Martha, Martha What is Charity? by Ming Zhen Shakya

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya


There is a problem, central to religious life, which the Bible, with exquisite brevity, states for us in Luke Chapter 10: verses 38-42:


Now as they were traveling along, He entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home.

And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said,

“Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.”

But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about many things;

But only one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”


Clearly, these verses operate at several different instructional levels. There is the obvious one: The first and greatest need is God, and no other need takes priority over this one. Mary was serenely seated at the Nirvanic feet of God. She had what was truly important. But Martha, instead of fixing her attention on the Divine Presence or on her service to that Presence, squandered her attention on Samsaric illusions.

Zen Buddhists, especially, can understand the situation. We plan to sit in meditation and just as we get our incense lit and balance ourselves nicely on our cushions, we become anxious about the mailman. Will he be late again today? Or we realize that we can no longer put off making the decision: should we have rice or pasta for dinner tomorrow night? We try to focus our thoughts on the chant our mouths are uttering, but all we can think about is an encounter we’ve recently had with a rude store clerk. Yes, we understand Jesus’ admonition. Nobody gets “worried and bothered about many things” the way a Zen Buddhist does.

But these words of Jesus have deeper meanings. Our attention is immediately drawn to His intriguing choice of terms: He speaks of ‘one needful thing’ which is evidently composed of several ‘parts’. We need to think about this. And we need also consider the difficult problem which the event, itself, presents: When do we work to serve those who seek our help; and when do we retire, seemingly to ignore their needs, in order to study or meditate or attend to other things which we believe are, at that moment, more important? How do we resolve the conflict between satisfying spiritual or personal needs and doing those chores that civilized life requires us to do? In order to eat, food must be prepared. Somebody has to do the work.

And so we wonder… Why did Jesus refuse to ask Mary to help Martha? Is Martha some sort of second-class devotee? Is it perfectly all right to let her do all the ‘scut’ work while her sister Mary gracefully reclines at the Master’s feet? There seems to be something unjust in this refusal. After all, we reason, Mary will get up to come to the table to eat. She will be dining, too.

On the surface, the Bible would seem to contradict Zen teaching. “No work, no food,” is always our monastic dictum. Were this anyone but Jesus speaking, we’d quickly reply, “Hah! My master would’ve hit Mary with his stick and sent her scurrying to the kitchen.” But men of Zen do not lightly dismiss a Bodhisattva’s pronouncements. So we scratch our heads and maintain a discreet but darkened silence, waiting for the Buddha’s lightbulb to start shining in our brains.

While pondering several seemingly unrelated events recently, I accidentally switched on a light which I believe illuminates these other meanings.

Not too long ago I had invited two bachelor members of my congregation to my home for Thanksgiving dinner. I’m a terrible cook, so the inducement wasn’t the food… it was the viewing of two classic French films which were subtitled in English.

My VCR and TV are back in my bedroom which is a very small place. In the room, besides the incidental bed, are chests of drawers, file cabinets, bookcases, CD and tape player with their stacks of CDs and tapes and, of course, my whole computer mishmash including desk and printer, etc. etc. Most bathrooms have more available floor space. Add to this some opened butterfly chairs and two people in the room defines congestion. Three constitutes gridlock. But what the heck. Bachelors don’t require refined accommodations.

We planned to eat buffet style while we watched the films because, frankly, my kitchen table is also a small affair, suitable for assembling puzzles of less than five hundred pieces… and really all that it is used for.

At the appointed hour, one guest arrived. He had work to do later that evening and so, after an hour of waiting in vain for the other guest to show up, we began to eat and watch the films. Then the other guest called. He said that he was with his landlady, an older woman, who was sickly. She was from the Orient and didn’t speak much English, but he was fond of her, and since it was Thanksgiving and she was alone, he wanted to do something nice for her. Would it be all right if he brought her to dinner? I said no.

I told him that he could take all the food he wanted home to her, but that in my cramped bedroom I had no room for three guests .. not even if they insisted upon being stacked vertically. Further, since the lady was unfamiliar with English, she could hardly comprehend a French film with flashing English subtitles. To entertain her and him, I would have to go to another room and leave my present guest in the bedroom alone to watch the movie. And this I would not do. If he had given me advance notice, I might have made other arrangements. I said I was truly sorry but that I had a responsibility to my present guest. Though obviously annoyed, he said that he’d be along shortly, but he never came at all and in fact never even came to another congregation meeting.

I received some criticism for this decision. Many people thought I should have been more generous. But I felt comfortable with my refusal although, I admit, I wasn’t exactly sure of why I felt justified in refusing.

Months later a friend of mine called to discuss a problem she was having. Her mother-in-law belonged to a religious organization which performed charitable acts such as giving rides to disabled or infirmed persons. One such person, an elderly man who was a kidney dialysis patient, lived in my friend’s neighborhood, and her mother-in-law, after talking it over with her son and obtaining his approval, recruited my friend’s services in driving this patient to the clinic for his frequent dialysis treatments.

Initially, my friend had protested that the new task would prevent her from doing her own Girl Scout volunteer work, but her mother-in-law dismissed her protests by saying that the kidney patient’s need was far more important, a matter, after all, of life and death.

My friend acquiesced and tried to comply graciously, but the task soon became an intolerable burden. She had children, and on the days she drove this patient into town and waited several hours for his treatment to conclude, her husband took the children out for pizza. Everybody – except my friend – thoroughly appreciated the arrangement. She was profoundly resentful. “Even without my Girl Scout projects,” she said, “I still have housework to do, and nobody helps me with it. They go out for pizza and have a good time. I come home to do laundry and mop floors. And when I complain, I’m criticized and told to be more generous and charitable. I feel like Martha”, she cried. “They get the good part – the pleasure. I get the work.”

Suddenly Luke, Chapter 10, verses 38-42 began to reveal this other meaning. The problem wasn’t work versus idleness. And it was considerably more than sitting in meditation versus attending to life’s nagging chores. It was a problem and solution characteristic of the religious life, itself. Recalling that the Bhagavad Gita addressed this very problem, I went to my bookshelf and searched for the text.

