Challenge #5: Seen and Heard, A Continual Transmission

We speak of the path as being transmitted from teacher to student. But the universe transmits to us in many ways, nudges us through lovers, stumbles, laughter, sunflowers. What comes from that nudge may be an insight that makes us laugh or turns our life upside down. Share how the universe has nudged you. What was the spark? And what did it help you see?

Do the Work
(Sarah Webb)

Some years ago, when I was first beginning to study Zen, I used to practice at a center in Portland, Oregon. I soon learned the teacher of that lineage was not to be my teacher. For one thing, she would only accept students who came to live at the monastery, and my husband was not interested in Zen. For another, she was not pleased with the existence of our Center and only visited it every couple of years. The students in it were welcome to visit the monastery, however; and I went down to California twice for sesshins.

The teacher was British and of High Anglican origin, and chanting was important in the practice. One time a priest who had come to teach us in Portland complained about the prosaic, ragged quality of our chanting. When I first attended sesshin at the monastery, I learned why he might make that comment. The chants at the monastery were like a fine choir with voices taking different parts--like Gregorian chant, someone told me. I wasn’t familiar enough with music to make that connection myself, but I responded to the sound. It was a big monastery, and the many voices seemed like ocean water, rushing and ebbing, soaring and falling. I don’t remember the words of those chants, whether they were similar to ones I heard later, except for one line, which comes to me sometimes when I sit: “Do the work within my heart.”

That phrase helps me step back when I’ve tied myself in a knot trying to do the work from the outside, trying to control it, to master my recalcitrant self. Ah, I think, I am not doing this work. I just need to let it happen.

The meaning of the phrase has changed a bit for me over the years. At first, with my Christian background, I thought of a spirit like the Holy Ghost, later something more nebulous but still an essence of a kind, the same voice that would speak my poems to me. Now I hold back from thinking of a being or a form. Who am I addressing? I wonder. Not a Buddha, not the Patriarchs, or even an inner guru, but more a growing. I grow like a tree, not by willing myself to grow but just naturally by manifesting roots and leaves--or in my case, body and mind. All I need to do is soften to it. And maybe not even that.

The Guardian
(Matthew Squires)

I am my only guardian.
All else will surely pass away
And shift and rearrange. It looks the same,
But everything has changed,
Its form like a thunderstorm
You could hide away or you could simply get
Washed out.
I think I’m getting washed out
Of that place where my mind would race,
Where my head would shake
When asked if I was real
Or a lie. It seems that I
Was trying too hard to become someone else.
I thought I was myself
How silly I had felt.
Being someone else
And now, if I may misquote Robert Frost:
If you want to get over something,
Then you've got to want to go through it.

Hear the song:

Morning Meditation
(Bruce Smith)

muted thunder of
stomachs in the zendo,
a steady rain outside

Originally posted at

Fukudo, Zafus, and Shadows (Oh, My)
(Bruce Smith)

Great is the matter of birth and death.
All is impermanent, quickly passing.
Awake! Awake! Each one.
Don’t waste this life.
Three days a week, I get up at 5:30am. Voluntarily.

The Austin Zen Center has ten regular programs each week, five of which begin at 6am. I’m not a morning person by nature, but given my choir schedule and the fact that I live barely two blocks from AZC, I’ve gotten into the habit of attending the morning sessions on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays.

Actually, I rather enjoy walking down the street in those pre-dawn moments. If the sky is clear, the moon and stars are quite visible. On those mornings, I always check to see where Orion is while treading as mindfully as possible down the pavement. It’s like being up in the middle of the night—a stolen moment while the rest of the world sleeps—only I’m relatively refreshed after seven or eight hours in bed.

On Mondays I serve as fukudo, which primarily involves striking the han with a wooden mallet. The loud, percussive blows I give this thick square of wood follow a set pattern, alerting all in the vicinity of the approaching start of zazen, or sitting meditation. The quote at the head of this post is written on the han itself, and speaks to the symbolic function of this ritual: to remind us of the transience of this life by calling to mind (or so I was told) the knocking of death on our hearts.

However, my intention with this post is less to take you through an AZC morning program than to relate two observations that came to me last Friday, during and after sitting. For context, it may help to envision the zendo, or meditation hall, as a spacious, rectangular room with zafus (cushions) on zabutons (mats) in a perimeter lining the walls. During zazen, practitioners sit on these zafus and face the wall (or outward, if the zabuton they occupy sits in the middle of the room).

