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Coming Home


Zen Doubt

By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend on oneself. No one purifies another.
Rinzai zen. A response to the torpor of monks who apparently practiced in cloistered conditions, achieving perhaps a state of samadhi but without satori or kensho, the hallmark of Zen.Koan practice. A formalized version of the quest that is the heart of Buddhist practice, the quest of those who seek deliverance from beyond the comforts and confines of the familiar, of home or God, from beyond the rituals and/or austerities of traditional forms of prayer and other practices, beyond even the morality and righteousness of religion as a bona fide public institution. On this path, nothing and no one frees you, not even God. The quest is a solitary one and deliverance is by oneself alone.But when the practice crystallizes into a belief: Zen. Or into a style of practice: zazen. Or into…
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. ~ Ezekiel 18:20
The word guilty comes from the Old English gylt (meaning crime, sin or fault) and is synonymous with the French word coupable from the Latin culpabilis. There is no more serious infraction nor more costly payment than genuine guilt though its colloquial use to denote the superficial feelings that arise from human weakness (as in, "I feel guilty about eating that piece of chocolate cake") has turned guilty feelings into mere chafings of the ego. Guilt is yet the ultimate emotional discomfort, and it is caused by our having a moral conscience which is the hallmark of our humanity. By owning the imperfections that go along with being human, guilt is both the crime and the punishment, the sin and the fine or cost of our redemption.Guilt's counterpart is denial, the suppression of the painful feelings that arise from having a moral conscience. Denial literally means negation which, in the case of conscience is the negati…
So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
~ Genesis 3:23

Prayer, meditation, yoga... following the breath in and out... How do we find our way back home? All of the sages, saints and mystics tell you that Heaven is right before your very eyes, or just as plain as the nose on your face, but then why is it so difficult to find? Why is the way so “guarded”?

Our alienation is a fall from a state of grace. Not because of evil or impurity, but because of a loss of innocence, a loss of our basic harmlessness in, literally, not knowing who we are. One bite from the tree of knowledge and we're dead, we exist.

The reason the way home is so arduous is that we try with all our might to know what it is or to know who we really are, and in this we incessantly split off…
Be true to your own self, love yourself absolutely.
~Nisargadatta; I am That
Some Buddhist teachers talk as though awakening were a form of dissociation. They describe feelings as patterns and energy, and relationships as sensations and pixels, as though dissolving the cognitive or emotional content of experience were a release from human suffering.
There is a kind of bloodlessness in this approach to practice that is chilling. I think this is because these teachers are disconnected from their own psychologies, rigidly defended against their feelings, and have cultivated practice as a blessed escape from the painful demands of everyday life. After all, everyday life is a series of risks: the risk of conflict in relationship, the risk of failure in getting a job, the risk of total humiliation in love, the risk of drudgery in raising a family. The list is endless.But dissociation is an escape from suffering, not its transcendence. Practice is not about becoming dispassionate or disen…
Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.
~ Rousseau;
The Social Contract

Vertigo is anguish to the extent that I am afraid, not of falling over the precipice, but of throwing myself over.
~ Sartre;
Being and NothingnessThis week three friends spoke to me about feeling released from some deeply rooted hindrance to the full expression of their being. The first person was released from a life-long sense of shame, the second experienced a kind of complete vanishing of herself during meditation, the third (a therapist) admitted needing help and actually asked for it, something he had never done before.Although all of my friends felt liberated from their unhealthy self-representations, they all reported experiencing a terror they had never felt before. They described it as worse than a panic attack, a paralyzing apprehension, not of what might come next, but that what comes next is nothing at all. Sartre called it vertige, the dizzying sense you get standing on the edge of an abyss, the…
And the end of all our exploring.
Will be to
arrive where we started.
know the place for the first time. ~ Little Gidding, TS Eliot
The internet has given a whole new face to long-distance relationships
And it's the face of a screen,
An interface
That defies time zones and places.

no colour, sound, smell, taste, touch, or what themind takes hold of, nor even act of sensing

How weird. But how true!
My own mind framing seeing.
Not you, not even my projections onto you
(Although you are there, poor dear, putting up with this nonsense, waiting patiently three hours behind)
But my mind seeing projecting
Seeing seeing, right there before my very eyes
Like staring into the mirror at life itself.

