Saying Goodbye to 2019



As 2019 comes to an end, let’s take some time to consider all the

attachments we have nourished, all the ego-masks we have been



For many of us, this year has been a year of fighting against

certitude and division, sometimes against our own friends or



Political, economic and social challenges are ahead of

our societies forcing us to accept impermanence and embracing the changes.

It implies more than ever Buddhist practitioners need to practice.


So, let’s hope that next year, 2020, will be the year of harmony. The year

of taking the battle inward, fighting our own certitude and



Our Old Sun, Ming Zhen Shakya, used to say that her Zen was very

simple and could be summarized as the Way of Action (Karma Yoga). When

we take action, for the sake of all beings, there is no I-me-mine, no

Ego, not even an inch of something special called Zen. Beyond our

own egos, through action, we can manifest our True Nature.

But True Action takes true honesty…. the kind of honesty needed to

face what is in front of us and accept the reality of change and



Our lives are always changing, yet they are always starting right here

and now. In every situation, go forward and take action.


Let’s vow to talk less and act more in this coming year!


Humming Bird
Author: Fa Shi Yao Xin Shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at:






It seems fitting that during the week the President of the United States was impeached by the House of representatives, that we return to Ming Zhen’s essay on The Habit of Seeking Truth. A few read throughs might enliven you to several periods of self-examination on what your personal duty is right in the middle of the life you live. It’s my hope, anyway. Enjoy!





People who write homilies and other spiritual tracts have a wish list:

We’d like a license to skew our grammatical constructions to allow for amphiboly. Ah… to be as oracularly correct as Delphi.

Think of it: A Greek general, contemplating war against the Persians, asks, “Which side will win?” Quoth the Oracle: “Apollo says, ‘The Greeks the Persians shall subdue.'”

It’s the sort of advice the CIA usually gives. That’s why they’re never wrong.


Also on that wish list there’d be a safety net that would catch us before we went into self-contradictory free fall – as when we rhapsodize about a spiritual experience, claiming that it is absolutely ineffable, and then plunge into the murky depths of pages trying to describe it.


We’d also like to call something ‘utterly unambiguous’ and be able to describe it in the photographic flash that that description suggests.

It would be wonderful to wish into existence a writer’s right never to be wrong and always to be succinct and clear.

Sometimes an essay is like putting a message in a bottle and casting it adrift. We’re never quite sure if, or when, or where it will be read and what effect it will have upon the reader.


I was sitting in a bordertown cantina, doing what folks generally do in a bordertown cantina, when I was approached by an off-duty Mexican motorcycle cop. He was young, handsome, fluent in English, and pleasant; and if this were not enough to induce conversation with him (and it certainly should have been) he regularly read our webpages. He had a question for me regarding the Lex Talionis essay: he wanted to know how to qualify and quantify desire. “If desire is so integral to the process of like-retaliation,” he asked, “what happens when we do the right thing for all the wrong reasons?”

Good question. I tried to look knowledgeable, wanting to say something oracular, like: “The Buddha says, ‘Desire must a man destroy.'” For, oddly enough, amphiboly provides the means for ruthless self-examination. The I Ching works so well because it is precisely so ambiguous. I could maybe let this police officer read into the answer the solution he was seeking. Stalling for time, I asked him to give me an instance of the problem. What specific experience had made him ask the question?

It seems that while he was on crowd-control duty outside a stadium, stationed there with several other police officers, four American tourists exited the stadium. One of them, a woman, was carrying a camera. Another, a man, had signaled a cab and called to the others to hurry and get into it. The woman asked him if he spoke English and when he said that he did, she asked if he would be kind enough to take the camera to the lost and found. She gave him the number of the seat under which she had found the camera and also a general description of the man who had been sitting in the seat. And then she hurriedly left.

The camera, he said, was a Hasselblad… and it was in mint condition. Immediately one of the other officers whistled enviously at his good fortune. Heaven had opened, and a very valuable camera had fallen into his lap. He was an amateur photographer. This was a crisis in faith.

