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…”

Hair Hair 

It’s been more than three decades since I imagined having long, luxurious hair like the ladies in shampoo commercials. Growing up, I was not allowed to have long hair because that’s “not what boys do.”

So it felt like a dream come true when my friend Ebony took me to a salon in Staten Island so we could get weaves sewn-in. Ebony went first, and I curiously watched as her hair was washed and dried. But to be honest, what stood out to me was her friendship, which offered me the safety to be there, because I was so nervous. 

The external friendliness translated internally into lovingkindness—the quality of mind that is gentle and tender and one of the brahma-viharas (the four immeasurables or divine abodes). 

Lovingkindness (metta): Tender, gentle, unconditional love

Compassion (karuna): Unconditional caring

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Stop!

To all the good people of Ukraine, Russia,
and surrounding countries of the world
who are peacemakers—lovers of peace—
we share your anguished cries
and our hearts break one thousand times.
May you be out of danger and find safety today.
May the children be unafraid today.
May your homes and cities and countryside be protected today.
And for the today that is delayed,
may you have fierce patience and faith
in the goodness of people and life. 

To all those in power raining down the violence, 
Division, and the deception of your unexamined minds upon good people, 
your plans and strategies are old and broken. 
Your words of promise are empty and self-serving, 
your tools and instruments are wasted potential. 
Stop your running. Stop. 
The enemy you face is not across any border. 
The conflict you create will never find an end. 
This path has no success. 
May you and each of us realize we are one people.
One Earth. One world. 
We have one past, one present, and one future. 
May we free ourselves and each other 
of the afflictive states of body and mind, 
views and beliefs, attachment and denial, 
and bring forth the great virtues 
of our enlightened mind, heart, and humanity. 
May we be tireless in our efforts 
to realize our true nature, 
our true potential, 
and find our fulfillment in each other’s happiness. 

***

In the Zen tradition we speak about great doubt—doubt in samsara as a viable path—and of what is true and real. What is the self and what is suffering, we ask. What is liberation? What is the meaning of these words we “know” and use all the time?

In the Lankavatara Sutra, someone asks the Buddha, “What is speech? What are words?” And the Buddha says, “Speech is a combination of projections. It arises due to attachment to habit energy and the discrimination of our own mind.” By themselves, sounds have no meaning. The meaning of a certain word is given by the context in which it’s delivered, as well as its tone. Saying, “Hey,” in a soft voice is not the same as yelling, “Hey!” Context and tone matter, which points to the ways in which words can become weaponized.

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Practicing on the Edge

Each month, Tricycle features articles from the Inquiring Mind archive. Inquiring Mind, a Buddhist journal that was in print from 1984 to 2015, has a growing number of articles from its back issues available at www.inquiringmind.com (help Inquiring Mind complete its archive by donating here). Today’s selection from the Spring 2003 issue, Fear and Fearlessness, was adapted from a talk by Joseph Goldstein.

When I imagine the mind of the Buddha, I think of a mind without boundaries, a mind without limits and therefore without fear. I see our own path to awakening in this light. On our journey of opening, we come to the boundaries of what is familiar or what is comfortable. It’s precisely at these boundaries that the deeply conditioned pattern of fear begins to emerge. We find ourselves being afraid of what in any particular moment is the truth of that moment. We need to learn how to work with this fear. Otherwise, our lives become fragmented; we split off from parts of ourselves, from parts of what is true in experience.

In our meditation, when we reach the boundary where fear begins to arise, we can slowly train ourselves to relax and open. Through this practice, we develop a great strength and equanimity of mind. The first step is learning to see what it is that we’re afraid of. In this way, we come to recognize it clearly, to see what limits us and then to explore the possibilities of going beyond those limits.

The most obvious experience where fear may arise—and the one we can work with the most simply—is of physical pain. We’ve been very conditioned in our lives to avoid unpleasant sensations. We can see how this manifests in meditation practice; if we’re not really mindful, we automatically shift our position simply to alleviate discomfort. There’s a teaching in Buddhism that says: “Movement masks suffering.” Usually, we think we move because we really want something. But it’s interesting to see it from the other side, that we’re often moving simply to avoid dealing with what’s present. It’s an instructive exercise to watch throughout the day, to investigate why we move. Seeing this begins to change our relationship to pain.

