Buddhism and the People’s Climate March

My sangha, White Plains Zen, is one of over 1,000 organizations co-sponsoring the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. March organizers are hoping to assemble over 100,000 concerned citizens in support of global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The timing of the march is intended to coincide with the start of the United Nations Climate Summit two days later. The Summit is part of the process of developing a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expired in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol— signed by 191 countries, but never ratified by the U.S. Senate — set binding targets for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At this year’s summit, world leaders are supposed to announce new actions their countries will undertake to mitigate climate change. As the U.S. Senate is incapable of acting due to the crippling influences of fossil fuel industry money, opposition from coal and oil producing states, and the oddball ideology of climate science denial, President Obama wants any new international agreement to fall short of a legally-binding treaty which would require Senate approval. Because of American legislative branch paralysis, the executive branch has had to go it alone through its EPA regulatory authority to reduce automobile and power plant emissions — a process that has, so far, met with judicial acquiescence.

Significant climate change is already upon us. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now over 397 parts per million — well above the 350 parts per million Dr. James Hanson called the upper limit for preserving the planet. Temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns shifting in ways that affect watersheds and agriculture. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, glaciers and ice sheets melting, and desertification spreading. One quarter of the Earth’s animal species may be headed for extinction by 2050. U.S. temperatures will rise between 4-11 degrees over the next century. Rates of very heavy precipitation in the Northeast U.S. have already increased 67% since 1978.  Rare weather events like Superstorm Sandy are becoming more common. The Pentagon is planning for increased regional warfare due to increased competition over scarce water resources. If we don’t find a way to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, these effects will only get worse.



Buddhism has a role to play in this world-wide emergency. As Buddhists, we recognize the reality of impermanence, the fragile interdependence of the web of life, and the interplay of causes and conditions. We recognize the importance of seeing things as they are, and our responsibility for the care of all beings. We understand karma — the ripple effects of our actions on others and ourselves throughout space and time. All of our understanding as Buddhists impels us to act with compassion and responsibility. There are things we can do on an individual level to mitigate risk — weatherizing our homes, installing solar panels on our roofs, swapping out incandescent light-bulbs for LEDs, buying more fuel efficient vehicles. But those individual actions, useful as they are, are not enough to make a real difference. We must also work together collectively to change the way we produce and consume energy on a regional, national, and international scale.

It may already be too late. Even if the industrialized nations step up to the plate, the rising nations may not. But we have to start somewhere. Every journey starts where we are. Every successful international movement — consider the abolitionists and suffragettes — starts with individual acts of conscience and a dedicated minority that persists until it prevails. Sitting back and do nothing because someone else may fail to act is, on the other hand, a guarantee for planetary disaster.

So our little sangha — White Plains Zen — will be marching alongside other Buddhist groups from the New York area — groups like the Brooklyn Zen Center, the Buddhist Council of New York, Buddhist Global Relief, the Downtown Meditation Community, The Interdependence Project, New York Insight, the Rock Blossom Sangha, the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, the Shantideva Meditation Center, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the Village Zendo, and Zen Center of New York City, and alongside representatives from other faith communities.

You can find out more information here.

If you’re in the New York area, please join us.

After all, we’re all in the same boat —  fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

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The Good Heart

Doestoevsky's notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

Doestoevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

My wife and I like to read to each other after dinner. One of us reads a chapter while the other of us enjoys listening while slowly savoring a cup of hot tea; then we switch off. I usually add a teaspoon of Kerrygold butter and a half-jigger of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey to my tea. While the Jameson’s isn’t strictly in keeping with the Buddhist precepts, it seems harmless enough, a guilty pleasure. In the past year we’ve completed Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Goldfinch, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (how does the Sesame Street song go? “Which of these things is not like the others?”) and we’ve recently begun Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.

Good books, all of them.

It’s The Brothers Karamazov, however, that’s prompting today’s reflection, one that’s refracted through the lens of this summer’s discouraging news. This has been a particularly disheartening summer, filled with gruesome accounts of strife and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Gaza. It almost seems as if the world is coming unglued. Machiavellian leaders like Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau seem to be having their way with the world. Tolstoy wrote that “God sees the truth but acts slowly.” This summer He seems to be asleep. As Mark Twain once wryly noted, “the Eye That Never Sleeps might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week.” I suppose its always been this way — from Caligula and Nero, through Stalin and Hitler, down to today’s assorted warlords and tyrants. For we, the observers, however, now and then, seeing evil triumphant — even if just for a hopefully brief moment — raises an almost inevitable and cynical question:

Are we Buddhists deluding ourselves? Is keeping a good heart really so important?

Maybe it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and there’s no such thing as karma. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought a little more like psychopaths, feathering our nests at the expense of others. In a world of winners and losers, why not be a winner? The temptation to a lesser humanity is always close at hand.

Which brings me to The Brothers Karamazov. At the conclusion of the novel — after all the murder, melodrama, and hysteria has drawn to a close — Alyosha, the Karamazov brother with the saintly disposition, is talking with a group of young schoolboys after the funeral of Ilyusha, one of their comrades. The schoolboys had taunted Ilyusha and thrown rocks at him, but Aloysha helped reconcile them, and the boys learned to treat Ilyusha with kindness during his final days. In the final scene, beside the stone by which Ilyusha is to be buried, Alyosha bids the schoolboys to hold onto the memory of this kindness for the rest of their lives:

“Whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones… and afterwards we all grew so fond of…. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune — still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are… If a man carries… such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving him… Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on… But however bad we may become… when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days… the cruelest and most mocking of us — if we do become so — will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What’s more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!’ Let him laugh to himself, that’s no matter, a man often laughs at what’s good and kind. That’s only from thoughtlessness. But I assure you, boys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, ‘No, I do wrong to laugh, for that’s not a thing to laugh at…’ I say this in case we become bad…”

Alyosha exhorts the boys to safeguard their good hearts. This truth, that our good heart — our capacity for love and compassion — is the very best part of us — one that needs protection and nurturing — never seems more important than at times of discouragement, when cynicism seems within easy reach. When we sit zazen we know the warm glow of the heart’s expansion, and the cold chill of its contraction. When we perform acts of kindness, we know the feeling that accompanies them, the sense, for that moment, that we are, as Alyosha says, “perhaps better than we are.” When we are consumed by envy, vengeance, or hatred, some small part of us is still capable of noting that we are permitting a corrosive poison to flow through our veins. This vital answer, that we secure our well-being by nurturing our good hearts, our Buddha-nature, is all the answer we need to defeat skepticism.

Are the warlords and petty tyrants of this world ever truly happy?

Are they happy in the same way you and I are happy, or is their “happiness” in some way an inferior one? Maybe they’re tormented by fears of disloyalty and betrayal, preoccupied with endless plotting and scheming against enemies real and imagined. Maybe they never feel powerful enough, invulnerable enough, in control enough to ever enjoy the fruits of victory for more than an evanescent moment. Maybe they are paranoid and miserable despite outward signs of achievement. Maybe their stone-cold hearts — like the Grinch’s, several sizes too small — preclude their ever feeling fully human, fully alive, fully loved. Maybe there is a rough kind of justice in the world in that people who nurture their humaneness have a higher order of happiness — eudaimonic as opposed to hedonic, a pervasive sense of well-being — that’s hard to shake under even the most trying of circumstances. The sun always shines above even the darkest of clouds; the stillness of the ocean deeps is untroubled by the surface waves.

