angel Kyodo williams

‘A problem of the dharma today is that it has become so limited. It has become constricted inside of a kind of fear. We want to maintain control of it, so we resist it evolving as it always has. We try to fashion the dharma within the limitations of a marketplace mindset—what will sound better to make this sell better? We’ve made it as limited as we can possibly make it, and as a result we no longer subscribe to the promise of liberation. We think, oh, we’ll just do this nice thing where we’ll meditate and we’ll be nicer people, we’ll be more compassionate and wiser, and as we do, we never say the word “love.” What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with a culture that doesn’t have love as its central value? In this smallness, we miss the opportunity before us to liberate ourselves from the obscurations that keep us from knowing who we are, from knowing each other, from knowing that our birthright is exactly love.’ (from her library of content)

As always, I enjoy my thoughts being provoked by the reverend angel, and I will keep trying to work out my own role in offering this possibility of liberation for everyone.

Suzuki Roshi

‘To the– when we stand [at a] crossing point or fork [in the] road, which way to take? Here is our bodhisattva-mind, you know. Which is better? Which should we go? This “I” is not possible to explain, but anyway, we are always at the crossing or at the fork [in the] road, and we don’t know what to do. As long as we have our true nature, when we are conscientious enough, we don’t– we sometime wonder which way to take. That is bodhisattva’s way. If we don’t mind good or bad we will take, you know, either way. But for us it is rather difficult [laughs] to choose one of the two. When it is difficult, there is true nature. Because of the true nature– true nature makes us difficult to choose, you know. Here we have bodhisattva-mind. When we have difficulty in, you know, in ethical sense there is bodhisattva-mind. When you say, “I am no good,” there is bodhisattva-mind. But we cannot explain why we have this kind of mind. It is impossible to explain why.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archive)

I was listening to this the other day. It is from the summer of 1965, and one of the very first talks of his to have been recorded. At times here, and in other talks in that time span, it sounds like an intimate group of young people enjoying themselves as they figure out what it is all about.


On ancient rocks are ancient tracks
below high cliffs there’s a clearing
always bright when the bright moon shines
no need to ask if it’s east or west


‘Transformation tends to happen when we stop or something stops us — a tragedy, a difficulty — and we reassess and realize that the way we are going about life must be redefined. Sometimes we will need to redefine our whole identity. This does not just happen to spiritually advanced beings — this is human stuff. These moments occur with some regularity, and if we recognize how important they are, when they come, we can see them as both great challenges and great opportunities. How we respond is important. Do we search for a quick solution, for a quick answer, or for somebody to save us from our insecurity? Or do we find the wherewithal to settle into those moments and meet ourselves, like the Buddha did? We can lean forward into what is occurring, into the human experience or unresolved quality — whether it is doubt, or fear, or hesitation, or indecision, or whatever our pattern is that causes us to not throw ourselves entirely into that moment.’ (From Lion’s Roar)

Reb Anderson

‘As we continue on the path, we will awaken to the reality that our entire life and practice is not something that we do alone. We understand that our practice is a gift to us from all beings and a gift that we give to all beings. This is the ultimate truth of our life. Perfect wisdom is the thorough understanding of this generosity – a state wherein we meet the Buddha teaching the dharma face-to-face. (Entering The Mind Of Buddha)

If you are wondering how practice is a gift from all beings, I remembered, as I typed out this paragraph, a talk from my earlies days at Zen Center. A student of Reb’s who was receiving dharma transmission said that he had asked her what she thought about the ancestors (those who have transmitted the teachings). She confessed that she hadn’t thought so much about them.

One of the ceremonies leading up to transmission is reciting the names of all the ancestors in the lineage daily, and bowing to them. I always loved reciting the list at services – we do all ninety-odd names of the male lineage daily at Tassajara (without the prostration for each one, though the doshi, representing the assembly, bows a number of times) and I made an effort to memorise the whole list as soon as I could.

And as the names become familiar, you start to wonder about their stories, what prompted them to seek the practice, to teach, and to ordain their students, and you realise what a huge task the transmission of the teachings has been over the past twenty-five hundred years. Of course we are grateful for this gift, that this wisdom has made it (intact, I trust) all the way to us, across the centuries and many cultures, and the least we can do is to ensure that it thrives and that the transmission continues.

