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…”

Meaning Matters

Sam peers at me from behind his dark-framed glasses. The lanky young man with bleached hair and interesting tattoos on his left arm is a graduate student at a nearby university. He sees me for weekly therapy sessions, and mostly we talk about his anxiety. Sam is studying to be a programmer at a software company. Recently, he worried aloud, “Why do I keep studying for this job that will just make money for a boss who already has it all? It doesn’t make sense.” He continued, “We just build algorithms that make people even more addicted to their devices. I want to put my energy into something that gives meaning to my life.”

This is not an easy time to find meaning for ourselves. 

I listen to friends and clients who experience their lives as empty and purposeless—those who feel aimless or adrift. There are plenty of reasons for people to hide, hibernate, stop working, experience anxiety and depression, or feel numb to the affairs of our world. Over fifty years ago, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl told us that we were living in a “vacuum of meaning,” but the existential crisis he was describing then seems even more salient now.

Like Sam, many of my young clients worry about what their future will look like and how they’ll find a sense of meaning. For me, the image of the Greek hero Sisyphus comes up. 

While many see Sisyphus as a symbol of futility—condemned by the gods of Mount Olympus to roll a heavy stone ceaselessly up the mountain, only to see it roll down again—the French existentialist Albert Camus had a different view. In Camus’s interpretation, Sisyphus pushes his stone forward with an attitude of knowing and dignity. He knows that he has no say about whether or not to complete his arduous task over and over again, so he uses what choice remains and decides to replace sorrow with joy. 

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Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Founder of the Controversial New Kadampa Tradition, Has Died

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a monk, author, and founder of New Kadampa Tradition-International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU), died on September 17 at age 91. 

New Kadampa Tradition, which split with the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in 1991 over the Dalai Lama’s direction to stop worshipping the deity Dorje Shugden, has grown swiftly worldwide in the last few decades, stirring controversy with its continued denouncement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as claims of cultike behavior and financial impropriety

To his students, Kelsang Gyatso was a quiet and “humble monk” who “holds the very essence of Buddhist teachings in his heart” and presents them in “ways that anyone, regardless of nationality, culture, gender, or age can easily understand their meaning and apply them to their modern daily life,” according to NKT’s website. 

An announcement on NKT’s website said: “Our most precious Spiritual Guide Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche showed the manner of passing peacefully into the clear light,” and that Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, the tradition’s “mother center” in the United Kingdom, would be closed on September 20 and 21, 2022, for “a short retreat using his special prayer.” 

Geshe Kelsang was born in eastern Tibet in 1931, and his biographies indicate that he was ordained as a monk when he was 8 years old. He left Tibet in 1959, the year of the Tibetan uprising, and settled as a refugee in India, where he continued his monastic studies at Sera Je Monastery. (It is disputed whether or not Kelsang Gyatso obtained his geshe degree; Kelsang Gyatso uses the title of “geshe,” the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a doctoral degree, and his students refer to him as “Geshe-la.”) 

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The Ridiculous Effectiveness of Singleminded Devotion to a Purpose

By Leo Babauta

People I’ve been coaching lately have been stuck in indecision about what purpose they should pursue. At this kind of crossroads, we can become plagued by doubt.

And that makes sense: if you’re not sure what your purpose is, then going after a single choice can feel really uncertain. How do I know if this is the thing? What if I suck at it, if I fail, if I make the wrong choice?

But getting stuck in this kind of doubt and indecision is often much worse than making a single choice and failing at it. If you fail at something, at least you gave it a shot, and you learned something valuable. You practiced taking action, you practiced working with fear, you empowered that choice, and now you can empower the next one.

If you’re stuck in inaction and doubt, you often just feel crappy about yourself. You get zero results staying in this kind of false safety.

So making a choice to pursue a single purpose — even if you’re unsure about it — can be one of the most powerful things we can do.

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A Mindfulness Practice to Meet Tough Emotions with Curiosity

Over the years, as I’ve studied how habits work in the brain and ways in which mindfulness can help, I’ve found that curiosity is a simple tool that can help us, regardless of language, culture and background. It can help us drop directly into our embodied experience. Curiosity helps us tap into our natural capacity for wonder and interest, putting us right in that sweet spot of openness and engagement, even with difficult emotions. From this state of mind, we’re more empowered to help ourselves break out of these old habit loops and build new habits of kindness and curiosity. 

