First Time in a Sangha

Yesterday, I went to the Honolulu Diamond Sangha for the first time. I’ve lived in Hawaii for almost 4 years and been too nervous to go. Afraid of tradition and ritual, I suppose – I’ve always wanted to see it but always been too afraid.

After breaking up earlier this year, I’ve really struggled with practice. To be honest, I’ve struggled with practice for the last few years. Sitting hasn’t been a priority of mine. Of course, when you go through a rough time, suddenly the idea of sitting peacefully sounds wonderful.

When I have particularly rough bouts of grief, I find myself sitting for long periods of time. Usually, because my practice isn’t well established, the sessions are an exercise of presence. The attention muscle in my head isn’t well stretched, so on the binge sitting, I have a tendency to come away exhausted and feeling no better than when I sat down.

Though, of course, we don’t sit to feel better.

It was easy to find the Diamond Sangha; it’s next to a popular hiking trail that I’ve done many times. In fact, I’ve driven by and stared at the beautiful architecture of the sangha a few times. It’s a beautiful area surrounded by trees and mountains. The cacophony of birds is both loud and peaceful – a strange combination.

The architecture of the sangha doesn’t immediately identify an entrance, so I stayed in the parking lot until someone else (completely dressed in black and not in hiking clothes) parked next to me. When she got out of the car, I awkwardly tried to make it seem like I had just arrived myself.

She seemed more confident about where to walk to, so I followed her and we introduced ourselves. At the base of the building, we were greeted by others who were there for orientation. We totaled 4 (including myself). There was a man and woman conducting the orientation and they introduced themselves to us.

After a bit of small talk, we sat down and spoke about our practices and what brought us to Diamond Sangha. For me, I’ve spent years reading books on zen but never really knew anyone who was familiar with zen. Most of my pronunciations are wrong because I’ve never vocalized a lot of the terms in books.

For example, it was relieving to hear them say certain words because it meant that I could imitate their pronunciation. I always thought that seiza (a way of formal sitting) was “s-eye-zah” – apparently it’s pronounced “say-zah”.

I embarrassed myself in 10th grade when I spoke to the psychology teacher about norepinephrine because I called it “nore-pine-phrine” rather than “nor-epin-efrin”. It’s what I get for reading books.

Anyways, soon we moved onto the zendo and learned about various postures and sitting techniques. Perhaps it would be better labeled as sitting styles. We were taught how to sit in full lotus, half lotus, seiza, and Burmese. The leaders emphasized that it’s important to do what works best for you and offered suggestions as they watched us try them.

I went through each leg formation and – after looking at many diagrams in books – was relieved that I could ask questions. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in the ways they had shown but I didn’t know how to rotate my hips or how to angle my feet.

After that, we took a break. When we resumed, they instructed us on zendo formalities. Bowing upon entrance, bowing towards others, bowing at the cushion, and finally kinhin. We sat in zazen for 15 minutes, did kinhin, then when back for another 15 minutes of zazen.

Surprisingly, it felt great. All my initial worries about formality and ritual were vanquished. We had a short session after sitting where we spoke about our experience, then migrated back outside the zendo to finish up.

It really saddened me that I’ve spent 4 years in Hawaii and I hadn’t worked up the courage to go until now. Though, I’m grateful that I still the opportunity to visit – with a little over a year left. I guess we’ll see where it goes from here!



August 1./ What’s been on my mind lately

My nightstand is 11 books deep and over half of it is about Zen. Paper enlightenment isn’t always good for the soul. Too much reading and you’ll get stuck with ideas and no practice. That’s where I am at the moment. I’ve just finished a book on Zen Master Hakuin, and now I’m reading translations of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō and Mumon Ekai’s Mumonkan.

It’s wonderful to encounter different perspectives and to take time to understand them. Although I cannot claim to fully comprehend their complexity (or perhaps simplicity), it’s nice to sit with them.