While zafus share a common, rounded shape, they exhibit a surprising range of firmness and thickness, depending in part on whether they’re filled with plant fibers or buckwheat hulls. There are very few reserved spots in the zendo and so, upon entering, one must decide where to sit. I try not to put too much thought into this, but must confess that many times, I try to quickly assess which zafu is most likely to support my back and legs during the long periods of sitting.

The first of my twin epiphanies came during Friday’s second period of zazen. To preface this, I must add that the uniqueness of each moment becomes tangible when practicing zazen, as you always sit on a different zafu, with different people (and numbers of people) present. Sometimes the zendo is packed; sometimes there’s space on either side of your zabuton. If it’s morning, the sun will gradually rise during the program; this time of year, the sun sets during the evening session. At any given program the way you feel, whether your stomach is empty or full, your legs or back sore, your throat dry (or not), all varies. Even the walls are not as uniform or featureless as you might suspect, with bits of moulding, ventilation grates, and other marks distinguishing each blank vista.

Anyway, last Friday I was sitting in such a position that the angles of candlelight projected two silhouettes of myself on the wall before me. Yes, I thought: projections. Here I am, reminded that not only does the reality we conceive consist of projections, thin, flickering shadows: even in meditation, I can’t isolate a single projection of myself. (Of course, these thoughts didn’t arise in this exact narrative, or even in narrative form. What one does during zazen varies, depending on a variety of factors, but generally the idea is to observe the thoughts that arise and depart, rather than attempt to stop thinking altogether.)

My other mini-epiphany occurred during the period of soji, or temple cleaning, that concludes the morning program. On Friday, my task was to brush the zabutons and firm up the zafus. Working my way around the zendo, zafu by zafu, it struck me: there must be as much variation in the shapes and consistencies of these cushions as there are in the practitioners who sit on them, including each person’s mutability from one moment to the next. Again, it’s not really the point or purpose of soji, to gain insight: as with the overall practice, it’s rather about cultivating mindfulness in each moment, not learning any specific lesson.

Seeing multiple silhouettes or comparing zafus to people may not be the most profound of observations, but in my limited experience of Zen practice, this is something I enjoy: sensing connections, parallels, or overtones where previously none had been noticed. It’s one thing to read about being in the moment, and another—much more gratifying and centering—to actually experience it, however shallow or fleetingly.

Gassho, everyone.

(p.s. I actually had a third Zen moment while writing this post. Seconds before I was to click the “Publish” button, a rogue keystroke combination wiped out nearly an hour’s typing—like a 21st-century sand mandala, another unwanted reminder of transience. Ah, well: as they say, every moment is practice…)

Originally posted at

Fukudo, Zafus, and Shadows (Oh, My)
(Bruce Smith)

(Quandra T. McGrue)

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.—Thich Nhat Hanh
I have practiced meditation and mindfulness since 2005. Not too long ago, I had an amazing experience with one of my students that deeply impacted my relationship to mindfulness. I usually have a particular practice for the day. The purpose of the practice is to keep me present. If I'm present, then I'm not wasting precious energy regretting the past or manipulating the future. My practices have included the following: reciting poems at the sound of a timer throughout the day, counting the number of times I do something kind for myself, setting good intentions towards others at various points, and whatever other random thing I think to do.

One week, I set the intention of seeing the nobility in others. I got this idea from Jack Kornfield. I interact with difficult personalities every day, and I wanted to redirect my focus. I set the intention to remember there's something admirable in everyone. At one point that week, I made a playful comment to my students. They laughed (as usual), but I noticed a particular student shift in his seat. Something about the way he shifted revealed an important insight. He was self-conscious. Underneath his tough exterior, he was painfully self-conscious.

This insight didn't come from a conversation, book, or student file. This insight was a direct result of my mindfulness practice. From that moment on, I treated that student with the understanding that he was much more fragile than he appeared. I didn't consciously change my communication with him. I never told him what insight I gained. I simply held this insight in mind during our interactions. All of the tension and resistance I felt from him immediately dissolved. I never had another problem with this student. To this day, when I ask for volunteers, for example, he's one of the first to raise his hand (not at all his prior custom).

This experience taught me a very important lesson: the insight I need rests quietly in my present experience. Whenever I doubt my practice, I think of this one experience. It had a profound impact on my appreciation for mindfulness.

(Kim, Emma, & Bruce)

Kim: Today we were talking about entering the stream, and I realized (suddenly) that the stream is where we are. Even those who imagine themselves to be looking onto the stream are actually in the stream. In fact, maybe there is nothing but the stream. I wasn't able to say anything about this in the discussion group I was in. It wasn't my turn to talk. But as others spoke about being in or out of the stream it became clearer and clearer that believing that we aren't “in life” is like people in universities believing that they are in an Ivory Tower. It all happens wherever you are, whether you like it or not.