Maybe. Who knows?

Happiness is, after all a subjective thing, impossible to quantify. We can never know whether others mean the same thing by it as we do. All we can do is observe how our own happiness fluctuates with the expansion and contraction of our hearts. We can think about how much more we as readers love the saintly Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov than his passion-driven brother Mitya, his intelligent, cynical brother Ivan, or his spiteful, murderous half-brother Smerdyakov. All have grown up in the shadow of their narcissistic, brutish father, but only Alyosha has managed to preserve his good heart and enlarge on the better angels of his nature. This is why we read great literature and why we practice zazen — to keep the flame of our humanness lit, to blow on its glowing embers and help it breathe, to experience ourselves and the world more deeply.

So, dear reader, let us follow Alyosha’s admonition. Let us recollect our own acts of kindness and decency, and let us cultivate what we Buddhists call bodhicitta, the heart/mind of enlightenment — the wish to become enlightened for the benefit of others — our own good hearts.

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A Guide to the Perplexed

IMG_5021 - Version 2 The irreconcilable differences that exist, like yawning chasms, between the various historical and cultural strands of Buddhism sometimes threaten to overwhelm their important commonalities. Mahayana concepts such as emptiness and non-duality seem out-of-keeping with (and appear nowhere in — at least in their post-Nagarjuna sense) the Theravada literature, while Theravada’s no-self seems incompatible with Mahayana’s inherent Buddha-nature or with Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation. Theravada’s Brentano-like assertion that consciousness is always a “consciousness-of-something” conflicts with Mahayana’s belief in pure objectless consciousness. These unbridgeable disputes create perplexity in the minds of thoughtful beginners who are bound to wonder “who is right and who is wrong?” The truth is that all of these propositions — and others like them — reside outside the realm of the provable or falsifiable. What objective interpersonally verifiable test could possibly determine whether we have no-self or a Buddha-nature, or whether consciousness must always, without fail, have an object? There is never any way to resolve these perennial debates except through a leap of faith or a resort to one’s possibly erroneous or self-deluded interpretation of one’s own private — and therefore interpersonally unverifiable — experience. It’s more useful to think of these ideas as pedagogical strategies rather than as ontological statements, that is, as potentially skillful means to promote and facilitate practice/progress on the path. They each may be more or less useful in this regard, and the extent to which they facilitate practice/progress is — at least in principal, empirically verifiable. I suspect — and this is pure fantasy on my part, but please indulge me — that if some future experimental Buddhologist were to test the pedagogical mettle of these ideas that 1) they would show equal degrees of efficacy, or 2) different strategies would be differentially useful to persons with differing sets of cultural beliefs and expectations, or with differing personality traits and issues. The Thai Forest monk, Ajahn Chah, once remarked when accused of self-contradiction in the instructions he gave to different practitioners:

“It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, ‘Go left, go left.’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, ‘Let go of that too.’ Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. ” (A Still Forest Pool, p. 115)

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

Each of these contradictory Buddhist teachings probably have some value, either by virtue of the way they point out important aspects of experience, or by the way they encourage greater devotion to practice. For example, the notion of no-self may help reduce attachment to conceptions of the self or clinging to various self-aspects, whether some image of oneself, one’s sense of superiority due to some skill or talent, one’s vanity over one’s appearance, or a delusional belief in unchanging health and youth. The idea of a Buddha-nature, on the other hand, can encourage a belief that progress on the path is possible for anyone, that calm and compassionate observation is always possible in even the most turbulent emotional waters, and that everyone is deserving of kindness and care regardless of how different or appalling their appearance or behavior. Similarly, the idea of “emptiness” encourages us to discover our interconnectedness with others and the world.

In each and every case, the important thing is not the concept itself, which is never more than a metaphor, but the aware, embodied practice that, like the finger pointing to the moon, it directs us toward. Does a teaching facilitate awareness, openness, and kindness, and decrease grasping, hatred, self-centeredness and self-involvement? While dogma can be muddy and complex, practice itself is always clear and simple: pay attention, open up, let go, be truthful, be kind.

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

There are some who will object to the notion that these ideas are only skillful means. They will insist that their idea of ultimate reality is the objective truth of how things really are, and who knows, they might even be right. The point is that you and I, dear reader, will almost certainly never know whether they are or not, and — more importantly — it doesn’t really matter. Most of us are on the Buddhist path, not because we want to know the objective truth of reality — most of us nowadays turn to scientists for that — but because we want to be more present, more aware, more open-hearted, more connected, more alive, more centered, less egotistic, more responsible for our actions, and less interpersonally toxic. We want our lives to be existentially meaningful and contribute to the welfare of others. We want to love more, better, and wiser.

The answer to the question of whether or not we actually have a Buddha-nature is always mu.

On the other hand, the answer to the question of how to increase our awareness and open-heartedness, just like the answer to the question of how to improve any quality or skill, or how to get to Carnegie Hall for that matter, is always “practice, practice, practice.”

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Mindfulness or Heartfulness?


Kannon by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 -1768)

The visitor to our Zendo wanted to be more mindful and to “get to know himself better.” “Good goals!” I readily agreed, but went on to say “the most important thing is to identify your strengths and use them for the benefit of others.”

He made a face. “Oh, the compassion thing. I’m not really all that into Buddhist dogma. I do feel compassion, though, when watching the evening news and seeing people suffering.”

“That’s good, but why start so far from home? What about the people immediately present in your life? And why stop at ‘feeling” compassion? Why not actually do something to make others happier?”

The visitor wasn’t so sure. ”You can’t really make other people happy, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last. The things that make most people happy are inconsequential, like dining out in a fine restaurant. My folks are like that. They’re growing older. What I’d really like is to teach them tranquility, to face their impending old age and death with equanimity.”

All good points: you can’t make other people happy, happiness is ephemeral, and people are often mistaken about what will make them happy, seeking after and investing in the wrong things on the path to well-being.

And yet, all these points are besides the point because using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness. It doesn’t come from self-absorption or developing deep insights into the self. As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “to study the self is to forget the self.” The ultimate point of practice isn’t mindfulness in the sense of savoring each moment — although stopping to smell the roses is nothing to sniff at. The ultimate point of practice is transformation: cultivating one’s Buddha nature, journeying along the Bodhisattva path, making one’s life a blessing for everyone one encounters, moment-by-moment.

Blessings don’t have to be big things. They can be small moments shared with one’s grandchildren with one’s full attention, letting them know they are valued. It can be expressing gratitude when someone has done something worthy of appreciation. It can be remembering to clean up the dishes after lunch.

Of course they can be bigger things too: donating one’s time and money, volunteering, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the Dharma, working ceaselessly for peace and justice.

