Blog archive 2011

Practice in a pasture by Cheryl Dimof

Koshin’s initial talk at this year’s Autumn retreat included a commencement speech given by the late David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of Kenyon college in 2005*. The main point of Wallace’s speech is that we all have “default settings”–ways in which we automatically, unconsciously see the world that often go unquestioned, even though they’re often wrong, such as the tendency to take the self-centered view and see ourselves as, “Lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms alone at the center of all creation.” He points out that what we think about or how we respond to our experience or how we construct meaning is a matter of “personal, intentional choice.” This choosing is hard work – challenging our default settings is the work of a lifetime – but the choice is ours – and something our Zen practice addresses.

I had the opportunity to practice with this in mind as Sunday afternoon of the retreat found me, along with a few other participants, assigned the task of trudging through a pasture filled with mud and horse manure, helping Camp Sealth by towing and stacking heavy mats — encrusted with the abovementioned substances – through the slippery field to the pasture gates. Not having enough gloves to go around, I shared a pair, leaving my left hand free to also get covered with slime.

Ahhh…the opportunity to practice! The choice was mine how to view this situation, just as Foster Wallace had told me on Saturday morning.

My alternatives:

–I could take the self-centered view, question, “why me?” Why did I get assigned this particular task? Had the shoji taken a particular dislike to me (not likely as he was the one sharing the other glove)? Did I look super strong? Maybe next time I should not wear bright, multicolored waterproof boots that simply scream, “I am a person equipped with waterproof boots suitable to taking on tasks normally found on ‘Dirty Jobs!'” But I realized that how I responded to this dirty job equaled how I respond to the mucky situations of life in general – and I had a choice here.

–I could “just do it” – put aside the whining and questioning and just engage myself in the task at hand. In fact, it was possible, I found, to be grateful for having been assigned an outdoor work task, having the opportunity to exercise my muscles after long periods of sitting, to have been assigned something challenging to do.

–And, finally, another alternative presented itself. At break time, after work practice had finished, I made my way back to the cabin. As I was changing out of my muddy pants, somewhat caked with horse manure, washing away the muck and the sweat, I thought to myself, “So this is what they mean by, ‘the stink of Zen’,”** and started to laugh (silently) to myself.

We are often told to be serious in our practice. There’s not that much time. Put in effort. Take practice seriously. And it’s important to take practice seriously, realizing that time – both the time we have on retreat, and the time we have in our lives – is limited and precious. A sense of seriousness, even of urgency, gives us what we need to sustain and put effort into our practice. And, yet, paradoxically as most things in Zen seem to be, we also need a sense of lightness. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves even when we find we’re acting on our default settings . The ability to roll our eyes at our automatically-default-setting-behaving selves and say, “there I go again,” with a sense of humor instead of self-criticism will go a long way toward enabling us to choose what we think about, how we respond.

I had many opportunities for serious practice at this year’s retreat, and many opportunities for gratitude – from the beautiful fall leaves to the wonderful food our Tenzo prepared to the chance for settling into a deeper stillness –but, fortunately, also had many opportunities for laughter, from my experience of almost falling down in the slippery pasture and imagining how I would have looked coming back into the zendo after such an episode, to having our visiting Zen cat (see Sissel’s reflection) climb on the jikijitsu sitting next to me during evening zazen. A sense of lightness, of humor, if anything, is what can wash away the “stink of Zen.”

*Highly recommended reading/listening – the full speech can be downloaded at iTunes, and it was also published as a book titled, “This is Water.” (Editor’s note: The text of the speech is also available here and a youtube clip of the first section is available here)

**“The stink of Zen,” can refer to being caught up in Zen-speak or in words or ideas about Zen, or in appearing pious or showing off in the name of Zen.

Van Crozier and the art of showing up

Van Crozier generously shared the story of his zen journey with us on May 18. Here are some highlights.

Van’s journey continues next week as he does a week-long retreat with Sasaki Roshi (which includes 4 interviews per day!) Best wishes to you Van and thanks so much for sharing your journey-in-progress with us.

–Music is a connecting thread through Van’s journey. The songs are what Van remembers most from his early religious experiences in Sunday School—“Jesus loves the Little Children” and “God is Love”. As a young teenager he came upon a copy of the Dhammapada in his home town library and discovered that he was a Buddhist. Later, when he began meditating, he honed his concentration on the syllable “Om”, and had his first peak religious experience at 20. “I saw myself in every person, love was my connection to the universe. I was living fully in each moment.” He went from a feeling of insecurity to a feeling of total possibility, and told his mother “An amazing thing has happened–I can do anything!” He decided to become a rock star, and spent the next few years as a professional musician. Playing music extended the experience of one-ness, the “lock in” connection with other people. Many years passed, and Van continued to meditate on his own. Living for years on Vashon Island, raising his children here, and after going through a marital dissolution, he heard about a Zen Center event and decided to attend. It was the first Vashon Seminar on Buddhism, held at David Smith’s residence, featuring Red Pine, who spoke on the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. He liked his first experience of meditating “formally”, with other people, and particularly enjoyed the chanting, the group experience of making “music” together, which resonated with him. He began to practice regularly with the sangha.