Bruce:  When you guys mentioned the “eureka” theme, my mind immediately went to an unlikely epiphany I experienced while cleaning my cat's litter box. I'd recently returned home after tending to the ash and incense containers from various AZC altars, when something about the quiet, everyday task of scooping cat waste hit me like a flash. I'm hesitant to articulate exactly what happened, because this seems beneath or behind (or before) the realm of conscious thought. Still, some kind of correspondence between cleaning a sacred altar and sifting through cat litter became suddenly and powerfully apparent. Both activities call for focus and attention on the task at hand. And besides, doesn't Buddhism caution against discriminating between the sacred and the profane (and does it get much more profane than cat excrement)? For me, this incident offers a lesson about being fully present and practicing in every moment, and it suggests that awakening is more random than rational.

Emma: Have you two ever noticed how those moments of awakening, of opening, often have this tender quality to them? For me, they arise with such softness and compassion. Yes, Bruce, I agree that they aren't rational. I never have these kinds of realizations after thinking and thinking and thinking. I wonder about their randomness. They seem random. But I wonder. Perhaps we always plant the seed for them. We sit, we listen, we stay open (or at least try), and when the time is right, when we are ready to see, the realization comes, as if from nowhere.

I love how related your realizations are—that we're always on the path ("in the stream"), whether we're being chiden or cleaning up after the cat, that's it's all life, beautiful, terrible, extraordinary, ordinary life. My favorite awakenings are the ones that humble me, sometimes so much so that I'm dumbstruck. They happen when I’ve been rigid, strongly convinced I am right about something or better than or apart from. Out of this contracted, lonely way of being, I’m shown my place in the order of things, my absolute value in messy humanity.

Kim: I got into my car the other day and felt something crawling on the back of my neck. I brushed it off. “Wow. That was big,” I thought. I turned on my interior lights, but couldn't see anything, so I went on my way. Then today I started to get in my car and a rather giant spider had built a web in the front passenger seat. The foreboding creature was in the middle of the web, waiting for me. At first I thought I'd vacuum him to oblivion, but then I felt a little compassion for the scary beast and thought I'd use a broom to move him outside. Then I started to imagine that he'd jump off the broom back into the recesses of my car and kill me at some indiscreet moment. (Is there ever a discreet moment to die?)

So I vacuumed up the spider and his web. (Was it a he or she? I don't know) Then I opened up the shop vac and saw the poor little dead spider huddled along the bottom edge of the tank. He went from being a beautiful gold color to a very dark brown, after being covered with dust.

I went on my way, rushing to the Zen center to sit. Rushing to sit is always a fun contradiction. Next thing I knew, a car failed to stop at a stop sign and was a few inches from the side of my car. I saw time freeze as I made a sudden swerve and survived the near hit. “Ah ha!” I thought. “Payback for murdering the spider.”

I told my wife my theory about the near accident. “But you weren't in an accident. How is that payback?”

“I was given a pass. This time.”

Bruce: It's very interesting that you describe a near-hit, Kim, because I was just thinking about something I once heard on a Zen podcast. This person observed that enlightenment is accidental in the sense of striking us unexpectedly, when we're not looking. Yet while we can't aim for awakening, exactly, what we can do is make ourselves more "accident-prone" through regular, mindful practice. Also, I have to say that "rushing to sit" reminds me of the expression "hurry up and wait."

Emma, you remind me that my favorite poetry captures the miraculous in the mundane, the “extraordinary ordinary, ” as you put it. And you're probably right to suspect the randomness of these eureka moments. Maybe this is how we're able to redirect karma, by planting seeds. Still, in typical Zen fashion, it's not a direct process of creating Cause A in order to reap Benefit B: in that sense, “deliberate randomness” may be a reasonable way of framing it. Live mindfully, simultaneously cultivating skillful means and letting go, trusting that the moments of realization and opening will come.

Emma: Ooooohhh. I like “deliberate randomness,” Bruce. It reminds me of this drawing I've seen of a man fishing from a dock. Next to him is a basket. A fish from behind him is jumping out of the water into his basket. What a great image for deliberate randomness. We can set the stage (and fish our hearts out) and then let go of how, or even whether, the fish will actually come to us. Someone very dear to me once told me you can have everything you need if you're not attached to where it comes from. He said it during a time of many small and large awakenings for me, the beginning of my redirecting my attention from what I thought was going to make me happy (by force if necessary). Perhaps it was the death of my Bulldozer Nature, or at least my first notice that trying to force my life to be how I wanted not only wasn't working but was making me miserable.

