Who asks "Who am I?"
Ever-flowing thoughts out of
A dry, empty well.

So this is what I said to my family. And to anyone else who may have a concern for me, this is for you, too...



Well, this is going to be an interesting letter for many of you. So, read on... :)

As you all know, my partner and I are in the process of getting divorced. I haven’t said a whole lot regarding this except that it’s a good thing, it’s what I want (not something being forced upon me), and it is something she and I are doing FOR each-other out of love, and not TO each-other out of anger or bitterness. We’ve been together for nine years, and married for seven. Our time together has been vastly more sweet than sour, and I feel blessed by that time, our marriage, and our friendship. But the time has come for me to move my life in a very different direction.

As many of you know, I’ve always been a very spiritual person, even to the point of considering and participating in seminary while in college. It took me a long time to find the right path in this life. Dad was actually a great help in this process. His own personal faith was very inspirational to me, and helped me see something very clearly; faith itself is what’s important, not the particular flavor of it. When he came to visit me in Portland in 2003, he was happy that I’d found a faith that fit me, and one that was based in peace and helping people. “Looks like it fits you pretty well,” he said. “Good. A man has to have faith in something...”

That faith--Buddhism--has grown as the intervening years have passed. It has gotten me through so much: his death, the death of other close friends and loved-ones, a number of whom I’ve helped care for in their last weeks and days, sicknesses, financial crisis, divorce. But beyond that, it has also brought me great joy. These joys are very hard to explain and put into words without sounding painfully trite and (possibly) disingenuously esoteric. But my faith (often referred to as a “practice”) has become more deep than at any other time in my life, to the point where I must make a decision.

I have an opportunity right now to use this transition period in my life to explore something that I’ve always wanted to do. This particular avenue will be very challenging, but the reward--in my opinion--will be even greater. I accept that it may not be what I want it to be, what I want to do for the rest of my life, or that I may simply fail at it. But I won’t know the answers to any of those things unless I try. Having said that...

In either May or June of this year, I will move from Portland, about an hour and a half northwest of here to the small town of Clatskanie, OR. I am applying to become a resident of Great Vow Zen Monastery, the monastery and retreat center founded by my teachers, Jan Chozen Bays-Roshi, and her husband, Hogen Bays. I wish to explore this special type of life--monasticism--in order to help me decide if I want to pursue Zen as a vocation. That is; I am going to decide if I want to dedicate the rest of my life to becoming a Zen monk and possibly a priest.

A brief bit about Great Vow: My teachers Chozen-Roshi and Hogen founded Great Vow in 2002 after running a Zen practice and retreat center on Larch Mountain in the Columbia River Gorge for 10 years prior to that. They wanted a larger place to be able to offer year-round retreats, as well as residential Zen training--something they both believe very strongly in. They found a decommissioned elementary school in Clatskanie. This worked very well; a medium-sized facility with an institutional-sized kitchen, showers, large and small areas for dorms and some more private housing, a large formal zendo (meditation hall) spacious grounds for large food and walking gardens, and quite a bit more. At any given time, about a dozen people live there, either as practicing residents, monastics, or priests-in-training. Once a month, a week-long silent retreat (or “seshin”) is held, as well as one or two shorter weekend retreats each month. You can read more about the monastery by visiting:


There are a number of reasons why this is a perfect time for me to explore this opportunity, not the least of which is financial. As we’re all painfully aware, this is the worst economy this country has known since the Great Depression. It’s not a really fabulous time to be without a job (seeing that I’m a freelance writer, it essentially means I’m nearly always unemployed) trying to get an apartment and set up a life on Social Security disability pension alone. Add my debt load on top of that, and it’s a pretty big hill to climb.

Living at the monastery doesn’t cost much; roughly the price of a tiny studio apartment, but this includes all meals, and no costs like utilities. I couldn’t possibly live this cheaply on my own. Actually, with the cost being this low, even on my tiny SSD income, while at the monastery, I’ll actually be able to pay down some of my debt-load AND save some money; something that would be absolutely impossible were I to be living on my own.

But I want to make a few things clear about my decision to explore living at GVZM. Firstly, my motivation is only partly from financial need; it is vastly more due to a desire to know if this life is for me. I’m going to be 41 in a few weeks; I’d like to decide what direction to take my life. If the priesthood is indeed what I want to work towards, I’d like to get going. The postulantship (novice monk) training period is a year, and the next commitment period (for priesthood) is five years. If this is really what I want to do, I’d like to know as soon as I can, so as to waste no more time than is absolutely necessary. There is also a chance that I’ll decide that it’s not for me, and move back to the Portland area. A season’s stay at Great Vow will only aide that, allowing me to save money so that my start of a new life in Portland will have the greatest chance of success.