–Van’s relationship with his parents was pivotal. The love he felt from his mom in his early years has never left him. Also, it was his father’s refusal of novocain at the dentist’s office that first led Van to do the same, and explore relaxation techniques!! His parents raised him Christian, but were supportive when, as a teenager, he wanted to explore other churches and other faiths.

–Just showing up. “Steady” is the word Koshin used to describe Van, who attends nearly every Zen Center event (Van has a long history of steadiness–he presented his perfect attendance Sunday School pin from childhood!) Van shared a story about a woman he admired who seemed to have everything–including the ideal job. He asked her how she had achieved all this and she said “I just showed up every day.” This made an impact on Van, and he finds it still relevant in his zen journey to no-self. He chooses to just show up and keep working each and every day.

Say “yes” to your body more often–doctor’s orders (a talk by Marcie Hamrick)

“Yes” to that second piece of chocolate cake in the refrigerator? Well, maybe not. But a humorous, affectionate “yes” to the desire to have the cake would be more helpful than beating up on yourself for wanting it, says sangha member Marcie Hamrick, M.D.

Marcie, who spoke to our sangha last night, is going through training to become a certified teacher of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-bases stress reduction (MBSR) technique. She and mental health counselor Sevilla Rhoads led a 4-hour mindfulness workshop in May using a sampler of MBSR techniques. These included the task of taking 10-15 minutes to really savor a raisin; gentle therapeutic yoga postures, and periods of “body scans” and mindfulness about how each breath feels.

Marcie says neural science shows that if we have negative thoughts about a behavior (i.e. beating ourselves up for wanting the chocolate cake), the behavior is actually more likely to continue than if we show an attitude of kindness toward that behavior. A mental attitude of kindness to the body has been shown to increase healing and quality of life for people suffering from many different kinds of illnesses. Marcie’s recent retreat began with asking participants to watch their body’s reactions when they heard the word “NO!” compared to their body’s reactions when they heard “Yes.”

The absence of failure is a key to the MBSR technique–simply noticing thoughts, whatever they are, is the goal.

It was touching to hear that several people who attended Marcie’s May workshop had never meditated before. One of them was moved to tears by the realization that thoughts were constantly swirling around his head.

We wish Marcie well as she continues toward her MBSR certification and thank her for sharing this technique with us, and with the Vashon community.

She left us with a poem by Rumi:


This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Three yoga poses that get you ready to meditate (a talk by Kathryn Payne of Island Yoga center)

We were fortunate to have guest speaker Kathryn Payne from Island Yoga at the zendo last Wednesday night!

Here are three poses she showed us that can help you engage your parasympathetic nervous system and get into a relaxed, open zone before you meditate. These positions support the transition between the every-day-going-forward mode and the sitting still mode -you may notice that after doing these poses, sitting seems more natural, and your body and mind may feel more at ease and in sync.

You can use ordinary materials like zafus and cushions found at the zendo to do these moves. Here’s how we folded a zafu to make a bolster:

1) Face plant


Positioning the main torso face down on the bolster to ease the spine from the neck to the sacrum. Opens the shoulder and hip area. Toes out, neck and nose drop down to the floor and remain clear of support material, let gravity assist in dropping away tension.

You may notice your lower back area seems “bigger”, more relaxed.

2) Bolster Back Bend


Almost a reverse of the face plant. Position the main torso face up, support the head, roll the shoulders under to flatten the back, palms rotate up, tailbone touches the ground to bring your back into a slight arch, support knees with a cushion.

Brings space into the chest and heart area

To move out of both these poses, gently become aware that you will be moving, roll carefully to one side and ease up to sitting

3) Head to head


From all fours, touch your head to a partner’s. Push your heads together a bit. Then relax and pull back. You may notice a lifting of your spine–this can encourage you to have a long tall spine when you meditate.

The Zen of Quentin Tarantino by Elizabeth Fitterer

Last Saturday’s half-day sit on death and resurrection really got to me. I hadn’t fully connected the dots before that I’m letting my thinking mind die a little each time I sit, and then I get back up from that death into a new life. It’s a pretty jarring concept to me honestly, and Saturday night, I wasn’t sure where to put it in my brain. I felt overwhelmed–in need of Advil, chocolate and a movie.

What makes me stop and reflect is the particular movie I reached for, and the particular scene in that movie I wanted to watch.

It was Quentin Tarantino’s epic saga of revenge and motherhood, “Kill Bill 2”. This is in no way a Buddhist film! There is a lot of blood and revenge, and murderous bastards roaming the countryside. It’s basically a modern Western.

