Helplessness as Practice

I recently saw two movies that reminded me of the value of spiritual practice and the importance of practicing immediacy in the midst of real concrete, true-to-life dilemmas. One movie, “The Descandants,” portrays George Clooney as the husband of a terminally ill wife on life-support. As he deals with business end of preparing for her eventual demise, he and his family learn of previously hidden aspects of her life which force each of them to confront deeply psychological and affect-laden issues which have ultimately to do with them, albeit triggered by an ostensibly random act (the accident that winds his wife in the hospital). The movie is about the them, not the deceased.

The other movie, “Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close,” portrays a young boy who tries to make sense of the sudden death of his father who dies during the terrorist attack on 9/11. Over a year after the catastrophe, we witness both the apparently unskillful (as well as occasionally seemingly brilliant) ways this young boy tries to make sense of this horrible tragedy.

Without analysing these plots– which I am sure can be explained on multiple levels– what struck me very viscerally were the portrayals of human beings in real situations for which no prefabricated answers, doctrine, or absolute value-system could possibly provide the answers. Both plots are, in fact, koan. Like the situation of the man hanging from a branch in one of the koans of the Gateless Gate,  these situations can only be directly experienced and lived rather than understood. I thought how often–and in either small ways or big–that this is the case as we live our lives from day to day. So many situations present us with double-binds, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” moments where the only plausible thing to do is to stay where you are, experience the not-known, and then act from there (As if one really could do anything else.). What struck me, also, was watching the gut-wrenching emotions and actions of those involved as they tried to deal with their predicaments.  However unskillful,  valiant, and even ludicrous the efforts of these characters were (After finding a key left in an envelope by his father, with the name “Black” written on it, the boy decides he will find everyone in New York whose name is “Black,” look them up, and eventually find the lock that the key will hold.), they were actions and behaviors that were perfectly understandable and appropriate in their given contexts, and they triggered real empathy and praise in those who observe and try to help them. The supporting actors (and by extension, the audience as well) become part of the spiritual trip as they seem to work their way through and into their own self-constructed world of Samsara. In the end, nothing is solved and life remains thoroughly open-ended. But the participants gain the only one “real” thing that matters to any concrete, living human being:  the compassion and love of those who try to help; those who stay in the game, as it were. In a poignant sense, this, I think, is the true bodhisattva path. I would think Dogen would wholeheartedly admire their methods, however delusional they may seem,  the way he does in the Shobogenzo when he seemingly inverts the usual teachings by saying, for example, that painted cakes can, in fact, satisfy hunger (That’s all you got sometimes!) and that rubbing a tile (the activity of rubbing or doing zazen) can make a mirror: Perhaps all honest and authentic activity is a form of mirror-making, doing something with whatever you’ve got, whatever life deals you.

So maybe these characters’ actions are, in fact, manifestations of the Buddha-dharma, regardless of however delusional they may appear. Dogen states many times that all dharmas are Buddha-dharma. He states in the Shobogenzo that, even among the novice, there is no separation between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana. As I become aware of my own practice, I’ve noticed that this realization of the emptiness of all activity and expressions has its own beauty and rightness, and this serves to engender compassion in everyone involved: both among those who act as well as those who seemingly just observe.  No one is left out in any given situation, which is always relational, whether this is perceived by the participants or not. As depicted in both of these movies, those who see this begin to mature and transform themselves, and always with the assistance of others who are also transformed in the process, a process that perhaps they, too, did not originally “sign up for.” What is beautiful and amazing is that all of this seems to occur spontaneously with letting go, leaving nothing to do or say except to invite the whole catastrophe in. What’s left is the ordinary magic of the moment, pregnant with possibility and love. Is there really anywhere else one can or choose to be?


