this bright world is yours to discover


Why So Many Bows?

Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

For a tradition that claims to be directly pointing to the True Nature of things, Zen does an awful lot of bowing and other ritualized activity. So one might wonder, how is all this ritual showing us our True Nature?

The meaning of Zen ritual has been debated for centuries and yet, you need to be involved in it to recognize the effect it has. One way to describe this effect is to view it from the perspective of the experience of body/mind. What is the meaning that arises out of these movements, these sounds, sights, and smells?

Most Buddhist rituals involve the six senses. There is light for the eye consciousness, smell for the nose and mouth consciousnesses, sounds for the ear, movement for the consciousness of touch, and chanting, recitation or visualization for the mind consciousness. Ritual can be understood by the way we experience it physically and mentally. Studying how contact with sense objects leads to the arising of consciousnesses is one form of the study of the self.

Kannon - the Bodhisattva of Compassion

Kannon - the Bodhisattva of Compassion


However, Zen ritual could perhaps be better described in terms of the paramitas, the practices of the Bodhisattva. Seen from these six lenses of intention and skillful action, it appears this way:

Dana - Giving

Zen ritual always includes the practice of making offerings to our awakened nature and to those who practiced before us and with us. In turn, those offerings then nourish people and animals and places too.  Thus it is, at its heart, the practice of generosity. For example, at Empty Hand Zen Center, after we make petal offerings (instead of burning incense), they are added to the dirt pile in the garden and become nourishment for more flowers. At Hosshinji we fed the rice offerings to the fish in the pond. In these ways we demonstrate our interconnectedness with our environment.

Sila - Ethics

The activity of performing a ritual is understood to be a wholesome one. It has a positive karmic effect because it is a way of making the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist teachings manifest in the world. Consider also the positive karma associated with the intention to benefit all beings, the guiding principal of the Bodhisattva path, and the content of most dedications in the traditional Zen ritual. In this way you can see that Zen ritual is in harmony with an ethical life, and is itself an ethical activity.

Kshanti - Patience

Despite our efforts to be clear about our plans and expectations, things don't turn out the way we think they should. This is as true of ritual as of anything else. So we have the opportunity to practice patience with not knowing how things will turn out, patience with our own mistakes and judgments about ceremonies, and patience with others' mistakes and judgments.

Virya - Effort

Zen ritual requires great effort. There is the effort of getting everything and everyone in place to perform the ritual. There is the effort of performing the ritual itself, chanting and bowing, walking, sitting down, and standing up. This is "throwing ourselves into the house of Buddha," giving the whole of our life force to the Way during these precious moments of ceremony. Engaging the whole body and mind is itself the manifestation of the Way.

Dhyana - Concentration

One of the most important parts of performing any Zen ritual is having the presence of mind to respond. When the priest bows, you are able to hit the bell only if you are paying attention. This kind of presence is not as easy as it sounds. It requires a certain kind of openness, an availability to the moment. It requires concentration that is flexible enough to respond to the present and not one's idea of how the present should be. Thus Zen ritual requires and develops engaged, active concentration.

Prajña - Wisdom

Certainly the presence of wisdom can be discerned in the chanting of the sutras and poetry of Zen. This is speaking aloud the teachings as they have been handed across generations of practitioners. More importantly, however, there is the wisdom of expounding the Dharma with this body and mind. The wisdom of drawing the mandala with our own movements, demonstrating the teaching of interconnectedness and embodying our intention to turn toward the teaching, turn toward the path, turn toward the awakening inherent in this moment. 

In his usual poetic language Dogen, in Hotsu Mujoshin [Bringing Forth the Mind of Awakening]  sums it up for us this way:

Taking it up like this...“making a buddha” [is] called “bringing forth the mind.”  It is to provide one ball of food to living beings, to offer five flowers to a tathāgata. It is to make one bow to the three treasures [of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha]. 

So today I invite you to consider whether ritual can have a place in your heart/mind, as a way to make manifest your awakening life. In a world that often leaves us hungry for meaning, it's timely and it's timeless.