He said that a variety of thoughts crowded into his head at that moment. “First, we have a saying, ‘For every peso another officer lets you get away with, he will demand payment of a hundred pesos later.'” He looked around at the three other officers and knew that if he kept the camera, sooner or later they would demand of him that he ignore much more serious misdeeds of theirs. He did the math and it was staggering. For the price of this camera they would own him, body and soul.

Still, the lost and found office was a quarter turn around the circular stadium. He could say that he was going to turn it in and then simply hide it in his motorcycle bag. No one would know. But, naturally, sooner or later somebody would find out that he had a Hasselblad and the truth would be out.

As he stood there examining the camera, one of the other cops said that if he turned it in, the attendant who accepted it would keep it for himself – the real owner would never get it one way or the other. And then he thought, yes… and if the attendant who accepted it didn’t keep it, one of those officers could easily send a friend to claim it. They all had heard the seat number.

So he righteously announced that he was going to turn the camera in and started off on his cycle; but once out of sight of the other three officers, he again considered hiding the camera. If he didn’t want to be caught later with a Hasselblad he could always take the camera into the U.S. and hock it. Then he said he disgustedly thought, “Jesus… why don’t I just hold up a bank and be done with it.” And so he dismissed that idea… and by this time he was at the office.

Very officiously, he proceeded to document the transaction. He demanded proof of identity of the attendant and he recorded it in his log book. He obtained a receipt for the camera… and on both the original and the carbon, he made the attendant write the seat number and description of the owner and the details about the camera’s make and style. “In short,” he said, “I covered my ass.”

But then, as he drove back to the others, satisfied that he had done the honorable thing, it occurred to him that honor had had nothing to do with it. “I should have done my duty because it was my duty. I shouldn’t have even considered taking the camera. This is the new Mexico. I’m proud to be a Mexican police officer, and there I was ready, willing, and able to act like a ladron, a common thief. So I did the right thing… but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of being glad to do right, I was just afraid to do wrong.”

Yes, Hamlet, Conscience doth make cowards of us all.


Fortunately there is a point at which we cease having to confront ourselves with the advantages and disadvantages of doing our duty, a point at which we do what is right because to do otherwise is simply unthinkable. That point comes when we figure out the common sense of religion and when, armed with that information, we revalorize the people, places and things of our lives. We acquire this strength of character in stages.

In the beginning of our Dharma journey, our ability to make ethical decisions can be calibrated on a scale of 1 to 10. A “1” usually thinks it is incumbent upon him to express moral judgments about everything. He’s read somewhere that Buddhists are non-violent and so he’s firmly against capital punishment. Not while he was around could anybody drive a stake through Count Dracula’s heart. Let the world swarm with vampires. The Buddha said we must not harm living things, and the un-dead surely qualify.

And beginners also have trouble with discretion: when to keep their mouths shut and when to speak out. I remember years ago when laws against marijuana possession were way out of proportion with the nature of the offense and a young man had been caught with half a kilo in his possession – and for this faced ten years in prison. I was in the jury pool waiting for the first group of temporarily seated jurors to go through the Voir Dire process, when one young man in that group haughtily informed the prosecutor that he was a Zen Buddhist and, further, that he thought the laws against marijuana possession were unconstitutional. He was immediately excused and as he walked past me out of the courtroom, I remember thinking, “Kid, if you were seated in that defendant’s chair, you would have wanted somebody like you on the jury.” I later wondered if he had ever bothered to learn that the boy had been convicted. Yes, discretion is always the better part of valor.


In matters of morality, we are like people standing by the edge of a lake noticing a drowning man. Always our first impulse is to jump in to save him. This is the natural inclination of Dharma. It is in the second moment that we should calculate our ability to accomplish the rescue. If we are strong swimmers and if we’re prepared to handle the panic of a drowning man, we can dive in. If we’re not strong or if we are ignorant of the facts of panic – that panic and ethics don’t co-exist, that panic prevents constructive thought or genteel deference, that a drowning man will push down his rescuer to stand on top of him to get air – then if we go out there, we’ll drown with him. (Of course, he just might save himself at our our expense – the First Aid equivalent of turning state’s evidence.) Weak, untested resolve soon gets us in over our heads.

