Category Archives: Zen

A Sesshin of Sickness

In the Zen tradition that I practice, the term for an intensive meditation retreat is sesshin (a Japanese term meaning something like gathering or touching the heart-mind). Typically lasting anywhere from a single day or weekend to a full week, sesshins feature multiple sessions of sitting, interspersed with walking meditation and work, meant to open a space for extended, concentrated mindfulness. While I’ve only attended a couple sesshins so far, I can attest to their value in supplementing daily meditation and helping one dig deeply into the experience of being really present.

The past couple weeks, in the midst of my worst illness in at least a couple years, it occurred to me that I might be experiencing a rather different sort of sesshin.

With all respect, I submit that it’s not unduly flippant or facetious to call lying on my back for hours, drifting in and out of sleep and eating very little, a sesshin. Granted, I wasn’t exactly in a meditative state much of the time: the first day or two I was too sick even to do my regular half-hour of solitary sitting. But we’re always talking in Zen about extending our practice to all of life, and likening a debilitating illness to the noble effort to attain enlightenment seems very consistent with the irreverent, humbling humor so typical of Zen.

Basically I had a lot of time on my hands, and so I thought, why not use this opportunity that’s been presented? Why not turn this into something of a lying-down practice, letting my thoughts pass without pursuing them, being attentive to the various physical sensations and sounds that arise? Practice does merge with life, if you just keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. It’s all about knowing when to push and stretch, and when to let go; going with the flow, but with mindfulness and discipline. (And meditation is a stretch: How long can you sit still? How many aches or itches can you sit through without squirming or scratching?)

Actually, sickness sesshin seems considerably harder than the real thing. Continue reading

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Needles in Haystacks

why read a poem
when I can read the sunrise
on the western hills?


It’s been years since I first saw a series of Monet’s haystack paintings at the Art Institute in Chicago. Even then I was struck by the concept (and, of course, the effect) of a few dozen renderings of the same basic subject from various perspectives at various times of day and year.

The repetition and the variations in these paintings, both subtle and great, are tremendous. And I knew this back in the day, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until very recently.

Whenever my schedule permits I wake up around dawn and meditate for half an hour just as soon as I can get myself out of bed. (A couple years ago I blogged about meditating during sunrise.) Afterwards I sit in a comfy chair facing the Rocky Mountain foothills off to the west, accompanied by a cup of decaf, my journal, and a book or two.

As the sun emerges over the horizon behind me—when I can remember to look up from the pages of my book or journal, that is—I’m able to follow the gradual and rapid transition from night to day, as the light plays on distant hills emerging into visibility out of a deep, deep blue. Repeatedly I’m stunned not simply by this everyday beauty, but in particular by how quickly and seamlessly each of the myriad variations merges into the next. Blink, and the scene is changed utterly.

Finally, a few mornings ago, the thought struck me: Why read poetry when I can read the sunrise? I remembered Monet, and over the past couple mornings I dashed outside multiple times to photograph the play of sunrise on the foothills and the sky above them. Years after first visiting the Art Institute, I think I finally get it. Like those haystacks, these hills are pure Zen: they’re observation and awareness, a reflection of essential flux, transience, and interrelatedness. The totality of what we see and experience in any given moment is impossible to capture in words or paint (or pixels), and it’s ridiculous to try—but as human beings, how can we not make the attempt? How can we not be seized by these intimations of interconnection?

In Buddhism you’ll regularly find admonitions against mistaking a finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself, or mistaking a menu for actual food. And thus it is with profound gratitude that I thank the sun and these foothills—and all the many people who have brought me to this point—for being such incomparable teachers, such faithful reminders of what is there to be learned.


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A Path of One’s Own

When the Zen master asks, “Can I show you the path?” the proper answer, I imagine, falls somewhere between “yes,” “please,” and “thank you!”

A couple months ago, asked by the head teacher at the Austin Zen Center “Can I show you that path thing?” my response was, “Show me the path?? That’s why I came here!”

10494782_10152226960196375_2005261248082056250_nMy path this past summer involved a two-month trip to Texas, Missouri, and Nebraska, the majority of which I spent in Austin. The centerpiece of this sojourn was a residential period at the Austin Zen Center, the home of my first consistent, shared Zen practice, the place where reading, dabbling, and solitary meditation found fertile ground in ritual and community. Separated from that community the previous year, I wanted a chunk of immersion, a chance to recharge the batteries of my practice and reconnect with friends.

While five weeks of near-daily sitting were marvelous, the ten days I spent living at the center were particularly refreshing and invigorating. In addition to multiplying my daily meditation sessions, I spent a lot more time in work practice. As you may know, Zen centers supplement sitting and walking meditation with periods during which one applies mindfulness to the mundane, daily tasks of cleaning and maintaining the place. The idea is that one should bring the same concentration and close attention to cleaning a toilet, say, as to something lofty, like inner peace or enlightenment.

In keeping with the intensive, retreat-like dynamic of residential practice, these work periods ran an hour and a half each day. And thus it was that I found myself staring at a corner of the extensive grounds, with the head teacher showing me a corner of the walking meditation path.45826_10152226960201375_3311407010384508718_n Essentially, he wanted me to construct a bypass, to round off a corner so that the path didn’t come quite so close to the street. “I’d say take it from around here,” he said, as I followed his finger, “to somewhere over there. And maybe put a curve in the middle.”

That was it for instructions. At no time did he ask if I had any experience constructing a walking trail (I didn’t), or if I had even the slightest idea what I was doing (ditto).

It was at this point that a curious thing happened Continue reading

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Repetitive Repentance

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

All pray in silence.

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins
through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all
goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in
eternal life. Amen.

