Sunday, August 17, 2014

Changing, changing, changing

My entire summer has been centered around moving--obtaining boxes, packing, repairing, filing for township permits, and my least favorite, waiting. We moved on Wednesday, two house closings in one day; and the mover arrived on Thursday morning.

Life is always changing; the only difference is how visible the flux is. In my case, this summer has brought a lot of apparent change. But the truth of the matter is that our lives are always in motion. We conceal life's unreliability and uncertainty by setting goals, pursuing our desires--all of which is well and good, provided we don't get lost in the chase and believe that we have constructed anything permanent or reliable.

We haven't.

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden sums desire up perfectly: "The things you own, wind up owning you."

In our attempt to give our lives meaning and solidity, we chase things. Objects, people, relationships, status, emotional states, and on and on. For instance, I just mowed my new lawn yesterday, and realizing that the property might be a little too large for a push mower, I'm considering buying a used ride-on mower.

That's how life works: no sooner have we attended to one detail, when another surfaces. With a more complex mower engine comes more responsibility. And on and on life goes.

The thing is, we can be honest and open to the nature of reality--impermanent and uncertain--and the human condition--insatiable--and then the struggles of life transform into a dance. When we know what to expect from life, including ourselves as desirous beings, then we can open ourselves up to it. Stop resisting our circumstances (or fighting, is more like it), and lose ourselves in the magnificent flow that is reality.

I think that the best word to describe this is gratitude.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Two Dharma Talks

Zen: The Watercourse Way*

We can learn a lot about how to live by watching water. Water adapts, changing form according to circumstances. It does not cling. It is sometimes gentle, sometimes fierce. In this talk, Doshim explains how Zen practice teaches us how to live like water.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

*Title adapted from Alan Watts', "Tao: The Watercourse Way."

In Thus We Trust

Reality is right in front of us. In fact, we are Reality. There is no need to seek some mystical Being, Source, or Soul--we are it. Learning to trust in that can alleviate a lot of our suffering.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Horror in Gaza

A Palestinian man carries the lifeless body of a child to an emergency room
at Shifa hospital in Gaza City last week. 
(Credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
I have sat in mute horror over the past several weeks watching the death tolls rise in Gaza. Civilians are being murdered by rocket fire. I feel physically sick at the knowledge that my tax dollars fund this atrocity, and that my government not only sits passively because of long-held political alliances, but actually condones this inhumanity.

Despite Buddhism's unanimous commitment to peace and nonviolence, I see very little response from the Western Buddhist community. I don't understand this at all. Some argue that Buddhism should remain a-political, solely dedicated to helping people awaken; that it's influence does not (or should not) extend to the sphere of politics.

I see that as a luxury afforded to people who live in a country not immediately threatened by the very violence it endorses. It is indifference disguised as equanimity, laziness in the guise of wisdom.

Even Zen groups dedicated to promoting peace sit idly by, mute as Buddha statues, more concerned with sitting meditation retreats than addressing the gross violation of human rights and mass murder occurring in Gaza.

Innocent people are being murdered. Period. Schools and hospitals are being bombed, for crying out loud!

Where is the outrage in the Western Buddhist community? Why are followers of the Buddha--a man who literally sat in the path of an army in order to prevent war!--silent about this? Why are we more interested in sitting Zen retreats at World War II death camps than preventing more senseless death occurring at this very moment?

These are important questions that need addressing. If Western Buddhism, now beyond its infancy stage, is to fully mature, it must transcend its own self-preoccupation and address the needs of the world.

Innocent people are being killed with U.S. tax dollars. The time for silence has passed. We have meditated long enough. Now is the time to act.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Scintillating Sounds

I'm moving in two weeks, so my life is pretty much centered around preparing for the move--attorney phone call, change of address forms, and packing. Yesterday I was in the middle of a workout on my home gym when I was gripped by an urge to straighten some tools in the corner of the basement. Soon I found myself rotating between shoulder presses and boxing painting supplies.

It wasn't a rushed or anxious back-and-forth, but more like the kind we do when cooking several dishes at one time. You stir the sizzling onions, then strain the pasta, check the quiche in the oven... Like that.

I pulled the peg board off the wall, where I hang light tools like a saw and hammer, and began to remove the metallic posts and pegs. The board stands about three feet square, and the pegs were stuck in holes scattered across its surface.

At first I tried holding onto the pegs once I removed them, but there were too many and soon they started falling out of my hand onto the cement floor. Eventually I just let them fall where would.

What I noticed was that pegs made high pinging notes as they struck the floor. Depending on the height of the drop, the peg produced a higher or lower note. Metal pegs and posts rained, and sharp, beautiful notes sounded.

