The Will to Choose


Your Hair is on Fire!

Don’t say,


Those words do not encourage, they deflate and burden the mind. It is, as some might say, stupid to think repeating those words is in any way helpful.

You cannot give what you do not have.

If you believe you do not have “time” to practice, you will not practice. If you repeat again and again to yourself that you do not have time, you seal yourself in, making it more difficult to change the mind.

What you fill the mind with, directs the mind.

Most of us do have “time” to do what we want to do. We say things to ourselves such as “I’ll make time!” The idea of making “time-to-do-something” is a sign of determination. It bypasses the mind’s laziness.

We need determination.

And most of us have it to some degree or another. We determine to do what we value.

There are many stories in spiritual traditions that in essence tells us that when you find a treasure, you are willing to sell everything for the treasure. 

Have you found the treasure?

Maybe the word treasure does not speak to you. Perhaps you need to study what motivates you.

Motivation is like the fire that burns your hair. There are three tendencies that determine the type of motivation: (1) laziness, (2)rampage and (3) high-mindedness or if you will;

  • comfort-seeking
  • passion
  • intellectual rationalization

All three tendencies are circling in us all the time. Are you seeking comfort? Passion? Intellectual promise?

When we see our aim, we have an opportunity to study all three tendencies. Sometimes all three seem to show up making us confused. Laziness begets sloth and torpor, rampage begets rushing, uncontrollable ambition and aggressiveness and headiness begets rationalizations and boastfulness.

These tendencies of the mind are fired up by our thoughts and desires. When we say, “I don’t have time” we turn to one of these tendencies to defend what we just told ourselves. Underneath we may want comfort or something more interesting and challenging or to be struck by uncontrollable passion.

Furthermore, “I don’t have time”‘ is a negative motive…the positive motive is telling ourselves more of the true motivation which is “I want to do something else.” This requires a sincere, clear look into our mental formations.

Our motivations are not necessarily clear nor are they always beneficial. Sometimes we opt out in laziness, or go on a rampage to get something in a selfish manner, or think we are the bravest and brightest bulb in the room.

What motivates you? Do you know? Or are you living what Thoreau called  a life of ‘quiet desperation?’

The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. 
It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. Thoreau

Desperation is not a spiritual practice, although a desperate suffering may lead you to make the backward step towards the interior landscape of the Eternal Undying Self.

Spiritual work requires self investigation. It requires a commitment. Discipline. A will to keep going. We need to recognize we can squander our life flitting it away in laziness, unreliable passions, and rationalizations.

It’s up to each one of us to decide. To choose what our aim is – which requires we give our very best to our chosen path.

None of it comes easily; especially if we squander this lifetime without a clear aim to which we commit our will.

May all beings be free of suffering.


Humming Bird

Author: Fashi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog.

 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

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Holiday Message

Holiday Message 

The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun is happy to announce that on this month of November 2018, our Chan/Zen Order, the Zen Buddhist Order of HsuYun (ZBOHY), founded on November 8 1997 by Master WeiMiao JyDin of the Linji school of Chan/Zen (One of Master HsuYun’s direct disciples), by Dharma Teacher Ming Zhen Shakya of the Linji and Yunmen school of Chan/Zen celebrate its 20th anniversary!


This 20th anniversary, like all anniversaries, means a lot and not much at the same time. It is a time to celebrate our roots and to look ahead at the same time. A time to value our heritage, to thank our founders and to celebrate the spirit that unites us and allows everyone to express his most profound nature in his own local community and ways.

The path the new generation of priests of the order is taking is a more horizontal way to look at a sangha. A way that consists of simplified forms with the aim to keep the heart of our Chinese Chan by means of sincere practice.


I am writing these lines just after I learned about the awful terrorist attack that happened in Strasbourg last night. I have in mind all the other attacks and their lot of victims. No need to take sides. Misunderstanding and possible violence exists at every level in our world, our societies, even our families and Buddhist sanghas. We all can be divided by illusion, greed and hatred.

So, beyond the separations between each sangha, priory, even between the two parts of our original Chan order, may we all celebrate our founders, their lineage, and all the abbots who followed them. May we honor the Chan teachings they gave us as a treasure, and share it openly. May we fight illusions, greed and hatred and rejoice between all heirs of JyDin and Ming Zhen Shakya.


May we keep the spirit of humble daily practice. That is the spirit symbolized by the typical robe of lay Chan Buddhists, that monks use also in their day to day practice, the ManYi Kasaya (One Panel Kesa). A plain fabric with the simplest borders and four squares. The spirit of keeping one mind even when being in the world, surrounded by suffering, because we live by the four pillars, the four Noble Truths. In a nutshell, the spirit of ‘zen householders’ as our Old Sun liked to say.

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya



We hope that this new year for our order will be a year of Simplicity, Sincerity and Humility! I bow in gratitude for those who came before us and for those who will continue to pass on the flame of ZBOHY Dharma after us. I bow especially in gratitude to Our Old Sun, Venerable Dharma Teacher Ming Zhen Shakya!

May our own houses be the monasteries of daily life,
And our hearts be the temples of the Buddha of Light.
May we all manifest KuanYin hands and eyes in this world!

May we all dedicate ourselves in the coming year to know ourselves and act for union in this world!




Humming Bird

If you’d like to comment or ask a question to Master Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya you may contact him by email:

ANNOUNCEMENT – Two New Priests



We are happy to announce that on this rich month of November, we had the chance to celebrate two ordinations within Dharma Winds Zen Sangha/Ordre Zen de HsuYun:



Daniel Scharpenburg (former priest in the Tsaotung lineage of Upasaka Wenshu) has been received in the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha as a Chan/Zen Priest and Dharma Teacher in the Linji-Yunmen lineage of our Order on November 3, receiving the Dharma name QianMing 乾明.



Mark Gilenson has been received in the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha as a Chan/Zen Novice Priest, in the Linji-Yunmen lineage of our Order, on November 10, receiving the Dharma name ShenYun 深云.


A Priest of the Chan Order of Hsu Yun (a Dharma Teacher) is someone who shares our sincere practice in humility without pretense to be above other practitioners. In the Way, we seek to be spiritual friends sometimes being a student, sometimes being a teacher.

Humming Bird


If you’d like to comment or ask a question to Master Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya you may contact him by email:

A Plumb Line for Our Lives in Solitude by John Backman

…for Our Spiritual Practice.

“Am I doing it right?”
I ask this question a lot, particularly in terms of the solitary life. Maybe it’s because I don’t have an official sanction to be a solitary, or because my life doesn’t look particularly eremitic—I live with my wife in a house in the suburbs. Whatever the cause, I need a plumb line to help me assess my life in solitude.

Every time the question arises, my deepest self draws me to the image of anchorholds. Many people know anchorholds as the type of cell that Julian of Norwich inhabited: typically a small room, built onto the side of a church, with three windows.


Anchoresses (they were mostly women, and most numerous in medieval England) were walled into such a room upon becoming solitaries, committed to a cycle of prayer and contemplation that took up most of their days.

It is those three windows, and the interplay between them, that speak to me.

Take, for instance, the “squint”—a slit or side window that opened onto an altar in the church. Through it, the anchoress could take part in the Church’s rituals directed to God, especially the Catholic Mass.

The squint reminds me of our blessed capacity to connect with, and draw nourishment from, the Divine Source of all things (whatever name you use for that Source). The squint’s size reminds me that a glimpse of the Divine is all we get. The vast Mystery is always utterly beyond us.

The “house window” usually opened onto servants’ quarters. The servant would pass meals through the window to the anchoress; the anchoress would send her chamber pot the other way. So we have a whole window devoted to the most pedestrian details of life: eating and drinking and pooping. The house window reminds me that these too are part and parcel of our lives, not somehow separate or less than. For us suburban solitaries, even cleaning the house and mowing the lawn are part of our call.

Finally, members of the community would come to the “parlor window” to receive counsel and wisdom from the anchoress. I look at this window and see my practice of spiritual direction, the correspondence from seekers in different places, my friends who need a listening ear. Yet curiously the parlor window was to be smaller than the house window—a reminder that service to others, while important, is not everything.