Nextly, I know that many of you may be concerned about this decision, thinking I’m running off to join a cult or live in some kind of hippie commune. Let me assure you that neither could be further from the truth. These people are my friends and teachers. They have come to my aid over and over again with love, selfless compassion and genuine concern for my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. All the residents of GVZM, and all the people in my congregation (“sangha” in Buddhist terms) adhere to a strict code of ethics. No one is forced to do anything, you aren’t required to sign away your life’s savings, property or free-will. There’s no Bhagwan being driven ‘round in a Rolls here. It is a very transparent life. The monastery is a respected member of the community. I will be free to leave at any time I like. In addition, were I to actually become a priest at some point in the future, I will (if I choose) still be able to date and marry--there is no requirement for celibacy, only support for it if you choose it for yourself.

A little bit about living @ Great Vow: Life at Great Vow is communal living, with the co-ed population sleeping in segregated dorms. Meals are eaten together. The life is very structured, some would say rigid. It is that way on purpose, to help free the mind from extraneous worries and distractions. The day starts at 3:50am and ends at 9:30pm. You sit formal meditation (“zazen”) for four hours each day (two 2-hour periods that start and end each day). The rest of the day is filled with work service (cooking, cleaning, groundskeeping, errands, office business, etc), classes, or public service. When in seshin, the monastery observes “noble silence”, although it’s not the classic “vow of silence” like you think of in the case of Dominican monks; you may talk if absolutely necessary, but typically you write each-other notes.

In short: it will be a very interesting experience from top to bottom.

I know that it may be hard any number of you to understand why I’m choosing this, or why I even converted to Buddhism in the first place, but please don’t worry about me. This Buddhist faith--this practice--has made me so much better in so many ways. It has been the best of spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological therapies I could ever have undertaken. And for my community to offer me this great opportunity to nurture myself and grow and heal... it affects me so profoundly I have a hard time putting it in words. We have a chant in our school of Buddhism “We take refuge in the sangha; it is our supreme support.” How special and precious it is to be with a group of people who take that so literally that we dedicate a not-insignificant portion of our collective time, energy and resources to providing a place for people to come together to live, work, and practice.

There’s lots to do before I move; parsing through all of my things, paring down to the minimum that which I keep after weeding through a lifetime of “stuff”. I look forward to having less “stuff” to look after and haul around. Come May, I’ll pack my stuff up into my truck and head up to the monastery. At first, the decision will be made month by month. I won’t even be allowed to ask about postulantship for six months. That’s the final--and greatest--benefit in my eyes: this is something I’m doing for ME, at my own pace. I won’t be pressured, judged, or held to some kind of time-table.

And simply because I’ll be living in a monastery doesn’t mean I’ll be completely cut-off; we do have internet access, so I’ll be able to stay here on the family site and give you all updates from here.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m certain a few of you must now think I’m absolutely crazy. That’s okay; you may not be entirely wrong. However, I know in my heart-of-hearts that if I didn’t investigate this opportunity for myself, I would regret it for the rest of my days. This practice means so much to me. It has helped me in so many ways. It has given me new eyes to see the world with. It has, quite literally, saved me from what would very easily have turned into a life of despair. I am not going to hit you with some silly line like “I have finally found happiness” or “I have become enlightened” because neither is even close to being true. However, I have found a way of living that jibes with my ethics, my intellect, and my heart. I have been waiting my whole life for an opportunity to serve a higher purpose--something greater than “me”. And whether you call it “God”, “fellow man” or the “Great Universal Good”, I look forward to growing closer to that which makes us all special: the true, loving and compassionate nature inherent to all of us.

I'll be filling mom in on all of this in the next few days.

I love you all so much.



So far, the reviews are positive...

It's really rewarding to see this wonderful and simple film of this wonderful, simple man, and see from where so many of my teachers' experiences and understandings were sewn. My teachers are with him at One Drop Zen Monastery as I write this.

Man on Cloud Mountain (in 7 parts)

Just goes to show you that at times, some things refuse to get lost in translation...

Well, it looks like a plan has been laid. I have talked to the relevant folks in this equation, and have decided to apply for residency at Great Vow Zen Monastery, with my target date for moving being between May-June of this year. Term of stay is unknown. I'm envisioning the summer, but it could be longer or shorter, with longer being both more than likely, as well as desired. I'm hesitant to make firm statements and plans for the future with this for a few reasons, most notably because doing so is not really all that "zen". My primary motivation for doing this is to simply go taste and see. Don't bring anything to this that isn't there on its own. Just go and inquire. Simply. Openly. Be willing to say whatever the truth of the experience is, even if that answer is "it's not for me right now" or "not for me ever". There is no right or wrong answer to any experience. I have that down... intellectually.

As excited as I am about this new direction, to say that I don't have any trepidation, fear or worry is not true. I have plenty. But now that I've made the decision, I feel so much better. Seriously, what a huge weight to have off of me: where to live, how to afford life, being alone, etc, etc. Suddenly, that's all off of me for the moment. I'm so thankful I could cry.

I need to work on the l'explication grande as far as my family goes. I'm sure a few relatives will think I'm joining a cult (sigh) or a hippie commune. It'll be interesting to see what my mother thinks. She's a hip old gal.

The Heart of Wisdom is in practice. I look forward to experiencing that in a very direct way.