The scene I most wanted to watch was the one where Beatrix, the heroine of the movie, has been buried alive by two of those murderous bastards. She lies in her coffin, several feet under freshly shoveled dirt (we see the terror in her face as she hears each nail pound into the lid). Her hands and feet are bound, but her captors have somewhat mercifully left her with a flashlight.

The movie then flashes back to many years earlier when Beatrix first goes to train with her kung fu master Pai Mei. He is not impressed by her ability to smash a board at arm’s length. He makes her practice over and over again smashing the board from a small 3 inch distance. She wonders why she has to do this since it seems pointless, unnecessarily painful, and not at all applicable to real life, but her master says “what will you do if your enemy is 3 inches from your face? Curl up in a ball??” And so we see her practice year after year hitting the board from 3 inches away.

Back in the coffin, something clicks in her head and she wills herself to stop panicking. She flicks on the flashlight, wiggles out of her boot (in which she’s stashed a switchblade), and shimmies the blade up to cut the ropes that bind her hands.

Then with epic Ennio Morricone music playing, she looks at the lid of the coffin three inches from her face, says “OK Pai Mei, here I come,” smashes through the wood just like she practiced all those years, and resurrects herself from her own grave.

Each time I sit zazen and practice dying, I feel like I’m hitting the board from three inches away. I’m doing something that seems impossible, and sometimes pointless and painful. But I’m hoping that if I practice like this, day after day and year after year, I’ll be able to put that training to use in a moment of extreme discomfort and aversion to bust myself and those around me out into some new perspective, some new life. I’ll hold onto that hope for now as my tiny little flashlight, and my switchblade in the dark. I am so thankful this sangha is here on this little island where I happen to live.

Here is the epic coffin escape scene if you want to watch it!

Thanks to Cat Roshi by Sissel Johannessen

Sissel Johannessen, Tenzo at last weekend’s retreat, brings us this story about a cat who drifted in and out of the kinhin line.

Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk- black robes and a pair of heels in front of you, barely visible in the darkness- walk, walk, walk, walk, suddenly into a pool of cedar-scented air- walk, walk, walk, walk- then a faint golden glow and crunch, crunch, crunch from the big yellow and brown maple leaves lying on the ground. Suddenly the darkness closes in and the path becomes uncertain and your feet have eyes as they feel for the uneven ground, then -blam!- the kinhin line emerges into brilliant moonlight, and -walk, walk, walk, walk- there is a line of crisp black shadows accompanying us, attached obliquely to our heels.

Everyone jumps a little as, black on black, something skitters across the line in front of the jikijitsu, and away into the darkness. Later, as we sit in the candlelit zendo, the black cat assumes a more domestic air and sidles in, visits a few of the still figures on the cushions, and jumps up to stretch out on the couch.

Later that night, after tea and final bows, as I lay in my sleeping bag, and found that the anxious details of preparing the next morning’s breakfast kept circulating in my head, I tried to be that cat- tired body lying heavy against the couch, paws cleaned, eyes half-closed–just resting.

End of life care the Zen way: a visit to Enso House on Whidbey Island by Sissel Johannessen

Our trip to the Whidbey Island hospice started with a holiday air as we met on the 8:40 boat – sun on the water, fresh wind, gulls wheeling, excited kids.

Last Saturday, two carloads of members of our Wakening Fully to Living and Dying group (plus three kids) drove up to Whidbey Island to visit Enso House, a hospice affiliated with the Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery. It was a pleasure to have our sangha friends from Europe along- Katka Grofova, who has done two years of hospice work in the Czech Republic; and who shared her photos with us; and Chong An Sunim, who for his part kept Lars fascinated with a long conversation on particle physics. We were also particularly happy that Nadine Edelstein came and suggested a stop at the French bakery on California Avenue on the way. Koshin, Elaine, Barbs Wells, and I were also along, and Mark Shimada drove up from Seattle.

After the drive and another ferry ride, we approached Enso House- a small quiet house in the country, with a long mown field stretching back behind it. We were greeted by Dr. Ann Cutcher, who welcomed us into what seemed a magically large interior- high bright living rooms with a fire-place and islands of armchairs, a dining room, kitchen, a large sunroom filled with plants in growing tables, bedrooms for the guests and their families- and downstairs a meditation room, bedrooms for staff, and a laundry.

Ann is the resident physician at Enso House, as well as its Executive Director, and lives in an adjoining cottage. We sat around the big table and ate lunch together, and then Ann took us on a tour of the house. No guests were currently in residence, and Ann let the kids try all the surprisingly dynamic chairs and beds that help the guests move more comfortably.

