Catching up… part 1

I has been so long since I last posted…. over two months… that I am not quite sure what to write about. So much as gone on around and in me during that time, it is beyond my available time to try to convey it all. That is too bad, as this community, and even tradition, are in a transition, as am I. On one hand, I like to note the changes that I and the community are going through, to be able to see and look back on the evolution. On the other hand, Buddhist philosophy does not give such endeavors much value… experience is ultimately illusory, and in the past… nothing to hold on to. Let it go. And yet, as humans we live our lives and experience others by the stories we share, even if they are biased and have gaps in accuracy. All that said, here goes…

Because I was going to take a 4-day forestry course during our hiatus, I got to take that amount of time off before hand. I used it to visit fellow Hollow Bones priests Dazu and Koren in Portland, ME. It was such a heart-filling time with them and their children.


I fell in love with the city, got to see Grizzly Bear for free thanks to Koren’s sister, and surfed for the first time. Surfing is quite a meditative experience, much of the time spent sitting and waiting in silence for a good wave, then a sudden burst of activity that demands all of one’s attention. I’ll definitely go back sooner than later… maybe land there one day, or at least spend some extended time to collaborate with them on consciousness raising retreats.

Surfer Monk

I also learned that time and temperature are controlled there. Who’da thunk?



By the end of summer, we monks were exhausted and discouraged from the incessant work and communal tension, yet also managed to enjoy hosting groups. All summer long, every week we hosted a new group. It was a constant cycle of preparation, service, clean up and turn-around. We went from the rigors of spring kessei (100 days of intensive practice), culminating with the 41st Anniversary Sesshin, right in to the routine of “Open Space,” hosting a variety of  groups. And in the middle of that was O-bon, a major four-day ceremonial event. It is a great joy to host people here, make our practice, our home, this gorgeous land, available to them for restoration and inspiration. Being of service and pushing through fatigue and self-interested wants is part of the training. And at the same time, there is only so much output a human can give. We needed our own restoration. Thankfully, Shinge Roshi is attuned to our well-being, and there has been and will be discussion about how to adapt the schedule to honor our well-being, while maintaining a rigorous practice, as well as meeting income needs that hosting groups provides. However, the summer ended on a somewhat dark note, and we were all glad to have some time off, even away, to restore. Some of were not sure about returning, me included

But back to the “enjoyment” part at the end of summer… which, I regret, I don’t have any photos of. The last two weekends of the summer are “Healing and Wellness” and  “Family Weekend.” Healing and Wellness was started decades ago to give people with chronic health issues a chance to unplug from the busy-ness of life, enjoy the restorative energy of pure nature, and get free body work from professionals. It was a small, festive group, and we all enjoyed lots of time at the lake house, on the patio and in the water. We residents also enjoyed deeply restorative body work (which helped reveal how exhausted we were). I got acupuncture one day and shiatsu the next. Ahhh…! And we all watched the solar eclipse together. The Family Weekend was just simple fun for all. It was just like the previous weekend, but included children and a good bit of playing games.

The hiatus period was from August 28 to September 14. I spent it visiting friends in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and my parents and family in Ohio.

In Pennsylvania I took two afternoons to go to the archery range I used to frequent. I took my bow out of storage, a classic Fred Bear “Kodiak” recurve, circa 1970-72 (for enthusiasts, it is 52″ and 50X #. Dig this page on Bear bows).


I have loved archery since childhood, when I got a bow from S&H Greenstamps, but never really got in to it until my early 40s. Going to the range this time was a big treat, as I had not practiced much in a couple of years, and sadly bows are disallowed at DBZ (even though archery has deep roots in Japan, called “Kyudo,” and also has a history with Zen training).

Stepping up to the shooting line I could tell this time was going to be a new experience for me. Having spent a year in monastic training, I had a depth of focus and body-centric awareness that I did not have the last time I shot. I made a point to use breath to direct all my movements, and see the target from my hara, the intelligence in the abdomen, and be fully aware of my whole body.