And it starts with Beginner's Mind the first weekend of March.

Good thing I've always liked getting up in the dark of the wee small hours... :)

When I first started practicing Zen in earnest, I was struck by a number of different aspects of both the practice, and the personal experience of Zen Buddhism. Now obviously, Zen shares a great deal with other schools of Buddhism (having grown out of that which came before it), and the particular style of Zen I practice has been informed and shaped by those schools moreso than other Zen schools. This is not to say that more “traditional” approaches to Zen are without merit; far from it. But my teachers have taken certain pieces from other traditions (Rinzai, Vajrayana, Pure Land, etc) and incorporated them into their practice, and through them, they have woven themselves into mine. I feel very happy about that.

My roshi (the person primarily responsible for the base design of our school of practice) has often been heard to say something to the effect of “It doesn’t matter where it comes from, just so long as it’s good medicine,” and I couldn’t agree more. Anyway, this multi-faceted approach to the Dharma and practice is something I treasure. I have been exposed to, and moved by, so many different traditions over the years that the thought of having to become voluntarily myopic really was a worry when I first began this practice some four years ago. Turns out that fear was completely unfounded. It was a result of my preconceived notions of what Zen was, or could be. It was also a result of my preconceived notions of my teachers and my sangha. Once I opened myself up to experience this practice they were offering simply for what it was, it was completely different from what I had been assuming it would be. Once again, I did not actually discover this fear, I created it with my own preconceptions. I’m really good at that. Frankly, we all are. But it was primarily those preconceptions (and a few other issues to be discussed at some other point) that kept me from going deeper for easily the first three years of my practice.

But deeper I went. At times, it was scary. Really honestly and deeply scary. Any practitioner suffering from PTSD will tell you that at times, Zen practice can be a really dark place. You feel alone in your own head, trapped and stuck to the ugliness of the past like a mouse on a glue-board as everything presses in on you, and no matter how you try to simply let go of that past, it clings to you. It makes zazen at times feel not only insurmountable, but counter-productive to a peaceful life. Why do things that make you feel worse? But I stuck with it for one reason. I stuck with it because even though I hated it (and hated it often, and still do!) or it seemed to hate me, every time I did it, finished it, and got up, I felt noticeably better than before I’d done it. Physically. Emotionally. Mentally. Just better. Not skipping down the street, all-is-rainbows better, but quantifiably better. Even the scary parts inside my head seemed to lessen in intensity. They were--and are--still there, but they slowly--very slowly--started changing from these active lurkers in the dark, and more into ugly pictures hanging on the wall. That doesn’t lessen their horror, but for me, it did slowly start putting things into context. They weren’t going to be eliminated by zazen or Buddhism, but they could be seen for what they really were, and that was more help than I thought it would be. Again, my preconception of something (PTSD’s ever-present control over my psyche) got in the way of experiencing the truth of something. Catching a whiff of a theme here?

Deeper yet. The act of going deeper itself at times can be rather scary. Getting lost. Letting go. Allowing the ego to begin to dissolve, like the initial laps of the tide at the base of a massive and complicated sand-castle. Being less about “me” and more about “us”. Not defining myself anymore with external measures because not only are those metrics useless, the very act of definition is pointless and false.

I’ve been a retreatant at a number of places in the past, but they’d sort-of been retreat-lite. I’ve never felt a desire to commit myself to a practice that would require so much intensity of me. I’d go on a retreat for a week, feel good about having muscled through, taken a few warm-n-fuzzy things from the experience, and called it good. But I’d always hold something back; I’d always try and protect my “self” in some way. I can see this rather clearly now, looking back with the eyes I have now. This is primarily the reason why I haven’t gone on retreat or seshin with my own Zen sangha, even though we own and operate our own monastery only 90min from here. I’d been blocking myself from that experience, again, because I have notions in my head about what I’ll think of the experience, even before I do it.

This fear of going deeper gets louder and louder as time goes by, directly in proportion to the growth of my practice. It’s almost as if my ego raises its volume in sync with the depth of my immersion in this Dharma-ocean of practice. It’s yelping, gasping, screaming; “If you go too deep, we’re going to DROWN, you idiot!!” I’ve heard from other practitioners that this reaction is pretty common. There; I’m in good company.

I do my first retreat at the monastery the first week of March.

And so here we are. Water at my chest. “Too” deep for parts of me, yet a growing desire to simply step off the shelf and be without footing. Sometimes I wonder if this urge I feel is not unlike those who have the irrational urge to jump off bridges, but I know it’s different. I know--via experience--that this isn’t about oblivion, avoidance, or escape. It’s not about drowning in the ocean. I know that it’s not going too deep.

I know this because of one very simple revelation:

You can only go too deep into the ocean if you are something other than the ocean. A wave can never drown.

More as it happens...


A rather useful discussion popped up recently on one of my sangha's listservs, and I thought I'd repost here. So here's a few things on the etymology of the word "zen", why we sit and sleep on marsh-grass, and pushy cats.