In fact, it’s been nice to sit with myself too. Lately, there have been a lot of passing thoughts that I didn’t notice I have. Many of them are ideas about the world and some of them are about me. For example, one of the ideas that’s been on my mind lately is about masculinity.

It sounds unusual to talk about this because I didn’t know that I held this idea until recently. Or well, I didn’t have a solid understanding of it. Being out of the closet (as gay) at age 11, I spent a lot of my younger years introspecting about who I am. Much of that time was spent with women, exploring topics that society deems as more feminine (i.e. emotions, empathy). I did this instead of developing traditionally masculine parts of myself.

Most of these traditionally masculine parts are heavily tactile. I never learned sports, fishing, or how to fix cars*. Instead I adopted the idea that these areas were mysterious or innate in some way (i.e. some guys are just naturally athletic or mechanically minded). And I was sure that I was not one of them.

I completely abandoned these topics and paid no mind to them for a very long time… well, until I joined the military and was suddenly surrounded by guys. Areas that were once mysterious started fading. Last year I started to spend a lot of time outdoors hiking**. This was a random growth. I started exploring tactile activities that I hadn’t enjoyed or thought about when I was younger.

As I’ve spent more time sitting in meditation recently***, I’ve noticed this subtle change. Lately I’ve been craving a long list of traditionally masculine activities. I know that’s a strange way to put it but I’ve been wanting to go rock climbing. Last week I worked on my car without feeling terrified I was going to break it. And I want to know more and do more. I don’t feel exhausted of it.

To someone who doesn’t feel this divide, what I’m writing about may not make any sense. Masculinity isn’t inherently about turning wrenches and femininity isn’t about emotions and social skills. Society places these generalizations on the genders and everybody feels it in some form. If you’re a dude and you don’t know how to work on your car, maybe you feel ashamed or embarrassed. Even if only a little bit. Or if you’re a chick and you’re one of those gals who scales those crazy upsidedown rock climbing walls, maybe you feel rebellious****.

I know this is basic Gender in Society 101 but I feel that sometimes I forget it. And often it feels like an invisible wall that confines me unknowingly. My car is mysterious and I avoid the thought of maintenance. I don’t think about why I’m avoiding it or why it feels so mysterious to me but I just push it out of my head.

Maybe that’s what I’ve been getting from my stack of paper enlightenment; these mysterious invisible walls are just mental constructs. Whether about gender or about my own limitations, I build my own confines. I think that everybody knows this but we’re not always conscious of it. We run into these invisible walls accidently and turn back around automatically without examining why we’ve put the walls there in the first place.

The cliché ending to this would be: “go off, do whatever you love, #noconfines #teardowntheinvisiblewalls” but I don’t think that’s quite the right answer either. Instead, I think it’s important to remain conscious. When you want to explore a new interest, whether it be in woodworking, kayaking, or maybe even the introspective stuff too, pay attention. Notice if you encounter a roadblock. Feel your way around it.

Get excited about new interests*****. Car maintenance isn’t that mysterious – well, actually it is but that’s okay too. The mystery isn’t bad. It’s all about exploring and learning.

Anyways, it’s getting pretty late here. Please forgive my generalizations about the genders. I know dudes that are very emotional and chicks that could beat me up. The masculinity/femininity was just to illustrate the most apparent invisible walls we build. These walls can be incredibly complex and difficult to deconstruct. I guess the first thing is to notice them. Anyways… I should get going. These are just the things that have been on my mind lately. Have a wonderful day/night wherever you are!

* This is to grossly undercut both femininity and masculinity
**Seriously, if I wasn’t out in the woods physically, I was there mentally
*** This sounds much more mysterious and exotic than it really is, promise
****Why would you feel rebellious? What status quo are you breaking? Oh, and P.S. I’m jealous that you can climb those funky walls. I want to be like spiderman too!

July 21./

It’s beginning to feel like every blog post I write starts with an apology about how long it’s been since I’ve last written. This time it appears another few months have gone by. Oh well.

Summer is passing but in Hawaii it’s hard to tell. The trees are in full blossom and the fragrance of flowers awakens me when I walk outside. It’s truly beautiful to live here. Next month will mark one year since arriving.