Here then, my love
Is emptiness:
Not in the pixels I see
Nor in the beautiful face
That moves me to sadness because it is not really here to see,
But in my own looking through them all
To you.

We smile and laugh
(But not too hard because we might fall off our chairs
And disappear from view)

Now you have to stand in desire,
all your life long,
if you are to make progress in the way of perfection.
~Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous

In everyday situations, when faced with ambiguity, conflict or other challenges, we are prone to respond instinctively with a fight or flight reaction. In spiritual practice, on the contrary, we are encouraged to just sit, do nothing, and breathe.

In Contractions, I wrote about the crucible as indispensable to the transformation and sublimation of energy in relationships. The same holds true of spiritual practice.

What happens when, voluntarily entering the crucible, you offer no escape from cycles or loops of thoughts and feelings? At first it may feel unbearably uncomfortable, increasing suffering. And at the beginning, it is tempting to get up and do something else. This is the right thing to do if one is not choosing to practice. But if one intends to go beyond suffering rather than avoid it, one must stay with it. Then the energy in the loop …
At present you need to live the question
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

So will you also frolic with me on the edge of this ominous time and wrest from it whatever it may offer
~ Friedrich Schleiermacher, Letter to his Bride

In Western culture we confuse renunciation and sacrifice. We see our nature as inherently “bad” and regard the slaughtering of our heart's desire as the necessary payment for original sin. We understand our redemption literally as an exchange or trade-off rather than as something freely given up in the true spirit of offering.

Moreover, there is an urgency to expiate the badness that we are uncomfortable holding, a need to eject it from ourselves as quickly as possible. This is the origin of confession, but also of pornography, projection and scapegoating. Unable to contain our forbidden parts, and if we cannot either secretly indulge or confess them, we will project them onto others whom we will then publicly shun, exclude or otherwise attem…
He said, "Neville, you must first start with self. Find self, don't be ashamed ever of the being you are. Discover it and start the changing of that self"
~ Neville Goddard, Changing the Feeling of "I"

Becoming "awake" involves seeing our confusion more clearly
~Cogyam Trungpa, The Myth of Freedom

Maturity entails regression. By this I mean that, beyond a certain point in our development, we begin to go backwards. We spend our youth and early adulthood building ourselves up, physically and mentally, acquiring language, knowledge and other skills, to forge ourselves an identity. We invest all of our energy into becoming somebody. Then, at some point, when we experience love and loss, suffering and impotence, we enter a crisis and everything that we've built turns out to be mere scaffolding for the real inner work that we must do.

It is truly like a seed falling to the ground.

First, in love, the outer shell drops away, uncovering the naked an…
We want to be at the center: at the source of power; and we want to be at the center: the center of attraction. Indeed ‘look at me’ could be called the cosmic game.
~ Albert Low, I Am Therefore I Think

Men seem to have a very difficult time with shame, the flip side of the legendary “male ego”. They experience vulnerability as a threat to their survival and tend to seek external validation as proof that they exist. When a fight breaks out between two men, it is often due to one of them having felt insulted or humiliated. When a man fails to provide for his wife or family, he feels deflated and depressed. Grandiosity is mistaken as an expression of masculine pride when in fact it is an attempt to compensate for feelings of impotence and inadequacy.

Women, on the other hand, seem to struggle with insecurity, the flip side of the legendary “do I look all right to you?” They need reassurance and understanding, everlasting proof that they are loved just as they are. When a fight breaks …


Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
~ Matthew 7:15

Anger is taboo in our culture.

Unlike other negative emotions... sadness, fear, boredom... raw anger is socially proscribed and must be refined-- suppressed or “managed”-- before it is heard. We send angry children to their rooms and withdraw from angry friends or lovers until they “cool down”. We refuse to listen to an agitated roar until it subsides to a levelheaded whimper.

Because of our anxiety around anger, we fail to attend to the nuances of different situations that involve the expression of anger, and are not very nuanced in our reactions to it. When anger is expressed to us, we tend to hear it as expressed at us. When anger is expressed at us, we tend to experience it as an assault...

