Playing at Paste…Until Qualified for Pearl – PART 2

Notice – Two Points.

  1. Please read PART 1 first, then come back and read this, PART 2. Thank you.

2. Before we jump in further, it is important to ask a question. Don’t skip the question. And I advise, don’t advance without knowing your answer.

Here’s the question: WHAT DO YOU WANT?

A simple enough question, but it determines the whole direction of your life. It turns your ship towards whatever answer you put forth. The reason the question, as well as the answer is important, is that for the most part we get whatever it is that we want. It is true, even though it may not be exactly what you wanted, but it is some form of what you wanted. Look at your own life. You’ll see that you do get what you want – or some facsimile of it.

If you did not answer the question in some way that suggest you want liberation, I wouldn’t bother reading further. This is not what you want. But, if you did answer, I want to be liberated, then carry on. If you are not sure of what you want, continue to spend time with yourself in solitude and see what bubbles up.


The Story of the Monk Running for His Life

This story is about ignorance. Although, it is often a story about being in the “now” – picking the strawberry, enjoying the sweetness of ignorance, it is ultimately about ignorance. The central ignorance of not knowing who you are. 

It is essential that you understand this central question: WHO ARE YOU?

For most of us, we identify our self as a character on the world stage who has a body and mind and a life. In other words, we identify our self according to the body, the mind, and all the constructions of our family and culture and zeitgeist. As an example, I am a man, middle-aged, balding, brown eyes, six feet, a pharmacist, married 2 kids, educated, Spanish, and need to lose a few pounds. On and on this list may go. This list exemplifies the relative, impermanent conditions of the world and it is who this man thinks he is.

If you identify yourself according to the world, you are guaranteed suffering. Suffering’s root is not knowing WHO YOU ARE. It is as if you have identified yourself as a table or a cup, or an automobile which many actually do. The house they live, the car they drive, the clothes they wear, the hairdo, their height, their profession, their history make them who they are. But all of these things disappear and POOF! you lose them and it feels life-threatening because you think these things are YOU.

This YOU comes about through ignorance. And in this story of the monk we see him running for his life out of ignorance.

A Brief Recap

This spiritual adept, (those who want liberation) is said to have escaped the man-eating tiger and the devouring lion, but is soon to be done in by a few hungry mice. We meet him in a rather desperate moment. But despite his facing an impending death, he reaches for a sweet strawberry. Ming Zhen points out that going for the strawberry is playing with paste and that there is more work to be done especially when the monk realizes Layman P’ang’s truth – “the present doesn’t stay – don’t try to hold it.” Nothing lasts, not even the taste of that sweet strawberry.

When you begin to recognize all those things you identify yourself as will not last – and you decide you want liberation beyond the momentary sweetness of a strawberry – you dig in and start the climb up towards the Summit.  In Dickinson’s words, you practice until you qualify for pearls.

Sweet Ignorance

Wanting the sweetness of the strawberry is wanting the sweetness of ignorance. How do we know that? The monk is running for his life; defending against his impending death. We all tend to opt for the sweetness of ignorance rather than do the higher work of putting our foot into a cranny and getting out of ignorance altogether.

The direct path is to know and realize birth and death are illusions. Yes. That’s right. They are illusions. The tiger chasing the monk, the cliff, the branch, the mice, the lion and yes, the strawberry. The monk is fearful. He does not want to lose his body and mind and all the sweetness of ignorance. Yes, the sweetness of ignorance as in the old saying, ignorance is bliss. To some degree, ignorance itself is blissful – for awhile. Not in an eternal sense. For awhile – we enjoy the sweet honey of life until we realize otherwise. Often we get stuck in ignorance. Taking the ups with downs in stride and sing that very old song by Peggy Lee, Is This All There Is – if your answer is YES, this is all there is then, you’ll go along with her refrain – then bring on the booze and let’s keep dancing. This is being stuck in the honey of ignorance until you suffer change enough that you scream for help.

When we mistake the body and mind to be who we are, we are in ignorance. We suffer from fear, loss, and every imaginable form of suffering when it comes. The Heart Sutra is an antidote to this ignorance, especially when it is taken in and contemplated. We chant the emptiness of every aspect of body and mind as a reminder of these things are not who we are.

All of the things in the world are subject to decay and death. When you identify with this illusion you get scared. Who wouldn’t? What do you mean I AM SUBJECT to decay and death? You struggle, struggle, struggle with doubt, fear, hopelessness, helplessness and many, many other miseries that come.

The Truth is simple. You are NOT the body. You are not the MIND. YOU are not all those conditions and constructs you put together which you say you are. They are part of the role you play in the illusion like a costume – put on and then taken off.

Ming Zhen suggests getting out of there. Get out of the illusion; if you don’t survive, you can’t prevail.  Prevail for the spiritual adept requires you face the beasts – the tiger, the mice and the hungry lion. You face the illusion of the body and mind. You see through it. You face the momentary enjoyment of sweet ignorance and look to know who you are.

The Path

First, find out where you are. Are you a pleasure hog? A monger of the commodities of the world? Going after things for pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, comfort, comfort, comfort?

Most of us have been conditioned to seek comfort and pleasure in the things of the world. Look around you. What do you cherish?

In order to get onto the path, you need to have a glimpse, to see through the illusion. Suffering is your greatest ally to make a hole into the veil of ignorance ;allowing you a glimpse through the illusion. This takes time.

