Tuesday, December 30, 2014

No ONE Reaches Enlightenment - Dharma talk

It's been a while since I posted a Dharma talk. Here's my latest.

No ONE Reaches Enlightenment

Delusion is the belief that there is some "I" inside of our bodies that acts upon a world "out there." In order to wake up, we must shed this false notion of an "I," which is why it is impossible for any ONE to reach Enlightenment--Awakening is sloughing off of the "I" altogether.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Right after he woke up

My teacher told me a story about Zen Master Seung Sahn. Someone asked him if he had seen Little Buddha, the film about the Buddha's life before he reached Enlightenment. Seung Sahn said yes he had.

The student then asked him what he thought about it. Seung Sahn said that he enjoyed the film, but there was only one problem.

"What's that?" asked the student.

I'm paraphrasing: "The film only showed the Buddha's life before he woke up; it didn't show the 45 years of teaching after he woke up. That's the Buddha's true legacy."

Very sharp teaching from Seung Sahn. Most studies of the Buddha concentrate on his life prior to awakening, while Seung Sahn was drawing our attention back to the Buddha's most significant achievement--a lifetime of service teaching the Dharma. Now that aspect of the Buddha's life is truly impressive.

To make a bit of a detour, I have been thinking more and more lately about a period between the before and after--the days or weeks between his Enlightenment and when he began teaching.

Some versions of the story cast the god Brahma petitioning the Buddha to teacher, despite the Buddha's reluctance (Samyutta Nikaya 6.1). The Buddha hesitates to teach because,
"This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, this/that conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Unbinding. And if I were to teach the Dhamma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me."
What was the Buddha thinking during this period? I mean, really thinking. I don't subscribe to celestial beings and so I read this entirely allegorically, Brahma representing the Buddha's compassion for the world.

So what really happened during those days or weeks? As the sutta passage above conveys, he must have been conflicted, torn between whether to go off and live the rest of his days in seclusion like a forest sage or teach. For me, this represents a very human moment in the Buddha's life, one that is often overlooked. I am very interested in what this great man and teacher's life was like in this missing period of his life.

It would make a great fiction book, similar to Thich Nhat Hanh's Old Path White Clouds. Who knows, maybe I'll pen it someday.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Original Mind Zen Sangha Newsletter

Our editor has just finished the second newsletter for the Original Mind Zen Sangha. Click here to read and download.

Thanks Jonson and all who contributed.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Metaphysics can be just plain silly

No more metaphysics, that's where I am. The differences in world traditions arise from metaphysics--theories in behind-the-scenes structures of reality. Chakras, energy waves, levels of consciousness, souls, deities, planes of existence, bodhisattvas, angels, elves, pixies, The Force--these are all theories or frameworks that people develop to explain the fundamental underlying reality.

Whenever I encounter a new metaphysics, my western, scientific upbringing makes me ask, "Of all the ways that existence could be structured, why that way?"
Seriously...an ethereal spirit that flutters from body to body?
It's no coincidence that someone else's metaphysical belief system sounds ludicrous. That's because they are all sheer imagination because words or ideas cannot capture the reality that precedes words and concepts. Therefore any metaphysical map is just that--a map, a representation. In that way, it's all fiction.

Granted, some maps are better than others, but why argue over which system is better if they are all simply representational?

To heck with all of them. I'm not saying to give up the practice, just the theories. Give up the concepts.

In Korean Seon (Zen), students ask, "What is this?" until they find the answer. There is no need to speculate. Find the answer. It could take 15-20 years, but at least it's time spent investigating what is here, rather than some pet theory about Storehouse Consciousness or some other theory that is impossible to prove.

Don't waste valuable time squabbling over who has the better interpretation.

Practice until you find the answer.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Mirror and the Mani Pearl

Zen often uses the analogy of a mirror to explain the function and nature of the mind. A mirror has no color of its own; it simply reflects the colors that appear in front of it. When red appears, the mirror turns red. So when an object such as a a cloud or flower appears in our consciousness, a clear mind does not embellish or add to them. It simply reflects their content.

Similarly, when anger appears, the true function of the mind is simply to reflect the emotion. Since the mind is clear with no nature of its own, like the mirror, it becomes red when red appears. This can be seen in the Zen approach to emotions. Teachers often instruct students, when they are angry, to be fully angry; allow no gaps between oneself and the anger. In other words, become the emotion (which does not mean act upon it) so there is no separation between one's mind and the experience.

To continue the mirror analogy: this means that, in a sense, the mirror's surface is red. The implication is that, since Buddha is Mind, whatever appears in the mind is it. It's all the truth. This represents the predominant approach to mind found in Zen schools today.

There is, however, another, slightly different metaphor--the mani pearl. This pristine jewel, while having no color its own, reflects the colors that appear in front of it, the same way that the mirror does. However, while the mirror becomes red, the mani pearl maintains its luminosity. In other words, it does not become the color it reflects.

The mani pearl remains pure, clear, serene, and luminous; for it never fully becomes the colors that it reflects. Its surface simply adopts the colors, without becoming them.

These two analogies reflect (pardon the pun) very different positions in respect to practice and soteriology. For instance, the mirror implies that there is no intrinsic nature to the mind; therefore, the mind becomes its content. While the mani pearl metaphor argues that the mind does possess a nature of its own that allows the mind to resists becoming its contents. That nature is clear, vast luminosity.

The former tends to exemplify dependent origination (the teaching of emptiness and interdependence); the latter, nature origination, which advocates that the Absolute (personified by the mind) is the fundamental basis and source of all phenomena.

I am currently working on a book about nature origination and its implications on Zen practice. More on that soon.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The chair is soft, the air is cold

I read an interesting book last night called Refuting the External World by Goran Backlund. While I don't don't think that its premise is the most helpful--that there is no external reality, only consciousness--I found the book interesting from a Zen perspective.

The fundamental question that Backlund explores is, "Do objects exist when I stop looking at them?" His answer is no, they don't. I won't get into the details of his argument. You can read the book; it's only 43 pages.

What intrigues me is how Zen Buddhism would answer this question. Sure, some snarky Zen master of old would smack you with his staff and say, "Where did that come from, inside or outside?" But I'm thinking of gentler, more constructive responses.

If someone asks, "Does the world exist when I'm not looking?", I'd say:

"I'm talking to you right here, right now. Why worry about the world?"


"Your eyes and hair are brown; your shirt is green."


"Who is the one that sees the world right now?"

The last one is the juiciest and my favorite. Zen does not brook any metaphysical speculation. My keyboard is black with white letters. There is a pain in the front of my head. When I say these things, I am not claiming them as truth statements, for that only invites a debate about reality. I say them as expressions of this moment. Soon they may change, and my headache might (hopefully) disappear; although my keyboard's color will probably last longer. But there's no telling for sure--it's a Chromebook!

