Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Every Step is the Path - Dharma talk

Zen is nothing special. It's about realizing and actualizing the fact that everything we do is the action of a Buddha.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Every Day is a Holiday - Dharma talk

Every Day is a Holiday

Treat every day like it's the anniversary of your own awakening--because it is. Stop doubting that you are a Buddha. Realize that your mind is already perfect and needs to cultivation.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

You Are Not Your Thoughts - Dharma Talk

You Are Not Your Thoughts

Look through your thoughts to see clearly. That clarity is your true nature, which is closer to you than your own breath. All that it takes is the courage to let go of all conceptualizations.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Corporate Mindfulness: Worker Bees Unite

Image result for worker bee

The purpose of seeing clearly is to see clearly. When we do that, we act skillfully, which means we cause less suffering. One clear act can echo endlessly, inspiring others to see and act with wisdom.

It's no news that corporations have begun to adopt mindfulness into their training and professional development/health program. This can be a great thing if mindfulness is being "adopted"; but if it is being "appropriated," then that is another story entirely.

The iconoclast in me suspects it's the latter case. Despite what Mitt Romney says, businesses are not people. They are institutions with one common goal--success, usually monetary. While different businesses have different missions, their goals usually equate to money, power, or influence. None of these inherently have workers in mind; in fact, the well-being of employees is only helpful to a business inasmuch as it impacts the company's success.

This means that--more likely than not--corporate mindfulness and health programs' ultimate goal is to make better employees. After all, the healthier (mentally, emotionally, and physically) employees are, the more productive they become.

Stated in direct, albeit admittedly cynical, terms:
America's embrace of mindfulness is to make Americans better worker bees. 
This should come as no surprise. When a country elects a businessman with no political experience whatsoever into the highest executive office, that country has thoroughly digested corporate values.

But I digress. Mindfulness is not supposed to make you a better, more productive person or worker; it's goal, if it can be said to have one, is to wake people up for the sake of waking up. Living, acting, and speaking with clarity of mind is its own goal. I'm reminded of a Quaker proverb: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."

Similarly, mindfulness shouldn't be treated as yet another means to an ends. When it is, practitioners should be extremely wary. Like Buddhism itself, mindfulness should be treated as an ends unto itself, not a mental workout program so that we can gather more honey.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Dharma talks for the holidays

Wherever You Go

We don't need to go anywhere to wake up. We bring awakening with us wherever we go; it's our true, original nature. In fact, "here" is the only place where awakening can manifest.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Giving Endless Thanks

Awakening means realizing the fundamental interconnectedness of reality, how we and all beings are connected. When this happens, we see how everything in this world sustains us. This is the highest form of gratitude.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giving Thanks?

Image result for vegan symbol

I don't understand Thanksgiving; I never have. Besides the 43,000,000 turkeys senselessly slaughtered for Thanksgiving centerpieces, the entire holiday feels slightly schizophrenic to me.

In America, we stuff ourselves with food until we're fit to vomit, and in some way this is supposed to be an acknowledgement of all of the ways that we have been blessed? Wouldn't fasting be more of an effective reminder?

But feasting sells better than fasting.

Through the Buddha's teachings, we examine all of the mindless habits that we indulge in every day--wallowing in emotions, lost in thought, eating voraciously, acting and speaking unskillfully. This same critical analysis applies to the traditions that we engage in. Thanksgiving symbolizes both the decadent overindulgence of Western culture--its fervent addiction to consumption, literally--and humans' intentional self-ignorance.

Thanksgiving represents the ultimate Western irony. Gratitude means exercising humility and reflecting on all of the ways that the world--not just our family, community, and nation--nourishes us. It means to acknowledge how all beings contribute to our existence, and as a result, a blossoming of compassion emerges in our hearts for those beings we ordinarily harm through our mindlessness.

Yet, toxic American culture teaches us the exact opposite--that the way to express gratitude is through excess, exploitation, and gross over-consumption. All of which are the exact opposite of gratitude, hence the irony.

When we embody awareness, we cannot help but see that Thanksgiving is yet another symptom of a distressed culture, one that causes harm to countless beings.

Instead of slaughter and decadence, true thanksgiving encourages a change in our lifestyle for the benefit of all beings. Give thanks every day, not just the last Thursday in November.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

This Too - Dharma Talk

The entire world is the awakened body of all Buddhas; all we have to do is open ourselves to this fact. We can do this by accepting everything we encounter as an expression of awakening.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

STOP! - Dharma talk

Meditation and mindfulness are not means to waking up; they are expressions of it. We are awake when we pay attention. Waking up means to stop trying to get something from life--from this moment--and just accept here and now fully, unconditionally.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Living the Question - Dharma talk

A life of contemplation is one that asks questions, one that dwells in the space that questions open. Asking "Who am I?" is central to Zen, not in pursuit of a verbal or conceptual answer; but the very asking--the embracing of the non-conceptual--is itself being awake.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Divisions can be...Divisive

Not all divisions are bad. When a doctor performs surgery to remove a tumor or some other foreign object, her ability to differentiate healthy tissue from her target is paramount. After all, why remove more tissue (or organs or limbs) than necessary?

That is an example where divisions can be healthy. However, as we see in the current U.S. political climate, division can be dangerous and destructive. I can't remember a Presidential election that wasn't pressing, but the stakes for this current one seems exceptionally high. Divisions contribute to this.

When we look at groups of people through an "us vs. them" lens, we often feel threatened or antagonistic. Fellow humans become them who want to take our property or opportunities. When we view refugees fleeing the destruction of war as terrorists, we sink to our lowest capacity, that of frightened animals. There's a difference between caution and callousness, between wariness and hatred.

America has a massive racial and discrimination problem. I don't think that repairing our racially divided past will come from eliminating our differences, whatever that would look like (a monochrome American culture?). Besides, who would want that?