It is no wonder Eastern religions claim rebirth and reincarnation as our lot. We need time to see through this illusion. Along with the notion of reincarnation comes the ever-present encouragement not to waste time. Life and death are of supreme importance. This story shows us the importance to dig in and climb above the illusion.

You are born this time as a human being – a great boon – a platform on which to climb upward to the Summit. Don’t waste this opportunity. Don’t let the piddly, petty things of this world distract you. Fight off the demons of the ego. Find a teacher.* Climb upward.


Humming Bird

*I was once dubious about working with a teacher, but after a lifetime of practice,

I see the need and recommend you find a teacher you can work with face to face.


Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2020

ZATMA is not a blog.

 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact editor at:



Playing at Paste…Until Qualified for Pearl – PART 1


Welcome Dear Friends.

This piece may be longer than most of what ZATMA posts. But it is hot off the heart – heated up by the Divine Mother of Time – of Birth and Death – and the Truth. It may be for you and it may not be. You get to decide whether this work is for you. The Work being:  “if you want to be free” or “if you don’t.”

I know a choice is obvious but i must add that there is always the possibility for a breakthrough – a breakthrough out from behind the veil of ignorance.  With that possibility in mind, read it. What do you have to lose?

I wish each and every one of you good luck, the good luck of hearing the sound of the high bird that waits patiently to sing to you.


Order of the Work. Read this first.

I am tempted to go in many directions all at once but I know that will be too confusing. I don’t want to add to your confusion. We are confused enough. The Order is offered as a way to help you hear what is told, understand what is given and to see where you go with it on your own. For the sake of clarity and utility, I recommend you print this out.

  • We’ll begin with a poem by Emily Dickinson, titled, We Play with Paste. 
  • Followed close behind comes a teaching of Layman P’ang. A Ch’an master of great esteem. He, like most of you, was not a monk, but he encountered two Ch’an masters upon whose shoulders he stood. The key word in his history is encountered; meaning faced the difficulty of working with a Master. He wasn’t a monastic and yet, his teachings went beyond the two he encountered. One does not need to ordain, but one does need to face the difficulties and deliberations of a master.
  • The third teaching comes from a novel by Anthony Wolff (aka Ming Zhen Shakya). It is a very familiar Zen Buddhist story. Read it several times. My guess is you’ll have heard of it and may even decide you know what it is saying. Hold off with your thinking you know what it means. Don’t decide beforehand.


We Play with Paste by Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886


We play at Paste

Till qualified, for pearl.

Then, drop the paste

And deem ourself a fool.


The shapes- though- were similar,

And our new hands

Learned Gem-tactics

Practicing Sands.


I hope you have read it several times and thought about it as well. In this context, both Ming Zhen and I agree that for an indeterminable amount of time we spiritual seekers play at spiritual practice. As you’ll read later we enjoy and find the Zen stories entertaining, amusing and light. But as in all things, we cannot stay there although we may get stuck there. Getting stuck tends to look like dogma, doctrine and concrete. It is often laiden with judgement as in I know and you poor fool do not.

Don’t lose heart if you find yourself still playing with paste. It’s part of the training. Afterall, we have to start somewhere and learning fanciful Zen tales is an appealing place to start. This happens in all spiritual practices. Ancient stories and parables are taken in at the level of the listener or in this case in the hands of an unskilled but willing seeker. A spiritual kid, if you will.

What determines whether or not we’ve given up our childish ways with paste? A sense of being a fool. Yes. That is it. A sense that you have been playing around with spiritual pearls all the time thinking you were cool. In the know. Some think they are awake. At some point, a spiritual adept confesses being a fool. I know exactly when I confessed to my teacher. It was that part of the poem that says, deem myself a fool. I still laugh about it. If you can’t laugh at yourself, well – that’s a sure give-away you’re still playing around with paste. Remember, however, that’s a place most of us begin. Whatever you do, don’t try to fake being a fool, or fake laughing at yourself. This is why you need a teacher; because a teacher can spot this stupidity and chicanery – and that my friend’s is a priceless gift.

As the poem goes on it portends to give a hint at what comes next. NEW HANDS. Yes, something happens and we realize what we have been given is a gem; a precious jewel that we play with skillfully – with wisdom – in the shifting sands of this impermanent realm. We take it seriously, but not too seriously. Notice I say take it seriously first…and you do this for a long time until you realize you are after all playing with sand. But don’t try to reverse these. Don’t think you’re playing with sand first. That will lead you to despair and even nihilism. No. First, take the teachings and practices seriously – and at some point you’re likely to see it is all sand. Always has been.


Layman P’ang’s Teaching on Ultimate Reality — 740-808

This teaching by Layman P’ang impacts how you might understand the Zen parable in the next section. Layman P’ang’s teaching is so lucid I feel as though I do not need to add anything except to encourage you to read it and take it into your life practice.


The past is already past.
Don’t try to regain it.

The present does not stay.
Don’t try to hold it from moment to moment.

The future is not yet come;
Don’t think about it

Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be.

There are no commandments
To be kept,
There’s no filth to be cleansed.

With empty mind truly
Penetrated, nothing remains.

When you can be like this,
You touch ultimate reality


The Thorn Crown Murder – Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

“We play at paste till qualified for pearl,” noted Emily Dickinson. The observation also applies to instructions about Zen’s attitude toward life. We begin with parables that seem, to the beginner, to be such pretty little jewels. Later, when we deepen our understanding, we see them as the glass substitutes used to acquire in the ‘gem-tactics’ needed for handling real pearls.