Just the wind whipping the curled leaves of the maple tree outside, the clack of this keyboard and the whir of the air purifier downstairs. 

It's not that Backlund is wrong; I'm not interested in creating right and wrong. There are five gears (plus reverse and neutral) in a car's transmission for a reason. Sometimes we need first, other times fifth. When we're backing up, we need reverse.

As a Zen teacher, I find that the easiest, and often best, answer is to focus on what's present now. We don't need to speculate on what isn't there, just look at what is. Zen is highly functional. It avoids statements that interfere with our ability to function.
Chop wood and carry water. Change the oil and bring out the trash. Being able to move freely, like a person of no rank, unencumbered by any fixed point of view; that's not only freedom inside of this world, but from the often painful duality of internal and external, self and other, good and evil.
How does any teaching help you? is the perennial Zen question. Does it free or bind you? Don't get stuck anywhere.

Thank you Mr. Backlund for writing your book; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dharma talk - Tathata


Zen cautions us about trusting language too much. The word "Tathata," which means "Suchness" or "Thusness," is about as close as language can get to approximating the highest Truth--because the word acknowledges its own limitations as a linguistic construct. In this talk, I discuss the role of Tathata in Zen practice, as well as its origins in Taoism, the mother tradition of Zen.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Buddha Bus Strikes Back

This year has been a blur, and I don't mean that as an excuse. Last year I started a donation project to raise funds for the first ever Buddha Bus--a fully mobile Zen/meditation center. Since purchasing a property for a Zen center seems unlikely, if not downright impossible given New Jersey's property prices, I decided to undertake a project that is more manageable.

Enter the Buddha Bus.

For a fraction of the price of a traditional Zen center, the Buddha Bus offers a private meditation for my local sangha. The model sounds like this: gut the insides of a school bus, lay some flooring--preferably hardwood--and paint the inside and outside with Buddhist iconography. Along the length of the bus, run two rows of meditation cushions. At the rear, set the altar. In the ceiling, we could mount some RV-style air conditioners and heaters.

The bus could meet at parks, where people park, climb aboard, meditate for twenty minutes, listen to a Dharma talk, then hop back in their cars and drive home.

But I haven't done anything with the bus for almost a year. At the end of 2013, we raised $1000. I just recently got a donation, the first for 2014.

My plan for 2015 is to raise another $4000, raising our total to $5000, which should be enough to buy a used school bus. If you think this is a cool idea and would like to see it come to fruition, check out our donation site. Or pass the word along.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Fire That Heats Our Homes

My family is sitting by a roaring fire right now. The wood came from a friend of mine who was gracious enough to offer me some. Thank you, Brian. 

I really enjoy having a wood-burning fireplace; it makes me much more aware of the source of my home heat. I feel a deeper connection to this vital dimension of my life, since I have a little better understanding of where the wood came from. The tree feel in my friend's yard three seasons back. 

As I stoke the fire, I am reminded of how the wood was once trees, and how the web of conditions has led to a roaring fire in my hearth. It is very easy to forget how our lives are supported by so many factors beyond our sight. Flicking a switch for heat can be so automated, so habitual, that we forget about the vast hidden network of conditions that make our lives possible.

For instance, when we bought our house this summer, the sellers left us two stacks of firewood. That was very kind of them. I don't know where that wood came from, other than from the obvious answer--trees. But were the trees local? Did the sellers split the wood themselves? Were the trees cut from the small woods behind our house?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions, and yet I burn the wood and it keeps my family warm. 

We can't give true thanks unless we know what were are thankful for. If we just assume that paved roads appear for our convenience or that electricity somehow arrives for our use, then we are prone to overlook them. 

But they don't just appear. They are part of that dizzying, kaleidoscopic web of interconnections that keep us alive. So I type on a computer that I did not build, using a language I did not create, sitting next to a fire whose wood I did not cut down.

All around, I see my utter reliance on the world around me. How could I ever feel alone? It makes me want to return the favor. How may I help you? Maybe I'll see you at Zen practice tonight.

Best to you all. 

Photo: By Ryan Mahle from Sherman Oaks, CA, USA (Flickr.com - image description page) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thank You - Dharma talk

If we could only learn to be grateful for our being--which is much larger than just our lives--then we would suffer much less. It's our ingratitude to existence that causes us to pick and choose, which ultimately leads us to reject this present moment because it doesn't suit our needs or expectations. Buddhism can be said to be a practice of cultivating gratitude to the entire web of existence that allows us to be.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why the Wall? - Dharma talk

Bodhidharma famously spent nine years facing a cave wall in meditation. In this Dharma talk, I discuss how Bodhidharma's "wall-gazing" legacy pertains to our lives today.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Don't Wear Your Friends

It's amazing how much animal-related products pervade the marketplace. It may not seem it from an omnivore's perspective, but from a vegetarian's point of view, America is clearly a meat-driven culture. Last night I was shopping online for a pair of non-leather work boots--I don't like wearing animals any more than I do eating them--and couldn't find any affordable ones.

Sure there are vegan ones, but they are usually 150% more than the high-end leather ones, and ship from the U.K., which entails international shipping rates. It's no exaggeration to say that being a vegetarian can be expensive, a fact that I can't help but see as ironic. After all, why should eating vegetables be more expensive than dead animals? Is leather so commonplace that it is cheaper than alternative materials? I'm afraid so.

It was an eye-opening experience about the ubiquity of the meat industry.

Many Buddhists are vegetarian, but unfortunately I can confidently say that far more aren't. This baffles me:
In a culture where being a vegetarian is so easy, why would people who vow to save all sentient beings continue to eat meat when they know that it causes so much suffering?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Don't Be a Buddhist - Dharma talk

Labels can be dangerous when we mistake them for reality. A subtle one that falls beneath the Buddhist radar is "Buddhist" itself, as in, "I am a Buddhist." In this talk, I caution us about identifying with any label, especially the one called "Buddhist."

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Dharma is a Gift

I stumbled upon this link to free Dharma ebooks, published by Pariyatti. There are some really great titles here, such as The Buddha's Path to Deliverance, A Comprehensive Manual of the Abhidhamma, The Discourse Summaries, and many more.  Some are available in epub and mobi (Kindle) formats, but all are offered as pdf's as well. There are even editions in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian.

The books are straight from the publisher, so don't worry about pirating karma! Pass along the link to anyone you think would be interested. If you can, please leave Pariyatti a donation, found at the top of the link page.

