Thoughts After Shukke Tokudo


I recently ordained as a novice Zen priest in a ceremony officiated by Sensei Daiken Nelson at White Plains Zen. The traditional Soto shukke tokudo ceremony included some textual emendations courtesy of the Zen Peacemaker Order along with a priest’s pledge Daiken and I cowrote that was loosely based on an earlier pledge that originated with the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community.  Our version read:

“To be a priest is to serve sangha and world in accord with the Buddhadharma. I pledge to care for the Sangha, manifesting and maintaining practice and places for practice; transmitting and renewing its liturgy, rituals, and values; acting as a celebrant and mourner for rites of passage; and offering pastoral care in moments of need. I will study, embody, and share the Dharma. Taking the backward step, I will turn the light and shine it inward. As my robes signify the potential for awakening available to all, I will wear them with dignity. I will strive to actualize the fundamental point in each moment, practicing whole-heartedly, cultivating an intimate, careful attention to all things, bearing witness to the world’s cries of suffering, and fulfilling my vow to help all beings awaken. This is the way of the priest.”

The role of the American Zen priest is—like everything else—in flux. It’s clearly different from that of the traditional Japanese Zen priest who inherits a family-run temple and conducts funerary rituals. It’s also different from that of the Sensei who’s recognized for having achieved a certain level of spiritual attainment and is authorized to offer teisho and daisan. The novice lacks the full priest’s authority to teach, offer jukai, or preside over marriages and funerals. What the novice priest essentially has is the authority to chop wood and carry water—the exact same authority one had prior to ordination—that, and the right to wear the inner and outer robes of the priest and to learn how to conduct onself with menmitsu no kafu—the exquisite, careful, considerate, and intimate attention to detail that uniquely characterizes Soto Zen activity. In a culture addicted to fame, competition, consumption, and acquisition, the robes are reminders of the Enlightened Way to all who wear and witness them.

In American Zen, the path of the priest opens up opportunities to engage in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, interfaith collaboration, presiding over rites of passage, and promoting social justice. It’s a means of both transmitting Japanese liturgy, ritual, protocol, and etiquette and also of thoughtfully adapting them to American needs. The priesthood embodies the Bodhisattva ideal of service to all beings. Since retiring from psychotherapy, I’ve sought to use the skills I acquired as a therapist—listening, presence, holding a space, using language to unlock potentiality—in some new role unconstrained by the dictates of professionalism, the medical model, the fifty-minute hour, and the insurance industry. It’s my greatest hope that the priesthood will prove to be a path that allows me to offer my skills in the service of wisdom, compassion, and awakening.

My Buddhist journey is a fifty-year arc: the adolescent student attending Alan Watts lectures in the 1960s; the psychologist on internship at the Center for Mindfulness in the 1990s; the yogi on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and the Springwater Center; my jukai and shukke tokudo in the White Plum Asanga lineage and Zen Peacemaker Order. I went from being a Westerner interested in Buddhism, to a Buddhist sympathizer, to a lay Buddhist, to an ordained Buddhist—each of these stations on a journey towards greater commitment to a path that has continued to enrich my life beyond words, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have some concern as to how my fellow sangha members may react to my robes. Robes have the potential to signify something else for others than they do for me. It’s possible that the robes may be experienced—subtly or unsubtly—as somehow putting a separation between me and others. I hope that concern proves to be unfounded. While fully dedicated to zazen and awakening, many of my sangha members do not identify themselves as being “Buddhists,” and some are skeptical of and even averse to Japanese tradition and ritual. They lean towards a modern, American Zen—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—rather than towards preserving Zen’s Japanese heritage. I’m sympathetic to that—I’d have never found my own entry into Buddhist practice through more traditional Asian Buddhist forms. I’d probably have run the other way. My first teachers, like the late Toni Packer, stripped sitting and awareness down to its barest essentials, making it possible for a skeptical Westerner like myself to relate to them. 

On the other hand, I’ve become more of a traditionalist over time, worrying about what may get lost in translation. I find traditional Japanese forms of practice beautiful and inspiring, and find great value in an etiquette based on infinite respect for all things, the spare Zen aesthetic, and a careful, intricate attention to detail. They remind me of my interdependence with and gratitude/respect for all-and-everything. They also serve as an antidote to the modern Western overemphases on individualism, the network of “me-ness,” and our focus on forever trying to arrange things closer to our preferences and desires. As the saying goes, “only don’t pick and choose.”

