Everywhere is practice…

In order to wrap up my business affairs, I returned home from the monastery on October 3. I had hoped it would take a week to sell two dump trucks and my client base. There was existing interest in the trucks, and negotiations for the client base were already under way. One week became two, and two became three. I returned to the monastery on October 29. Potential buyers for the trucks would stop responding to emails, or make appointments and either disappear or reschedule then disappear or change their minds. The buyer for the client base was simply just busy, running his business and taking care of his family. Meetings had to be repeatedly rescheduled. On top of that, there was a seemingly endless list of issues to tend to with banks, insurance companies and more. I began to wonder if I would make it back to the monastery before November, or even December.

The longer I was home, the more antsy I got about not returning to Dai Bosatsu, and the more I enjoyed being at home, allowing thoughts of doubt about going monastic to arise. I also found myself getting closer to a woman I had met in late summer. We both share a deep devotion to spiritual paths, so her support in my monastic commitment is strong. And yet getting to know each other made an inevitable parting all the more difficult.

Meanwhile, the amount of stuff I had to sort through for storing or selling or giving away or recycling or throwing away seemed to grow, not decrease as I went. I found myself very frustrated with the amount of stuff I have, which really isn’t that much, and most of it being useful or meaningful things I want for my eventual post-monastery home. I found myself wishing I could just make a clean cut from everything and be at DBZ with no ties or thoughts to the “outside” world.

Part-way through the packing process, with lots more to go

Then I remembered a fundamental tenet of Buddhism: deal with what is, as it is, in the moment, free of fear, confusion or attachment to outcome. Whoops! I had lost sight of that, was trying to ignore the present circumstances, imagining some “better” situation in a future time and place. This is one of the basic causes of mental suffering, one that is so easy for us to fall in to, and is really a massive waste of precious time and energy. And we never get that time and energy back.

Recognizing this, I released myself from all the tension I had created… the agitated state of wanting business matters to be over, the frustration of all the possessions to organize and relocate, the increasing sadness of an approaching “goodbye” with Alice…just allowing all the joy and sadness to coexist. As a lay order, Hollow Bones makes use of life in the world as the training vehicle; our responsibilities to self and others, our relationships, our jobs, our families, our possessions, our joyful and painful experiences, all of it can be used both as motive and mirror to reflect our state of consciousness, to practice opening our minds and instead of contracting, to “listen without an opinion,” rather than distorting what is presented to us with filters of conditioning and beliefs.

The next thing I knew I had a buyer for the second dump truck (and fascinatingly he happened to know someone who had been at DBZ earlier this year). The truck had developed an engine issue so he offered much less than I wanted for it, but I could even accept that with equanimity and gratitude, and closed the deal as such. That same day I signed an agreement with Refugia Design to pay me a percent of sales for my client list. Again, I would have liked more for the deal, but also saw that the owner was being supportive of my endeavor and offering what he could within his means. I was happy to accept. By the end of the week my apartment was empty and clean. The relief and joy to have all the essential elements of my life resolved was profound. It also helped me reflect on how subtle and insidious the resistance and frustration I had built up was, how the ego can waste one’s life in a vicious circle of trying to push certain things away, and to grasp and hold others. Another core tenet of Buddhism, finding “the middle way” in situations became clearer yet again: find that point between “going with the flow” and taking action and choosing direction. And what better practice is there to develop this ability than meditation?


I should say my insight came in large part by the support of an excellent book on Zen. While home, I was reading Shodo Harada’s book, “The Path to Bodhidharma.” Harada is a contemporary Roshi of the Rinzai sect (which I am part of) in Japan and the U.S. His writing is clear and direct and cuts through to ultimate wisdom and truth with no hesitation or verbosity. If you are a Zen Buddhist or are curious to learn more, I highly recommend it. The book essentially covers foundational understanding, practice technique and spirit, and integration of practice in to worldly life. If you do read it, please let me know your thoughts about it.

The zendo (meditation hall) and dharma hall facing, and a residential wing on the right.

