The Middle Way is not a fine line

The way I look at it is, we talk about the Middle Way or the Middle Path, right? And I think for years I saw and thought the Middle Way was a fine line between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ And at some point I realized, no that’s too narrow. The Middle Way is everything between ‘this’ and ‘that.’ I mean you embrace ‘this’ and you embrace ‘that’ completely, and then when you walk the Middle Way you walk it in the terms that you’ve got a lot of latitude, but you stay true to the moment, to what is appropriate in the moment.  And within that you’ve got all the way from everything you do is perfect, complete and whole — Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi — to there’s a very definite right and wrong way to be in a certain situation, and everything in between.  So you have to be aware of your position, the very time, the very place that you’re in, and then the amount, how much.  And to me that’s Mahayana, and that’s the Middle Path.  Mahayana stands for the Middle Path.  And that’s the apex.



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Suffering … and Joy

One of the things that I think is so obvious, though it seems we miss it growing up, is that basically everything we do and every decision we’ve made is to protect ourself from pain. We distance ourself from pain, and this creates suffering for ourself and also for others. Seeking to protect ourself, we imprison ourself in painful conditions, all to avoid our pain, to avoid being our pain. This is the cause of suffering.

Our suffering is not caused by pain itself; it’s caused by our trying to avoid or escape from pain. That’s where the suffering comes into effect. So what Buddhism teaches is the cause of suffering is our self. We form this ego-self, this façade, in order to protect our self from our pain. What Zen says is, you don’t have to go through all these steps, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and so on; you can do it all suddenly, at one time. Be one, be one with your pain.

So all the first koans are about being one with: be one with the sound of a distant temple bell, be one with a distant sailing boat, be one with the fighting across the river. You could just as well say, how do you stop suffering? How do you stop the suffering from your pain, or of yourself, how do you stop that suffering? Well, the secret is just be it, just relax into it. Just like with the distant temple bell, be one with it, ‘bong, bong, bong,’ be the sound, be the sailing boat. You be the pain, and when you’re the pain there’s no suffering, because there’s no self to suffer.

So the self and our suffering are created precisely by our trying to escape from pain. All our attachments, our addictions, all of them are coming from the desire to escape what is, which is pain, it’s painful. And the joy comes when we allow ourself to just be one with the pain. And there’s joy in the midst of the pain, because there’s no-self. When there’s a self, it’s not true joy; when there’s no self, then there’s joy. It’s really quite simple, but somehow it takes us forever to figure it out. I mean, there’s the whole Buddhist teaching right there.

— From The Six Paramitas Workshop, August 2019


Trust in Letting Go

Maybe the most important thing that we can learn is the ability to let go, and trust that it’s all OK, to relinquish, to let go.

There are certain things that are harder to let go of, of course, than others, and one of them is our mind. Somehow we’re very attached to our mind, and most of us don’t really like the idea of losing our mind. But that’s the problem, because — what mind? What we’re talking about is just a bunch of thoughts. We put those thoughts together into concepts, and we put those concepts together into belief systems, but to begin with, there was nothing there, just empty space. And these thoughts appear, and then we start accumulating these thoughts into concepts and ideas.

But when we let go of the so-called mind, all we’re doing is letting go of our attachment to our ideas, concepts, notions, beliefs and thoughts. That’s all. Nothing changes, except we’re freed, we’re liberated. From what? The fear of losing our mind, or going out of our mind.

I think it’s the same thing with what we call ‘life,’ or ‘body.’ You know, we have this fear of losing this body, dying. I have a sense it’s the same thing. What do we lose? We just return to our original nature. This body is just something that’s put together by the five skandhas, and it dissipates, it deteriorates, what would you call that? It separates. But there’s nothing lost, except that heap. That’s why it’s called five heaps. It’s just a pile of stuff.

And then we’re free.

— From The Six Paramitas Workshop, August 2019

Fear, Fearlessness, and The Buddha’s Original Practice of Mindfulness



“ … Just recognizing a fear as it arises, noticing it’s a fear, labeling it as a fear, letting it go: that’s mindfulness practice. In fact that was the Buddha’s original practice … Basically what he came up with was mindfulness practice. I think it’s moved on from that, but that was his original practice. It just means noticing an emotion or a feeling or a sensation or a thought. Noticing it, seeing ‘oh, fear’ or ‘thought’ or ‘emotion’ – letting go. It’s that simple. The moment you notice it like that, it empties it out. It no longer has a content to it, no longer has substantiality to it, it’s empty. I call it bubbles. You notice the bubble arising called fear, and it pops. … At some point it’s not even mindfulness, as I said. It just becomes a pure awareness and you just let it go. You just let it go … The willingness to face our fear is what we call fearlessness. Most of us have fear about fear. We fear our fear, and that’s the problem.”