We’re all beneficiaries of an ancient flowing tradition. I’m grateful for that tradition and wish to continue to honor it as we step into the future. Not every aspect of it—not the authoritarianism and sexism, for example.  But much of it. The dialectical tension between traditionalism and modernism affects every aspect of Buddhist metaphysics, ethics, and practice. It always has and always will as Buddhism has historically crossed and continues to cross cultural and temporal boundaries. I’m glad to be deeply rooted in and a part of an evolving tradition, and to be intimately engaged in the never-ending dialogue over how to shape its future. 


Photos courtesy of Bunny Solomon

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Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Sally Gross, the acclaimed minimalist avant-garde dancer and choreographer, passed away last week at the age of eighty-one.  If you’ve never seen one of Sally’s live performances, you might have seen her in the 1959 “beat” film Pull My Daisy (together with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) or in the 2007 documentary, The Pleasure of Stillness, that noted filmmaker Albert Maysles made about her work. Sally was the friend of a friend, and I’d the good fortune to see her dance live over a decade ago at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. I also had the good fortune to have Sally accompany me on a journey five hours up to and five hours back from Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry where we’d gone together on a seven-day silent retreat.

Sally wasn’t in the best of moods for our trip. Her long-term boyfriend, art dealer Richard Bellamy, had passed away in 1998, and if I remember correctly, there had been some dissension between Sally and his family in the wake of his death.  While my memory about the particulars is somewhat fuzzy, I distinctly remember Sally as still actively angry and grieving a she talked about Richard all the way up to Springwater.  At the time of his passing, Richard served as an art dealer for the work of only one artist, the abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero. I wasn’t familiar with di Suvero’s work, but I’d learned of his existence only a few months earlier when he received a Governor’s Art Award from New York Governor George Pataki in an impressive ceremony alongside the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur

I happened to be there because noted photographer Milton Rogovin, the father of a friend, was also receiving an award that night. Mark di Suvero gave a memorable acceptance speech that made a lasting impression on me, and as a consequence, when Sally mentioned his name, the name meant something to me.  At the time I thought it was interesting — I’d never heard of di Suvero before, and here he’d “turned up” twice in just a matter of a few months. Life’s funny that way. I decided that I’d have to familiarize myself with his work once I got home.  As a curious aside, di Suvero’s name came up for me once more a decade later when my daughter completed an artist’s residency at his Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.

On the road back from Springwater, Sally told me that her entire retreat experience had been permeated, haunted, and dominated by Richard’s “presence.” She spent the entire week processing her complex feelings about their relationship and his death. We were still caught up in talking about this when I noticed with some alarm that I’d missed my exit off Route 17 where it intersected with Route 84. I had gone to Springwater several times in the past, and had never missed my exit before!

I got off the next exit, and rather than doubling back, tried making my way to Route 84 along some back roads.  Along one of those roads, we passed a country inn. The Inn was familiar to Sally —  she and Richard had stayed there once and she reminisced with me about it.  A little further along, we found ourselves passing the Storm King Art Center — an outdoor sculpture garden which I had never seen before — and Sally began pointing out an impressive series of giant di Suvero sculptures that were clearly visible from our car along the length of the road. Suddenly, missing my exit didn’t seem a mistake, but deeply connected in some mysterious way to Sally’s unrequited grief, as if Richard’s ghost was somehow guiding us.


di Suvero sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined a word for these kinds of seemingly meaningful coincidences — synchronicity — by which he meant temporally coincident occurrences of acausally connected events. Jung thought that events could be meaningfully connected through some principle of simultaneity distinct from the usual connectivity of sequential cause-and-effect. He believed that meaningful coincidences like these revealed something profound about the deep structure of the universe — something akin to the “spooky action at a distance“ in quantum entanglement.  In Synchronicity (1952), Jung provided an example of synchronicity at work in psychotherapy:

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

“My example concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably “geometrical” idea of reality. After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab — a costly piece of jewelry. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”

Of course, skeptics will dismiss this as “just coincidence.” In a universe with an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, coincidences like these will inevitably appear, but they’re ultimately meaningless.