At the center is the room that binds the windows together. In that room is the pulse of the anchoress’s vocation—prayer and study and reflection and especially solitude. The solitude, and the Divine Spirit who moves within it, feed it all. The anchoress brings to each window the wisdom and treasures she has received in her anchorhold.

She also brings what she has experienced at the other windows. So her talk with a distressed parishioner goes with her to the squint, where she presents him to the Divine for mercy. The dailiness of the house window gives her a keen sense of her own humanity, which she uses to stand in solidarity with supplicants at the parlor window.

Many times, when I ask myself whether I’m “doing it right,” I worry that I’ve become too self-absorbed, or out of balance, or unproductive—or even too solitary. The anchorhold reminds me that the spiritual life is a never-ending flow, from the Divine to the daily to others to self to prayer and back again and over and over again. If I look at my life and see the flow, I can take heart that, in Julian’s famous phrase, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Humming Bird

About the Author
John Backman is a spiritual director and author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as
a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths).

John Backman  Author, Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths)


ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

ANNOUNCEMENT: Please Welcome a NEW Monk!

Old Fire

Lao Huo Shakya


We are happy to welcome a new monk (unsui) to A Single Thread | Contemplative Order of Hsu Yun. The Dharma ceremony took place this month in Evanston, Illinois, USA. It was a beautiful ceremony where the monk received the robe and transmission into the lineage of Linji/ Yunmen at A Single Thread |Contemplative Order Priory.




We Want What We Think – And Think What We Want

Shakespeare gives us a fine image of good intentions gone awry: to his own detriment, a fellow so eagerly tries to mount a horse that he jumps clear over it. Just so, Macbeth, pondering his plan to murder the king, worries about his “…vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.”

In the cause of separating church from state, we seem to have o’erleaped ourselves or, to use a more homespun metaphor, to have thrown the baby out with the bath.

As a member of a minority religion, I’m hardly in a position to denigrate the value of religious freedom. It’s a sacred right and the more vigorously it is preserved, the better off we all are.

But religion and spirituality are not the same thing. In trying to protect the interests of the former, we have all too easily sacrificed the latter. In banning spiritual expression from our public schools, a great chunk of what was once an integral part of American heritage and culture has been placed in escrow or some sort of trust account to which a few executors have access and a privileged few may derive whatever moral benefits can accrue to those who gain at the sorry expense of others.

Recently several events brought the problem into focus and clarified, without resolution of course, at least some of the pertinent questions: What have we lost and why did we lose it and what will happen to us if we don’t recover it? Something is terribly wrong.

On July 20th, l969, during the Apollo 11 Mission, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to walk on the moon. We earthbound citizen taxpayers were well informed about the lunar excursion and could track the whole adventure. To discuss the details of this scientific achievement, we learned a new vocabulary: lunar orbit insertion burns; lunar module docking and undocking; PDI (powered descent initiation); and a whole litany of terms. We knew how the crewmen urinated and what they ate. This was knowledge in its finest hour and NASA wanted us to know everything… except… well… not the fact that Buzz Aldrin celebrated Holy Communion before he and Neil Armstrong went down that ladder. That we weren’t allowed to know. NASA didn’t think it prudent to inform us that something spiritual was happening on the moon, that men of science could also be spiritual. Of course, we did know that the astronauts were religious men. They had to be religious. We wouldn’t have sent atheists to the moon or even let them into an astronaut training program.

But just a minute here… the Miracle of Transubstantiation on the moon? Somebody partaking of consecrated American bread on the moon? No way. Six years before the lunar landing, the Supreme Court had declared its “no prayers in public schools” version of the Constitution’s separation of church and state and that separation extended even to government-sponsored events on the moon. So NASA drew that religious line in the lunar sand. Why weren’t we allowed to be told about this lunar Communion? Not until a quarter century after the fact did word leak out to puzzle those of us who heard it. Something was wrong here.

Then last September in Boulder City, Nevada, at Grace Church’s interfaith meditation session, Gard Jamison, while speaking about Christian meditation practices, tried to rustle up some audience participation – always a dangerous venture – and referred to the Sermon on the Mount. Hoping to elicit a little feedback, he quoted Jesus, saying, “‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall–‘” and then he waited expectantly for the assembly to shout out the answer as to what the pure in heart could expect, but nobody said anything. There was this great silence as Gard, eyebrows raised and mouth open, sat poised to hear the vault of sound break open and the precious answer issue forth… but all he heard was a faint echo of his own voice. It was an awkward moment and I turned to Richard Smith, the Pastor of Grace Church, who, as you might expect, was groaning with his hands over his face; and I quizzically whispered, “See God?” Could it possibly have been something else? Again I asked, “Don’t the pure in heart see God?” “Good grief,” said Richard in perfect agony, “My flock sits there dumbly while a Buddhist knows the Beatitudes.” Well, in all fairness to his flock, his flock was a pretty young flock and this Buddhist was a pretty old Buddhist who happened to have learned the Beatitudes from hearing the Bible read every morning in Public School in Philadelphia.

But we Americans are not allowed to hear the Bible inside our public institutions any more. There’s a line between church and state and that line is drawn between the citizenry and one of the most beautiful presentations of spiritual truth the world has ever known. Nearly an entire generation of Americans have never heard the Beatitudes because the only voices that ever uttered them have been silenced. Teachers can’t teach anything spiritual. And where shall this generation learn? In most American families, Mom and Dad both work and are understandably too exhausted or too hurried to begin each day with a thoughtful Bible reading. And on Sunday mornings, Jesus can speak from the Mount all he wants, but he’d better be calling NFL play action if he intends that his voice be heard in American homes.

Then, a few weeks ago, during an email discussion of the cosmic Dharmakaya with Chuan Zhi, the webmeister of our Nan Hua Zen Buddhist Page, I quoted Psalm 8: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Our webmeister, trained in nuclear physics, emailed me back, awestruck, “That was so beautiful! Where can I find more of those Psalms?” Now, Chuan Zhi is a profoundly spiritual man, a candidate for Buddhist ordination, a man who happens to appreciate the finer things of life: the saxophone of Stan Getz; the poetry of Rumi; Nilsson singing the Liebestod; but he grew up under the new interpretation of a separate church and state; and though he had been apprised of the secrets of atomic power – the boast of a proud nation, nobody had ever so much as hinted to him that it was possible to stun a man with the beauty of one of David’s songs. Something is wrong here.

Is this what the Founding Fathers intended?

As I write this, a neighbor is washing his car to the accompaniment of a boom-box that is dispensing Gangsta’ Rap by the decibel. In this lyrical exultation of free speech, we, the men, women, and children of the neighborhood, are permitted – indeed, we cannot avoid – the brute machismo celebrations of obscenity, violence, racism, drugs, the defiance of elected authority, and the abuse of women and families. Did the Founding Fathers intend that the State may not deprive us of the pleasure of hearing Gangsta’ Rap on our city streets and through our open windows while at the same time must protect us from hearing the Psalms of David in public institutions of knowledge and learning.? I may not have phrased it well, but it is a good question.

What are we really discussing by “knowledge” and “religion”? Certainly not wisdom and spirituality. No, wisdom is to knowledge what spirituality is to religion. They have a relationship but they are not kissing cousins.

To me, knowledge is information and shares this in common with religion: it is organized and disciplined; it is vocal and literal, it is something disseminated, broadcast, discussed. Knowledge wants to be known and seeks a forum’s setting just as a church, if nothing else, is an auditorium. What is a class to one is a congregation to the other.

While knowledge and religion are shared experiences, wisdom and spirituality are not. Nobody can participate in another person’s wisdom or intercept his experience of God. Wisdom is a quiet thing and so is spirituality. However much it’s sought, wisdom doesn’t seek. The wise don’t proselytize – that they are wise makes them know better – and the spiritual more than anything appreciate solitude. Wisdom looks inward and it looks deeply enough to see in itself the essence of all others. And that, of course, is what spirituality does. It retreats into the Void to see the ubiquity of God. Wisdom and spirituality are unitive. They see sameness. Knowledge and religion see and profit from differences.

Where Wisdom is recorded, the libraries of the world’s diverse religions keep the sacred books. And here we may perhaps find at least part of the source of the problem.