It’s odd how so much is different when nothing has changed. It’s all empty I suppose. The luscious grass and chirping birds in the morning. I, too, am empty. Like a mirror reflecting a mirror. Jet planes crackle with speed high above my home.


July 1./ Flowers will die and weeds will flourish

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been reading collections out of Zen Master Dōgen’s book Shōbōgenzō (The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). Dōgen was a 13th century monk who brought Zen Buddhism from China to Japan. One line out of the Genjōkoan chapter really stuck out to me, and it’s been stuck in my head lately. It’s translated to:
“Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread” (Robert Aiken/ Kazuaki Tanahashi).
Even though we like some things, they come to an end. Even though we dislike other things, they continue to be. It’s also been translated to “flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds, while hated, flourish” (Nishijima Roshi / Chodo Mike Cross) or “whilst we adore flowers they wither; weeds grow strong whilst we long for their destruction” (Jiyu-Kennett).
Just because we love something, or have favorable feelings for something, doesn’t mean it will last. Good things end. Everything ends. Even if you dislike something, it doesn’t mean it will go away or weaken. Unfavorable things happen too.
But you know what, it’s okay. This line is nothing new. We all know it. I think sometimes we just forget. We want to make the good stuff last a little longer and forget that it won’t last forever. We want to push away the bad stuff and hope it ends quicker.
“…flowers, though we love them, still die, and weeds, though we hate them, still grow all over the place” (Brad Warner).

I don’t know, this had just been on my mind lately.
(Translations were found in “Moon in a Dewdrop; writings of zen master dōgen” edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi and “Don’t be a Jerk” by Brad Warner)

An Empty Mirror

In Zen Buddhism there is a concept about an empty mirror. We all reflect the world around us. We’re reflecting each other’s emotions, the atmosphere of where we live, and the objects that surround us. If you spend all of your time around people who complain, chances are that you also complain. Similarly if all of your friends smoke, it’s likely that you also smoke. If you live in a city, you probably take on a few of the stereotypes applied to city folk. So without the world to influence you, what are you? This is the concept of the empty mirror.

When you realize that you’re a mirror, reflecting the world, you can begin to contemplate emptiness. You are not anything that you reflect, you are just a mirror. If you look deep into a mirror that is reflecting a pond, you may think “oh that is a pond!” but no, it is just a reflection. Similarly you are not your environment, you may look at yourself and think “oh I am adventurous or a hiker”. No, you identify with those traits but you are not them.

Perhaps now you are thinking “but I am adventurous! I know myself”. No, you are empty of everything. You are not the city that you live in or the people you hang around. You are not the emotions that you feel or what anyone calls you. What you are is reflection of everyone and everything. In reality, you are empty of all of it.

When you run on a hot day, you think “I am thirsty”. That is not you, that is a reflection of the body. By being part of the swim team, you are not a swimmer. That is what you do but it is not who you are. You are nothing. There is no you.

When you go through your day, you think “maybe I should go shopping”, “today it’s hot outside”, these thoughts are reflections. Without the external world, you couldn’t think these things. Therefore they are not part of you, they are not internal. They could not exist without the world.

When you feel angry, sad, happy or any other emotion. These feelings are a reflection of your environment or your body. They are not you, they come from the world. Maybe you need to eat more food because your body is hungry or you’re sad because you missed the train. Either way, it’s not from you.

Sometimes I identify with these environments and think “I’m a photographer or artist or writer”. What happens if you take away the camera or computer, am I still any of these? No, I’m just me. I’m a mirror reflecting the world.

Why is it important to understand this? Because when we identify with the world, that is, to take on an identity relating to what we are reflecting, we simplify or limit ourselves. When you say that you’re a swimmer to me, in your head a swimmer could be someone who swims recreationally, while I think it is a person who swims professionally or as part of a team. Immediately we have miscommunication. When you say you’re a swimmer, we have two different ideas about who you are.

