Category Archives: meditation

Learning to be patient


This morning I was sitting with a situation. I’m not sure how to respond to the situation.

So, first, I just looked at it. I set the situation in front of me, and I looked at it.

I saw that thinking would not actually yield anything except a bunch of scenarios, all of them pretty much equal. So, I quit thinking.

Then this well-known Zen saying appeared in my mind:

Spring comes.
The grass
grows by itself.

After a brief interlude of calm, peaceful feelings, I thought: Geez, you’re turning into someone like one of those well-meaning Christians who go around spouting proverbs at people. “Do unto others …”

As that thought drifted away, and I watched it go, I remembered the full moon, hidden by nighttime clouds. The moon is always there, even when we can’t see it. When the clouds move aside, we can see the moon.



The fire-boy, chasing fire


Experience the oneness of all things and all beings:

All the universe is an unceasing process, pursuing things and making them the self, pursuing the self and making it things.

This comes from the chapter titled Ikka Myoju in Dogen’s Shobogenzo (The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, tr. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, p. 33). Dogen said the only way to experience this truth is through zazen, or sitting meditation. We can read and study and chant and listen to Dharma talks for 1,000 years, but without zazen, we realize nothing.

He was, in fact, rather insistent on this point. Not only did he compose the Fukanzazengi to praise the benefits of sitting meditation; he also spent the first chapter of Shobogenzo doing the same.

I keep working on the teaching of no-self.

“Pursuing things and making them the self”: This begins when we are babies. I think it might start when we grab our toes and perceive them as our own, as part of the body, connected to us. We construct a self with I, me, mine — my toes, my hunger, my contentment, my toys. We add things to the heap as we grow older — my accomplishments, my pain, my money, my car. All of this adding is done with the mind only.

“Pursuing the self and making it things”: What am I? Am I this house, this son or daughter, this husband or wife? Am I this gun or computer or cash register or mixing bowl? Am I this set of beliefs I have adopted? Am I these clothes I wear? Am I these shoes?

The story of the fire-boy is retold here.


What is ‘paying attention’?


Do you think attention is the same as mindfulness? I don’t. I think attention is something more specific than mindfulness.

What’s more, attention can actually alter the structure of your brain.

This was indicated in a scientific study conducted with monkeys. All the monkeys were subjected to the same two kinds of physical stimuli, which were concurrent — they heard sound through headphones, and their fingers were in an apparatus that caused the fingers to tap. All the monkeys were listening and tapping for 100 minutes each day, for six weeks.

The sound and the tapping were not synchronized, however. Imagine yourself reading a book in a noisy coffee shop. You can hear conversations all around you, and there’s probably music too. If you’re really absorbing what you are reading, then you must be shutting out the sounds, which are unrelated to your text. If not shutting them out completely, at least you have downgraded them. You have relegated them to the background.

Half of the monkeys were rewarded with tasty juice if they made a sign when the rhythm of the sound changed. The other half were rewarded the same way, but only if they made a sign when the rhythm of their tapping motion changed. The two halves of the group kept the same roles for the six-week test, so presumably the listeners got better at recognizing the change in sound rhythm, and the feelers got better at noticing the change in motion rhythm.

In this way, with the yummy reward for doing the right thing, all the monkeys had an incentive to pay attention. But half of them were paying attention to sound, while the other half were paying attention to the motion of the finger apparatus.

The researchers had scanned all the monkeys’ brains before the test. After the test, they scanned the monkeys’ brains again.

The difference between the two groups of monkeys reflected the effect of paying attention: In the group that listened for rhythm changes, the area of the auditory cortex had increased. In the other group (which had heard all the same sounds, at the same volume, for the same length of time), there was no change in the auditory cortex. But in those monkeys, who had been rewarded for catching a change in the rhythm of their fingers’ movement, the area of the somatosensory cortex had increased. In the other monkeys, there was no change in that region of the brain. Wah!

I read about this experiment in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by science journalist Sharon Begley (pages 156 – 160). Begley attended a conference at which a group of neuroscientists presented some of the latest findings about the brain to the Dalai Lama; later she wrote this book, with additional reporting, based on those presentations. It’s highly readable and altogether fascinating!


Why we sit


We sit only to sit. There is no goal. If you have a goal, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s a path, but without a destination. Without an end. It’s the path you’re already on.

Did you ever look forward to something ending? Well, was that something enjoyable, meaningful, beneficial? No? Hm. When we look forward to the ending, we are not experiencing what’s happening right now.

I would say sitting meditation has done me a lot of good — but not because I tried to get results. Sitting trains the mind to be different. And when the mind is different, many other things in your world become different too.


See also Sitting, and learning to sit.

Hard practice


So, back from a three-day retreat. Ahhh. If only I could focus better … Well, no use in having regrets. But … in interviews with the Zen master, I am often too quick to open my mouth. Mouth shut, more listening. So, don’t make anything. Don’t make regrets. Don’t make kicking myself for missing the chance to ask a great question (kick, kick!).

The Zen master recommended that those who can should do a long retreat — two weeks or more. It’s the best gift you will ever give yourself, he said.

I said: I know it will really suck.

He said: No. It will be very, very hard. But it won’t suck.

I wish I could tell you that after a retreat I feel fabulous, or reborn, or something. Mostly, I feel drained. But it’s drained like you feel when you’ve done hard labor for hours, or all day (or for three days). It includes satisfaction (much good work got done) and also some dissatisfaction (there is always more work to be done). That sounds too negative. I’m relieved it’s over. I’m sorry it’s over. And I can’t resist saying — these are not different.


Like the dragon, like the tiger


Zen practice:

The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the right Dharma is manifesting itself and that, from the first, dullness and distraction are struck aside.

— From Fukan-Zazengi, by Eihei Dogen (1200-1253)

Dogen Zenji was the 13th century founder of Soto Zen in Japan, and we trace our practice here back through Dogen. When he returned to Japan after practicing in China, he wrote the “Fukanzazengi.” This two-page text was Dogen’s main meditation manual, which he continued working on for about twenty-six years until near the end of his life. Dogen was a major figure in Japanese Zen who considered zazen or Zen meditation the most essential, fundamental and important practice of Buddhism.

— From Josho Pat Phelan (Soto Zen priest and abbess of the Chapel Hill Zen Center), in a lecture about Dogen’s “Fukan-Zazengi”


‘To leap like a tiger while sitting’


As you read this, I am sitting a three-day silent retreat.

Through the mechanism of advance scheduling, I wrote this blog post a few days ago, knowing that I would be cut off from the Internet for three full days. I wanted you to know that as you are reading this, I am sleep deprived, having risen at 4:30 a.m. to perform 108 bows. I am probably hungry, having submitted to an eating ritual that leaves one very little time to consume more than a few bites of food. It being winter, the Dharma room will probably be chilly. I am certainly cold, and by now, my knees probably hurt.

Yet I do this willingly, gladly — and even though this sounds exactly like complaining, I do not complain. It is a great privilege to have the time (and money) to particiapte in a Zen retreat. It’s hard work. The word “retreat” is misleading if you think it means something relaxing and comfortable.

This will be my third retreat. As I write, I am both anticipating and dreading it. As you read, I am already at least 24 hours into it.