Early on we learn about the monk who, while fleeing from a tiger, clings to a loose sapling on a cliff’s side and sees death whether he goes up or down. Yet, he picks a wild strawberry and savors its sweetness. Yes, we say, we should all live in the ‘now’ moment. But once we grow in Zen, the story loses its charm. It is no easy task to live in the now – to be able to concentrate and focus right where you are with what shows up, but Ming Zhen goes onto to write…we call out to the monk, “instead of picking a strawberry, scrape out a foothold for yourself!” And I add climb up, get out of there because…There are degrees of advancement in Zen’s regimen…

Yes, there are degrees of advancement but it does not mean to skip this work of being in the present moment. Work there – work with a decision to concentrate and focus and when you are stable in doing that then, and only then, go to Part 2 where we will take up the task of advancement.

Humming Bird

Image Credit: Fly, 2020 From the Bottom UP

The image depicts the chakra energy.

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2020

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Zen Through the Camera’s Lens


The film 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers in the trenches of France who are ordered by their superiors to travel on foot to a distant part of British-held territory with written instructions from the General in charge of operations to not attack the Germans the following morning. The Germans have set a trap. If the British attack, it will be a slaughter and a defeat for the allies.

The two soldiers leave immediately and travel overland, through an encampment the Germans only hours previously abandoned, through disputed territory where lone German soldiers hide and skirmishes between bands of Germans and British are a constant threat.

The audience watches as the two men negotiate many dangers, from rats to explosions to enemy bullets. We see them stumble, run, fall, creep and claw their way through varied terrain, all of it scourged by the horrors of war. As day becomes night becomes morning, the men continue on, their primary objective to keep going, in the right direction.

This ever-changing panorama of challenges and dangers was filmed in one continuous camera shot. The camera never stops rolling through the two hour drama, the lens never breaks from its singular focus on the two soldiers moving, always moving. It is a breath-taking feat of cinematography and film production. This no-stop approach to filming gives the story an essential and potent immediacy. Along with the camera itself, neither the audience nor the two young soldiers ever shift focus from the moment they are in. There is no time for such indulgences, there is only NOW…NOW…NOW…and NOW. There are no flashbacks to the childhoods of the characters, or to the families that wait for them, no cutting forward to old men as they remember their long-past heroics. No secondary story takes place in some other part of the war-torn landscape. The ever-changing scenery through which the two men travel in their quest to complete the given task the only truth.

The effect of the film on this student of Zen was to highlight and honor that which can be easy to overlook as we walk through the varied terrain of our lives: Each moment of time and space we inhabit is a dynamic creation in which everything is arising and falling away. The continuity of time and space are an illusion and 1917 shows us this in stark relief. When we keep attention

focused on this universal principle, as does the film, we can see more clearly that nothing stays the same, nothing lasts, every moment is new, brand new. Everything the two soldiers experience dissolves to make way for the next experience. They can only remain present, keep moving in the right direction and keep their wits about them.

Our minds, not nailed to the present by life-threatening dangers, can grow complacent, causing us to grasp at experiences to opine about them, yearn for more of them, get angry at them, evaluate our performance of them, grieve for the losses within them—and in doing so, we lose the moment that has newly arisen before us. We, like the soldiers and like all sentient beings, exist solely in the present, but our internal camera lens looks backward and forward, at this and that, here and there, always veering off, stealing our attention and veiling this truth. Over and over again, we find we are no longer here.

1917 shows us life being fully inhabited in the now. Through its continuously trained camera lens, it offers a view of life as a journey in which the imperative is to see the threats and opportunities arising in this moment with a singular focus so that one can navigate them with wisdom. To indulge in reactions to that which has come before or that which lies ahead are delusions and as such they lead us toward dangerous distractions. The young Brits know their lives and their mission depend on this such clear concentration.

Zen students too are on a quest to complete a given task; we too are running for our lives. We too must remain aware of the dangers lurking everywhere as we encounter life, for we also have enemies that threaten our task’s fulfillment. Our enemies are not sentient beings but conditioned beliefs and feelings, old habits of body, speech and mind that can catch us in their cross-fire, that hide in dark corners to kill and maim. We too must keep going in the right direction, toward the possibility of freedom and safety, paying full attention to the moments when these internal enemies show their shadowy faces. They lie in wait for our attention to flag. Inattention creates the perfect conditions for the traps they set.

Emotions and thoughts, all conditioned behavior thrives on our mind’s undisciplined flights of fancy into yesterday and tomorrow, likes and dislikes, distant lands and dramas. It is so easy to forget! It is so easy to relax into self-satisfaction that feels like peace. Before we know it, some deep discord within us is exploding forth and we are again at war. Our inner world and the outer

world it reflects are both battlefields where the delusions of winning and losing, love and hate play out their dark story of opportunity lost and truth mired and muddied, buried in the trenches of suffering and ignorance.

Like the two young Brits in 1917, our task is to keep going, pay full attention and remain vigilant, knowing that our lives depend on it.


Humming Bird

Lao Huo Shakya

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What Do You Turn to When You Need Help

Bleary Doubled 2020 by Fly


This is often known as your source of refuge. It comes when you are at your wits end and you need to refer to something or someone wiser than your ego-self. It comes with power, a power to decide between one thing or another. In spiritual life, it comes through the realization of renunciation.

Stop and ask yourself: “What do I rely on?”

In science and business and all the many things of the world we call it a “reference.” What do I refer my will to when I need assistance?  The question itself determines action – what action you will take with body, speech and mind.