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Occupy Wall Street

“Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing? We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help..”
by Thich Nhat Hanh

For many weeks I did not know what to think about Occupy Wall Street. There was little news about it and the protestors seemed to be of many voices. Gradually, however, it seems to be taking shape and a clearer message is emerging. The 99% of the population who are not being fairly taxed, who do not have good health care and who are struggling finding jobs and making ends meet are fed up. Most of us here are in that group and even if we differ on our political views, there is a certain unfairness that we can all recognize as the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer in the past 15 years. The business/government enmeshment is so complex that it is not clear me or to anyone what changes need to happen to straighten out our current system which is good for business and the very rich, but not so good for the middle class.

In the time of the Buddha things were not much better than they are today and although he rarely addressed political issues directly, there is a myth about his making a suggestion to a king who ruled a kingdom plagued by robbers. He suggested to the king that he “he should distribute grain and fodder to those who are engaged in cultivating crops and raising cattle; give capital to those in trade; and give proper living wages to those in government service. As a result of implementing these policies, the king was able to announce: “I have got rid of the plague of robbers; following your plan my revenue has grown, the land is tranquil and not beset by thieves, and the people with joy in their hearts play with their children and dwell in open houses.”’
In eschewing punishment for the robbers, but instead, feeding the hungry and redistributing the wealth of the kingdom, the king was able to eliminate crime, clearly a compassionate and original way of dealing with the problem.
The monk, Bodhipaksa, writes that “we no longer have a literal king, but the corporation is now our metaphorical monarch. The mechanisms of the Republic are now controlled, in large part, by the rich, and by the corporations that made them rich. More than half of congress-people are millionaires. It can cost literally tens of millions to run for Senate, and our incumbent president is likely to spend a billion dollars running for reelection. Where does this money come from? Much of it comes from corporations. You do not accept the money of the rich without making an implicit promise in return. That promise is, in effect, “I will represent your interests.” Our political system has become a subsidiary of Wall Street. We live in a metaphorical monarchy, and the corporation is king.”

He continues, “what it’s about: Our corporations, and the rich, own our political system. Nothing that protects ordinary people from the harm that unrestrained corporations can cause — whether it’s protecting people from pollution, ensuring a fair minimum wage, or even just making it easier for people to get access to health care — can go through Congress without enormous sums being spent on lobbying to prevent those benefits from coming about. Even a modest tax increase on the top 1% will be met with a tsunami of money sweeping over Congress. Politicians depend on money from corporations in order to run for office. If they displease the rich, they know that corporate money will be used in attack ads, which frequently twist the truth out of all recognition.
This situation leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness for most of it. Where do you even begin to change such a complex powerful and interconnected system. Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any president of either party before him. He was heavily in their debt. How can that debt not effect how and what he decides to do. As many have pointed out, no one has gone to jail this time over the many financial scandals that erupted in 2008.
So I am feeling like it’s time to join the protestors. The three tenets of the Peacemakers Order are: Not knowing, Bearing Witness and Loving Action. I do not know what to ask for nor do I know what others are asking for and with this Not Knowing mind I will step forth. I will Bear Witness to the protests of others, listening, watching and learning. I offer myself as a concerned party, too late for the vanguard, but still aware and awake that something important may be happening and that its something I care about.

“Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing? We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help…”

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Hurricane Tail

The rain has moved on,
the floods subsided,
now left with the hurricane tail,
I walk along a roadway
because when,
when will I have this chance again
to experience such a day,
of steel blue clouds
meandering across the whitened sky,
of late summer buds upon the leaves
caught by the lively wind.
For a moment I hesitated
at the doorway,
then saw some young boys
happy in the wind,
and saw that time passes,
and never returns,
babies are born,
the young grow old,
people prepare for a career
and then retire.
So I walk with the wind,
and the sky and the clouds,
this day,
this moment.

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Tribute to Charlotte Joko Beck 1917-2011

Charlotte Joko Beck, one of the great pioneers of American Zen died on June 15, 2011 at the age of 94. She passed peacefully with her family.

Joko began Zen practice at the age of 40. She described herself as having had a nice life before becoming involved with Zen, but something was missing. She was divorced, with four children and working at the University of San Diego as an adminstrative assistant and teaching piano. She describes meeting Maezuni Roshi where he greeted her by gazing directly into her eyes and making contact. She was immediately interested in who he was and she wanted whatever it was he had. Thus she began to practice and study with him.