Our Life is Awareness

Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding Teacher2 Comments

Today I want to return to the ongoing series of posts about the paramitas. As a refresher, the paramitas are the practices of a bodhisattva, a being whose vow is to work for the awakening of all beings, self and other. These practices were described in very early Mahayana Buddhism, around the beginning of the Common Era.

The fifth of these practices of a bodhisattva is dhyana, a Sanskrit word (in Pali jhana) which means meditation or concentration.  It is a word that was closely associated with the Buddha, Shakyamuni. The oldest texts of Buddhism tell of his entering and leaving four levels of meditative absorption during his awakening, his life, and his death.  These profound states of concentration are associated with achieving equally profound equanimity.  Today you might understand this process as one in which the practitioner experiences the fleeting nature of phenomena to such a degree that they can no longer be fooled into clinging to anything.

Is this possible for each of us? The Buddha, Dogen, Harada Roshi and many other great teachers emphatically tell us, yes!


The word zen is actually a Japanese derivation of the word dhyana as it was pronounced in Chinese, ch'an. Thus it becomes abundantly clear that the primary practice of the Soto Zen school is dhyana, albeit a formless sort of dhyana called shikantaza.  In fact, Zen teaches that it is not necessary to accumulate eons of merit over hundreds, thousands or millions of lifetimes in order to realize this. We simply need to sit and to carry the mind of sitting into our lives.

That said, you would be wise not to lose sight of the reality that ethics is an equally important aspect of practice. That is, you cannot rely on meditation alone to remove all hindrances to awakening if you are reinforcing those hindrances by behaving unethically in your daily life. That is why the precepts are at least as important as zazen. Here we again see the inter-relationship of the paramitas. Recall that ethics or sila is the second of the six paramitas. We also again see the value of zazen off the cushion, that is, profound awareness of cause and effect in daily life.

It calls to mind the story of the two monks who were boasting about their teachers.

One monk said to the other, ‘My Master is amazing! She can fly through the air, read minds and even disappear during meditation.’ The other monk said, ‘Yes, my Master is amazing too. She can eat when she’s hungry and sleep when she’s tired.’


Sometimes the most amazing thing is to be truly present for your life. I wish you an amazing day.




Who's Effort?

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Virya paramita, or the practice of the perfection of effort, is the fourth in a series of six posts on the practices of an awakening being. It tends to balance the aspects of wisdom and compassion, and it is in close relationship to kshanti, the practice of patience or allowing. The subject of effort is one which also relates directly to the relationship between body and mind. 

To further explore this topic, have a listen to this unedited talk, given on Memorial Day 2015 at Empty Hand Zen Center. 

Talk on virya paramita


The Opportunity of Now

Sitting & RitualGuiding Teacher2 Comments

The third topic in our series of six posts about the bodhisattva practices known as the paramitas is kshanti or patience.

Overall, I think of kshanti as an aspect that balances the others. Generally one can see the first two paramitas - giving and ethics - as compassion in action, and the last two - meditation and wisdom - as equally expressions of wisdom. Balancing compassion and wisdom, the two broadest areas of Buddhist practice, are the two paramitas in the middle of the list - patience and effort. Effort, or virya, is our topic for next time. For now, I would like to say a few words about kshanti.

Kshanti is the practice of patience. You might say that it has two primary aspects. The first aspect is that of forbearance. This may be closest to its original meaning, when the teaching was developed, around the beginning of the Common Era. This means that when you practice kshanti, you cultivate the ability to endure hardships. You practice being present with even the most difficult things in your life, receiving them in a way that doesn't reject them or turn away. 

This way of practice brings to mind a teaching by Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian sage whose teaching was very encouraging. Shantideva taught, "If you can do something about it (your problem), why be discouraged? If you can't do something about it, why be discouraged?" One can equally say, either way, why be impatient? Either way, you don't turn away. 

The second aspect of kshanti is allowing. That is to say, the patience you are practicing is specifically patience with what is. It is a practice of acknowledging what is, as it is, without judging whether it is good or bad. It is the practice of allowing what is to be what it is.

And how is it? It is changing, always changing. Nothing remains in one state forever; nothing is permanent. In fact, each moment is a completely new state, the result of innumerable conditions that have arisen and dissolved.