It was everyday music like the clanking of spoons or the singing of birds.

When I was done removing the pegs, the music stopped. I gathered up the pegs, placed them inside of a box, and finished my shoulder workout.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Several months ago I wrote a book exploring Nothingness as the Absolute, entitled God is Nothingness. More often than not, when people speak about the Absolute--either as some unchanging or universal principle--they conceive of it as an extension of Being. In other words, to them the Absolute represents some higher or transcendental reality, perhaps existing on some hitherto unexplored plane of experience, but nonetheless existing in some way. For instance, God is very often viewed as the Supreme Being.

The limitation of this point of view, in my opinion, is that it only covers Being, failing to allow or account for anything larger than Being. I call this Non-being or Nothingness.

More Taoist than Buddhist, Absolute Nothingness is not the opposite of Being; it is its foundation, the very basis of it. Just as life depends upon carbon, so too does existence or Being rely upon Nothingness.

Like the Buddhist sunyata, Nothingness is not a thing. It does not exist per se, for to assert that Nothingness exists merely reduces it to the plane of Being. Nothingness allows for existence, not the other way around. Nonduality, the interconnection or interbeing of all existents, is possible only because of Nothingness.

Sunyata, not a thing any more than Nothingness is, describes how things are--interconnected. And as such, it refers to things, all of which exist. As the Heart Sutra explains, without form, there is no emptiness; the two are mutually dependent.

Absolute Nothingness, on the other hand, does not depend on anything. Everything depends upon it (or its non-existence).

With all of that said, my next writing project is going to explain the role of Beingness. Recognizing Beingness' dependence upon Nothingness does not cheapen existence any more than acknowledging that a baby relies upon its mother; rather, it places Beingness in its rightful place as the manifestation of Nothingness.

Nothingness is the womb and Existence its baby.

As a companion to God is Nothingness, this new book will attempt to delineate how Beingness is the portal through which we realize the Absolute. True practice embraces both Non-being and Being, while simultaneously placing them in their appropriate places. This, to use Zen Master Dogen's terms, is authenticating both the One, as well as the ten-thousand things.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Thus We Trust - Dharma talk

Here is a video Dharma talk I delivered last Sunday to the Original Mind Zen Sangha in Princeton. Filmed by Tom Inzan Gartland. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 13, 2014


I was outside with my seven-year-old daughter and she started asking me about weeds. She had pulled a couple leaves off of one and asked if she had killed the plant. (She was worried that she had harmed the plant.) I said no, that in order to kill a weed you must dig out its roots. In a Taoist sense, the weed is strong because it is weak.

Let me explain.

If you have ever tried to pull a weed, as my daughter inadvertently did, you know that the leaves (and stem, early in the spring season) give; they tear in order to preserve the roots because as long as the roots survive, so does the plant. The weed has evolved to yield to pulling (or being eaten by critters). It gets its strength from "being weak," a type of strength very different from our ordinary sense of the word.

In Verse 76 of the Tao Te Ching, it says,
The living are soft and supple;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
In life, plants are flexible and tender;
in death, they are brittle and dry. 
Stiffness is thus a companion of death;
flexibility a companion of life.
An army that cannot yield
will be defeated.
A tree that cannot bend
will crack in the wind.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
Like water or the supple tree branch, the weed "gives." Flexibility, not raw rigid strength, prevails. This is the wisdom of the Taoist sage, which is very different from traditional Indian Buddhism.

In the latter context, weeds are analogous to defilements, such as greed and ignorance, that need to be uprooted. In many forms of Buddhism, a lot of emphasis is placed upon removing what are considered undesirable mind and emotional states. Zen, however, due its Chinese Taoist heritage, recognizes that even weeds have their place in human nature.

Anger can be a healthy expression in certain situations.

We don't need to uproot difficult emotions or thoughts; in fact, it's that very impulse to improve ourselves--to fashion ourselves into superhumans--that causes so much of our suffering. Instead, like the weed, we can yield to them by being openly aware of them. This doesn't mean that we have to respond to them, but the exact opposite.

When we simply witness the difficult emotion or thought, without responding to the impulse to change/erase/act upon them, then we are no longer subject to our mind's whims. After all, a weed is no more undesirable than grass. I'm reminded of the famous words of Sengcan, the Third Chan Ancestor:

The great way is not difficult:
just avoid picking and choosing.

It's what we do with anger or greed that is important; it's our relationships to these emotions that is of vital importance, not the "weeds" themselves. After all, weeds can be beautiful too.

And yet we needn't be frozen into passivity. Weeds can ruin a beautiful garden, choking out flowers or vegetable plants, just as painful thoughts can choke our ability to think clearly and enjoy life. Wisdom is knowing when to weed and when to simply watch.