The goodbye with Alice was a sweet heartache for us. How can it be that we would meet just before I leave for two years, nine months? We can but humble ourselves to the mystery and see how life unfolds, accepting, flowing and working with what is. I am back at DBZ now, and settling in to the routine and practice again. I see clearly that the time at home was not a distraction from practice but the living practice itself. Every moment is. That is all there is. This life, right now. How shall I see it? How shall I experience it? How shall I respond? I am ineffably grateful to be in a powerful training container that supports me in cultivating the ability to answer those questions from clarity and openness and compassion. Tomorrow starts a five-day silent retreat. I look forward to telling you how it was…

My First Taste of Monasticism

09 22 2016

As I write this I’m on the tail end of a week back home after my first days at Dai Bosatsu. I’ll be moving there in phases since wrapping up my business is a slow process, and so packing, storing and moving is delayed as well.

“So what was it like?” I’ve been asked all week. The short answer is that the schedule is rigorous and the days long. Essentially I’m up from 4:30AM to 10:30PM. There is a lot for me to learn, and chanting in Japanese to not only get accustomed to, but memorize (there sutra book is at this link if you’re curious). The time slot for yoga is a short 45 minutes, and overlooked or there’s just too much to do. With all the busy bustle, it seems folks are tense a good bit of the time, but there is a deep and supportive camaraderie as well.

We had two guest groups for the weekend, one for the Intro to Zen program, and a yoga group that was mostly doing its own thing. So there was all the dorm room prep to do, and general prep of the public space. And making meals for 30. I overslept my first morning of breakfast duty, which caused a bit of chaos. Thankfully I have a good bit of food service experience so could hustle to make up for lost time. And, given the nature of the training and environment, it was a great opportunity to choose to be clear, focused and fast, rather than spinning off in fear, shame and clumsiness. An additional resident jumped in to lend a hand, too, speaking of camaraderie. We served breakfast on time. Phew!

A long-time resident, Juyo Dennis Giacomo, had his priest ordination ceremony, so a lot of Thursday was dedicated to the preparation and holding of that event. It was a calm and rich ceremony, followed by a delicious celebratory meal. Present for the weekend was Dokuro Osho, the future dharm heir of the abbess, Shinge, Roshi. He gave a most delightful dharma talk (like a sermon), and his deep, mellow and joyful energy was a treasured presence for all.

One thing I was greatly surprised by was the amount of talking that happens. Every morning there is a morning meeting, which includes a reading and some discussion. OK, it’s practice relevant. But when the guests were here, the morning meeting was loud, open conversation. And during the periodic lulls and pauses in the work periods, residents often talk. First, it made me realize I had held some preconceptions about monastic life. Second, it made me reconfirm that, as Master Hakuin (d. 1768) said, “Meditation in the midst of activity is a thousand times superior to that pursued in stillness.”

There is a common misperception that meditation is supposed to be done in a perfectly quiet place with no external disturbances. While this kind of environment has its benefit, what becomes of one’s meditation when going back in to daily activities and interactions? Junpo likes to say “Meditation never ends,” and it is true. The purpose of practice is to recognize the imperturbable mind within, and be able to choose to respond to life from it in any given circumstance. The more busy or chaotic the circumstance, the more important this ability is. “Under duress we do not rise to the level of our aspirations, we fall to the level of our training,” Bruce Lee said.

What became immediately clear to me upon arrive at Dai Bosatsu was that there is an established energy of meditative mind that inhabits the place. And the collective intention and practice, whether sitting or working, feeds it. When you walk in to the zendo (meditation hall) or the hondo (dharma hall), you can feel an energetic shift. It is though the rooms are alive and pulsing with depth and wisdom… and well, they are. This effect is among the positive legacies of Eido Shimano, Roshi, and all those who have practice there over the monastery’s forty years. I understood quickly that, in one sense, there is no difference between monastic life and societal living: we have work to do, communication to have, and we all do our best. As a student of Zen in society, I would practice concentration and meditation on the job, when hanging out with friends, best I could, whenever, wherever. The same is true for monastic living, with all the potential for external or internal distraction. What is different is being in a place in which there is a strong collective intention and effort for awakening, and regular structured time for practices that support the process. The environment is rich, and deep and among the most precious gifts I have ever been blessed with.