After completing her studies with Maezumi, Joko broke with Maezumi and the White Plum Asangha lineage that he had founded. She felt the traditional training of koan studies did not adequately address all the psychological issues that needed to be addressed to be a Zen teacher. John Welwood, another Buddhist teacher also concerned about this omission, calls it the “spiritual bypass.” In her own teaching she worked directly with how students were leading their lives and instead of koan study or sometimes in addition to koans, directed their practice toward clarifying problems in their lives. She wanted them to see how much the self directed and misdirected their life. Unlike psychotherapy she did not reinforce the ego, but helped them discern how to let go of ego to find happiness and inner stability.

Although she had ordained and was a fully empowered Soto Zen priest, Joko also let go of the complex trappings of Soto Zen rituals that have always been a large part of Japanese Zen practice. She did not, to my knowledge, ordain priests although several of her successors were already priests ordained by Maezumi Roshi. The story is that she had a large and beautiful rock placed on the altar instead of a Buddha. She was primarily interested in the core issue of training minds and transforming students.

As one of the early women teachers, she became an important model for women students and younger women teachers. She worked, mothered and managed a committed Zen practice. Her Zen center was established in her own home thus further modeling the bringing of Zen practice into our everyday lives. Her signature teaching was “Nothing Special”, that our practice is just living our lives through waking up to what’s before us. Both her books, Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen emphasized this point. She established, with some of her senior students, the Ordinary Mind School of Zen, dedicated to teaching this fundamental approach.

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Emptiness and the world of quantum physics

“Form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form”

Although I have often struggled with the cryptic meaning of certain parts of the Heart Sutra, I always felt a connection to these lines, which invariably conjure up images of particles, waves, and the convoluted world of quantum physics.  This area of the “new physics” is fascinating because of its far-reaching implications, its potential to transform our perception and understanding of reality, and also its striking parallelism with Buddhist ideas, as well as with some other Eastern traditions that involve meditation.  It is actually very compelling to see how close today’s understanding of the universe comes to those ancient insights, so let’s dig into this further.

On a preliminary level, it is interesting to note that the atoms, which we often believe to be these compact bricks that make up our very solid appearing reality, are actually mostly empty  (actually 99.9% empty) since the nucleus of the atom is 100 000 times smaller than the atom and most of its mass is concentrated in the nucleus (the mass of the electron being negligible). The perception of solidity when we touch something actually comes from the repulsive interaction between the electrons of our skin and those of the object.

Also brought to mind is the particle/wave paradox (form/emptiness) according to which all particles exhibit both wave and particle properties. An electron would for example behave either as a wave or as a particle depending on the situation.  Actually, Bohr and Einstein saw this electron as the transient manifestation or local condensation of an underlying field (“the quantum field”). Basically the field can take the form of particles and according to Einstein “the field is the only reality”.

Another very important and related issue in this area of quantum physics is the idea that what is being observed is not independent of the observer, and as a matter of fact, whether we experience a particle or a wave depends on whether there is an observer. Bohr said “Isolated material particles are abstractions, their properties being definable and observable only through their interaction with other systems” and also that “Inseparable quantum connectedness of the whole universe is the fundamental reality”.  The universe is therefore not anymore seen as a collection of physical objects (form) but as an interwovenness of all its parts that includes the observer (emptiness).


This interconnectedness that seems to be such a characteristic of this more fundamental reality appears also in the experimentally verified Bell’s theorem (physicist John Stewart Bell), which postulates that when two independent particles are connected through what is called quantum entanglement, then the properties of these particles (such as spin) are correlated, independent of distance.  They are basically linked by instantaneous, non-local connections (meaning the connection does not occur via a signal), and this even if one particle is on Earth and the other on the other side of the galaxy, of which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”.

It is consequently derived that since all particles are continually interacting, then “the non-local aspects of quantum systems is therefore a general property of nature’ (Davis).  Essentially, the universe is understood to be an unbroken wholeness, fundamentally interconnected and interdependent.