But then there are stories that seem so remarkable, they seem beyond mere coincidence.  Like the time my friend Victoria from Nigeria had the eerie feeling that something awful had happened to her brother back home.  Alarmed and disturbed, she called her parents in Nigeria, who assured her all was well. Several days later, however, she received another phone call from her parents.  Her brother was dead.  Unbeknownst to them, he’d died days earlier in a car accident while far from home — the very day Victoria had first called them. The police had just brought them the news.

The eminent psychologist, Charles Tart, posted one of the most convincing examples of synchronicity I’ve ever read on his T.A.S.T.E. (The Archives of Scientists’s Transcendent Experiences) website.

Psychologist Charles Tart

Psychologist Charles Tart

In 1974, Tart drove to pick up an East Coast psychologist named “Terry” who was visiting Berkeley California and staying at an address at 2924 Benvenue Avenue. They were going to go out for a cup of coffee.  As he was driving to pick Terry up, Tart’s mind was suddenly overcome by thoughts of violence:

“…I lost track of what I had been thinking about and instead found myself thinking about bad neighborhoods with criminal gangs in them…. The thought not only persisted, it quickly built into a frightening set of obsessions about being beaten up, about gangs of people with guns, shooting, violence, and the conviction that I would be mistaken for a burglar and shot when I walked between the houses to meet Terry at the kitchen door. I became very frightened and wanted to turn the car around and drive away as fast as possible. The closer I got to Benvenue Avenue, the worse I felt! … I felt intensely ashamed and embarrassed: I had to be crazy to feel like this! There was absolutely no reason for any normal person to feel this way! The psychologist part of my mind diagnosed me as having a paranoid schizophrenic attack of high intensity…”

When he finally reached Benevenue Avenue, Tart searched for a parking space, then walked back to where Terry was waiting for him.

“I was still quite frightened and I looked into every shadow and parked car, and between houses, looking for gangs or an ambush….  Much to my relief, Terry was waiting out in front of the house… We said hello, chatted as we walked back to my car, and drove off to a coffee shop…”

Tart didn’t tell Terry about his weird experience.  They were still in the process of just getting acquainted, and Tart didn’t want Terry to think he was crazy.  A week later, Tart received a letter from Terry, who’d subsequently returned back to the East Coast.  In the letter, Terry wrote that he’d had an almost identical paranoid experience to Tart’s while waiting for him to arrive.

“…While he was waiting for me in front of the Institute, he started feeling paranoid, worrying about people with guns and getting shot! He too felt pretty silly and ashamed. He was relieved when I arrived and we left for the coffee shop.”   

And then — the most interesting part of Terry’s letter!  As it turns out, at the very moment when Tart and Terry were experiencing their simultaneous paranoid episodes, several cars with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were parked alongside Benvenue Avenue. They had already kidnapped mathematician Peter Benenson who was crouched on the floor of one of the vehicles, and they were preparing to kidnap Patty Hearst who lived at 2603 Benvenue:

“…Armed with their automatic rifles and pistols, they went down the walkway between the apartment and the adjoining house that leads to the apartment entrance and knocked. When Patty’s boyfriend, Steven Weed, opened the door, they rushed in, threw him to the floor, and began beating and kicking him. Patty Hearst was grabbed and carried screaming from the house. Weed finally managed to get loose and ran screaming from the apartment, while one of the men kept pointing his rifle at him with a cold smile on his face. A neighbor came to see what was happening: he was grabbed, beaten, and knocked unconscious to the floor, a floor that was already soaked with Steven Weed’s blood. Two women who came out of the next apartment were driven back inside as automatic rifle fire splintered the shingled wall beside them. Patty’s captors threw her in the trunk and fled in Peter Benenson’s car, with Benenson still crouching terrified on the floor, expecting that the next shot would be for him….”

One could perhaps say that Tart’s paranoid episode — one he had never had before or since — was just a panic attack and that its simultaneity with the Hearst kidnapping was mere coincidence, but then how can one account for Tart and Terry having simultaneous paranoid experiences?  A skeptic might say that the odds of these things coinciding by chance are infinitesimally small, but that given a nearly infinite universe, coincidences with infinitesimal likelihoods randomly occur from time to time.  I personally believe that occurrences like these reflect more than just mere coincidence, however. Whatever their explanation, synchronicity is a good label for them. They point to the incompleteness of the physicalist account of the universe, and remind us to keep our minds open about the ultimate nature of things. They point to a deeper interconnection between events that goes beyond sequential cause-and-effect — the kind of interconnection I’ve written about recently in my postings on Dogen and Whitehead.