Rather, it's only by recognizing our differences, while simultaneously viewing our fellow men and women as brothers and sisters, that we can hope to forge a new future for all Americans. Of course the experience of black Americans is different from mine as a white American. The same can be said about any subcategory of America--be it based on gender, sexuality, religion, and so on.

I don't need to erase my culture or anyone else's in order to fight for equality. I find that's it more helpful to look at the plight of marginalized Americans this way:

How can we as Americans fight for equality for our black, transgender, homosexual, female, Latino, Muslim...brothers and sisters?

This perspective recognizes differences (my foot is not my arm and my heart is not my kidney) without allowing those differences to divide. That's the goal--and in my opinion, the true function--of any spiritual tradition, especially Buddhism.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Who is the Buddha? - Dharma talk

The Buddha is not only some enlightened man who lives 2,500 years ago; the Buddha is who you see when you look in the mirror. Look inside and discover this for yourself.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Business as Usual - Dharma talk

True kindness is selfless. Giving with the hopes of gain is not kindness, but business. In Zen, we need to be painfully honest about our motives. Our state of mind is just as important as the action that accompanies it.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Abide in the Silence - Dharma talk

The Buddha awakened to something comepletely indescribable. Words only confuse us. The aim of Zen is to realize that same experience of the Buddha, which is best expressed with silence.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, September 12, 2016

One Kind Act - Dharma talk

In Buddhism, so much emphasis is placed on the enlightened mind, yet little is said about enlightened action. In this Dharma talk, I discuss how kindness is the supreme act of Buddhahood.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Like You'd Lose a Finger - Dharma talk

If we lived every moment like our lives depended on it, there would be no room for suffering. All of our attention would be consumed with the present. In a very real sense, that's what Zen practice  is--becoming this present moment in all of its entirety.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sweeping the Mandala

I watched an amazing sand mandala video yesterday (sorry, I can't find it to share with you). As is customary, after the monks dedicate countless painstaking hours designing this gorgeous mandala, they wipe it away with brushes. This is a lesson in both impermanence and letting go. Since the mandala is made of sand, it won't last. That's its purpose, to illustrate how ephemeral the world is. Nothing lasts.

Even if the monks had wanted to preserve the mandala, they couldn't. Today, people have crafted all sorts of creative ways to preserve the moment. We take pictures, then share them with our friends digitally and in person, post them on Facebook and Twitter. Yet the moment is gone. It vanished right after it was over.

Which leads me to the second function of the sand mandala--letting go. These monks have spent hours bent over this mandala, pouring their attentive hearts into it, only to sweep it away when they are done.

Why? we want to ask. Why would someone spend all of that time only to sweep it away?

Why do we anything then? Buildings, books, poems, families, empires, all of these are impermanent, subject to dissolution. The sand mandala is simply a more visceral example of this same principle.

We cannot hold onto or preserve any moment. Sweeping the sand away is a gesture and exercise in letting go of our need to hold on and preserve. Wisdom is knowing when to hold on--fight perhaps for those we love or ideals that we believe in--and when to let go.

My family and I went to the beach yesterday, too, where the ocean taught me a lot about sand and impermanence. My children and I dug holes near the shoreline only to watch them get washed away moments later. It was fun. It can be, if we are playful with the tides of change.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Buddhist Magazines, Not Worth Your Time or Money

Against my better judgment, I borrowed a Buddhist magazine the other day. I stopped reading Buddhist magazine about five years ago because, frankly, I thought they were sheer drivel. Most of the magazine consists of advertisements of retreat centers and celebrity Buddhist teachers. "Come meditate for a week with..."

The content tends to be along the lines of, "How to make sure you're meditating correctly." These magazines are the Buddhist equivalents of Fitness and Mens Health. "Want to jump-start your meditation routine? Follow these three steps..."

But I borrowed the magazine anyway from our meditation center, mainly because the lead article piqued my interest. And besides, maybe I had been too critical, maybe their content had evolved since I'd last read them.

Inside, I was greeted by all of the same schlocky material that you'd find in an advice column. The article I was interested in turned out to be a panel interview with teachers from various Buddhist traditions. No one said anything compelling. Maybe the questions weren't substantive enough; I don't know. 

What irks me about these magazines is that they don't promote Buddhism; they are selling the Buddhist lifestyle. Like any other consumer niche, the Buddhist lifestyle requires its adherents to subscribe to all of the major Buddhist magazines, amass and quote serene quotations about mindfulness and forgiveness, and purchase books by all of the major Buddhist authors. And of course, attend retreats, the longer the better, preferably ones led by brand-name teachers.

In my opinion, Buddhist magazines exist to promote books and retreats. They provide revenue streams so that Buddhist teachers can continue doing...whatever it is that they do--teach, lead retreats, write books, travel. 

If Huang Po, Deshan, or Yunmen were alive today, they would burn every copy they could get their hands on. 

You don't need to read a Buddhist magazine to be a Buddhist. In fact, if you want to practice Buddhism, take the $20 you would have paid for a year's subscription to one of these magazines, and donate it to the charity of your choice. That's much closer to the heart of the Buddha's teaching than anything you will find in a Buddhist magazine. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Training Wheels - Dharma talk

The Buddhadharma is like a set of training wheels on a bicycle. Once they have served their purpose, by all means take them off. We shouldn't get attached to the teachings. However, they are very useful to help other people wake up too, so don't throw them out entirely.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Take Nothing for Granted - Dharma talk

Meticulous care and attention, that's what Zen practice consists of. In this Dharma talk, I discuss the importance of appreciating everything in our lives as expressions of the great mystery.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Drop your "but's"

In social situations, we are confronted with "but's" all of the time. Someone will say, "I'd love to come to the party, but..." Apologies are often punctuated with this conditional word, as in, "I'm sorry I said that, but you..." Which pretty much nullifies people's apologies, as the "but" tries to justify their behavior. It's a way of saying, "It's not my fault."
Sometimes admitting one's mistakes can be as painful as a physical injury. Our use of the word   "but" represents an attempt to protect our ego. The "but" shields us from judgment, both real and imagined.