These concepts of quantum wholeness as well as the lines of the sutra also profoundly bring to mind the far-reaching theories of David Bohm (a physicist at Princeton University) for whom there are two orders of reality: “the implicate order” (meaning enfolded and reminiscent of the “emptiness”), which is an even much deeper non-manifest and hidden level of reality, and the “explicate order” (meaning unfolded and reminiscent of  “form”) which corresponds to our own level of existence.  Bohm sees the implicate order as a dynamic phenomenon from which all forms of the material universe flow as a result of countless enfoldings and unfoldings between these two orders. For example, Bohm sees the electron not as a separate particle but as a totality that is enfolded throughout the whole space and of which we see one aspect. The movement of the electron would result then from a continuous series of enfoldments and unfoldments. Also termed the holomovement due to its dynamic quality, it sustains the particles and is the ground to which all these particles return when destroyed (they are enfolded back).  In this theory, there is a constant exchange between these two orders of reality, and systems that are separate in the explicate order are contained within each other in the implicate order. Bohm calls this apparent separateness of the different “things”, “relatively independent sub totalities”: they are part of an undivided whole but still possess unique characteristics. Again, we have emptiness and form and as the Heart Sutra says: “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form”.

For Buddhists and other eastern traditions, this emptiness (sometimes called the “Void” or the “Tao”) is also that interconnected reality which gives birth to forms, sustains them and reabsorbs them.  These two orders, the world of phenomena and the world of oneness, are deeply related as well: “ Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form”.

Is it really a wonder that by going deep within one’s consciousness or by going deep within the world of matter, one reaches almost the same understanding of the nature of reality?

Maybe not, since again according to Bohm, mind and matter are interdependent and correlated, both being projections of a higher reality (the emptiness), which is neither matter nor consciousness!

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Not Grasping/Universal Energy

Yesterday, when Joan Sensei spoke about the definition of happiness being satisfied with what one has, I knew I had heard this previously in another context. So, this morning, when I remembered that it was a Jewish teaching as well, I researched it and here are the results.
In Chapter 4 of “Pirkei Avot,” (Chapters of the Fathers), is the following:

4:1 Ben Zoma said, “Who is rich? One who is happy with what one has.”

Not grasping, not wanting more and more.

And the clincher is that according to tradition, one would have read Chapter 4, these very words, this past Saturday, the day before Joan’s Dharma talk.

Coincidence or Universal Energy at work?!

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Thoughts of Murder

I was watching tv news the other day about Libya before the US got involved and the thought entered my mind, “Someone should assassinate Quaddafi.” I was a little surprised at the violence of the thought. Could that be my thought? I like to think I don’t have such aggressive thoughts. But I got kind of curious about it. Was it an enlightened thought, full of compassion for the people of Libya who the government was shooting down, or was it a violent thought full of self righteousness of the “me good, you bad” variety. I really didn’t know. Was I breaking the first precept, “Do not kill; affirm life” with this thought? My intention was certainly malevolent, even if there were no action, and it is intention that determines the morality of an action.

How do I think about such a thought arising in my mind? On the one hand, whatever arises is the dharma and at the same time bad intentions create bad karma. Of course, I have the luxury to sit in not knowing and examine my own thinking because I am not in Libya and have no means of assassinating Quaddafi. There is no self interest in my thought. I would not benefit personally in any way. Yet it is very tricky imagining I know what is best for other people, other countries.

I decided to do some research as I remembered  that the Buddha justified some murders under the right circumstances. In a collection of essays called Evolution of the Precepts, prepared by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, I found the following:

“In Yogacarya-Bhumi-Shastra attributed to Maitreya, we find the following passage (Taisho 1501, p. 1112):
Those Bodhisattvas who observe the pure Bodhisattva precepts well may, as a skillful means to benefit others, commit some major misdeeds. In doing so, they do not violate the Bodhisattva precepts; instead, they generate many merits.
For example, suppose a Bodhisattva sees that a vicious robber intends to kill many people for the sake of wealth; or intends to harm virtuous Shravakas, Pratyekabuddhas, or Bodhisattvas; or intends to do other things that will cause him to fall to the Uninterrupted Hell. When seeing this, the Bodhisattva will think, “If I kill that person, I will fall to the hells; if I do not kill him, he will commit crimes which will lead him to the Uninterrupted Hell, where he will suffer greatly. I would rather kill him and fall to the hells myself than let him undergo great suffering in the Uninterrupted Hell.”
Then, deeply regretting the necessity for this action, and with a heart full of compassion, he will kill that person. In doing this, he does not violate the Bodhisattva precepts; instead, he generates many merits.”

I see clearly in reading this quote that my compassion was for those Quaddafi is murdering and not for him. And thus my thought of wishing to see him stopped by murdering him is not one of compassion, but of hatred, a transgression of the worst kind. In Buddhism, the ends do not justify the means. Back to the cushion!

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The following is a letter from Anne Thomas, currently living in Japan. Other essays she has written about being in Sendai, Japan post disaster are printed in Ode Magazine, an online publication which can be found at

Sent: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:51 PM
Subject: Letter from Japan

Hello My Lovely Family and Friends,

First I want to thank you so very much for your concern for me. I am
very touched. I also wish to apologize for a generic message to you all.
But it seems the best way at the moment to get my message to you.

Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to
have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even
more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend’s home. We share
supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in
one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and

During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People
sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line
up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water
running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up
their jugs and buckets.

Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in
lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an
earthquake strikes. People keep saying, “Oh, this is how it used to be
in the old days when everyone helped one another.”

Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens
are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.

We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for
half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yet come on.

But all of this is by area. Some people have these things, others do not.
No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much
more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of
non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of
caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the
entire group.

There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses a mess in some
places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun.

People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking
their dogs. All happening at the same time.

Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. No
cars. No one out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered
with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled.

The mountains of Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them
silhouetted against the sky magnificently.

And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to
check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on,
and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from
whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking
to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they
need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic,

They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for
another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls,
shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is
a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is
better off than others. Last night my friend’s husband came in from the
country, bringing food and water. Blessed again.

Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed
an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world
right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now
in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I
felt so small because of all that is happening. I don’t. Rather, I feel as
part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of
birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.

Thank you again for your care and Love of me,

With Love in return, to you all.

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Earthquake and Tsunami devastates Japan

The photos and videos from Japan following the earthquake and tsunami are heart rending. Whole villages washed away. I look out my window at my own backyard and imagine, “A neighborhood like my own.” What is it to suddenly be without home, food or water and not to know if your missing loved ones have survived?” Such profound grief is unknowable. A searing lesson of impermanence. Wishing to help in some way, I feel that uncomfortable helplessness that comes from distant tragedy.

But there are things that we can do. We can send prayers and money. The Dalai Lama has asked that the Heart Sutra be recited for those in Japan. You can find the Heart Sutra on this website at We can sit in meditation with an open and compassionate heart, sending compassion and loving kindness to those who are suffering. We can be grateful for all the ordinary comforts of our life. We can bring those who are suffering into our minds throughout the day, and send them love and compassion while we continue with our lives.

The American Soto Zen Buddhist organization has asked for donations. You can send a donation to Heart Circle Sangha and mark it “for Japan” and we will send a combined donation directly to the Japanese headquarters. has launched an Earthquake and Tsunami Appeal for Japan at

Save the Children, an organization always at the front of a disaster has organized an appeal. Go to:

May all beings be free of suffering.

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Plum Blossoms

” Without the bitterest cold that penetrates to the very bone, how can plum blossoms send forth their fragrance to the whole world?” Basho

Snow and more snow and more snow, sleet, freezing rain, ice, wind, frigid temperatures. What will be the fragrance of the plum blossoms this spring?

With my own bumpy practice and eclectic journey, and now in the nearly winter of my life, I sit with you Basho and ponder the fragrance of the plum blossoms. How can this fragrance be sent forth into the world? Perhaps it is already happening and I just don’t know.

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