In the meantime, here’s a link to Albert Maysles’s film about Sally Gross. 

I remember her fondly.  She’ll be missed by all who knew her.

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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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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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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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Thoughts After Jukai


Rituals can never make us enlightened; they can easily turn into empty gestures.  But they can also be opportunities for reinforcing intentions and deepening commitments; they can be rites of passage that demarcate important turning points in our lives and share those turning points with others, strengthening the bonds that tie communities together.

I received the Buddhist precepts yesterday in a jukai ceremony, along with my Dharma brother, Russ Michel.  The ceremony emphasized the continuity of Dharma practice across generations:

“These sixteen precepts… have been transmitted through eighty-three generations of Buddhas and ancestors…”

Our preceptor, Daiken Nelson, received his priestly ordination from Sensei Francisco “Paco” Genkoji Lugovina, who also attended the ceremony, along with Robert Jinsen Kennedy Roshi, who just turned eighty, and Roshi’s newest and youngest Dharma heir, Sensei Carl Viggiani; a gathering of teachers that exemplified continuity of practice across generations.

Daiken chose the Dharma name Zuihō for me; Daiken was introduced to Zen a quarter century ago by another Zuihō, this one from Iowa, who’d received his Dharma name from Katagiri Roshi, who was, in turn, referring back to Menzan Zuihō (1683-1769).  The historical Zuihō was a Tokugawa era Zen master, scholar, author, and reformer who elevated Dōgen’s writings to their current place of centrality within the Sōtō Zen tradition. Among Menzan’s 109 publications was his Teaching of the Correctly Transmitted Great Precepts of the Buddhas and Ancestors, so my Dharma name has an historical connection to the precepts themselves; more continuity across generations of practitioners.

It was wonderful that my wife and daughter could be there to mark the occasion with me, and that the opening of the ceremony included bows to them, in addition to the more traditional bows to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  It was wonderful that the ceremony’s wording drew upon both ancient Sōtō Zen tradition as well as the Zen Peacemaker Order’s reinterpretation of that tradition.  It was wonderful that the ceremony contributed to the growth of our sangha, strengthening the bonds that unite us. Our members now come together, not just to sit, but to explore the precepts, engage in koan study, and pursue ordination. We’ve grown from being just a simple sitting group to something more; if not quite a full-fledged Zen center, something pointing in that direction.  I’m on my Zen journey, and White Plains Zen is on one too.

Jukai isn’t a culmination, but an initiation at journey’s start, an invitation to weave the precepts into every interstice of daily life.  It’s a catalyst for a never-ending process of transformation.  We become what we intend.  Sitting can give us glimpses of non-duality, but sitting alone can’t integrate those glimpses into our every-day interactions with others. That’s where the precepts come in: they are manifestations of enlightened activity on the relative plane of existence.

I love the chant that I now recite whenever I don or remove my rakusu:


A vast robe of liberation

A formless field of benefaction

I wear the Tathagata’s teaching

Saving all sentient beings


Liberation, formlessness, benefaction, saving all beings: the Dharma in a nutshell.

A great reminder of why we sit.



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Thoughts Before Jukai

The Place of Good Zen by Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768)

The Place of Good Zen (Calligraphy by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku, 1686-1768)

Two years have passed since I first wrote about my intention to receive jukai, the Buddhist precepts, in a lay ordination ceremony.  In the intervening years I’ve been studying the precepts with a Zen priest, and sewing my rakusu, the ritual garment that signifies lay ordination.  The ceremony takes place in another week after our regular zazenkai, or half-day sitting.  It seems a fitting time to reflect back on the process and the meaning of the ceremony.

Two years ago I wrote:

“After fifteen years as a non-Buddhist Buddhist, I’m taking the plunge.  I’ve decided to start the path leading to jukai, the precept-taking ritual that means formally becoming a Buddhist in Zen…

It’s not a rational decision. But it feels right. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being an iconoclast.  It doesn’t mean I’m drinking the Kool-Aid or joining the club.  It doesn’t mean I think Buddhists are better than anyone else or that everything in Buddhism is true. It does mean I’m ready to say “this is my path,” and I’m ready to make a deeper commitment to it, rather than always standing a little bit outside.”

Those words remain germane today.

The process of exploring the precepts involved a constant probing and questioning, some of which worked its way into blog posts here and here.  I struggled to interpret the precepts in a way that was personally meaningful.  The Buddha called on us to be lamps unto ourselves, and the understanding we arrive at must always be our own, not some worn out hand-me-down.

