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…”

Practicing Dana, Sila, and Bhavana as I Transition

When I finally swallowed a small blue pill that smelled like an odd mint for the first time last year, I cried. Taking Estradiol and Spironolactone for hormone replacement therapy (HRT) helped me feel a sense of worthiness I had never been offered before, either by society or by myself. But it hasn’t been easy.

I recently celebrated my one year anniversary of starting the medical and social transition as a transgender woman. Though medical transition through HRT, which is also called Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy, does not make my transgender identity more legit, I have never given myself something so important. And it is through practicing the Buddhist principles of dana (generosity), sila (commitment to nonharming), and bhavana (cultivation of a wholesome mind) that I have started to trust that I might, in fact, be worthy of such a gift.  

This last year has been a mixture of doubt, joy, depression, acceptance, desire, grieving, confusion, disillusionment… Intense would be one word to describe it all. Though I’m a trans woman, I do not present hyperfeminine, nor do I subscribe to the typical aesthetics of “man” or “woman.” But because I make my livelihood as a meditation teacher and Broadway performer, my appearance is public, and I have felt constant internal and external pressure to “look like a woman” by wearing certain clothes, hairstyles, and makeup. It’s not so simple. When Broadway opened up after an almost-two-year COVID-19 shutdown, going back to rehearsals was a big moment for me. I was able to have conversations with the producers and creative team about what changes I might need to feel aligned with my newly reclaimed identity. Outside of the show, I slowly started to audition for female, transgender, or gender nonconforming roles. Though that came with infinite doubts, my artistry expanded further as I played roles that felt more like me.

I didn’t realize how exhausted I was from all of this until I sat at an online weekend retreat. Or rather, I lay down and slept during it. The pressure of my life had been cooking, and I finally found a pause to let off some of the steam. I fell asleep during almost all of the sitting sessions and took naps on breaks, then slept through the night for the first day. I felt the heaviness and delirious sensation of sloth and torpor, one of the five hindrances of meditation practice, where there was enough mindfulness present. My intention to do the retreat this time was to rest, not to deepen my practice, though these things go hand-in-hand—in order to go deeper, one might need to rest deeply. I appreciated that my system knew what to do and shut down, and I accepted it as a gift.

This retreat helped me recognize the severe intensity of my internal and external conditions while medically and socially transitioning. It allowed me to put down the intensity just for a while to remember the aspiration for starting HRT: as a practice of generosity toward myself.

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Best of the Haiku Challenge (July 2022)

The poet Kai Hasegawa (b. 1954) once suggested that kokoro (“sincere feeling” or “heart”) is the quality most lacking in contemporary haiku. According to Hasegawa, the modern emphasis on realism has resulted in a form of poetry that is “only about things.” This was not the case with the winning and honorable mention poems for last month’s haiku challenge. Our poets wrote about their subjects with feeling, crafting poems that used objective imagery to convey wonder, awe, and an intimate sense of connection with their fellow creatures from the natural world.

Kathy Fusho Nolan captured an uncanny moment of oneness with a garter snake as she let it cross her open palm.Devin Maroney felt a sense of childlike wonder watching a water snake wiggle its body, while its head remained “so still.”Lisa Anne Johnson discovered that, even when she knows a snake is about to strike its prey, she still can’t prepare for it.

Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

You can submit a haiku for the August challenge here.



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The Difference Between Attachment and Love

In my native land waves of attachment to friends and kin
Hatred for enemies rages like fire,
The darkness of stupidity, not caring what to adopt or avoid,
To abandon my native land is the practice of a bodhisattva.

This second verse [in The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, written in the fourteenth century C.E. by a monk named Gyalse Thogme Sangpo,] does not just refer to our outer native land. It doesn’t just mean that we all have to go across the world in order to practice, because we take our mind with us and it is our mind that has all this attachment and hatred and the darkness of our unknowing.

On the one hand, people get locked into habitual relationships. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche put it this way:

The meaning of leaving behind your native land is to leave behind the emotions of attachment, hatred, and the obscuring ignorance that permeates both. These three poisons, generally speaking, are most active in the relationships you establish with family and friends in your own homeland.

How often people react to each other out of old habits, without even really thinking about it anymore. So many negativities come up because of the way people habitually act and talk to others with whom they are familiar. Maybe the patterns started in childhood, and they continue on and on.

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The Haibun Lens

A decade ago, hiking alone for three weeks on the Long Trail, a wilderness footpath that traces the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains, I had déjà vu a thousand times. The content was never the same—the woods are a variable environment, perpetually fresh and new—but the pattern of the experience, the rhythm, remained consistent over 272 miles. 

I’d be trudging uphill, legs burning, chest heaving, eyes trained on the ground’s black mud and root-tangled rocks, mind everywhere and nowhere at once, and then, suddenly, unexpectedly—whoa! A camouflaged grouse would shoot from the ferns beside my knee, or a hornet would sting my wrist, or a windborne maple leaf would brush my cheek, or a deer would snort, or a thunderhead would boom, or a spider dangling on an invisible thread would materialize an inch beyond my nose. Abruptly, yet somehow seamlessly, I’d transition from the entranced blur of endurance to vivid focus.

During that beautiful, grueling, boring, exciting trek, when I wasn’t spaced out with effort or standing freeze-framed in awe, I was typically fretting about the shortcomings of language. The plan was to write an essay on the psychological texture of immersing oneself in the backcountry—and the plan, I increasingly realized, was a guaranteed disaster.

How could I possibly convey to readers the trail’s repetitive magic, its balance of hard forward marching and stunned attentiveness? How could I possibly communicate the knitting-together of dazed flow and tingly pause? Near the conclusion of the trip, dreading the return to my desk and imminent failure at my laptop, I remembered Matsuo Basho, the famous wandering haiku poet and Zen adept, and relaxed. Whew. Here was my template.

Specifically, I remembered haibun, a literary form that’s a combination of prose and haiku, which Basho pioneered (the word first appears in a letter around the summer of 1690) in order to better document, nay, to more powerfully evoke, the multifaceted spiritual pilgrimages that he made in Japan in the later years of his life. The idea of a poetic journey, or michiyuki, was firmly established—the medieval priest Saigyo sequenced verse from the open road back in the 1100s—but by inserting blocks of narration as a kind of connective tissue between his tiny polished haiku, Basho developed a travel diary unlike any before. 

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Awakening through the Jhanas

A few days before the eminent scholar Lance Cousins passed away in 2015, he revealed to one of his students, Sarah Shaw, that he had been working on a book on Buddhist meditation. After his death, with the permission of his family, Shaw found the manuscript on his desktop and prepared it for publication. The book, Meditations of the Pali Tradition: Illuminating Buddhist Doctrine, History, and Practice, which comes out September 27, is the first comprehensive exploration of meditation systems in Theravada Buddhism, and it offers an in-depth analysis of the ritual, somatic, and devotional aspects of Theravada practice that are often overlooked.

In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, sat down with Shaw to discuss a system of Buddhist meditation known as the jhanas, as well as the underappreciated role of joy in meditative practice.


What are the jhanas? 

The jhanas are a way of the mind finding unity and peace within itself. We usually apply our minds to things we need to do or things we’re working on, like the housework. But what we don’t do very easily is release our mind from the preoccupations around us and just let it settle on the breath. When the mind can settle, a great joy and happiness can arise. Eventually, this will take the mind to this state known as jhana, where the mind is unified and freed from searching for other objects.

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