When something occurs, some event or series of events in your mind – which is where all events are reflected – what do you do? And, where do you go for help?

Let me relieve any anxiety that this question may bring up by adding – there is no “right” or “wrong” answer. The answer, whatever it is, is illumination. The answer tells you what you have “faith” in. It will tell you your reference. And knowing your reference will tell how you measure and evaluate your life. It may even help you see how your reference hinders your spiritual journey.

So, let me ask the same question in another way.

What for? When you do something what do you do it for?  You get to fill-in the blank.

This particular practice is preliminary, but it nevertheless may yield gold if you are sincere in your quest to know that which is ineffable.

Another way to understand this “reference” is to look at a habit since habits are actions for something or for another. The bedeviled alcoholic shows us in bright painful lights how a habit works. The person is in pain and takes action for some pain relief where alcohol is the reference of choice. It is available, convenient, and offers a false degree of reliability. It works. But, as we know, over time this reference turns into dependence and then turns into a demon. With this in mind, notice how what we turn to as a reference follows this pattern of a habit. We want an available, convenient and reliable reference. One we can trust.

Dare I say that all habits built on things that fall apart are unreliable. Despite this truth we often continue to turn to them as though they are not unreliable. I note this as an encouragement to seek a “reliable” reference; one that is ever-present, ever-powerful, and ever-reliable.

In Zen Buddhism, it is called the True Self – or your True Nature. IT is called by many names but has the same nature across traditions. IT is who you are and not the other way around. You are not IT. We proceed from the unborn, undying, eternal being.

In short, watch what you put your faith in.

God alone is real. All this is apparent and proceeds from God, the unborn, undying, eternal.

“When a Saint was practicing deeply, the teaching of Wisdom, she perceived that all this – name, form, body & mind, feelings, impulses, perceptions, and consciousness are empty of an abiding ego-self…and realized the Truth.”

Om Namo Holy Mother God

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2020

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 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

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The title of this essay  is a line from a novel, The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri. It comes early on in the novel from a man, a Mr. Pathak who feels beaten down by the everyday demands and complaints from his wife. She, Mrs. Pathak, is in a constant, many year battle with her neighbor, Mrs. Asrani. The battlefield is twofold; a shared kitchen space and a landing (the place between staircases in the building). The conflict is rooted in fairness. Both the Pathak’s and the Asrani’s feel as though they are doing and paying more than their fair share. The treasury at stake is water in the kitchen and revenue and expenses regarding the landing.

Water is scarce and is a sought after commodity collected and distributed in the kitchen. The landing, which was a source of rental revenue is currently occupied by a dying man named Vishnu who is in dire need of human kindness. Vishnu, amongst the poorest of the poor, is an alcoholic. No longer able  to tend to certain small things in the building  or pay his small rent for sleeping on the landing he has become  a medical liability to the Pathak and the Asrani families.


As we might imagine, squabbles abound from both sides. Both couples want an even-handed distribution of water and a fair-minded, equal payment for Vishnu’s care. Neither seems to be possible.

Not only do the couples dispute the unfairness between the pairs but the partners find themselves bickering over who will tell the other couple what they need to do or not do. With Vishnu’s greater need for assistance, skirmishes between them ensue on a regular basis. Common enough.  We might even say, to be expected. Whether you live in a shared apartment building in India or in a two-flat in Europe, getting along with others is often difficult. 

When we first hear of Mr. Pathak’s desire for peace, he is sitting in an Iranian Hotel drinking tea and eating a biscuit. He goes there to escape the conflict. This scene gives us a glimpse into what he does that keeps him far from finding the peace that he seeks. Initially, he feels good. He’s gotten away from the bickering. He enjoys his tea and biscuit. Soon enough, however, the noise of the recent quarrel with his wife is defended against with two flamethrowers; fault-finding and blame. He defends himself to himself with these against the others only to descend into self-pity.

His tea and biscuit are no match against the secretions of his mind.



It was not his fault that Mrs. Arani was so unreasonable. It was not his fault that Vishnu was sick. It certainly not his fault Usha (his wife) had arranged the kitty party for today. Nothing was his fault, yet he knew he would be blamed for everything. A wave of self-pity swept over Mr. Pathak, and the Gluco (biscuit) turned chalky in his mouth.



He can’t help it. His mental formations come up in his mind much like a well-developed habit of checking a sore on the inside cheek in the mouth. The tongue curiously checks the sore again and again only to make matters worse. Mr. Pathak’s peace is swept away, leaving him bereft of the peace he wanted.

Sadly, Mr. Pathak is unable to realize how he contributes to his misery. Blinded by the flamethrowers of fault-finding and blame he falls into the vat of self-pity opening the door to despair leaving him prey for his instinctual side to take charge. With his instinctual side he plans to retaliate against his wife. The retaliation, unbeknownst to Mr. Pathak’s wish to satisfy himself,  fuels the flames of the household discord, setting him on fire. 

The importance of Mr. Pathak’s ever-seeking hunt for peace is he is us. Mr. Pathak represents our mind state before enlightenment. He is ignorant. He shows us, so very clearly, that he contributes to the discord leaving him longing for peace. Yep. He ain’t found it, yet. Mental gymnastics is not the Way. 

I hope you are laughing. Not at Mr. Pathak. But at seeing his mental deliberations as hindrances which negate any chance for lasting peace. 

The work is not with Mr. Pathak or his wife. Or the other couple. Or with the situation of scarcity of water or the dying man on the landing. The work is with ourselves.