I emphasize identifying one’s signature talents and gifts because each of us has our own pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and each of us can best contribute to the world in our own unique way. I’m able to write and teach, so these are some of the ways I can make a difference. All thumbs, I’d be worthless building houses for the homeless or coaching kids’ sports teams. I’m too much of an introvert to go into politics — let others do that. My math skills are limited; I’ll never make discoveries in physics or develop a computer program that benefits mankind. We make a difference where we can in the way we can — the way we can genuinely be the most useful. We approach every situation with the intention of cultivating and fulfilling our Buddha nature. The most important question is not a self-absorbed “who am I?” but a Bodhisattva’s “how can I help?”

The visitor to our Zendo was a good person, sincere and dedicated in his practice. If we’d met ten years ago I might have agreed that increasing one’s awareness was the raison d’etre — the be all and end all — of practice. Over the years, however, practice has changed me. I’m aware of how much more heart-centered my practice has become. I fantasize about replacing the word “mindfulness” with “heartfulness.” Of course, the mind-heart distinction is a purely western problem; Asian languages never dissected the human soul along those particular dimensions — the dharmas of human consciousness were neither “cognitive” nor “affective,” but only “skillful” or “unskillful.” If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.

In the Zendo, our liturgy reminds us of sitting’s transformative purpose: Our robe chant invites us to be part of a “formless field of benefaction;” our Bodhisattva vows commit us to saving numberless beings; the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo declares that moment-by-moment, morning and night, our mind is one with the bodhisattva of compassion.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about our visitor wanting to teach his parents tranquility in the face of death.

“Good luck with that,” I think.

Really, just a phone call would make them happy.

Start small.

Start where you are.

Start where they are.

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My Diabetes Story: An Account of Change

Diabetes-1024x497(Warning:  This post is about my personal health and only very tangentially related to Buddhism.  If you’re a diabetic or pre-diabetic (and who isn’t these days?) it might be of interest; otherwise it might not.  I feel the need to share this story with other diabetics who are struggling the way I used to struggle, and since this is my blog, I guess I can post whatever I want. ) 

How does change occur?  What allows or permits a fundamental shift in perception, awareness, and sensibility?  How does an unresolved problem and source of perennial dissatisfaction finally click into clarity and a solution emerge along with the will, intention, and desire to implement it?  As a psychologist this is an open question I’ve lived with all my professional life.  What enables people to change?  Prochaska’s oft-cited model of Stages of Change (Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, Maintenance), while helpful, is heavily cognitive-behaviorally oriented.  It  needs to be supplemented with a phenomenological approach that stresses embodied shifts in awareness.  “Readiness to act” isn’t just a constellation of ideas or a set of behaviors; it’s an internal shift in bodily awareness, the way the body as a whole apprehends a problem.  Change takes more than an intellectual understanding.  It takes the right message at the right time. Your body/mind has to be ready, yearning for it when you didn’t even see it clearly.  When the moment comes, the willingness to seize it whole-heartedly is already present.

When I was first diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes 10 years ago, I treated the diagnosis as an opportunity to go to war.  I’m a problem solver, and here was a problem to be fixed, or if not fixed, managed.  I read everything I could about the disease, got an excellent endocrinologist, spoke with a nutritionist, and followed the recommended diet to a “T.” My hemoglobin A1C (think of it as a measure of the average amount of sugar in your blood over a three month period) dropped from over 10 to just a tad under 6.  My endocrinologist was pleased and so was I, except for the fact that I realized that I could not reach my target goals by following the standard American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommended diet.  I needed to eat a lot less to stay within my goals.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, my weight kept creeping up and I gradually gained 25 pounds over the next ten years. (Thank you insulin!  One of insulin’s main jobs is to convert carbohydrates into fat!), my A1Cs gradually rose to just under 7, and while my fasting blood sugars were not “too” bad (100-110 mg/dl) my postprandial blood sugars were often well over the ADA recommended target of under 180 mg/dl.  If I raised my insulin to get better coverage I experienced frightening hypoglycemic episodes, but if I didn’t raise my insulin my blood sugar went high after even modest meals.  I found myself snacking between meals to prevent hypoglycemic episodes, especially on days when I went to the gym.  With the type of insulin I was using, two daily injections of a mixture of fast and slow acting insulins, I found I could eat only two meals a day, otherwise my blood sugar numbers were hopeless.  I was taking fifty units of insulin a day. I felt perpetually frustrated by my inability to control my illness, and yet resigned to the fact (like a good Buddhist!) that we are all impermanent, and all subject to illness, old age and death.  My endocrinologist and I tried to come up with new ways of managing, trying this medication and that.  Sometimes I’d give it a try; sometimes I’d be too nervous about using a medication that was new to the market and might have unknown long-term side effects.  I stopped measuring my postprandial blood sugars for the most part.  What was the point?  They were almost always too high, and who wants to be continually reminded of unpleasant news when there/s nothing one can do to prevent it?  My fasting blood glucoses were acceptable, and I had to find a way to content myself with that.

Then, about five months ago I came across Jenny Ruhl’s website and blog in which she outlined a different way of managing diabetes. It meant adopting a radical diet which seemed in some ways counterintuitive and at odds with what I already “knew” (save us from what we think we already “know”!), taking different forms of insulin and taking them more often, and calculating the number of grams of protein and carbohydrates I ate at each meal and then adjusting the amount of insulin I took down to the half-unit.  She wrote clearly and persuasively, but I wasn’t sure how “fringy” her advice was — the dietary advice was at odds with much that I had read — or how up I was to the regimen she described.  It meant a total commitment to a complicated system.  Jenny’s blog recommended a book by Dr. Richard Bernstein who was the first to develop these ideas — a hefty 500 page tome.  I thought about it and thought about it (Prochaska’s Contemplation Stage), and after a month or so I bought the book and read it, then reread it, then reread it again trying to absorb the enormous amount of information it contained.  Then, after more contemplation, I let it sit and percolate.  I discussed the idea of changing over my insulin regimen with my endocrinologist (Prochaska’s Preparation Stage), and told her I wanted to think more about it and make a final decision at my next appointment three months from then.

At some point — after having my blood drawn by another doctor for another purpose — a blood draw that I didn’t know would include a blood glucose measure, so I didn’t fast before taking it — I had a postprandial blood glucose of 230 mg/dl.  I remembered Jenny Ruhl’s assertion that Hemoglobin A1Cs in the ADA’s recommended “under 7” range were no protection against the ravages of diabetes — that it was postprandial highs that caused much of the damage — and I decided I was ready for radical change (Prochaska’s Action Stage) — nervous about it, but ready— just “getting by” (which wasn’t really “getting by” — it was just setting the stage for future decline) was no longer good enough.