Who, ultimately, is responsible for the removal of sacred literature from the classroom? Were we acting to protect the atheist from being subjected to wisdom’s spiritual expression? Or, rather, when the issue first presented itself did we succumb to religious haggling and parochialism, masquerading bigotry as patriotism? Rather than risk having some doctrine of fairness applied, of having to expose our children to wisdom contained in other libraries, did we prefer to remove our separate versions of wisdom from the bargaining table, to secrete them in fortresses – the private schools and other institutions – where followers could flaunt their uniforms of exclusivity and privilege? Did we prefer to hoard our Truths rather than share them and accept a share of others?

If it is true that we have privatized Wisdom, is it not curious that though we insist upon our domestic separation of church and state we have no such requirement for those nations we consider allies? Americans who quite literally could be jailed for reading Proverbs before a public assembly of citizens may be asked to fight on foreign soil in support of governments which have, de facto if not de jure, state-sponsored religions and which, for that matter, may actually be intolerant of the religious views of those American servicemen and women who have come to defend them. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to foresee the possibility that the same fellow who commits a criminal act by reading Proverbs before an assembly of American school children would also commit a criminal act if, when drafted into military service, he declined to fight for the sake of any foreign government which mandated the reading of specific religious literature to its school children.

We are not so naive as to suppose that our government has separated church and state in any meaningful way. Religious institutions are tax exempt just as religious schools, in one way or another, are financially subsidized with state and federal revenues. While the children of the rich or of the righteous hear the scriptures and are nicely groomed for positions of authority – astronauts or politicians, the children of the poor and of the disaffected all too often become street-wise or discover the beauty of Truth by some chance utterance.

We all want the generation of citizens which follows us to have more opportunities than we had. Whether an illiterate man does or does not want his children to learn to read, we insist that his children shall at least attend school and be given the opportunity to learn.. That man, regardless of his desire, is unable to teach them; and we, therefore, supply by law the means of their education. But a religiously disaffected man, who is likewise unable or unwilling to impart traditional moral values, may raise, to use a Biblical quote, “a generation of vipers” for all anybody cares. We’ll simply build more prisons, a Constitutionally permissible solution.

No, we cannot be certain that the children who are denied access to scriptural wisdom will never occupy positions of authority. Power is no respecter of persons. We have had our fill of godless dictators just as we have also had a surfeit of religious fanatics whose fervor was never tempered by spirituality, or by anything resembling universal love and tolerance. Nothing in recent years has broadened the horizons of such persons. If anything, their vision, thanks to our turn towards separatism, has further narrowed to an on-edge knife blade’s. All proclaim One Virtuous Fatherly God but limit God’s legitimate offspring to the members of their particular society’s brotherhood.

What are the real ligatures of religion? Are they not those lines of Truth, those sutures, those Scriptures and Sutras and Suras that bind us to God? Those Sacred Lines of Thought which infuse knowledge with wisdom, which impart conscience to science, which inform fact with meaning and give significance to event? And do they not also tie us to the mystery of life with awe and reverence? For two hundred years the Republic flourished, enriched by freely stated spiritual expressions. Where was the problem that required judicial redress? The definition of prayer could perhaps have been clarified, but the system wasn’t broke and it didn’t need fixing. In repairing what was not broken, in tinkering with the freedom of expression, the Court created an instrument which no longer operates with any common sense. Gangsta’ Rap versus the Beatitudes… and Gangsta’ Rap wins? Is the quality of any American’s life improved by this?

Perhaps when public “prayer” was first suppressed we began to flatten the moral landscape, the topography of divine providence and individual responsibility. We no longer seem to walk resignedly through the Valley of Death or to climb the Path of Righteousness to reach self-discipline’s heavenly summit. We seem instead increasingly to be mired in a swamp of torts and government programs which compensate the consequence of immoral or self-indulgent behavior. Nobody is responsible for his own choices and mistakes; and were it not for the error of others, we should all live a thousand sybaritic years.

I recall no instance in a public classroom when a teacher used the Bible in an attempt to further his own religious agenda. Teachers, the educated among us who serve all too often as surrogate parents, were, in my recollection, invariably circumspect in their Biblical selections. Perhaps a professional pride made them respect their roles as being not merely purveyors of knowledge but as instruments of wisdom. I, for one, miss hearing that I could lift up my eyes unto the hills to find some needed strength and being reminded that though I spoke with the eloquence of angels if I didn’t have love in my heart, I might as well shut up.

And so we silence the voice of Wisdom; and many there are who, strangers to its resonance, will one day mediate the great issues of science and law, of genetic engineering and organ transplantation, of zoological experimentation, of weaponry, of interplanetary decorum, of privacy, of worldwide electronic communication, of censorship, of ethics, fairness, and political responsibility, and who will supply their generation with a definition of human decency.

The fourth event that led me to consider this problem was reading a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, the Pole who recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. Szymborska, too, seems to have been considering the problem of knowledge without wisdom. She, too, came of age when Communism had succeeded, admirably in its terms, not only in separating church from state but in replacing church with state and, of course, in eradicating spirituality altogether from its Manifesto of political ideology.

Meaning and Significance, Reverence and Awe were sent into exile, leaving Knowledge behind, alone, grim, and quite bewildered.

Her poem “Going Home” was sent to me by a thoughtful friend, Father Mark Serna, a Benedictine Abbot who knew how troubled I had been about NASA’s censoring the news of Buzz Aldrin’s lunar Communion.

I’ll leave you with Szymborska’s poem which has been translated by Baranczak and Cavanagh:


He came home. Said nothing.
It was clear, though, that something had gone wrong.
He lay down fully dressed.
Pulled the blanket over his head.
Tucked up his knees.
He’s nearly forty, but not at the moment.
He exists just as he did inside his mother’s womb,
clad in seven walls of skin, in sheltered darkness.
Tomorrow he’ll give a lecture
on homeostasis in megagalactic cosmonautics.
For now, though, he has curled up and gone to sleep.


Humming Bird


Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

Originally published in 1996 titled, A NOBEL PRIZE, LUNAR COMMUNION,

In the Bardo: Uncertainty as Refuge


Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo?  Author George Saunders is a Buddhist, and this award-winning novel is a Buddhist fable.  It is a wonderful story, and a great teacher for those on a spiritual path.  Your reactions to the story as it unfolds will point you to your particular versions of attachment, grasping and suffering.

My own reactions to the story began almost immediately, as Saunders embarks on his story-telling by placing the reader…. ‘Who knows where this is?’  None of the familiar landmarks of the novel’s form are in evidence.  Drifting along without plot, story line, or dialog, one is mystified by the strange images and vocabulary.  Nothing comes along to offer comfort as the story moves through an unfamiliar landscape.  Saunders, in form and content, invites us into a realm where our preconceptions fail us and we are left to sink, or take off, swimming through the unknown.

This realm of not-knowing is the bardo of the novel’s title.  In traditional Buddhism, a bardo is the transitional space between death and re-birth, filled with spiritual tasks and meaning. The transition between birth and death, this state we call life, is a bardo too.  Bardos arise within our lives, when a mind state of relative clarity disintegrates, and we are thrown, sometimes momentarily, sometimes for years, into the transitory and amorphous, before we adapt to the changed reality.  We may enter a bardo when we lose a job, move to a new city, have a baby.  9-11 was a bardo for many of us, recent political elections too.  But so are those times when the printer breaks down, or a major project in which we have been immersed is over.  When we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory, whether it is wonderful or terrible, monumental or incidental, we are vulnerable to feeling unsteady, unsure of how to navigate.

There is great spiritual opportunity in every bardo.  Foremost, the path of wisdom encourages us to let go here.  Two simple words that when combined, suggest what can seem impossible: Let go of believing our reactions.  Keep walking forward, over the side of the proverbial cliff into the unknown, trusting the fall and opening to having our limiting beliefs cracked open on the way down.  I entered a bardo when I downsized my living space.  For weeks prior to moving day, I was caught in dread and doubt about the decision to change everything.  I was bereft, I felt lost in the uprootedness.  Within days of the move, the new place felt like home to me, and watching myself land in such a different emotional space, something did crack open.  I saw that my feelings about my “home” and my experiences of loss and gain are just as transient as the living spaces themselves.  Why get attached to temporary things like living spaces?  My likes and dislikes were feeding my delusions of permanence.