I also remembered years ago when I worked and my children had to help me clean the house. While I mopped or polished, they’d constantly come and ask me to help them find this, or reach that, or sort this; and I’d have to stop what I was doing to go help them until, annoyed by the interruptions, I’d shout, “Don’t help me by asking me to help you!” This, in a way, was at the core of the problem posed in the Gospel of Luke.

My Thanksgiving Day guest wanted to do something nice for a woman; but what he wanted to do nice for her was to bring her to me and let me do something nice for her. He was right in wanting to help her. But he was wrong in trying to pressure me into helping him to help her. I had my own “helping” agenda to fulfill. He wanted to be good and kind. Fine. Then to the best of his ability he should have been so.

My friend’s mother-in-law volunteered to perform a kind and generous act. Fine. But what she did by way of being kind and generous was to “volunteer” my friend, to impress her into service, to embarrass her into acting charitably.

These two people had decided that their charitable agendas were more meritorious, more worthy of attention, than the agendas of others, that they had a right to induce another into spending his time and resources in order to fulfill theircommitments. And in making this determination they showed that they had become, in Buddhist terms, “attached” to their image as charitable and resourceful persons. In other words, what was important was that their projects succeed and, by extension, that their reputations for being generous and efficient remain intact.

In Chapter 3 of the Song of God, the Vedanta Society’s beautiful translation of the Bhagavad Gita, there is a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna in which we hear an echoing reference to that one necessary thing that exists in several parts. Arjuna asks Krishna, “Tell me one definite way of reaching the highest good.”

Krishna responds,

“I have already told you that in this world those who aspire may find enlightenment by two different paths. For the contemplative is the path of knowledge: for the active is the path of selfless action.”

And he goes on to explain this other path.

“The world is imprisoned in its own activity except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results… When a man has found delight and satisfaction and peace… he is independent of everybody and everything. Do your duty, always; but without attachment! This is how a man reaches the ultimate Truth; by working without anxiety about results. Your motive in working should be to set others, by your example, on the path of duty… It is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to perform the duty of another person, however successfully.”

Martha invited Jesus into her home. She offered him a meal. Fine. But she should have performed her actions sacramentally, as an individual making an offering of her own individual labor, without worrying about the results, without demanding assistance.

Acting from love and performing our duty as we understand that duty… is having “the good part.” The one “needful” thing that Mary was doing was worshipping her Lord in her way. Had Martha performed her own service with as much love and attention and without anxiety or complaint, she would have done the same. The “good part” would also have been hers.

What, then, should we learn from these scriptures? We should learn never to sacrifice the Rare to the commonplace, never to work merely to enhance our public reputations and private bank accounts but instead, in our hearts, to offer our labor as service to the Divinity that exists in every man. If we perform our labor sacramentally, we will not lie or cheat or neglect to perform it well. And if we do not accomplish the results we sought, or if we fail to be paid, we will know that we, too, in serving God, received the good part which cannot be taken away from us.

And we also should learn never to press other people into fulfilling our charitable commitments or to let others press us into fulfilling theirs. But if we do freely undertake a charitable task, we should perform that task with loving attention, as if it were a religious ritual, a communion of our soul with God’s… which, in fact, it is.

Serving God with love and humility! This is duty. This, I think, is Christian Charity. This, I know, is Buddhist Dharma.

Humming Bird

To What….Do You Ascribe Things? by Fashi Lao Yue

Old Moon by Yao Xiang Shakya


When something goes your way, do you ascribe it to your skills….to luck….to good fortune? When something turns sour, do you ascribe it to your childhood….to misfortune….to bad luck?

In any situation we tend to ascribe things to a source which is often something about our small self or some aspect of the material realm. Once we find the culprit we make some vow. When we make an error, for example, we vow never to do it that way again. This approach is common and workable on the material level, but most spiritual seekers recognize it as coming from a dualistic, functional understanding of life. And it tends towards blaming and shaming either the self or the other when something goes awry or boasting and tooting one’s own horn when things go well. Neither of which is recommended on a spiritual path.

Spiritual practice is daily practice with pots and pans, sheets and pillows, toothpaste and brush, with traffic and travel, with making a mess and cleaning up, with getting up and sitting down, with walking and talking, with changing diapers and putting on a coat, with sweeping and mopping, with paying bills and mailing them, with eating and sleeping, with laughing and crying, with giving and receiving, with asking and responding….and on and on practice goes.

And what makes it spiritual? Knowing that nothing is left out of practice, that nothing in the world is without Buddha nature (God, Brahma, G-D, the source of all things, the god with no name and form). It is not a belief, it is a practice with all things knowing not to pick and choose, love and hate. Spiritual seekers know practice with full attention to each thing we meet is the Way; without letting our attitude be influenced by our ego which wants to stamp things with some measurement of quality, i.e., bad, poor, fair, good, better, great. It is to treat things, whatever they are, as coming from the whole (holy). Nothing is left out. Nothing is hidden.

It is simple but it requires effort and determination to pay attention. Many times when students came here to sit, they kicked and threw the meditation cushions around. When instructed not to do so, they often got angry or felt put out or argued. All their backtalk showed was they needed to train to give their full attention to everything that came into their life. To do so requires effort and determination.

When we ascribe things to the Way, we are more likely to give full attention to it, and to actualize the Way Seeking mind right where we are. We can call the practice love or emptiness, but what matters is not the name or form, but that we no longer ascribe things to the self or to the other.

In the case of kicking and throwing cushions, the student often ascribed things as a personal affront or unnecessary. Again all this backtalk showed was the student needed training to relinquish the mind that takes things personally or feels put upon or wants things their own way and not the Way of a spiritual seeker.

Practice requires we meet what comes into our life without the ascribed self that takes credit or gives blame.
The material world is a world of measuring between all the opposites; it is a split view of the world. When we split the world we remove heaven from earth or the other way round, earth from heaven.