I am wondering what the Buddha taught about sitting.
The Buddha said this of life and living:

Live purely. Be quiet.
Do your work with mastery.
Like the moon, come out
from behind the clouds!
Did he say "The more you sit, the more likely you are to become enlightened?"
Not really. We (read: "zen practitioners") sit zazen because that is our primairy method of meditation. But we also walk (kinhin), bow in gassho, walk through the zendo in shashu, and many other physical action that are forms of meditation in their own right. Effectively, every movement in life, all the way down to simply sitting with no meditation object at all (shikantaza) is meditation. Often we swap "sitting" ( za+zen = literally "sitting meditation") for "meditation" when we probably shouldn't.

The Buddha said; "All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become."

So if you want to "become" enlightened, you must use the mind (the thinking thing) and the body (the sitting thing).
The monks and teachers sit so much. Should the world be sitting as much or more than them if it wants to become enlightened?
The Buddha said; "Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without."

Meaning that you can't make the world more peaceful externally; only internally. But when you accept that there is no "you", only "us", the way to get the world to be a better place is for as many "us'es" as possible to practice things that generate peace and equanimity. That's mindfulness. For most schools of Buddhism, the best and most direct form of mindfullness is whole-hearted and full-bodied concentration on the moment, and that is sitting meditation in one form or another.
Did he say that generosity is the "fastest way to enlightenment"? I have heard that he did. What did he mean?
I don't know that he actually did say that, but food for thought: You can never take too much if you're giving something freely. The first of the Ten Perfections is giving.
Is it possible to put "my enlightenment" as my first priority in life?
A more important question may be "Should I make achieving enlightenment my first priority in life?" Also, "my enlightenment" has an extra word in it that sets a condition of the ego.

We often say "May all beings reach enlightenment, even before I do" that encompasses both noble conditions: that all escape suffering, and that as a Bodhisattva, you help all do so even before you do.
What is a good guide for deciding to 'get more involved' or to 'do more sitting, studying, chanting, etc'?
What may be better to do is consider the Bodhisattva Vow instead: "Beings are numberless: I vow to free them. Ilusions are inexhaustible: I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless: I vow to enter them. The Buddha way is unsurpassable: I vow to embody it."

My motto: If you feel like doing it, do it. If you don't feel like doing it, do it even more ;)

I have wondered if "sitting" can mean in more than just the physical sense. Can we be "sitting" while rocking a baby to sleep; while raking leaves; or cooking? Can being fully present in these moments be considered "sitting"?
This deserves its own answer, but it is tied into the previous questions, so...

When I said, in my previous post; "Often we swap 'sitting' ( za+zen = literally 'sitting meditation') for 'meditation' when we probably shouldn't" I was being literal. Here's a brief on the etomology of our favorite word "zen", and how it relates to "sitting".

The word "zen" is the Sino-Japanese interpretation and pronunciation of the Chinese character 禅, which is typically pronounced "ch'an" in modern Standard Mandarin Chinese, but was more likely pronounced "d​'zen" (form a "d" with your mouth and lips, but pronounce "Zen") in Middle Chinese. The term "zen" is actually a contraction of the seldom-used long form zenna (Mandarin: chánnà), which is itself a derivation from the Sanskrit term dhyāna (pali: jhāna), which refers directly to a specific type of meditation: the use of the mind as a tool for examination of mind and body states without attachment or judgement. This manner of examination--meditation--was given to us directly by the Buddha, and is explained to us in the Pali Canon -- the first and most complete collection of scriptures in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. The Sanskrit word is derived from the Indo-European root that means "to see" or "to look". Bodhidharma brought this kind of meditation from India with him to China. Initially, it was poorly recieved. Bodhidharma left southern China, heading north, purpously living in obscurity in the Shaolin monastery so he could practice this "seeing" meditation with his whole being, famously sitting facing a cave wall for nine years in dedicated practice. Eventually, this practice established itself, and developed into what is known as "Chan". From China, Eihei Dōgen, a Japanese Tiantai monk, brought this practice back with him to Japan, where it became the basis of the Soto school of Buddhism, and was pronounced "zenna", later shortened to just "zen".

So, very literally, the term "zen"--in all its forms and machinations--means "to see deeply, rightly, clearly and directly". One of the most important aspects of the etmology of the word often gets left behind and that is "directly". Zen is an experiential practice, not merely a mental or intellectual one.

Sitting is a form of "zen", but to say "can we sit while doing other things" is a bit wonky and erroneous. It's more right to ask "can I practice Zen while doing something else?" The answer to that is "absolutely". The other answer to that is, arguably "That's the point..." "Zen" is whole-hearted attention to the moment, no matter what that moment may be. When you sit, just sit with your entire being. When you rock the baby, just rock the baby, being present in every action of that task with your entire being. When you rake, just rake. When you sing, just sing, and so on. When you look at it that way, every single action--physical or mental--in life can be (and our teachers, all the way back to the Buddha say is) meditation, including the very last act of life, death.