My Zen practice is the first thing I've ever done where I've given myself permission to be gentle, to take it slow. Although I sometimes have the odd thought I'm not doing enough, or doing it “right,” (yesterday, I decided I wasn't reading enough), I feel I am being drawn to practice by a childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness. It is extraordinary to me that we come together to learn how to be present. It's an entirely different process unfolding. I like your story, Kim. How different to even ponder not killing the spider. That's what meditation reveals to us, right? The pauses, the awareness of the gap between urge and action. It gives us the time to notice that we have a choice whether we will respond or react.

Bruce: I can totally relate to Bulldozer Nature, as that was very much my M.O. for many years (not that I'm claiming to be totally beyond it now). Also, the gap between urge and action was exactly how I was describing the effects of meditation on myself to some friends about six months ago.

As for blending childlike sweetness and an adult desire for wholeheartedness, my experience suggests that children are sweet, yes, and authentic, but without desiring to be so, without having to think about it. They're also angry, impatient, and various other flavors of not-so-sweet: point is, they are whatever they are in any given moment, slipping into and out of mind/emotional states much more readily than most adults. So you know that statement attributed to Jesus about needing to be like little children in order to reach the kingdom of heaven? I think he was on to something with that.

Kim: A dog came up to me and sniffed my pant leg. Satisfied, he walked away. Did he smell the dog that I'd been with? Did he think, “Oh, he was around a dog that smelled like . . .” As I watched the sniffer, I was particularly interested in that point at which the sniff made sense. He was so abrupt at that certain point, as if saying, “Ah ha, I know who he's been with.” We move from being an input device to a central processing system. We think, “I have the data. Now I know.” That, for me, is “eureka.”

(Note: Bruce Smith's blog: Kim Mosley's blog: More posts like this: )

Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha
(Mike McCarty)

In this journey whatever happens to us is something that should happen. Life has a way of teaching us complete composure … if we listen.

A few weeks ago I was struck with a sudden illness, an overnight onset of severe arthritic pain, sometimes so severe that I couldn’t walk. I was anemic and lost twelve pounds in one week. Hospitalized, fear of the unknown began to invade my thoughts. The many blood samples given, scans and tests administered, along with the various specialists called in, they all became characters to some internal tragic drama concocted in my mind.

In this moment of weakness instead of turning from the illusion of all the drama swirling around me I turned to levity to mask my confusion. I said within myself, I will have comedy and not drama. I posted a photo on a popular social networking site of my torso arms extended crucified with IV’s in both arms. The responses from friends included many get wells and thinking of you, but one held a cure; not for the immediate wellness of my body, but for the wellness of my mind. It was from Kim (ever the teacher), and it simply stated: “Sun faced Buddha, Moon faced Buddha.”

The Sun-faced Buddha is supposed to live for one thousand eight hundred years. And the Moon-faced Buddha lives only one day and one night. And so, when I am sick, I am like the Moon-faced Buddha, and when I am healthy, I am like the Sun-faced Buddha. But neither the Sun-faced Buddha nor the Moon-faced Buddha has any special meaning because there is no difference; whether ill or healthy we must be disciplined enough to seek a calm body and mind experience, and be able to listen with enough concentration to experience insight into the nature of our existence.

This is my body; I embrace both it and the experience it brings. So, don't worry about my health … “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.”

Another Lesson
(Allee Blatner)

Another lesson around a litter box: A now and forever moment?

One of my joys in the teachings in Buddhism is how practical they are.
And on reflection, how profound.

I recently visited my son and his family who have two cats.
Arising after my grandsons had left for school, I noticed the uncleaned litter box.
The night before, I listened as the two boys negotiated who would clean the litter box and who would feed the cats. The one who promised to clean the box before school ... forgot.

As I looked at the litter box, the teaching-by-a-rule-book part of me thought, 
“He will really learn a lesson when he gets home this afternoon.”
However at the same moment, my heart viewed the situation and comprehended the reality, “The cats have no clean place to deposit their waste during the day.”
I automatically scooped out the box and replaced it with clean litter.

Later when my son noticed and thanked me, I stopped to reflect on my action.
The simple truth of the situation had come with such ease and clarity.
All of this happened by “the viewer” shifting to my heart.
In meditation I practice “getting my head out of the way” and then
it happened naturally when I was faced with an ordinary decision.
The action of “no thought” seems simple and profound. 
I was the one who learned a lesson that day ...
perhaps about Buddha's teaching on compassion.