So anger generally elicits a defensive reaction that does not win the angry person our support or sympathy. Worse, it often elicits a counter-attack. This, I believe, is because …
Unexpectedly, as I opened myself
to love, I was accepted.
~Chogyam Trungpa, The Perfect Love Poem

Conflict arises when two people want to be heard and neither is listening. There is disharmony, polarity, a split. This disharmony escalates into dissonance when, instead of taking turns being quiet and listening to each other, you raise the volume and take turns making speeches. You're caught in serial monologues that deepen the conflict and polarize you even more. Cacophony now threatens as you feel compelled to defend yourselves, firing arguments at each other like artillery in the hopes of quashing all resistance to being heard. Alas, you are perceived as the aggressor and defended against in turn... and on and on it goes. Like a war.

In order to resolve conflict nonviolently, monologue has to yield to dialogue, and self-promotion to vulnerability, that is, exposing one's inner world as opposed to imposing it on someone else. Nonviolent communication has been described as …

Great Doubt

If you do not get it from yourself, Where will you go for it?
~ Dogen
We have a fear of facing ourselves. That is the obstacle.
~ Chogyam Trungpa

The masters talk about Great Doubt. It is one of the three jewels of Zen training, the others being Great Faith and Great Effort. What kind of doubt could this be? It could not be the intellectual disbelief of a skeptic as that would annul faith. Nor could it be the apathetic disposition of the uninspired as that would annul effort. No. It must be something that drives inquiry, a burning doubt, an inquisitiveness that is not easily sated.

There is a voracity to doubt that is like fire, refining the quest down to its core. As K. von Durkheim says in The Way of Transformation, “Only to the extent that a person exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible be found within.”

Students are inclined to think that the spiritual path can be learned from books or by emulating their teachers, by following some i…


strive to maintain a spirit of joy and magnanimity, along with the caring attitude of a parent~Dogen
In his Tenzo Kyukun (Instructions for the Zen Cook), Dogen emphasizes the importance of the Parental Mind (roshin) which is an attitude of caring and concern, the heart of compassion. It is one of the so-called Three Minds or sanshin, the other two being Big Mind (daishin) and Joyful Mind (kishin).The spirit of Zen is the inclusiveness of One Heart/Mind, and Parental Mind conveys this most aptly. An old saying describes it as “seeing the pot as your own head and the water as your lifeblood” (quoted by Uchiyama in his commentary of Dogen's Instructions, p. 53). In modern day Japan, it is conveyed by the popular expression minna no kimochi de (see this article).But one must be careful not to confuse the One of parental mind with the identification of oneself with another self or some larger body. For example, as a first-time nursing mother, I felt that my head had been screwed on…
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
~ TS Eliot; Little Gidding
Lately, I have met many women aged 40 to 50 who are suffering from hairshirt syndrome. This is a condition where life becomes so unbearable that you simply want to rip it off and stuff it in the garbage.These women are not suicidal. Menopausal? Perhaps. They tend to have children, too many, though they do not live out of a shoe. In fact, they are often emotionally and financially autonomous and they usually work out too. But they're still bored. And how they suffer! The slightest glitch in their lives causes them unbearable distress. Their husbands, if they still have them, get the brunt of their dissatisfaction because they are desperate to pin the blame somewhere.Why? Why are they so angry? And what is the cure?Toni Packer suggests in thi…


Attainment too is emptiness
~Heart Sutra

Rinzai Zen emphasizes the importance of kensho or satori, that is, a sudden awakening after an intense and often bitter spiritual struggle. According to Hakuin, father of the Rinzai tradition that has survived today, kensho is the touchstone of authentic Zen practice.

Rinzai Zen uses koans that are designed to bring doubt to such a pitch that one ultimately breaks out of the cocoon of dualistic understanding. The process can be very painful. One could even call it “extreme meditation”. Shibayama puts it this way:
One has to be prepared to risk his life and, even then, satori may not be accessible. Zen has been described since the olden days as the way for only a handful of geniuses.
A Flower Does not Talk(Hakuin's tough love attitude has been passed on to his Rinzai heirs, and not without his unfortunate elitism.)

Looking beyond the fact that Rinzai poses as superior to other practices that lack its machismo, there are other questions one might r…
Form is emptiness,
emptiness is form
form is not other than emptiness;
emptiness is not other than form.