After the tour, we sat down to talk. Ann described how Enso House began, how it is organized, and its work through the years. The property was given to the Tahoma One Drop Zen Monastery years ago, and Enso House opened in 2001, stemming from Shodo Harada Roshi’s vision of a home for the dying who, for whatever reason, could not die at home. It is organized as a non-profit licensed adult care home, legally independent of the Zen Center. It is run largely by volunteers (including Ann), a nurse, CNA caregivers, trained sangha and community volunteers, and Zen practitioners on six-month rotation. They have helped 54 people and their loved ones go through the process of dying- all kinds of people whose names and faces are seen throughout the

Ann had many stories to tell- funny, unexpected, moving.

We discussed the process the PSZC Living and Dying group has been moving through toward finding a community service. Ann was enthusiastic about the idea of our sponsoring caregiver retreats- Enso House also offers day-long caregiver retreats four times a year at the nearby monastery- quiet days with sitting and walking meditation, gentle movement/exercise, and a meal served to the participants. After our discussion we walked a few minutes through a forest trail to the Monastery-an orderly arrangement of wooden buildings and gardens in a large clearing- looking to my eyes remarkably like the PSZC’s vision statement of its future home. The zendo,men’s and women’s houses, kitchen, Roshi’s house; gardens with young fruit trees,vegetables, bamboo and raked gravel- all simple, clean, and beautiful.

Although only a few people were residents at the Monastery when we visited, there was an air of expectation and preparedness. The community is getting ready for an important event- on September 14th Shodo Harada Roshi will be officially installed as abbot in a Shinzan Shiki, or installation ceremony. In spite of their preparations, head monk Dairin kindly took time to welcome us, and showed us through the Roshi’s house, the zendo where we all sat and chanted the Heart Sutra together, and the kitchen, where helpers served us a delicious plum juice elixir.

What a day! Thank you, Ann Cutcher; thank you, Dairin; thank you, fellow sangha members; thank you Lars, Eva and Dandan.

“The enso, a single stroke Zen Circle, symbolizes the unity of all things
and the endless transformation of things. Its inclusiveness combines the
visible and the hidden, the simple and the profound, the empty and the
full, the beginning and the end.”
– from the Enso House brochure

Link to Katya Grofova’s Enso House photo album:

Family Zen reaches across the water to Des Moines, by Sissel Johannessen


This story comes to us from Sissel Johannessen, who took her beanie babies and her enthusiasm for teaching kids about Buddhism on the ferry to Saltwater Church in Des Moines last week. Thanks Sissel!

If you look straight out from the Zen Center across the waters of Puget Sound, you can almost see the Saltwater Church in Des Moines. The PSZC has long had a special relationship with this Unitarian Universalist congregation– their choir rocked the house with “Gate, Gate” at a midsummer Zen Jam, the stalwart “Saltwater ladies” sit through the night with us in commemoration of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, and three generations of a Saltwater family joined in a Family Zen Weekend.

Saltwater member and Zen Center friend Diane Schairer invited a representative of the PSZC Family Program to visit the Saltwater kids’ program to help out with their study of Buddhism, and last Sunday Dandan and I made the trip over. The church has been active for almost 60 years, and has a lively congregation- the church was full and the kids’ room hopping with about 15 kids ages 6-12. We borrowed the meditation group’s cushions, and started out with a belly-breathing practice. The kids lay on their backs and, balancing a variety of Beanie Babies on their bellies, concentrated on making the menagerie rise and fall with their deep breaths.

After this short meditation, I was prepared to tell all the best life-of-the-Buddha stories, but the kids already knew them all! The prophecies of the Brahmins about the baby Siddhartha- the kids knew them. The four trips outside the palace with the charioteer- the kids knew all four. The period of asceticism and the passing girl with the milk pudding- they knew the story. They even knew about the scorn of Siddhartha’s companions after he ate the girl’s offering of food. I did manage to get in the story of the meditation under the rose-apple tree (a particular favorite of mine), which may have been new to them. Evidently the Saltwater U-Us take their study units on World Religions seriously!

We talked a bit about the Buddha’s teachings about how to live a satisfactory life- to recognize and ride the waves of the constantly changing universe, and to see ourselves as part of the flowing whole. To emphasize the idea of change and flow, we played the Impermanence game- a brilliant and endlessly inventive game invented by members of the PSZC Family Zen program. A number of picture cards of everyday objects are laid out on the floor, and the kids match pairs or series showing how things constantly change form- sand into glass bottles, snow into streams into clouds into rain, cows into hamburger into kids, dinosaurs into vegetables (figure it out).

The room then flowed briefly into chaos, but order and concentration was restored with a brief meditation- the room dead-quiet as the kids sat and listened intently, counting the number of gongs sounded- fast, slow, loud, soft (thanks to Koshin for this one). A round of kinhin, and a deep bow ended our hour.

