above the crashing waves of discourse.  The dharma is thus somehow above or outside of language and really isn’t accessible by words, even those of the sutras.  But, as is often the case, the meaning of this poem requires digging a little deeper into the translation and into the subtlety of the Japanese language.
What is translated here as ‘the reefy coast, like words’ is, in Japanese kaki mo tsukubeki, which has many layers of meaning.  First, the word kaki can mean ‘oyster’ so there’s this feeling that the reason why the oyster is on the cliff to begin with is because the waves put it there.  In other words, the Dharma finds its place beyond words because of language itself.   There’s a traditional Mahayana image of water representing the absolute and waves representing the relative.  So in this image, the oyster has been cast out of the absolute background into the relative by a particular wave, but it totally depends on the water for its location.

Kaki can also mean writing, or more generally, language and communication.  Here it’s modified by the word tsukubeki, which means ‘must exhaust’ or ‘must reach’.  So this line also means something like ‘language must reach/must exhast’ the dharma.  Not only can the dharma be expressed in language, it actually must express the dharma, or (the other way around), dharma must be expressed.  The dharma cannot escape the necessity of communication.  This idea is extended in the next line (nori naraba koso).  Nori means ‘seaweed’ and (apparently) it can also mean dharma.  Seaweed is also cast out of the ocean like an oyster and thus underscores the connection between conceptual discourse and realization.

Here’s another poem from Dogen that uses different imagery to get at a similar point:

To what shall
I liken the world?
Moonlight, reflected
In dewdrops,
Shaken from a crane’s bill

Dogen often uses images of reflections in water to describe how totality is expressed in the individual.  The dewdrop is also used as an image of impermanence, and the moon is used as an image of Buddha-nature, so here this means that the dharma is completely embodied in the evanescent.  And there’s a sense that Buddha-nature is not standing apart from the finite and particular since it fully merges with each thing.  In the same way, each word or phrase expresses Buddha-nature as well.  In fact, all expressions completely realize the authentic mind of awakening, which is identical with transient reality.  In this sense, this poem is not pointing to some idea of awakening, but is itself the complete embodiment of the awakened mind.

For our zazen practice, this means that, while we maintain the intention to let go of thought and return to breath and body, our discursive thoughts are not some sort of clutter that is in the way of our awakening.  Indeed, they are fully expressing the awakened mind.  If that’s the case, then why do we make the effort to sit in zazen anyway?  Because we don’t really believe that this is true.  We have to practice zazen in order realize this truth, in order to express it.

In traditional Buddhist imagery, there is a type of being called a preta or hungry ghost.  They are described as human-like, but with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, enormously distended bellies and long, thin necks. This appearance is a metaphor for their mental situation: they have enormous appetites, signified by their gigantic bellies, but a very limited ability to satisfy those appetites, symbolized by their slender necks.  Some of them can eat a little, but find it very difficult to find food or drink.  Others can find food and drink, but find it very difficult to swallow.  Others find that the food they eat seems to burst into flames or into blood and pus as they swallow it.  Others see something edible or drinkable and desire it but it withers or dries up before their eyes. As a result, they are always hungry.

I have always found the hungry ghost to be such a powerful metaphor for those parts of ourselves that are hungry, unsatisfied, that can’t find expression or resolution.  For me, it’s one of the best examples of how a traditional image of a supernatural being can readily be accessed as a metaphor.  Do we literally believe that there are such beings?  Maybe, maybe not.  Do we resonate with the image of a being that has an insatiable appetite that can never be satisfied?  Absolutely.

At Tassajara, every few days, we did a ceremony for the hungry ghosts, which involves making a ceremonial food offering to the hungry ghosts as a means of helping them to find their way.  It has some beautiful chanting in Japanese, but the beginning of the ceremony is in English and is called “The Gate of Sweet Dew” and here is the text.  As you read it, reflect upon the parts of yourself that are hungry or unsatisfied and what it would mean or feel like to have resolution:

Giving rise to the awakened mind, we unconditionally offer up a bowl
of pure food to all the hungry ghosts in every land to the farthest
reaches of vast emptiness in the ten directions, including every atom
throughout the entire dharma realm. We invite all our departed
ancestors going back to ancient times, the spirits dwelling in
mountains, rivers, and earth, as well as rough demonic spirits from
the untamed wilderness, to come and gather here. Now, with deep
sympathy we offer food to all of you, sincerely hoping that you will
each accept this food and turn it over, making offerings to buddhas,
sages, and all sentient beings throughout the vast emptiness of the
universe, so that you and all the many sentient beings will be
satisfied. Moreover, we sincerely wish that your bodies be conveyed by
these mantrams and food so that you may depart from suffering, be
liberated, find birth in heaven, and receive joy. In accordance with
your intentions, may you travel freely through the pure lands in the
ten directions and arouse awakened mind practicing the awakened way
and in the future become a buddha without regressing. We entreat those
who have previously attained the way since ancient times to vow to
realize liberation with all other beings together. Day and night,
constantly protect us so that our vows will be fulfilled. We offer
food to beings throughout the dharma realm, so that every being will
equally receive this fortunate offering. Whatever virtue and merit
this produces, we completely transfer and dedicate to the unsurpassed
awakening with total clarity and wisdom of the whole dharma realm of
true reality, that all may speedily attain buddhahood without
incurring any other destinies. May all sentient beings of the dharma
realm take advantage of this teaching to quickly attain buddhahood.

I find it especially inspiring that the goal of this ceremony isn’t just to release or satisfy the hungry ghosts, but actually to help them to become awakened, and for them to then take part in the awakening of others.  Isn’t that beautiful?  Our own hunger and pain can be transformed into a vehicle for the awakening of others.  Do you believe that?  What does that mean to you?
An extension of this ceremony is done each year around Halloween, in a ceremony called Sejiki.  In this ceremony, a big table is set up in the zendo piled high with food – fruit, rice, and especially delicious cakes.  We chant the Gate of Sweet Dew, offer incense, and read aloud the names of friends and family who have died within the last year, or the names of anyone who has died at any time if we feel that there is still something unresolved.  Some folks wanted to include names of friends who died many years ago, others who maybe lost a family member more recently felt that they were resolved and that they didn’t need to include a name.  So it was very individual.  I found it very moving to make these offerings while remembering dear friends who have passed away.  I really felt the power of ceremony to release or to resolve something within me.

Vicki Austin says that we started to do the ceremony at Zen Center at Kobun Chino Roshi’s suggestion. He thought it would be helpful to us to have a deeper relationship with the negative aspects of our lives.  Speaking to Rick Levine, Chino Roshi said the Segaki (Sejiki) ceremony “makes a statement about. . .how to deal with negative things, negative happenings, negative parts of phenomena . . . For it is a kind of reminding ceremony, expanding your awakening to the darkness. . . Awareness is expanded to existence which is unseen, unknown, unthinked. . . Negative is another positive side. Awareness is already round and pure. [We can] expand our practice of compassion, in space as well as time. . . perhaps [with] this ceremony.”

The spirit of this ceremony was beautifully extended by Bernie Glassman and the great American kirtan musician Krishna Das.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, kirtan is this gorgeous, ecstatic chanting practice from the Hindu tradition. Krishna Das adapted part of the Gate of Sweet Dew, and it’s starting to make its way around the Buddhist scene.  I first encountered it in 2010 at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association meeting, where we used it as a pre-meal chant.  It was so touching to be part of this warm community, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, and to take a moment before sitting down to a meal to reflect in this way:

Calling out to hungry hearts,

everywhere through endless time,

you who wander, you who thirst,

I offer you this heart of mine. 

Calling out to hungry spirits,

everywhere through endless time.

Calling out to hungry hearts,

all the lost and the left behind. 

Gather round and share this meal. 

Your joy and your sorrow,

I make them mine.

A good practice for us to hold over the next days and weeks is to look within and identify those parts of us that are hungry ghosts.  What is the yearning in your life that can’t be satisfied?  What is that unresolved place in your own heart?  Can you imagine what it would be like for your hungry ghost to be fed and cared for?  How do you relate to the hungry ghost in others?  Can you reach out in the spirit of the Gate of Sweet Dew?  All you have to do is offer your heart and take in the suffering of the world.  No problem!

In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen’s manual of Zen meditation, he succinctly describes the form for practicing zazen:

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.  Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. 