~ Prajnaparamita (The Heart Sutra)

There are no essences, experiences or insights that capture what is: form is emptiness. But emptiness is not nothing; for then it would be something other than what is, or its negation. And it is not: emptiness is no other than form.Emptiness and form are flip sides of the same coin. They are what is, ever-present but never anywhere in particular. Thiscannot be grasped by the mind because being cannot be known as being. Only thoughts can be known.This is the challenge of being awake: to be without knowing it.One tries to negate thoughts by thinking not this, not that... as in MU! Or as in the Heart Sutra's“No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body mind: no color, sound, smell, taste, touch or what the mind takes hold of”. Still, thoughts keep splitting the mind off from itself, reproducing separation from being, constantly knowing. Practicing like t…

awakening mind

Just as the lotus, born of mud,
is not tainted thereby,
So the lotus of the Buddha
preserves the realization of voidness.
~ Vimalakirti Sutra

The iconography associated with awakened mind can be violent, depicting angry-looking spirits that bare their teeth while holding up the skulls of various enemies they've slain, or sword-wielding warriors mounted on animals—a lion, bull or elephant—emerging victorious from battle.

A typical symbol of awakening is Manjushri, the bodhisattva of discriminating wisdom. Although his name is translated roughly as gentle glory, he encourages aspirants to transcend duality by cutting through it and is often depicted with a shining sword in his right hand. In my practice center, we place a handsome statue of him on the altar to inspire aspirants during sesshin. I can assure you, there is nothing gentle about it.

Though cutting metaphors effectively convey the incisive nature of a clear and determined mind, they symbolize a top-down virile approach to awa…


Two cocks were fighting and a monk asked:
"Why do they do this?"
and the master replied:
"It is because of you."

You are Hell, as Sartre would say. You disturb the placid stream of awareness that is my own limpid dream. You want me to see you but I’ll fight to the death for you to see me first.

But how quickly my rage melts into the mirror of your gentle consideration, reflecting back an image that is faithful to how I want to be seen. And then You are Heaven. To know me is to love me.

Attunement, acknowledgement, validation.

The Shaolin monks train to be impervious to You, to become like the well-trained cock whose eyes, according to Chuang Tzu, “do not even flicker when another bird crows. He stands immobile like a block of wood. He is a mature fighter. Other birds will take one look at him and run”.
In her book Start Where you Are, Pema Chodron recounts an incident when her desire to help a student was frustrated by his relapse into an addiction. She felt quite angry and disappointed about it and went to her teacher Chogyam Trungpa for advice. She quotes him as saying to her that, instead of having any expectations of people, she should “just be kind to them”. Her point is that helping behaviours, while appearing to be altruistic, are often “really about wanting success for ourselves” i.e. self-serving.

I have heard several Buddhist teachers echo this observation. They are pointing to a kind of moral activism latent in spiritual seekers, a covert form of intrusiveness motivated by the compulsion to rescue. Moral activism of this kind is neither loving nor compassionate. Rather, it is an attempt to exercise one’s power over a person or situation. And it is aggressive. By penetrating another’s space or violating his boundaries, separation is resisted rather than transcended.


Even if my skin should parch
even if my hand should wither
even if my bones should crumble into dust,
until I have attained the truth
I shall not move from this seat

Thus spoke the Buddha on the eve of his awakening.

He had been following the example of ascetics and had endured five years of mental and physical deprivation, believing that austerity was the path to freedom. But it was not. He only became more confused and distraught. Then along came a woman by the name of Sujata who offered him milk and rice which he took to satisfy his hunger and, all at once, he was invigorated and, as the next day dawned, came to full awakening.

This story teaches us that perseverance is important but not to the point of extremism. Extremism is just another trap engaging the mind in battle and leading to more suffering. No matter how hard we try to free ourselves, trying is not the way out. The way out is the way out. Respecting our capacity enables us to find it.

my original face

Look at the theatre masks. The smile turned upside down is a frown, and the grimace a grin; the same muscles contract in different directions.

Now imagine the sound each makes; the sound of laughter or sobbing. They sound similar too except that laughing is “drier” like an explosion of fiery air, whereas sobbing is “wet” like the gushing of a dam when it breaks.

Although laughing and sobbing move energy in different directions*, they both release tension from the solar plexus and are accompanied by convulsions of the diaphragm and the shedding of heat and often tears.

They both split us open. That is why we say that something tragic causes us to “break up” or “burst into tears”, and that something very funny is “side-splitting”, or “cracks us up”. Like a kernel of popcorn that explodes with the heat, the fine shell that holds us together gives way. It is a form of deliverance or catharsis.

But what am I delivered from? What laughs when I laugh? What cries when I cry? And why is it that th…