Many thanks to Diane and the Saltwater Church for inviting us, and for their dedication in teaching their kids so well about other traditions; and thanks to the Saltwater kids for an invigorating hour. We hope that the Saltwater kids can soon come over the water and meet the PSZC kids.

Family/sangha by Kaj Wyn Berry


This web is a two-dimensional masterpiece in my kitchen window. Ms Spider wasn’t present at the time—gone for a spin perhaps. This morning, during meditation, this image appeared in my mind.

And it occurred to me that I lived within the center of a silvery, strong web of family, just as I had envisioned so many decades ago. Each of us with a strand of our own, each of us closer or farther out on the rings from the center. Then I thought how the individual lives of my children and extended family each had their own web that intersected and spun off from these threads that were initially woven by me.

And suddenly—MAGIC! This spider web became three-dimensional! One spoke became a new net; each strand of that new web begetting another and another until it was a fascinating, intricate multi-dimensional shimmer of gossamer strands more sturdy than steel.

For we are each caught in and making our own net of life, each with its own radiance, scent, color, flavor, truth. When a whisper of wind, a leaf of an idea or event—when something touches one strand, the vibration affects us all. Clearer in a close family or community perhaps, but no less true in all ways—Indra’s net of the world, in Hindu myth.

I am suffused with the sudden joy that this image gives me. In my memory I can reach back in time to my grandmother and great grandmother, then reach into the now with my grandchildren, great grandchildren and loving friends—realizing the linked lives that we hold dear—shimmering strands of this intricate web of relationships we call family, or sangha.

I am deeply grateful.

Only the sunny hours by Kaj Wyn Berry


Blue skies smilin’ at me…Nothin’ but blue skies do I see…

When I was a child, my parents subscribed to The Christian Science Monitor. A great newspaper for its journalism, but poor, from the point of a child in that it had no comic strips. It did, however, have a short column entitled I Record Only the Sunny Hours, which I loved. It was always an upbeat story, and I would sit on our living room rug, legs turned out, reading it, sometimes memorizing it as well. Looking back I can see how deeply it may have influenced me. For I have become a person whose glass is always half full.

At times I can almost believe that a fairy godmother waved her wand over me at birth and pronounced a blessing, “This child will always find beauty and some goodness in even the most difficult situation and she will always wake up in the morning looking forward to a new day.”

I have had dear friends who chide me for being a Pollyanna, but I don’t make up or dictate how I feel. And I do feel—passionately, fiercely—with wonder and sorrow, frustration and conviction, tenderness and strength. In time, I have considered this a gift—a gift that has made my life immeasurably rich.

Memory is a two-way street; you have a choice what kinds of experiences you choose to hold dear—those that hurt you or those that make you smile. This photograph, taken in late summer at our cabin on Colvos Passage, reminded me that I, like it, tend to record . . . .
only the sunny hours.

Waking Fully to our Living and dying by Mark shimada

I entered the Chaplaincy Program at Upaya Zen Center and Institute, studying under Roshi Joan Halifax, in the spring of 2010. It’s been a little over a year. In some ways, I feel that the journey began much sooner. In yet other ways, I know that my studies will extend beyond ordination in March 2012.

It began much sooner for me, when I sat during the final hours of my father’s life over three years ago. Holding his hand and just breathing until his last breath, I came away with a deep sense of the gift that one can give to the dying.

While in the program, I have been providing care for my mother at home with end stage emphysema. What I have learned from the program I feel has directly impacted the quality of care that I give to my mother. It’s moved from a familial loving sense of obligation and duty, to one of honor and privilege. Somehow, I’ve transformed the baggage of stories about our relationship, to simple gratitude for each moment that I have with her, graced by the gift of her life and really feeling her love for me, instead of trying to be a grown-up that doesn’t need a mother anymore.

I cannot point to any one thing or specific teaching from any of Upaya’s faculty that has contributed to my growing awareness over the months. Faculty provide experiential teachings around various forms of chaplaincy in the environment, the prisons, the schools, in hospitals, and in corporations, and also in topics of systems, complexity, trauma, and neuroscience, and the Buddha’s teachings.

If I were to name what has been most significant to me personally, it would be what Roshi refers to as the “entering the field of chaplaincy,” the sense of being interconnected for the purpose of alleviating suffering. This interconnection is enfolded by relationships to the Buddha, the Dharma, faculty teachers and their teachings, practicing together as chaplain peers and with Upaya sangha members, to the thousands of hours of practice in the zendo, and to one’s personal commitment and dedication to practice and Dharma studies. While at Upaya, all this is woven in a matrix of practice, returning home to give the teachings and practice a new breath of life, as it is recalled again and again, on and off, here and there. Each act of practice builds memory in entire being, a sensibility that responds spontaneously without any thinking.