Thanks to Pariyatti for making the Dharma available to all.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Be Kind to Bugs - Dharma talk

If people were kinder to the smallest forms of visible life on this planet, then maybe they would be kinder to each other. In this talk, I discuss the importance of paying attention to how we treat even the smallest of animals.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Road May Flood (So Be PREPARED)

So much of our lives is spent in preparation to avoid disaster, pain, discomfort, or just plain old inconvenience. Last week I was driving when I saw the above sign, except I'm pretty sure it read, "Road May Be Flooded."

I chuckled, amused at how reactionary the sign was. I mean, how often does this sign warn people about an actual flood--maybe once or twice per year? If that. (It was a fairly elevated street, with no rivers, streams, or swamps nearby.) And yet, there the sign hangs, announcing to the world that there is a .1% chance that this road may be flooded.

The sign encapsulates human nature: we want certainty, safety, predictability. Even in the off chance that lightning might strike, we want to be prepared for it.

Buddhism confronts those needs, reveals how arbitrary and unrealistic they are, and gives us the skills to swim in the flood. Not just the actual floods--when life sucker punches us--but the imaginary ones, for those are the most prevalent.

When Mark Twain famously said, "Some of the worst things in my life never even happened," he was expressing a fundamental insight into suffering. More often than not, the source of our suffering is the anticipation of things that will never even happen.

Some facts about life:
It contains uncertainty.  
We are going to suffer.  
No matter how much we try to prepare for the future, eventually life will surprise us. 
How we respond to those unpredictable moments determines whether we view them as surprises or headaches.

The first step is recognizing our need to prepare our lives with mental flood signs and then try to accept the inevitable uncertainty that characterizes life.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Bring Nothing to Practice - Dharma talks

The Things We Bring to Practice

Spiritual practice can often become an extension of our ego, in which we transfer all of those bad habits from our everyday lives into our spiritual ones. If we are impatient, then we have impatient practice that expects quick results. If we are angry or irritable, then perhaps our practice becomes a temporary salve for our tempers or an opportunity to get irate at others, maybe because they are less "sophisticated" than us. Either way, this can become a major pitfall in our practice. In this talk, Doshim explores ways to spot this tendency and stop it mid-sentence.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.


I Got Nothin'

This is the only honest thing a spiritual teacher can tell you--they have nothing to give you, no magic spells or chants that is going to transform them. But it is the simplicity of this statement, "I got nothin'" that can act as a spiritual catalyst for us to realize that we have nothing too! And this is good news. Because when we have nothing, we have nothing to lose. With nothing to lose, we don't need anything. That is freedom.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Other Origination

In Mahayana Buddhism, there is much talk about dependent origination--the fact that everything depends upon other conditions, and thus they are all interconnected--but very little mention of its less-common counterpart, nature origination.

According to this teaching, while everything is interconnected and relies upon everything else to exist, the more fundamental fact is that nothing exists independent of the Nature (li in Chinese). Some might call it Mind, Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, Dharmadhatu, or the Absolute. Nature origination was most fully developed by Chan Master Zongmi, also the last Huayen Patriarch. Although living only two generations after Huayen's seminal Patriarch, Fazang, Zongmi completely reinterpreted the Huayen system.

Rather than Fazang's emphasis on the interdependence of phenomena on one another, Zongmi took Huayen in a new direction. For him, all phenomena, while empty of self-existence as orthodox Buddhism taught, were in fact empty in a deeper way--empty of separation from the Nature. Stated more directly, all phenomena have the Absolute as their true nature; nothing is separate from it.

Nature origination never caught on the way that its counterpart, dependent origination, did; although it did gain popularity through the championing of Chinul, the famous Korean monk and founder of the Chogye order, still extant today. Huang Po's One Mind reflects a similar line of thought. One reason that it probably never gained a foothold is that nature origination sounds too similar to a transcendental Self for most Buddhists' tastes.

I'm writing about nature origination to illustrate the tremendous variety of teachings within Buddhism. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no central tenet of Buddhism; each school and sect values certain teachings over others. Throughout its 2,500 years, Buddhism has developed a rich array of doctrines and practices, some of which blatantly contradict one another. I think that it is self-deceptive to pretend that Buddhist doctrine is always internally consistent or that it follows a singular line of development.

That is simply not the case.

Nature origination, like any development in Buddhism (including the earliest Buddhist teachings like the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path), reflects its native cultural, social, and historical context. Nothing is a-historical; to assume that something is can be a grave mistake.

This means that dependent origination and its popularity in modern Western culture are just as context-bound. Environmental consciousness is popular nowadays, and so is interdependent thinking. Give it twenty years and the political conversation may have moved onto other topics. Who knows?

The lesson is this: we are always inside of a culture, occupying a particular space in history. We should not take environmental science's validation of interdependence as an absolute rubber stamp because even that certification will change.

The current Western trend to value discourse and egalitarianism has invisibly validated interdependence. 

All teachings are empty, meaning they cannot fully encapsulate the complexity that is reality. For that reason, we must be cautious and never forget that because we are inside this culture, we just accept its values and pronouncements as truth, without acknowledging that the reason these teachings speak so persuasively to us is because of where we stand in history.

Nature origination may seem like a foreign, ill-concocted deviation of the "true" Buddhadharma (i.e., dependent origination). But that view suffers from a common myopia, the belief that there is one "true" ...anything. Ironically, we needn't look any further than dependent origination itself, with its constant reminder that all teachings are empty and provisional, before we empty dependent origination itself.

In emptiness, everything is subject to erasure. So don't get too comfortable.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Practically Nothing

I stumbled on a really cool book last week, Practically Nothing: Transforming Your Practice of Centering Prayer Through the Wisdom of Mystical Nothingness by LJ Milone, a pastoral minister in a Catholic parish. Interestingly, the book was published in May 2014, just three weeks before I published my similarly themed book, God is Nothingness.

Our books are virtually identical, except where I draw upon Eastern traditions like Zen, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta, Milone borrows from Christian mysticism. This makes perfect sense, since the Absolute should transcend culture and tradition.

Both of our books are based on apophatic practices, the refusal to speak of the Absolute in any positive terms, instead relying upon negative terminology such as the Heart Sutra's "no eyes, no ears, no tongue..." in order to convey a glimpse of the Absolute. Milone references Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite, all of whom speak of God in the ultimate apophatic term, Nothingness. (St. John calls it "Nada" and Eckhart "Nichts.")

The similarity between our books is very encouraging; it reaffirms my personal experience of the Void and makes me wonder even more why there is so little literature about the Absolute as Nothingness. For this reason, I have developed a new blog called Absolute Nothingness, dedicated exclusively to exploring the Void.