I say imagined because there are no "but's" in nature. "But's" are products of the mind. We impose them over our experiences and forget that we've done so. 

For instance, when we say, "I'd love to come over but my car is broken," what we may mean is, "I'm angry that my broken car is preventing me from coming over." The "but" here is an imposition of our will on the situation. We can just as easily say, "Sorry, my car is broken so I can't come over. I'll gladly come if someone picks me up." Removing the "but" can dissolve our resentment.

To further the grammatical analogy, the conjunction "and" better expresses the inclusivity of reality. "But" closes doors while "and" opens them. 

Here's a practice: for the next day, notice how many times you use "but." What are the circumstances? Are you trying to alleviate responsibility? Are you afraid to be honest with others? Scared to disappoint people or hurt their feelings?

Study your language to learn about your own conditioned patterns of thinking and speaking. Use your "but's" as a lens to re-view your life. The Vow of the Bodhisattva is to save all sentient beings. That means removing false barriers and opening your heart to people. Our egos--our need to control people and events--prevent us from accepting the way that things are. They cloud our perception by making us mistake how we'd like things to be with how they actually are

There is nothing inherently wrong with the word "but"; it depends on how you use it. Is it an instrument of division or of harmony? Zen liberates us from the language game so that we can eventually use language--and all other means--to liberate others. 

To do that, we must pay meticulous attention to our use of language to make sure it serves our purpose, not the other way around.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Decorating Your Hyphen - Dharma talk

We spend so much of our time trying to make our lives carefree. We avoid discomfort at all costs, the equivalent to carpeting the entire world. Instead, why not learn how to live intelligently with discomfort?

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How do we deal with losing?

Two days ago I brought my kids shopping. When I was packing the groceries into the car, I accidentally left the paper towels on the bottom rack of the cart. I didn't realize the mistake until I was two parking lots away, so by the time I returned, the paper towels were gone.

I checked customer service inside the store just in case someone returned the paper towels. No one did.

I was angry, both with myself for leaving the paper towels under the cart and at whoever found them.

My first thoughts were, Great, there's $15 down the drain. Then I tried to make myself feel better by considering all of the times that I had found items or money that added up to that amount. Surely over the course of my life, at least $15 had fallen into my lap.

But that was just rationalizing; I was trying to make the sting go away by convincing myself that things were okay, that everything evens itself out in the end.

But they don't. Things weren't okay, yet neither were they not okay.

I had lost some paper towels--not good, not bad. Sure I could think that someone else was now happy with a bulk-sized trove of paper towels in the trunk of their car. But again, that was just another attempt to numb the throb of my emotions.

The situation was what it was. There was no need to think away the experience. I had lost something and now I was angry.

In moments like these--and there are plenty of them in our lives--we can close ourselves off through a variety of strategies, or we can do our best to remain open.

My chest felt hot and tight. I was hungry and irritable. My kids were quiet in the backseat as I drove home. I tried to stay open to the bedlam of emotions, thoughts, and sensations. The Great Way is easy, wrote Seng-t'san the Third Ancestor of Chan Buddhism, just avoid picking and choosing.

It's when we try to edit our thoughts and emotions, selecting those we deem pleasant or appropriate, that we are cast into the cycle of gain and loss. Before that moment, there is only the tightness in our chests, the sweat in our palms, the sounds of the car carrying us home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Things We'd Rather Pretend Don't Exist

Today was that time of the year again--time for me to clean out the bathroom sink drain. The sink had been draining slower and slower over the past several weeks, so I knew it was time to clean it. But I kept putting it off. I'll do it next week, I kept telling myself. And on the summer went until I had run out of excuses.

Cleaning the drain is the home-owning task that I like the least. Even though I know that most of the gunk inside the drain is the result of my shaving, I want to gag just thinking about it. 

In Zen, there is no good or bad; picking and choosing is the source of unhappiness. Thinking creates pleasant and unpleasant, beauty and ugliness. Still, I couldn't help but squirm in disgust at the slimy mess awaiting me in the drain pipe.

As humans, we seek pleasure and try our hardest to avoid discomfort. When I unscrewed and removed the drain pipe, then snaked a paper towel down it, Basho's poem echoed in my mind: 
Fleas, lice,
The horse pissing
Near my pillow
Deep down I know that, like the horse pissing next to Basho's pillow, it's all It. Nothing is left out of the great reality. Everything is vital, integral; it's all the body of Buddha. In our ignorance, we as humans would like to remove anything we deem unpleasant: flies, lice, the slime in the pipes.

Avoid picking and choosing, another voice said in my head as black jelly-like slime in the shape of a cylinder slid out of the pipe. My stomach clenched. How on earth could this be part of the Buddha's teaching?

The mistake we often make is to confuse our response--or reaction--to something with the thing itself. Just because I gag at the sight of something putrid doesn't mean that there's anything "wrong" with it. That's simply my reaction to it, conditioned in part by my upbringing, culture, and biology. But if I were a crow, a dead raccoon on the side of the road would be a feast.

Avoid picking and choosing, I reminded myself as I tied the plastic bag shut. I shivered when the task was done. Thank goodness! I suppose that I could feel guilty about my reaction--after all, what kind of Zen teacher gags in disgust at some goop?--but I didn't.
If black slime is it, then so is my instinctive revulsion.
When our bodies and minds naturally lean towards or away from an experience or object (we all prefer one meal over another), that preference too is the great reality. The impulse to pick and choose is itself It. The Buddhadharma includes everything, even our rejection of other things.

Good thing too because in another 300 days or so I'm going to have to clean the drain again. Fun...

Monday, August 8, 2016

Decorating Your Life

Most people spend most of their time trying to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Meditation--the act of observing our mental and emotional patterns--reveals to us how much we cringe from discomfort. The slightest sound can send our nerves into an uproar. When our knees and backs begin to ache, our bodies can feel like prison cells; and all that we yearn to do is escape.