When the unimagined becomes real, there is the possibility of seeing that the world is never dependable, never a known quantity.  Things are always morphing out of “control,” away from the possibility of constancy.  The only constant in this realm of the material is that we are nothing fixed, we have nothing fixed, we know nothing fixed.

When the black or white or gray categories we have relied upon fail us, we mobilize our minds in order to quickly recover seeing with the ego’s eyes, hearing with the ego’s ears, understanding with the ego’s consciousness.  We return to what we know; strong opinions, fearful future imaginings, grief, caretaking, addictions, working harder.  Our ideas and beliefs begin to feel secure again.  We figure it out, put being rattled behind us, and life goes on.  Life must, of course, go on, diapers must be changed, boxes unpacked, political opponents opposed, borders protected.  Yet for those on a spiritual path, the opportunity to look beyond the familiar world of our own making is gained or lost within experiences of discontinuity.

Our habit of returning to life as usual from the rupture of day-to-day bardos makes death the greatest bardo teacher, for death cannot be avoided.  The bardo of life will transition into death for us all.  Saunders carves a bardo from the territory of the almost-dead.  His bardo is teeming with characters whose bodies decay in their coffins while their minds, constellations of disembodied energy, hover just above the earth.  Relying on whacky mental gymnastics, they persevere in defining themselves by their embodied past.  Some cling to parenting roles, others are attached to the utter beauty of the world, or attached to possessions, to being in the limelight, to getting the love they sought in life.  Others continue killing, stealing, or aspiring to be forever young and attractive.  The variations are endless.  Saunders’ compassion for his ghostly subjects shines through.  His humor, his acute observations of life and the infinite possibilities for clinging to it make for a light-heated yet instructive read.

The beings in Saunders’ bardo trust only that which has shaped them in a material world.  He suggests to us, his readers, that we too, when we operate from our personalities, risk staying tied to the delusion that what we think and feel and know is all there is.  His wild and fantastic ghosts whose in-between-ness consigns them to terrible suffering, show us what it looks like when we get stuck in the old even as we move, inevitably, into the new. Angels come to offer encouragement to Saunders’ ghosts, chanting, “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore.”  The story he weaves shows the benefits to be had when we can accept, not fight against or grasp at the dynamic arc of our life’s wave, acknowledging the eventual oceanic dissolution of body and mind, symbolized by a fluid, crashing, dissolving wave.

We deepen our ability to step into the profound unknowns of the BIG bardos when we can recognize, tolerate, and even learn from the smaller bardos that are ours to contend with in everyday life.  The surprises we can’t control, the slow march of age and its decays are good teachers.  Many of my peers are pondering retirement from wage labor.  They, as did I a few years back, weigh questions of when…. how….and whether they can afford to quit working.  A wave is breaking on the shore.

More than any birthday, my retirement brought me face to face with the passage of time, and the truth of my impermanence.  Death felt closer at hand here.  I clutched at the familiar, unable to relinquish my ego eyes, ears and mind.  Instead, I entered an “almost-dead” bardo.  I floated around, professional life over, yet afraid to let go of my old identity and status.  Like the ghost in the novel who wears a permanent look of terror on his face, hair standing on end, retirement left me in a hell my ego fashioned to fill the emptiness of all that was new, raw, unformed.  I could not sit still in the emptiness. Nor could I imagine a heavenly outcome, one in which this ever-changing journey would carry me toward wisdom and heart-knowing.

My struggle with retirement wasn’t the last time I have found myself in the bardo with all those struggling and delusional characters in Saunders’ book.  I share the suffering of the ghosts, and of my retirement-age peers who want to control and manage the changes and the losses, break the fall.  The very concept of a bardo helps me to know that I am not alone in finding change, and the multiple deaths it spawns, a source of profound dislocation.   If we did not so value our lives as we have constructed them, then letting go would not be the spiritual project it is.  The suffering caused by impermanence turns me toward the spiritual knowing that practice offers.

President Lincoln in Saunders’ novel shines a light on the path through the bardo.  The story unfolds with Lincoln living out his experience of terrible grief for his young son, now dead, and for the multiple Civil War dead, all deaths for which he feels responsible.  As a father and a leader, steeped in grief, Lincoln is cracked open.  He sees the whole of life and its sufferings, and the truth that nothing in this life is permanent.  All is fleeting and without lasting value.  He sees that he, his son, all people, are waves, crashing on the shore, and that all of us suffer this fleeting existence, none more special than another.  His acceptance of impermanence and his release from attachment to his son’s life and all life is re-organizing for him  and for all those ghosts who have gathered around him.  His newfound wisdom and insight send waves of liberation through the bardo.

Lincoln’s path to awakening is a juicy bite of practice for students of the Buddha.  Our discipline of silent sitting, study, and surrender to the truths the Buddha taught deepen our ability to let go of the transient stuff of life.  When we know that life has no lasting value, we achieve the vantage point that the fictional President Lincoln has.  We develop our capacity, even when things fall apart, to walk through each moment, doing what needs to be done, being present to life as it is.

The ruptures life brings, however, challenge the equanimity of all but the most practiced among us.  When we find ourselves unmoored, our work is to find out where we are.  Is this arousal triggered by a change that has ripped down the veil of delusional permanence?  If so, one then has a context for investigating one’s responses.  Knowing that suffering emerges from the ego attachments we hold dear is a precious investigative tool.  We discover whether Saunders’ ghosts are present in some form within us, grasping at delusions, busy with resisting where they are headed, ethereal and strange and so in pain.

To let go of our ghosts, of our habitual reactions to life’s inconstancy, is to let go of our mind/body/ego continuum.  We stop putting the self in charge, and in that spacious place, we can ask ourselves, “What would it be like to just….BE here…. letting impermanence have its way with our physical existence, empty of concepts about who we are and where we are?”  No longer turning toward the ego to guide us.  No longer constrained by the limitations of what has been.  Head cracked open.  Surrendering to the fall.

There are numerous words for this place in Buddhist thought: emptiness, groundlessness, don’t know mind.  They begin to be more than words when dislocation happens and we allow ourselves to be opened into the spacious field of right here, awareness of everything held in an open heart, a still mind.  Like emerging from a dense forest into a clearing, when for precious moments everything stops.

Right here in the clearing is the key to leaping clear of impermanence, leaping clear of every undulating, wave-crashing bardo known as change.  Here. Now. Just. This.  Standing still in the open light of clarity, without generating the next move.  No push to create a new concept, an old identity.  Just this open field surrounded by forest, before anything else is born, initiated, conceived, created.  This moment, unshaped by human desire.

An instant ticket out of bardo hell, and into the undying, uncreated, unchanging Nirvanic emptiness of our spiritual hopes and dreams.

When the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo surrender what they “know,” let go of that to which they cling, they dissolve upward, out of the almost-dead bardo.  Whatever world they created around them dissolves too, as its organizing force, the ghostly minds, are now transformed.  As a reader, I was relieved that their suffering was over, that they had finally surrendered.   I realized that I trusted in their surrender, I wanted this for them.  To come out of the limitations of our knowing minds, into the clarity of the clearing, is to find our way home.  This is the refuge within uncertainty, and when we find it, we too leave the bardo and are re-born.  Learning to trust this ultimate truth, learning this surrender: The Way of Wisdom.

Humming Bird

Author: Getsu San Ku Shin

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:


On Shi Ke Two Minds in Harmony

We begin alone in contemplation and practice.

We awaken in harmony that cannot be grasped.

by Ming Zhen Shakya

We don’t know precisely when Shi Ke drew it. The day, unfixed by coordinates, ambles somewhere across the Tenth Century’s calendric grid. But it must have been a sunny day for such history as we have informs us that the Master, preparing to execute his composition’s major strokes, picked up a handful of dried grass, squeezed the clump into a brush, and lapped the bristles round the ink tray until they were soft enough to yield to rice-paper demands.

If we look carefully we can hear the monk snoozing in soft cadence to the tiger’s steady purr. “Two Minds In Harmony”, Shi Ke called the work. What was he trying to tell us when he furiously scribed into existence this mellowed, dozing pair?