My personal studies have taken me down unexpected paths, as I found myself going to the Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Berkenau and am planning to go to Nepal on a pilgrimage with Roshi’s Nomad Clinic, taking medical supplies and services to the remote villages in the Kingdom of Mustang in northeast Nepal. The Bearing Witness retreat has played a key role, as I am now planning to use art to bear witness, reflecting on the Four Noble Truths and Dogen Zenji’s texts, the Genjokoan and Fukazazengi.

I started the program with the intent to be a Chaplain for end-of-life care, and I now find myself broadening my intent to be a Chaplain for both life-care and end-of-life care. It is both living and dying. Breathing in and breathing out.

Think there’s no connection between Russian Orthodox theology and Zen? Think again (a talk by Father Tryphon)

Full audio of the talk available below:


[haiku url=”″ title=”Father Tryphon”]

There once was a saint who lived in the woods, and a powerful general came to see him. When the general came, he was astounded to see a beautiful light–he said “Saint, what a beautiful light you have shining from inside you!” But the saint said, “General, that light is coming from YOU.”

Sounds like a Buddhist story, right? In fact, it’s a story from the Russian Orthodox tradition–one of several stories Abbot Tryphon of All Merciful Savior Monastery shared after he sat with us on Wednesday night, October 19.

Some other beliefs Abbot Tryphon shared from the Orthodox tradition that might sound familiar to Buddhists: If you acquire peace, 1000 people will be saved. The purpose of being a monk is to destroy the ego and have a humble, contrite heart. The center of a human is the heart. Achieving enlightenment is not just for us, but for the entire cosmos. Enlightenment requires lots and lots of incense…

Of course, there are important differences between Orthodox theology and Zen philosophy–the biggest one being a belief in a personal God who is inviting human beings into a relationship with Him. Abbot Tryphon was quick to point out that, in Orthodox theology, there is no heaven and hell. There is no original sin in Orthodox theology, and thus no need to be “saved” from it. Heaven and hell is not about place, but about relationship. God is love, and what is essential is to respond to the loving God with love. For instance, he said he felt that the Dalai Lama is someone who will be with God for all eternity. He attributes the rise in atheism in the West to rigid attitudes about heaven and hell–often he will say to atheists “What kind of God is it that you don’t believe in?” and when they speak of a vengeful God who will send them to hell if they’re not good enough, he says “I don’t believe in that God either.”

Some details of Father Tryphon’s life and his faith journey: He earned a doctorate in psychology at UC Berkeley, but grew dissatisfied with academia and struck out on a yearlong sabbatical in his VW bus. The one book he took with him in the bus was “Siddhartha,” the story of the young prince who eventually becomes the Buddha. Toward the end of that year, he came to a huge seven-story Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco, and felt a calling to be an Orthodox monk. So he went to a monastery in Pennsylvania, became ordained, and then a short two years later in 1988, he was asked to found a monastery. After over 20 years of hard work, the first phase of All Merciful Savior Monastery on was completed last year on Vashon Island.

Abbot Tryphon blogs every day (you can find his blog here) and All Merciful Savior has thousands of followers on Facebook. He left us with this story: one morning recently, he was sitting at a coffee shop dressed in his robes, working on his blog, when he heard a couple of young men behind him talking. One of them said, rather loudly, “Only a stupid old man would believe in God.” When it was time for Abbot Tryphon to leave, he asked that two coffee gift cards be given to the young men after he left.

A few weeks later, he happened to come back to the same coffee shop, and the two young men also happened to be there. They came up to him, astounded, and asked “Why did you give us those coffee cards?” His answer: “Because God told me to.”

The most important work of the monk, he says, is to love. Christ tells us to love our enemies–this, he says, he is not naturally inclined to do, but through God he can.

Thank you so much Abbot Tryphon for sitting with us, for educating us about Orthodox theology, and for your wonderful stories!

Some small jewels from Chong-an Sunim

This Wednesday after we sat with the sounds of blues music and big winds drifting up from the beach, Chong An Sunim gave us a dharma talk. Here are some gems I took away to think about:

–A question is your best friend–it opens your mind. What is it that is not born and does not die? Is there refuge from this cycle? Is there something that doesn’t change?

–We can call the thing that doesn’t change–the mind before thinking–Don’t Know Mind. This is the least of a lie–anytime we call this Buddha, God, Nirvana–anytime we name something–it becomes more of a lie. As humans we are hungry for names and tend to lean on them.

–Don’t Know Mind should not be confused with the lack of anything, or the lack of seeing. Some Buddhist iconography shows a figure with a thousand hands, each having an eye. What you see is what you do.

–Your ears, unlike your eyes, dont have a natural shutter–they are always open unless you clap your hands over them willfully. When you perceive the sound of this moment your thinking eye is gone. The name of the bodhisattva of compassion (Kan-ze-on or Kan-ji-zai) translates to perceive–world–sound. (Kan-ji-zai are also the first three syllables we chant in the Heart Sutra).