A friend wants a slightly illegal favor. We say, “What the hell…” and then get sucked into the vortex of his swirling troubles. Later we’ll lament our lack of foresight.

But instinctively, if we keep our priorities in mind, we’ll learn to evaluate morally dangerous situations. With habit, we do the right thing automatically. It comes with having a cerebral cortex.

But suppose, I asked the motorcycle cop, he had kept the camera and one of the other police officers had come upon a wallet that contained a lot of cash… or a stash of cocaine… and that officer wanted to keep it. Having already compromised his own integrity, how would he have responded? Or, if after he turned in the Hasselblad, one of the other three police officers had asked a friend to claim it. When he learned about it, what would he do? Would he sacrifice a friend for the sake of a camera’s worth of integrity?

He assured me that he had been unable to think about anything else since that wretched gringa dumped the problem on him.

But he, in effect, had already “pre-emptively” answered his query. I pointed out to him the obvious: he had turned in the camera because it was the right and honorable thing to do. He had taken the attendant’s name to deter him from becoming a thief. He had obtained a receipt to protect himself and the owner of the camera. He had carefully recorded the transaction in order to discourage the other police officers from attempting to exploit the opportunity to get the camera. “When you got back to the others,” I asked him, “did you tell them exactly what you had done?”

“Yes,” he said, a little amazed that he had been so judicious.

“Then what makes you think you did the right thing for all the wrong reasons?”


The Buddha’s Five Precepts are eminently practical. If we don’t cheat on our faithful wife, we’re not likely to get AIDS. If we don’t get drunk, we’re not likely to drive off a cliff while intoxicated. If we don’t lie, we not only don’t have to remember what we said, we’re not likely to be convicted of perjury. If we don’t steal, we’re probably not going to be shot as a burglar. And if we don’t hate, we won’t murder… and then have to get bankrupted by the legal system.

But he insisted that especially when our actions involve persons whose friendship or loyalty we value, the ethical abscissa remained… the line on which confusing and conflicting negative and positive desires existed. “How do we clarify the ambiguities and decide which is the correct course to follow?”

We use our brain and force ourselves to become aware, to consider every aspect of the problem, and if we’re smart we anticipate the worst. We do just what that police officer did. Cynically, we play the Devil’s Advocate. We remember Hsu Yun’s story of the man who stole food for his family and his friends in order to gain their love and admiration. Many ate well and often; but when he was caught, none came forward to make restitution or spend a single night in jail for him. Worse, they all condemned him for being a thief.


We take a child through a toy store, and everything he sees, he wants. We know that if we yield to his desires, we will harm him psychologically. We want to be generous parents, but how do we say “No”? This is a drowning man problem. If we are strong swimmers and can handle panic, we’ll jump in. We’ll stop and talk to the child and reach an accord. He can pick one toy not to exceed a specified price. Does he understand? Sometimes he’ll astonish us and respond, “Can I have two toys that add up to that amount?” “Yes,” we’ll say, envisioning, “My son, the Secretary of Commerce!” An incompetent Dharma swimmer would yank the kid’s arm, scream at him, make false promises, and eventually drown with him.

But if, after all our analysis and expectation, we are still confused, we can rely on our instinctive ability to supply intelligibility even to the most enigmatic presentation of conflicting choices.


Philologist Benjamin Whorf once examined the logically absurd expression in English, “The exception proves the rule.” What does it mean? It was once a clear statement: “to prove” used to mean “to put on trial” and the saying indicated that an exception tested the validity of a rule by demonstrating its merit or lack thereof. But then came a semantic change: “to prove” no longer meant “to put on trial” as it did when the expression originated. “To prove” now meant “to establish the existence of a fact.”

We could have dropped the expression as being meaningless; instead we examined it and discovered new sense in it. So that when we now say, “The exception proves the rule” we mean that were it not for the exception we wouldn’t be aware that a rule even existed. It would be as if every baby at birth measured exactly 14 inches in length. Who would bother to measure the length of babies? It would have been as superfluous a bit of information as stating that Mrs. Jones gave birth to a human child. But not until someone delivered a baby that was a startling 18 inches long would we have realized that this exceptional child was exceptional precisely because he did not follow what was, for us, the rule of 14 inches.