— Excerpt from Retreat with Genpo Roshi, September 2019


On Losing Our Mind

Students, friends and people who have read my writings know that I often refer to my first opening that led me to Zen as ‘losing my mind’ and ‘going sane.’  In Big Mind work, we also discover that the fear of ‘losing my mind’ is one of the great obstacles to realizing our true nature, a deeply rooted fear that prevents us from what Zen teachings point to as the key to enlightenment, relinquishment of our attachments, the most fundamental of which is our attachment to our identity, our mind.

I recently was privileged to be read this account over the phone by my partner, Charlotte.  It was written by a colleague of hers and a friend of mine, William Swanson, an intern who works with participants in a program for elderly people with dementia.  I found myself crying most of the way through it because it was so beautiful.  In this day and age, when more of us are becoming aware of the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s, his account of his experience offers both a compassionate insight into this feared and stigmatized condition, and an illuminating perspective on what we might call ‘losing our mind.’  With William’s permission, I would like to share it with you.

I Cannot Believe My Good Fortune

So…I started my internship in June at Care Link Elder Day Program here in Boulder.  Participants, as they are called, are elders with a dementia diagnosis who gather for social time with others experiencing this new and unsolicited mindscape.  Participant’s time spent at Care Link also provides their caretakers with much needed respite.  The staff maintains a fun and friendly environment that promotes a lot of laughs between participants – and not a little flirtation!  Everyone is kind and we have a good time.

From the moment I interviewed in March I have been struck by the comradery of these elders, the staff, and my supervisor, all who have made me feel welcome and all who have supported my work in every conceivable way.  There is a daily staff of four, three co-directors, and my supervisor who comes in once a week to meet with me.  As the only overtly therapeutic component on the team, my task has been to support the staff in their daily tasks, facilitate or co-facilitate group activities, and invite participants of my choosing to join me in a therapeutic relationship.

I now have eight participants who I work with individually as my therapeutic clients.  Because of confidentiality, I am not allowed to post photos of any participants.  But I sure wish I could so people would see these amazing souls who model what it means to age with grace and audacity.  Each one has lived a stunning life (I’ve had the honor of reading their personal histories in their files) and each one is living a stunning life still.  Past accomplishments include careers in astrophysics, seismology, New York City school district superintendent, social work, nursing, radio deejay, and haberdashery, just to name a few.  Hobbies have included mountaineering in the Alps and Himalayas where nights were spend sleeping in a tent suspended from the cliff side.  These people seize the day.

They also are adjusting to the fact that their minds are in a state of radical change defined mostly by short-term memory loss and a state of timelessness – hours, days, seasons, and years no longer present chronologically.  But there are others factor as well such as images appearing they know are not real but which they cannot resist being drawn into.  Much of our dialogue lacks a cohesive narrative – or any narrative at all – but instead is highly abstract where our relationship rests more in an energy exchange than in story.

It is particularly impactful that there are few people who can relate directly with these dynamics.  Generally speaking, our culture does not prepare us to deal with entering into this mindscape whether it’s our mind or the mind of a loved one manifesting dementia.  Social stigmas marginalize these individuals while family members struggle to relate to someone whose personality has shifted, in some cases to the point of seeming unrecognizable.  There is deep shame in believing you have become a disappointment to the ones you love.  Many chose not to disclose certain aspects of their experience in order to lessen their perceived burden on others, leading to deeper feelings of isolation and irrelevance.

But here’s the deal:  there is wisdom in dementia.  Poignancy emerges to a point where that which is non-essential is let go.  The futility of clinging to that which is transient is replaced with the stunned silence of realizing that so much of what defines ordinary life is pure illusion.  Though time is scrambled, time is of the essence because so little of it remains.  Forget the names, the dates, the places.  Don’t pester me with data, and away with your petty squabbles.  What is your experience and how does it feel?  Are you feeling pain?  Tell me.  I can hold it with you.  Are you feeling confused?  It’s okay.  I’m confused every day.  Are you in bliss?  Express it.  I have been there, too.