My endocrinologist wasn’t familiar with Dr. Bernstein’s approach which involves a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet (VLCKD) — keeping carbohydrates to 30 grams a day and using significantly smaller doses of insulin — but she trusted me and was willing to allow me to go along with it.  She wrote prescriptions for a basal-bolus insulin regimen which I started three weeks ago. It’s absorbed all my energy and attention, but it’s also been a complete revelation.  My fasting blood sugars now run routinely between 80-90, and often stay below 100 after meals. (If I’ve calculated my insulin correctly, sometimes my postprandial blood sugars are no different from my fasting blood sugars!)  I’m not hungry, have no desire to snack between meals, and am enjoying the taste of food more. I’ve lost 10 pounds, mostly around my waist, and my insulin use has decreased by 60%.  I feel healthier and more vital, as if the “qi” in my body is flowing better. (There’s no such thing as “qi,” is there? My logical “scientist brain” tells me it’s a metaphor for something else — but then, what is that “something else”?) I expect that when I go for my three month check-up with my endocrinologist my A1C will be below 6, my triglycerides will be substantially down, and my HDL will be higher.

The most intriguing change is that foods that used to be objects of desire have lost their allure.  Good-bye to bread, cereal, grains, beans, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruit, and deserts! When I look at them my first reaction is “this is poison for my body,”  so sticking with the diet has not been a problem.  It reminds me of the time 38 years ago when I finally quit smoking.  I had an acute case of bronchitis but I was still smoking my usual two packs a day.  At some point I noticed the physical sensation of the smoke filling my lungs — a moment of mindfulness.  Something inside “clicked,” and I came to the bodily realization that “this is poison.”  Not an “idea,” but an embodied certainty.  Something that had been a mere intellectual understanding before was now an embodied sense — and the desire to smoke evaporated into thin air.  The idea of smoking was now disgusting to me. I threw my cigarettes out. I don’t remember having cravings afterwards.  I was done.

I’m grateful to Jenny Ruhl and Dr. Richard Bernstein (who really deserves the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his amazing work!) for providing me with information about a new approach/regimen (actually not so new — Dr. Bernstein’s book came out in 1997) that has given me my life back, but I’m also left in wonder at the miracle of change.  How did it occur?  If I’d read Bernstein’s book 10 years ago, I would have dismissed it.  One doctor I talked with recently told me “You know, his work is very controversial.”  I would have agreed.  All the advice I read in standard diabetes books and magazines goes against it.  It’s far too radical.  It takes too much effort and commitment.  Only a rabid true believer can follow it.

And yet, here I am, a rabid true believer.

We’re bombarded by media messages that tell us that we don’t have to give up anything to put our lives in order.  We’re told: “You can still eat the foods you love!”  We live in a society that doesn’t believe in renunciation.   We can have it all.  Except that we can’t. The bad news is that we can’t eat the foods “we love,” but the good news is that with my bodily shift in awareness, the whole intricate way in which my body now holds its understanding of my illness and wellness, the foods that I love have changed.  I’ve renounced my old diet, but there’s no feeling of deprivation or loss.  How else is one to feel when one has given up “taking poison?”

Not to make too much of it, but as I write this I’m struck by how much this is also a form of Zen practice: embodied awareness, doing what’s needed whole-heartedly with undivided attention and effort, again and again, moment by moment, forever.

That’s the story I feel the need to share.

May all beings be well and healthy!

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In Defense of Mindfulness

IMG_5524Mindfulness has taken an awful lot of flack lately with critics piling on from all quarters. There seems to be a kind of Thermidorian reaction, a counter-swing of the pendulum, in response to the successful dissemination of mindfulness-based techniques throughout society, not only in medical settings and schools, but in corporations, prisons, and the military. Some of the flak is from Buddhist scholars who question mindfulness’s emphasis on “bare” and “non-judgmental” attention, pointing out that mindfulness can be either “right” or “wrong” mindfulness depending on whether it’s accompanied by clear comprehension and discerning wisdom. Others worry that mindfulness is being merchandized while failing to anchor it to an ethical frame, or that it’s being deployed as a handmaiden to corporate capitalism, exacerbating complacency and inequality, or that it’s diluting the Dharma, making people merely comfortable instead of transforming or enlightening them.

As for myself, I’ve never had a problem with the idea of diffusing Buddhist-derived practices throughout the larger culture; half a loaf is better than none. Nor have I ever been much of a purist; we Zen practitioners can’t afford to be. Contemporary Zen is, after all, as syncretic as a religion can get — a tasty and at times confusing mélange of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and modern Western influences. So if Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness — paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally — doesn’t entirely map onto the ancient Pali word “sati,” but betrays other influences — some based on misinterpretation, some imported from Buddhist modernist or non-Buddhist sources — so be it. The word “mindfulness” has stuck, and now means, à la Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, “just what we choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” The more important question isn’t semantic, but empirical: Is mindfulness, as currently construed, useful or not? Does it reliably and meaningfully impact matters that human beings care deeply about, things like the perennial Buddhist concerns of sickness, old age, and death? As a science writer for the Mindfulness Research Monthly, I get to sample the approximately forty or so scientific papers that are published on mindfulness each and every month. I usually don’t comment on them here, but some recent findings may help illuminate the question.

So just how useful is mindfulness? Let’s start by looking at mindfulness and suffering, and let’s start with a very specific kind of suffering: physical pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s fabled 1982 study of mindfulness’s ability to reduce pain in chronic pain patients was the very first scientific study of mindfulness. It was a pilot demonstration, nothing more, conducted on a shoe string — no NIH grants, no randomization, no controls. It proved precious little on its own, but it was enough to suggest that mindfulness was worth a second look, that it needed to be explored using better, more expensive, more sophisticated methodologies. It opened the floodgates to an enormous outpouring of thirty years of subsequent research.


So where does the science of mindfulness and pain reduction stand today? Joshua Grant from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences recently reviewed the research on the neuropsychology of meditation and pain [1] What did he find out? First, that one could compare the efficacy of focused attention (e.g. shamatha, mantra practice, anapanasati) and open monitoring (e.g., vipassana, shikantaza, choiceless awareness, dzogchen) as to their respective abilities to reduce pain, and when one does so, the evidence for open monitoring is much better than that for focused attention. While there’s some evidence that a very skilled yogi practicing focused attention can suppress somatosensory cortical response to pain through a process of distraction, there’s precious little evidence that the average meditator can do so. On the other hand, there’s mounting evidence from three independent laboratories that open monitoring reduces pain sensitivity and related suffering, and does so in a consistent way. Unlike focused attention, open monitoring doesn’t suppress somatosensory cortical responding, but actually enhances it (along with insula and anterior cingulate responding). Instead, it decreases the prefrontal lobe activity associated with elaborative mental processes (e.g., mental narratives, cognitive appraising, and self-involvement) that exacerbate pain. A study of experienced Zen practitioners showed that they exhibited decreased functional connectivity between these brain regions — as if they had developed a way to decouple their sensory perception from their elaborative mental activities — and that the greater the decrease in functional connectivity between these regions, the lower their pain sensitivity. The really interesting thing here is that this neuropsychological account agrees completely with what mindfulness teachers have been saying all along about what mindfulness ought to and does accomplish — that it increases bare attention to sensation while helping the meditator to drop his or her self-involved story line.