What else do we see? On gross examination the two figures are conformed to suggest the “on guard” position of the martial artist’s hands: the right hand is contracted into a fist and the left hand is laid securely upon it. Together they are furled and held before the chest.

The configuration is an ancient diagram of polarity: Yin/Yang. Shakti/Shiva. Power and the Law Power Obeys. The fist is power, emotion – movement away from. The overlaying hand is law, intelligence – the internal governance of reason, a hand position which reminds the martial artist that his mind must always control his use of force.

What happens to this Yin/Yang hand-configuration when the man who is poised for combat becomes the man who reposes in meditation? As the function is reversed, so is the hand position: the clasped hands are simply inverted, rotated l80 degrees, and gently relaxed, the left hand going from suppression to support and the right hand from fist to cup – a spiritual begging bowl. Indeed, the meditator assumes a passive posture and in a conscious act of supplication surrenders to the Buddha within himself.

But the Yin/Yang configuration suggested here is neither that of combat nor of meditation since both activities require an alert awareness; and the monk and tiger, in this Yin and Yang embrace, drowse as a unit in blissful oblivion. Again, what is Shi Ke trying to tell us?

We know that in our everyday lives of chopping wood and carrying water we must balance emotion and reason, the interests of eros and logos. We know that we cannot have a harmonious performance if we entertain one member of a duet to the exclusion or disadvantage of the other.

The harmony of tiger and monk has not been achieved, let us quickly add, by the victory of some vaunted superior human nature over an equally mis-termed inferior animal nature. Dogs can be more loyal than men; cats more affectionate than women. We should all improve from the company of wolves.

Neither can we suppose that the drawing conveys the idea of sexual hegemony: male sovereignty over some vassal female state, Creative over Receptive. Science has taken us beyond supposing that “seminal”; conveys the fact of “seed”, that the male supplies a pret-a-porter zygote needful only of a convenient female’s nutritional depository. The Yin and Yang concept admits to no such facile interpretation. Were this an intended meaning, Hexagram 12 (Heaven over Earth) would be a desirable one; it is not. It indicates No Progress… Disjunction… Obstruction. And the left or “sinister” hand would be represented as the female force. It is not. The right hand is the fist.

It is a matter of artistic license to term certain qualities feminine. But feminine is not female. In order for any human being to be complete the qualities so described must be equally present and harmoniously blended with those qualities designated as masculine.

But this message, however valid, is mere commonplace, too jejune and trivial in its limits… hardly enough to engage a master and surely insufficient to inspire him. What, then, is Shi Ke so determined that we see?

Where are the dynamics of intellect and passion? Isn’t the slumber an expression of peace, and the peace an implication of harmony?

Isn’t he illustrating the Seventh Day… The Day of Rest… The culmination of effort… the stasis of sleep?

Shi Ke has depicted the transcendence of opposites: the passing beyond prejudicial judgments of good and evil, of male and female, of eros and logos, of need and satiation, of conflict and repose; and, most especially, of ego and other. There is no more Yin and Yang. The distinctions are obliterated. Sleep has emptied the Circle. Shi Ke has taken us into the Nirvanic Void.

This is the effortless state of simply Being… a freezing of the pulse, a stoppage of the Turning Wheel, an end to the alternations of struggle and repose. Sunyata. Perfect entropy. The heat death of Samsara.


Images, Credit:

Shi Ke (石恪, 10th century), Five Dynasties period (907-960)

Two hanging scrolls, ink on paper, 35.3 x 64.4 cm, Tokyo National Museum

       This work is attributed to Shi Ke of the Hou (later) Shu kingdom in the period of Five Dynasties. He studied under Zhang Nanben (張南本), who was a master at painting fire, and was good at figure painting. Although he did not care what other people think and pursued his own free style with ease, Shi Ke’s painting style, where faces are painted in details while clothes are drawn with simple strokes became the standard for subsequent figure painting in China.

Humming Bird
ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:

Create the Conditions


At first glance we might mistake this instruction Create the Conditions to represent a makeover of our house, a clean out of things in the closets and dresser drawers or a pledge to fix things up. No. It’s not like that at all. Although it is true, cleanliness is next to godliness, it is not the material conditions we need to focus on to make the spiritual climb. We can give a nod to order, and simplicity and even owning and having less but I assure you those conditions are not what we need to create.

We are encouraged to remember the path of Shakyamuni as the exemplar of what we need to do. Our struggles come to awaken us. Buddha struggled and it was in that struggle he began his search for God, the Dharma. He was a Hindu. A Prince. A father. A man saturated in a spiritual history. But he, himself, struggled. When we are able to see our struggle as a clarion, a loud and clear trumpet sound of something is amiss, we seek something to remedy it. We look within. Even if we don’t know what to do, the desire alleviate our struggle arises. We catch that wave and turn it. This turning is turning the Wheel of life and death. And it is, in fact, a matter of life and death.

Something changed Shakyamuni when he saw the suffering from his palace windows. What was it? He realized he, too, was subject to suffering. It was there he turned. He became a seeker. It is what we, each one of us, need to be. A seeker: a big, open heart seeker.

Once he saw that something was amiss he was willing to give up everything to change to it. He left his wife. His newborn son. His palace. He followed through. Found teachers. Practiced. Awakened.

It was a big makeover. A big emptying out. Each seeker, in his circumstances does a similar thing. It may start small….it may begin with some painful struggle that prompts you to seek, to hear and read the teachings. But even a small beginning of seeking requires an emptying out, a makeover of time, commitments and activities. We have to make room for contemplation much like we make room to learn anything.  Something has to give, in order for the help to come.

We choose to create the conditions in our mind. Even before we learn anything, we must decide we want to learn. We must choose to want to hear and listen in order to turn and face the light. This step is a beginner’s step, but woe to those who skip it.

We take to heart the teachings. Test them out in our own way. We seek help. We study ourselves.

Here is an exercise you might try. Study what you find yourself getting involved in during the day. And pay close attention to the responses that show up inside of you as you meet the many things that come your way.

Are your responses an array of attachment; hate and fear? If yes, you know the non-self (ego) is attempting to get hold of things. Stop and ask yourself if it was the non-self (ego) that got involved in the first place.

In other words, were there strings of attachment, hate and fear tied to your involvement from the get-go? If yes, then the effects will be coming accordingly. You may feel edgy, anxious, off kilter from even the tiniest grasp of the non-self.

This cause and effect cycle will continue on and on until enlightenment….in the meantime, turn towards the Light when the effects arrive which is a sure fire way to dissipate the shadowy effects that have come. In a visual sense place your mind above, on the high bird until there is only ONE bird in the tree….which is after all is your True nature. STOP the mind reaching for or pushing away some thing you want or don’t want. All happiness is in the High bird. And the High bird does not get involved with things with strings.

Remember: What did Buddha STOP when he encountered the finger necklace thief? Buddha stopped the pleasures and pains of the non-self leaving only the flow of Light which shines on everything without discrimination.

CAUTION: If you pretend to be the High bird, trouble of all sorts will follow.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog. If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at:



A Spiritual Refugee Trains to Live as a Monk in the World: A Biography.

Time to be totally free, and estranged.

Time to give up our souls, to set fire to structures and run out in the street.

Time to ferment. How else can we leave the world vat and go to the lip?

We must die to become true human beings.

We must turn completely upside down like a comb in the top of a beautiful woman’s hair.”

Rumi, A Story They Know, A Bridge to the Soul, Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart, Barks, Arberry & Ergin

MY FIRST DECADE:  I grew up in a Lutheran household, attending church regularly.  My grandmother and I bonded over a heart-full love of the Christian God.  I was passionate about Jesus, and found great comfort and joy in knowing of his love for me.

TEENS: I came of age in a large extended Norwegian family.  My uncles and great uncles, my father, grandfather and great grandfather were all medical doctors.  They were all invested in the family business, a medical clinic begun by my great grandfather in the 1920’s, when medicine based in scientific thought competed with folk medicine and “quackery” for dominance.  Many of the women were powerhouses too.  My great grandmother raised 7 sons and a daughter, held Ibsen Club in Norwegian in her dining room, and kept the generations of her family steeped in Norwegian culture, language and holiday traditions. My mother was a member of the elected school board while I was in high school.  An aunt was an elected member of the county board.  My grandmother led a campaign to raise $5 million for the national League of Women Voters for its 50th anniversary in 1970, and sat on the Board of Wellesley College for many years.  There were between 2 and 7 of my cousins in every grade level of my schools growing up.  It was a rich, nourishing, inspiring holding environment for a young girl.  I was imprinted with notions of striving, social responsibility, conspicuous success.  I also yearned for anonymity.