Just as we know what is meant by “The Buddha says, ‘Desire must a man destroy,'” the Buddha’s audience, assuming that he ever made such a silly statement, would also have instinctively known that the “negative” element was desire and that the imperative was not that desire ought to destroy a man, but rather that if a man didn’t destroy desire, it would likely destroy him.

The man of conscience considers his actions and acquires the strength of character and the skill to handle any thrashing temptation. But if, on occasion, he still feels confused, he knows that with effort he can find insight into deeper meanings, just as he can calibrate desire.

If he repeatedly scans for intuitive insight into compromising situations, he’ll find that it’s rather like learning music well enough to get a billing in that great theater in the sky. He will find clarity in ambiguity.

The confused tourist asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The wise New Yorker answers, “Practice! Practice!”

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact the editor at:

The Road to There is Here

“The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011” by David Hockney

In the life of a spiritual seeker, some experiences are forever after remembered and referred back to.  They become markers on the spiritual journey.  For me, the years-long study of the Wheel of Birth and Death, a Buddhist mandala, has been such a marker.  I did not know that my Wheel study would shape my spiritual understanding of myself.  I did not realize the power of my sustained study to be a guide and teacher to which I still often refer.


My study of the Wheel included the creation of a deck of cards, each one an illustration of the six realms of existence: The God, Titan, Human, Animal, Hell and Hungry Ghost Realms.  On the playing card I made to depict the Human Realm is an image of a young girl.  She is at the bottom of the heap of common human experiences: Family and friends, professional endeavors, enjoyment of the natural world and of beauty and art, the pleasures of having nice things and of reaching towards retirement.  The Human Realm illustrates our shared desire for a good life, a happy life, a successful life.  The Buddha taught that these human desires are a source of suffering.  The young girl on the playing card, underneath all human striving, sees the suffering that life brings.  She looks beyond her human experiences and in her looking she wonders, “What else?  What am I supposed to learn, be and know while I am here?”

This image reminded me that I have been a seeker since I was a young girl.  My seeking ties me to all humans who yearn to be set free of their human bondage, to be released from sorrow and alienation, to be united with wisdom, safety and divine care.  As we begin to emerge from the fog of the human pursuit of happiness, we re-member this core impulse.  Then we begin to trust that our impulse to seek the divine is leading us somewhere.  We realize it can be leaned on, the energy of our yearning like fuel for our engine of transformation.

In my life this seeking, yearning impulse first took me into an exploration of Christianity.  Next, I looked to political activity to answer the question, “How can suffering be ended?”  My next evolution was into personal, psychological healing of the wounds of life.  Each of these arenas ultimately disappointed me.  None answered my longing to know that which is out beyond the particulars of one small life, that which holds us in an embrace within which we are free.

We are so lucky when human endeavors fail to satisfy our yearning for Truth.  It is that deepest of disappointments, the sorrow of unfulfilled spiritual yearning, the relentless suffering for which we have tried so many remedies—this alone drives our hearts and minds onward, out beyond the life we see and know, out beyond our human existence.

When I found the mystical tradition of Zen, I found a home for my wandering spirit.  The visceral feeling of coming home is balm for the seeker.  It is another mark of our spiritual location when we see that this tradition, this teacher, these practices are why I am here.  They are what I am to do with my life.  The spiritual nourishment of committing to a method of practice is of the utmost help when the waves of earthly desires threaten to overwhelm the seeker.  When we have our love of the Way, our hearts can lead us through many challenges posed by our habitual minds.

Zen practice has shown me the greed, hate and delusion that drive my suffering and the world’s suffering.  The day-to-day work of a student of the Buddha is to peel back the layers of delusional clinging to solid form, to rigid ideas of a self, to all that was once held and may often still be held as dear and true.  A post-it on the wall above my desk says, “Cleaning out the storehouse of old conditioning takes a lot of effort.”  Beyond the conditioned opinions, the talk and news and family and politics and sickness and all the particulars of this little life lies an open field.  The process of uncovering leads toward that open field, the highest form of consciousness available to human beings, the Eternal Wisdom that hails the end of craving, the end of want.