This is pretty clear and straightforward.  The practice of Zen meditation, as taught by Dogen, places a particular emphasis on the external form that the body takes.  This is in fact the position that the Buddha took when he attained enlightenment, and we are to take the same posture, and thereby express the sane, wakeful quality of our hearts.  Of course today we recognize that each person’s expression of Buddha’s posture is different – some may sit in half lotus, some may sit on a bench, some may lie down – but in our practice, each of us is expressing our awakened hearts by putting our bodies into a specific posture.

One of the hallmarks of formal Zen Buddhist practice is that it involves placing significant limitations on our activity.  We walk in a certain way, we bow in a certain way, and we sit still for a long time.  This can look pretty austere – and it can sometimes feel that way too! – but if you stick with it, most people find that there’s something liberating about giving yourself over to the restrictions of the formal practice.

I think there’s an analogy in music.  We don’t make beautiful music simply by playing whatever notes we want, whenever we want.  Think about the music of Bach or Mozart.  They are highly structured pieces, and we make beautiful music by limiting ourselves to play particular notes in a particular key, with strictly regulated tempo and harmony.  If we just play a bunch of notes, we can’t make music; we make noise, dissonance.  So in a similar way, in our Zen practice as in the rest of our lives, we have to limit ourselves.  But it is through this limitation that we give voice to the music of our lives.

Dogen expands on this point in Genjo Koan:

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.  Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find you way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past and it is not merely arising now.

Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it–doing one practice is practicing completely.

No matter what our life circumstances may be, we have some element.  In the zendo, our element is the formal practice of Soto Zen Buddhism.  If we are able to relax into the forms of our practice, we will naturally covering our full range.  When we completely do the formal practice, we never reach the end of it.  This is why we can continue to practice day after day, year after year and continue to find depth and support in the practice of zazen.
I have always been inspired by Dogen’s statement that doing one practice is practicing completely.  This reminds me of a story about the great choreographer George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet.  One of the lead ballerinas was having difficulty with one of his dances, and rather than working with her on the whole dance, Balanchine just had her practice one particular turn of her foot, over and over and over again.  When she got that, the rest of the dance came together for her.  This is one practice, practicing completely.

On the other hand, if we’re sitting in the zendo grumbling about having to sit still for so long or about having to face the wall when you’d rather face the center of the room, or about having to bow in a certain way, that is trying to reach the end of our element before moving in it, and we will not find our way.  We all know this feeling.  This is what happens when we get overwhelmed by life and try to do too many things at once, or when we wish that our life situation was different from what it is.  So, as always, the practice is just to come back to what is, to totally experience our realm.

When we can do that, even if it’s just for a moment, that’s a moment of complete practice.  What is the element of your life?  How do you play the music of your life?

by Juhan Liiv
It must be somewhere, the original harmony, 
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits, 
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

Over the Rainbow – Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole:


From a conversation in the ongoing weekly Genzo-e [Shobogenzo and commentaries] dharma discussion group at Santa Cruz Zen Center:

We can think of the unconditioned, or ultimate reality, as being a field of unlimited possibilities or pure potential.  In each moment, from that field of unlimited possibilities or pure potential, a crystallized moment composed of innumerable causes and conditions constellates. That crystallized moment is the substance of what we experience as ordinary reality, or conditioned existence.  And when we mentally string together all those actually discrete, separate, substance moments (that are born and die each nano-second), we have the ongoing experience of linear time that we think of as “normal life.”

Our relationship to time is only one of the many aspects of how we experience “normal life” that can change suddenly and dramatically.  When our relationship to time, or our baseline joy level, or any other big shift happens, everything else about how we experience our lives also shifts.

Love, Russ

The sound quality on this Everyday Zen talk is quite poor; but the content is so rich that I think it’s worth the wincing at volume fluctuations and background noise:

And then there is this little free excerpt from some teachings by Adyashanti that I think looks quite promising as well:

Happy weekend –

:D  Russ


            Our practice is simply to sit upright and to let the thoughts and feelings that naturally arise pass through the clear awareness of our mind without getting too stuck.  When we see traditional images of the Buddha sitting in the noble cross-legged, upright posture, or when we see our fellow practitioners sitting so still during a long retreat, we may think that emotions are a hindrance to our practice, that they are somehow in the way, and that our real practice can happen only after we clear away the tangled mess of our emotions.  I think this point of view was especially prevalent in the early years of western Buddhism, when the Asian teachers, like Suzuki-Roshi, were thought to be so much more developed than we were.  Today we have a lot of western teachers who seem to be pretty normal people, and we know that they have emotions just like the rest of us, so we hold this idea a little more lightly, but I think at some level – maybe pretty subtly – many of us still view emotions as a problem.

