Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Learning How to Concentrate

The world is a distracting place. And while it has certainly become more and more distracting in many ways, this is not a new problem by any means. As the futurist and best-selling author Alex Pang writes in his masterful book The Distraction Addiction, “Humans have always had to deal with distraction and lack of focus—and for thousands of years, they have been cultivating techniques that effectively address them.”

Let me confess something at the outset: I am very easily distracted. If I sit at a restaurant with a television, I can’t help watching it. If I hear someone talking at the next table, I lose track of my own conversation. If I pick up my phone to check the time, I might not put it down for 10 minutes.

In other words, focus does not come easily to me. I have to work at it. Years ago, I used to take my laptop with me to meetings, thinking I was being efficient by checking email during the slow parts. Then I realized I was paying no attention to the people around me, sometimes forgetting to get up when the meeting was over. Now I leave my computer at my desk—and try to keep my phone in my pocket. 

Smartphones are, of course, a huge source of distraction. Studies find that their use “increases reaction time, reduces focus, and lowers performance” of anything requiring concentration. This is why, by one estimate, smartphone distraction now contributes to almost a quarter of all traffic accidents.

The problem is that we are far, far worse at multitasking than we think. No matter what we tell ourselves, “Only a limited amount of information can be attended to at any given moment.” We may think we’re expertly juggling half a dozen tasks at once, but we’re really just switching between them very inefficiently, repeatedly disrupting our concentration.

Continue reading
  15 Hits
  0 Comments
15 Hits
0 Comments

Practicing at the Office

Right Livelihood is the fifth practice on the noble eightfold path. But the reality is that the Buddha never held down a nine-to-five job, having traded a sumptuous lifestyle for one of even-handed asceticism. Perhaps that’s why even the most avid Buddhists often find it difficult to fully relate their practice to the world of watercoolers, pitch decks, and team meetings. Dan Zigmond, a dharma teacher, author, and seasoned expert in the tech world, hopes to bridge that gap.

“Part of my obligation as a Zen priest and as a Buddhist in general is to relieve suffering––and a lot of people are suffering in the workplace,” Zigmond said of his latest book, Buddha’s Office: The Ancient Art of Waking Up While Working Well (Running Press, December 3, 2019), which considers how the dharma fits into the white-collar world, parsing out skillful ways to take breaks and manage stress. Zigmond is no stranger to demanding workplaces: He has held positions at Instagram, Google, and Facebook and is currently the director of data science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, established by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. He’s also a Tricycle contributing editor and co-author of Buddha’s Diet, a book that explores the health benefits of a monastic eating schedule. 

Tricycle spoke with Zigmond about the ideas behind the book, finding a middle way between work and life, and how to know whether or not we’re on the path to right livelihood. 

Why did you write this book?

 I’ve been a practicing Buddhist since college, and I was ordained as a lay Zen priest in 1998 by Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. For almost that long, I’ve also worked in the tech industry. For many years I kept these worlds fairly separate, but more recently I’ve looked for ways to bring these parts of my life closer together and take seriously this notion of bringing your whole self to work. This book is my attempt to put to paper some of what I learned in treating work not as a distraction from my practice but as part of my practice. It’s also about exploring healthier ways to be at work. 

Continue reading
  15 Hits
  0 Comments
15 Hits
0 Comments

Thanks, But No Thanks

Once a month, Tricycle features an article from Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984–2015 and now has a growing number of back issues archived at inquiringmind.com. In this month’s selection “Thanks, But No Thanks,” which first appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Inquiring Mind, philanthropist and storyteller Bokara Legendre reflects on how her approach to giving changed after being surprised by the way Buddhist centers responded to her gifts. Be sure to check out related articles in the archive, such as Ronna Kabatznick’s article on mindful eating, “Pindabaht, Shabbat and the End of Craving” and Inquiring Mind co-founder Wes Nisker’s “Attitude of Gratitude,” part of his Spring 2010 column. If you feel so inclined, consider making a donation to help Inquiring Mind continue adding articles to its archive!