Take, for example, the precept against discussing the faults of others. I could see the point to it: abstaining from hurtful gossip, examining the beam in one’s own eye before condemning the mote in another’s.  We all know people who prefer to cast stones rather than consider their own contributions to a problem.

But the precept has its dark side. It can easily become a rationalization for evading our responsibility to bear witness to evil, or counsel someone against causing harm. The real question is, what’s our motivation for discussing someone’s faults?  If we can honestly say that we’re motivated by our desire to help, and that we’ve worded things in a way that’s likely to be both skillful and timely, where’s the problem?  The precept, as I interpret it, calls for self-examination, mindfulness, and the employment of skillful means, not abstaining from any and all criticism, whatever the case may be.  Zen has always taught us not to be bound by words and letters, but to discover the truths that language points to, but in the process, partially obscures.

Each of the precepts stands in similar need of clarification and interpretation.

Even one so seemingly simple as abstaining from killing.

Not killing?  Ever?  What should I do about termites in my house?  Can I use antibiotics when I’m suffering from an infection?  

Nothing is ever simply black or white.

The precepts aren’t absolutes, but beacons guiding us to proceed with caution and compassion, mindfulness and heedfulness.  At their core are the familiar Buddhist admonitions to come from a place of integrity, care, and non-harming.

The sewing of the rakusu, as anyone who has sewn one can attest, was a bear.  You can see the sewing instructions here. Sewing was a brand new skill set for me.  I had to sew, pull the stitches, and resew every seam several times. Pieces had to be cut and recut, pressed and re-pressed.  They say it takes the average person about five weeks to sew a rakusu.  It took me the better part of a year.



Is it perfect?  No.  It’s like my life:  not perfect, but an honest effort.

The beautiful wooden ring connecting two of my rakusu straps was handmade by the Venerable Kobutsu Malone who lives up in Maine.  Kobutsu is the Rinzai Zen priest responsible for setting up the Shimano and Sasaki Archives documenting the unethical behavior of two well-known Zen masters residing in the West. He also served for eight years as a volunteer Zen priest at Sing Sing, teaching the Dharma to inmates.  Kobutsu’s ring helps remind me that Zen practice is not about bowing to authority, but about standing up for the truth of one’s life.  It also reminds me that our practice is not for ourselves, but is dedicated to all beings.

The byline for my next post will include my Dharma name along with my given and surnames.  My preceptor will present it to me at the jukai ceremony.

Don’t let the name change fool you.   It will still be just me.





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On The Existential Buddhist’s One Year Anniversary

This week marks the one year anniversary of The Existential Buddhist.  Over the past year, The Existential Buddhist has published sixty articles, posted over four hundred comments, and had over 30,000 visits from over 22,000 readers who hail from 128 countries and all fifty states.  Recently Elephant Journal, with a readership of 600,000, has taken to republishing some of my posts, giving them a potentially wider audience.  All and all, it’s been a gratifying first year.

Most readers don’t post comments, but I hear from regular readers via Facebook, Google +, and Twitter, and its nice to know that what one writes makes a difference to others. That’s one of the benefits of blogging.  When one publishes a book one gets the initial reviews and Amazon stats, but one doen’t get the degree of reader participation and involvement that lies at the heart of blogging.

The Existential Buddhist has provided me with the opportunity to clarify and develop my own thoughts on a variety of issues pertaining to Buddhist philosophy, ethics, meditation, art, and history.  It’s allowed me to participate, in my own small way, in the ongoing dialogue between traditionalists and modernizers, believers and skeptics, universalists and sectarians.  Listening in, contributing, and receiving feedback has helped me to cultivate my own path more deeply.

If anything is clearer now than it was a year ago, it’s that the Buddhist way is not a set of abstract propositions which can be successfully analyzed for theoretical coherence.  It’s a set of pointers to a way of life which can only be evaluated through lived experience.  It’s a path of embodiment, intimacy, engagement, discernment, and decency.  It’s something we practice in all of our encounters with ourselves, others, and the world.  The only valid evaluation of Buddhist tenets is whether they guide us towards a life that’s richer, more meaningful, more aware, more connected, more present, more compassionate, and less harm-inflicting than the life we were living before.  It’s this very idea of validation from lived experience rather than from texts, argument, or authority that makes this Buddhism existential.