We need to be able to recognize the ego-self and how it calls upon various aspects of the mind to get control and keep it. We need to be able to see how we hoist our mind on our own petard (small exploding bomb). If we just get this first step, we will limit and avoid doing harm to others and ourselves by stopping the plot against another or our self before we blow ourselves up in double suffering. 

If we examine this short paragraph, we see that we, too ,defend ourselves by finding fault with others, the situation, ourselves. We enter into the wicked realm of the unreasonable. We mark others as unfair. Life itself is seen as unfair. We criticize and judge whatever we deem as the problem. None of this helps us get free enough to find peace; to limit and end suffering. As Mr. Pathak we fall into leaking any good sense we might have and take no responsibility for our acts. With a final sachet we declare ourselves “innocent.” Oh what a fool we make of ourselves. Thinking and hoping these tactics will set us free we come to find out, if we are lucky, that we have detonated our selfishness of our ego and bombed ourselves with self-blame. Without drawing blood or even raising a stink, we have succumbed to the enemy, and the enemy is “me, my, mine.”


And so, we and Mr. Pathak continue to

ever want peace…

spending time trying to find it in all the wrong places and things.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2020

ZATMA is not a blog.

 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact editor at:

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

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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

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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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Monsters to Madness. All Sorts of Foul Play

Monsters by Fly 2019


Let’s begin with a chant – albeit a silent chant but one worth reading and yes, one worth memorizing. Before I share it, I want to give a speed ball pitch to memorization.

Everyone has a particular level of aptitude and ability to memorize – but even those of us who struggle with memorization can find a few lines or even a phrase from ancient texts of wisdom to remember. I encourage all of us to take up the practice of memorization no matter how small or big it is. If it is difficult to memorize, post up parts of wisdom texts where the teachings are easily seen. Put them up in every room, if need be.


Now the chant. As mentioned, if you are unable to memorize the whole chant, select a phrase or sentence that speaks to you – jumps out at you. Write it down. Memorize it. Post it up. It’s a guardian for your practice.



Little thoughts, subtle thoughts when followed, stir up the heart.

Not comprehending the thoughts of the heart, one runs here & there,

The mind out of control.


Comprehending the thoughts of the heart,

One who is ardent, mindful, restrains them.

When followed, they stir up the heart.


One who is awakened, lets them go…without trace.



Our minds are full of thoughts already. Many of us have had 12 years of compensatory education, have families where ‘family’ propaganda is passed down and of course, there are all the various inputs from books, online networks and contact with others.

It is an endless array of information that is in the library of the mind. Spiritual adepts need to be able to sort through the mess and organize it in such a way that it supports our spiritual journey.

When we don’t sort out our thoughts, we are easily out of control over every little thing that comes into our life.

But…when we focus and sort the thoughts out in such a way that we don’t go along with the story, we strengthen our ability to restrain the thoughts that become monsters. This ability requires a keen interest in what shows up in the light of our brain pan. We have to watch for the monsters to pop up.

We have two habits that we need to be alert to…

  1.  Our habit to go along with the monsters that show up in our mind over and over again and
  2.  Our habit of not watching for the monsters in the first place.

Many of us just go along with what thoughts, images, ideas, imaginings that come up the moment we wake up from a night’s sleep. Whatever monster comes, we go along with it. This happens because we have relied on the monsters to rule the mind. This reliance has made us limp and flaccid making us easy prey for the monsters.

The very first step is to begin to see the content of the mind as monsters. To look at each thought, idea, imagining, image as a trap popping up to distract, upset, jumble, and stir up something that either happened in the past, a wish for something to happen in the future or a loss or fear of something that has not yet happened.

It is worth a clarification. The stuff of the mind is an array of monsters.  When we acknowledge this truth, we restrain the monsters. Restraint prepares us to renounce what we once were loyal to and are at last able to



turn without grasping for and against, without stopping to glue your view into a peg hole, without marvels of wordiness[1] – all of which is for our awakening.



We recognize the monster of for & against, the leaking of fixed positions and marvels of wordiness as the mind taken captive to foul play of those very monsters. Our views of for & against, our fixed positions and our wordiness (repetitions of  pontification) may be directed to the inner world of ourselves and directed toward the outer world of things (people, places and things). In either case, we do well to bring our attention to the monsters that arrive like popcorn in the head in such a way we are eager to comprehend the foul play they bring upon us and others.  We must turn away without grasping them, pegging them or pontificating them. We let them go without regret or worry or any entanglement.

We need to build strengths that protect the mind from the monsters that lead us into misery and suffering. We need to be able to discern which thoughts will stir up the mind and which thoughts strengthen our efforts on this spiritual path. A strengthening aide to seeing the monsters is memorizing wisdom texts. We replace the old habitual texts in our mental library with wisdom texts – and we do this without being for and against, without thinking we are right or wrong and without posturing a dogmatic speech to ourselves or others. We settle in “don’t know” mind as a strength of Truth and we continue our spiritual practice.

Dongshan’s teaching leads to the path of silence. When we recognize the stuff of the mind, for the most part, is the palace of the monsters, we let go of our thoughts and views and ideas as we would the fleeting wind. We note the breeze but don’t get blown by it.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue


Image credits: Fly, 2019

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[1] Dongshan, Caodong. Go to link: Leakage


Below is a link that I wholeheartedly recommend watching;

especially for advanced students.

It is both brilliant in its execution and spiritually illuminating.

It may take some illumination to see the wisdom –

but the wisdom is there.







Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

ZATMA is not a blog.

