Searching for the ox

February 25, 2015

The ox-herding pictures have been around for about 1,000 years. Sometimes there are ten in a set, sometimes five or six. However many, they’re typically understood to represent stages of development in practice en route to awakening, and beyond. There’s a difference worth noting between various sets of pictures. In some, the final image is…

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The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth

January 3, 2015

There’s an old Zen story from Japan called “The Authentic Tea Bowl Before Birth.” Here, in a nutshell, is the story: A Zen student is serving tea to a special guest, someone of importance like a Lord or an Abbess. A second person – in one version a “wild woman” who was also the abbess’s…

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Where did the wild geese go?

June 8, 2014

Fukushima roshi said Zen could be called the religion that teaches the self. I return to this question – what is the self? – over and over, asking “Who am I really? What is my nature?” These questions seem to me to be essentially the same as asking the more comprehensive ontological question – What…

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The whole universe tastes like chocolate

December 1, 2013

From the Zen point of view, when you bite into a chunk of chocolate, the whole universe tastes like chocolate. This isn’t because the chocolate is so delicious that it’s deliciousness crowds out everything else. It’s not about deliciousness at all. Because it’s also true that if you bite into a turd, the whole universe…

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Creatures of habit

November 13, 2013

A lot of what’s written about Zen is about the experience of enlightenment, also called awakening. Soto Zen is called a practice of gradual awakening and Rinzai Zen is called a practice of sudden awakening. Gradual or sudden, some elements of this experience seem to be universal. One is the feeling of a breakthrough beyond…

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October 1, 2013

In zazen, breath is an important teacher. One of the first things you learn in zazen is to concentrate on your breath in a steady way. Learning to concentrate on anything in a steady way isn’t easy. Most people who try meditating for the first time figure that out in about four minutes. I chuckle…

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The Conference of the Birds

August 20, 2013

I recently saw an extraordinary video art installation created by the contemporary Iranian artist Morteza Ahmadvand. It’s title – “Simorgh” – is drawn from a famous Persian epic poem entitled “The Conference of the Birds,” written in around 1177 by the poet Attar. Birds play a big part in Persian literature. In this poem, the…

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Precepts and vows

August 15, 2013

Buddhists tend to take lots of vows, often out loud and in public. This isn’t something uniquely Buddhist. It seems to be a human habit. People find it useful to articulate their deepest intentions, and to do so frequently. Among the many lists of Buddhist vows and precepts, six are especially important. There are the…

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Home-leaving while at home

May 23, 2013

“Home-leaving” is the Buddhist term for taking up monastic life. You give up your family of origin and join a sangha of monks or nuns as your primary family and this spiritual family becomes your new home. Home-leaving also refers to how the Buddha’s early followers practiced. According to official texts, Buddha and his followers…

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The self is like Los Angeles

May 22, 2013

“Who am I?” Everyone wonders about this question at some point. For Buddhists, one angle on an answer is in the Pali word “anatta,” usually translated to mean there’s really no such thing as a fixed or permanent personal self or identity. Sometimes it’s understood to mean that people don’t have a soul, a unique…

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Tofu or beef?

April 5, 2013

When someone asks, “How’s it going?” we usually say something like “Not too bad,” or “Pretty good.” My grandpa, in his 90’s, would say, “Good, considering the alternative.” We make comparisons. We think tofu is better than beef. Or we detest tofu and love beef. We see everything in relation to something else. This feels…

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Dogen and Poetry. Firewood and Ash

March 22, 2013

Eihei Dogen Zenji’s writing is dense, deep, and sometimes perplexing. Because it’s so lush, so challenging, and often so difficult to grasp logically, I think it’s valuable to read and enjoy Dogen as poetry. Poetry by its nature involves a kind of freedom. Poets use language more freely than prose writers of any stripe –…

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