Now let’s examine another topic — aging. UCLA neuroscientist Eileen Luders [2] recently reviewed the evidence that meditation protects the brain against the effects of normal aging. She summarized the results from three independent studies that compared age-related brain changes in meditators and non-meditators. These studies found 1) a smaller age-related decline in gray matter volume in Zen meditators, 2) a smaller age-related decline in right frontal cortical thickness in vipassana meditators, and 3) a smaller age-related decline in white matter connectivity in a group of vipassana, Zen, and shamatha meditators.

Now some might point out that these studies used Zen, vipassana, and shamatha meditators — Buddhist practitioners all. They might wonder whether the same results would hold true for secular mindfulness practitioners. The answer is that it does. Harvard neuropsychologist Britta Holzel and her colleagues [3] found that a standard 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course resulted in significant increases in gray matter density in the left hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, temporo-parietal junction, and cerebellar vermis. And that was the result of just an eight week course! The take away is that mindfulness meditation — whether Buddhist or secular — is good for your brain.

But what about the other objections I referred to at the beginning of this post? Is mindfulness guilty of making people happier without making them Enlightened?

You bet. Guilty as charged. There’s an awful lot of suffering in the world, and if we care deeply about our Bodhisattva vows, we want to see others suffer less. We really do. Buddhism isn’t just about Enlightenment. It’s about suffering and the end of suffering. Buddhism has always had an assortment of goals for people with different needs, in different sets of circumstances, or with different levels of aspiration. Down though the ages most nominal Buddhists have chosen to pursue better karma and rebirth rather than aiming for Enlightenment. If mindfulness only results in happier human beings, then — once again — so be it. Those of us who choose to pursue awakening and transformation can still do so, happily untroubled by the sight of all those cheerful, mindful people milling about in our vicinity.

I’m also underwhelmed by neo-Marxist carping about mindfulness turning workers into complacent zombies, uncritically accepting of the status quo. I can still recall one of my earliest teachers, Larry Rosenberg, saying that if a truly mindful person was meditating in a burning building, he wouldn’t be sitting there mentally noting “warm, warmer, hot, hotter….” He’d be the first person noticing fire and helping others out the door. During my internship at the Center for Mindfulness we were taught a four-step process adopted from Angeles Arrien’s Four-Fold Way: 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) speak your truth/do what’s necessary, and 4) let go. I’ve always considered those four steps to be very the essence of mindfulness practice, and it’s a recipe for wise engagement, not passive acceptance and complacency.

Finally, it’s not been my experience that mindfulness is usually taught untethered to an ethical context. While that context may not be overt and explicit— there isn’t any moralizing in MBSR— it’s implicit in mindfulness’s heartfelt emphasis on compassion towards oneself and others, whether as modeled by the mindfulness instructor in interactions with the students, or as practiced by the students themselves in lovingkindness meditation.

I don’t mean to imply that all of these criticisms are baseless. If there are mindfulness teachers out there who aren’t emphasizing compassion and lovingkindness, or who aren’t encouraging their students to exercise wise judgment after getting in touch with the fullness of the present moment — and who knows, it’s a big world out there, maybe there are — they are hereby put on notice: Get with the program. But we should remember that, as Jon Kabat-Zinn once said, “mindfulness” isn’t just “paying attention in the moment.” It’s a placeholder term for an entire secularized version of the Dharma. Is it the Buddhadharma in full? No. But it’s a near enough relative — a close second cousin — and I wish it continued good fortune, and it’s continuing successful diffusion into Western culture.

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  1. [1] Grant, J. (2013) “Meditative analgesia: the current state of the field.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science, DOI: 10.1111/nyas.12282
  2. [2] Luders. E. (2013). “Exploring age-related brain degeneration in meditation practitioners,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, DOI:10.1111/nyas.12217
  3. [3] Hölzel, B., Carmody, C., Vangela, M., Congleton, C., and Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. and Lazar, S. (2010). “Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density,” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (2011) 36–43

How Many Divisions Does The Buddha Have?



In 416 B.C. — while the Buddha was alive and teaching the Dharma according to some sources — the Athenian navy launched an expedition against the island of Melos in the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War.  Before commencing their attack, the Athenians met with the Melians to try to arrange the terms of their surrender. The Melians, convinced of the justness of their cause, refused.  The Athenians then attacked with overwhelming force, slaying all their men of military age, and enslaving their women and children.

Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, reports (or rather imagines) a dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in which the Athenians argued, essentially, that might — along with the rational calculation of self-interest — made right. The Athenians rejected the argument that the gods would support Melos because of the justness of it’s cause:

 “When you speak of the favor of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves…. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”

This has always been the essence of realpolitik. Stalin made virtually the same argument, only pithier, when he responded to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval’s suggestion that he should encourage Catholicism to propitiate the Pope by saying, “The Pope?  How many divisions does he have?”

The Athenian claim that it’s the strong’s destiny to rule over the weak, that realpolitik, red in tooth and claw, is the law of nature, is reflected in some histories and biographies I’ve been reading these last few months.  In After Tamerlane, historian John Darwin recounts the clashes from 1400 A.D. to the present between the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Ottoman, Mongol, and European empires and peoples. In Blood and Thunder, biographer Hampton Sides recounts Kit Carson’s role in fulfilling the United States’s “manifest destiny” as it expanded across the North American continent from sea to shining sea, wresting the western territories from Mexico’s grasp, and conquering the Navajo, Comanche, and Apache peoples. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, biographer Edmund Morris explores the expansion of American might and power into the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines, and into Central America as Roosevelt seeks to build the Panama Canal. These books point to the universality of aspirations to empire, and the inevitability of conflict between nations and the strong prevailing over the weak.  History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.




The claim that might makes right, first articulated by the Greek Sophists, was rejected by Plato in The Republic, in which he made the metaphysical argument that “justice” existed as an ideal form apart from the minds of men or the customs of nations.  The Buddha also rejected the claim that might made right with his own metaphysics of karma, while the Abrahamic religions rejected the claim by appealing to divine law.  All argued for a “higher” morality which constrained the actions of the mighty.  Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions both posit behavioral costs for immoral behavior, ones they project into either an afterlife or some future rebirth — but in our daily lives we see malefactors prosper and saints suffer, while convincing proof of reward or punishment in an afterlife is never quite forthcoming.

Fortunately, Buddhism also makes more subtle arguments:

First, that morality leads to improved character and well-being, and ultimately to enlightenment.  Moral behavior makes us feel better — and more importantly — makes us be better in ways that both we and others value and recognize.  As much as our popular culture celebrates an unending stream of media mediocrities, it also valorizes icons who stand above and beyond the common stream – the bodhisattvas of every faith — Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Paul Farmer, the Dalai Lama.  We recognize that there is such a thing as a life well-lived that is meaningfully superior to the pursuit of power and pleasure.

Second, while the immoral exercise of power may result in short term gains, it ultimately creates the conditions for extended conflict and unintended consequences, a naturalized interpretation of karma. Thus the 1953 CIA overthrow of the Iranian government prepared the stage for the1979 Iranian Revolution, and it’s support of an international brigade of Islamist volunteers against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was the precondition for the emergence of Al-Queda. One reaps what one sows.