In the middle of a meditation retreat, anything feels preferable to the torture of sitting completely still. Our bodies and minds crave stimulation, anything to break the monotony of our whirling thoughts.

Boredom can be a very powerful teacher.

One could argue that America's obsession with materialism is grounded in the human impulse to avoid discomfort. In the panoply of pleasure that is Western culture, it's amazing that anyone is interested in meditation, which by American standards is tantamount to asceticism.

In a wealthy, developed nation such as ours, there are very few reasons not to indulge oneself. America abounds with countless distractions--food, entertainment, mindless internet indulgence, and so on. We are a culture of distractions.

But if we are lucky enough to develop a practice of self-examination, we soon learn how conditioned we are by the pain/pleasure principle. Very simply, we crave pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible. We do everything in our power to organize our lives to eliminate discomfort. Air conditioning and aspirin are great examples of how accessible and second-nature our tendency to extinguish physical displeasure has become.

I don't have statistics on this, but I'd wager that modern people devote almost all of their mental time pursuing pleasure and trying to avoid pain. Buddhist practice turns the light of our attention to this impulse (and all others, as well). Then the moments when we would mindlessly react expand to become opportunities to exercise choice.

Instead of indulging in candy or binge watching Netflix when I'm stressed, how else can I respond? How can I learn to accept the stress?

Rather than lashing out with words when someone says something I interpret as offensive, how can I digest their supposed criticism and learn from it?

It begins when we identify the pleasure/pain impulse; then, with attention, a space emerges. In that space, we can choose. Do I move my legs while I am meditating? I will if it's too painful to endure or if I have a knee injury. I probably won't if it's just a general ache from sitting cross-legged. With attention, the choice becomes ours; rigid, habitual patterns transform into potentials for us to exercise freedom.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Grey Worm, the Unsullied

Image result for grey worm missandei

I just finished watching season 4 of Game of Thrones, and was amazed at the insight that one character, Grey Worm, displayed. Grey Worm was enslaved at the youngest of ages, neutered, and trained to become a killing machine. After he is freed from bondage, he pledges his allegiance to his emancipator, Daenarys. Targaryen.

In the scene I am referring to, Grey Worm is speaking to Missandei, with whom he is falling in love. Missandei shares his affections, and so says that she is sorry that he was neutered as a child (and therefore cannot be with her, so to speak). Grey Worm says that he isn't sorry. Puzzled, Missandei asks why.

Grey Worm explains that if he had never been neutered, then he would not have been a soldier. If he had never been a soldier, then he would not have met Daenerys, and therefore he would not be speaking to Missandei at this very moment.

What an amazing insight into conditionality! Grey Worm deeply understands that where we are now is the sum total of countless conditions. It is impossible to remove even one factor from our past without changing who we are entirely. We all have moments in our lives that we would like to re-do; but this is not only impossible, it is ignorant. As Marty McFly from Back to the Future knows all too well, altering one event in our past would alter everything.

Who we are and where we are in time (and space) is the matrix of infinite factors. Grey Worm understands this. And he loves Missandei so much that he wouldn't even consider changing his past--as painful as it was--because he knows that he would inevitably lose this moment with her.

Zen practice trains us to accept who we are in our entirety. That means all of the bumps, scars, and disappointments. It's the fantasy that we can go back in time to change our history, or the desire to be someone else, that causes us so much heartache. The Buddha Way is the footsteps right in front of you. The Buddha seat is where you are sitting. It is nowhere else but here.

Check out the scene here. (I can't embed it so fast forward to 1:42 to watch the exchange.)

Friday, July 29, 2016

When to Take a Stand

Image result for no discrimination poster

Religion, politics, and income are three unspeakable subjects in America. We do not discuss them unless we share the same views with the person with whom we are speaking, or we are ready for an argument.

But what happens when politics degenerates into racism and hatred? Do we keep silent then? It seems that every time I check the news I hear some new vile, racist and sexist statement uttered by Presidential candidate Donald Trump. And yet, he and his racist supporters are somehow immune to condemnation because they shelter themselves under the pretense of politics. This is rubbish.

For me, politics refers to people's position on the role of government, like how we should protect the environment or people's rights. It's a question of how not if. Racism, sexism, or and kind of prejudice disguised as political positions is still racist, sexist, and prejudice; we do not need to respect people's hatred simply because it's their political views. Some views are better than others, and racism or sexism are abhorrent ones to hold.

The U.S. is in the grips of a divisive election, fueled by an enormous amount of anger, resentment, and outright hatred. I respect people's positions on how to govern--more government involvement or less--but I do not and will not tolerate discrimination or hatred.

Buddhism takes a very clear stance on discrimination: don't do it. The Buddha accepted people from all walks of life into the sangha--from the highest to the lowest caste, men, women, and even criminals. As an American, I extend the Buddha's position to all classes of people. All people are worthy of dignity and respect.

Currently, we have a candidate for President who is openly racist and prejudice against Muslims, Latinos, and the poor. This type of person, position, and behavior must be recognized for what it is--hateful. Disguising one's hatred under the wings of a political party, be it Republican or Democrat, does not absolve one from criticism. Racism is still racism, even if a political party condones or justifies it with political rhetoric.

The Five Mountain Zen Order, of which I am a member and monk, and the Original Mind Zen Sangha that I lead, do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. This is not a political position; it's an ethical one.

Challenge prejudice, racism, and sexism wherever and whenever you see them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Whole World is On Fire - Dharma talk

In this Dharma talk, I talk about suffering and violence, and how to awaken from their clutches.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Transmission of the Dharma

Last night I returned from the annual Five Mountain Zen Order retreat in Kansas City. Over the three days, I had a great time making and renewing friendships with the sangha. Special thanks to An Giao Roshi (bottom center) for joining us all of the way from the Desert Zen Center in California. And many bows for the gracious hospitality of the Chuan Tu Bi Buddhist temple for hosting the retreat.