Another important influence from my Scandinavian roots is love of the natural world.  Churches are small and poorly attended in Norway, as most Norwegians would rather be hiking or skiing.  Together with my family, I skied, skated, sailed, canoed, biked, hiked and swam.  My grandparents bought a small farm 20 miles outside of town where we all gathered to enjoy the seasons, play in the woods, sled down the hills, fish for trout in the pond, work in the gardens.  I learned the names of the trees, the birds, the wildflowers.

After years of sitting through dull Sunday morning worship services, I rebelled against the institutional church, sparked largely by deep questioning of the tenants of the faith which I studied in confirmation class.  I came to the conclusion that I did not believe in God, nor did I believe in the hell to which the church warned I would be eternally condemned for this rejection of their Maker.

My earlier spiritual passion found purchase in a new arena, befitting of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, that of fervent political belief.  It seemed to me that heaven, and hell, were here on earth, in the form of the suffering I saw all around me.  I became an activist against the war in Vietnam, for environmental causes.  I volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, organized a Walk for Mankind.

TWENTIES: In college I majored in political philosophy.  I saw life through a Marxist, feminist lens.  Religion was the opiate of the masses.  A critical analysis of capitalism, and organizing on behalf of those oppressed by its paradigm would eventually lead to revolution from the bottom-up.  I rejected the class system, and my own and my family’s upper-middle-class values and lifestyle.  I lived on the far edges of the culture I had until then been a part of, choosing jobs and living situations that reflected my counter-cultural, revolutionary outlook.

In quieter moments, I nurtured a very private fascination with monasticism.  There was something so compelling to me about people who chose to live outside of the cultural mainstream, much as I was, but from a very different motivation of finding God in the quiet and stillness.  I read the novels and saw the movies about monastic life, and in college, visited a monastery with a friend who was doing research for a class.  But, mostly I was devoted to a life of struggle against the suffering I saw everywhere I looked.  I met, fell in love with, and married my husband, who shared my lifestyle and my conviction that people would eventually rise up against the system I believed was the cause of all injustice.

THIRTIES: Having children, and the Reagan years, began to shift my energy away from my single-minded focus on building a revolution.  Giving birth to and nurturing two infants opened my eyes and my heart to the potent and very physical, instinctual world of mothering.  As my children grew, I felt a conflict between my devotion to the movement and my devotion to them.  But, in the end, I could not sustain my political fervor.  I was worn out by what I saw as the frustrating tendencies of humans to mess up any and every compelling social movement.  All the institutions I worked for were plagued with political divisions, financial woes, waning memberships.

The light of my awareness was turning around to shine within.  I completed two courses of individual psychotherapy as I grappled with being a wife, mother, daughter and friend without political work to define me. Therapy helped me to feel my emotions, to relax more, to confront the pain of my parent’s divorce.

We bought a home, got a puppy.  I left my last movement job and went to massage school, and though it felt like I was cutting off my right arm, I was deeply relieved to find work that demanded I slow down, breathe, and take care of myself, a few clients and my family, rather than the whole world.  Being drawn to an alternative healing modality also fueled my continuing rebellion against my family as the embodiment of the medical model.  I alternated between feeling self-righteous and sinfully disloyal to my tribe of origin and the world of power and prestige that being doctors conferred upon them.

I read Marsha Sinetar’s ORDINARY PEOPLE AS MONKS AND MYSTICS, and some deep bell rang with a resonance that continues to this day.  Sinetar interviewed dozens of people who had chosen lives of quiet, individual prayer, ritual and worship outside the church, outside any established order.  These were people who had found their own way by searching deeply inside themselves.  Their truth was self-actualized.  I still have this book, and have returned to find inspiration in it many times over the ensuing years.

FORTIES: Providing massage therapy to survivors of torture and war helped me to reconcile my continued commitment to political activism with my job as a provider of individual care and comfort.  I grappled with how to reconcile the immensity of the evil of political torture, the effects of which stared back at me through the haunted eyes of my survivor clients.  I went into the work determined that torture must end.  I left the work, 12 years later, knowing that the darkness and suffering I had witnessed were both out of my control and beyond my ability to comprehend.  My friends in the bodywork community who were Buddhists were particularly helpful in my coming to terms with these issues.  As they pointed out to me, who am I to judge?  How can I know where such horrific experiences come from, or will lead?  I can offer care from moment to moment.  That is all.  This stance brought me through a period of great anger and anguish, to a place of relative peace and acceptance, despite the pain of this work.

My best friend during this time was Jewish, and part of an alternative minion, a group of young families who met on Saturdays to worship together in a way that both honored the Jewish spiritual traditions and rejected many of the institutional forms that Judaism had taken.  I felt a yearning to have what I saw there.  A spiritual home.  But seeing nothing around me, I created some spiritual content on my own.  My work with my clients increasingly took on various forms of ritual.  I created rituals for my children’s 13th birthdays.  We also had family rituals for the Day of the Dead and the winter solstice.  The truth of life outside of the rational, linguistic, western ways of knowing became more important to me.  I also struggled with anxiety, heart palpitations, fear of death, workaholism and a consuming drive to excel, which created concentric circles of suffering in my kids, my partner, friends and family.

My professional identity evolved toward a focus on the integration of body and mind with trauma survivors.  I completed numerous trainings in therapies that used mindfulness as a vehicle for clients to study their own lived experience in real time.  I was very moved by the experience of learning to be fully present with a client.  The language and the mindset of mindful presence was both profound and intimidating in its intimacy and immediacy.

I began to meditate in order to strengthen this new set of professional skills.  The integration of body and mind increasingly became a personal practice as well.  Beginning to meditate was painful physically and psychically, way outside my comfort zone of high octane performance.  But I kept going.  So many books on Buddhist thought helped inspire me to try to sit still, to have faith that pure presence was the key to Nirvana, the end of suffering.

FIFTIES: One of my teachers in mindfulness-based therapeutic methods became ill with cancer and died soon after.  He was my age, 51.  Both before and during his dying process, Dan was committed to the practice of Buddhism.  I had many conversations with him during which my unexamined assumptions about life, death and suffering were completely blown away.  He was learning so much, he was willing to share his journey, his insights, and I was ready to hear them.  He was walking through the dying process while his heart opened up.  He was not consumed with fear, but determined to utilize this time to find deeper truth, deeper safety, deeper love.  He encouraged me to get serious about my spiritual practice.  His experience of awakening through the dying process was just the encouragement I needed.

I had also become ambivalent about psychotherapy as a means of addressing my own unhappiness. After a horrible break up with a business partner, I felt at sea.  Psychotherapy was unable to reach the pain I felt.  This, despite the fact that I was now practicing psychotherapy with my clients, as well as beginning a master’s program in counseling.  I began to look for a spiritual teacher.  The yearning for a spiritual home went deep.  But nothing I tried, no group I sat with, no teacher whose dharma talks I heard could touch that yearning.

It is so uncanny that during our first meeting in the zendo at A Single Thread, I was given the choice of seeing the resident priest as a psychotherapist or as a spiritual teacher.  Both were not an option.  I did not hesitate.  This woman sitting across from me, with her shaved head, the altar behind her, her deeply grounded energy was my spiritual teacher.  Is my teacher.  I had come home.  I was 53.

My early experiences of sitting at A Single Thread were simultaneously excruciating and very, very comforting.  I had found not only a teacher but also a community, and a centuries-old wisdom tradition.  I felt deeply held.  I also hated the painful, long periods of sitting, and was intimidated by all the form I stumbled through for weeks until it began to make sense to my body. I particularly remember my early experience with chanting.  The chants were long, and the form was to chant quickly, without pause.  My intellect was quickly overwhelmed, I could not comprehend the meaning of what I was chanting except in small bites, randomly, over many Sundays of repetition.  It was like no other experience I had had before.  I felt the meaning of the chants wash over me, without comprehension.  I let them happen to me, my intellect having been defeated.  Slowly, over months and years, the meanings of these ancient teachings have been revealed…or continue to lie waiting for the right moment when I am ready to receive their wisdom.