Third, it seems self-evident that if all parties abided by (almost) universally acknowledged conceptions of humanity, fairness and justice, the world would be a better place for everyone. The problem with this argument is that everyone must simultaneously agree to follow the rules together, or else it doesn’t work.  This can only occur when conditions arise that sufficiently convince the strong it’s in their own best long-term interest to constrain themselves.

There have been past historical eras in which the great powers have been more or less evenly balanced, when no one power has had the ability to dictate its wishes to another without incurring unacceptable costs.  During those eras, powers tested and probed each other, competing for advantage and dominance in limited spheres, but refraining from actions which would have shattered the overall peace. The European powers did this in the near-century between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War.

Our current age is one in which the powers of the United States, Europe, China, and Russia are compelled to recognize domains of interdependence as well as arenas of competition and limited conflict. The existence of weapons of mass destruction has made a convincing case for great power compromise and, to a limited extent, cooperation. Ours is an historical era in which progress towards establishing institutional frameworks for resolving conflict is possible; institutions that operate within an emerging conception of International Law; institutions and rules that are binding on the strong as well as the weak, and dependent on collective action. These incipient rules and institutions are still weak and emerging, and their continued development depends on a growing recognition that we are not the centers of the universe, and that our actions must be grounded in interdependence, fairness, and a larger conception of humanity.  In other words, ideas that are central to the Dharma.

In their dialogue with the Athenians, the Melians argued that doing what is just was also in the Athenian’s long-term interest:

 “We speak as we are obliged — since you enjoin us to [speak not of] right alone and talk only [in terms of] of interest — that you should not destroy what is our common protection — the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right…  And you are as much interested in this as any…

Melos was warning Athens that the day might come when the shoe was on the other foot, and they might have to plead their own case against a stronger foe.

What goes around comes around.

The Athenians shrugged this off:

 “The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us…. This… is a risk that we are content to take…”

They should have been paying more attention.  The Athenian Empire came to an end a mere thirteen years later when they suffered a final defeat at the hands of the Spartans.  As it turned out, the Spartans dealt far more leniently with the Athenians than the Athenians had with the poor Melians.  In their particular case, what went around only partially came around — luckily for us, or we would never have been able to read Plato.

The dialectic between understanding human conflict through the lens of power alone — as a natural force, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that needs be accepted for what it is — and understanding it in moral terms, is an unending one.  It’s played out today in realist-versus-idealist prescriptions for American foreign policy.  It’s also played out in philosophical debates over the status of morality within the natural science framework– a world-view anchored in materialism and flirting, more than occasionally, with reductionism.

Some may look at Buddhist prescriptions for ethical conduct the way Stalin viewed the Pope:

 The Buddha?  How many divisions does he have?

Others may see the Dharma as offering a rational prescription for survival in an era of growing interdependence and unparalleled destructive power.  My suspicion is that, excepting the small percentage of the population that constitute true psychopaths, everyone believes in his or her heart of hearts that morality trumps might, that the strong may have their way and even enjoy, at least for a while, the fruits of their victory — but that even if the bar of justice is toothless, they are still ultimately held accountable in the consciences of men and women.

What strength does the small, defenseless voice of conscience have in the face of overwhelming power?  Not much. The Melians would surely have done better to surrender to the Athenians. Relying on being in the right for one’s physical safety is never a good idea.

But over time we’ve seen the gradual emancipation of slaves, the granting of the franchise to women, the end of European colonialism, the fall of fascist and communist totalitarianism, the abolition of public hangings, the end of apartheid. It’s almost as if, as Tolstoy wrote in his Christian parable, “God sees the truth but acts slowly.”

Stalin is dead.

There’s a new pope in Rome.

Social evolution occurs, but only over time, with the slow persistent effort of people of conscience across generations, like water slowly eroding rock.

Athens has come and gone, but the Dharma remains, timeless, calling us to our higher selves (or non-selves) and to the service of all beings

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Wishes for Toni

imgresI just received word that Toni Packer, after a brief hospitalization, is now in hospice care at the Livingston County Center for Nursing.  My first impulse was to write that I had heard the news “with great sadness,” but those words would not be entirely true.  I’m not at all sure that Toni feels any sadness at the moment, or if she does, I suspect it’s fleeting, coming and going with the clouds and the warm summer breeze.  My fantasy is that she’s ready for whatever comes, embracing and investigating each moment with her customary clarity and equanimity, and not necessarily eager to hang on to a failing body with all its attendant pain. This is all, however, just my fantasy, my projected wish for Toni’s last days.  It’s been years since we’ve last talked or corresponded.  My own personal sorrow is mixed with my great appreciation for having met and known her, and a wish for her suffering to be minimal and at its end.

Toni has been in pain for over a decade. In 2003 she wrote me about her chronic and debilitating pain and neuropathy, hoping her doctors would come up with some “miracle med.”  (“Too much to expect?” she asked in parenthesis.)  Despite the pain, she tried to maintain her life’s work of meditative inquiry and dialogue:

“The one thing that has not been affected by this ailing body are talks and meetings even though we had to cut back schedules.  There seems to be even more than the usual clarity and sharpness of mind in meeting together, and I’m thankful for that indeed.”

As time went on, her energy and mobility decreased, until she became bed-ridden.

In 2006 I’d written Toni about some changes going on in my own life, including my late wife’s struggles with cancer and my first grandchildren — twins! — on the way.  Toni’s response says, I think, something about her perspective on her own worsening adversity:

“And twins about to arise… have they fully made their appearance?  I wish you all the best for your new family!  It won’t be easy, but good if you can maintain some equanimity in the midst of all this relentless change, the endless demands that little human beings bring into life from the very outset.  Wishing you lots of strength, remaining in touch with that bottomless source of energy that only seems to elude us at times — with sufficient patience a little bit of a toe-hold is always possible!”

She ended with her characteristic warmth:  “Sending you love and a big hug for all of you.”

Toni was one of my very first teachers.  The first time I heard her voice was at a Q-and-A session at the 1997 Buddhism in America conference in Boston.  It was the most moving dharma talk I’ve ever heard, composed and delivered in the moment, spontaneously, from the heart.  It seems fitting now that what she talked about then was life and death — how people who are dear come and go in our lives — how that’s the very nature of our existence.  It wasn’t so much what she said, but the way she said it, tinged with tenderness, emotion, and the ring of hard-earned truth. I decided then and there that I wanted Toni in my life as a “teacher” (she would reject the term), and began a series of retreats with her at the Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry.

Toni’s the real thing.  She talks the talk and walks the walk.  There’s a clarity, genuineness, and openness about her that very few people possess.  She invites you to sit with her and discover things for yourself, without dogma, ritual, or cant.  She doesn’t need to teach you anything, but gives you the space to discover things for yourself.  She’s a true kalyana-mitta, or spiritual friend, and she’ll always be with me.