I focused on the target in such a way that it was almost all I could see, all that existed, creating an energetic link that somewhat dissolved the illusion of the space between me and it. When I was in this state, aiming was effortless, release of the string was like a flower opening, and the shots were excellent. If I was in my head, thinking about aiming or a desired result or physical technique, aiming was strained, releasing was clumsy and shots did not go where I had intended. I would distinguish the experiences as a state of with-ness, being with my body, bow, arrow, space and target at once, versus having a goal in which all the above elements felt separate, isolated. What would we and the world be like if we lived in this state of with-ness?


In my home state of New Jersey, and my first hometown, Bloomfield, I visited the town’s cemetery with my friend Pete. I had never been, and was glad we went. Seeing names of the families that shaped the the growth and development of society (for better and worse) gave me a better sense of the town’s and region’s history. Many headstones were very old (by U.S. standards, also lending to a deeper sense of time for this country. And yet again, because of the age of the cemetery, it was home to several trees who’s lives predated that of European arrival here. To stand in the presence of a living being that is 350-400+ years old is quite awe-inspiring, evoking imagination of what the land might have looked like then, void of and buildings or pavement, just pure nature.



After a few days in Jersey I flew to Ohio to be with my parents and family for my 50th birthday. Turning 50 is a strange thing for me. It part, it makes no sense; I don’t “feel” 50, whatever that could mean. Most people say I don’t look 50. And yet the round number that is halfway to 100 also points to mortality, evoke a bit of fear, and drawing attention to do more of what matters, to live as authentically as I can. The birthday celebration my parents and extended family gave me was a rich treat, allowing me to let go of looking back and just relish living and loving in the Now.

During this trip, my parents and I had to discuss their end of life issues, which, as you could imagine, got quite heavy. It was fascinating to feel like my child self again, yet with a whole new fear of the unknown of them being gone. As hard as the conversation was, it was a potent reminder to savor every moment with them, and by extension, every moment, everywhere, with anyone. The Buddha said, “Everything is on fire.” Acknowledging the impermanence of all life and life experience is a core tenet to the philosophy and practice. However, not from a morbid perspective, but to radically deepen our appreciation for this fleeting life, and as an urging to practice constantly, strengthening our ability to live in the present, consciously, openly, compassionately. There is not time to be wasted in confusion, regret, resentment, or any hurtful behavior outward or inward. Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now” statement is not some flippant, warm fuzzy spiritual quip. It is a profound and urgent call.


One afternoon my parents and I went to the Urbana Historical Society so that I could see the ancient trees there. Again I got to be in the presence of trees 300 too 400+ years old. For me, old trees radiate steadiness, sturdiness, depth and stillness unlike any being. It is a remarkable experience to expand one’s sense of awe, of the vastness of life, the mysteriousness of Creation. They are deep teachers. I encourage you to find some near you and spend quiet time with them as often as you can. And rather than scroll on by this picture of a majestic White Oak, who is six feet in diameter at its base, be with it a few minutes.


While in Ohio, I felt dread about returning to DBZ, its ambiance that could be so cold at times, the dark hallways… shouldn’t spiritual practice be bright and uplifting? I also felt concern for my health, as the relentless schedule and limited time for sleep had been wearing on me. I emailed Shinge Roshi and my fellow residents to say I was returning, but with trepidation, and would be taking it one kessei at a time.

Upon returning I learned I would be head jisha, or temple attendant, responsible for making sure all the housekeeping gets done. It is essentially a delegation job, assigning tasks daily, making sure they are done well, plus tending to some of the morning and evening rituals to open and close the day. During sesshin there is more to do, including a tea serving ritual called “sarei” done in the zendo three times a day. It was a role I dreaded, but accepted with grace and set out to do my best. With great support from past jishas, and encouragement from others, I have stepped in to the role fairly well.

As with many aspects of Japanese culture and especially Zen training, getting a task done to a certain technical standard is the less important aspect of doing something. The ambiance one creates doing the task creates is understood as having influence on those who see its results. It is much like painting: many artists can paint a landscape to look at, but only some can do so in a way that moves the viewer to experience being in that landscape. The role of jisha is not simply to make sure housekeeping gets done, but that it is done in such a way that the feeling of the care for the temple is felt throughout. And how else could that be done other than dwelling in the feeling of deep care, and sharing that with those who are sent to do the chores?