Thus, many centuries after the teaching of kshanti was first expounded, Zen turned it, bringing forth another aspect. Putting the two sides of kshanti together - not turning away from what is, and seeing it as a new expression in each moment - Zen Masters understood that each moment is an opportunity. In deed, each moment is an opportunity to awaken to the true nature of things, to see how your life is teaching you about suffering and freedom from suffering. Each moment is an opportunity to awaken, if you are able to truly be present with what is. This is the opportunity of now.

Seeing it in that light, it's easy to understand why sitting zazen is so important to Zen practice. For it is in sitting that you find the capacity to encounter your life. It is in zazen that you learn that you can face whatever is in this moment. It is in zazen that you find, again and again, that the opportunity of now is always available.

So I hope to encourage you to practice patience and, to do that, I will  share a quote from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. "If you become too serious, you will lose your way. If you are just playing a game, you will lose your way. So, little by little, with patience and endurance, we must find our way for ourselves."

Finally I would add, moment by moment, we do find our way for ourselves. The question is, which way?




To Live and Be Lived

Service & EngagementGuiding Teacher2 Comments

Ethics, or sila in Sanskrit, is the second of the six paramitas or practices of an awakening being called a bodhisattva. Ethics is at the very root of the Buddhist tradition. In fact, much of Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching was an exhortation to turn toward wholesome actions and states of mind, and away from unwholesome actions and states of mind. In this he was extraordinarily successful, convincing even murders, petty thieves, and ruthless political leaders to take up a path of morality, peace and freedom. The Buddha taught many people to consider the consequences of their actions, so that they might realize how much of the difficulty they experience is a direct result of their own unskillful behavior.

This is the teaching of karma, the fundamental law that each and every intentional thought, spoken expression, and action has a consequence at some point in the future. It is a fairly complex teaching, which takes into account factors such as forethought, one's motivation, and celebration or remorse afterward. However, at its heart, it is simply about doing good and not doing bad, offering compassion instead of aggression, helping and not harming.

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching

Sarnath, the site of the Buddha's first teaching

Thus when the Buddha began teaching, monks and nuns committed to only 10 precepts or rules of conduct. Later, as difficult situations arose, more rules were added until the list reached a length in the hundreds. Even later, as the path of practice called the Mahayana emerged, some Dharma teachers began to emphasize the ways in which compassion spontaneously emerges from the experience of inter-connectedness. So, with that understanding, in Zen the precepts became vows rather than rules. They became expressions of intention to act from the realization of non-separation. Thus, some of the Mahayana schools reverted back to 10 precepts, though they are a different 10. These together with the refuges and the pure precepts are known as the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. They are:

The three refuges

I take refuge in Buddha.

I take refuge in Dharma.

I take refuge in Sangha.

The three pure precepts

I vow to refrain from all evil.

I vow to do all that is good.

I vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings.

The 10 grave precepts

I vow not to kill.

I vow not to take what is not given.

I vow not to misuse sexuality.

I vow to refrain from false speech.

I vow to refrain from intoxicants.

I vow not to slander.

I vow not to praise self at the expense of other.

I vow not to be avaricious.

I vow not to harbor ill will.

I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

rakusu - the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva precept vows

rakusu - the robe of one who has taken the 16 Bodhisattva precept vows

For today, I'd like to focus on the third of the pure precepts. Taken as a whole, the three pure precepts carry a strong message. They imply that it's not good enough to simply refrain from harmful actions and to perform skillful actions. To be truly skillful, one must also commit to a life of service. That is what it means to "live and be lived for the benefit of all beings." This vow is the foundation of the bodhisattva way, a commitment to everyone's welfare and an acknowledgment of the way in which their welfare is intrinsically tied to our own.

One my experiences as a hospice chaplain clearly demonstrates this dynamic. On one particularly intense day, I was told that one of my colleague's patients might be close to death. Knowing that my fellow chaplain was out of town, I went to visit the dying woman and offer her spiritual support, though I felt I had little left to give.

When I arrived, I heard from the nurses that the patient was feeling a bit better, but that I was still welcome to pay her a visit. She was lying on a couch in her darkened room, seemingly asleep when I walked in. She awoke as I knelt by her side and gently spoke her name. I introduced myself, and told her that I was with the hospice team. The woman began speaking gently to me, but what she said was incoherent. She was a bit confused, as is common with folks near the end of life. Still, I asked permission to take her hand and continued talking to her.