The blog address is www.absolutenothingness.wordpress.com. Check it out if you get a chance and are interested. I will continue to post Buddhist articles here on Original Mind. And by all means, pick up a copy of Milone's Practically Nothing

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Precepts - Dharma talk

The Precepts act as a lantern in the darkness of our confusing lives, illuminating the path of Buddhahood. They serve as beacons for proper conduct. At the heart of the Precepts rests the guiding principle, "Do no harm." In this talk, I discuss the significance and practicality of living a life committed to embodying Buddhist ideals.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Can I get a Witness?

No, because there are none. There is no Witness. In Buddhism, everything is understood to be interdependent and empty of its own existence. The spiritual Witness (with a capital 'W') is commonly defined as an eternal, unchanging entity of sorts that simply witnesses the changing world around it. In a sense, it is immortal consciousness that precedes and transcends the body.

Buddhism allows no such thing, at least most forms of Buddhism don't. Consciousness is a function of the body. No body, no consciousness. In this sense, consciousness is a verb, the result of a massively complex matrix of circumstances. It has different shades and qualities, depending upon conditions. For instance, if someone is drunk or distracted, their attention will be scattered; their awareness cloudy or dulled. Remove one of these conditions--the sun, say--and they all topple.

It is important to remember that consciousness is not privileged, nor is it the chief feature in the universe, as some traditions avouch (as in, the universe is consciousness). This is all from a Buddhist perspective, of course, and a particular one at that; for not all Buddhists schools categorically agree about the nature of the mind/Mind.

Sometimes Buddhist teachers will instruct students to "abide as the witness." Here, the witness is a skill, a capacity to be cultivated, not a thing. Again used as a verb, we witness events occurring; the goal of which is to develop distance from the events or emotions in order to grant us freedom. For example, as long as we identify with anger as ours, we will be ruled by it. Once we can view anger objectively, without identifying with it as us or ours, then we can choose how to respond to the emotion.

The process looks something like this:
1. At first students identify with emotions or thoughts, believing that there is some concrete self who is experiencing them. It's like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, where experiences are things that happen to us, in the same way as the tail is pinned like an add-on to the donkey. There is me inside my head feeling sadness happening to me.
2. When students begin to simply observe without identification or ownership, they develop distance and see that the thoughts are not theirs. If the thoughts were theirs, they could control them. Emotions happen in the same way as the weather does; they are responses to conditions--impersonal, and largely beyond our control. Freedom grows from this recognition.
This stage, of course, is extremely dualistic, in that the emotions are separate from the observer. Witnessing actually creates the false sense of an observer, a necessary step as I will soon discuss.
3. After some time, we come to realize that witnessing is simply a provisional practice that creates separation. There is no mind separate from its contents, in the same way as there is no film outside or behind the images and light projecting the film onto the screen. 
In Buddhism, at least most forms of it, there is no screen at all. There is only the images. There is no weather outside of the wind and rain; weather is actually just an abstract catch-all concept used to denote these collective processes. There is no thing called weather. Similarly, there is no thing called a witness. It's simply shorthand for the occurrence we call mental experience.

The significance is that there is no observer, witness or Witnessm for these are all dualistic. There is no mind or consciousness separate from its contents. Just as there are no thoughts without a mind (rocks don't think), there is no thinker without thoughts. There is no seer without eyes, etc.

In a metaphorical sense, if we were to disconnect our senses, as one does with an electrical circuit breaker, there would be no mind, as well as no primordial consciousness or primal awareness lurking in the background.

Body, mind, senses, and the world are all intimately connected. The witness is a stage in an unfolding process of self-realization, self-inquiry, and self-cultivation that eventually results in a wider sense of self-identification until we can eventually become whatever circumstances need us to be. When my kids need me, I'm Dad; when my hot water heaters bursts, I'm a home owner. The less we identify exclusively with these roles--or stated in more positive terms, the more fluidly we can shift from one to the other--the freer we are.

The paradox, as we see from the above process, is that in order to develop a wider sense of self, we must first engage a more narrow one. We act as a witness in order to transcend the witness; for ultimately, in the truest and freest sense, there is no observer. When I am functioning at my peak as a writer or teaching my best in the classroom, there is absolutely no sense of an 'I' or doer. There is just writing or teaching.

The story writes itself; the teachings teach themselves. No I is necessary.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Dharma is Not a Product

The Dharma is not a product and students are not customers. I am very fortunate to teach in a location that does not charge rent because that means the Original Mind Zen Sangha does not need a substantial income. Therefore, we do not not to shop for students.

Bodhisattvas dedicate their lives to helping others awaken, but what does that necessarily entail? To what lengths should Dharma teachers go to in order to appeal to students?

In the American spiritual marketplace, Zen--with its rigorous meditation practice, bare-bones liturgy, and stoic character--is not the shiniest gem. Other traditions are far more attractive.

I enjoy leading a small sangha, for it frees us from the obligation of large expenses. We don't have a mortgage, rent, or even heating bills. And that's a blessing.

Still, there is the unstated pressure to grow, to bring in more members. But how much of that is the Bodhisattva vow, and how much is just ego? (My intuition says that the moment someone utters the question, "Why aren't more people coming?", ego has appeared.)

Do we really need a bright temple in order to draw in crowds, or exciting Dharma talks to impress students? When does change or accommodation (upaya or skillful means) become just plain old compromise? Should Zen sanghas be trying to encourage people to join?

These are important questions I find myself facing as the Original Mind Zen Sangha approaches its third year. I am very wary of any approaches that intentionally try to appeal to, entice, or attract students. If someone asks how to meditate or is curious about Buddhism, then by all means answer their questions. Give them literature. Point them to resources or invite them to attend a meditation class. We can even offer seminars at the library or yoga center. Advertise with paper pamphlets--make the Dharma available.

But marketing Zen sounds simply counter intuitive (or even hypocritical) to me. I don't think that Zen teachers should be in the Zen business. Period. That approach tends to reduce people to students, and students to human advantages or mere resources.

Thoughts or comments?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sweep the Tent - Dharma Talk

Every action we perform is an expression of the Absolute, all we need to do is realize that. Even the most unlikely activities, like brushing our teeth or getting gasoline, acts that ordinarily serve as transitions or means to ends, can transform into religious activities. Zen practice is about becoming intimate with everything that we do.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Transmission of the Dharma," or, "Why the Buddha Smiles"

Dharma Transmission--the authentication of a student's insight into the Buddhadharma, in which the student and the teacher's mind are identical--is very important in Zen. It verifies that students have received the approval of their teachers, as well as guarantees that the Dharma the Buddha transmitted 2,500 years ago is the same as the one that the student understands.

In a metaphorical and symbolic sense, it's a passing the torch of sorts. The Mind Seal, as it is also known, recognizes that the Dharma has been fully and authentically transmitted to the student. That's formal Dharma Transmission, usually recognized by a public ceremony. 

But "Dharma Transmission" is redundant. Let me explain. 

