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…”

Finding Nirvana in the Classics

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, J. D. Salinger. When perusing the chapters of Buddhist teacher Dean Sluyter’s recent book, The Dharma Bum’s Guide to Western Literature: Finding Nirvana in the Classics, the dharmic connections may not seem so obvious. But that’s precisely the point. 

In The Dharma Bum’s Guide, published by New World Library in March 2022, Sluyter invites readers to look anew at the classics of Western literature to discover that they too offer valuable spiritual lessons. With wit and humor, Sluyter guides readers through titles commonly found in high school literature classes and reveals how their contents contain hints of the light of enlightenment, even if they didn’t use those terms explicitly. 

Tricycle recently spoke with Sluyter to learn about his inspirations for the book, the role of fun on the path to enlightenment, and the importance of looking at something, and then looking again. Read the interview below, and read an excerpt from the book’s chapter on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye here.

What inspired you to write The Dharma Bum’s Guide? Two things inspired me. One was my lifelong love of literature and the fact that I was teaching literature at a fancy New Jersey prep school for 33 years. And the other thing was my lifelong involvement with dharma, which began with some spontaneous childhood samadhi experiences. I later read Eastern texts and realized, Oh, that’s what that’s called. The two things started to cross-fertilize. I taught Macbeth, The Great Gatsby, and Huckleberry Finn for upwards of 30 years each. When you keep coming back to a text and spending your summers in deep retreat and meditation, you begin to connect the dots. 

I started seeing things. Like in Huckleberry Finn when Huck rows out into the middle of the river, after he’s fled from his father, and lies on his back, looks up into the sky, and says, “The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before.” Wow, that’s the baptism into the transcendent, and, specifically, that’s sky-gazing meditation. I thought, Has anyone else seen this? I guess I better start writing stuff down. 

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Fushin Dave Watson, Architect Turned Therapist and Spiritual Counselor, Holds Space for Difficult Truths

“So now I’m in Clinical Pastoral Education and I’m knocking on strangers’ doors and going into their rooms. They’re not even asking to see me and I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m Dave with spiritual care!’ It was ridiculously awkward, and at the same time, extremely generative for me in terms of what I learned about myself, my place in the world, and what I wanted to do,” says Fushin Dave Watson of his first unit of CPE at Good Samaritan Hospital in LA.

“Good Sam in LA is a grab-bag of the world. Certain people arrive in their Rolls-Royces for knee surgery, while at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got homeless folk who got hit by a car, or o.d.ed, or they’ve got some horrible disease they contracted from living on the streets. And these were the people I felt most drawn to. I would go into a room and all of the socio-economic stuff would fall away: it was just a person in a hospital gown in a bed. I had some profoundly deep and human experiences with a couple of the homeless people I visited, and I realized I really wanted to do more.”

Now part of the team that organizes the virtual Buddhist Chaplain Peer Circle (BCPC) meetings under the auspices of Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA), Fushin is currently transitioning away from a career in architecture and works as a care manager for Exodus Recovery in LA.

Fushin became interested in Buddhism in 2011, after he stopped drinking. He connected with dharma teacher Gil Fronsdal of Insight Meditation Center in Redwood, California, and the Zen Center of Los Angeles; started practicing regularly; and eventually received lay ordination and the dharma name Fushin: Abundant Heart. He also became a mindfulness instructor and held meditation sessions for incarcerated youth at juvenile hall.

He says he signed up for a year-long chaplaincy course a few years ago only because he wanted to spend more time studying with Fronsdal, his teacher. “I’m kind of an irreverent guy and I didn’t see myself as a chaplain,” he explains. “But I’m so glad I did the course, because during the process of going up there one Friday a month for nine months, my heart started to open and I learned that I have a strong connection to other people and with providing spiritual care. And my heart continues to open—it’s very much a work in progress.”

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Whirlpools and Billiard Balls

Charlotte Joko Beck, the founder of Ordinary Mind Zen School, used to describe the self as a “whirlpool in a river.” Not some massive wave out at sea, but just like when you’re watching the flow of the river and the banks send waves ripples backwards and forwards and little whirlpools form. Branches get caught in it, leaves, a bit of dirt. They swirl round and round. The whirlpool lasts for a second, a minute, an hour. Maybe it’s there most of the time, but it’s changing every second and it’s gone, just back into the river, the flow of the river.

Joko was arguing that that’s a pretty good image for the self. We aren’t permanent. We aren’t stable. From my point of view, what’s really important is that the whirlpool is made of river. It’s not separate in any sense from the river. It doesn’t even have any definite edges, any definite boundaries. It’s just here, and we can see it pulsing, fluid, and changing, and it’s gone. That’s actually a nice image for a Zen Buddhist idea of the self. 

And yet, most of the time, in most respects, we like to think of ourselves as something much more hard and permanent… like a billiard ball. The billiard ball doesn’t change. It bumps into things. It pushes them out of its way. And it’s part of a game. We think: Am I winning? Am I losing? That’s how we tend to live. And it’s even enshrined in things like the basis of our laws. Everything is about the individual, increasingly so. This is part of what it is to be a modern human being.

So what’s the consequence of trying to live like a billiard ball, imagining that we’re a billiard ball? It sets up tension within ourselves. It sets us in competition, one with another. We forget and entirely deny our whirlpool nature.


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Tricycle’s Highlights From the Week: The Winner’s of Last Month’s Haiku Challenge, a Short Meditation on Releasing Tension, and an Interview with Tibetan Musician Tenzin Choegyal

Plus more news from the Buddhist world you may have missed

By TricycleJun 18, 2022

Tenzin Choegyal | Photo by David Kelly & Rod Philbeam

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

The Winners of Last Month’s Haiku Challenge

The winning poets of May’s haiku challenge all addressed the most notable feature of a soap bubble—the fleeting, unstable beauty of its “little world.” Read the winning haiku here, and then submit your own haiku for a chance to be featured on our website and in the print magazine. 

A Teaching on Finding the Courage to Embrace the Unknown

Given the current state of our world, the theme of grounding in groundlessness seems both apt and urgent. Read a teaching on the subject by writer and Zen teacher Vanessa Zuisei Goddard.

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“Currents and Countercurrents in Sinitic Buddhism” Conference Celebrates the Career of Dr. Robert E. Buswell Jr. 

On Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25, students and colleagues will gather at the University of California, Los Angeles to celebrate the career and contributions of Dr. Robert E. Buswell Jr., the Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies in the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, who is retiring after 36 years at the university. 

The conference consists of two full days of panel discussions and lectures, including a keynote address by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. There will also be a roundtable discussion on the last 50 years of Buddhist Studies with Lopez, Smith College professor Peter N. Gregor, and University of Notre Dame professor Robert Gimello. Princeton professor Dr. Jacqueline Stone will moderate the roundtable. Other panels will cover Korean Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism. 

Members of the general public are welcome to attend, but everyone must pre-register

“It’s a reunion more than anything,” says Jennifer Jung-Kim, PhD, Assistant Director and Senior Editor of UCLA Centers for Buddhist Studies, who is organizing the conference.

“Professor Buswell is a giant in the field of East Asian Buddhism,” Jung-Kim says. “Aside from his numerous publications (monographs, translations, and series), he has trained some of the top scholars in the field. And because of his years of experience as a monk and decades as a practitioner, his knowledge of Buddhism is comprehensive and unmatched. His contributions to developing the field of Korean Buddhist Studies have also elevated the place of Korean Buddhism in the world.”

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