October 14, 2014
Showing its back and showing its front

Two sides of a leaf Daishin brought home for me today:

I remember this from Ryokan:

Showing its back

and showing its front,

a falling maple leaf.

October 13, 2014
J. David Osborne reviews Kill Your Self: Life After Ego

And finally, I’d like to talk a little about Dogo Barry Graham’s wonderful, eye-opening Kill Your Self: Life After Ego. In the spirit of a book that is all about losing the self, and working to curb suffering by muting the ego, I’m going to make this review all about me. As of late I’ve found it increasingly difficult to let go of my anger. It’s always been a problem, that I tend to see and expect the worst from people. After reading this book, I realized that, as is typically the case, it all stems from a problem with myself. Or rather, the story I tell my self about myself.

Graham uses quick, succinct aphorisms to move the book along, never dwelling on one thought or the other. I’ve always enjoyed this about zen writing, in that even whilst explaining a koan or a deep subject, the writer typically just expresses the question in the clearest way possible, once, and then dips out. After that it’s up to you. It’s something you’re supposed to think about, and the process of thinking is the solution in and of itself.

This book is packed with a-ha moments. I reflected a lot upon reading it. In particular, I enjoyed the passage about the fishing boat, in which the owner of said vessel takes his newly-painted baby out on the water on a foggy day. Another boat bumps into his, and he turns around and starts yelling, only to find the other boat empty. The boat is always empty, but we bring our stories to it, the story that goddammit this drunk motherfucker is out here not watching where he’s going or goddammit I just got this painted and of course it gets fucked up…no. These are all stories we’re making up as we go along, all stories designed to make us the protagonist of our lives, the put-upon, the only one who “gets it.” After awhile, this becomes easier than breathing. The boat is always empty, until we fill it with our own bullshit.

The book is presented in a “take-it-or-leave-it” style. It isn’t preachy. It doesn’t want you to do this or that. It just is. And it’s so refreshing. Couldn’t recommend it more.

October 4, 2014
Useful questions about you and your breath


Try this if you’re so inclined:

Pay attention to your breath. Don’t try to control it, just be aware of it. Be aware of breathing in, and be aware of breathing out. Be aware that a time will come when you will breathe out and will not breathe in again. Something will end at that point. What is it?

What is the breath? Is it air? Is it you? Is it both? Where is it now? Where will it be when your lungs empty for the last time?

September 26, 2014
Gratitude to T.S. Eliot on his 126th birthday


T.S. Eliot was born on this day in 1882. He’s my favorite poet, but that doesn’t say enough about his impact on me. If I hadn’t read him, I don’t know that I would have found my way to Zen practice, so, as well as being one of those who made me decide to devote my life to writing as a contemplative practice, he may have saved my life. Although he died before I was born, I consider him one of my best friends.

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
     You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
     You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
     You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
     You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

August 26, 2014
The Zen of Jake Hinkson

In All Due Respect #3, there’s an interview with Jake Hinkson, author of Hell on Church Street (for my review of that, click here), in which he says:

There’s a lot of comfort in the myth of personality—the myth that says people just are who they are—but it’s not true. The reality, I think, is that personality is always in flux and it’s always contingent on context. The rough materials of a personality may stay the same, but people grow or they shrink, they get better or they get worse. Some people gain wisdom. Others calcify in old ways of thinking.

Hinkson articulates why I believe in neither punishment nor redemption. Unless you catch and punish a person at the exact moment that they commit the crime, you can’t punish that person, because they won’t exist for long enough. By the time a person is executed for murder, the murderer is long gone, and the person who is executed has been reborn many times.

August 16, 2014
Pico Iyer thinks meditation is a gated community. He’s wrong.


I like much of Pico Iyer’s writing, but, as this article reminds me, he regards contemplative practice as the domain of the 1%. Like another elitist/classist, Thich Nhat Hanh, he either assumes that everyone has the money and leisure to attend retreats, or else he is only interested in addressing those who do.

In saying that in response to emotional hurt we should go to a “retreat house,” Iyer seems to forget that for most people a day of devastating sadness or grief has something in common with most other days—work that must be done, bills that must be paid, children to be taken care of, the everyday struggle to survive.

What Iyer calls “the emergency room for the soul” must be found where we are, not in some distant, silent location. (I’m skeptical of his claims about silence, anyway; in silent retreats, I’ve experienced neither silence nor retreat, but found that the mind produces the loudest noise.) Stillness is something that must be found in movement, silence in noise, peace in anger, calm in stress. 

I had a Zen student who lived in poverty in a big city. He had no car, and his job was a 90-minute bus ride from where he lived. He told me he didn’t have time to sit in meditation for very long in the mornings and evenings—he just had time to eat and get enough sleep. I told him that the bus, where he spent a total of three hours a day, was his zendo, the place where he could practice, could sit still and pay attention, could notice his breathing or sit with a koan.

Almost anyplace in any city can be your zendo. Meditation is not a vacation, it’s work. And it’s a matter of life and death, not a hobby for rich people.

August 4, 2014
Portlanders: Come see me at St. Johns Booksellers on Wednesday

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, I’ll give a talk on Zen practice at St. Johns Booksellers, 8622 N. Lombard St., Portland, OR 97203, where Kill Your Self has outsold all my other books. There’ll also be a Q. and A. 

Copies of Kill Your Self will be on sale. 

Be there or be unenlightened.


July 28, 2014
Joshu Sasaki dies, so who’s to blame now?

Joshu Sasaki Roshi died yesterday, at the age of 107, but the the problems in his sangha, Rinzai-ji, will not die with him — because, as I wrote in this post, the problem was never about Sasaki.

July 22, 2014
Writing Wipes the Dirt from the Window

A crime writer new to Zen practice recently told me he felt a conflict between Zen practice and crime-writing, saying he thought he ought to be focusing on more “postitive” things in his writing. I told him I disagreed, and referred him to this piece I wrote for Tony Black’s Pulp Pusher blog a couple years ago.

May 31, 2014
Zen and The Wire


In the great TV series The Wire, Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin has a habit of randomly asking his police officers: “Where are you right now?” When he asks, he expects them to be able to give their precise location - the street corner or address, the floor of the building, the compass direction they’re facing. 

It’s a good question for the Zen practitioner, especially if applied to more than geographic location.

Where are you? Who are you? What makes it “here”? What makes it “you”?

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