In Zen, the Dharma is understood to be IT, the Absolute, and it is always available to us. It is the coffee mug by my side, my computer, the air I breathe. It is both the individual--you, me, the Buddha, Barbara Streisand--and the totality, Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos.

We are all IT. There is no escaping it; separation is an illusion.

But unlike the Absolute in other spiritual traditions, the Buddhist Absolute is not eternal; it is always changing, or rather, it is change itself.

It's not that there is some hidden being, entity, force, or spirit that is changing its shape as the manifest realm; rather, there is only process of change, with no substratum. Nothing is hidden. 

There is no bottom in Zen. Like Pee-Wee's big discovery at the Alamo, there is no spiritual basement.

The thing is, this Dharma is always being transmitted. That's what the Dharma is, what all of reality actually is, a transmission!

There is only transmission, not from one being to another, but TRANSMISSION. Period. Dharma is transmission. Reality is transmission. In fact, there is no way not to transmit the Dharma. That's what reality is, transmission. 

Here it is, complete, perfect, lacking nothing. Always available, in front of us, around us, as us. 

Emptiness means that there is no substratum, no basement; there is only perpetual change. That is the Dharma. 

Transmission. Impermanence. Emptiness. Bottomlessness. These are all synonyms. 

"Dharma Transmission" is redundant because the Absolute is always transmitting itself. The Absolute is Transmission.

I guess that's why the Buddha is always depicted with a subtle smile playing across his face. It's the cosmic, inside joke:

Teaching or transmitting the Dharma is redundant because that's what reality is always doing, revealing itself.
Have a wonderful Labor Day.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No Sanctuary - Dharma talk

We don't need any sanctuary from our lives. Zen practice is about fully embracing our lives just as they are.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

L.I.V.I.N' - Dharma talk

Modern culture--with its amenities, luxuries, conveniences, and leisure time--has taught us that life is about something more than living. That "life" is more than what we do; that it's about more than "toil" and labor; that life is about "finding out who you are."

This is an abstraction that Zen rejects. We "are" what we do. When we paint the bedroom, there is only painting--no "I" or "room." Just painting. Reality is right here; we don't have to go somewhere special to find it! Enlightenment is mowing the lawn and driving the kids to soccer. Life is not about anything else or more than living.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Leaves of Concrete

I was powerwashing my patio yesterday, spraying away decades of grime, mold, mildew, and plain old dirt. Each sweep of the nozzle, blasting a scouring fan of water, stripped away sheets of filth, revealing the clean concrete hidden below. The process was slow and required that I inspect each area to make sure that I didn't miss any spots.

During the project, I discovered something amazing--impressed inside of the concrete was the outline of a small leaf. At some point, when the patio was laid, a leaf must have fallen onto the soft, impressionable concrete, and left its outline.

Although the leaf itself had long since disappeared, its impression remained.

The leaf, like all things on earth, is impermanent. We all come and go; our lives flicker into existence, shimmer for (perhaps) a few decades, and then fade away. Our legacies, however, survive us. Our choices, our children, friendships, art, teachings, these all continue like that leaf in the concrete, sending countless ripples throughout history.

While everything is impermanent, some things do last longer than others. This is important to remember: what we do matters. The Dharma that the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago continues today. Its form and shape have changed but its heart, its marrow, is still alive.

This reminds me: be mindful and act skillfully. Everything we say and do leaves impressions.

Take care.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Changing, changing, changing

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

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

We haven't.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Two Dharma Talks

Zen: The Watercourse Way*

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

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

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

In Thus We Trust

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

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Horror in Gaza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Scintillating Sounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothingness is the womb and Existence its baby.

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In Thus We Trust - Dharma talk

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014


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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

Anger can be a healthy expression in certain situations.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Religion of No-Religion

Like many people this week, I was confused and frustrated by the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby verdict. But, as a Zen teacher, I began to consider deeply a question that has gnawed at me for years:
Is Zen a religion?
From an outsider's perspective, all of the bowing and chanting definitely constitute what ordinarily passes as a religion. A Buddha statue rests on an altar, the subject of veneration. Candles and incense burn, lending to the air of solemnity.

While these aspects of Zen liturgy/service/practice are the most visible, they are not the bones of Zen. Zen includes but ultimately transcends these.

In my opinion, authentic Zen transcends Zen. It sheds any sense of itself, molting its skin like a cicada, leaving just a fully engaged life.

There is so much talk in Buddhist circles about "practice," but true practice must eventually erase itself. Mindfulness, while the most popular expression of Zen practice in action, eventually dissolves into (at the risk of sounding cliche) life itself.

In other words, authentic formal Zen practice--the deliberate act of being mindful/present/aware, meditating, koan practice, bowing, chanting--becomes no-practice. It loses its self-consciousness and eventually blends into our ordinary lives, not in the usual sense that people mean when they say that "washing the dishes" is practice, for that still stinks of Zen, to borrow from the ancient masters.

These are all expressions of Buddha, but they still contains a vestige of intention.

Zen must completely self-immolate until nothing remains, only non-reflective action. Like the elegant movements of a ballerina or master martial artist, Zen practice flows without getting its own way, completely uninhibited by its own self-awareness. Jazz guitarists don't think about what note to play next; they just play. Or rather, the notes just play themselves.

Life becomes a spontaneous expression of the present moment.

At the risk of sounding biased, true Zen transcends religion because it is nothing special. Religion, after all, means acknowledging something as sacred, which naturally invites the distinction between "that which is not sacred." Zen allows no such duality. When everything becomes sacred, then sacred and profane lose their meaning.

Then there is only scrubbing the toilet, paying the bills, watching TV, unencumbered by self-consciousness, any notions of self/other, practice, Buddhism, Buddha, religion, or Zen. This in no way prevents us from bowing or chanting or meditating; quite the opposite--it frees us to do them as a genuine expression of this moment. They are celebrations of life now.

This is what Bodhidharma meant when he said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy."

I do not claim that Zen is alone in its sloughing off of itself--any spiritual practice is capable of it, provided it is willing to sacrifice itself--but ultimately any religion that is unwilling to transcend itself is just that...a religion, in the modern sense of the word.

A construct, a thing, or more precisely, an obstruction.