Tomorrow (Friday 9/23) I return to the monastery and Saturday begins Golden Wind Sesshin, a seven-day silent retreat. There will be community and maybe new-comers to host and feed, and a rigorous daily schedule of mostly meditation. I am very much looking forward to the power and depth of such a week. I have done twenty seven to day, and this will be my second at DBZ, the first being Golden Wind in 2002 when I was still brand new to Zen. So, in my new home it will be like a homecoming. I will not post next week, but certainly will have things to share from sesshin when it is over…



The Plunge, Part 1

I leave today. In about five hours. It feel like being at the edge of a high diving board, exciting and scary, and the water looks amazing… and yet can sting.

Two weekends ago Sosan and I met up with Junpo and the Zen River sangha, a branch of Hollow Bones, in Appleton, WI. For me it was a whirlwind trip from Friday night to Monday morning, and a great way to prepare and have a strong and celebratory send off.

Saturday morning I was on the road by 5AM with Kevala from Milwaukee to Appleton. At the morning service, I sat in the “Spiritual Leader” seat, usually reserved for the Roshi, or zen master. Then I offered daisan, or zen practice interview, which provided a deep reminder of the importance of being clearly and selflessly present when being of service to people. After that, I gave my first dharma talk ever, the topic being that conscious embodiment is a 24/7 practice in all that we do, not limited to the physical practices of yoga, qigong, et cetera. I also encouraged people to take the practice in to nature, to give time to be truly present with this living world, observing and sensing without naming or thinking about it.

The rest of Saturday Sosan facilitated the Mondo Zen process, getting feedback after each koan. And I did the same on Sunday. It was powerfully important for both of us, to have our skills reflected back, as well as see where we have room to improve. Saturday night was a delightful dinner out, and Sunday was dinner in, including the celebration of three birthdays. I turned 49 the day before; I am not sure how describe what an amazing gift the week and going to DBZ is. I can say there are the feelings of trueness and completeness to it, providing me with a deep peace.

That peace is with me now, and I am also feeling a bit nervous… this is it. The real deal. No turning back. And then there’s a couple dozen things on my mind… last-minute packing, the lingering process of selling my business, my unsold dump trucks, having to come back next Sunday to finish packing and move stuff in to storage, tend to business, then go back Friday to start a 7-day silent retreat. But, this is life and Zen is a life practice, so here I am in it, grateful and amazed.

In my mind the big plunge doesn’t really start until I’m fully out of my apartment, and my business affairs wrapped up, but this is a very good start.

The journey of 1000 days begins with a weekend in Wisconsin

This weekend I and my fellow monastic journeyman, Sosan, go to Wisconsin, to demonstrate our Zen insight and skills, and get feedback. If this were an action movie, we’d be going to headquarters for a check-in and debriefing before going on our mission. It kind of feels like that, and here is what it will consist of:

In 3.5 hours I’m on a plane to Milwaukee. The next morning a sangha mate, Kevala and I drive up to Appleton, leaving at 5AM. We’ll join the Zen River Sangha, a branch of Hollow Bones, for their weekly service and practice. I will sit “Tanto” (spiritual leader) during the morning service. I’ll then go to another room during the two meditation sessions to offer “daisan,” which is when a priest offers spiritual and practical coaching to individuals. Afterwards, I rejoin the group to give my first-ever dharma talk… what could be called a sermon, but which emphasizes expression and transmission of insight.

For the rest of the day and the following day, Sosan and I will facilitate people in the Mondo Zen process. We’ll go step by step, to be witnessed in how we facilitate and be given feedback. Sunday evening we’ll have a little send-off celebration, and Monday morning I take a 7AM flight home… resuming the process of selling my business and packing up my domestic life.

It is quite the whirlwind, a little adventure and I’m looking forward to it. The closer the day of actually going gets, the more I feel privileged for this opportunity. A number of people, Buddhist or not, have expressed envy to me, a sign of the symptom of a hyperactive society that wants to slow down but just doesn’t see how. Part of my life mission on this path is to support people in cultivating meditative awareness, so the stresses have less or no influence on them. Others have described my willingness to do this training as brave. Little by little, I get that. It’s a big change, and an even bigger commitment. But really, it is a commitment I made in May 2002 when I took lay vows, and again in January 2011 when I took priest vows. Going to DBZ for 1000 days is the most natural next step in my life. On one level it doesn’t even feel like a choice… it is happening like weather does, like water flows, like the sun crossing the sky.