As I settled back in to being here, I also settled in to recognition of what a gift it is. Th depth of meditation practice environment; profound inspiration of the vast, pure nature all around; the immeasurable roots of our tradition; the dedication of Shinge Roshi to our awakening, and our own individual and collective dedication as well. The residents were bonding well, communal frictions were being handled better, and the energetic shift was palpable. This waking up is not something we can engineer… there is no perfect, warm-fuzzy, no-struggle spiritual practice. We must surrender, open, allow what is, face and embrace it, work with it, including the discomfort, confusion, friction, all of it. We must be tumbled to become polished gems, endure great pressure to become diamonds. When we can do so in a community of devoted fellow practitioners, we can have experiences of opening to the enormity of this mysterious life that are not really available elsewhere.


One afternoon I walked out in to the woods for some “forest bathing.” It is something I have always done since childhood, finding restoration and inspiration in nature. It has a name in Japan, shinrin-yoku, and is actively practiced for health benefits. As it became evening, I headed out, and spontaneously decided to go down to the lake. I saw pretty scene of the moon sending light that shimmered on the water, and I took picture. Once back in my room, I ooked at it and the phrase “Moonlight makes stars” came to me, and then in a velvety flow a poem came forth. The inspriation of the beauty I experienced by the lake, and the poem that emerged from it, was somehow part of a tipping point that helped me know being at DBZ was perfectly right for me. I quietly resolved to continue to immerse myself in meditation, strive for the liberation promises by the ancestors, to absorb the tradition and form, to never complain but never squash concerns, to be open and real when conflict arises, to be deeply present with the whole of the experience. In June of 2016, when great doubt seized me soon after deciding to come here, Junpo said to me, “I was here for six years and it transformed my life. It can for you, too. Trust the Dharma. Trust the Dharma!”

And so I am…









Ticking away…

[Author’s note: It is now four weeks after the first draft of this blog post, and it still is not posted. Another sesshin has passed (May 6-11), and as of late I’m just too tired in the evenings to write. “Time passes like an arrow…”]

Time has a way of flying. I wanted to post about Holy Days Sesshin (April 1-8) right after it ended to give you stories fresh out of the experience. I got a chest and head cold the night before sesshin started, and it lasted 16 days. On regular days, I’m usually up at 4:45AM and our evening sit ends at 8PM. Then I clean the incense bowls from five altars and have dinner after that. So it is 9PM when my personal evening time starts. During sesshin, I’m up at 3:30AM and we sit until 10PM. You get the picture. Generally, my (mental) energy level by the end of the day is not up for blogging. I also have been doing some more outdoors work lately, adding a nice but uncompromising fatigue at the end of the day. Every day I would think, “OK, tonight I’ll blog for sure.”

Suddenly it is three… now four weeks later (???!!!) and [the last day of April] May 22. Our free time starts on Sundays around 2PM, and I made firm resolve to at least start a new post today. To give you an idea of how tired I was earlier, I made a two-shot cappuccino at 2:15. At 2:45 I laid down to take a 30-minute nap which turned in to two hours. I did yoga, ate, socialized a bit, meditated with Nature on the deck, and suddenly it’s 10PM as I start to blog. The song “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” composed by Sandy Denny while she was with Fairport Convention, is a lovely expression of the beauty and sadness of the fleeting of time… and of life. And Pink Floyd’s “Time” makes a more pointed statement on how easy it is to waste one’s life.

By the way, don’t tell other monasteries about our cappuccino machine. An member from Brooklyn asked if we had one, and upon hearing “no” decided to send us one. The residents who have been here the longest weren’t thrilled, but per tradition, gifts cannot be refused. So, our use of it was limited to personal days. That’s fine; it’s a huge luxury in a monastery. Although I do have mixed feelings about such indulgences while here, it is the first thing I do after lunch clean up is done on Sunday. Monks love caffeine. Not all of them love coffee, but those that do, LOVE coffee. How much? Here’s about 2/3 of the bag we buy about once a month from King David Coffee (who buys directly from small farmers and roasts in small batches per order. It is the best bean I’ve ever had. Try out his coffee and consider supporting such a high quality and ethical roaster).