When I first sat retreat with Toni, it seemed to me she did things backward. Coming from a Theravada tradition, I had traditionally meditated with eyes-closed. Toni meditated Zen-style with eyes open, but when she gave her dharma talks, she often did so with eyes closed.  It was as if the attention she needed to find the right words required that she shut out all possible distractions.  When she spoke, her body moved and swayed with her words, so that she wasn’t talking from her “head,” but with her whole body-heart-mind.  I have never seen or heard anyone else talk in just that way.  Her talks never seemed canned or rehearsed, but were truly of and in the moment.

As Toni nears her end, I wish her everything she wished for me seven years ago — equanimity, connection to the “bottomless source of energy,” and the possibility of “maintaining a toe-hold” in “aware-ing” and “presence.”   Her life has been extraordinary from beginning to end, from the little half-Jewish girl raised in Berlin in the shadow of the Third Reich, to her marriage, family and immigration to the U.S., to her pioneering role at Phillip Kapleau Roshi’s Rochester Zen Center, to the gradual process of shedding past attachments and allegiances to create her own Center, forged from her acquaintance with Zen and Krishnamurti, but also from her own unique understanding of awareness.  Along with other seminal figures like Charlotte Joko Beck, she has helped shaped the course of Buddhism in America for the better: a Buddhism that’s centered in the aliveness of discovering the moment, freed from authority and dogma, and welcoming of women on a footing of respect and equality.

Toni, I’m thinking of you as you begin your final journey.  My heart and thoughts are with you.  And Toni, as Milton Erikson used to say, “your voice goes with me.”  You’re a part of me and everyone you’ve touched in all your years, and you live on in the future of the Buddhism (and non-Buddhism) you’ve helped shape.

Many blessings!  And may your path be easy!

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Tokugawa Zen


Last week Justin Whitaker over at American Buddhist Perspective  issued a challenge:

The story of Buddhism has always been one of adaptation and transformation. This month I am inviting a discussion about how Buddhism has adapted to and transformed America…

I’m declining the invite, but I’ve been stimulated by his reference to Buddhism’s continual adaptation and transformation.  Buddhism’s malleability in the face of changing conditions is a theme I’ve addressed before here and here, but today I want to focus exclusively on the lessons we can learn from Buddhism’s evolution in another time and place. I’ve just finished reading Peter Haskel’s introduction to his translation of Menzan Zuihō’s Tōsui Oshō Densan [1] along with David Rigg’s biography of Menzan. [2] Both of these works explore Japanese Zen’s decline and rebirth during the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868), a topic I’m just beginning to gain acquaintance with.  Everything in this post is gleaned from my reading of Haskel and Riggs, and I apologize in advance for any errors in recounting or construing their thoughts.


Zen’s Decline (1400-1600)

From 1192 to 1868, Japan was ruled by a series of hereditary military generalissimos called shoguns who, while nominally appointed by the Emperor, were the de facto rulers of the country.  The Tokugawa Shogunate began in 1600 with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s seizure of the reins of power, and lasted until 1868 with Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s abdication to the Emperor Meiji, ushering in the Meiji Restoration.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu

Tokugawa Yoshinobu


Zen was in steep decline before the start of the Tokugawa shogunate. The flame of its originators had dwindled to a flicker, and the Buddhist clergy had become largely ignorant and corrupt.  Koan study had devolved into just getting the approved written “solutions” to koans on a piece of paper from one’s teacher, a practice called missan, or “secret study.” These “answers” were often drawn from koan capping phrases, sometimes blended with esoteric Shingon mantras and Taoist doctrine.

There were pockets of awareness about the fallen state of Zen.  As early as 1455, Zen master Ikkyū Sōjun criticized a fellow teacher, saying “Whether it’s a man, a dog, a fart, or a turd, he’s ready to cajole them, selling koans and then calling it transmission.”

Master Ikkyū

Ikkyū Sōjan

Shidō Mu’nan (1603-1676) criticized the priests of his own day as being “the worst sort of evil there is, thieves who get by without having to work.”  Mangen Shiban (1703) thought authentic Zen had ceased to exist after the first five or six generations of teachers.  Early Tokugawa practitioners who experienced some degree of genuine realization were in a quandry because they couldn’t find authentic teachers to validate their realization.  Daigu Sōchiku (1584-1669) bemoaned:

“For two hundred years now the Zen of our land has been divorced from the true Dharma so that no more clear eyed teachers remain.  While there are many people in the world of Zen, there is none able to sanction my own present experience of enlightenment.”

Dokuan Genkō (1630-1698) said “those nowadays who claim to be Dharma heirs are merely receiving paper Zen.”  Neo-Confucianist scholar Kumazawa Banzan (1609-1691) thought Zen teachers were prepared to “flatter any daimyo (feudal warlord), millionaire, or rascal” and proclaim him enlightened, and Menzan Zuihō observed over a half-century later (1768):

“In our own corrupt period…. Monks covet rich storehouses of rice and millet, devouring the nation’s wealth, merely scheming to live at ease with servants to carry them in litters and wearing robes of embroidered brocade.  Examine such people and you will find  they neither uphold the precepts, practice meditation, nor cultivate wisdom.  Instead they shorten the summer days by playing chess and keep the winter nights from stretching on endlessly by guzzling wine.  If eight or nine in ten are like this, how can they conduct themselves like followers of the Buddha?”

While Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō was considered a “secret treasure,” no commentaries were written on it for almost four centuries.  Fragmentary Shōbōgenzō texts were handed down from teacher to student to signify transmission, but it was the text’s possession that mattered, not an understanding of its contents.  Dōgen’s writings didn’t resume their central place in Sōtō Zen until Tokugawa scholars revived his works as part of a back-to-basics movement based on “fukko,” or “return to the old.”  As David Riggs points out, however, this was not so much a return to Dōgen Zen —  many of the old ways had in fact been lost forever — but a re-imagination and reconstruction with Dōgen’s texts as their inspiration.


 Militarism and Xenophobia

The shogunate solidified the samurai’s position at the head of the social pyramid, and Zen temples were often dependent on the patronage of daimyos and the military elite.  Is it any wonder that Zen learned to find ways to ease the inherent contradiction between the values of Bushido and Buddhadharma?  Suzuki Shōsan (1579-1655), for example, was a samurai warrior who became a Zen monk in 1621.  Never receiving inka, he declared himself self-enlightened, and developed a huge following.  He formulated a type of Zen based on martial values:

“It is a good practice doing zazen in the midst of pressing circumstances.  For the samurai, particularly, it is essential to practice the sort of zazen that can be put to use in the midst of battle.  At the moment when the guns are blazing, when lances cross, point to point, and the blows of the enemy rain down, amid the fray of battle — here is where he must practice, putting his meditation immediately to work…. However much a samurai claims to love Buddhism, if it doesn’t do him any good when he finds himself on the battlefield, he’d better give it up.”


