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!







Sacred Love

In mid-May, we hosted a wedding at the monastery. We only host weddings for community members and their immediate families. The parents of the groom, Carl, had been practicing with Shinge Roshi since the early 90s. Carl and Shinge Roshi’s son grew up as buddies with Buddhist parents. Kasa is Japanese, and her family are lay Zen practitioners. From their childhoods, the couple was influenced by a philosophy that points to the wisdom of the heart, and practices that bring the wisdom forth in  deeds and interactions imbued with compassion.

C&K dock
Photo by Roy Gumpel

I did not know the couple prior to the wedding. Few of us residents did. We did our usual guest preparations and services as family members and friends gradually arrived over a three-day period. We had no particular anticipation about the weekend other than to be of service and enjoy the ceremony and celebration with everyone.

With any group that arrives, there is a shift in the ambiance in the monastery. Each group has its own energetic, or resonant, quality. The qualities cannot necessarily be named, but general descriptors such as “relaxed” or “dynamic” come up. However, with this wedding and its participants, a very distinct vibe gradually filled, or even surrounded in embrace, the monastery and its environs. It grew as people arrived, and became palpable as the ceremony approached. It was a literal atmosphere one could feel as we moved about in preparation through the morning and early afternoon leading up to the ceremony.

When the couple first arrived, I did not get a chance to meet them. Everyone was bustling about. Yet the movement of greeting guests and ceremony preparation had a smoothness, a dancer’s grace, to it. Movement, sometimes quick and concise, was without any frenetic energy to it, as I am sure is often felt at weddings. There was a roundedness to the energy of people as they moved through spaces, among and past each other. It felt quietly yet vibrantly awake, even aware. It coaxed my attention into focusing on this feeling throughout the weekend.

As I was approaching the food storage area in the basement, heading upstairs for some task or other, Kasa and Carl were there, and Kasa called me over. “How should I address you?” is the first thing she said. I was pleasantly taken aback, feeling the surprise in being spoken to with a tone of respect one would use with clergy. At once I could sense the quality of consciousness about respect in Japanese culture, and have more deeply rooted in my mind the notion that I am clergy. It is not a moniker I identify with; I am just living the life I must. It is for the spirit of the path, not the ornamentation (more on this in another post). I was also instantly at peace, recognizing her seeing me, an American, taking on an element of her culture, her reality, and appreciating my entering her world in that way. There was a quality of rapport that I had not experienced before.

I told her my dharma name, “Tozan,” smiling with an energy thankful for the respect, and conveying that I walk the path of being a “true person of no rank.” She then said she already knew me. “How?” From this blog. She was searching for some photos of Dai Bosatsu, which brought up A Modern Monk. Kasa was so appreciative that the blog made the pictures available to her, and I felt grateful to have the joy I put in to this writing reflected back to me. Our meeting was the gateless gateway in to what I would experience as an extraordinary sense of community-centered love, even though not many of us knew each other. We all became a temporary tribe gathered to affirm and celebrate a genuine heart connection between two people, across nations, cultures and languages, and it connected us all quite naturally. It is important not to be naive as well. Not all of us would necessarily have had common interests in another setting. But there was an irrefutable energy in the monastery the whole weekend, one of harmony like I had never experienced anywhere.

The celebration dinner


The room was packed for the ceremony that was officiated by Shinge Roshi. It began with Buddhist rituals including lighting of incense and candles, bows and chanting. Shinge Roshi then spoke about knowing Carl and his parents, of Kasa and he meeting and becoming a couple, and how love brought them and their families together in such an inimitable way. Carl and Kasa each spoke of each other and their relationship with a touching simplicity and depth. A similar grace infused their exchange of vows and rings. The energy of the ceremony had a quiet strength to it, also unlike any wedding I had been to.

C&K candles
Photo by Roy Gumpel


The next morning, after breakfast, Kasa’s father got up to speak. I did not know anything about him, but somehow got the perception he was a successful business man. Seeing him throughout the weekend, one could tell immediately he was a respectable gentleman. He spoke slowly and softly and Kasa translated for him. Not just by his words, but by the presence he emitted as he spoke, the whole room was moved by the depth of his gratitude, which really transmitted a heart full of love.

Most of the guests left the day after the wedding. The newlyweds and their families lingered another day. The feelings of equanimity, clarity, and love were still palpable as we gradually tended to cleaning up. To be sure my perception of the communal vibe was not just in my mind, I asked around, “Did you feel that?” “Yes!” was the answer every time. Each person I spoke to had their own way of describing the same thing: there was a sweet vibe of love enveloping us all weekend, truly sacred love. A week later this experience was  further confirmed by an email the groom’s mother shared with the residents.

“That was the best wedding we’ve ever attended. Better than ours, better than Erica’s, better than my sister’s, other relatives, etc and friends. Seriously.  It wasn’t just because it was the novelty of the monastery…but the addition of the very earnest, thoughtful words imbued with love that were part of the festivities.”

C&K rings
Photo by Roy Gumpel

So what made this experience possible, and real, for so many people? How is it a group of people, many who have never met before, could find themselves in a shared ambiance of love so naturally? And have it last for days? And that people from diverse backgrounds all felt it? My best assessment is that it started with the depth of love the bride and groom and their families have within and between them. For these few days, we were all drawn in to it and contributed our own. This was likely further enhanced by so many of those present having sustained meditation practices, which is all about heart-mind. And naturally, the energy and ambiance of the monastery, cultivated over forty years, certainly contributed to the experience.

C&K families
The couple’s families. Carl’s mother and father to his right. Kasa’s mother and father are on the far right, behind the children. Photo by Roy Gumpel


The experience has me realizing that the power of love and meditation are very real. This power is not naive idealism or new age woo-woo. When hearts are open, and minds are able to rest in them, a way of living together as humans manifest, one that most of us only dream of. It visible in our actions and interactions, it is palpable in the air, it supports and informs and guides us. What if more and more of us gave the time to develop or deepen a meditation practice? What if more and more us gave the time to open our hearts to one another? We cannot wait on the peaceful world we so yearn for, and it certainly will not be provided by governments or corporations. It is up to us to open and unite our hearts and minds. Today.

As Torei Enji’s “Awakened One’s Vow” says, “All of our minds will now reveal a true Awakened One: a Christ, a Buddha, a Tara, 
compassionately aware and ready, 
fearless and wise, acting skillfully and appropriately. Then, all of our combined actions will create a new world,
 a world of love and caring, defended and ordered. May we awaken and recognize this Mind throughout the whole universe,
 so that we and all beings together 
may experience maturity in Awakened Mind wisdom!”  (From the Hollow Bones Sutra Book)



Everywhere we go, there are reminders to be open, fully open, in heart and mind. They can show up anywhere. In fact they do all the time. They may command our attention like the wedding did, or be quiet and subtle, asking to be revealed by our recognition of them. How we pay attention to our surroundings, and how we respond to them, makes the difference. Maintaining a meditation practice, and keeping our hearts open and aware, and sharing them freely, makes the difference real. It makes love sacred.

A lovingly crafted cortado at the Birch Coffee location in the Upper East Side of Manhattan

And of course, it is essential to keep a sense of play in our daily lives….

C&K kilt
Photo by Roy Gumpel