            Many of Dogen’s teachings in the Shobogenzo seem to be quite technical and certainly not very sentimental.  Sometimes, Dogen may seem like the quintessential example of someone for whom personal emotions play little role in the spiritual life.  But in fact, Dogen began practicing as a personal reaction to his mother’s death when he was 8 years old.  According to the traditional story, young Dogen keenly felt the reality of impermanence and gave rise to the way-seeking mind as he watched the smoke from the incense rise into the air during his mother’s funeral. 

            Dogen is of course justifiably well known for his writings that make up the Shobogenzo, but he was also a prolific poet, and he was especially gifted at the Japanese form called waka, a type of poem that consists of 31 syllables.  In his waka, Dogen reveals another side, one that is more personal and one that expresses an important link between our personal response to impermanence and practice.  These poems have been beautifully translated by Steven Heine, whose commentary serves as the basis for my talk.  Here’s an example of one of Dogen’s waka that expresses the simple poignancy of the passing of time:


Rising, as the mountain

Peaks and valleys deepen –

The twilight sound of the cicada

Singing of a day

Already gone by


The Japanese word for cicada is higurashi and is closely related to the word for the setting sun, higure, so this feeling of transience is embedded in the sound of the cicada.  You know this feeling, don’t you?  When you hear that sound of cicada, you feel that it’s the end of the day.  For me, there’s something about the reference to the day already gone by that is just so tender and sad with a sense, maybe, of some regret at the passage of time.  We all know this feeling, and Dogen presents it here with little adornment, just a clear expression of what is.

If that poem evokes what Heine refers to as the negative aspect of transience, this next one evokes the positive aspect, which is how we use these emotions as an inspiration for our practice:


Contemplating the clear moon

Reflecting a mind empty as the open sky –

Drawn by its beauty

I lose myself in the shadows it casts


In traditional Japanese Buddhist imagery, the moon represents awakening, so there’s this interesting sense here of being drawn to the beauty of the moon, which is an emotional response, but then losing oneself in its shadow.  What is the shadow?  We think of the shadow as darkness, maybe our own personal darkness, maybe the darkness of delusion, but of course there can be no shadow without light, so delusion and awakening, bondage and liberation, light and dark are intimately interconnected.

This reminds me of Dogen’s famous formula from Genjo Koanto study the Buddha way is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.  We are drawn to practice by our personal experience of selfhood, by our sadness, our fear, our longing, but then through practice, we transcend ourselves or lose ourselves or forget ourselves.  So emotions generate all this turmoil for us, but they also generate the inspiration for us to practice and ultimately to be released from suffering.  But even in that release, we continue to be drawn to the moon, and to lose ourselves in its shadow over and over again.

The Japanese poet Teika was a contemporary of Dogen and is considered the greatest master of the waka form.  In this poem, he describes the power of the mind to either remain stuck in delusion or to become liberated:


Why blame the moon?

For whether gazing on its beauty

Summons tears,

Or whether it brings consolation,

Depends on the mind alone


            I find this poem to be very inspiring.  It de-emphasizes external conditions and places the emphasis on our minds and on our practice.  The moon doesn’t care if we weep or if we are consoled when we look at it; there’s no objectively correct response to gazing at the moon.  But through practice, we have the capacity to cultivate the mind and to transcend our self-imposed attachments.  It’s very empowering.  We can do this!

            Finally, here is another waka by Dogen that is appropriate for this time of year and shows the other side of the poignancy in the first poem:


Although white snowflakes

Are endlessly falling

In the deepest mountain valleys,

The clear song of the warbler

Reveals that spring has already come


            While transience necessarily entails endless loss, it also entails endless transformation.  So, in each moment of loss, there is also a moment of hope.



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