You know those mental snapshots of childhood, when for some reason your memory captures a moment in stunning clarity? A few of mine occurred in church—not surprising, given how much time I spent there growing up. One such image was sparked by confusion and frustration over the Prayer of Confession.

The emotional anchor for this particular snapshot was the repetitiveness of this ritual. While there were a few variations, the theme of the Confession remained remarkably constant: Dear God, we messed up. Again. We promise—again—that we’ll do better next time. The same apologies, the same promises. Again and again and again.

With the simplistic logic of childhood, I wondered: Why do we keep apologizing to God? Why don’t we just stop doing whatever it is we’re doing wrong, or at least stop repeating the same old lines? Are we even trying? Do we think God’s an overindulgent or absent-minded father figure who won’t be upset that we’re just feeding him the same old pseudo-apology? “Father figure” indeed: even as a kid, I knew I couldn’t get away with that sort of thing with my earthly parents.

Imagine my surprise, then, many years later, at discovering the following chant of repentance at the Austin Zen Center:

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Borne through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

Granted, this is typically chanted only once per month, at a special service. And I do prefer the straightforwardness of not apologizing to a particular being, asking his forgiveness for the sake of his son, our friend. Still, “body, speech and mind” sounds an awful lot like “thought, word, and deed.” So here we are once more, trapped in an endless, predictable cycle of messing up, taking responsibility even while knowing that we will soon mess up again.

However, the more I study Zen the more I’m coming to appreciate the nuances of repentance. Continue reading


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Zen and the Art of Sudbury Schooling

Watermelons and Zen students
grow pretty much the same way.
Long periods of sitting till they ripen and grow
all juicy inside, but
when you knock them on the head
to see if they’re ready—
sounds like nothing’s going on.

~ Peter Levitt, One Hundred Butterflies

If you know anything about Zen Buddhism and Sudbury schooling, you might be perplexed by my assertion that there’s considerable overlap or parallels between the two.  After all, Zen is known for the utter stillness of meditation, while Sudbury schools are typically bursting with exuberant activity (though contemplation does have a central place as well). Yet I remain convinced, after years of experience in each of these environments, that they are connected in substantive, significant ways; it’s no coincidence I find myself drawn to both.

Before going further, let me be clear that I don’t intend to exaggerate these connections. I am not attempting to spiritualize Sudbury, nor can I claim to be an authoritative voice on Zen. Rather, I offer a practitioner’s observation that both Sudbury schooling and Zen Buddhism represent paradoxical, yet intuitive, perspectives on how to access a deeper, more authentic way of being. For convenience sake, I’ve grouped my reflections into four categories:

  1. Doing Nothing
  2. Beginner’s Mind
  3. Not Therapy, but Therapeutic
  4. Individuals in Community

Continue reading


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Beyond Belief

While one year of divinity school hardly makes me a religious scholar, it seems safe to say belief plays a key role in religion. After all, the centerpiece of the Catholic mass is the Credo, a Latin term meaning “I believe.” Similarly, the Protestant tradition in which I was raised features regular recitations of the Apostles’ Creed (Credo, Creed), which also begins “I believe.” The beliefs laid out in these texts are manifold and, at least occasionally, have been deemed worthy of literal fighting.

Despite such esteemed formulations, however, beliefs are not so easily pinned down. In fact, they tend to evolve: I know mine did, although I’m remain unsure how this process works, whether and to what extent we can affect or shape our beliefs. In a recent post, I wrote the following:

I don’t think we can choose what we believe, or love, or want. At this point in my life, I most certainly cannot decide that I am going to adopt conventional beliefs regarding education or religion. Even if I wanted to, I cannot force myself to perceive reality through lenses which no longer make sense to me, even when this poses difficulties.

For me, one of the distinguishing features of Zen, part of its initial and abiding appeal, is the way it doesn’t seem to get very hung up on the subject of belief. To paraphrase one of my teachers, “you don’t have to believe this stuff for it to work.” Countless stories warn of the dangers of excessive belief, cautioning students not to hold the practice so closely that the life slips out of it.

Rather, Zen is both open and pragmatic. While there’s plenty of talk about such things as karma and reincarnation, the emphasis lies squarely on finding what’s useful in reducing suffering and increasing compassion. So it’s not as though what we believe doesn’t matter: in fact, waking up to reality is a process which belief can facilitate—to a point. Continue reading


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Over Thinking

 You overanalyze everything.

This is from an email a friend recently sent me, but frankly, it could be attributed to any number of  friends from pretty much any period of my life. Hi, my name is Bruce, and I’m a thinker. This habit of overanalyzing leaves me prone to indecision as well.

Here’s the thing, though: I’ve built a career on thinking. Teaching and writing, as well as promoting Sudbury schools, have for years required constant cultivation of my ability to craft and convey messages—all the more so when the message is complicated and/or foreign to the recipient’s experience. Over the years, my Sudbury work has frequently thrown me into novel situations with demands well outside my comfort zone.

Source: Destination Hollywood

While I relish such challenges, I do recognize the limits of an analytical point of view—but that growth was a long time in coming. When Star Wars: Episode I came out fifteen years ago, I distinctly recall my aversion to Qui-Gon’s advice to Anakin prior to the big pod race: “Feel, don’t think. Trust your instincts.” Put feeling first? What was that Jedi master thinking?

In searching for that quote, I also discovered this exchange between Obi-Wan Kenobi and his master:

Obi-Wan: But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.
Qui-Gon: But not at the expense of the moment.

It may be cliché, campy, or otherwise questionable to uphold Star Wars as a source of spiritual wisdom, but interestingly, in recent years I have found my way to a much older tradition. Continue reading

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