  • "zen" = examining meditaion
  • "za" = sit
  • "zazen" = sitting examining meditation
Additionally, just for fun, here are a few more interesting origins of some of our common zendo things:
  • zen + "do" (hall) = meditation hall
  • za + "fu" = zafu, or "sitting cushion" (literally: "sitting on cattails" ["fu" = "stuffed with cattail fluf", a common stuffing for cushions in China and Japan])
  • za + "buton" = zabuton or "sitting mattress" ("buton" being a varriant root of "futon" or "cattail-filled mattress" [fu+ton])
Sorry for being so long-winded. Apparently not very "zen" of me ;)

Then maybe I would know which level to use (when cooking a dinner to be ready at a certain time use 'Level 6', when petting the cat/dog use 'Level 2')
Well, in all honesty, with Zen, the "goal" is to do everything "turned up to 11"; that is, to experience every moment in as "zen" (or "meditative attention") manner as possible. Remember, it's not about intensity, it's about intention--whole-hearted and complete attention to every aspect (both subtle and gross) of everything you do. Right. Easy-peasy. Guess that's why they call it "practice" ;)

The exercise of "other" meditative tasks that are not zazen brings to mind the pursuit of traditional Japanese archery (kyūdō) often practiced by zen students. You often here "be the arrow", or "be the bow". This, too, is zen ("meditative attention"). So it is no stretch of the imagination to take, say, cooking dinner, and think "be the whisk", "be the knife", "just dice" and "just beat the batter". It may sound silly at first, but anyone who does any task that takes great concentration to achieve a particular result often talks of "finding a zone" and experiencing a falling away of the deliniations that define where they stop, and the task or given action begins.

And seriously, what cat doesn't want "level 11" attention at all times? ;)

Just a quick post to let anyone interested know:

Local (Portland, OR) zen teacher and author (and one of my personal senseis) Jan Chozen Bays-Roshi will be reading from her new book, Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship With Food TONIGHT at 7:30pm @ the Hawthorne Powell's Books, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd. A discussion and mini-practice session will follow.

The official publisher blurb:

Here is an accessible and encouraging exploration of how and why to apply the Zen art of mindfulness to transform our "issues" with food. Whether we are overweight (as are two-thirds of American adults today) or suffer from an eating disorder, learning to eat mindfully can liberate us from the suffering we experience with food. Practiced for centuries in the Zen tradition, mindful eating is an approach that involves bringing one's full attention to the process of eating—becoming fully present to the tastes, smells, thoughts, and feelings that arise during a meal. Preliminary research funded by the National Institutes of Health indicates that mindfulness is effective in treating eating disorders.

Dr. Bays, a physician and Zen teacher, offers a wonderfully clear presentation of what mindfulness is and how it can help us create a healthier relationship with food. In Mindful Eating she shows us how to rediscover the simple act of eating, thereby gaining control of our eating problems from the inside out. Along the way she reviews the relevant research, offers medical information, and presents numerous practical exercises drawn from her workshops. Through mindful eating we not only overcome our issues with food, but we can reawaken our sense of pleasure and satisfaction. This book shows us how.

Mindful Eating also includes a 70-minute audio CD containing guided exercises read by the author.

About the Author:

Jan Chozen Bays is a Zen master in the White Plum lineage of the late master Taizan Maezumi Roshi. She serves as a priest and teacher at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon, and is also a pediatrician who specializes in the evaluation of children for abuse and neglect.

Sangha friends and other beloved readers,

Recently, a few memes in a number of my discussions groups 'round the great big ol' web have gone back and forth regarding unwanted or unforeseen or painful mind-states arising while doing zazen, either from PTSD, SoMoL ("Stress of Modern Life") or other like issues.

In preparations for something, I had occasion to re-read this section from fellow Blogspotter Brad Warner's second book Sit Down And Shut Up, and I found this to be rather insightful, and I pass it along with the hope and intention that it may at least help some feel less alone when those painful and upsetting mind-states happen while doing zazen.

"Most of my life, I've been a fairly stressed-out guy. But at the same time, I've always had a hard time admitting that. For one thing, I grew up in a middle-class white suburb. I was always under the impression that people from that kind of background couldn't possibly experience real stress. I mean, unless they had, like, abusive parents or a terminal disease or something. My understanding was that true stress was something you got when something seriously awful occurred. Anything else was just a case of being whiny.

"I was wrong, of course. But that's what I thought. So I was never able to acknowledge that the migraines and pizza-face acne I suffered from in my teens and twenties were brought on by stress. At one point, I even convinced myself, incorrectly, that the headaches were the result of an allergy to corn.

"So, seeing as how I didn't believe I could possibly be suffering from stress when I first got into Zen in college, I was not specifically looking for something to help control it. Nor was Zen ever sold to me in those terms. Although you will often see hawkers of various meditation techniques touting meditation as a method of managing stress, you very rarely hear of Zen teachers advising people to take up the practice for that reason. Yet, I think Zen practice may be the most effective way to reduce stress.

