Catching up… part 2

Autumn kessei (90 to 100-day practice intensive) started a bit late this year, so will actually only be 81 days. Traditionally, no one could come or go from the monastery during this time, but the modernity of our society and economy, the complexity of our lives and schedules makes things less simple than once upon a time. But we will still manage to hold a strong meditation container for ourselves and the one to two hundred people who come to practice each season. Since mid-September, we have been through three sesshin, one being the first-ever Mondo Zen retreat at DBZ, and an Intro to Zen weekend, attended by over 50 people, 45 of which were college students.


In addition to all of the intensive training, I was put in the role of “jisha,” head temple caretaker, for this kessei. On the surface, the jisha manages of all the housekeeping of the monastery, top to bottom, end to end, tending to the needs of guests, and a number of jobs during each day of sesshin. I dreaded it because I got rather burnt out on multi-tasking management with my former business, but found it to be a different experience. Of course, it is important to keep the monastery clean and to be at the ready for the sake of our guests’ experience, as well as the daily sense of well-being for us residents. But the deeper aspect of the role is to provide an ambiance of soothing care, as a counter-balance to the jikijitsu role, the one who maintains the spirit of alertness and discipline in the zendo.

More important than accomplishing the tasks of housekeeping and hospitality is how they are done, what ambiance is created as we clean rooms, or get someone an extra blanket. Another fine Japanese word that points to life’s subtleties is “hado,” the characters of which can translate as “wave” and “motion.” It invites us to remember that our motions, our actions, create waves, and those waves affect people and circumstances, even places. The role of the jisha is to maintain warm and comforting hado in the monastery. Being jisha has been a rich time for me, and I have received profoundly warm and comforting support from fellow monks who are training and encouraging me. I find myself loving and valuing this opportunity and experience more with each day, each moment, each breath… watching the hado I and we create.



Four days after the kessei opening, we started Golden Wind sesshin, five days of silent meditation. The story behind the name of this sesshin, which became a koan is this: A monk asked Ummon, “What will happen when the leaves fall and the trees become bare?” Ummon said, “Golden Wind!” Ummon is the Japanese translation of the name of Chinese master Yunmen Wenyen. During Golden Wind, I resumed my koan practice with Shinge Roshi, having lost touch with it during the flurry of activities through the summer. That loss in itself reveals the challenge of this practice, since the purpose of, and real source of benefit from, koan practice it to become completely absorbed in reflection and meditation on it, 24/7. If you are practicing koans or curious about the practice, I highly recommend reading the collection of essays, “Sitting With Koans” edited by John Daido Loori, founder of Zen Mountain Monastery. The fourth essay provides a particularly excellent history of the development of the practice. Further in to the book you will find a dharma talk by Shinge Roshi. (Here is some interesting DBZ history: Loori’s first formal Zen experience was at DBZ, and Shinge Roshi, then called Roko, gave him his first-ever sitting instruction).

John Daido Loori

At DBZ, koan practice starts with the “Mumonkon,” or Gateless Gate, collection. The name “Gateless Gate” reminds us that there is nothing between us and realization of our essential nature. “Two Zen Classics” contains the version that DBZ uses. Since koan practice really only exists when practiced with a qualified teacher, it is not a book that will help the curious or the beginner understand what it is about. “Sitting With Koans” is among the best books to offer an understanding of koan practice, as well as some of the history of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism.

Sitting With Koans 2.jpg

I’ll write another post soon about koan practice, since the longer I practice it, the more I understand what a vital and precious awakening tool it is. This is especially so because those trained and skilled enough to facilitate it are few and far between, especially in the U.S. You may find this Wikipedia page offers a good explanation of koan practice (though remember, koan training is about lived experience, not intellectual comprehension). If you have had the least inclination to do a residential Zen training with koan practice, stop hesitating and go. You may not always have the opportunity, and it may not always be available.


Immediately after Golden Wind ended, we had a samu, or work, weekend, during which volunteers came and helped us with various maintenance projects in the monastery and on the grounds. That made a big difference with the post-retreat clean-up as well as accomplishing some other important projects that we few residents often do not have time for. Great thanks to all who came to help out! Samu weekends are free to attend, and a nice way to get a taste of our morning and evening Zen practice. Visit the DBZ website for the dates and to register.


Six days later began the seven-day Mondo Zen retreat with the Hollow Bones order. It was the first ever held at DBZ, so a bit of an historic event for our lineage, to have a post-modern practice form in a traditional practice monastery. Hollow Bones founder Junpo Denis Kelly, who trained and received Inka at DBZ, created Mondo Zen with fellow sangha members as a way to facilitate clear understanding about meditation practice, and how to integrate it in to one’s daily life. The heart of the practice is to develop an emotional koan, in which one uses counter-productive behavioral habits to recall the ever-present meditative mind within, and to develop the ability to respond consciously and compassionately in any situation.