I want to thank you, dear reader, for being part of the The Existential Buddhist’s first year.  I hope you have found it interesting and helpful, and that whatever disagreements we may have had along the way, we remain spiritual friends along the path together.

Here’s to our next year together!

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A Place to Hang My Hat

After fifteen years of Buddhist practice, I’ve finally decided to become a Buddhist.  It’s been a slow process.

At first I was a Jew practicing meditation and learning about the Dharma.  I tried as hard as I could to retain my Jewish religious identity while absorbing what was valuable from Buddhism.  I had friends who were Jewish-Buddhist, as well as teachers who managed to straddle the divide.  There came a time for me, however, thirteen years ago, when that was no longer tenable, and I resigned from my Temple.  I wrote a letter to my rabbi:

“My reason for leaving is my own particular spiritual journey over the past several years which has resulted from my encounter with Buddhist beliefs and practices.  I’m afraid that encounter has left me feeling neither particularly “Jewish” nor particularly “Buddhist;” I seem to be equally ill at ease within both traditions.  For a while my lack of a spiritual home was unsettling, and I retained the hope that I could find within Judaism what I was finding outside of it.  Over time I have become more comfortable with my homelessness; this Diaspora seems like the most authentic place for me to be right now.”

In 2003 I published “On Being A Non-Buddhist Buddhist” which expressed my continuing homelessness.  I felt at the time that “being a Buddhist” was an oxymoron, since Buddhism meant, to me, giving up all identifications and just being present.  I wrote at the time:

“Let’s face it: Buddhism is just another religion, and religion is always an escape from uncertainty, an attempt to explain the inexplicable with the implausible.   Why leave the Jewish religion you were born into to just to join another illogical escape from life’s ambiguities that once again requires reliance on spiritual and textual authority?”  I added,  “My native Judaism… requires…  suspensions of logic.  One is asked to believe in a supernatural Being who stands outside of the material world, and whose existence leaves no material footprint.  One is asked to believe that this Being dictated the Torah to Moses, even though all available evidence suggests that Moses never wrote the Torah…  and that it, like the Buddhist Sūtras, is a compilation of the works of various authors who had their own unique agendas to pursue.  One is asked to assume that this Being is very much concerned with whether or not one mixes meat with dairy products, or whether one has trimmed the foreskin of one’s penis.  None of this makes very much sense, and I am unwilling to state, like the second century Christian Apologist, Tertullian, that “credo quia absurdum est” (“I believe because it is absurd”)….  I’m not about to replace the superstitions of Judaism with the superstitions of Buddhism with its colorful heaven and hell realms and celestial beings.” [1]

That’s where things stood for the longest time.  I’ve often wondered why I couldn’t keep my Jewish religious identification as many of my Jewish-Buddhist teachers and friends did.  The answer is that my personal Jewish roots while, ethnically meaningful, lacked spiritual depth.  There wasn’t all that much to hold on to.

My grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish together when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, but otherwise, Yiddish was a dying tongue in our home.  My grandfather went to the temple on the High Holidays, but rarely at any other time.  My father  didn’t read Hebrew, never went to Temple, and hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed  (rumor had it his father had a falling out with the rabbi).  My mother took me to “visit” my grandfather at Temple on the High Holidays, which meant I got to play with the fringes of his prayer shawl and hear the sound of the ram’s horn.  My parents kept a kosher home, but ate shellfish and Chinese food when dining out.  After my grandparents died, my parents gave up keeping kosher at home.

We lit candles on Shabbat, but didn’t go to temple, celebrate Havdalah, or say blessings before meals.  Our home observance of Jewish holidays were defined by what we couldn’t do: no driving, writing, cooking, watching TV, or turning on the lights (but also no praying, singing, dancing, story telling, tzedakah, or celebration.)

My mother’s religion was one of piety and respect for her parents’s traditions, but she wasn’t interested in religious matters.  While we weren’t the type of Americanized Jews who had a  “Hanukkah bush,” my mother took me to Macy’s each December to sit on Santa’s lap.  My father was a closet agnostic with a strong ethnic identification.  He was proud of being Jewish, but didn’t believe in God.  I never found out about his agnosticism until a few years ago.