"There's a caveat, though. There are techniques that can help really stressed-out people find a bit of calm rather quickly. Zen isn't one of those. It doesn't work the way things like relaxation tapes or self-hypnosis do. In fact, it's pretty common for people to end up getting more stressed-out when they first start Zen practice. Which is why a lot of therapists and even Zen teachers caution against using zazen as a way to cope with stress.

"But that's in the short run. In the long run Zen is a far more through way to manage stress than any of those other techniques. And the reason for this is the same reason that it's a fairly poor way to manage stress in the short run.

"There are times when zazen can make you more aware of tensions you hadn't noticed before. This sometimes leads people to believe that zazen has increased their tension. But it hasn't really. When you do zazen, it's like taking the lid off a boiling pot. All the stuff that's bubbling away under that lid comes rushing to the surface and might even start bubbling over if you don't turn down the heat. By bringing things to the surface, zazen enables you to see very clearly what needs to be worked on. That in itself can be stressful. This is one of the reasons Zen doesn't work as a short-term solution to being stressed. Plus, it's not enough just to see what you need to work on. You've actually got to work on it.

"Other methods of stress management can give you a way to calm yourself down a bit without making any real committed effort to work on the things that are actually causing your stress in the first place. Those other methods are like clamping an even heavier lid on the pot so you can't see what's wrong. But most of us would rather do that than turn down the heat. That's because turning down the heat means turning away from our ego-based sense of self, something most of us take to be the most important thing in the whole wide world" (Warner, 81-83).

Short-form: zazen isn't always a feel-good practice. To Brad-sensi, it's pasta pots. To me, it's often like prying up old pavers. Sometimes you find liberty dimes, sometimes you find slugs, sometimes you find headless melted plastic army-men, and sometimes you find ants swarming instantly all over you. Either way, the work needs to be done in order to smooth out the walkway, no matter what's under the pavers...


It would be very easy to get all philosophical with this next exposition. I am going to try and not do that. I am going to try really, really hard.

I was sent away from sanzen last week having been told to think on why lying is bad. Well, that's not entirely correct. Damn it! I already failed. The honest truth is, I don't actually remember exactly what I was supposed to work on, but it was about lying and the precepts. So, I just paraphrased and assembled what I thought was the gist of what I was told to do out of the information I did remember, knowing (hoping) that logic would most likely steer me right.

But is that a lie?

Interesting little tidbit before we slog on. That word above--"gist"--as in "to get the gist of something"? The etymology of that word is French, from the word gesir, and means "to lie"1. How very interesting that a word in common English meaning "to get to the kernel of something" is based on a word in another language for lying. We Englishers and our wacky language. We always break our toys, don't we? Anyway, back to the lie at hand.

The question "what is truth" has been a pop-hit in philosophy for a few thousand years. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it out this way:

A preliminary issue, although somewhat subsidiary, is to decide what sorts of things can be true. Is truth a property of sentences (which are linguistic entities in some language or other), or is truth a property of propositions (nonlinguistic, abstract and timeless entities)? The principal issue is: What is truth? It is the problem of being clear about what you are saying when you say some claim or other is true. The most important theories of truth are the Correspondence Theory, the Semantic Theory, the Deflationary Theory, the Coherence Theory, and the Pragmatic Theory. They are explained and compared here. Whichever theory of truth is advanced to settle the principal issue, there are a number of additional issues to be addressed:
  1. Can claims about the future be true now?
  2. Can there be some algorithm for finding truth – some recipe or procedure for deciding, for any claim in the system of, say, arithmetic, whether the claim is true?
  3. Can the predicate "is true" be completely defined in other terms so that it can be eliminated, without loss of meaning, from any context in which it occurs?
  4. To what extent do theories of truth avoid paradox?
  5. Is the goal of scientific research to achieve truth?
...and blah, and more blah, etc. Philosophy is great like that. The big question can really be distilled down to this very simple question: can we ever know the truth?

In his Metaphysics, Aristotle stated “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”. So, essentially, to say something false of the truth is to lie, while to say something true of the truth is to state a truth. I would so have been busted in Phi-101 for that. But this is the trouble with philosophy down at the macro-scale. You often trip yourself up by defining your terms with the terms you're trying to define. Socrates', Plato's and Aristotle's arguments about truth generally all boil down to this sort-of sticky distillation, in philosophy referred to as correspondence theory, and while pretty snazzy back in 380BCE, now notsomuch. It's still one of the foundation pilliars of Epistemology, but it's no real answer by itself.