A Pyramid of Ideas

This is one of those posts I feel a little uneasy about writing and publishing. I have a few drafts on similar themes that I have not followed through to the end. And I think this one will be a little unfinished. I mainly wanted to pull a few things together to provoke some thoughts:

Following the news of fires in Australia – not to mention all the fires closer to home in California, and the many other examples of extreme weather constantly recurring now – it is hard not to feel immensely depressed about the future of the human race. In this sense, I am glad not to have children, as I suspect conditions by the end of their life span will be quite horrific.

This is a lingering dread, and writing about it now is mainly spurred by a series of articles I have been reading, as well as some dharma pieces, and I was wondering how to connect them until I read a long and well-argued piece in the New Yorker about the state of relations between America and China.

This was a few hours after reading, in the last chapter of Dale Wright’s book, which you are all becoming more familiar with, on the wisdom that understands emptiness:

‘Wisdom, therefore, is the ability to face the truth and not to be unnerved or frightened. It is the capacity to be disillusioned, but not disheartened. It is the ability to consider the contingency and groundlessness of all things, oneself included, and not turn away from that consideration in fear. Wisdom means setting aside illusions about oneself and the world and being strengthened by that encounter with the truth. It entails willingness to avoid seeking the security of the unchanging and to open oneself to a world of flux and complex relations.’ (The Six Perfections)

In Evan Osnos’ article, it seemed clear that American politicians – much as many of their counterparts in the UK are in different arenas – were trying to fight the battles of the Twentieth Century, two decades into the Twenty-First:

‘The former C.I.A. analyst, said the United States must make realistic decisions about where it is prepared to deter China’s expansion and where it is not. “If we think we can maintain the same dominance we have had since 1945, well, that train has left the station,” he told me. “We should start by racking and stacking China’s global ambitions and determining what we can’t accommodate and what we can, then communicate that to the Chinese at the highest levels, and operationalize them through red lines we will enforce. We’re not doing that. Instead, what we’re doing are things that masquerade as a strategy but, in fact, amount to just kicking them in the balls.”’

‘The most viable path ahead is an uneasy coexistence, founded on a mutual desire to “struggle but not smash” the relationship. Coexistence is neither decoupling nor appeasement; it requires, above all, deterrence and candor—a constant reckoning with what kind of change America will, and will not, accept. Success hinges not on abstract historical momentum but on hard, specific day-to-day decisions—what the political scientist Richard Rosecrance, in his study of the First World War, called the “tyranny of small things.”’

(Having written the bulk of this post, I was amused to find an article in the New York Times about a Chinese company resurrecting a paper mill in Maine, complete with monks and feng shui).

What do we do with the world as it gets smaller?

Two other recent articles I had read from the New Yorker had seemed to me to stand in nice juxtaposition – the first concerning those who have great wealth and who are trying to be better citizens by using the power this gives them,  the second on a previous generation of Asian-American writers setting out their stall vis-a-vis the establishment.

‘In the U.S., executive compensation has increased, on average, by nine hundred and forty per cent since 1978, according to one estimate; during the same period, worker pay has risen twelve per cent…  People who support tax cuts for high earners and reductions to social programs are “very deliberately attempting to create a permanent underclass… You want people to suffer and die earlier, because your greed is more important to you than another human being.”’

‘Identity politics offers a voluntary response to an involuntary situation. Power structures beyond our grasp sort us according to categories not of our own choosing, predestining us to be seen in a certain way by (as Ching might put it) “the average person.” Choosing to call oneself an Asian-American, rather than answering to “Oriental,” makes the most of an imposition. It offers some people a ready-made sense of purpose, short-circuiting the power of an epithet imposed from without.’

Who belongs – and what do we do with a place on the podium?