To work skillfully with pain and discomfort, and to slowly decondition the response of fear, we need to recognize different kinds of pain. First, there is pain as a danger signal. We put our hand in fire; it hurts; we take it out. The Dalai Lama calls this response “wholesome fear,” which is really another word for wisdom.

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On Guns and Anger

I am heartbroken over the recent mass shootings that have claimed so many innocent lives. I’m exhausted by empty platitudes of “thoughts and prayers” which have done nothing to change our behavior or public policy in the face of this carnage. I’m frustrated that we care more about banning books, saying gay, trans kids playing sports, or women’s health choices than the safety of our children in schools, people in church, or shoppers in supermarkets. I’m saddened by how we have cultivated anger, hatred, and resentment in our hearts.

It makes me wonder what our values as a society truly are. Can we care more for each other than weapons of violence? Can we care enough to realize unrestricted and unregulated guns in our communities are a public health crisis? Can we care enough to ensure access to quality mental health care? Can we work to transform our anger into love? Can we become more than we currently are?

Just like how a lotus flower rises from muddy water to bloom beautifully, we also have the ability to transform the suffering we experience into something more. The Buddha shared with us a path of continual becoming. Each moment of our lives is an opportunity to look deep within to better understand the working of our own hearts and minds. This is the profound interior practice of mindfulness that is a life of awakening.

In Shin Buddhism, our practice is the natural and spontaneous recitation of the Nembutsu that can be practiced in every moment of our busy lives. The name, Namo Amida Butsu, is the calling voice of Amida Buddha, the cosmic sound of wisdom and compassion urging us to wake up. Our practice hall in the Pure Land Path is our ordinary daily life where we deeply listen with the ears of our heart to all that life has to teach us. Namo Amida Butsu is the song of awakening that calls us home to ourselves.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that the root cause of human suffering is our greed, anger, and ignorance. Doesn’t it seem like we have been dealing with so much anger in recent years? From our politics to the pandemic to how we deal with the everyday difficulties of life, it seems like we are always angry about something and do not know how to quench the rising flames that threaten to consume us.

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Haiku to Measure Time

During the pandemic’s early days, acclaimed playwright and author Sarah Ruhl used poetry to keep structure in her life. Eventually, those poems were collected into her latest book, Love Poems in Quarantine, published by Copper Canyon Press in May 2022. The poems cover the mundanity of quarantine—how there was always more laundry to do and how somehow all the “free time” induced fatigue. (“I must need to rest. / Then rest from all that resting. / The new task, breath,” she writes.) 

Her poems also cover the serious national reckoning following George Floyd’s murder. She documents conversations with her children about race, examines her own whiteness, and reflects on white people’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter protests (“White people read White / Fragility on the beach / while Brown people die.”)

Sarah Ruhl’s plays have been finalists for Pulitzers, nominated for Tony Awards, and won numerous other prizes. She won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, and her play Eurydice was turned into an opera and performed at the Met Opera in 2021. She and I spoke at the beginning of 2022 about haiku, race, and using poetry to mark time.

Love Poems in Quarantine is broken into three main sections: “Early days of quarantine;” “Poems written after May 25, the day George Floyd was murdered;” and “Haiku in Quarantine.” “Haiku in Quarantine” is then split by season. How did those sections come to you? Was it easy or difficult to break the book into those segments? It was fairly organic. I mean, I didn’t set out to write a book. I had really just set out to write haiku as a practice during the pandemic. Funnily enough, it began when the schools shut down. My son was bored one afternoon, and I thought, what are my gifts as a teacher since he’s not in school? I thought, well, we could do poetry together. So I wrote some haiku together with my son, and then it just became a natural practice for me throughout the pandemic.

The haiku seemed to be in conversation with the seasons and chronological, so that made sense. And then the longer-form poems seemed like their own thing. I noticed a real shift in the longer form poems before George Floyd’s murder and after George Floyd’s murder, and so it felt helpful to put a break in between to mark that shift.

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