Our third Chan patriarch, Seng Ts’an in his poem Faith in Mind says it clearly….

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

He goes on to say….

If you wish to see the truth,
Then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.

All his wisdom takes us back to practice. Practice without love or hate, without picking and choosing, knowing everything is Buddha (God, G-d, undying, without name and form). Give full attention to all the work of your life right where you are.

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views
Will disappear by themselves.

Nothing is hidden from practice.

Ask a Master: What is the Most Important Daily Practice for a Zen Monk?



Daily Practice is the Core”

Earlier this week, a student asked me “What is the most important
thing in the daily formal Zen practice for a Zen monk?”

I answered, laughing: “To keep cultivating one!”.


Many people are driven on the romantic image of Zen, imagining the spiritual practice of Zen as something for costumed monks living in far away monasteries. They believe only those people apart from the world and its noise could of course practice truly enough to solve the question of life and death….or so they think.

The truth is formal practice is a balance between liturgy and meditation practices rooted in sitting and walking. But it, even for monks in a monastery, is balanced between many household tasks to keep the monastery running.

“A day without work is a day without food.”

This is a known Zen saying which all Zen monasteries put it into practice.

Fundamentally, Western Zen practitioners and in particular the members of our Zen Order should get used to the fact that our Zen Way is the householder Zen way. We are householders who have taken vows as priests and contemplative monks (yunsui contemplative priests).

Our main practice doesn’t take place behind walls, but in the midst of this moving and challenging world of householders. Our dear Ming Zhen Shakya often said,


it is the most arduous path of practice, especially
for a Westerner.


We have to work to accept that our formal practice is an essnetial part of the householder life. Meditation practice and the liturgy varies, but meditation and liturgy are the common ground of every practitioner on the Zen Way. But it is not the whole enchilada.

The formal practice is best a few hours per day right where you are. What the Zen priest and yunsui monk need to understand, is that one’s whole life is the monastery. It is there, in the midst of living, one takes action. We are encouraged to act upon it!

Ming Zhen Shakya used to say “Zen is Action!” and action is not limited to some holy place or situation. It is everything you do.

Of course, from time to time a more intensive retreat may be needed. We may dedicate ourselves to it and do the personal vow to totally
engage our Body and Mind in a retreat (ChanQi, Sesshin). This comes out of a personal vow, and not out of a need for a social club or social meeting. In our tradition going to a retreat is both very serious and intimate.

Furthermore, having an external eye on our practice is always a good thing. Meeting from time to time with a senior Zen priest or
master is a good habit to cultivate even for the most solitary practitioners. Most Zen practitioners need and benefit from the external eye of another who is a little further on the path. It is a wonderful help, especially when one is close to having an ego-trip or over thinking, over idealizing, or close to the becoming nihilistic.

Zen is a path for dedicated and serious practitioners.

One has to understand that Great Confidence in the path, its techniques, its masters is only but a necessary preliminary.  Zen is the direct path of the Chinese Mahayana school of Buddhism. And those essential preliminaries won’t be of any help if you try to walk the arduous path of practicing Zen as a lay adept (or priest, no fundamental difference here with layman) without a Great Faith in your very own Buddha

And Faith doesn’t exempt one from great doubt. Our Linji/Rinzai school includes everything  in our Zen practice, nothing is left out. Our practice is not limited to form of any specific posture or pretty costume. As the saying goes, “Great Doubt, Great Enlightenment. Small doubt, small enlightenment. No Doubt, no enlightenment”. So please doubt, ponderthings, take the existential paradox of Zen seriously and practice it to the limits of your ego.

But remember that our practice is very simple and on that common ground everyone manifests his own karmic seeds.

As a layman, a priest, a monk or a beginner on the Zen way is to be sincere practitioners….to practice fully and with utmost sincerity at the heart of our life, the heart of our homes, our communities. We share the common ground of liturgy and meditation the small liturgy and Zen meditation and use our daily life as an opportunity to let go of ourselves and manifest and be manifested by all things in every place and time.

May every being humbly realize his true nature!


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

Humming Bird

The Heart, the Intellect & the Ass by Fashi Lao Yue



The Heart, The Intellect and the Ass


“Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!  Daniel Berrigan


Samuel Coleridge, poet, philosopher and theologian of the 18th c. discovered at a very early age his interior unfaithfulness which he came quickly to realize was and is a part of human nature.
“I sported infidel: but my infidel vanity never touched my heart.”
At some point in life, in everyone’s life there are times when we play with “infidelity” which I take to mean “unfaithfulness” in relation to some person, some thing, some creed or way of life. In fact we may give way to infidelity while doing daily tasks. To some degree there are two foes that arise in the sport of an infidel. (1) a shiny new thing and (2) boredom. Coupled together they are a powerful force that play head games of doubt and set the heart on fire for the shiny new thing capturing us in our own vanity.


Coleridge as a young man was set to be a theologian at university, when he suddenly without warning was struck with a burning desire to become a surgeon. Apparently, he “….became wild to be apprenticed to a surgeon.” Youth and adolescence is often a time when infidelity (going from one thing to another) is particularly active, but it is not only in the young that shiny new things and boredom challenge our faithfulness.


Recently, I was speaking to an old woman who was struggling to complete daily tasks when she suddenly without warning was struck with the notion of taking an online class. What struck me was her inability to recognize her infidelity to the moment and her inability to see her own limits. She was very much like a whimsical teen who wants to do something new in order to escape what is right in front of her. Adolescence and childhood are famous for limitless wishes. Coleridge admit that he was a dreamer. With such an admission if we realize it is a way to get to what Berrigan suggests….that is, put your faith in your ass and stay put with what you are doing right now.


At any age, and during even one day we may falter with thoughts of doubt, our heart may wilt where we lose interest in the thing that was at one time precious and promised a zest of life. We may start out with a full steam of interest only to run out of steam and veer off into lethargy, doubt which leads to a search for something new.


Our strength to be faithful even to the smallest task slumps when the task at hand threatens to be too hard, too much, and too onerous. Our thoughts pile up in multiple ideas of discontent and negative mantras of I can’t, I won’t, and I don’t want to.