Find a quiet, comfortable place. You can be sitting, lying down or even standing up. You just need to be able to concentrate without being distracted. Recall a recent time when you experienced a difficult emotion. You might even be feeling it right now. It could be anxiety. It could be feeling down or sad. See if you can remember the scene, maybe even relive the experience, focusing on what you felt right at that time. Check in with your body. What sensations can you feel most strongly right now? Is it tightness, pressure, contraction? Restlessness or burning? Tension, clenching, or heat? Maybe a pit in your stomach or a buzzing or vibration? Simply feel it and get curious. What is most predominant right now? Notice where the sensation is in your body. Is it more on the right side or the left side? Is it more in the front, the middle, or the back of your body? Where do you feel it most strongly? Explore what else you can feel in your body right now. If the sensation is still there, see if you can get curious and notice what else is there as well. Are there other sensations you’re feeling? What happens when you get curious about those? Do they change? What happens when you really get curious about what they feel like?Simply follow this procedure over the next couple of minutes. See what’s most predominant in your experience. What are the sensations? Don’t try to do anything about them. Simply observe them. Do they change when you observe them? What happens when you bring a really solid attitude of curiosity? It’s often helpful to check in with your attitude, to see if you’re truly being curious or trying to be curious. I find it helpful to simply check to see if my mind is going hmm. What’s happening in my body right now? as compared to trying to force myself to be curious. So whether it’s out loud or just an inner hmm, you can check from time to time to see if your mind is truly being curious or if it’s trying to be curious or thinking too much. If you notice that you’re trying or you’re thinking, you can simply get curious about that. Hmm. There’s a thought. Hmm. What does trying feel like in my body? Just continue this noticing for the next couple of minutes. And as you practice, whatever the challenging emotion is, simply get curious. Where do I feel it? Do the sensations change over time? Where do I feel the most strongly in my body? 

As we finish up, I hope this short exercise has helped you get a taste of curiosity as a way to support your natural capacity to be aware of what’s happening in your body right now. Even with challenging emotions, we can bring this attitude of kindness and curiosity to our experience, moment to moment. What do I feel? Where do I feel it? What does it feel like? Hmm. And each time, we’re naturally bringing in that curiosity. 

If you’ve noticed that by being curious, you’ve gained even a microsecond of being aware of those thoughts, those emotions, those body sensations, and that you can actually be with these rather than running away from them, you’ve taken a huge step forward. Thank yourself for taking this time to take care of yourself, and notice what that feels like as well. 

As you move into the rest of your day, see if you can bring some of this curiosity with you as you go. Each moment, maybe even just taking a moment to notice when you’re caught up in an emotion or when you’re resisting something. And maybe drop in a little hmm. What does this feel like? And see what happens next. Onward! 

(Originally posted by Judson Brewer)

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A New Monument Addresses the Erasure of Japanese American Incarceration

On September 25th, the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles will launch an interactive project that expands and reimagines what a monument can be. Led by USC Ito Center Director Duncan Ryuken Williams and Project Creative Director Sunyoung Lee, the Irei: National Monument for the WWII Japanese American Incarceration aims to address the erasure of Japanese American incarceration in the US. At the heart of the Irei Monument is the first comprehensive and accurate list of over 125,000 names of every person of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II. Now, the list will be shared with the public through three distinct, interlinking elements: a sacred book of names as monument (慰霊帳 Ireichō), an online archive as monument (慰霊蔵 Ireizō), and light sculptures as monument (慰霊碑 Ireihi).

The Irei Monument project draws inspiration from the history and traditions of monuments built by Buddhist priests and incarcerated individuals in internment camps, such as the Manzanar Ireito monument (Consoling Spirits Tower) in Inyo County, California, and the Rohwer Ireihi monument in Desha County, Arkansas. “The Ireito monument is always in my mind as a reminder of this history and a Buddhist way of understanding memory,” Williams told Tricycle. “It was not just for remembering, but also for repairing. The monument was just as much for consoling those who have gone before as it was for those who remain. It’s through that spirit that we’re building these new monuments in the 21st century.”

Following an installation ceremony with community members on the 24th, the Ireichō will open to the general public at JANM on the 25th. The Ireizō—an interactive, searchable archive—will also become available online on the 25th. Hosted by the USC Shinso Ito Center in partnership with Densho, a Japanese American educational resource that specializes in digital archives, the Ireizō will provide a digital archive of all those listed in the book of names, as well as additional research materials about the lives of the incarcerees. Further down the line, in 2024 and 2025, the Ireihi light sculptures will be installed at various sites of incarceration. These dynamic light displays will project the names of all those who experienced wartime incarceration onto monumental towers. 

Project Creative Director Sunyoung Lee (left) and USC Ito Center Director Duncan Ryuken Williams (right) look through the Ireichō while it’s in the process of being bound. | Photo by Kristen Murakoshi

Based on the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence, the interlinking aspects of the monument are intended to be interactive and shifting. “Even monuments, memory, remembrance, and repair work are dynamic and changing,” Williams said. “If we think of monuments in this way—that they are, in fact, meant to be shifting and not permanent—we can have a different conception of what a monument is.” 

On launch day, the public will be among the first to view and acknowledge individual names in the Ireichō. The large book of names aims to not only memorialize the past but repair the fractures caused by America’s racial karma. Over 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in the US Army, Department of Justice, Wartime Civil Control Administration, and War Relocation Authority camps. “Incarceration was about excising a whole community from America and seeing them as a threat to security. Whether they were a citizen, a baby, or a grandmother, it didn’t matter,” Williams said. “One effort of trying to repair this history is to give people back their personhood by naming them.” The Ireichō is sequenced from the oldest person to the youngest, and embedded into the very materiality of the book are ceramic pieces made from clay that contains soil from 75 former incarceration sites. Over the course of a year-long installation, visitors will be asked to interact with the monument by leaving a permanent mark on it using a special Japanese hanko (stamp) as a way to honor those incarcerated. By leaving a mark for each name, visitors will change the nature of the monument, and in turn, their own experience of the monument will be changed. 

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