The Mondo Zen retreat participants at DBZ

Having been at DBZ over a year now (426 days on 11/14/17), I find that the traditional koan practice and the emotional koan practice are perfectly complementary… yin yang. Traditional koan practice is more existential, having us “face the wall” of infinite consciousness to truly know the root of our very being. Emotional koan practices gives us the ability to face our lives from that very depth of awareness. Profound meditation on a cushion that is not actualized in daily life is meaningless. Daily life lived without true connection to our pure, essential nature is fated to be limited at best, and a perpetual struggle at worst. Giving time to attend silent retreats and practice traditional koans is one of the best things you can do for your mind. Taking that depth of practice in your activities and relationships with emotional koans is one of the best things you can do for your life.

Junpo, center, with four Hollow Bones members who took lay vows at the end of the retreat


The weekend following the Mondo Zen retreat, we hosted the sangha from Eiryu-ji Zen Center from Wyckoff, NJ. They are in the Soto lineage of Maezumi Roshi, one of the early Japanese Zen masters to come to the U.S. to help establish the practice here (Daido Loori, mentioned above, also trained with Maezumi Roshi). They were a delightful group to host and practice with, and we look forward to their return next year. If you live in that area, go enjoy their practice center, which also offers training in Aikido.

2017-10 Eiryu-ji Sangha at DBZ
Eiryu-ji sangha and three DBZ residents after their sesshin and jukai ceremony.



The weekend after that we began Harvest Sesshin, a seven-day silent retreat. During every silent retreat, each morning at 9:30 we have a reading from The Diamond Sutra, with two participants reading the roles of The Buddha and one of his disciples, Subhuti. Then we chant it in Japanese for about ten to fifteen minutes. For the event, a large accordion-fold panel with the The Diamond Sutra hand-written in kanji on it is set up in front of the altar.


It offers a sublime and bold presence, echoing the depth and importance of deeply understanding and realizing the teaching in this sutra.


Like our other chanting in Japanese, I have found that not knowing the meaning of the words has much less importance than having an essential sense of the text, and chanting with deep meditative attention on that. Listening to the dialog between Buddha and Subhuti just prior to the chanting makes the experience all the more powerful.


Various Buddhist sects focus on different sutras, and for Zen, The Diamond Sutra is one of the most important. If you are a practicing Buddhist or curious about it, I strongly encourage that you read it. For starters, enjoy this essential taste:

Buddha: “Subhuti, how can one explain this Sutra to others without holding in mind any arbitrary conception of forms or phenomena or spiritual truths? It can only be done, Subhuti, by keeping the mind in perfect tranquility and free from any attachment to appearances.

“So I say to you, this is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:

“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightening in a summer cloud;
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream;
So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”

Thus spoke Buddha.



Last weekend (November 10-12), we held our bi-annual weekend retreat, Intro to Zen. Last fall and spring, each event had less than 10 people. For some reason, there was a lot of interest this fall, and we had over 50 participants. That number was mostly due to students from three colleges closely associated with DBZ (Wesleyan University, Syracuse U. Hamilton College), several of which were returnees.

A first-time student had this to say:
“So often on campus, I feel like I’m just drifting around, somehow far away from my own experience. At DBZ, I felt close to life in a way that I haven’t felt since the first time I fell in love. The whole place–the monks, the rituals, the forest–is somehow freeing, like its inviting you to quit hiding inside your silly, messy head so you can instead live at the edge of your senses and from the honesty of your heart.”

And a returning student said:
“The scenery of Dai Bosatsu Zendo is beautiful. What is more beautiful, though, is the quality of love that the monks, students and visitors of DBZ share. I have been visiting DBZ for several years now, and I have yet to leave without feeling deep love and gratitude. The teachings and experience of DBZ do not end at the driveway. The temple is a place in my heart that I can return to again and again, wherever I go.”
Wesleyan group in Hondo.jpg
New and returning students from Wesleyan University. They have a large and active meditation group on campus.
It was an energetic weekend, and an important time to support the emerging or existing meditation practice of young adults. They were enthusiastic and fully engaged in all the aspects of our practice. It also was a rich and inspiring time for the others as well. If you are interested in this practice, and want a taste of it before signing up for a week-long retreat, I highly recommend Intro to Zen. The details are on our web site.


Now I’m officially caught up with sharing my experience here since summer. Our next activities are the Thanksgiving pot luck, followed two days later by the transmission ceremony in which Shinge Roshi will make Dokoro Osho her first dharma heir. It will be a busy, highly-attended and magnificent weekend, and I look forward to telling you about it afterwards…

Until then, I wish you vigor and clarity in whatever your spiritual practice is!







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…