Finding peace in trying times…

These times do try our souls, as Thomas Paine said. Ole Thomas would have been aghast at what’s going on in our world today!

One of my Buddhist mentors, Maia Duerr, has a beautiful response to the general malaise and the current insanity in her Full Moon newsletter today, noting that the recent horrendous tax bill is is just more of the same, another example, certainly a more extreme one, of the power that greed, anger and delusion hold over our society.

She also says, as I’ve been saying for a while now, and just mentioned recently, that the wisdom of our indigenous cultures is an important source of help for all this insanity.

I felt a bit better reading her thoughts. She offers some positive suggestions for dealing with the stress it brings. Maybe others would also benefit from hearing her perspective on things:

This full moon snuck up on me… feels like the past 28 days went by so quickly! Have you felt that too? The quickening of time, along with the shortening of days…Feeling into the preciousness of each moment we have here in this crazy mixed-up world

Yesterday I awoke to the news here in the U.S. that the Senate passed a horrendous tax bill. As one friend said, there’s all kinds of evil written into it. The full ramifications likely won’t be known and felt for some time, but they will be huge. No doubt this is a further redistribution of ‘wealth’ of a certain kind upwards to those already have it, and a further marginalizing of those who already live at the edge.

This isn’t new, though. It’s an intensification of what has been there all along, no matter which political party is in power. The seeds of greed, hatred, and delusion have grown into fully toxic monsters.

And yet the medicine is also here, hidden underneath the toxic overgrowth. I look to my Indigenous sisters and brothers for a blueprint on how to live a life that is in right relationship to each other and the earth… they’ve had generations of experience in doing that, and learning from mistakes. I look to teachings of simplicity and renunciation in my own tradition of Buddhism for similar gifts.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s not a matter of finding the best new technology. The way through this is what has been there all along… to not take more from the earth than we can give back, to respect each other, to be kind to each other, to respect earth and water and sky. And yet the way will be full of challenges and pain and suffering as we reckon with all this.

I think a lot of another friend’s gentle yet persistent warning — soon we’re going to need to feed each other. What will that look like? How can we get there, together? How can I opt out of this system that has caused so much harm to people and creatures of all kind and the planet we rely on for life? How can I be part of a community that truly cares for each other, and mindfully walks on this earth?

I don’t have the answers. I know it will take greater effort and creativity than I’ve given these questions in the past, and greater commitment on my part.

In the midst of all this, I’m trying to observe a 7-day at-home version of Rohatsu, the intensive sitting meditation retreat that Zen Buddhists do during this first week of December. I’m taking this as a time to slow down, stop, and sit with all these questions.

Nature is by far the best medicine during times like these. … I want to share this short video from a recent journey I took to a beautiful place near Santa Fe, Diablo Canyon. I invite you to take a half a minute to simply notice what you feel as you watch this video. I hope in the coming weeks you’re able to make time to visit a place that speaks to your heart and soul. If you do, I’d love to hear about it and even see pictures! You can always reach me by replying to this email or writing to me at
Maia offers a full range of consultation and teaching around these themes. Her website has links to most of those resources, and you can can sign up for the Full Moon newsletter. It’s always a joy and a solace.

The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. 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. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

Breathing thru the pain

My dharma friend Maia Duerr has a beautiful perspective on the recent horrors of hatred and violence rife in our world: it’s all the pain of birthing a new life.

In her July Full Moon newsletter, Maia shared her thoughts and a wonderful new video from India.Arie, “Breathe”, which led me to a good cry that I knew I had been needing! Maia says she believes “we are in the throes of some tremendous birthing process.”

With every bone in my body I believe we are on our way to living into a more awakened way of being with each other and being on the Earth. But we are not there yet. Like any birthing process, the going can get very rough and it would be delusional for me to not recognize that things will likely get ‘worse’ before they get better. Those who are entrapped by fear and ignorance are acting out in ever-more terrifying ways. But always remember this is not the truth of who we are as human beings. 

As some in the #blacklivesmatter movement have pointed out, things are not necessarily worse now, they’re just getting uncovered. What we’re seeing is the karmic fruit of centuries of injustice and a mindless, grasping social and economic order. Maia says, “This brutally honest recognition of “what is,” painful as it may be, is a necessary step toward transformation.”

We can only continue to live our lives if we maintain some kind of confidence that this transformation, this world-wide awakening, is possible and is happening despite our difficulty seeing it.

Maia’s words, and India.Arie’s video, are helping me get through this week.


A heart of gratitude

My friend and Zen practitioner Maia Duerr provided me with the perfect context for Thanksgiving this morning.

Her email message for the week opened with this:

“It’s been a month of heartbreak, with terrible violence in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. And we don’t have to look far to feel how heartbreak has pervaded throughout a great deal of this past year: too many guns, racial injustice, economic disparity, environmental collapse….
How do we find the strength to keep living and giving and loving, in the midst of such profound suffering? I am reminded of the first paragraph from Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful book, Being Peace:
Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us all around us, everywhere, any time.”