Infidelity may arise in relation to a thing (person, belief, institution, ideal, profession) in our life, not just once but multiple times and in various guises of doubt. When it does arise, we more times than we might want to admit, play with it. We, like the young Coleridge, toy with being unfaithful. Drawn away by the newness, the beauty, the allure of a thing (all of which stem from our vanity) we, in vain, become faithless. We need to master this compulsion and obsession to wander off.  We, however may not have either the skills to master it or a master who might strike with a sword across of lustful wandering for something else than what we are doing right now. Coleridge was lucky. In his case his school master who had a reputation of a being harsh, believed in flogging as the best antidote to end Coleridge’s sporting with infidelity to leave theology and seek to apprentice with a surgeon.


I know, firsthand, the lure of a shiny new thing in my life as well as in my work with students.  I was as lucky as Coleridge. My late teacher was a harsh master who believed in cutting through any infidelity that might arise. I learned the skill of cutting off such nonsense of thinking the grass is greener on the other shore even when the other shore is a compelling daydream for something else, something new and something exciting that showed great promise. I learned fidelity is not a matter of the head, not a matter of the heart but a matter of the ass. I learned to stay put and to stay with it no matter what happened which led to knowing not to play with infidelity.

I may seem restless, but I am deeply at ease.

Branches tremble, but the roots are still. Rumi

Humming Bird


Reference: The Life of Samuel Coleridge Volume 1, by James Gillman



Be Resolute from the Beginning

Image Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

(Taken from commentary on the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai translated by William Scott Wilson)


Perhaps the most deceptively simple verse from the Hagakure is 1:41, quoted fully near the conclusion of the film, Ghost Dog:


There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.






Ideally, in Samurai or Zen culture, whenever a man has the authority to act and is required to make a decision – not a guess, but a decision – he considers both the positive and the negative consequences of his choice, and, weighing them, decides accordingly. He does his best to secure a good result, but he is not affected by the outcome or by the responses of others. In any case, he stands behind his decision. This is being resolved from the beginning.

Often, even in the simplest affairs of men, a person will take a course which he has not fully considered. Influenced, perhaps, by those who are conflicted by their own self-interests, he makes a choice, sanguine in the expectation of success. When a good result follows, those who influenced him will claim their share of the credit; but when a bad result follows, all the blame will be his, and the others will abandon him. He is confounded in either case. This is the perplexing aspect of irresolution.

How, then, does a man become “resolved from the beginning so as not to be perplexed.”? For the man who has already achieved the egoless state, indomitable resolve is a simple matter. But achieving that necessary selfless state is not so simple. Zen and the martial arts traditionally have been connected because a student in either discipline requires a master’s spiritual and psychological insights to guide him through the difficulties.

When a student begins training, regardless of his age, his new Code of Conduct requires that he develop a self-reliant character – with the specific goal of attaining the egoless state. He learns how to accept responsibility for his decisions and for his reactions to unexpected calamities. When the rain comes, he walks boldly through it, not seeking to mitigate its effects by running through the drops or hiding under eaves. He learns to recognize the true nature of praise and blame and to understand that both are meaningless. Whenever he allows them to have value, in either case, he will get soaked.

The student is taught to be constantly aware of his actions. He may not shift the burden of his errors onto others; but this discipline requires that he understand that it is his own nature that he must struggle against. It is not enough to stand up and admit to error; for what the outer man admits, the inner man may deny. It is in his own inner nature that a man unconsciously shifts the blame for his actions onto others. In his own unconscious mind, using psychological defensive tactics, he shapes that blame into a missile and then projects it into his environment onto some unlucky target. If left unchecked, such tactics will curtail his progress.

Although the Hagakure relates numerous anecdotes in which a leader’s egoless resolve is illustrated, the definitive text on the subject is a film made fifty years ago, Abandon Ship. No film, before or since, has come close to documenting the exigencies of egoless resolve in leadership. We’ll take a moment to discuss the film because, though long out of circulation, it is still an important work.

Ten years after he gave his transcendent, 1946 portrayal of Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s, The Razor’s Edge, Tyron Power decided to make, at his own expense, Abandon Ship, a film about a disaster at sea. (The film was cheaply made, proving that throwing money at a project has no relationship whatsoever to the quality of its art. It was shot in black and white and, despite being about a disaster at sea, was filmed entirely in a studio in England.)

In The Razor’s Edge, Power had portrayed a man who sought spiritual liberation, the vaunted egoless state, and found it, finally, in India. Acclaimed for this role, he was disappointed to be cast subsequently in a series of swashbuckling films, popular at the time with movie audiences. Believing that a man of character, under any circumstances, could find within himself this selfless dedication to purpose, Power grasped the opportunity to portray a young lieutenant upon whom command had been suddenly thrust.

Abandon Ship’s reality-based plot details the events of the post WWII sinking of a cruise ship, The Crescent Star, which had carried 1076 passengers.

As the film opens, we see the ominous presence of a derelict mine floating in the Atlantic. It strikes the ship and detonates. There is a chaotic churning of the water, the screams of victims, and then the quiet bobbing of flotsam, a few gasping survivors, and a circling shark. The Crescent Star has required only seven minutes to sink.

Only one small boat, the Captain’s personal ship-to-shore row boat, meant to accommodate no more than nine people, remains to pick up survivors. Twenty-seven people and a large dog have crowded into it or are hanging onto a rope that circles the boat. The excessive weight makes the boat sit impossibly low in the water, and the sea laps over its gunwales.

The Captain, mortally wounded, gives command to young Lieutenant Holmes (played by Tyrone Power) with the order to save as many people as possible. Holmes accepts the command. When a nurse, with whom Holmes has a romantic relationship, confirms the Captain’s death; they lower his body over the side.