And that's the trouble/point/gist: philosophy (any school or sect of it that you wish to hook your cart to) really still doesn't have a handle on this whole "truth" business. I mean, we have a few decent working theories, and people that came later, like Kant, Hegel, Sartre, et al, tried their best to wrestle this beast to the ground and put a cute break-away collar on it, but in the end, all failed (which is good, because that's what keeps philosophers in business: the failure of previous philosophers!) For me, a few got closer than others. Søren Kierkegaard, through his Johannes Climacus character, famously stated "Truth is Subjectivity". Now, this is often mistaken as meaning "It's true because I believe it to be so," but that is very not the case. Kierkegaard was hitting upon something much more subtle (and frankly, profound) than that. He was saying that an objective approach to personal truth can never actually get to the important bit of it--the gist, if you will--for the person investigating a given question. Essentially, he is saying that dumbing down things to simple objects, mere 1's and 0's, is just as full of fail as saying "It is too a flying purple people eater, because I believe it is, and you can't prove me wrong!" Kierkegaard allows that at times, and in certain pursuits (science, math, history, gin rummy) it is useful to call a spade a spade. However, if you do, you do so with the understanding and acceptance that the result obtained, while practical and generally representative of the truth, cannot ever be a full and total representation of the truth; it can only be a concensus opinion, and that's not all that damn helpful when it comes to figuring out your life. It would seem that the truth is relative, and not only relative, but dependent upon the senses and intellects of others. Danger, Will Robinson!

So using philosophy is fraught with gopher-holes when figuring out this truth -vs- lying issue.

Ahhh... philosophy. Remember when I said that I promsed not to go there?

Here's my problem. Well, in my opinion, it's not just my problem, it's all of ours, especially when it comes down to this issue. We, as smrt monkeys, tend to go to philosophy a lot when it comes to issues like this. And, as is rather predictable of me, I fell for it really quickly. We hear a philosophical-ish question, and immediately the intellect kicks in and says "Wait! I have this one! Stand back!" I have now prattled on for a goodly number of keystrokes with regards to "what is truth", when, in fact, that wasn't even the question. The question is "why is not lying important with regards to the Five Precepts?" I find it very interesting that while the two seem to hold hands rather nicely, they are very different, and are actually not even related.

The Precepts tend to be looked at as Buddhist "commandments" although they are very far from that in the Judeo-Christian sense. Vowing to abstain from taking life, stealing, misusing sexual energy, speaking falsely or consuming things to purpously cloud the mind, while seemingly obvious, are a bit more nuanced than merely being "good rules to live by". The Precepts all lead the person taking them towards a single, unified idea that can be looked at as being the core, the kernel, of not only a Buddhist life, but of all lives. They all are vows that will lead to a skillful life. Now, one could argue that other religions have commandments or precepts that do the same, and while that may be true in places, for the most part, none are as stream-lined as these ideas that the Buddha laid down. And since I'm a buddhist, and this is a question from a buddhist to a buddhist about buddhism, we'll play with that ball and bat.

Reaching back up to Kierkegaard, we see and take as read that objectifying things cannot get us to the truth, and fully subjectifying everything just leaves us in a state of self-delusion. If that is the case, then what is the harm in lying? What is the harm in, say, telling her those pants make her ass look big, or that his father wasn't the milk-man? What difference does it make? That really is the question. It's not "why is lying wrong". It's not "why is telling the truth right". The question is really "what the hell does it matter?"

When examining existence, when inquiring into the nature of reality, we must presuppose something, and that is the validity of our experience inside that very phenomena we refer to as "existence". We must assume "our self" in order to inquire. However, if one does not inquire, but simply experiences, there is no assumption that need be made. And in order to experience, one must be willing to cast off all unskillful habits and actions, because nothing true ever comes from that which is unskillful.

You'll often hear "No good ever comes from lying" but that, too, is a wrong view. Whoever said that certainly wasn't answering the door while Anne Frank and family were hiding in the attic. Seems pretty skillful to me. So, take the external effect of lying out of the picture for a minute. Why? Well, the external really isn't a very useful way (as the Frank illustration shows) of measuring things, is it? This lying thing must be about something greater than just this observable external phenomenal world and our interactions with it. We use our senses to take in that world, but our senses are often wrong, so we can't really use them as a basis for any kind of sure measure of reality. All we really have that we can know is that which we can experience.

Unlike the truth (or The Truth, whichever you prefer) which appears to be an external thing, standing upon high, glowing with some ethereal majesty, lying is an action. Lying is a choice we make. To lie is to chose illusion over reality. To lie is to want that which is unreal. To lie is to take a step away from what we really, truly are, because we are, by nature, full of the right stuff. That stuff is the stuff of skillful action. That stuff is the want of peace and non-suffering. That stuff is reality. And unskillful action is never about reality. Unskillful action is never about the Truth. Unskillful action is always rooted in ignorance of the truth, and attachment to the ego. Therefore, to lie, to willfuly choose unreality over reality, is simply unskillful means, and will never, ever result in a closer, more genuine experience of the Dharma.

Kierkegaard was getting close. You can never have a theory of the truth, just the experience of it. But as he was getting the objective and subjective to do an interesting two-step, he was still in a dualistic dance. In the end, though, the Nazis were still a-knockin'.

The short-form to all this nonsense above is this:
  • Not all "not-truths" are lies.
  • Not all truths are Truths.
  • All lies are not the True Dharma.
  • To lie is to not be out of touch with our true selves.
  • We ARE the truth.

Simply put, your mama was right: when you lie, you only hurt yourself. However, when you understand that "yourself" actually equals "all of us", it's a bigger fail than you may have anticipated. We either all develop mad skillfulness, or nobody gets to the other side of the river. It's all or nothing. No lie...