Suzuki Shosan

Suzuki Shōsan

In addition to Zen’s accommodation to military values, Tokugawa fears of foreign influence led to distrust against both Christian missionaries and Ming-era Chinese Ōbaku priests who migrated to Japan to meet the religious needs of the Chinese merchant community that had grown up around the port of Nagasaki.  The Shogunate forbid Japanese from adopting Christianity, and to assure conversions did not occur, all Japanese had to register with a Buddhist temple and receive documents from the local Buddhist priests attesting to their status as Buddhists in good standing.  Those who refused to re-convert to Buddhism were ruthlessly exterminated by methods that included public crucifixion and incineration.  In order to fulfill this mission, the Shogunate reorganized Buddhist temples into a root-and-branch parish system.  Buddhist funerals became mandatory, which meant more money flowing into Temple coffers, and temple building accelerated.  While these political and social events strengthened Zen as an institution, they eroded its role as the transmitter of the Dharma.  Priests occupied a social status below the samurai but above the commoners, and the priesthood became a means of upward social mobility.  The priesthood swelled.

The Chinese Ōbaku priests were another story.  Dōgen had gone to China to find his teacher, but during the shogunate, foreign travel was forbidden.  The arrival of new priests from China created quite a stir, and many Rinzai and Sōtō priests visited the Ōbaku temples to see what 17th Century Chinese Ch’an was all about.  Ming-era Chinese Ch’an combined Ch’an and Pure Land elements (e.g., the recitation of the nembutsu) and followed more vinaya precepts than Japanese Zen. The Shogunate initially kept the Chinese priests under surveillance and restricted their movements.  Many of the great Zen masters in the Japanese Zen revival (see below) regarded Ōbaku Zen as inferior to Japanese practice, but the encounter with Ming-era Ch’an may have stimulated reformers to think more critically about some of their own practices including the role of the precepts and certain monastic regulations.  It also might have helped re-popularize the writings of Linji.



Much of what we consider Zen today is due to the reinvention and revival of Zen in the Tokugawa era.  Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) systematized and re-energized koan study in the Rinzai tradition.  Manzen Dōhaku led an effort to restore Dōgen’s conception of face-to-face lineage transmission in the Sōtō tradition.  Authentic Rinzai teachers like Gudō Tōshoku, Ungo Kiyō, Daigu Sōchiku and Isshi Bunshu helped reinvigorate Zen practice. Scholars like Menzan Zuihō — and the introduction of moveable type — helped re-familiarize Sōtō Zen with Dōgen’s writings.  Menzan also turned Sōtō Zen temple meditation halls back into “monks halls” where the monks ate and slept as well as meditated while on sesshin, just as they had back in Dōgen’s day, and attempted to revitalize the meaning of precept transmission.  As Peter Haskel suggests, “the Japanese Zen as we know it today is Tokugawa Zen, a teaching that looks back to its medieval roots but does it through the prism of its own special concerns.”



Whenever we’re tempted to think of Zen, or of Buddhism, as one static unchanging thing; whenever we start to think that revisionism, reinvention, or the remolding of Buddhism by social, political and economic influences is unique to our time and place; whenever we bemoan the fallen or corrupted state of contemporary Buddhism; the history of Tokugawa Zen can help us put things in perspective.  Fall, reinvention, and renewal are common to every era.  It’s also a reminder that whenever we try to restore what we think was the past, we can only do so through the eyes of the present.

The past is always past.

Now is just this.

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  1. [1] Haskel, P. (2001). Letting Go: The Story of Zen Master Tōsui, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
  2. [2] Riggs, D.(2004). The Life of Menzan Zuihō, Founder of Dōgen Zen, Japan Review,16, 67-100.

A Meditation on Politics

015abbeydharmaFirst, some background.

I moved to my current town when my wife and I married five years ago.  I wanted to be informed about local issues and had some spare time on my hands, so I started sitting in on the local Town Board work sessions.  One day, the town’s energy coordinator, who was also attending the sessions, invited me to become part of the town’s Climate Action Task Force, and I agreed.  I performed an energy audit of the town’s electric, gasoline, and natural gas consumption, and our task force came up with a number of recommendations for reducing the town’s greenhouse gas emissions.  One of them, changing the town’s lighting over to LED lighting, is happening right now.  In the process, I got to observe and interact with the town’s political figures from the  perspective of an environmental activist.

My wife and I also began attending meetings of our local neighborhood civic association as a way of my getting to know our neighbors better, and, to make a long story short, we ended up serving on the association’s board, my wife as president, and I as corresponding secretary.  We became advocates for the needs of our local community — a road needs repaving here, a water main needs replacing there —  and we got to interact with the town’s political figures over issues related to the town’s delivery of  services.

Our town supervisor is up for re-election this November.  We were appreciative of his availability, his willingness to listen, his integrity, and his genuine wish to be of service to all his constituents, so we let him know, via Facebook, that we supported his re-election bid.  We’ve also had the opportunity to observe his political opponent at town meetings, and were deeply concerned about his negative, divisive, and egotistical personality.  He’d opposed many of the initiatives we’d supported including funding the town’s energy coordinator and arts council positions, and enacting changes to the town code that required new construction to meet energy efficiency standards.

When our town supervisor asked us to get involved in his campaign, we were happy to assist him in getting the signatures he needed to get on the ballot.  Over a short period of time, however, we found ourselves becoming more involved in the campaign.  We wanted to be of assistance, and his campaign seemed to like our thoughts about his re-election bid, so we found ourselves being invited to more and more strategy sessions.  In some ways it wasn’t surprising: my wife was a public relations and communications consultant who had worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies; I love watching her in action.  The only thing I have to contribute is my Zen presence and my occasional two cents for what it’s worth.  As the readers of this blog are well aware, everyone is entitled to my opinion.

Which brings me to my main point.

The other week during zazenkai (a kind of six-hour mini-sesshin), my mind was filled with the buzz of the campaign.  As I tried to sit quietly with my breath and the early morning bird song, thoughts of campaign strategy zipped around my brain.  I’d let them go and return to quiet sitting, only to have them return with renewed energy.  Eventually, I gave up trying to not have them, and contented myself with trying to observe them without getting caught up or carried away.  Given their powerful energy, even that proved difficult, and I had to bring myself back to the present moment over and over.

Was this a bad sitting?  It wasn’t the one I’d wanted.  I’d wanted one of those sittings in which the mind was deliciously still and clear.  That was not to be.  Abandon all expectations, ye who enter here.

But it was the sitting I needed.  It was a wonderful lesson in how addictive political energies can be; how they can absorb us to the degree that we’re in danger of losing our quiet center; how we can easily become enamored with our own cleverness; how sooner or later, we can find ourselves devising strategies that are simply about winning, but which fail to reflect the purity of our original intention to be of service to the community. It was a wake-up call about needing to be careful and discerning; about being suspicious of my own thought processes; about keeping my recommendations in accord with my best intentions and not mere expediency.  It reminded me that elections aren’t about the candidates we support, but about our highest aspirations to benefit all beings.

Zazenkai ended with a new appreciation of the balancing act that’s required if we’re to maintain our integrity while participating in the rough and tumble of politics.

The next time you have a sitting that’s not the one you wanted, be grateful.

It’s a gift.

Not just to yourself, but to all beings.


The image at the top of this post is reprinted with permission from Tricycle Magazine.  

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