Paradoxically true religion is ultimately no-religion. At least not a religion in any sense that the Supreme Court or Hobby Lobby would understands.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Double Decker Dose of Doshim Dharma

"When the Studs Don't Match Up"

In this Dharma talk, I talk about how to practice when life doesn't match our expectations. When, to use a metaphor, we try to hang a picture on the wall but just can't find the stud. Instead, all that we are left with is frustration and a bunch of holes in the wall. That's when Zen practice is most beneficial--confronting our expectations and disappointments.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

"I Liked it Better in the Picture"

Life seldom meets our expectations. Pictures are often better than the real thing, due to our mental photoshopping as we build objects, events, and people into monolithic proportions that they cannot possibly meet. In this talk, I discuss how to deal with the tricks of the grasping mind.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Big Apples

Yesterday I took the train in to NYC for a mini Zen retreat with my Dharma brothers, Lawrence Do'an Grecco and Sergio Hyeonmin Prajna. The retreat was held at the Interdependence Project. It's been a while since I have sat for more than 25 minutes at a time, and my knees were a little stiff and creaky. But like riding a bike or swimming, I slid back into form easily enough.

In the afternoon, Lawrence and I performed a ceremony empowering Sergio as a Dharma Holder or apprentice teacher in the Five Mountain Zen Order. I am very happy for Sergio, and excited for his next step on the Dharma path.  Congratulations my friend, may you plant many Dharma seeds. Let the fruit grow!

From left to right: Me, Sergio, and Lawrence

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Dharma talk - There is no end, my friend

Emptiness is bottomless. In every atom there is exists infinity of space and eternity of time. Our minds are endless, boundless sources of creativity and wisdom. For that reason, practice too is endless. We can never reach the end of it because wherever we are is new, fresh, utterly transformed by impermanence. The more we understand this, the less prone we are believe the myth that someday we will ever be "done," whether it be with Zen practice or cleaning the house.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Why is everything real?

My four-year-old son asked one of the most profound and yet absurd questions the other day. He said, "Why is everything real?"

Try answering that one! This wasn't your average, run-of-the-mill, why is the sky blue? questions. This one had meat to it.

So what do you say to that question, without confusing either yourself or the child?

It's a great question because it challenges us to inquire what exactly is this...this thing I call reality? Although I cannot place my finger on a conceptual response as to what makes an orange "real," I still have an intuitive understanding that an orange is real in a way that a unicorn isn't. Still, that doesn't quite hit the mark or help answer the question.

That's where Zen comes in handy. Directly pointing to the heart of the matter, Zen teaches us to eat the orange. No philosophical speculation about what constitutes reality, just a good hearty bite into the soft fruit.

Ahh, delicious!

Of course I couldn't just ring a bell, honk the car horn, or bite into an apple, for that wouldn't help my son at all.

I call this an absurd question because if we assume that the orange in front of us is not real, then that means something else is real. This naturally invites metaphysical speculation, heavenly realms, spiritual planes, souls, which to be perfectly honest, require a hell of a lot more faith to believe in than the orange in front of me. Direct experience doesn't require that we believe anything.

And yet that's what most people are in search of--something to believe in, an escape from this world and an entrance into a blissful oasis with angels and gods. But in Zen there is no Nirvana outside of this present moment, beyond the here-and-now.

This is it.

Just this: the click of the keyboard, the hum of my air conditioner, the hunger in my stomach. These may not be the answers we are looking for, for they are so ordinary that they are hidden in plain sight. I like to say that every sutra is pointing to our lives right here, right now.

As one great Zen Master once said, what did you think it was going to be like?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Daoism and Nothingness

While writing my last book, I stumbled upon an excellent study of the role of non-being in Daoism. It's called In Praise of Nothing: An Exploration of Daoist Fundamental Ontology by Ellen Marie Chen.

This is a magnificent book that explains the principle of Nothingness in Daoism. For those of you who have been reading my latest posts, Chen's title should come as no surprise; I relied heavily upon it to develop my own book, God Is Nothingness

In Praise of Nothing examines the fundamental ontological difference between Daoism and Western philosophy. While the latter stresses Beingness and substance, Daoism views Non-being or wu (Nothingness) as the fundamental basis of reality. The Daoist Nothingness is the groundless ground that allows for Being to occur. Form and matter are not the antithesis of Nothingness, but its very body; for they are the manifest expressions of the formless Absolute Nothingness.

We can see Nothingness as a forerunner for the emptiness (sunyata) so central to Zen, which makes perfect sense if we consider how influential Daoism was on the development of Ch'an.

All in all, Ellen Chen's book is a hidden gem of knowledge, offering a much-needed perspective on the ontology of formlessness in Daoism. I found it to be an invaluable resource. In conjunction with the work of Nishida Kitaro, founder of the "Kyoto School" and about whom I will be writing in my next post, Chen's study helped me enormously. I highly recommend reading it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Dharma talk - How Big is Your Mind?

The smaller our sense of self is, the more claustrophobic our life is. The wider our personal diameter, the more compassion and wisdom is at our disposal. In this talk, I discuss how to loosen the membrane of the self in order to include all beings.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Scar Tissue - Dharma Talk

In addition to being a great Red Hot Chili Peppers song, scar tissue is a great analogy to describe the self. The person we normally identify ourselves with is a tight, rigid, inflexible mass. In this talk, I discuss ways to loosen up that calcified sense of self so that we can respond to life spontaneously and freely.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sanctity of existence

George Carlin, one of the greatest comedians and geniuses of our time, said it best about people:
We as living human beings have a vested interest in promoting the sanctity of life... you know why? Because we are alive!
The same applies to my last post regarding Nothingness. We as humans have a vested interest in 'being' or existence, because that's all that we know. Everything experienceable or conceivable exists; therefore, we often perceive non-existence as a threat to everything we know, or think that we know.

The last thing that any human wants to hear is news that challenges existence, for as George says, we have a vested interest in the sanctity of...well, existence. And as he ironically points out, we're a little biased, aren't we? That's like asking people at a Yankees game who's the best baseball team.

We are inevitably attached to 'being', and for good reason--it represents everything we know.

To our minds, Nothingness, therefore, is anathema. It represents the greatest threat to 'being' and existence.

This is where doctrine comes in. Doctrines--whether they be about God, Buddha nature, emptiness--reassure us that everything is all right, that our universe is safe and solid. This is why people cling to them, because they make life predictable. For instance, my seven year old daughter said to me the other day regarding death, "I understand why people believe in heaven; it feels good. I'd like to believe in it too." (Seriously, she said that!)

Tell people that Nothingness is the true basis of reality and they will either storm out of the room or call you a nihilist.

But the Nothingness I am talking about it is not ordinary nothingness, like how much money I had in my bank account during college, but Absolute Nothingness. This is Lao Tzu's Tao--the womb of existence.

Ordinary nothingness is understood to be the opposite of existence. Absolute Nothingness, on the other hand, has no opposite.

It is the creative, empty Void, absent of all 'being', yet serves as the very basis of all 'being.' It is the reality prior to existence, a sea of infinite potential, Nothingness without limitations. It is ever present and timeless. In fact, our world is a manifestation of Nothingness. So are we!