For me, Thanksgiving is always hard at best, being a celebration of the invasion of Turtle Island that led to the whole process of colonization and Empire-building that have created much of that violence and injustice proliferating in the world. Recent events – just think of all that’s happened since last Thanksgiving! – make that celebration even harder.

But if we remember that at the heart of it is gratitude, it transforms the event into an opportunity for interpersonal growth.

Maia’s message is drawn from an earlier dharma talk, How to Practice Gratitude When It Ain’t Easy, that she presented at Upaya Zen Center on a pre-Thanksgiving evening. In this talk, she presents a list from a Korean Buddhist text, Powang Sammaeron, that contains these guides from the teachings of the Buddha:

  1. “Treat illness as medicine, not disease”
  2. “Make worries and hardships a way of life”
  3. “Release is hiding right behind obstructions”
  4. “Treat temptations as friends who are helping you along the path”
  5. “Accomplish through difficulties”
  6. “Make long-term friends through compromise in your relationships”
  7. “Consider those who differ with you to be your character builders”
  8. “Throw out expectation of rewards like you’d thrown out old shoes”
  9.  “Become rich at heart with small amounts”
  10. “Consider vexations as the first door on the path”

Not a bad list of meditations for Thanksgiving.

Maia on Charleston…

My friend and Zen teacher Maia Duerr has written what may be the best analysis of the whole Charleston tragedy and the racist milieu that gave rise to it.

Using the context of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, Maia breaks it down in ways that offer deep insight into the social and individual aspects of this national problem. Though it is Buddhist to the heart, it transcends that, and so is easily understandable and meaningful for all, Buddhist or not. Maia includes some wonderful quotes from Dr. King and Wendell Berry, as well as the Buddha and others, that elucidate her message beautifully.

These understandings are what we as a society must embrace if we hope to come out of this misery of racist lostness.

Dreams of Freedom.

“I believe it is essential for us to call this for what it is. This was not simply the act of one very disturbed young man. It has its roots in racial violence and distortions and inequities that have been part of the fabric of our country since its inception.

A new direction…

My practice seems to be taking off in a new direction.

Actually it’s more of a rejuvenation of my familiar practice, though it feels like a new direction in many ways. I just began Dharma mentoring with a teacher, Therese, whose teachings I blogged about a bit in The Hybrid Way, and after the first call I’m feeling so strong and serious in my practice that I’m starting a whole new thread here on Shunyata’s Apprentice, which I’m calling Real Practice.

This path to a rejuvenation of my practice really began back in February with the “Waking Up to Your Life” online sangha experience with Maia Duerr and Katya Lesher.

WUYL was great, and got me back on track with a consistent practice, and it was through this experience that I built up the confidence to take on the dharma mentoring, which I had been considering since spring of 2014 when I first sat a sesshin with Therese. The people of that online experience, which included people from all around the US and Canada, I now consider my virtual sangha.

We were together for three months, with a website, a Facebook group (closed), and monthly one-on-one phone calls plus two group calls. Maia and Katya provided lots of programmatic material for us, and the exchanges were lively and warm. I think everyone deepened their practice or got established in a practice through the process.

I highly recommend it for people without access to teacher and sangha. Maia is online at Liberated Life Project and I understand that they will be doing another Waking Up to Your Life this fall.

After a few years of “wandering in the wilderness” [see The Hybrid Way] it feels real good to be in a stable, vital practice again. My original Zen teacher always told me, “If you don’t feel like sitting, don’t sit. When you don’t sit, you discover why you want to.” My period of disturbed, lost sitting – what the old masters called “Bompo Zen” – certainly has convinced me that I want to sit, and I need to sit consistently in order to live a productive, fulfilled life.

I am grateful to all of these people, and the people of Red Clay Sangha in Atlanta, for their support and for being there to guide me back to the cushion.

And I am profoundly grateful to Therese for giving me the opportunity to work with her in this Dharma mentoring project.

As part of this new level of practice, I am committing here to keeping a journal of my experience with practice and to post at least some of that here in the hope that it will be helpful to others who may be struggling to find a real, meaningful practice.

May all beings awaken from forgetfulness and realize their true home. Much Metta!

A Call to Action

The recent tragedies in the nation have brought the issues of racism, violence, and systemic bias to the forefront of much public discussion. These are thorny issues fraught with problems on both sides.

My online friend Maia Duerr, a socially engaged Buddhist, Zen chaplain, and writer for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, has written a wonderful piece that takes a very balanced but compelling approach.

The Buddhist perspective helps in understanding that we can, indeed must, “take sides” yet be able to see clearly and have compassion for both sides. Maia works thru the delicate nuances of this challenging mass of issues in very cogent and convincing ways.

You can read her essay at The Jizo Chronicles.