I became a regular participant in the activities of the sangha.  The teachings were like water for my thirsty soul.  I drank and drank.   I also fought constantly with the practice and the teachings.  My pride and fear and anger, my drive and my resistance to letting go of my ego were ever-present, especially when I sat on the cushion.  It has taken me many years to settle down those persistent, aroused energies.  Suzuki Roshi said, “Eventually, clear mind will come.”  He was right.  It did.  It comes and goes.  Nothing stays the same.

At home, my husband wanted to hear in detail about what was taught each Sunday.   It would always spark a deep conversation between us.  I so wished he would come with me to sit, his own pain was tearing him up.  But he stayed separate for a long time.  When he did begin to come to sangha, I was overjoyed, both for him and for me.  With the help of the practice, and our teacher, I have watched as my husband’s hurt and anger have transformed.  And, I cannot imagine a luckier person than I, having both a spiritual teacher and a partner who is now fully committed to this path.  The intimacy we have worked so hard to achieve in our marriage has found its pinnacle in this spiritual intimacy, where both our closeness and our boundaries with each other are serving us to learn, grow, struggle, be supported and have our own autonomous experiences.  I am so very grateful for what we have separately and together been given.  In the beginning of “37 Practices of a Bodhisattva” (, accessed 11/18/2017) it is written, “Right now, you have a good boat, fully equipped and available — hard to find. To free others and you from the sea of samsara, day and night, fully alert and present, study, reflect, and meditate — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.”  YES, I have a very good boat.

During one period in the life of the sangha, sangha members were invited to give the Sunday dharma talk.  One Sunday it became my task to give the talk, for which I prepared a detailed outline of my remarks.  When I finished, my teacher gave me a further assignment: to come back the next week and speak without any preparation.  I was completely terrified.  I had often taught in other contexts, but never without hours of preparation and copious notes.  That dharma talk, where I had almost nothing to say, and had to sit while my fellow sangha members waited patiently in the silence, was a profound teaching for me.  I learned how much I work to take care of everyone’s experience, to make sure others are entertained and impressed at the expense of the truth as it comes through me in the moment.  For how authentic can one be when all the preparation took place in the past?  I learned the absolute power of what can happen when an audience and a teacher and a subject come together uniquely in the moment, and an experience is created out of that moment.  Since then, I have found this way of teaching to be a compelling alternative.  To show up NOW, to teach what one knows NOW, to invite the wisdom of this moment to come through one NOW, not from one’s storehouse of dusty ideas.

That is one example of how the delusion of striving for excellence has stunted my spirit and shaped my ego.  Here is another:  For 4 years now, I have been working to create my personal artistic expression of the Wheel of Suffering, an ancient Buddhist mandala, packed with teachings if one is willing to put in the work so that the ancient images come to life in the present.  Working with each individual image, I have learned first-hand about the spiritual unfolding of something from nothing that we call the creative process.  I have learned to wait, with faith, knowing that an idea or an image, truth, will emerge.  Tolerating the void and staying in awareness allows the channels of my being open to an idea arising out of emptiness, into consciousness.  Through applying this process to the Wheel mandala, I have learned so much about my own habits of mind.  Now, the images I have created are like mile markers, reminding me when I am suffering of how I create this conditioned pain, how I choose to go down those old paths once again.

As I deepened into my Wheel project, I noticed that each time I worked with the images, I would leave feeling giddy with excitement about what I had created, and thrilled to present the project to my sangha.  I raced to complete enough of the images that it could be ready for a “showing.”  My teacher caught on.  She forbade me to present my Wheel project.  I was furious and hurt.  All my drive toward having my excellence finally seen…dashed on the rocks of continued obscurity.  It was a painful period, but eventually, I saw clearly the wisdom in her instruction.  I admitted defeat.  It became a time of concentrated investigation into my addiction to fame and glory, and continued through the process of eventually presenting my Wheel to the sangha.  My teacher was with me every step of the way, guiding me through my own addictive process, protecting me from too much, assisting me to investigate the deep, deep fear and hate and greed that drives the striving.

Another arena of spiritual struggle and learning for me has been my tendency to approach challenges from a psychological perspective.  I continued to work professionally with survivors of trauma, offering them the skills of recognizing, accepting, investigating and disidentifying from their own habits, conditioned as they were by overwhelming and traumatic life experiences.  It has taken me a long time to see in myself, and I can still be blindsided by, my habit of investigating some painful emotional knot inside me using a psychological paradigm, which originates from the agenda of making the egoic self happy and functional in the material world.  This is not a bad thing; however, it is not spiritual work.  I had to unlearn (I am still unlearning) my tendency to fix, to clean up my “act.”  I am still learning how NOT to make my spiritual work into a self-improvement project.

In Zen as it has been taught to me, little direct instruction is given by the teacher to the student.  Each of us is called to find her/his own way to practice.  The teacher can point out when one is off the mark.  The rest is up to the student.  What is more, the spiritual teacher-student relationship is not based in a need for the student to feel loved by the teacher, as is usually the case in psychotherapy.  There is not a dependence on either one of the partners to the relationship being kind or gentle or protective.  Just the truth matters.  This truth, and the devotion of both parties to the truth, does create a relationship of deep devotion for each person to the other, teacher and student.  But the devotion is not based in needing the other person to like you or pay you.

As a student of Zen, I was experiencing all of these differences between my professional world and my spiritual world.  I found it very difficult to see the differences, to accept them, and to let go of my identification as a psychotherapist.   And, at the same time, I found I had less interest in the work of psychotherapy every year.  I began to work fewer hours and see fewer clients.  I stopped taking notes on each client session, something I had enthusiastically and faithfully done always.  My favorite clients were the ones who identified as spiritual seekers, to whom I could offer counsel that was a hybrid of psychotherapy and spiritual guidance.  I yearned to have more time for spiritual practice, to remove the psychological threads from the spiritual fabric I wove.

My teacher announced to the sangha that she had been given permission from the Chan hierarchy to create a contemplative order, and was authorized to ordain monks in this new order.  My heart leapt.  THIS is what I wanted for my life.  This is what was important.  My Wheel card depiction of the Human Realm kept coming back to me—the girl with the seeking eyes, the girl who KNOWS, buried under layers and layers of the stuff that distracts me and diverts my best energies away from that which truly matters.

My partner was approaching age 65, and was moving toward retirement.  We knew there was a way we could financially swing it so that I could retire also.  My ego fought this possibility with great determination.  The fear of being a nobody in the eyes of my family, my colleagues, the fear of leaving my clients to pursue a spiritual life was so intense.   I struggled and contemplated and struggled more and spoke often with my teacher.  I wrestled with it.  And, eventually I saw very clearly that what I truly wanted, underneath all the identification with being a therapist was to be done with it, to move with trust and faith toward a greater commitment to a spiritual practice path.  I wanted to be an ordinary person who was also a monk.  The clarity I felt was fleeting but stark.  It was followed by long periods of anxiety and doubt, but the clarity remained as a vivid memory to guide me through the long painful process of shutting down my practice.

SIXTIES: On the weekend of my sixtieth birthday, we downsized into a studio apartment.  I had closed my therapy practice two months prior.  We were free.

That next winter, holed up in the warm studio apartment we call “the cave,” I knit a sweater and made a red felt Yama for my Wheel mandala in between bouts of acute neck pain and headaches.  There were weeks when I spent most days on the couch, unable to move much.  Finally, it occurred to me that this pain could be part of my spiritual work.  I made flash cards from an excellent article my teacher gave me on how meditators can work with illness.  I proceeded to practice with building an internal holding environment that could remain grounded and present to all the fear and hurt.  The more I could do this, the more the painful, constricted energy began to move.  When I could meet the pain from a stance that was calm and accepting, that constricted energy could let go.  I felt many emotions come pouring out of my body, old held emotions that I did not know were in me.  Over several months, I let go of many old holdings.  And, I learned at a deeper level what it means to be empty.  No wanting, no knowing, no meaning, no labels.  No matter how painful.  It was the power of something greater than myself, living within me.