On Saturday, July 23, Ven. Wonji Dharma transmitted the Dharma to Richard Jisho Sears (bottom left) and me (bottom right). I am humbled by my teacher's patience and faith in me. 

Many bows, Ven Wonji. I hope to make you proud. 

Congratulations also to Richard. Sorry for splitting the pants you let me borrow!

As a recognition of transmission, my teacher gave me the name Taesan, a Korean transliteration of the Chinese Tai Shan, which means Great Eastern Mountain (I live in New Jersey). 

None of this would have been possible without the unwavering love and support of my wife and children. Thank you for your endless patience and encouragement as I stumble along this path. I love you all dearly.  

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Save Your Apocalpyse

Apocalyptic mythology permeates nearly every aspect of American culture. Our obsession with guns, militias, and zombies all subscribe to the idea that the world is going to end, or nearly end, leaving a chosen few to inherit the earth. In Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, the universe has a definitive beginning and end. This is inherent inside of a religious system with a Creator.

Buddhism isn't concerned with beginnings and ends; it's concerned with now. In Buddhism, history is beginningless and endless. There's no need for a God if Creation is not a concern or priority. The present moment becomes the focus of our attention, not the past or present.

This tacit assumption that the universe began and will end influences the way that people live and view themselves. For instance, if the world will someday end--either by divine decree, solar flash, or human destruction--then the present can easily devolve into a field for salvation or hedonism. After all, if God is going to end the world and judge all of us (as Christianity asserts), then I had better get working on saving my soul lest I wind up in hell.

(On the other hand, if we think that the world is wrecked, dying, and will someday be dead--a secular, apocalyptic view--then I might as well enjoy the time I have remaining. This is a form of solipsistic nihilism in which nothing really matters because it's all going to end, and by "all" I mean the world, civilization, the collective human party.)

These doomsday scenarios often lead to the belief that we need saving. Of course, salvation is a common theme because of Christianity's emphasis on it, but it also pervades secular mythology. It's in the water supply, so to speak. Take popular culture's obsession with superheroes. In most of these stories, humanity relies upon some exceptional individual to save the planet. This is a direct variation of Christ's Second Coming--the savior who redeems us all.

I reject this idea, both on a collective and individual level. Not only do we not need some god-like person to lead or save us, we don't need saving!
It's precisely the idea that something is wrong with us--that we are lacking something--that leads us away from this present moment. People speculate on a remote, hypothetical past and dread (or prepare) for an equally imagined distant future because they assume that there is more to life than what's in front of them.
Deferring the present moment marks the introduction of religion and metaphysics, both of which Zen can be seen to eschew. Zen doesn't posit some theoretical substratum like Plato's forms; what you see is what you get. Reality is immediate and intimate, so much so that even one moment of mindless thinking can lead you miles away from what's actually in front of you.

People posit metaphysics when they too busy thinking to pay attention to what's in front of them. What do we hear, see, smell, taste, feel? These are real. Notions of souls, gods, Creation, and the apocalypse are beyond the sphere of experience (at least mine), and therefore are speculative.

There's nothing wrong with speculation or imagination (it's one of the wonders of the human brain), provided we know that we are doing it. I enjoy a good film or book as much as anyone else; however, when I put the book down or turn off my TV, I know that what I have read or seen is fictional.

The problem occurs when people don't realize that they have subscribed to belief systems. Genesis, apocalypses, sin, and salvation are can be un-examined assumptions that many people take for granted as given facts. It's those givens that can be the most dangerous.

As a people, we don't need saviors or a single leader to lead us to an imagined promised land or Eden (think Trump's "Make America Great Again"); we need engaged citizens. We don't need saving; we need fair political change for all members of society. We mustn't prepare for some imagined doomsday with assault rifles and bulletproof vests, but build and repair economic, political, and social infrastructures that will insure a better and fairer world tomorrow.

For more on this subject, see Kurt Spellmeyer's Buddha at the Apocalypse 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Anger is a Good Teacher

Anger--both ours and other people's--can be a powerful teacher. I'd like to believe that I'm an open-minded person, critical thinking yet not overly judgmental; however, when I'm confronted with other people's views that differ from mine, my own intolerance becomes glaringly visible.

I go online and am confronted by the vile, hateful things that people say and do. I'm thinking of the terrible violence of ISIS, the Israelis and Palestinian conflict, of the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump and Ann Coulter.

The Buddha said that the world and all of our senses are on fire; they are burning with greed, hatred, and ignorance. When we are confronted with--or experience--someone else's anger, naturally we get angry ourselves. This anger can reveal aspects of ourselves that we ordinarily don't like to admit exist.

For instance, when some sexist oaf utters an ignorant comment about women or a degrading slur about homosexuality, I feel a surge of indignation. Why, I want to shout, are people so close-minded?

But if I turn that criticism inward, I can see the boundaries of my own tolerance.
Other people's intolerance and ignorance reveal my own. The more I study my frustration with others, the more evident my own prejudices become. 
Anger can shed light on areas of our personalities that we'd rather not confront. Humans are all hypocrites to some degree; some people are just better at hiding it than others (even from themselves).

When I'm being honest with myself, examining the rough edges of my own prejudices, am I as open and compassionate as I think that I am? No.

Anger reveals our flaws, expectations, and limitations. Unlike in other forms of Buddhism where anger is viewed as a fetter to be uprooted, in the lineage of Zen that I practice, all phenomena can be our teachers.

The more intimate that we become with our emotional triggers, the more freedom we have to choose whether to act on them. We can learn from the anger in the world, both from others and ourselves.