The opening to a spiritual path can lead us to powerful and all-encompassing experiences of this Eternal Wisdom: The indescribable certainty that Ultimate Compassion holds us, the dissolution of objects and people and self-concepts that bring in their wake pure contentment and absolute safety, free of wanting, thinking and knowing.  With such experiences come irrefutable evidence that our sense of separation from others exists only in our picking and choosing minds.

Such moments of liberation have brought me the deepest nourishment.  Then, old patterns of thought and perception have re-asserted themselves and these glimpses of Reality fade away.  But they remain in my heart as gateways into a profoundly loving non-conceptual Truth that holds everything and is nothing.  It is that toward which our spiritual calling points.

This powerful calling urges us toward a commitment to making spiritual practice the centerpiece of our brief time here on earth.  Becoming ordained as a monk, I found myself receiving the fullest possible attention of my teacher and called to give the fullest possible attention of my life to the possibility of awakening.  Such concentrated attention, in concert with shaving one’s head, wearing robes and taking vows, opens the seeker to another deeper level of relinquishment of identity and attachments.

Deeply letting go of so much that is familiar has been compared to falling off a cliff, or riding the rapids of an uncharted river.  It is chaotic and scary, filled with uncertainty.  Riding these rapids, we are asked to examine everything we think and feel and “know.”  The examination takes us even into an exploration of our commitment to this path.  We confront our own doubt and disbelief, our despair and cynicism, our desire for an easier path to glory.  Spiritual doubt is a necessary component of the journey, each time it arises an opportunity to encounter the very heart-center of our willingness to continue.

When one can sustain the fall over the cliff, the rough travel over the rapids, one comes to know that all of these dark corners, all of the pain and unhappiness are necessary components of the spiritual project.  They come to us so that we may come to see that all the demons are not “out there” but in our craving hearts and minds.  We learn to hold this, our suffering, care-fully, dis-passionately, with gratitude.  It takes effort and help from all the saints and teachers to learn from our personal struggles and reactivity, to calm down and dis-identify with it.  In the end, the suffering we can endure and learn from: This is what shows us the Way.

Devotion, that very special quality of the heart that yearns to know Buddha mind, that keeps going, that can submit to the fire, this devotion grows stronger as the path leads on.  Determination to drop the thoughts and feelings, to drop the pushing toward this and the choosing that, combine with devotion to the aim of being no one, going nowhere.  Devotion to remaining aware of each and every experience as it is experienced, aware of the ego’s delusional take on experience and aware of being rooted in Reality, emptiness, no-self.  These are our refuges, our protection.

Also a refuge: Just This.  Uncovering Ultimate Truth is a matter of waiting for life to unfold, not gearing up.  It is a matter of trusting the generous possibility for awakening embedded in every experience, no matter how difficult or confusing, no matter how much we want to skip over it, diminish it, blame someone else.  It is a matter of first seeing, then relinquishing everything we think, feel and know so that we may trust the Source, not understand more, have more or be more.  In this letting go lies the possibility for the realization that nothing is solid, substantial, lasting.  Everything is change and flux.  This knowing comes only as the ego is dismantled, self-concept by self-concept, day by day.

To sustain such a deep and all-encompassing practice, we seek to remain still, calm, kind to ourselves, patient, willing.  We seek to fully accept and utilize the direction and wisdom of our teachers.  It takes time.  It is profoundly humbling.  Failure and fear are our companions.  And, we are not in charge.  There is only practice with what is right here, right now.  Incredibly, increasingly, silence pervades where once the conditioning was on fire.  Incredibly, increasingly, wondering turns into wonder, gratitude and thanks-giving.  To encounter such a measure of tranquility is yet another marker of the journey up the spiritual mountain, another gift from the Source of exactly the energy necessary to keep going.

Out beyond the delusion of this material world we taste the tranquil Buddha Mind stillness of ease, good will, trust and safety.  In good times and hard.  There, the heart rests free of attachment to the world of things.  There, we know that all we cling to is only change and this knowing frees us from this mind, from this body.  Buddha Mind is us.  This Buddha Mind that is us: It has always been here, there, everywhere.


Humming Bird

Lao Huo Shakya

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