In that sense, Nothingness does not threaten 'being-ness'; it makes it possible in the first place! This is great news.

Still, it is greeted with disdain and revulsion for the very reason that George Carlin pointed out--people fear what they feel threatens them. And nothing (pardon the pun) threatens people more than nothingness. That's because they misunderstand Nothingness.

This is not dry or abstract theory; Nothingness is absolutely verifiable. We can experience it. However, people want to reduce Nothingness to a doctrine so that they can dispute it, shoot holes in its logic because they feel threatened by it; but that is like denying that the sun is the center of the universe because we prefer a geocentric model. And in a way, that's what the teaching of Nothingness is doing--forcing us to shift our center from 'being' to Non-being, from existence to Nothingness.

But don't take my word for it. I urge you to experience Absolute Nothingness for yourself, because, paradoxically, understanding Nothingness can make the biggest difference in the world.

We miss you, George!

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Absolute Nothingness

For my latest book project, I decided to write about a topic that is very close to my personal experience--Nothingness.  The book is entitled God is Nothingness: Awakening to Absolute Non-being

Nothingness is the most commonly misunderstood thing in life, so much so that if you dare introduce the word into a "spiritual" conversation, you run the risk of being branded a heretic or worse, a nihilist. The word sends shivers down people's spines; it assaults everything people hold dear, in particular, 'being.'

If there is one thing that most religions have in common, they reject nothingness.  

The reason that people fear and loathe the idea of Nothingness--for that is what they fear, the idea that they have about Nothingness--is because they believe that it is the opposite of 'being.' 

It's not; Nothingness is not the antithesis of 'being', but its very basis. 

'Being' is so intuitive that it is hard to identify. Quite simply, it refers to everything that exists. Cars, trees, our bodies--all of these represent presence, existence, or at the risk of defining a term by itself, they possess or embody 'beingness.'

Every experience, event, situation, moment in time--in fact, anything conceivable--exists in the realm of 'being.'

'Being', however, cannot account for the ultimate or final reality. There is a deeper, more fundamental reality upon, and from which, 'being' arises and abides.

This is Nothingness or Non-being--to use apophatic term, it is totally incomprehensible, the markless, signless, timeless, conditionless, unborn, unchanging, undying Absolute.

Nothingness is the complete absence of anything and everything that exists, and therefore it transcends all of the limitations of 'being.' For instance, 'being' is bounded and circumscribed by form and space, and even though it may be one nondual whole, 'being' does not contain or include Non-being; yet Nothingness is boundless, limitless, filled with the creative potential to be anything. Nothingness includes 'being', not the other way around.

Nothingness makes 'being' possible. For this reason, I call it God. Admittedly, "God" is a loaded term, so let me clarify what it means here. When I say "God," I am not using it to refer to what 99.99% of people think of when they hear the word. The "God" I am speaking of is not the anthropomorphic Creator of Abrahamic religions, but the dark, silent, creative womb of all existence found in Taoism. 
God is not a Supreme Being, but the very opposite--Absolute Non-being.
In case you are wondering, this understanding is not without historical precedent. Some of the most eminent contemplatives call God "Nothing" or "Nothingness." This includes, but is not limited to, Meister Eckhart, Moses Maimonides, John Scotus Erigena, Jacob Boehme, Lao Tzu, and Nisargadatta Maharaj.

Based upon my personal meditation experience, "Nothingness" is the best word to describe the Absolute, the fundamental principle underlying all events, forms, situations--in other words, beneath 'being' itself.

Is Nothingness the same as the Buddhist sunyata? As a Zen teacher, I wrestled with this question the whole time I was writing the book. The best answer I can offer is, I suppose it all depends upon how one understands sunyata. 

If one views emptiness as the lack of selfhood or inherent existence, then I would say "no." That emptiness is confined to the world of 'being'. Nothingness, on the other hand, transcends but includes 'being' and its attendant emptiness. This includes nonduality, interconnectedness, and interpenetration. Admittedly, in many respects, Nothingness resembles Sankara's markless Brahman more than it does sunyata. 

If, on the other hand, one understand sunyata to be the Absolute Nothingness at the heart of all existence, the creative Void of Non-being that allows 'being' to exist, then "yes."

Nothingness is simultaneously transcendent and immanent--it is the fundamental basis of 'being', yet, paradoxically, is embodied through that very same 'being.'

'Being' is manifest Nothingness; Nothingness is the unmanifest, hence we call it Non-being.

To borrow from the Heart Sutra, Form is Nothingness; Nothingness is form.

Either way, words cannot capture it. What is important is to experience Nothingness for oneself. In the book, I provide several pointers, but all attempts to communicate it occur inside of the realm of 'being', which are inherently futile. In order to know Nothingness, one must pierce through the veil of 'being', so to speak, to the underlying Nothingness beyond. Go past words and ideas to the experience of Non-being.

In order to know Nothingness, one must become Nothingness--a redundant statement since one's true nature always is Nothingness.

God is Nothingness is currently available as a Kindle ebook and in hard copy. Print books will be available on Amazon by 5/30/14.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My latest book - God is Nothingness

Here is a description of my latest book, God is Nothingness: Awakening to Absolute Non-being, now available as a Kindle ebook and in print:
Contrary to popular opinion, God is not a Supreme Being, but the exact opposite—Absolute Nothingness. In fact, the entire reason that people suffer is because they are attached to 'being', and fail to understand that Non-being is the very basis of existence itself. In the immortal words of the Tao Te Ching, "All things are born of being; being is born of Nothingness."

Nothingness is not barren oblivion, nor the opposite of life and 'being'; rather, it is the creative, fertile, and boundless principle that serves as the source and ground of beingness itself. Empty and vast, Nothingness is pregnant with limitless potential and fecundity.

In theistic terms, Nothingness is God.
Rooted in the teachings of the world's greatest sages, such as Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Adi Shankaracarya, Meister Eckhart, and Nisargadatta Maharaj, God is Nothingness explores how Non-being is indeed the root of all existence. Even more valuably, the book reveals how to awaken to Nothingness—how to realize God.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Moving, Moving, Moving

My house is for sale; we listed it on Monday and the For Sale sign appeared on our lawn Wednesday afternoon. For the past six weeks, ever since Spring Break the week before Easter, my wife and I have been busy preparing to list our house on the market.

We did all of the usual: garages sales (two, in fact), cleaned, organized, painted, scrubbed, repaired, replaced, power washed, rearranged, and in the immortal words of Thoreau, simplified, simplified, simplified.

Preparing to move can be extremely revealing and liberating. As we sift through the piles of clutter that we have accumulated since our last spring cleaning or even our last move, we realize that we don't need any of this...stuff. Most of it is junk, and often other people's junk!