My father took an interest in Temple, but not to pray.  He organized a Bingo game to pull the temple out of financial difficulties, joined the men’s club for socializing, and eventually became its President.  When the congregation tried to dump our rabbi, my father defended him and helped him keep his position.  Our rabbi was a learned man, but cold and remote. His sermons — filled with an outdated moralism coupled with virulent anti-communism — were far from inspiring.

I went to Hebrew School three afternoons a week.  My teacher was a delightful young Orthodox woman whom I had something of a crush on.  She married a Hasidic rabbi, and I had the pleasure visiting their home to celebrate Shabbat in the Hasidic style. The joy of that Shabbat with her family and friends stays with me to this day:  I learned that religion could be more than a set of prohibitions and restrictions which occupied a small unhappy corner of one’s life, but could be a full-time commitment celebrated through story, prayer, dance, song, charity, and righteousness.  I developed an interest in becoming religious, and fantasized about becoming a rabbi.  I wore a tzitzit katan under my outer garments, prayed with tefillin, and went to temple every Shabbat.  My parents became alarmed that I was becoming too pious.  They needn’t have worried, though. This period didn’t last very long due to two other influences in my life.

The first was my interest in science.  I loved reading about physics, astronomy, and paleontology, and my parents did everything they could to encourage my interest.  My father helped me with science fair projects, took me to a rocket show at the New York Coliseum where I met Werner von Braun, and enrolled me in a summer biology program where I met Nobel Prize winner Edward Tatum.  I volunteered in the cardiac research unit at Maimonides Hospital.  I soon discovered that a literal belief in Genesis and the laws of astrophysics and biology didn’t mix.  I know many modern Orthodox Jews find a way to reconcile Orthodoxy with science, but I couldn’t.  I remember being at a Science Fair where two Orthodox boys commented on my project on DNA, saying I couldn’t believe in both Darwin and the Torah.  Perhaps foolishly, I believed them.  I decided I believed in Darwin more.

The other influence was my mother’s sister and her family.  My uncle was a photographer and avant-garde artist and their daughter hung out with folk musicians in Washington Square Park. They demonstrated as a family on behalf of nuclear disarmament, attended classical music concerts, and visited museums.  It was a whole new world to me  — modern, cosmopolitan, aesthetic, and liberal.  Its seductiveness was overwhelming.  I learned to play guitar, joined the civil rights movement, and hung out with assorted would-be poets, playwrights, actors, jazz musicians, and philosophers. By the time I left for college there was very little left  of my interest in Judaism.  I’d become like my parents: respectful of my grandparents and their ways, enjoying the familial aspects of Judaism (seders, holiday dinners), but with no real interest in the spiritual side of life.  I think that’s why my Judaism couldn’t stand a chance against my growing interest in Buddhist practice.

There are aspects of Judaism that resonate to Buddhist themes — I’m especially fond of the  Pirkei Avot, for example — and Martin Buber’s reinterpretation of Hasidic tales sounds suspiciously Zen.  But there are four basic tenets that lie at the very core of Judaism:

  1. God created the world, intervenes in it, and judges it.
  2. God made a special covenant with the Jewish People
  3. God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai
  4. The Torah (and Talmud) define what is permissible and good.

If one doesn’t believe in God, his covenant, or the Torah’s divine authorship and inerrant authority, what’s left?  There’s the generalized ethical intention of the Torah — according to the Talmud, when a gentile approached Hillel the Elder (110 B.C – 10 A.D.) asking him to teach the entire Torah while he stood listening on one foot, Hillel replied: “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to others.  That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.”  There are the wonderful stories of the Torah and Talmud that constitute a unique cultural heritage. There are the beautiful melodies of the liturgy, the sense of communal belonging, and the joyous occasions for familial celebration.  I still love the stories and melodies, and cherish the opportunities to join together as an extended family.  I still identify as an ethnic Jew in a thousand different ways — the foods I eat, the way I speak, the way I value intellectual life and ethical conduct.  But that’s as far as it goes.

Buddhism, on the other hand, asks one to believe very little, but to find out things for oneself.  Its basic tenets — suffering is a part of life, everything is interconnected, everything changes — are  verifiable from experience.  The value of practicing mindfulness, non-clinging, equanimity, lovingkindness, and compassion are also verifiable  The harder-to-believe aspects  — rebirth, celestial beings, the surplus meaning of karma — don’t seem absolutely central to practice.  You can imagine Buddhism without literal rebirth — its harder to imagine Judaism without God.