Knowing oneself means knowing all aspects of oneself, not just the pleasant parts.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

What's the Point? - Dharma talk

This question haunts human existence, mainly because we are so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of means and end. We do certain things, like go to work and brush our teeth, with specific goals in mind--earn money and avoid cavities, for instance. But Zen teaches us that there is another way to live, in which every moment is complete in itself. Nothing is a means to an ends, but rather an expression of the ultimate moment--Now.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

It's Not Islam

Many Americans (and Westerners in general) believe that Islam is a violent, savage religion. They may not openly admit it, but that's their tacit opinion. Some, however, like Donald Trump, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris, are very vocal about their condemnation of Islam.

As my last post explained, Buddhism refutes the idea that anything can exist on its own; all phenomena are empty of self-existence. There is no thing called Buddhism, America, Earth, burritos, or humans. These are convenient terms that we ascribe to the limitless, interconnected swath of reality that defies definition.

Likewise, there is no thing called Islam. There are approximately 1.6 billion people on earth who identify in some way as being Muslim, but their definitions vary broadly. Some may be nominal devotees who simply pay lip service to their religion in the same way as many Christians do in America (only attending church on Christmas and Easter, if at all). Others may be cultural Muslims, while still others may be...

And on the list goes until we eventually arrive at militant fundamentalists whose actions most commonly are seen to represent Islam. Kareem Abdul Jabbar recently made a great comparison: right wing jihadist are no more representative of Islam than the Westboro Baptist Church is of Christianity.

But what about all of the violence that the Koran advocates? skeptics contest. 2,821,364 people are killed in the name of God in The Bible, yet we don't see any major vocal condemnation of Christianity and Judaism. This includes genocide and butchery of the most savage sort.

As an example: I have been watching Vikings, the History Channel's drama series, and was shocked to watch as a woman had her ear cut off because she committed adultery. No, she wasn't a Viking, but a Christian. Her punishers were too. In fact, they read the punishment from the Good Book as they severed her ear. Lucky for her, they stopped with one ear, for the full punishment included cutting off both ears as well as her nose (Ezekiel 23: 25)! Yet no one identifies that bloody, literal interpretation of scripture with Christianity and Judaism.

My point is this:
Burnings at the stake, mass slaughter, enslavement, genocide (all of which have biblical and historical precedents) are no more representative of Christianity than ISIS is of Islam. 
For those who then argue that Christians don't commit these horrible crimes, but Muslims do, I say, "No they do not. Anyone who claims to kill in the name of Allah (Arabic for God) is not a Muslim. They may claim--or sincerely believe--that they are, but they are not. At least not in the same way as peace-loving Muslims are." Most Muslims do not subscribe to literal interpretations of Sharia Law any more than Christians and Jews believe that adulterers should have their ears and noses cut off. 

Which brings us back to where we began: there is no Islam. For convenience's sake, journalists and politicians might call ISIS "radical Muslims," but for convenience's sake I will also say that the term "radical Islam" is an oxymoron. There are no radical Muslims, for the moment people become militantly radicalized they are no longer Muslims; they are radical militants

Again, I am playing with words because words and concepts are both malleable and potentially constrictive/destructive. Buddhism reveals that words are ultimately incapable of capturing the ever-fluid, complexity of reality; yet, paradoxically, they can liberate or enslave us. It's our choice whether to see clearly--free of bias, prejudice, fear, and anger--or become ensnared in the thorny entanglement of blame and hatred.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and the Delusion of the Self

Today Britain ratified seceding from the European Union, another Western attempt to insulate itself from the rest of the world. America has its own strain of this same politics, embodied by Donald Trump and white conservative nativists. Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again" is code for "Make America White Again," in the same way as Britain's exit from the EU is an attempt to make Britain British again. There is also a not-so-subtle Evangelical agenda at work here to make the U.S. Christian again (as if it ever were).

In all of these cases, the movement towards isolationism is motivated by fear, greed, xenophobia, racism, and outright hatred. Trump and his British equivalent, former London Mayor Boris Johnson, galvanize support for their campaigns and political agendas through fear mongering, race baiting, and perpetuating this myth that there is some "America" or "Britain" to preserve. There isn't. Countries, like human beings, are composites of many different factors--parties, forces, groups, institutions, and agendas. To subscribe to the notion of a single America is delusion, one that flies in the face of post-modernist and Buddhist thought alike.

There is no single self inside of people, no CEO or President who makes executive cognitive decisions. What we casually call the self is a shifting matrix of overlapping mental, physical, and emotional processes which interact with one another, as well as with our entire environment. Likewise, there is no single Buddhism, Christianity, Wall Street, Islam, or America. Each is a catch-all term to refer to groups that share, for the purposes of convenience, similar qualities, values, or attributes.

Trump, Johnson, and Bill Maher all have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that there is no single...anything. Bill Maher, known for his reoccurring indictment of Islam, makes the same mistake as Trump does; namely believing that there is one Islam. There isn't. Islam is not a single entity, which for some reason Maher cannot understand.

There are many different groups of people who claim to be Muslim, many of whom vary enormously ideologically. In terms of ethical values, I think that it's safe to say that your average Muslims resemble Christians more than they do fundamentalists who claim to be Muslim.

Trump can't recognize that and neither can Bill Maher, Boris Johnson, Ann Coulter, and many of their followers. It's worth noting that even if Trump and his ilk did realize this, they have a vested political interest in perpetuating the myth--they win votes by scaring people into thinking that their nation and religion is under attack.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Leave Your Ideas at the Door

I was talking to a Protestant friend of mine and he said that in his faith there aren't any rosaries or crucifixes as there is in Catholicism; there is just you and God. Unlike in Catholicism, where saints can act on our behalf, his form of Christianity stresses a direct relationship between the worshipper and God.

I can relate to that directness--the lack of an intermediary--through Zen. In Zen, language and concepts are seen as intermediaries sometimes standing between us and our experience of unfiltered reality. Reality is always present, one unified whole that only appears fragmented because of human thinking.