I was brought up by an old-fashioned nanny in a household where I learned to say “thank you” practically before learning to say “Mummy,” and where icons of the past, such as ancestral portraits, were revered. Subsequently, I have lived an emancipated life as an actress, journalist, party giver and spiritual seeker. Nonetheless, pondering my experiences in Buddhist philanthropy for Inquiring Mind, I notice that my expectations around celebrations of gratitude and immortality are not only surreally out of date but spiritually immature. —BL 

In one of his many lives, the Buddha was a hare who lived peacefully in a mountain forest eating grass and leaves. His friends were an ape, a jackal, and a young otter whom he taught to eschew evil and do good by giving alms to the poor and spending holy days fasting. However, he was distressed that, as a rabbit, he had nothing much of worth to offer. After much thought, he decided to offer himself.

One day, hopping about the woods, he met a Brahmin traveler and was inspired to say to him, “Kindle a fire for your dinner.” Once the fire was roaring, the rabbit shook the dust off his fluffy coat and jumped in, finally content that he was giving himself as a meal to the Brahmin and dying in the flames of compassion and purification.

Continue reading
  30 Hits
  0 Comments
30 Hits
0 Comments

Humility and Humiliation

Sitting in meditation can make one sensitive and intuitive. It can also make you self-conscious and hypervigilant about making mistakes in the zendo in front of Buddha and all those people watching. Of course, there were my ordinary mistakes such as pouring boiling water on the teacher when serving tea or dropping food when serving the community. But there are also deeply archetypal scenes that haunt dreams and daydreams. These are imaginary and dreadful situations where you appear naked in the zendo, wet your pants, or offer loud flatulence when bowing. 

I have not yet enacted one of my more dreaded embarrassments, even though they may appear in my nightmares. I was, however, in the zendo when someone else did what I most feared—in full view of the community. Such a scene, during a meditation retreat, is embedded in the psyche and never forgotten. Wisdom is exposed for the perpetrator by living through embarrassment during a powerful enactment. For the observer, spiritual growth can also be firmly rooted in their path. Seeing someone live through your worst nightmare without lasting damage can be enlightening. The emotions are engaged, and they circulate awareness and embarrassment in the body.

In one seven-day sesshin at the Berkeley Zen Center, my job was to serve the food. All participants took part in organizing the retreat’s activities. When the meals were ready, I helped the cook put the food in the appropriate pots and bring the food to the zendo. In the zendo, the cook started the elaborate meal ceremony by offering three full bows as a symbol of respect for the source of the food and those who would receive it. This short but poignant ritual is accompanied by bells. All attention was tuned up; hungry meditators could smell the food and were anticipating a delicious meal and a rest thereafter.

The cook for that meal, George, was a warmhearted and friendly man in his seventies. He was well versed in how to enact the ritual. He bowed once—ding. He bowed twice—ding. And he bowed a third time—ding! But something went horribly wrong; when he stood up from his third bow, his sweatpants dropped from his waist and went down to his feet. George stood briefly and bravely in his underwear, in front of Buddha and all retreatants. When he realized that his pants were no longer in place, he scooped them up, pulled them back on, and hurried out of the zendo without stopping to enjoy lunch.

My first reaction was to pretend that George’s pants had not fallen off, so I could begin serving the food without further incident—let’s cover up what is uncomfortable because I have a schedule to keep. But I looked up to find the center’s founding teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, seated at the front of the room, convulsed with laughter—contagious laughter. And so, I stopped pretending that I hadn’t seen George’s pants fall off when he was bowing, and I began to laugh, too. Since I was carrying the food with both hands, ceremonially, to the front of the room, I couldn’t stop to wipe my eyes or nose—liquid from these orifices was streaming down my face. The thought of my dripping face only made me laugh more. Now everyone to whom I served food began to laugh—whether or not they had seen George’s pants fall off. 

Continue reading
  27 Hits
  0 Comments
27 Hits
0 Comments

Buddha Buzz Weekly: Buddhist Nationalist Candidate Wins Sri Lanka Presidential Election

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week. 