Holmes has never before commanded any kind of vessel. Instinctively he tries to reassure the passengers as he assesses the situation. The ship’s radioman is traumatized, and in his confusion gives the impression that he had sent an SOS signal to a ship some two hundred miles away. According to this information, rescue should take no more than seventy-two hours. Aside from floatation collars and life preservers, the little boat contains a pound of biscuits, some sugar and cream, a gallon of water; a flare gun and a small first-aid kit. Holmes orders the supplies to be rationed. He also orders the able-bodied men to take shifts in the water, hanging onto the rope which circles the boat.

Six of the passengers are critically injured. A woman whose upper arm had been badly cut during the explosion, has had a tournequet placed on it; but no one has thought to loosen it. After remaining tied for three hours, her arm is swollen and in the incipient stages of gangrene. As the nurse tends to her, the radioman regains his composure and reveals that no signal whatsoever had been given. They are fifteen hundred miles and weeks away from the nearest land.

Another critically wounded officer tells Holmes that they are so over weighted they cannot possibly make landfall. To reach land, they must row, and the boat is too low in the water. He advises Holmes to”evict” some of the passengers who are either feeble or critically injured and unlikely to survive. Holmes rejects the advice. The officer tells him that it is better to save half their lives than it is to lose them all. He stands and tells the others that the weakest of them must be cast adrift for the salvation of the others, and then he leaps overboard. His advice has obviously had no self-serving motive.

When the woman whose arm is now gangrenous wants more water, Holmes refuses, realizing that it is pointless to waste water on someone who is going to die anyway. His refusal is called “outrageous” and”heartless” by the passengers who mostly fail to appreciate the desperate position they are in. They persist in their demand that he”do something!” But having more than two dozen people and a seventy pound dog in a row boat does not give a man many options.

Their situation is made clearer by the presence of the dog. One man who has been in the water begs to be taken aboard in place of the dog. Holmes says no. The passengers object to his refusal; but Holmes is adamant: the man must stay in the water until his shift is over, and the dog will remain on board. One passenger, an officious retired general, demands that he explain such an inhumane decision, and Holmes replies simply, “We’re likely to be at sea for a long time. We can eat the dog.”

An approaching gale forces Holmes to reconsider the “eviction” action. Laden as it is, the little boat cannot withstand the fury of an Atlantic storm. The waves splash into the boat, and it is no longer possible to allow the men in the sea to hang onto the rope since they are dragging the boat even lower.

Aside from the woman with gangrene, a few passengers are sick from having swallowed petroleum or inhaled searing smoke. A few have broken bones. One, the dog’s owner, is too seasick to take his turn in the sea or even to bail. Against everyone’s objections, Holmes orders that they be given the floatation collars and “in God’s hands” to be cast adrift. The passengers call Holmes a cold blooded murderer and try to impose their “civilized” philosophy on him. They remind him that it is the responsibility of the strong to care for the weak. He counters that the extremity of their situation favors the strong who can row, since rowing and keeping the bow pointed into the waves is their only chance to keep from capsizing. No one supports him in this action. Only at gunpoint does the crew obey his order; but in the mutinous confusion, the dog jumps into the water and several able-bodied men fall overboard and are lost.

The gale is quickly worsening and Holmes orders the remaining passengers to row or bail; but one passenger who is armed with a knife, continues to object and irrationally insists that they go back and retrieve all the people in the water, clearly an impossibility. Frantic, he stabs Holmes in the chest. Holmes shoots him and he falls overboard. The boat’s occupancy is now down to fourteen.

Throughout the harrowing night of fierce wind, lightning, and huge waves that break over the boat, Holmes, despite his wound, continues to man the tiller and to direct the actions of the terrified passengers.

In the morning, with the sea calm again, the exhausted passengers are jubilant to see that they’ve all survived. Unanimously they credit Holmes with saving their lives, congratulating him profusely for having the courage and foresight to make his grim but necessary decision.

Of all people, it is the nurse – the woman he loves – who begins to second-guess him. Perhaps they would have made it with the others still aboard, who is to say? Perhaps the storm would have edged past them. Something else could have happened. Holmes says, “But the storm did happen. I did what was right.” She responds, “I don’t know what was right or wrong.” He sees even more clearly how alone a leader is. He also understands that his wound has so weakened him that he has become a liability, and he calmly accepts the same fate that he decreed for the others. He transfers his command to the radio operator and then drops himself overboard. A few passengers jump in after him and pull him back aboard. In another moment an ocean liner is seen on the horizon.

Now that rescue is imminent, the passengers begin to fear that their effusive praise has made them complicit; and one by one they recant their commendations, claiming that from the outset hey had vehemently opposed his action. As to whether or not he was right in doing what he did, that, they hasten to remind him, is for the courts to decide. Holmes has been as abandoned as his ship. When asked if he requires assistance to board the liner, he says, as stoically as a samurai warrior, “I can make it alone.”

A voice-over commentator discloses that once they were safely back in England, Holmes was tried for murder. (He was found guilty but in consideration of the circumstances, given only a six months’ sentence.)

The question of his guilt or innocence, while interesting, is not at issue here. It is his previously untested indomitable and selfless resolve that concerns us. Whether by talent or training, Holmes avoided the psychological traps that often ensnare those who strive to become enlightened.

The first trap that the Zen master or Samurai mentor eliminates is one that other teachers frequently encourage: displacement of aggression. In an unconscious shift, a person who is frustrated by his inability to strike back at an antagonist will release his anger by hitting or kicking a helpless individual, a wall, or punching bag. Instead of using a surrogate victim, the samurai student is taught to acknowledge his own inabilities; to consider the situation from all aspects – including his antagonist’s; to seek to resolve the conflict honorably; and to increase his martial arts’ training in order to meet the next challenge.

The second one is projection. In this trap, the student is guilty of some objectionable behavior… lying, perhaps. Instead of trying to understand why it was that he felt obliged to lie and to set the matter right, he internally and unconsciously shifts his guilt onto his Enemy Shadow archetype (see the link to Seventh World of Chan Buddhism – psychology section – available on our website). Once there, it is quickly projected onto someone else who is a likely target for the attack. The student, unaware of the dynamics of this shift, feels genuine contempt for the innocent scapegoat. “If there one thing I can’t stand, it’s a liar.” The teacher, recognizing that all emotional displays indicate one form or another of projection, meets privately with the student and counsels him accordingly.