 If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching,

please contact editor at:

A personal note from Fashi Lao Yue.


The video link was sent to me by a dear friend in the UK.

A devoted Franciscan brother who is steadfast in his work. I thank him for his constancy of devotion and for this hilarious link. My dear, late teacher is laughing with joy.

It is ridiculous to be sucked up into the material world of delusion

Do Not Let the Manifestations of the Material World Obscure the Truth of Being


It is ridiculous to be sucked up into the material world of delusion


Holy Mother of Birth & Death by fly


Life is endless meetings – every day, every moment. A myriad of things come into our life; our challenge is to meet them from a place of calm-abiding. We are able to meet the myriad things when we have sufficiently studied our self-ego to the degree we are able to forget it. That’s the challenge. The outcome is not to be sought by the self-ego – rather the outcome is a traceless life of meeting what comes into your life.

When we react to life circumstances rather than respond to what comes our way, we are in the grip of delusion. The delusion is twofold. We think the self-ego is primary, when in reality it is a delusion. And second, we place our confidence (faith) in the exterior, material world to the degree we lose sight of our true nature. We can see this for ourselves. The test is simple. When we place our hopes and confidence in the exterior world for peace of mind and happiness we are caught in the veil of ignorance. When we seek peace – bliss – purpose in the material goods of life, we suffer. It’s a simple reason. We have entered the delusion of seeing our self-ego as real, permanent and separate and we see other material things with the same ignorance.

The material world is to be met and actualized, not reified as the doorway to liberation. The me-and-mine delusion confuses us and we go after the material thing with a me-and-mine delusion to fulfill us. Be it a job, career, education, money, status, position, prestige stuff, or another person. When we live in this manner, we take what is happening personally. Taking things which are impermanent personally is a significant sign of needing spiritual work. It shows the me-and-mine veil is covering reality.

The Truth is we are not a separate material body and mind and we do not possess (own) a thing even though we play the game of life as though we do.  Our true nature is beyond the body and mind of me-and-mine.

When we meet the conditions that come our way, we either react out of our ignorance, (the veil of ignorance) or respond out of our true nature. It seems most of the time, we react rather than respond.

Our first step is to recognize our reactive side – the side that gets blinded by the manifestations of the material world. When we recognize the reactive side we need to seek and follow spiritual directions.

The first thing to do is calm down. Yes, that’s right. Calm down. All the old platitudes to breathe to the count of ten; go for a walk; or take a shower give us time to calm down enough to see we have been sucked up into a me-and-mine delusion.

When this happens, we need to remove our mind from the circumstances. The reactive mind is confused. We need to calm down.

Don’t react from anger. If you do react, calm down. Let what bugs you go. Be quiet. Get away by yourself. Contemplate.

The material world obscures the truth. It’s true. The material world co-opts the power of actualizing a traceless life. The traceless life is a life where the me-and-mine no longer veils our true nature. It is freedom. And it comes with power to meet what comes into life. Let me say this another way; the myriad things of life come into your life to awaken you – not to fulfill the aspirations of me-and-mine. IT, our true nature, is beyond generosity – beyond any me-and-mine aspiration. YOU, the me-and-mine is not IT – IT, the unborn, undying, eternal is YOU.

There is no doubt that life requires work. When the me-and-mine is in charge it works to get and have – things of every ilk. It sees work as drudgery – dreaded rather than generous and full of the possibility of realizing that all things that come into your life come to awaken you.

Remember. Our first step is to see the veil of me-and-mine. This seeing is no easy task. The habits of me-and-mine are old, rooted in the patterns of daily behavior. Don’t be dismayed. Even a small glimpse of seeing the veil of me-and-mine allows us to see that we are going after liberation and freedom in the wrong direction. When we put our confidence (faith) in the delusions (things) of life we suffer. The suffering of disappointment and disenchantment that follows is the generosity of our Beloved Mother of Birth & Death – showing us we put our confidence (faith) in a passing show and a veil of tears.

I leave you with this teaching by Dogen.[1]


This Dharma Gate is not the Dharma Gate of meditation; it is the Dharma Gate of repose and bliss – practice-realization of culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate enlightenment. Once its heart is grasped you are … like the tiger that enters the mountain. …dullness and distraction are struck aside.

…the bringing about enlightenment … by a finger, a banner, a needle or a mallet….with the effectual aid of a stick, a fist, a staff or a shout cannot be fully understood by your discriminating mind or fully known by supernatural powers….

If you concentrate your efforts single-mindedly….going forward in the Way is a matter of everydayness.

Humming Bird

Author: FaShi Lao Yue

Image credits: Fly, 2019

ZATMA is not a blog.

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[1] Dogen Fukanzazenji




To Walk Invisible, A Zen Parable

“To Walk Invisible” is a television drama that first aired in 2017 about the three Brontë sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. The story tells of a period in their lives when they are transformed from sisterly supporters, financially dependent on their aging father and their only brother, into independent successful writers.

The Brontë family, housed in the large rectory of the church where their father is the parson, live together but apart, each family members life unfolding behind the many closed doors of the old house. It is a dark, somber and spartan domestic scene. Each of the three sisters and their brother (Bramwell) secretly struggle to make sense of their lives within the structure of family values they unconsciously share and unwittingly uphold.

Bramwell is celebrated within the family as the one with creative genius who will be famous. The sisters all face advancing age, dwindling prospects for marriage and few prospects for employment. The Victorian culture of the day affords them no ready options other than dependence on their brother to carry them on the shoulders of his success. Yet Bramwell is descending into alcoholism. His prospects for fulfilling the family’s expectations are dwindling as well.