Buddhist Nationalist Gotabaya Rajapaksa Wins Sri Lanka Presidential Election

Last week Sri Lanka elected as their next president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate from the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), according to the Guardian. Rajapaksa is a former wartime defense chief and a member of the country’s most powerful political dynasty. He ran on a platform of aggressive national security in a country rattled by the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic extremists earlier this year. His main opponent, Sajith Premadasa of the ruling United National Party (UNP), accepted defeat after earning 41.99 percent of the vote with 80 percent of the population turning out to vote, one of the largest participation rates in recent history. The new president was sworn in on Monday at a temple in the city of Anuradhapura, where he received blessings from Buddhist monks, according to reporting by Reuters. Nicknamed “The Terminator” by his family, Rajapaksa served as secretary of defense when his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was president from 2005 to 2010. The Rajapaksas are credited with ending a bloody 26-year civil war between the Sinhala Buddhist government and minority Tamil separatists, but are accused of using aggressive tactics, including severe human rights abuses and media suppression. 

Rajapaksa’s victory raises fears about human rights and religious coexistence in Sri Lanka, where Buddhist nationalism and violence against minority Muslims and Tamils has increased in recent years. “Although I knew I would be voted in by the Sinhala Buddhists, I expected the Tamils and Muslims to also be part of my victory,” he said shortly after his electoral win. “But my expectations were not met,” he continued, calling for future cooperation. Minority groups did not find the remarks comforting, the Independent reports. Muslim communities have faced violence and boycotts since the Easter Sunday attacks, and the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist extremist force responsible for several anti-Christian and anti-Muslim riots, are said to have protection from the Rajapaksa family. Social worker MZA Ahmed, who declined to give his full name, said, “The minority communities in the east––Muslims as well as the Tamils and Christians––voted against the return of the Rajapaksas. Now we wonder, will we be punished for it?” According to the Guardian, Rajapaksa’s campaign confirmed that it intended to put Mahinda Rajapaksa forward as a candidate for prime minister in the general election in 2020. If he wins, the Rajapaksa brothers would have a double hold on power in Sri Lanka. 

Pope Meets Thailand’s Buddhist Supreme Patriarch 

On Thursday, during his official papal visit, Pope Francis met Thailand’s Buddhist Supreme Patriarch Ariyavongsagatanana IX at Wat Ratchabophit Sathit Maha Simaram Temple in Bangkok, according to Vatican News. Situating the meeting within a legacy of exchanges between previous popes and patriarchs, the pope stressed that the meeting was taking place “as part of the journey of esteem and mutual recognition initiated by our predecessors,” and that occasions like these “remind us how important it is for religions to become more and more beacons of hope, as promoters and guarantors of fraternity.” According to Reuters, Pope Francis also explicitly praised Thai people’s Buddhist faith: “The majority of Thais have drunk deeply from the sources of Buddhism, which have imbued their way of venerating life and their ancestors, and leading a sober lifestyle based on contemplation, detachment, hard work and discipline.” During a mass on the same day, he addressed the problem of Thailand’s sex tourism industry, condemning the exploitation of women and children, which has been exacerbated by the refugee crisis in Myanmar. In recent years, Thailand has become a major site for the human trafficking of Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority fleeing persecution in Myanmar. 

Tibetan Exile Government President Comments on Hong Kong, Dalai Lama 

In a recent interview with the Hong Kong Free Press, president of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, addressed human rights in Hong Kong and issues surrounding His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Sangay said that “[a]ll people in Hong Kong are asking for their human rights and their democracy which was promised. . .We [Tibetans] are in solidarity with people in Hong Kong because they deserve their democracy, they deserve their human rights.” Protesters in Hong Kong have faced increasing violence from Chinese authorities since the demonstrations began in response to the introduction of a controversial extradition bill (now shelved) in the spring of this year.  Sangay also commented on Beijing’s claim to control the personage of the next Dalai Lama, stressing that the decision was in the hands of Tibetans. “His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that it is for the Tibetan people to decide. . .[J]ust recently we had a special General Body meeting of Tibetan Community leaders from 24 countries, around 315 of them came and passed a unanimous resolution saying that we want that incarnation [from the] Tibetan people.” He also said that Buddhists “will not accept a Chinese Dalai Lama,” citing the destruction of Tibetan monasteries and the forced disrobement of monastics by the Chinese government since the invasion of Tibet in the 1950s. “This is their track record. They criticize His Holiness [the] Dalai Lama throughout his life. Now, they say, [they’ll] decide his incarnation.. . .How will they [monks and nuns] follow the Dalai Lama appointed by the Chinese government? No chance.” 

Continue reading
  31 Hits
  0 Comments
31 Hits
0 Comments