I'm gonna have to get back to this post, because to me it's still scattered, and frankly, like my understanding, needs fine-tuning.

“When we discover that the truth is already in us, we are all at once our original selves.”


Of all the things in life that make me upset, making someone upset upsets me the most. I really hate hurting people. Always have. This probably comes from my hyper-empathetic nature. For a long time, I saw this as a sort of weakness. You couldn't be strong if you were always feeling the pain of others. So I developed some calluses that kept that at bay. Of course, I took it too far in that direction and became a bit of a bastard back in the early 90's. It fit with the times, though. I was a Neo-Con, and we were encouraged to look down upon people in order to keep the ideology afloat. Anyways, the calluses are pretty well gone now, and while I can still reach back and find my inner bastard when needed (and it is still needed at times; ever try and get an overdraft charge reversed with US Bank?) I typically don't use that power much anymore.

But my therapist has been encouraging me to express things inside me that hurt, especially when (I feel like) I've been hurt by someone elses' actions. Apparently, I have developed a bit of a tendency to keep quiet when hurt in order to preserve peace and stability. Now, to me, this is a useful thing. I spent a lot of my time in the past "venting", and never really got much out of it, so I didn't really see a point to it, and just sort-of stopped doing it. I didn't feel "bottled up", so I thought what I was doing, or how I was or wasn't doing things, was fine. But apparently this lack of self-expression started acting like a big moldy wet blanket these past years, and has really allowed some nasty garbage to grow in the stagnant air trapped under it.

Enter the blog.

Now it's not that I'm new to blogging. I helped build these here tubes back when they were run by compressed air and steam, and had a personal web thingy as far back as 1993. Before that, I was an avid BBS'er well back into the 80's (and before trolls start snarking; I have actually used both FidoNet, and ARPANET on a 300BPS modem, so shut it). Anyhow, I have a long and chequered history when it comes to leaving footprints in the digital sand. There is some truly dumb stuff floating around in the web of time that has my name on it, but it is typically about me alone. I've never been much on airing laundry that isn't mine.

The blogsphere offers an interesting platform. Being as wired as I am, and having folks that follow my writings and ramblings, one would think it only logical for me to blog. However, I actually resisted for many, many years. I just didn't think that me saying anything out-loud would be of any benefit to anyone. I did keep an active blog over at Suicidegirls.com for a number of years, though; mostly as an adjunct to my piloting and managing a number of SIG's there. That's really where my blognique was honed. Once I decided that my time with non-3D tattoo'd nekkidness was at an end, I realized--mostly from my readers there saying "Where can I read your blog?"--that I did, in fact, need one. So I hammered this thing out. It languished for a few months.

Last fall, at the beginning of the biggest changes my life has know in the past twenty-five years, my therapist suggested (encouraged, cajoled) that I actually use it as a tool for getting my feelings out. Yeah, crazy, but she's a smart cookie, and I knew that she was right about the bottling-up thing. So I slowly started posting more personal tid-bits. It did feel helpful to not let so many feelings go unexpressed. More recently, it has become a bit of a Zen sandbox where I can work on formulating ideas and hashing out certain understandings. Very helpful. As my connection with my sangha grew, many of us started up Facebook pages, and have enjoyed getting a glimpse into each-other's lives while off the cushion. So I thought it pretty neat that Facebook had an app/widget thingy that took your blog posts and posted them on my Facebook page. Cool. No more heavy lifting cut-and-pasting. Thank gawd; that was sooooo 2007.

This past week has been emotionally raw one for me. The divorce is proceeding (which is a good thing, don't get me wrong) but with it comes feelings of fear, concern and sadness. Now understand me; it's these times that I'm most likely to hole-up and go quiet, making my depression and inner-pain even worse than it actually is. So, time to write about it. Time to let it out, thought I. But even in that writing, I was careful to make sure I wasn't just venting my spleen. I took pains to elucidate how I feel, but not to stretch it out into unrealistic proportions. If anything, I was going for pathos, not pity. I didn't pull any punches, but I did temper my hurt with what I thought was the over-arching truth of the situation. I was hurting inside, and needed to let it out. And since the person I used to let it out to was a subject, the blog seemed to be the best mechanism for doing so constructively.

However, I failed to remember the fabulous Facebook gnome that would check my blog twice a day and repost it for all to see. In that blog entry, there were some specifics mentioned that--while completely factual--were really better left off the morning's front page, especially without context of any kind. So for this blog entry to suddenly "go live"--with no filter or context of any kind, no matter how "true", "accurate" or "honest" its content may be--could be rather upsetting and very easily hurtful to someone I care very deeply about, no matter the practical circumstance.

So, to wrap this rambling thing up, I'd like to say this:

To my favorite person on earth:

I am sorry I screwed up.
I am sorry I hurt your feelings.
I am sorry if I embarrassed you.
I still love you enough to get divorced.
Zonker puked in your closet.
I cleaned it up already.