As these pressures in the Brontë household mount, the closed doors of the house begin to open. Bramwell’s drunken stupors, which he has kept hidden, are revealed to the sisters as they dare to open his door and enter his world. The sisters leave their private spaces to encounter each other in the shared regions of the house. Here they begin to speak their feelings in whispered conversations, having previously limited their discussions to the business of their lives. They gather in pairs, never all three together, not yet trusting a wider audience of three, to begin to say out loud that which they had not yet dared to name. Failure. Addiction. Depression. Aging. Anger at the sublimation of women into intellectually inferior roles, though they know they are not intellectually inferior to men.

In the realm of my interior spaces, I too have encountered the closed doors of addiction, my deepest fears and failures, the aspects of life that do not fit the identity I had always assumed for myself arising from my history, my community and my family. I too have stayed busy with making a life, keeping the doors closed on all that did not fit the look and feel of the world I knew. But the life I was making, like the Brontë’s, was based on a plan with deep cracks, riddled with inconsistencies.

Spiritual work, like the artistic journey of these women who would become some of the world’s most respected authors, begins…and continues…with opening doors. To make great art or to cultivate Buddha Mind, one begins by naming that which is hidden. “Turn around the light to shine within,” * says the ancient text. To shine the light of awareness, to tell the truth of how life is not conforming to our hopes and dreams and find the courage to name it: In “To Walk Invisible,” this truth-telling is the tension-filled opening story line of the two-hour drama.

The impetus to open doors arises primarily from the sisters’ consternation with Bramwell’s drinking and his inability to hold a job. Bramwell drinks to escape from the pressure of his role in the family. A heavy mantle of the successful artist has been placed on his shoulders. The expectations have cultivated in him the pride and prestige of a Victorian gentleman. His failure to live up to this expectation brings a shame he cannot bear to face. He turns increasingly to debilitating drinking, all the while insisting he remains on the road to success. He self-medicates and blames others in order to bear the pressures of this delusion.

Addiction to work and to intellectual prowess have kept my disenchantment with my life from overtaking the drive to keep going, to not give up on the grand plan ordained and blessed by family, friends and culture. Like Bramwell’s Victorian way of life, my energy of disappointment with and resistance to a 21st century lifestyle lies buried beneath the deliciousness of the pride I take in being a smart and successful modern woman.

Also, like Bramwell, I have taken comfort in blaming any number of others for the suffering I feel: parents, family, spouse, the social system, my culture of origin. But mostly I blame myself. My struggle with pride and shame is reflected in the portrayal of Bramwell, who is pridefully angry at his family and so privately ashamed of his failures that he is unable to take responsibility for his plight. It is humbling to see myself reflected in Bramwell’s resentment toward others, combined with aggression turned inward. It is revealing to me that it is his own pride and shame that keep Bramwell from moving out of the system that holds him.

Feeling forced by others is a potent form of impotence. Zen teaches me to see the pride in the blaming, to see the damage it has done, and to let it go, without substituting shame in its wake. I am learning to recognize that I am neither a God or a demon, neither enviable or pitiable, neither a victim nor a perpetrator, but able and willing, with the help of so many forces in the universe who proclaim the Truth, to follow a path of the teachings.

The sisters see that they have escaped the most dangerous intensities of pride and shame because they are considered nobodies within their social structures. Such a paradoxical gift it was to them, to be nobody! The humility of “nobody” takes dedicated practice to realize when one begins from the inner perception of a “successful” life. Buddhist training includes regular examination of all the ways a student intoxicates herself and the further instruction to drop these poisonous barriers to Buddha Mind.

In my practice I am facing how I intoxicate with the deliciousness of constant thinking, planning, figuring things out, of being the one who knows. As I let these thought patterns go, it becomes more apparent that striving for intoxicating intellectual dominance has kept pride and shame running, kept me bound to a mental-emotional, familial and social system that hides a deeper truth.

To see the Brontë sisters’ capacity to abandon social conformity is an inspiration. They are not captive to the successes they claim as members of the culture because there were few rewards and benefits for single women like themselves. This gives them freedom. Relinquishment of my pride and “status” is my ticket to great freedom as well.

The Brontë sisters further empower themselves by their refusal to blame Bramwell for their plight. Despite their fury at him for lying, cheating, fighting and stealing his way through his descent into alcoholism, they know that Bramwell has been under tremendous pressure to be what his family needed him to be. They see what it has cost him to live with the expectations of his family to which he was so ill-suited. “I’m so glad I’m not HIM,” Emily declares, speaking with empathy of the multiple pressures to succeed he has had to contend with. Their compassion carries all three sisters through the scourge of the alcoholic disease as it progresses in their beloved brother. Throughout their own changing relationship to power, success and creativity, the three sisters take care of their failing sibling, protect him from knowing too much of their mounting artistic successes and tenderly respond to his immediate needs when he is at his most undone by the disease.

The Brontë’s compassion helps me to relinquish blaming myself for my addictions and shaming myself for my failure to better manage the pressures to conform. Watching the sisters, moment by moment as they move from trying to save Bramwell to simply caring for him opened me to the possibility of forgiveness for my perceived inadequacies. It is a relief when I can forgive myself, and in the forgiving to open to failure as a good teacher. My instinct to feel shame about my strategies for coping with a system that I could not bear is further unraveled when I see that Bramwell’s suffering is the impetus that drives the sisters out of their delusional family identities, even while their brother cannot bear to open this door. I appreciate that the pain of too much delicious and poisonous thinking, too much dependence on knowing-it-all made for enough suffering that I could begin to let it go. And in the letting go, I see the larger system of false beliefs and values that drove me to intoxicate.