Have you ever noticed how much crap other people pawn off on you? Come on, take it. You always said you wanted a juicer/toaster/laser-disk and eight-track player in one. Just take it...

These weeks have been a blur. My reading and writing have slowed to a near standstill. It has gotten to the point where, when I'm done with one task, I am immediately ready for another--even where there's nothing more to do! When I sit down to read, I feel restless. Now, I'm not lazy, but I'm not the kind of person to volunteer for a cleaning marathon either.

What's most amazing about the past weeks is the sheer lightness of it all. At first, since we were confronted with so many tasks, my wife and I were just overwhelmed. But soon we developed a rhythm.

Much like the Chinese Ch'an monks who integrated work into practice, I feel like the past weeks have been amazing, like I'm soaring. After a while, the ego just gives up resisting and soon there's no one painting; there's just painting.

Time vanishes into just vacuuming, just mowing the lawn, just scraping or measuring or packing or planting flowers. Zen Master Dogen called this "dropping away of body and mind."

It's been amazing: despite the sheer volume of work, I feel lighter than ever, lost in the sheer physicality of the labor. At night, my back is sore and my hands raw, but it's rewarding.

One of the things I love so much about Zen is it's worldliness, the fact that it so practical and ordinary. Zen does not eschew work for some idealistic, navel-gazing state; Zen master are busy people! Baizhang puts it best when he says, "No work, no food."

Zen is far from lofty idealism. It is embodied in and through the body. Farming, harvesting, changing our car's oil, these are all expressions of life at this present moment. Zen is being so fully present that there is no 'I' to experience anything at all. This is when life, in the form of whatever appears before us, becomes the ultimate teacher.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Spring Cleaning - Dharma talk

It's spring, and that means garage sales, dusting cobwebs, spring cleaning. This, in a manner of speaking, is what Zen is all about--seeing through the mental clutter to the reality that is right in front of us. In this talk, I discuss how to clear space in our lives, homes, and minds.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Nine's Enough

Sunday morning, as I was cutting wood panels in my basement, I sliced my finger open. I ran upstairs and did the whole pressure-and-gauze thing, followed by a trip to Urgent Care once I realized the bad boy probably needed stitches. (Actually, it was my wife's idea that I go. Thanks, hon!)

They gave me eight stitches on my left pointer finger and sent me home. The next 24 hours proved interesting.

I'm doing the hand equivalent of hobbling. Unlocking doors when my other hand is full, driving, washing my hands, all of these mundane tasks are suddenly challenging.

It's very humbling to see yourself reduced to a snail's pace or repeating the same task five or six times just to get it right, especially when you had no difficulties only 25 hours ago. For instance, even typing this is sloppy because my best finger on my left hand is wrapped in a thick sandwich of gauze.

The whole experience is really fascinating; new limitations can be very good teachers, as they reveal our expectations and demands. Fortunately, I have health care available and the injury wasn't too bad. It could have been much worse.

There's a koan that addresses this situation. the most important line is, "When cold comes, cold kills you; when hot comes, hot kills you."

Pain hurts and sunburn peels. There is no mystery to life. The trick is accepting it; that's all Buddhism is--increasing our ability to accept.

When you cut your finger, you scream, "AHHHH!" When they stick the anaesthesia needle in you finger, you wince. Ouch...yikes. Perfectly natural responses.

These are examples of pain. Suffering comes later, when we add the mental layer of judgment on top. Zen brings us back to...just this. The paint flaking on the wall, the din of motorists outside, the nervous tic in our eye.

Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?

Finger wrapped in gauze in a warm bed of Neosporin.


In one of my worst pun titles ever, I discuss how Zen is not about being flashy--wearing robes or vestments, having a Dharma name, reading Buddhist books, or identifying oneself as a Buddhist. In fact, all of these can become attachments, hindrances to real Dharma. True Zen is not gaudy, flashy, or even aware of itself. The moment you call it Zen, it no longer is. So put down your Zen books, take off your rakusu, and just wash the dishes or do the laundry. THAT is Zen.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Friday, April 25, 2014


Sangha-ism: (noun) an over-zealous interest in the trivial affairs of the Buddhist community.

That's the word that comes to mind when I think of Western Buddhism. I still remember my disappointment that I felt when I received my first copy of Tricycle. It turned out to be yet another celebrity magazine; the only difference was that it promoted Buddhist celebrities instead of Hollywood ones.

Enroll in celebrity so-and-so's meditation retreat...

Buy such-and-such's latest book....

That's the state of Buddhism today, just as commercial as any other mainstream industry or subculture. And sangha-ism is simply one of its most current manifestations.

Especially with the aid of the internet, many Buddhists have become disturbingly obsessed with the trivial details of the extended Buddhist "community." At the press of a button, we can browse the resumes of thousands of Buddhist masters, cataloging their experience, Dharma pedigree, teaching authorization status, teachers, Dharma heirs. You name it; it's all available, like gossip magazine stats for teen celebrities.

And there is a huge difference between studying Buddhism and being indoctrinated into the folds of its celebrity-Lama-Roshi obsession. The former is moderate, light, and selfless; the latter excessive, serious, and self-conscious/obsessed.

That is what I mean when I write "sangha-ism." After all, why the hell should we care about celebrity-Buddhist quarrels or attending a retreat with master-so-and-so?

Buddhism, in my opinion, has become a subculture, a lifestyle niche that many Westerners trade their "regular" lives for. Now they are "Buddhists," with all that that entails--subscriptions to Buddhist magazines and mailing lists, the latest down-low on all of the Buddhist heavy hitters, frequent visits to Buddhist gossip sites, and on and on.

There is no end to this post because this phenomena is endless. As long as print and digital media feed this celebrity- and lifestyle-obsession culture, there will be people who buy it.

Please don't.

There are many different forms of Buddhism out there--Theravada, Zen, Ch'an, Seon, Thien, Vajrayana. But all of them, I am confident, would agree that the moment we begin to think about Buddhism the same way that someone does who is obsessed with sports, then we are in too deep. At that point, we probably need to take a few step backwards and make non-involvement our practice. Practice disengagement.

I make no apologies nor excuses for my disillusionment with the Western Buddhist cultural machine. I am wary of institutions; I have always been, and probably always will be. Buddhism is no exception.

There's a subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) transformation that occurs inside of people's minds when they begin to think of themselves as Buddhists. I can't help but think that when people begin to identify their identities with Buddhism or as Buddhists, they are building a well next to the river.

There's simply no need for it. As the Buddha famously announced on his deathbed, "Be a lamp unto yourselves. Let the Dharma be your guide."

We don't need celebrity Buddhists; the teachings and practice are enough. By all means, join a local sangha, but be cautious of hopping on the Buddhist culture train.

Next stop, Sanghaville. All aboard!