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…”

Nothing Is Resolved

He was only four when his parents fled Vietnam for America in 1975, and he has few memories of the war. But the Vietnam War and its personal, political, and emotional toll is at the heart of the work of the novelist and social critic Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen serves up the existential despair left behind by the war as black comedy, but the torn lives and shattered beliefs he depicts are deadly serious. His 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer and its 2021 sequel, The Committed, follow the misadventures of a nameless protagonist on a futile search for identity in the expatriate Vietnamese community in Los Angeles, a Hollywood set of a Vietnam War movie, a Communist North Vietnamese reeducation camp, and the criminal underworld of Paris. A third novel is in the works, along with a memoir, and an HBO series based on The Sympathizer starring Robert Downey Jr. As a writer, Nguyen defies categorization. His books are comic, tragic, ribald, poignant, and often so enigmatic his work has been compared to a Zen koan. That’s where we began our conversation when I reached him at home in Los Angeles. 

At the end of The Sympathizer, the hero has an epiphany when he says he “became enlightened,” and it’s a single word: “Nothing.” It reminds me of the Zen koan in which Master Chao-chou replies to a monk’s question with the word “Mu!”—meaning “no” or “not.” Were you aware of the Buddhist parallels as you wrote those scenes? I was aware that when the narrator is enlightened by the word nothing it echoed the Buddhist concept of emptiness. But I wasn’t raised a Buddhist, I was raised a Catholic and have very limited understanding of what that actually means in Buddhist teaching. 

In your next book The Committed, you riff on the word “nothing” until it becomes a kind of mantra. What do all these nothings mean? I’m not sure the idea can ever really be satisfactorily articulated or explained—and that’s the point. On the one hand, you have the inevitability of nothing, death, and the great terrifying mystery confronting us all. On the other hand, as a writer I’m confronted with the nothingness of the blank page. For me, nothingness generates narrative. When faced with what we don’t know we tell stories to try to make sense out of what has happened and what will happen to us. Religions and ideologies—Catholicism and communism in my novels—offer their believers narratives of faith to confront and resolve this. My books are about how you can’t resolve it. 

Your hero is left with nothing because he’s lost his faith. He loses his faith in Catholicism and finds a substitute in communism, and then loses his faith in that. The only resolution is an unfinished resolution. 

Can writing about what’s unresolvable help you resolve it?  I have a belief as a writer that somehow language can save me if I can just write a beautiful enough sentence or construct a sufficient kind of a story. And yet, there’s always an insufficiency with writing. The work is never finished—the problem I’m trying to solve with my words is always going to be irresolvable.

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May All Beings Be Reconciled

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 is from the Fall 2004 issue, Reconciliation.

“My mind fills with anger each time I see his face or hear him speak,” one student reports. “I find myself wishing ill will towards all of them,” another says with a painful voice, ashamed of her own reactions. “I simply cannot practice lovingkindness for these people,” says a third. In the past three years many meditation practitioners have been coping with such emotions as they have struggled to find the Buddhist peace of mind in relation to national events and political leaders they view as being harmful. Similar feelings of outrage, of seething anger or disgust, are frequently reported by students coping with a difficult person at work, a betrayal by a teacher or a friend, the painful breakup of a marriage, or an unjust family situation.

On meditation retreats and in my weekly meditation group I am often asked by students what they should do in circumstances where the hostility and sense of separation has persisted despite hours of lovingkindness practice and repeated attempts at forgiveness. These are well-trained students who understand that their feelings are only causing suffering to themselves and that anger often gets in the way of wise action. Yet their feelings of overwhelm from frustration and rage persist.

It is quite a conundrum. How do you find a way to not succumb to outrage and alienation yet keep your passion and motivation for the hard fight for justice and the social good? Likewise, when your marriage is dissolving, how do you let go of anger, bitterness, and blame while at the same time stand up for what you believe to be right, particularly when there are children involved? One student recently told me she didn’t trust herself to meditate. She found herself seething by the time she got off the cushion because it had so increased her fixation on how poorly she had been treated both by her ex and her former in-laws. A man on retreat—flooded with hopelessness over the recent loss of his family when his wife left him for another man, taking their two children with her—asked if he should just go home. “Maybe I need antidepressants, not meditation,” he ruefully proclaimed.

For the last five years, both in retreat and daily practice situations, I have been offering students reconciliation practices as ways of working with their experiences of hostility and alienation. In many instances, students have reported dramatic reductions in their emotional turmoil. Particularly in difficult marriage and family circumstances, they have found that consistently working with reconciliation meditation has enabled them finally to be able to move forward with their lives.