As they share their pain and their inspirations with each other, the sisters argue and resist each other’s ideas as much as they take comfort in their sharing. They are terrified of the unraveling family fabric and what it means for them. It takes strength to name out loud the failures of a system we always counted on to hold us, create meaning for us. The Brontë women are my wise older sisters, showing me the Way with their courageous and determined relinquishment of old ways of being. Yet their courage is not without uncertainty and trepidation. They are deeply hesitant to risk what Charlotte is the first to name out loud: That their writing, which all four siblings have together practiced since childhood, is the sisters’ ticket out of poverty.

There are many threads to be unwound as the conversation between the sisters takes shape. Charlotte confesses to Anne the escape from their personal misery that her writing has afforded her, an escape into fantasy and lore. Together the two sisters acknowledge that to feel most alive in their writing they must turn away from fantasy, the subjects of the stories they wrote as children, to writing the truth of women’s lives. My own writing as spiritual practice has often reflected the fantasy of I Know, I Am Somebody, I Have the Answers. Seeing these fantasies in my writing, I am shown where blindness to childhood ways continues to hold sway. Here too the Brontë sisters inspire me to keep going, to keep seeking a way to write that is fresh, alive, that tells the truth of this path, this world beyond the visible, the understood.

But the risk of failure is great. Emily names the fear they all feel of exposure to ridicule for daring to imagine that their writing could be published, and would sell. Women in Victorian England were rarely published, and when women’s writing was brought to print, its authors were subject to the ridicule and hostility of Victorian men. The tension around how to move forward becomes the subject of the sister’s first three-way truth-telling. It is an explosion into open fury, kindled when Charlotte steals into Emily’s room to read the poetry she has written and hidden away. Emily is livid, strikes out at her older sister, disgusted with her actions and her grand publishing schemes. Charlotte is unrepentant. Emily’s poetry has taken her breath away. As Charlotte steals her first reading of her sister’s work, we the audience hear the exquisite poetry as a voice-over while we watch Emily walking the twisted paths and steep hills of the moors outside of the town, far from the constricted world of her home life. We see her as a part of the wide, open world through which she moves, stretching to where earth meets the sky. We breathe more deeply to see her here, sensing the freedom that is coming for the sisters.

Anne is the careful, thoughtful middle sister, brokering between her two headstrong older siblings a continued openness to what is unfolding. She quietly finds a way to keep naming the truth of writing’s power to bring great joy and aliveness into their difficult lives. Eventually all three are captivated by the creative energy they experience in the act of writing of the human experience. They begin to let the aliveness of it propel them forward, now sharing as three the nourishment, the truth they find in writing, the possibility of using their stories and poems as a means of having power in the world.

Turning the light within, opening long-closed doors to reveal the darkness and pain there and the instability it can create, the explosions that can result, this is the muck of life that holds gold within it. As the sisters tentative sharing eventually leads them to shaping their new reality, so too the consistent practice with naming and studying all the various manifestations of one’s desire and aversion allows a Zen student to drop the delusions, letting go over and over of all the goods and bads, the failures and successes she holds to so tightly so that a third possibility can emerge.

Letting go, so unbearable at times, becomes easier to trust as one tastes the freshness of life out beyond the tired painful dualities of old habits of mind. For the Brontë sisters, this spacious brightness is first revealed in Emily’s poetry. Her compositions, uncovered by Charlotte, are the force that propels the three women to write secretly, invisibly, and then to publish a small volume under an assumed (man’s) name.

On a spiritual path, the work too is in secret, invisible and driven by deep love for the possibility of finding that which is true, that which is not accessible within the realm of family and social values. The sisters “walk invisible” so that their creative energies can be protected from probing, judging, doubting minds. Minds that still cling to the old ways, the mind that remains within them and outside of them, the mind that insists they stay put in the known. They are beginning to see something that is all around them, but visible only to them. They are charting a new course, telling a new story. These are possibilities one must relinquish the material world in order to see, just as the Brontë sisters had to relinquish the Victorian social order and their dependent roles in a family system in order to write in a completely new way about changing women’s lives.

As the story draws to a close, the three sisters finally share with their heart-sick father, whose son they all now openly acknowledge will not be who they hoped, that they are the true authors of published and widely heralded novels. Written under pseudonyms, Emily has authored Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Jane Eyre and Anne Agnes Grey. All three novels, but especially Jane Eyre are already immensely popular. The books occupy a central shelf in the Brontë home, yet the sisters have remained anonymous until this moment in the film. Their disclosure is compelled by their wish that their father know they have been transformed under his nose, they have become three people who he does not know and could not have imagined. It is a tender moment, a moment of great tribute to walking invisible.

In the end, what mattered to these, my older sisters, was that they found a way to write, found words that no one before them had found, to speak a truth no one before them had spoken, of the world in which they lived. The successes of their novels bespeak of readers hungry for these words, hungry for that which they, too, were on the cusp of knowing but didn’t know how to say. And after all the publishing and accolades and re-printings, the sisters were still “nobody.” They navigated the stormy waters of their Victorian world without resentment and reached the other shore, without celebration. And kept walking.

Humming Bird

Lao Huo Shakya

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*Accessed 10/13/2019 from