Some more about Chong An: Chong An Sunim met Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1991, trained with him in South Korea between 1994-2000, and was appointed as a teacher in 1999. He has been teaching in the Kwan Um School of Zen (Europe, Asia and the US) for the last 10 years.

Learning by Dancing (by Koshin)

This Thursday night October 6, Koshin is giving a free public talk at 7pm at the Vashon library, in preparation for the upcoming October dharma study series. We hope you can make it! Here’s a preview:

There’s a story that Joseph Campbell tells. An American delegate at an international conference on religion was trying to figure out what a Japanese Shinto priest was about. “We’ve been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a few of your shrines. But I don’t get your ideology. I don’t get your theology.” The priest paused as though in deep thought, and then slowly shook his head. ‘I think we don’t have ideology,’ he said. ‘We don’t have theology. We dance.”

20 years ago I became a Zen monk because I dug the crazy dance of life at Mt. Baldy Zen Center: 3am wake up, sitting in a cold zendo, meeting with the Roshi, working hard, living in community – I really liked this stuff! It wasn’t so much Zen theory as Zen life that captured my heart.

You learn Zen by dancing, not by theorizing. By doing, not by thinking. That doing then changes your thinking, which in turn changes your doing.

You see, Buddhist thinking has its place in our practice too. Though experience is first, ideas & critical thinking are also part of our practice.

Thursday night I want to talk about six ideas that have helped me and that I believe can help anybody, whether a Buddhist practitioner or not. Furthermore, I think these are ideas that can do human society some good – without it having to become Buddhist society!

The Buddhist ideas I want to talk about are:
1. Stop
2. Listen
3. Feel
4. Move
5. Test
6. Embrace heaven and earth

These ideas have informed my Zen practice and my life. I hope you can make it Thursday night so I can hear what YOU think about them!

–If you root your experience in the sound of the moment, you begin to realize you have a choice–you’ve always had it but you’ve never used it. No one and nothing controls you right now except your own perceptions. You can start to see things as a movie–first you are a spectator of this movie and then you can become a director. Then pretty soon only the projector remains, and you can decide what movie it is that you want to show.

Shaking things up with Hui-neng (by Koshin)

During our day-long sitting this weekend I’ll be talking about Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, and author of the beloved Platform Sutra.

Huineng’s story reads like the American dream. Like young Horatio Alger in America, Huineng went from rags to riches in the Buddhist world, and his story serves us up this lesson: Whoever you are, however uneducated or lowly your position, you can gain deep insight into Zen and into the human condition. The discovery of Buddha Nature is open to all.

Do you know the story of Huineng? He grew up poor and illiterate. Upon hearing the Diamond Sutra chanted his mind felt immediately clear, and he knew he should move to the nearest monastery. Within a year, though only a lowly novice monk, he bested the heir apparent in a dharma poetry contest, and become the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. Zen is full of stories of overturning hierarchy and Huineng’s story is first among them. The monastic structure had become ossified, and this young “jungle rat” gave it a proper shaking up.

Huineng’s teaching, however, is not political – it’s personal. You and I are the ones who most need shaking up. Huineng asks us to believe that we can become Buddhas –right now. “A biased Buddha is a[n ordinary] being. An unbiased being is a Buddha…your mind contains a Buddha, your Buddha is the real one.” Huineng’s universe is in flux. He moved quickly through the class ranks of a Chinese monastery, and he expects you and me to move quickly – beyond ourselves and to a realization of ourinnate Buddha Nature. Let’s do our best on Saturday.

Zen goulash straight from a monk’s mama

Chong An Sunim’s vegan goulash was a big hit at our picnic last Saturday!! Thanks again to all who attended and especially to Shana and Justin Hirsch who hosted.

Here are notes from Sunim on how to recreate this masterpiece in your own home. Lots more photos at the end of the post!

“Goulash was originally a dish of shepherds, who were migrating with the flock for months in the summer, receiving supplies from the family about once a week. They had to be mobile, carry their own cooking gear, and be resourceful as well as skillful. ‘Bogracs’ was the dish in which they cooked the ‘goulash’, usually with pork and potato or dried pasta as staple.

My Mom taught me a few tricks how to make good food while she was busy visiting patients. She is now a retired pediatrician, and still cooks for me and the Sangha once a week when I am in Hungary. All the merits of taste and composure are hers—I am merely the hand that stirs the fry.

The cast iron pot you have seen is as close to the old ‘bogracs’ as possible. Get it with a lid, you will need it. Start with olive oil, put in the diced onion/leek, add some garlic (diced and mashed with salt) and sautee it till it starts to release its own juice.