"Buddha" means awakened one; it describes someone's state of mind who sees through the cultural and linguistic veils that make the world look conflicted and irreconcilable. Ideas and concepts can be useful, provided we don't confuse them with the reality they are designed to represent. Just as our thoughts of an apple aren't actually an apple, our thoughts about people are not who they truly are.

Thoughts are only thoughts. They are representations of reality, not reality itself. Trouble can arise if our thoughts about the Buddha, enlightenment, God, seduce us into believing that they are no longer thoughts, but themselves real. Then people argue, fight, and even kill to defend their ideas.

All labels are provisional. From a Zen perspective, it's just as preposterous to argue over what to call an apple as it is to quarrel over whose version of God is correct. None are--they're all just ideas! If you want to know an apple, smell or eat it. Cut out the intellectual middle man--names, labels, judgments, and so on--and experience reality unfolding right now. Not in some abstract future state, but right here, right now: what do you hear, smell, taste, feel, and see?

That's real.

In a sense, Zen is like my friend's Christianity, minus God. For me, there's no need for any intermediary like God--either as a creator or as an expression of the unified world that we live in. The heat filling my room on this early summer's day is enough. So is the white glow of my computer screen and the chirping from the birds outside. Introducing another idea--be it divine or prosaic--is like adding the peanut butter label to a peanut butter sandwich. Not only is it unnecessary, but it gets in the way of my lunch.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

What do we know about crows? - Dharma talk

We don't need to take our thoughts that seriously. In fact, the world would be a much more peaceful place if we recognized that thoughts are only thoughts.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Webs We Weave - Dharma talk

The source of human suffering is not the world or external conditions, but the way that we think. The human mind weaves a complex tapestry of concepts and beliefs which eventually ensnares its owner. Buddhism teaches us how to see correctly, through the prejudice of our thoughts.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Death by any other name

If you pay attention to the English language, it would appear that no one dies anymore; they "pass." In Western culture's attempt to remove all aspects of unpleasantness from life, "death" has become an insensitive, uncouth, unspeakable word. To me, "passing" sounds like another attempt to disguise the reality of the human condition. People don't die; they "pass."

When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, "passed away" was in common usage. The preposition "away" suggests a movement outside of the body, but not anywhere in particular, in the sense that when someone's body dies, the person dissipates...away.

I kind of like that. When life ceases, the person scatters, in a manner of speaking. In Buddhist terms, when conditions no longer exist for life to continue, what we conventionally called the person, ceases. Dissolution occurs.

But the single-word "passing" implies a movement into some other ethereal realm, naturally inviting the notion of a soul that transmigrates to another plane. It's funny how adding or subtracting one word can change the meaning entirely.

These kinds of cultural euphemisms, in my opinion, are misleading and possibly even counterproductive. They attempt to couch the undesirable aspects of life--old age, sickness, death, taxes, Republicans--with soft, meaningless platitudes like "passed."

I understand that people avoid the word "death" to protect the feelings of the bereaved; however, tossing around this hollow euphemism could produce the exact opposite effect. Changing the name of death won't alleviate the pain that surviving family and loved ones feel.

People die. Pets die. We all die. There is nothing morbid this. It's a fundamental fact of existence: all that exists will perish.

Buddhism doesn't try to soften the whips and scorns of life; rather, it thrusts us right into the thick of the human condition, and insists that we take a long, hard look at what it means to be alive. We all have an expiration date. Nothing lasts forever, not even the sun. So how can the knowledge of our own mortality give us a more meaningful life? Who is the one that will die--or stated another way, who is the one that is alive? Who am I?

Facing death can awaken us to our own interconnection to other beings, for the deeper I peer into my co-called "self," the less solid I appear. Rather than a substantial entity, all that I see when I investigate myself are relationships.

We are the entire web of life and death. Why on earth would we want to conceal this rich fact, I have no idea.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Know Your Master - Dharma talk

Awakening doesn't erase delusion; it clarifies it. The first step in liberating ourselves from the prison of ignorance is recognizing delusion in the first place. When we just see--without the need to respond--the destructive patterns of thought and emotion that ordinarily dominate our lives, we experience freedom.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Accept the Roads that are Open

Image result for road closed

So much of human suffering, I believe, results from our inability to accept the options that we actually do have, as opposed to those we want to have. We want to attend College A, but have been accepted by only Colleges B and C.

This is the quintessential human dilemma: we want what we don't have, and don't want what we actually do have. The moment an option presents itself, it loses its luster. We strive for a position, title, relationship, or object, and once it becomes available, it's not so appealing anymore. Instead, we'd rather dwell on imaginary roads of opportunity.

Perhaps its biological, an impulse to possess more (and more and more and more). Either way, we waste so much time dwelling on options that are simply not available to us; when we should, for purposes of practicality, be paying attention to those that are present.

Why dwell on the fact that we didn't get the internship when we have another interview later this week and work in two hours?

Besides the satisfaction from emotional sulking, what good is there in wishing for options that don't exist? If I want a new car but don't have enough money, I can stamp my emotional feet or consider what options I do have: such as saving my money, buying a used car, taking out a loan, and so. These are actual possibilities that reflect option I do have.

Fantasizing about winning the lottery is just a waste of time and a form of self-punishment; it's far more productive, realistic, and healthy to focus on what options I actually have. Dwelling on how unfair I think life is or the way that things should be is fruitless, and the cause of so much unnecessary suffering. If disappointment is a mental wound, then entertaining options that don't exist is the equivalent of picking at the scab.

Over and over and over, as we say to ourselves, "Why did I take this way to work? If only..." "

If only doesn't matter because it doesn't exist, yet. And if and when it does come to fruition--you get the acceptance call from the internship because the other candidate declined, for instance--then we can consider that as a possible choice. But there is no point whatsoever indulging fantasies about options that don't exist.