Rarely does a person comprehend that his contempt manifests unconsciously. In our Zen prison sangha, as we discussed these traps, one of the men suddenly realized why he despised a poor old man who couldn’t work and who was reduced to picking up discarded cigarette butts and smoking them. He called the man “a cockroach.” (It is the Shadow’s function to make a perceived enemy sub-human so that he may be destroyed with impunity. Usually we refer to our enemy as a creature that steals our food or fouls our den… “a rat, a snake, a skunk, a bitch, a roach,” etc. We never refer to him as a panda or a giraffe.) The man in our Zen sangha had been trying unsuccessfully for years to kick the truly dirty habit of chewing tobacco. He immediately understood why he hated the old man and had constantly referred to him in such disparaging terms. He felt so bad about shifting his own guilt onto him that he bought the old man a few packs of cigarettes.

The third mechanism the ego uses to defend itself is one of the most difficult to deal with: Reaction Formation. The mechanics of this trap are well concealed. Freud studied anti-vivisectionists (persons opposed to using animals for medical experimentation or surgical practice) and found that they were uncommonly cruel individuals. This peculiar shift is seen often in anti-abortion demonstrations in which some protesters are so motivated to end abortion in the name of the sacredness of human life that they approve of murdering the doctor and other medical personnel. When a Zen or martial art’s master encounters this kind of exaggerated “conviction” in a student, he generally has long, private talks with him – not the usual “darshan” (interview with the master called dokusan in Japanese) but gentle reflections in which he offers the points of view of the despised persons. The master’s aim is to get the student to see that he, too, shares some of the traits he so vehemently despises. He does not tell him “to use” his anger on the mat.

The fourth trap is regression. In this shift a person who is going through a difficult period in his life reverts to an age in which he was free of such problems. For example, a man who is entering middle-age and cannot face his increasing signs of physical deterioration, may suddenly turn to the martial arts as if he were a young man again. Usually, he harms himself trying to perform the various physical exercises in the dojo. The master recognizes his true motivation and, while welcoming him into the group, assigns him less strenuous exercises until he can gain the required ability. He talks to the man, accentuating the wisdom of maturity and gets him to look at his problems more objectively. He does not encourage him to believe that youth is a quality that can be had by associating with the young.

The fifth trap is repression. In this tactic, the person simply buries a grievous insult or injury so deep in his mind that he forgets it completely. He honestly cannot remember the incident. He may, however, in response to the repression, exhibit great disdain for something he associates with the subject. If, for example, a person had nearly drowned as a child at the beach, he may grow up completely forgetting the incident but being a radical proponent of saving the wetlands and prohibiting ocean-front development. Whenever a student demonstrates strong emotion, the Zen master suspects that he has fallen into a trap. With gentle private talks he can gauge the depth of the pit and try to help the student to extricate himself by remembering that long forgotten injury.

The sixth ego trap is rationalization. In this, the student simply invents a justifying cause for his contemptible behavior. He is open about his actions and may ever exaggerate them, but he excuses them automatically by casting blame upon others. For example, after hitting a child with his car, he may say, “If the kid had been properly supervised, he wouldn’t have been playing in the street ” or, “If John hadn’t called me on my cellphone, I wouldn’t have taken my eyes off the road.” If he has been particularly brutal in a fight, he may claim that he taught his victim a lesson for having insulted his Master or his school, a claim that he invented but nevertheless believes.

The seventh trap is somatization: Guilt and fear easily transform into physical symptoms. The ego finds it easier to deal with a sick body that can quickly gain sympathetic attention than it does to deal with guilt that it prefers to hide. The martial arts’ master soon learns which students frequently attempt to excuse poor performance by claiming illness. If the student is young and believed by his parents, the master is not likely to succeed in counseling him.

The stoicism of the resolute samurai was also well depicted by Forest Witaker in Ghost Dog. Vowed to protect his master, he would not even defend himself when his master decided to kill him.

A leader must be as one-pointed in his determination to fulfill the duties of his commitments as he is prepared to accept their consequences. In order to do this, he must remain free of emotional projections. It was the belief that his only real enemy was the one he harbored within himself that enabled a samurai to commit Seppuka with such indifferent coldness.

Humming Bird

Lunar Communion….Who Knew?

Credit: Fa Ming Shakya

A Nobel prize, Lunar Communion, The Beatitudes
and a Song of David’s


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. Gansta’ Rap versus the Beatitudes… and Gansta’ 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.

Ask a Master: What are the Most Important Sutras in Chan?



Photo Credit: Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya

Ask the Master

What are the most important sutras?


We are sometimes asked what are the most important sutras of our tradition? I often answer, which ones are not important? Everything teaches us.

Our roots come from Chinese Buddhism and our Chan tradition embraces all the sutras of the Mahayana, all the 84,000 practices of the Awakening Shakyamuni. All are the doors of the Dharma.

However, our Chan / Zen tradition, besides the essential Sutras, the Lotus Sutra, the Amitabhas Sutras, Nirvana, Avatamsaka and the wonderful  Shurangama, we study what I like to call the Three Sutras of the Heart.

What are these three Sutras so often united in Chinese Buddhism? These are of course the triptic so dear to all our practitioners: the Sutra of the Heart, the Sutra of the Diamond and the Sutra of the Platform of the Sixth Patriarch.

Our Order is very proud to celebrate the anniversary of the ordination of the Sixth Patriarch, the book of the founders of our Order (Master WeiMiao JyDin Shakya and MingZhen Shakya) which can be found here: Empty Cloud: The Teachings of Master XuYun  which was published in a special edition with the “Three Sutras.” It is a reference book for all our practitioners.

It was an honor that we had made the successor of the very Venerable WeiYin, abbot of NanHua Si at the time, and our first Chan master of Ming Zhen Shakya.

May the “Three Sutras” be three wonderful mirrors of our practice.