Add the main spice, which brings the warmth: red/green curry or masala. Add some simple mustard (no sweet and hot compounds), soy sauce or tamari, tasty spreads like eggplant-garlic is a nice addition. Be careful with green curry, you need less of that than the others. Anything with tomato comes much later, (spaghetti sauce or simple tomato sauce), only when the veggies are almost done.

Sautee these together until it becomes homogenous, and the scent indicates that the spices have ‘opened’. This is important: do not put the veggies in before the spices have been primed. This also the reason you wait with the tomato sauce till the veggies are all in.

Next is the protein. At Shana’s we had Italian style tofurky, smoked and marinated tofu and raw plain tofu. This is plenty, even one of the three will do. If you use tofurky, be careful with the chipotle version, it is extremely hot.

Put in the veggies, hardest first, juiciest/softest last. In the goulash we shared I put in the potatoes first, then the cauliflower, mushrooms, zuccini, broccoli and cherry tomatoes. Leave a couple of minutes between each, let them release their own juice, whatever they have.

Here is another important principle: Do not add water. Stir it often enough, and wait for the veggies to release their own juice. If you add water, it is more comfortable to cook, but much of the fine taste flies out with the steam.

So, you’ve got everything: the sauteed base of onions/leek and garlic, the open, warm, fragrant spices, the protein (tofurky or tofu), the veggies in the correct order, the tomato sauce, and the whole brew is slowly boiling, simmering together. The whole process of cooking is about 40 minutes. And here is the catch: it is not ready yet. The potato is still a little crunchy, the rest of the veggies have not been saturated with the whole spectrum of spices. Easy now: Turn off the fire, put the lid on, and let it sit for an hour. The hot cast iron does the rest of the job.

Variations include sans potato–have some side dish (pasta or rice) prepared separately. During a potluck it is unpredictable whether someone makes an appropriate side dish, unless you talk before. This time the potato was mixed in, but you do not have to go that way all the time.

I deliberately did not write quantities, most of you are experienced cooks and I am not good at math. I play it by the ear (nose!) and you can figure out how much you need of each ingredient based on your routine. What’s most important is a couple of guidelines with some solid cooking order and a dash of history—one piece of Hungarian culture I am definitely grateful for.

Thank you for sharing the meal all together—enjoy!”

Inward bound at the Family Zen retreat by Renee Marceau

At the Family Zen Retreat we had a couple of parent discussion groups one of which was about the fine line between flexibility and firmness when setting boundaries. The challenges of parenting and knowing how to respond from one’s own authentic voice were shared by all. I closed the discussion by offering this poem by David Whyte which related to both our discussion and the weekend retreat theme, “Inward Bound.”

Start Close In

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To find
another’s voice,
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

-David Whyte

The buddha in a cup of tea by Chris Ezzell

Chris Ezell (who makes a mean cup of tea) offers this poem by Kenneth S. Cohen:

Too worldly for a monastery,
I find Buddha in a cup of tea:
Up with the sunrise,
I sit alone in my cabin,
Mind washed by simmering water
Sound, like wind in the pines.
This is my solitary quest,
Buddha under the Bodhi Tree
Meditated for seven days,
Until a beautiful sunrise
Made him give up
The futility of revealing
What was never hidden.
I prefer a simple cup of tea,
Seven minutes to boil water,
Much easier than seven days.
Complete, unexcelled Enlightenment:
Of course, only if
You are paying attention!

The Four Noble Truths
First, suffering exists:
Why else would we drink tea?
A daily taste of paradise in the everyday.
Second truth: suffering caused by tanha–
“Self-centeredness, grasping, and greed;”
Drink tea and be ego-free;
Self dissolves in service to the holy leaf;
Guests arrive and Buddha meets Buddha.
Third truth: suffering can cease
The tea cup is a raft between
Nirvana and Samsara,
Neither shore more holy than the other.
Fourth truth: there is a way to end suffering,
The Noble Eightfold Path:
Right view: the beautiful leaves, the color of the brew.
Right intention: prepare a delicious cup and enjoy.
Right speech: no yesterday or tomorrow in the tearoom.
Right conduct: spontaneous morality needs no rules.
Right livelihood: honest, forthright, a good example.
Right effort: delight in details: gong fu cha!
Right mindfulness: care for another cup?
Right concentration: nothing but tea, yet tea includes all.

All of this called
The Middle Way,
No extremes:
Neither asceticism nor hedonism
Greedy people make insipid tea.
The overly patient brew it
Too dark and bitter.

Elaborating on obvious truths
Tea Buddha also teaches
Anatta—no self,
How can I know I,
Since I’m the one doing the knowing?
I am not I, and tea is not tea!
And anicca, impermanence,
The same guests, like the same moment
Never return—one time, one meeting.
Tea changes: white, green, oolong, red, pu erh.
Today’s Long Jing is different from yesterday’s.
And tathata—suchness, the beingness of Tea:
What is tea? Just this, just this, just this…

Kenneth S. Cohen