Now when I say that I’m a photographer, I take on all the traits I think fit the term “photographer”. To me, that means I believe I’m a photographer because I take pictures of people and I get paid to do it. I think of photography as a lifestyle. Now problems start arising. I haven’t taken any pictures in 6 months, am I still a photographer? I no longer get paid to create images, who am I?

Internally we’re always talking to ourselves to make decisions. “Well, I’m an artist so I should _______” or “what would an artist do?”. I act as if I am what I’m reflecting. No, I am not a photographer, photography is something that I do. It is not my identity. Remember, I am just a mirror temporarily reflecting whatever is in front of me. Currently I don’t take pictures. I used to but now I don’t.

The reason we identify with these labels is because we want organization and simplification. When you ask me, “what do you do for a living?”, it’s easier to reply with “I am a carpenter”. There is no problem with this simplification – we generally understand each other. However, the problems arise when you answer these questions to yourself, when you start to think that you are a carpenter.

See, the mirror concept is a little bit troubling: it’s difficult to think “oh I am nothing”. We want an identity or something to label ourselves. We want to compare ourselves to others. “Well John’s a baker, at least I’m a traveler”. We don’t need to tell other people we’re better but we think it internally.

To fix this, stop identifying with what you do and the place where you are. You are not Buddhist because you meditate or a Christian because you go to church. You are not a tired person; that is a reflection. Stop trying to identify yourself, you are only perpetuating a condition. You will act like a tired person if you label yourself as one. Instead, just be or do. If you enjoy taking pictures, take pictures. If you live in Minnesota, don’t identify and think “oh I have to be this way because I’m a Minnesotan”. Just be as you are.


22/31 Blogtober


Oh how joyous it would be to take a summer off and garden. No job, no obligations, just focus on growing plants. I sit now with an old stack of letters next to me. As I read through them, I realize that life is cyclical. Our moods change with the season and come back. The lows you knew yesterday will sweep through you again and the highs will lift you back out.

Yet anticipations of tomorrow never came and may never arrive. This is because the primary catalyst for change in your life is you, not circumstance. The thing which holds you back is not a thing, it’s you. Those dreams you have, you can make them a reality. But first you must overcome circumstance.

You must cultivate your life but you cannot rush it. Like gardening, you do everything in your power to let the plants grow strong and tall. But you cannot prevent a rainstorm or a drought, which will destroy the garden. Instead, you must work with your plants each day until they come to fruition. Life is built on this cultivation and patience, focus on it and your life will bloom.


How do you experience the world?

The world affects you; everything that you ingest through your senses changes how you see the world. Philosopher David Hume posed a great question: if you deprive a man of all his senses from birth – that means sight, taste, touch, smells, and hearing – will he have any thoughts by the age of 18? Hume believed no, thought consisted only of external experience. The man’s mind would be thoughtless because he had no experience of the world.

Immanuel Kant, inspired by Hume’s question, answered with a slight difference. He believed the humans have intrinsic thought that adds to the external experience of the world. These thoughts he called “a priori”. Hume believed that life is a blur of color in front of our eyes and sensations to our skin. This neglected the meaning of sensory input; there were no connections between image and what it meant.

To Kant, life was more than an unpredictable swirl of the senses. There were concepts that were too abstract for only sensory input. Time is not something we could feel but yet we understand it without question. Our knowledge of space, and the relationships between objects, is too complex for sensory input and were thus a prior.

This bore what Robert Pirsig (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) calls the “classical” and “romantic” mindset. Classical understanding believes that form underlies itself, that what we sense is what exists as reality. On the other hand, the romantic understanding believes that there’s meaning behind form. The romantics believe in more a priori thought, as opposed to relying solely on sensory input.

By acknowledging both extremes, we gain a wider understanding. When I look at a car, I see potential for road trips, going out to shows, and more romantic ideas. Others see a car merely as a method of transportation. Through learning these different perspectives, we can see a greater part of the world. The question becomes, what do you see when you look at the world?