At some point she seemed to wake up a bit more and asked "why here?" I replied, "I'm just here to bring you blessings." "Ah, blessings. Blessings. Blessings!" She continued to repeat the word over and over again until I realized that she was offering me blessings. She had received my blessings and she was returning them, not just politely, but with enthusiasm. She held my hands strongly, looked into my eyes, and spoke emphatically, giving me her blessings. I had to smile and laugh and, after thanking her, I walked out of this woman's room with much more joy than I had when I came in. This gift, from a woman who didn't have much to give, was invaluable. She was a bodhisattva.

This is the kind of ethics that a bodhisattva practices, the kind of ethics that begins and ends with the recognition that we belong to each other in ways we cannot fully know. It is the kind of ethics that emerges from the wisdom that a skillful person doesn't see oneself as separate from action or separate from others.

As Dogen wrote in Shoaku Makusa, a fascicle whose title translates as "Refraining from Unwholesome Action,"

...one moves from the aspiration for "refraining from unwholesome action" toward the practice of "refraining from unwholesome action." As unwholesome action becomes something one is unable to do, the power of one's practice suddenly appears fully.

What is the power of one's practice? The power to give and receive joy, the power to live and be lived, the power to benefit all beings. That's a pretty awesome power, if you ask me.


Gifts that Pass Through Your Hands

Study & Arts, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

At the time of the dawning of the Mahayana as a path of practice, the paramitas were described as six lights on the awakening activity of a Buddhist practitioner. This was near the beginning of the Common Era (CE), and it was a period in which the Mahayana was neither a school nor a sect of Buddhism. Instead, it was a clarification of the path of a practitioner whose aspiration is to turn all beneficial karmic activity into the ultimate gift, the gift of awakening. The Mahayana was an exposition of the path of the bodhisattva.

The Sanskrit paramita is often translated as "perfection," though to understand it as a final objective is to miss the mark. The paramitas are actually mutually interdependent activities that inspire and inform any being dedicated to awakening as much as they benefit others. Thus, to expect that the paramitas might one day be completed is to forget the virtuous circle of practice in which the giver also receives, in which the giver is also the gift.

Perhaps for that reason the first of the paramitas is dana (pronounced like "Donna"). This word means giving or generosity, and it is said to encompass all of the other paramitas which are: sila or morality, kshanti or patience, virya or energy, dhyana or concentration, and prajna or wisdom. In fact, it can be said that each paramita is a complete practice because each paramita includes all of the others. Taken as whole, I see the first two paramitas as based in compassion, the last two as based in wisdom, and the entire path balanced by allowing what is and applying oneself wholeheartedly.

Returning to dana paramita, it was traditionally understood that the laity gave material goods and the monastics gave the teaching of Dharma. In many ways this is a balanced approach when monastics are renunciates who depend on others for their food, clothing, medicine and lodging. However, over time this distinction was blurred as monastics came to own land and other material goods, and lay practitioners became respected as disciples and teachers. In China, for example, alms collection was not as well received as in India, and Ch'an monasteries began tending rice paddies to sustain themselves. Also at that time, roughly estimated to be the 8th and 9th Centuries, Layman Pang and his daughter Ling Zhao became renowned as examples of profound and playful Dharma.

Today when I think about giving, the underlying intention seems at least as important as the thing given. Giving might be motivated by a desire for one's own benefit - such as to accumulate merit, or to influence someone to like you or to give you something in return. It might be motivated by a wish for another's well being or progress on a spiritual path. Or it might be motivated by the wish to benefit everyone.

However, it is not until I see that the gifts I give are not mine that dana paramita can be practiced.  Even the teachings or material objects which I seemingly produce temporally arise out of interconnectedness, and therefore cannot truly be seen as my own. Knowing this I can give because all of life is a gift. I can give because these gifts must pass through my hands. I can give because I understand that my practice is the only gift left when I die, the only true legacy I leave.

So please let the many gifts pass through your hands, that they might awaken the whole world.