YaoXin Shi

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

Humming Bird

How Do We Find the Field of Emptiness? Of Love?

Don’t Worry, We Are All One

By Fashi Lao Yue
For many years I have been aware of an underlying principle driving religious doctrines, a principle I never looked at with a clear eye. I imagine that I didn’t look at it because I was in some way satisfied with the two main components of the principle, the whip of encouragement and the place of exceptionalism. Let me explain.


My thoughts arise from a recognition that being off-kilter and out-of-step are two attributes used by religious teachers, both historically and presently, to determine the wayward among us (you and I, sinners, the ignorant) and to shape up and point towards a singular place on a path which is often described in exceptional language (the narrow gate, the Way, the Truth, the Mind of the great sage).

The list for both the whip and the place is extensive and well anchored in spiritual practices of all kinds. Spiritual practice, which may include encouragement and pointers out of the ditch are used to take the walls down not build up the separations and the divisions.

When, however I look at this principle with a clear eye both the whip of encouragement and the pointing to a path suggests that there is some special way, some special place where the wayward among us can find God. This approach has an implicit message of ….if…..then. If you do this special such and such, then you will find the special place which will lead you to find God. It is in many ways an approach that is supported by reason.

As I write this I find myself challenged by years and perhaps lifetimes of being instructed that this is how to find God. This instruction often comes in the form of giving up that which is labeled bad and relinquishing life to a small, narrow footpath on which to get to God. It is a bit like the yellow brick road in the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Find the yellow bricked road, put on your special shoes and head off to the Emerald City. This approach can lead to self-flagellation and narrow thinking as well as a dividing up life making us all into judges.

There is no doubt sameness-and-difference is part of the human condition, making tolerance for difference and affinity for sameness into yet another division. It is a human attempt to continue doing the same old thing, using the whip of encouragement to shape up an acceptable image to make it to the place that is exceptional.

God is not anywhere else except right where we are, wherever we are and whatever shape or place karma shows up. Whether it is entangled in the brambles of the material world or robed in solitude on a mountain top.

God, the eternal existence of being is never apart from us. And God shows up as Jesus, the son of god, Shakyamuni as the mind of the great sage, Sri Ramakrishna as the avatar of God, Mohammed as a prophet….endless manifestations to awaken us. The pervasiveness of generosity is immeasurable. There is sameness and difference, but don’t see it as such.

If sameness and difference is what we look at, the tendency to whip and point continues to separate, divide, and worst of all exclude and exile.  This tendency if enacted and followed leads to ossification. Groups tend to want members to look and act like them and exclude and exile those that don’t. In some respects we might call it spiritual nationalism.

The problem is that this approach divides the world of creation into them and us and those who are right (those who look and agree with us) from those who are wrong (those who look different and don’t agree with us). Anytime right and wrong dominate, whether in the group or the individual, a tendency to hide and conceal increases. Odd shaped tumors form often manifested in acts of splitting, ridicule and arrogance. The tumors from whipping and shaping compounded by right and wrong increase the possibility of no growth. Creation bound in such a way has ossified and is gasping and is all but dead.

The ossification has become rigid in such a way, that growth, which comes in the form of change, is a threatening prospect. Form and measure, which are quite helpful and necessary, become lords of the house. And when form and measure rule, creativity and aliveness suffer. Separating-out becomes the axiom and anxiety about doing it right follows. It is an endless snake eating its own tail (ouroboros).

Creation (God), thankfully, cannot be killed. IT flourishes as the grass and mosses that make their breakthroughs in cement show us. There is no arrival-place of special and separate as these beings remind us. Life experience, whatever it might be, comes daily to awaken us to our true nature. (The emphasis on whatever it might be.) When we are encouraged to show up wherever we are, invited to do so, we begin to include whatever might be separated and excluded finding the whole (holy) life creation.

When we realize our oneness in the midst of sameness and difference we offer what we have been given back to the giver (God), we offer it back to life. We are the offering….the oblation….and we live beyond the wrong-doing and right-doing….in the field where when the soul lies down it is too full to talk about the world divided by ideas (Rumi).

Offer it to God, not to get anything at all, but to be an oblation, a sacrifice that is pleasing to life. IT no longer is you, hidden in the shadows of self-interest, but you, all of you is IT.  IT is lived beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing….in the field where the soul lays down and there is no you or me, where there is no anxiety, no separation, no right way or wrong way, no ossifications.

And so the question may be, how do we find this field? Wherever we are. We are standing in IT….no matter where we are….we are there, never separated from IT. When we know where we are, life (creation) beckons the soul to lie down beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing….where we are all one.

Humming Bird

How to Find God on the Zen Path: The Heart Sutra, The Thread of Love by Fashi Lao Yue


What no eye has seen or ear heard…..



In the Zen tradition there is a ritual for tending to and disposing of the remnants left after burning a stick of incense. When the incense burns down it leaves a tiny bit of incense in the ash which is still in stick form. It is smaller but it is still of the same form and goes by the same name of incense.

The ash in the bowl after many burnings looks a lot like a miniature logging accident. There are tiny logs of incense scattered helter-skelter poking up throughout the ash.

The Zen ritual is to clean the ash by removing the remnants that did not burn and saving them until the New Year. At the New Year, the remnants along with the burnt matches are gathered and burnt in a ceremonial fire.

It is a simple, loving act of care with a deep message for spiritual adepts. The deep message is also a simple loving act of care but we need to know what to do and how to do it. In a very real sense we need to clean up the remnants of the seeds deposited in the form of old hurts and old grudges in the body and mind. It includes old loves and old wants; these bits of old attachments still floating up into consciousness that disturbs and harm.

When we look at anything whether it is in the external world of name and form or the internal world of name and form we look with attachment. Often the attachment comes disguised as wanting or hating. This attachment is the unburned bits, the remnants that continue to surface distracting us from what the eye has not seen or the ear has not heard. The eye cannot see and the ear cannot hear when it is looking at name and form that floats up from the past. These remnants veil our true nature.