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Lessons from a (Mostly) Good Dog: #3, Be Kind

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” —Anonymous

My wife, Lizzy, has this bright yellow sweatshirt that reads, “Bee Kind,” and has a bumblebee on it. (She also has a sweatshirt that says, “C’est La Vie,” though that’s fodder for another column.) Anyway, I bring this up because “Be Kind” is a maxim that my dog, Brooklyn, embodies with her whole furry, friendly self (though interestingly, she’s not all that nice to bees—lolling about in the sun on an early fall day, she’s been known to snap her jaws at passing yellow-jackets, and I’m pretty sure she’s been stung a few times on her soft, black nose.)

Yet despite her apparent distaste for bees (and the fact she’s essentially a big-toothed, savage beast), Brooklyn’s got this giant sweetness about her. And when it comes to humans, she is kind—and loving—in a way I’ve never before encountered.

You can see it in the way she looks at you, her eyes soft and brown and adoring.

You can see it in the wag of her tail—the simple, heartbreaking, unadulterated fact that she is thrilled to see you, a fact her tail cannot hide. (I love this about dogs—that they cannot hide their happiness. If only we humans had tails that wagged of their own accord, maybe we would find it more difficult to convince ourselves we’re miserable, which for some odd reason we like to do.)

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Khache Phalu’s Advice: How a Muslim Text Became a Tibetan Bestseller

The Sources of Buddhist Traditions is a monthly column from three of the major digital resources for Buddhist research, texts, and translation: Buddhist Digital Resource Center, The Treasury of Lives, and 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha. Focusing on stories, texts, translation, and teachers, the series will illuminate aspects of Buddhist practice, thought, and tradition.

A year before the pandemic, my aunt Somo Yangzom and I were on our way to one of the local Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Kathmandu when she turned to me and said all her friends were dying. In her eighties, she called herself one of the last ones left. 

“‘They keep coming and they keep going. All who come must go in the end.’ This is Khache Phalu’s advice,” she told me, quoting Khache Phalu’s Advice on the Art of Living, a beloved classic Tibetan text.

Though she never learned to read or write and didn’t go to school, my aunt, who came from Tibet into exile in Nepal as a young woman, still managed to commit several long prayers and verses to memory, including many from Khache Phalu. With characteristic humor and insight, she deploys verses from this text at all the right conversational bends, quoting it the way she quotes her lamas and teachers. 

Somo Yangzom taking a rest from her kora walk around Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu | Photo by Tenzin Dickie

Speaking of a local Tibetan who was known to be light-fingered, she has said, “It’s the parents. They should have taught him better, stopped him when he first started stealing. As it says in Khache Phalu:

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Lawsuit Against Ezra Bayda and Zen Center San Diego Ends With Settlement

Ezra Bayda, the former teacher at Zen Center of San Diego, and two of his former students have settled a civil lawsuit alleging sexual assault and harassment out of court for an undisclosed amount of money earlier this year, Tricycle has learned. 

The two women filed the civil lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court in May 2020, court documents show. Both women allege “grotesque acts of sexual assault and battery” against them from Bayda throughout their year-long periods as student and teacher. The civil lawsuit also named Zen Center of San Diego (ZCSD) as a defendant, and the complaint alleged six counts against Bayda and ZCSD, including sexual battery, battery, gender violence, sexual harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. A jury trial had been set for March of this year. 

ZCSD did not return multiple requests for comment. A statement recently posted on the Zen center’s homepage discussed the settlement. “As part of the terms of that settlement, all parties have acknowledged that the settlement constitutes a compromise of disputed claims that is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of any party,” the statement reads, adding that the center is committed to providing a safe practice environment, and linking to their ethical policies and sexual misconduct complaint procedure.

Bayda has been practicing meditation since 1970, according to his biography, and received dharma transmission from Charlotte Joko Beck (1917-2011), who founded the ZCSD in 1983. He is the author of numerous books, including Aging for Beginners and Being Zen: Bringing Meditation to Life. 

According to ZCSD, in late July 2019 the Zen center’s board of trustees “received verbal accounts of allegations of sexual misconduct by Ezra Bayda.” Bayda was “immediately suspended” from teaching, as was Elizabeth Hamilton, a lead teacher at ZCSD and Bayda’s wife. The center hired Faith Trust Institute to conduct an independent investigation. (Faith Trust Institute is a multifaith, multicultural nonprofit organization founded in 1977 that provides training and consultancy work in hope of ending sexual and domestic violence.) 

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