I’m finally comfortable with identifying as a Buddhist.  After fifteen years as a non-Buddhist Buddhist, I’m taking the plunge.  I’ve decided to start the path leading to Jukai, the precept-taking ritual that means formally becoming a Buddhist in Zen.

I’m not fully sure why I’m going ahead with it.  It’s not a rational decision.  But it feels right.  It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being an iconoclast.  It doesn’t mean I’m drinking the Kool-Aid or joining the club.  It doesn’t mean I think Buddhists are better than anyone else or that everything in Buddhism is true.  It does mean I’m ready to say “this is my path,” and I’m ready to make a deeper commitment to it, rather than always standing a little bit outside.

Toni Packer, one of my core teachers, would probably wonder about this decision.  She went the opposite route, from being a Zen Buddhist teacher, to being a Zen teacher, to teaching no-thing.  Shedding all aspects of tradition and authority was an important part of her journey and practice.    Her pathless path, like Krishnamurti’s before her, is clear and unwavering.  She would ask me to question this wish for identification, for going along. “Why now?  What’s missing?  Can you name and identify the longing it’s supposed to fulfill and just see it?”

I can.

It’s finding a place in a new home and community.  A place that’s more consistent with who I am right now.

She would ask, “what’s the loneliness you’re evading by belonging somewhere?  Can you just see it?”

I can.

But even though the Buddha advised us to go into homelessness — having a home isn’t all bad.  You don’t have to always stay inside, but it’s nice to have a place to hang your hat.


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  1. [1] Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. Albany: SUNY Press.



It’s official:  I’m an ex-psychologist.  My license to practice expired last month.  It’s been a long time coming.

I first aspired to become a psychologist forty-three years ago.


VA Traineeship 1971

Graduation 1977








Becoming and then being a psychologist was an important part of my life. I gave up practice over four years ago but hung onto my license. Maybe I’d come to regret giving it up.  Maybe I’d need to return to work.  Letting go of the “maybes” was a slow process.

When I started college I planned to become a biochemist.  It turned out I was more interested in Civil Rights and the Vietnam War than equilibration constants and soon switched majors to political science.  When I became disillusioned with improving the world through political action I turned to saving it one-life-at-a-time through psychology. It was a slow way of fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vow to liberate all beings, but, hey, it was a start.

Preparing for my preliminary exams stressed me out so much I was developing an ulcer.  My wife asked “what would be so terrible if you failed the exams?”  “Then I’d never be a psychologist!” I whined. “Poor you!” she replied with benign sarcasm. “Then you’d just be like the other five billion people on earth who aren’t psychologists.”

I’ve finally joined the five billion.  Only now it’s nearly seven billion.

Letting go of my license isn’t the end of it, though.  Like everything else in life, it’s a process. Yesterday I was in the garage looking through piles of old lecture notes, publication drafts, correspondence with editors, and xeroxed copies of articles I’d used for teaching.  Was I ready to put them in the trash?  And what about the hundreds of books taking up valuable real estate on my bookshelves? I’ll probably never read them again.  Am I ready to donate them? Will anyone have them?

Let go.  Don’t hang on.  Be ready for what’s next.

A friend of mine, the son of an African chief, had a mother who sang a Praise Song to him every morning while growing up.  The song was sung at his wedding and one day will be sung at his funeral. The song existed long before he was born, but when he was born a new verse was added specifically for him.  The song defines him.  It tells how his ancestors came to the valley to become warriors and chiefs.  It tells what his qualities are, what his duties are to family and tribe, what he will one day accomplish.

The song is a powerful metaphor for identity:  the narrative we create and reinforce about ourselves.  We can allow that narrative to define us.  We can treat it as real, as if it had totemic power — or we can see it transparently as story, aware of how it fails to define and constrain our complex, elusive, ever-changing selves.

Life is never static, but flows like a river.  It’s essence is change.  We shed identities and try new ones on for size like snakes shed their skins.  Last month I was a psychologist.  Who am I now?

Already a new narrative takes its place — grandfather, writer, piano student, cancer survivor, diabetic, social activist, Buddhist — a new set of identifiers.

When I’m on the cushion, though — who is it that sits?

“Eno said, ‘Do not think good, do not think evil.  Now, what is your real self?’

Myo asked, ‘Beyond these secret words is there a secret deeper still?’

Eno said, ‘I have told you nothing secret. See your true face, it is all there.’”

— From the Mumonkan, Case 23


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