For two years after I retired, I grappled with fear and doubt about the decision.  I meditated more, I participated more in the life of the sangha, my spiritual life deepened but I could not shake a persistent feeling of anxious dread at being without the professional identity with which my personal sense of power and prestige was linked.  It took a long time to calm this down.  And in the meantime, despite my initial enthusiasm for being a monk, I hesitated to take it on.  It was enough to have ended my professional life.  I needed time to lick the wounds and regroup.

During this time, the Single Thread sangha died a slow, gentle, natural death.  I felt great sorrow, and for a while, resisted the death with my own frantic attempts to keep things going.  But, the maxim is true: Loss is a much better spiritual teacher than gain.  I am very grateful for all I learned as the sangha went away.  It lives on in my heart, as great love for a series of fleeting experiences that, at the time, seemed like something solid and dependable. For a moment in time, this wonderful space for practice flourished in the material world.  “All that I serve will die, all my delights” (Wendell Berry, “The Wish to be Generous”, accessed 11/18/2017).  I also learned that when I take refuge in Sangha, it is not a physical space in which I take refuge.  It CAN’T be, the physical realm is transient.  The sangha in which I take refuge lives with Buddha and dharma in the realm of the truths we hold as true for all time: that beings can, and are, awakening.  We take refuge in Sangha as an expression of that awakening potential of all beings.

We had purchased a tiny home on wheels in Wisconsin soon after our retirement.  Towed it to a ridge-top meadow on the farm owned by dear friends who had been our neighbors in Chicago.  Their farm is a 15-minute drive from my grandfather’s farm, where I had played as a child, and learned to love the natural world.  After 30 years of living in the city, now we had 6 bird feeders outside our windows, views of the sunrise and the sunset every day, meadow grasses, wildflowers and oak trees both ancient and sapling-stage to watch as they made their rounds of the life cycle through the seasons.  Not having a physical sangha to tend to and attend, we began to spend weeks, months at a time at the tiny house with the natural world around us as our teacher and friend.

At Easter last spring, I found myself alone in my house for 5 days, and proceeded to organize the time into a solitary spiritual retreat.  For the preceding year I had been pursuing an understanding of Buddhist concepts of death, karma and rebirth.  My teacher had been increasingly focused on the idea of eternity, of the Absolute, of God as motivating her own spiritual work.  It was news to me that God could be part of a Buddhist spiritual paradigm, but over time I had opened to the possibility that an Absolute presence was part of the Buddhist bargain.  Yet, since my ‘break-up” with God at age 13, I had held to the belief that there was no heaven, no hell, no afterlife.  I was investigating where the truth lay between these discordant assertions.

I first learned that the Buddha described the truth beyond impermanence as “unborn, undying and uncreated” from Kennett Roshi.  I saw that a series of her talks, entitled “The Delusion of Illness and Death,” were available online, so I decided to make this part of my Easter retreat.  The first of these talks hit me right between the eyes.  In it, Kennett Roshi states with great clarity and confidence, “YOU WILL CONTINUE.” (“The Delusion of Illness and Death,” Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett, Talk 1, Part 1,, accessed 11/18/2017). She describes her own near-death experience, and also the works of others who have studied near-death experiences.  Over the next two days, I came to the full realization that We Sit in Eternity.  Eternity, of which we are all part, is merciful, grace-filled.  I felt fully the truth of this, I KNEW it to be true.  So much fear fell away.  I felt waves of relief and joy, waves of letting go as I surrendered to being cared for…eternally.  It was a safety I had never known could exist.

A 4-day Vipassana retreat in Madison, one month later, featured Ayya Mehanandi as guest teacher.  She is……radiant, funny, incredibly strong, vulnerable, human, and a great teacher of the dharma.  Being in her presence, I knew I was ready to turn toward the work of becoming a monk.


Author: Getsu San Ku Shin, A monk in training.
Image credit: yao xiang shakya

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We Worry About Things That Don’t Last


This short essay is for the wobbly spiritual seeker. The one who finds himself repeating again and again the same old mistake, namely, thinking the world of things, known as samsara, will ultimately pay a reward for his good efforts. It is, as the title suggests, for those who worry about things that don’t last.

Gamblers are, in my opinion, the model of worrying about things that don’t last. They rely on two types of reinforcement (that which strengthens a behavior), unpredictable and intermittent; both of these qualities increase the gamblers tendency to place another bet. There is a third factor that is part of the gambler’s matrix; a problem with impulse control. This third factor is an inability to restrain and resist an urge (desire). This factor represents a form of spiritual blindness. Impulsivity lacks a long view of the consequences in the face of an urge; instead of resisting the trigger, the gambler pulls it.

The gambler model is a characterization of the common man who is caught in the fires of worldliness. He is not to be thought of as other; in fact, he is best understood as us….those of us who worry over the things that don’t last….those of us who return again and again to the trough of the material world believing it will feed our hunger. For those of us who see the cycle, but pay no heed to reality, the hunger and thirst will continue. We play with fire again and again.

We, which I mean the unawakened, are bound by the lure of our unpredictable blinking hopes of finding lasting satisfaction in a broken world. The more times we fall prey to our hunger and thirst, the more our impulse control weakens. Repetition is, after all, a basis of mastery; making us masters of ignorance. We suffer in like manner with addicts of any ilk as epitomized by the familiar and hackneyed definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result which is attributed to Narcotics Anonymous.

We fail to heed the proverb once bitten, twice shy. In many situations our drive to get what we want emboldens us to press on in the blinking, alternating lights for a fleeting payoff.

The trouble rests in our lack of discrimination; discrimination being the inability to see the real from the unreal. We are drunk with hope that we will indeed get blood from a stone and that our desires will once and for all be fulfilled in a broken world. Our inclination to stay drunk is compounded by the promises and propaganda of the world. We are inundated by such bilk.

We want the fruits of our actions in quick fashion. And if at first you don’t succeed —- try and try again. Instead of a sober stop, we wobble on. When we don’t succeed we are told to pick ourselves up and give it another go….a common and often misguided phrase of encouragement to remain attached to the broken world.

When we worry about things that don’t last, we are playing with fire. We need to stop. Examine our self. We need to be able to see that our yearning will never be fulfilled in the material realm. It is broken and operates on unpredicatable, intermittant reinforcement and turns us into gamblers of the worse kind.

Every day we live we have a chance to awaken. In order to awaken we need to be able to discriminate between the real and the unreal. Unfortunately, our eyes are covered with conditions that prevent us from seeing the real from the unreal. The conditions are the dust in our eyes and the dust must be wiped away.

We sober up and are humbled by the inevitable falling apart of all the things we hold dear. We begin to wipe away the dust from our eyes because we realize attachment to and desire for the things that don’t last is the cause of our suffering. This realization is wisdom.

We no longer place our bets on things that fall apart. It is simple cause and effect; don’t place your finger in the flames of the world. Non attachment is a requisite for the wobbly seeker. When we see the world through awakened eyes and we do not discriminate with worldly measures. We see what is real and eternal rather than seek a reward in the temporal. When we find the eternal we, the little self, vanishes and we are who we are.

There are rewards in the temporal, but they are temporary. When we know they are temporary we become guests and not the owners. Guests are not attached. They come, stay for awhile and leave. If they begin to grasp and cling to things, they become thieves. If they disrespect the things, they become incorrigible, unable to be corrected or reform. If they hang around too long, they begin to stink, decay and fall apart.

Our problems are anchored in the temporal things. Check this out for yourself. Look at what rattles you, what upsets you. It is most likely attached to some temporal reality of the body, the mind, the mental formations of work, power, wealth, relationships, things which get old, decay and fall apart. Learn the lesson of disappointment and turn your attention to the eternal, to that which lasts and offers eternal peace. Begin and continue in that direction. Remember we are all in a leaky boat that pushes off from the shore only to sink a few lengths out. Don’t waste time betting on gains from the material world. Take a good look at the disappointment that comes to awaken and heed the wisdom it gives.

Give up the gamble —- turn around —- look to the Source —- see through the glitz of getting gold dust —-gold is dust after all.

In plain words….Sober up!

by Fashi Lao Yue

Image Credit; Yao Xiang Shakya

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Remember, the Path’s two important rules: Begin and Continue.