I remembered, as I was thinking about this, words of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel that I have posted before:

‘Yes, my bones know the absolute life, unencumbered by labels, fixed perceptions, and appearances. But the absolute life has never been the problem I have to face in the world. In this twenty-first century, many have agreed that race is a construct or illusion used to create racism. It is also acknowledged in some places that sexuality and gender comprise a continua between opposites, and are not fixed states, as was once assumed. The very words “women,” “men,” “male,” and “female” are being transformed to include the many genders between those polarities. However, simply knowing race to be constructed or an illusion does nothing to change the mind saturated with hatred. To know that there are many ways to live sexually, with or without a prescribed gender, does not affect the extent to which one might be tortured or killed for doing so. Hatred remains potent whether directed at a construct, an illusion, or at the reality of others. Therefore, identity should not be dismissed in our efforts toward spiritual awakening. On the contrary, identity is to be explored on the path of awakening. Identity is not merely of a political nature; it is inclusive of our essential nature when stripped of distortion. In other words, identity is not the problem, but the distortions we bring to it are. (The Way of Tenderness)

And, over the end of the year, I donated to a fundraising drive on behalf of rev angel Kyodo williams – because I want any extra money I accrue to be going to worthwhile and powerful causes –  and received access to a large library of radical dharma:

‘All of my work is rooted in a persistence of the people that keep holding it down on the margins in the face of the mainstream saying that you can’t exist the way that you are that you have to leave something of yourself  behind in order to belong. To continue to belong to this. The ways in which our society doesn’t understand that we are enriched by our difference rather than undone by it.

I am here because when it wasn’t cute and it wasn’t comfortable, because Alicia Garza continued with Black Lives Matter, when it wasn’t cool for queer people to insist that they could be married, that they could have equality,  that they kept insisting. My work is lifted and held by those people that insist on being who they are, and they do that at great cost…

I thank the people that while we were saying “this is the way to go” there were people that were saying, “but you have to include this, too. You have to include this, too.”

So i’m really, really grateful for the people that insist— persistently — to just be who they are and know that they belong for it and that out of their insistence on their own belonging they give permission for each of us to belong, too.’

I don’t know what it’s like to be extremely wealthy, and I understand my position of privilege in the overall scheme of things – I am not struggling in any meaningful way to survive in this land which has plenty. I don’t know what it’s like to be Asian-American, and I understand the disclocation of not fully belonging in the culture of where I live. I don’t know what it’s like to be a queer black woman, and I appreciate everything that I learn from those who identify as such.

In the wisdom of emptiness, we each take our dharma position – real, individual, cultural, institutional, systemic, global – and we are all in this together.

A part of me truly believes that a pendulum is swinging back towards a position of welfare for everyone (I talked about ‘the health of the people is the highest law’ in my dharma talk as well) , and that a global push of ingenuity and co-operation to avert the worst of the climate disaster will happen. I trust that everybody individually has the capacity to be a buddha, but really I don’t know if we can pull it off collectively.

Kate Murphy

‘We are, each of us, the sum of what we attend to in life.’ (from a New York Times article)

Sometimes one line is enough, though the whole article – and no doubt her book – are well worth reading and contemplating. I know that this practice has enabled me to listen better, with more focus and less judgement, and that I can still improve on this.

Larry Yang

‘Truly we don’t own land. We don’t work land. We don’t use land, and we don’t even exploit land. We are land. We are the same elements of which the earth is composed. We do not move and walk on the earth: we are earth that moves and walks with the whole – regardless of the extent of our physical abilities. This is the interdependence and interrelatedness – the universality – to which all great spiritual traditions speak.’ (Awakening Together)

In my recent house-sit, it was nice to browse some of the owners books. Larry Yang is a great local teacher in the Bay Area, and his words are often uplifting, without losing sight of the bigger picture of what we face as a culture today.

Dale S. Wright

‘The “self” of subjectivity is profoundly elusive, however. Whenever each of us says the word “I,” we know exactly what we mean. But as soon as we attempt seriously to consider what it is that this word names, we are at a loss. Subjectivity is at once the most obvious and the most invisible phenomenon, making the ancient philosophical exhortation to “know thyself” the most difficult task.’ (The Six Perfections)

I still haven’t got to the end of this book, but I have so many passages lined up to use that I hope I won’t run foul of the ‘fair use’ system. And, having shared a couple of passages with my student group, which they raved about, I ended up buying them each a copy as a Christmas present, so we will be studying it closely over the next year, I imagine.

Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.