At this juncture in my life, looking back I have to quote the Grateful Dead lyric, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” For today, I’m jumping in to a short strange trip, and then soon another long one, and another after that… Ah, Life; what a ride!

Counting down…

“The zendo (meditation hall) is not a peaceful haven for retreat, but a furnace room for the combustion of our delusions.” ~ Eido Shimano, Roshi

This quote by the founding abbot of Dai Bosatsu gives you a little taste of the training environment I’m going in to. Some people might recoil at such a statement, as there is a tendency to see meditation as something “blissful” or at least “calming.” Some even seek or expect colorful visuals and ecstatic sensations. But a furnace room?…  and combustion of delusions? That sounds intense!

What I have found, as the historical Buddha declared, is that meditative mind, or ordinary mind, is our fundamental state of being and which cannot be perturbed. Our conditioned mind, the beliefs and stories we developed growing up and live out of as adults, is the source of these delusions. Relating to life through these filters causes us to create suffering in ourselves and others. The Buddhist path is a practical approach to seeing and transforming our conditioning, thus ending the cause of suffering.

It is part of Life’s passion play that we forget this imperturbable mind is who we are. Like a lot of people, I have chased after peace and happiness in activities, buying and having certain things, and looked for them in a partner, or a place, or a job. While I am blessed to be leading a life rich filled with interesting, loving people and a variety of meaningful experiences, none of them has enabled me to abide in the peace and clarity that many traditions promise. Ordinary mind is the way, although discovering and living this way is not an ordinary quest.

However, it is not a quest that requires monastic life. In fact, life as a “householder” is even viewed as better, albeit more difficult. With a clear practice philosophy, structure and guidance, the bustle of daily life, family, work, living in a “too busy” society is a great environment to cultivate meditative awareness. How so? All our interactions and activities serve as mirrors to check the quality of one’s awareness. This, in fact, is what the monastic training serves as, but in a very specifically defined practice vehicle. It is not about needing isolation or pristine silence to awaken; that is a myth. Practicing where you are is what matters.

So why go monastic? Being free of worldly activities, focusing solely on “The Great Matter of Birth and Death,” is meant to facilitate and expedite insight and integration of it in to one’s actions and relationships. I’ve done a lot of personal work and training to develop skills to facilitate people in remembering this “original mind,” and learning to live from it, or rather, as it. You could look at this monastic training as a sort of graduate school for deepening my abilities to be of service.

In just fourteen days I’ll have moved in to the monastery, and the day after that will be the first of a 100-day practice period called “kessai.” I simultaneously experience resistance, a fear about what I’m getting in to… fear of giving up my familiar life, habits, comforts… and a sweet gravitational pull to this perfect unfolding for my life, gentle arms of an infinite river carrying me exactly where I belong. In fact, this morning the fear was quite heavy, and took a while to work through. Allowing myself to feel the fear honestly, not try to suppress it or rise above it, gave room to honor the past conditioning and the present, the normal fear of stepping in to a big unknown, and reorient to my intuitive wisdom mind that knows this step is the next true step to take in my life.

I can imagine what is ahead for me, but really to little avail. There will plenty to be discovered and experienced during the upcoming 1000 days, about life in the monastery, who I am and am not, what life is and isn’t, and what to do in the world with what I learn and embody there. My priority is to simply be open, alert, listening and fully engaged. I am soon entering a crucible of the Great Matter of Birth and Death, a kosmic kiln to burn off all confusion to reveal the vessel of pure knowing, and what to do with it. I am willing clay.

What reflections do you have on the spiritual quest in general and yours in particular? Is a spiritual structure important to you? How do you integrate awareness and insight of “higher consciousness” (whatever that means to you), with the day-to-day life of being you? If you do not have a specific spiritual practice, what choices led to that decision?
I invite you to post your perspectives, and thank you for visiting.