Concentrate on what's real, strive to make your vision of the future a reality, and quit fixating on roads aren't open.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

It All Leads to This - Dharma Talk

In this Dharma talk, I discuss how all roads in Zen lead back to this present moment.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The 'I' that Binds Us

The world abounds with metaphysical theories--God at top of the spiritual food chain with a celestial caravan of angels, standing in opposition to an eternal hell; chakras; astral bodies; turtles all the way down.
But this should come as no surprise since most people, even scientific skeptics, subscribe to a very subtle metaphysics without even realizing it. I'm referring to the notion of a self, an 'I' that inhabits our bodies, yet is somehow distinct and transcendental to it.

Buddhism challenges the notion that there single, autonomous entity in our bodies. You can call it a self, soul, spirit, or plain old 'I'. In Buddhism, it's my insistence that there is some solid being in me that causes me so much suffering. I falsely believe that there is some unchanging subject behind my experiences, like a viewer watching a television set. Meditation and deep contemplation reveals that there is no such thing. Buddhism is not alone in this criticism; many spiritual traditions recognize the emptiness of "the self," as it is often called.

The self is the most subtle and all-pervasive metaphysics, found in every culture around the globe. Let me clarify: it's not that selves don't exist at all; it's that our notion of what it means to exist is unrealistic. If we define a self as a distinct entity that experiences the world through sense organs, that thinks and feels emotions, then yes I suppose you could say that there is no self. But that just invites another form of metaphysics--no-self--which is not the intended project of Buddhism. Substituting one ailment with another is unproductive.

It might be more accurate to say that instead of destroying our notions of the self, Buddhism revises it. Meditation reveals that selves are provisional (they don't exist as irreducible entities), social, fluid, and most importantly, conditional. Selves do not exist independently. Absolute subject--entities that experience the world and are separate from it--are fictions.

There are no subjects of experiences, just experiences.

The purpose of Buddhism's deconstruction and revision of the self is freedom, liberation from the tyrant of a false subject with all of its demands, urges, impulses, and psychological hangups. It's no wonder that people inevitably subscribe to the idea of a Creator, for God is simply a magnification of people's own subtle metaphysics about themselves. God is the ultimate self because he is modeled on people's own misunderstanding of who and what they are. Both God and the personal self reflect humanity's need for a solid, substantial subject. And God being the ultimate subject, distinct from his creation, eternal; which when we think about it, is how most people view themselves--as solid entities that are separate from their experiences.

The reality of flux and flow, of utter ground-lessness, terrifies us so much that we create complex metaphysical theories that echo our own obsession with the ultimate and most destructive one--a substantial self.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Buddhas Come and Go

Life couldn't be any more straight forward. It is always staring us right in the eyes; it's our thinking that screens us from it.

What else could be more self-evident than the scent filling our nostrils or the beautiful sunset in front of us? The Dharma is always transmitting itself; in fact, the Dharma is the transmission. The clouds, grass, ants, and indigestion, these are all it. But spiritual people--often teachers, gurus, and other leaders--like to convolute matters with systems, levels, and worst of all, institutions.

The spirit of Chinese Chan Buddhism points to our lives at this very moment. It doesn't dawdle with unnecessary constructs. Just this, right now. What could be more direct?

And yet our minds, with their infinite doubts and criteria, insists this can't be it. The reality of the Buddha must be more...special, extraordinary. But why, why should waking up to reality be complicated? Our evaluating minds, ever accustomed to working for rewards, demand that reality be complex, and therefore, difficult to realize.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing that is keeping us from seeing reality is the assumption that it's hidden. Because we don't like what's in front of us--it's too hot, or cold, or boring, or...--we reject it under the guise that there is some greater reality out there, hidden inside of or behind things.

"Buddha" means awakened one, a person who has woken up to the reality in front of him/her. No longer bedeviled by the mental phantoms that there is some greater, more fundamental truth obscured front them, Buddhas come and go with laundry in their hands and hunger in their bellies.

There is no need to complicate our lives by searching for the glasses that we are already wearing.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Where Have All of the Honest People Gone?

Howard Walter Florey 1945.jpg

America needs more people like Dr. Howard Florey, one of the researchers who helped develop penicillin. Unlike Martin Shkreli, the odious billionaire opportunist who hiked the price of AIDS medication 5000%, Florey refused to patent penicillin for personal profit. He understood that the benefits for humanity were more important than his own commercial success.

American democracy has been hijacked by corporate interests--lobbyists, Super PACs, defense contractors, and on and on. The two current front runners for the 2016 Presidential race are multi-millionaires with too many corporate ties to list. Donald Trump has exploited capitalism for over three decades, and Hilary Clinton has cozy connections with the likes of Walmart and Super Pacs.

Political cynics will say that's just how America works, but I disagree. Vaclav Havel--Czech writer, political activist, and eventually president of Czechslovakia--is an example of a modern politician who refused to be swayed by corporate interests alone. Like Dr. Florey, Havel lived his ethics, which, I believe, is the best way both to live and to act.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the Buddha was an ethicist. He taught us to do no harm, to realize that separation can lead to violence, and that selfishness eventually brings suffering, both for oneself and for others. Unlike the tide of U.S. faith-based religions that demand adherents to believe a doctrine, Buddhism eschews dogmatism (at least ideally, it does). Doctrine takes backseat to alleviating suffering. Buddhism recognizes that ethics are situational, and that defending principles blindly as though they were absolutes can be dangerous.

For instance, the Buddha didn't teach us to tell the truth always. He asked us to engage our lives, thoughts, and speech, and ask, are my words true, timely, and helpful? It's not that making a living or a profit is inherently wrong; it's that putting one's own greedy interests ahead of public good hurts everyone involved. Why shouldn't people be compensated fairly for their work and innovations?

Vaclav Havel and Dr. Florey understood this. We need a renaissance in ethics--morality, not moralism. Despite what cynics claim, capitalism needn't be greedy, nor government corrupt. And we needn't settle for second-rate leaders.

Demand more.

Thank you Dr. Florey for saving the lives of countless people and animals, and for putting their interest first.