Two participants met at Care Link and discovered they had fought on the same battlefield in Germany during WW2, one on the German side, the other on the American side.  Now they enjoy each other’s company over coffee and conversation.

Yesterday as I walked one of my clients back to the group in the main room, we passed one of the co-directors in the hall.  I look at her and silently shook my head.  When I came back down the hall she said, “Are you ok?”  I looked her in the eye and replied, “I can’t believe I get to do this.  I can’t believe my good fortune.”  She said, “Oh!” and came in for a hug, “We are all so glad you are here.  You are doing great work, William.  Your clients are so lucky to have you.  We all are.”

And so the mind of dementia is not unfamiliar to me and I can rest in it and move through its terrain.  At times I feel like Virgil or perhaps even Beatrice.  But then I realize that it’s me being escorted by my clients, those who are living literally in the mindscape of dementia, navigating its swirling levels and feeling its full force.  Together we are making meaning by asking questions and sharing perceptions of its nature and purpose.  We hold out possibilities for the things we cannot understand.  We laugh, we cry, we do both simultaneously.

For me it all gift.  I now know the population I want to work with as a future therapist.  I don’t yet know how it will all unfold, but that’s just one lesson I have learned in this mindscape: I cannot know anything for sure and that’s okay.  You simply move through the rooms, down the halls, and over the thresholds that appear.  Someone will be there to greet you.  Someone kind who wants to share your company, your support, and your insights.  And who wants to have some fun while we’re at it.

Truly, I cannot believe my good fortune.

Seeing through Koans

I find koans very helpful and useful when I am trying to make a teaching point, using a koan to bring out a particular point. So I might be talking about, let’s say, karma, and then talk a little bit about how Hyakujo used the fox and related it to cause and effect and karma.  So I will quote that koan and give my understanding of it, but the koan system I’ve never been that happy with.

In 1978 or so, Roshi said to me, ‘I want you to revitalize the koan system.’  In 2008 I kind of found a way to do that: I started doing Big Mind with koans.  And that has evolved through ten years now.  I feel my way of revitalizing koans is the way that I work with them in Big Mind.  In fact I feel that by taking a voice, say Pride, and then asking to speak to its opposite, the opposite of pride, unawakened — that’s a koan.  Because nobody knows what that is.  Why? Because you can’t.  When there’s no pride, there’s no understanding, it’s ungraspable.  So to me, this is what Roshi asked me to come up with, but not how either he or I had thought of it.  He could not have visualized it, nor could I, but I do feel it’s an answer to his request to come up with a revitalized way of doing koans.  And I feel in some ways it’s superior, and in some ways not.

I still feel traditional koan study is important, and the way we do it can be important.  But it complements the Big Mind work, and the Big Mind work complements the koan work.  I don’t feel either one replaces the other; they are complementary, along with shikantaza, or sitting.  Nowadays when I sit, I often sit shikantaza.  Sometimes I work with something in the Big Mind way.  And sometimes I’ll even look at a koan I did back in the 70’s, and I’ll come up with maybe a different or a new way of appreciating it that I couldn’t see back then.  I mean in the 70’s I was in my twenties and thirties.  Now I’m in my seventies, so of course I see it differently and appreciate it, I feel, from a much deeper place.

So I don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on koans.  And I hardly have anybody working with me on them, maybe two, three people occasionally.  Not regularly, like we did at ZCLA or Salt Lake where it was every day.  So people have not been working with me in that way recently, probably because they sense that I’m not all that excited about koans. But I do love koans, just not the way we used to work on them.  It’s more an appreciation of individual masters, seeing through the eyes of the master, seeing through the koan that comes out of the master, like say, when a monk comes to see Joshu, and Joshu is somewhere between eighty-four and one hundred twenty-four, and the monk says ‘I came here expecting to find the great stone bridge of Joshu, and all I find is a broken down wooden bridge. Where is this great stone bridge of Joshu?’  And Joshu answers, ‘right here in front of you.’ And the monk says, ‘well I don’t see it.’  Joshu says, ‘it’s right here for asses and donkeys like yourself to cross over.’

Now, I have great love for what it took for somebody like Joshu to get to the place where, one, he’s not shiny any more like a great stone bridge, he appears to be just an old broken down wooden bridge.  And, at the same time, with such a beautiful way of expressing the teachings.

(from a Zen Teacher Retreat, November 2018)  

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