In order to understand the deep message and in order to know what and how to find it for ourselves we need to look at one section of the Heart Sutra. Arguably there are many versions of the Heart Sutra and an ongoing, continued debate of the origin and the author, but for most practitioners there is agreement that form and emptiness as well as a negative approach is the common ground of this sutra.

In this sutra we have a saint who gives us the message and tells how to know it.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Saint A.) when practicing deeply the prajna paramita perceived that all five skandas (the five heaps of stuff we call the stuff of the body and the stuff of the mind which include the remnants of attachment) are empty….empty of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. That’s it. It is to practice seeing and hearing everything we meet without form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

A recent example is a trip to the Y to go for a swim. The pool is small, just 5 lap lanes. There are close to 9 million names and forms close by.  During this time of year the pool is packed with these five heaps which includes this close-up bag of heaps in the shape of complaints…too many people…my lane…rude swimmers. If I go and begin to look at any of the remnants of the heaps, form, feelings, perceptions I go full and not empty. Full of concepts and judgment and wants and aversions and you name it. The fullness of mind remnants guarantees to block transcendent wisdom.

That is what the message is…to go empty….without a hair breadth of desire…. then what we find is the perfection of wisdom. Empty the body and mind of attachment to the remnants of the heaps.

The word empty can be substituted with the word love. It could read from a connotative perspective….all five heaps of the body and mind are love, but when we look at just name and form we do not see it as empty or love. Name and form trick us into seeing it as something to want or something to hate, something to attach to and something to discard. Name and form conjure up old hurts and old desires.

If the face of someone we knew comes to mind notice how all the heaps come up along with all the attachments to one or more of the heaps. These are the remnants. And they are not to be attended to except to be gathered and burned up.

As we go along, it hopefully will become clear that this love is not the romantic, brotherly or parental love depicted in most art forms (film, books, paintings, poetry). Although parental love sometimes comes close it in itself is not IT. .This love, this emptiness is not seen with eye or heard with ear. It is transcendent.

Now we need to clarify the method, the approach Saint A. used.

When we lose a set of keys, as a common example,  we often go through rounds of searching for the keys which is certain to include a round of – no, not there – I didn’t leave them in the car even though we might have to double check that we didn’t. No, not there in my jacket pocket, no, not there in the junk drawer. This method is a familiar way of finding something. The familiarity of the search suggests we somehow intuitively know we have lost something or are separated from something we once had. This intuition is based on the waking up to the sense of something is missing. In the example, the keys are missing. For Saint A. transcendental wisdom was missing. When this awareness happens, many of us begin to look for what it is that is missing. Often we go through rounds and rounds of finding out no, not there. We all have a list of no, not there.

How many times have you looked for something you never had and never lost?


Saint A. practiced deeply looking for transcendent wisdom and found it. She did it. She saw and heard the emptiness, the love not seen with the eye and heard with the ear.  And her method was very much rooted in – no, not there.

Saint A. found transcendent wisdom on a negative path which we all know. Saint A. was looking for something. There is some subtle factor that cannot be overlooked here. She looked because she had some intuitive sense she knew something was missing. And when something is missing we tend to rely on this negative, – no, not there – approach.

And with this approach she sums up where transcendental wisdom is not. The method is to be done not believed. Is the body where the eternal, unborn, undying is? Nah. It ain’t. The body is subject to aging, sickness and death. It is going to vanish and return to the dirt.

How about those feelings? Nope. Our feelings seem to be at times in a hyper state of change, especially if we fall in love. It’s that time when everyone waits for the lovers to sober up.

How about perceptions? Ah….it too succumbs. At one point in life we perceive a toy as our biggest treasure only to give it away, throw it away or store it in some dusty attic.

Impulses? HA! These little babies are on speed and not to be trusted.

Perhaps the hardest one is consciousness. This seems to be pervasive, prodigious and perpetual. Everything has consciousness. But wait. Does consciousness itself change and fall apart. Yes it does. Here is my example.

I was sitting with someone who was courteous in conscious listening until a bee buzzed through bombing any ability to concentrate and focus in a conscious way. What happened to their consciousness?

No form, no feelings, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness. All let downs as far as the transcendental. No, not there.

In short order we are able to see, hopefully, these heaps of what the body and mind are made of are not the unborn, undying, eternal nature. God ain’t there.

What does this mean?


It means when Saint A. studied the perfection of transcendent wisdom she eliminated these things from the list. She no longer polished them up because polishing them up led to suffering. No matter how much you rub the five heaps it will not lead to finding what is missing.

But she goes further. She goes through every part of the body as not it. The logic being the gross form is not it, but maybe God is in the little stuff, like the eyes, the ears, the nose. But as you read the Heart Sutra we soon discover – no, not there – continues to be what is found. But this is all on the way to finding God on the path of the perfection of transcendent wisdom.

In short, stop looking there. It’s like the keys. I looked in the car and I know they are not in the car. More precisely stop looking in the way you are looking. Begin by looking at what it is not and then shift to looking at what it is. Transcendent wisdom is not in the heaps.

Where, then do we look and how do we look. Well, you look backward into that which is powering up the looking, the hearing, and all the actions of life. You stop looking at the remnants and you look at the Source. This is the emptiness and love that Saint A. discovered. It is right here, in everything waiting for you.

We meet the Source. In order to meet the Source we must know all the heaps are empty of transcendent Wisdom. This is a two-step process. (1) We meet everything for what it is not. (2) And then we can meet it for what it is. This is love, transcendent love that is indefinable, ineffable and immeasurable.

When we approach life from the place of benefiting and generating from the heaps, we will miss the Source. If we meet anything with the remnants of the heaps, we will get sick and look and feel very much like a logging accident. All sorts of miseries will come along. When we meet everything empty, we meet everything with the love not seen by the eye nor heard by the ear. And IT is indescribable, ineffable transcendence.

Everything is waiting in this great patience to come alive from what is powering up everything. In a very real sense every single thing is waiting to be, to awaken and to be transcendent. IT is never apart from right where we are.