One thing the contemplative path has me face is (the concept of) time. On the surface, I get a much closer look at how fast it does indeed pass. It’s already day 231 of the 1000 days…I turn 50 in September…today is already over. Going a little deeper, and what this post is about, I see how much time I waste in unnecessary thought. It is more accurate to say I see how much quality of life I waste in fantasizing. Thinking is a tool, and we need it to do things like design, build and use the computer I’m typing on, or plan and execute a project or activity, or make decisions. However, when I slow down and examine more closely what is actually going on in my head, it amounts to bad television, with way too many channels, and way too many reruns.

Now that deep contemplation and meditation are my primary activity each day, I can see and get feedback loops on my internal reality with much greater frequency and clarity. Did that make you gasp or cringe? If so, yes, indeed, it can be very uncomfortable, often, and even for days on end. This is the stuff that the bustle of “civilization” prevents from seeing. Be it education, jobs, family raising, entertainment; we often do not have the time or energy (in general) to slow down, be still, look, listen. However, isn’t the very source of our dissatisfaction and troubles in life caused by not-seeing of the aspects of ourselves that limit us? “An unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. We all experience fears, confusion, misunderstanding, varying degrees of depression, frustration and more. We wish we had more time and energy for what matters to us. But, really, what matters more than having an accurate understanding of who we are inside?… and the clarity to clean up what is contrary to the well-being of our lives and those around us (which, in the big view, is everyone… there is no separation)? In “It’s Alright, Ma,” Bob Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

One thing I have come to terms with is that the quality of my meditation practice, and of my presence, fluctuates day to day, even moment to moment. I see the perfectionist illusion, the lie of getting to some awakened, trouble-free stasis, or even of “forward” or “upward” progress. Mental chatter, either fixated on a topic or relationship issue, or bouncing around from things I have to do, want to do, don’t want to do, imagining my future as a Buddhist and land steward,… Ding! goes the meditation leader’s bell. The 45-minute sit is over… also revealing that life ends. What quality of mind, of being, will I have cultivated, will I be in, when it is my time to go?

There is an aspect of our culture (in the U.S. that does not deal well with death at all. From the obsession with youthful appearance, activity and behavior, to shipping our elders off to “senior communities” reveal how poorly we have integrated the reality of death in to our living. In Zen there is an exhortation, which Charlotte Joko Beck eloquently rephrased:

“Let us be respectfully reminded:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and with it our only chance;
each of us must strive to awaken.
Be aware! Do not squander your life.”

So when a meditation session, or a beautiful moment in nature, or precious times with friends, go by even somewhat unnoticed because I was elsewhere in thought, I notice it more and more. I used to react with frustration, yet lately it is shifting to a sadness, and thankfully with a positive spark to give extra effort to be present, aware, open and receptive, engaged. Sometimes, if the spin off in to thought leans towards negativity, it literally feels like poison, like I drank something toxic that is coursing through my body and effective every cell. And in reality there is no separate self, no “other,”  The Buddha said, “With our thoughts we create our world (or reality),” and the medical and psychological sciences are increasingly able to reveal the effects of our mind on our bodies and in our lives. I increasingly see the value in the practice of being acutely present. There is only now, and “what is” becomes “what was” in an instant…unceasingly. Meditation, why bother? To sit for periods of time in our day to recognize the timelessness of being…

…and reengage in our lives, our relationships, with that fleeting sense coupled with the infinite nature of existence…

My deep love for Nature is an ever-present reminder to slow down, and deeply appreciate the subtleties of life… be it a baby salamander…

…or a fungus fading from life, in a shape that reminds me what really matters…


and the playful miracle I experience of seeing smiles everywhere I go…also reminding me…

…to sit, be still, listen, be aware…

…and keep improving my ability to bring the stillness and awareness in to everything I do, within me and in my interactions with people and planet. I only have this one moment, this one breath, and if there will be next ones is never guaranteed.

I once heard monastic life mockingly described as “naval gazing,” a waste of time while the world desperately needs actions of healing and justice. However, monastic life is not an escape from life, but the deepest engagement with it, nor an escape from responsibility, but owning the greatest responsibility of all: to live each moment with as much awareness and gratitude as I can, and share that presence with others. At the monastery we keep a sacred campfire burning, so that those in society have a refuge to come to, to recharge and then bring to the world the stillness and clarity and compassion that is so greatly needed. Whatever your tradition or practice, I hope you will give the time to dwell in the timeless, and bring its wisdom and light forth in to your life and to those around you.