Posts in the “zen” category

Not touching your face in public reminds me of trying to meditate at a Zen center

These days whenever my face itches when I’m out in public and I can no longer scratch it, it reminds me of the early days of trying to meditate at a Zen center. You’re sitting there with a group of people and it’s absolutely quiet, and you’re trying to meditate, with your legs crossed and your hands in the “cosmic mudra” in your lap, and then something somewhere on your body starts to itch. But you’re not allowed to scratch it, you’re not even supposed to move.

If the itch is on your face you might kinda look around a little bit to see if anyone is looking at you — especially the Zen master with the wooden board. If nobody is looking, you can try to contort your facial muscles in different ways to relieve the itch. One time I tried to curl my lips in a weird way to blow some air up onto my itchy cheek, but in a large, quiet room with a wooden floor, that was surprisingly loud.

So in general, you’re pretty hosed, you just have to sit there and suffer, hoping it will go away, just like when you get an itch on your face when you’re shopping now.

New Heart Sutra translation by Thich Nhat Hanh

This image is part of a new Heart Sutra translation by Thich Nhat Hanh. “New” is a relative term, because it looks like this translation happened in 2014, but it was just released in 2020 by Plum Village. Here’s a link to the complete translation, and here’s a letter that describes why this translation was made. The first paragraph of the letter begins:

“Thay needs to make this new translation of the Heart Sutra because the patriarch who originally compiled the Heart Sutra was not sufficiently skilful enough with his use of language. This has resulted in much misunderstanding for almost 2,000 years.”

I don’t know many sutras, but the Heart Sutra is my favorite, so it’s interesting to see this new translation.

Some of Shinzen Young’s sayings in the first core lessons of the Brightmind app

As a “note to self,” I like some of Shinzen Young’s sayings/analogies/metaphors in the first core lessons of the Brightmind app. The ones that come to mind are:

  • Try to listen to your mental talk in your head just like it’s a sound in nature, like listening to a bird. In this way, “you” can observe the thoughts in your head as the fly by, without getting attached to them.
  • In regards to your awareness, you can think of it in two different ways: (a) aiming your attention at a spot/area, or (b) hugging a friend.

For more details, check out the Brightmind app.

Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master

Although a small woman physically, Dipa Ma was a giant of a meditation teacher.

While reading a book about her, it’s neat to see that while people use different practices and words, those who “go deep” all come to the same conclusion. This is a quote from her in the book, Dipa Ma: The Life and Legacy of a Buddhist Master:

“At each stage of enlightenment the fetters (hindrances) are extinguished, until (one day) they are gone. The fetters are related to birth in the same way that oil feeds the light of a lamp. As the oil becomes less and less, the light from the wick becomes less and less. When the oil is gone, the light is gone. Similarly, once the fetters are extinguished, the cycle of rebirth ends. From this, you can understand that birth and rebirth are in your hands.”

Emptiness vs interdependence in Buddhism

I’ve often wondered about the difference between the terms emptiness and interdependence in Buddhism, and came across this excellent Accidental Buddhist blog post recently, which includes this paragraph about a conversation the Dalai Lama had:

“In the course of one of these conversations, His Holiness tells Victor Chan that for decades he has meditated every day on interconnectedness and emptiness. He said that there are two types of reality. Firstly, there is ‘standard’ reality. He gestures towards a mug of water. When we look at it we see water. When we touch it we feel water. We know it is water. But then he described how we can look at it with ‘ultimate’ reality in which the mug is a combination of particles, atoms, electrons and quarks — none of these particles can be described as ‘a mug’. The term mug is just an every-day label for this collection of particles. The mug has come into existence because of a complex web of causes and conditions. Therefore it does not and could not exist independently. It cannot come into being by itself, of its own volition. It is empty of intrinsic, inherent existence. In other words, ‘empty’ is another word ‘interdependent.’”

We all tend to see ourselves as distinct entities; we are different from our friends and family. Due to our conditioning we believe we are distinct and independent, but in fact our existence depends on an infinite, intricately linked series of events, causes and conditions. (Your parents, grandparents, friends, where you were born and lived, and millions of other things.) If any of these conditions had varied, we would exist in a wholly different way. From this perspective, ‘self’ and ‘others’ makes sense only in terms of relationships. In fact, your interests and my interests are inextricably connected in a tangible way. The Dalai Lama concluded his discussion by emphasizing that anyone could obtain happiness and fulfillment by focusing on two main elements: compassion and emptiness.

He continued, “Normally we tend to see things in a solid, tangible way. Therefore there is a tendency to grasp at things, to become attached to things. We cling to the idea of a separate self and separate things. We strive for new experiences, new acquisitions. Yet as soon as we possess them, the buzz is gone and we look for something new. This endless cycle of craving causes suffering”.

Life - It's all connected

Back when I was studying Zen, I ran across the television series, Life. The first episode is almost perfect; this is a 40-second clip from it:

“Life is like a dream”

When you hear mindfulness people say something like, “Life is like a dream,” one thing they mean is that more than 99.99% of the stuff going on in our minds are thoughts about the past and the future. (Past happiness or regrets, and future hopes and concerns.) Because the only thing that’s real in the present moment is what’s actually happening in *only this moment*, anything that’s outside of this moment is in a strict sense no longer real.

Along this line of thinking I like Eckhart Tolle’s two quotes, “The present moment is all you ever have” — you know that to be true for sure if you’ve ever lost consciousness, not knowing if you’d ever open your eyes again — and my favorite of his:

“The whole essence of Zen
consists in walking along
the razor’s edge of Now.”

Quotes about work and Zen (practicing Zen at work)

For many years I struggled with how to combine two of my main interests, Zen and work. I have read that the Zen mind is the mind before thinking, so it seems like Zen and work must be totally unrelated. Over time I came to understand phrases like, “When working, just work.”

This article contains a collection of quotes that have been helpful to me in understanding the relationship between Zen and work. Please note that I don’t wrap each quote in double quotes, and I also try to attribute each quote to the correct author/speaker. If you’re interested in how to combine Zen and work, I hope you’ll find them helpful.

Do you hear the murmuring sound of the mountain stream?

A monk was anxious to learn Zen and said, “I have been newly initiated into the Brotherhood. Will you be gracious enough to show me the Way?”

The Master said, “Do you hear the murmuring sound of the mountain stream?”

The monk said, “Yes, I do.”

The Master said, “Here is the entrance.”


“Listening intently” is a simple, fun meditation practice. Just sit, relax, and listen to your environment like a dog, cat — or a squirrel in the wild, where your life depends on your listening. At work I used to have fun by listening to as many conversations as I could simultaneously.

Gratitude helps shut down distractions during meditation

I had to get away from it for a while, so I forgot how good the book Right Concentration: A Practical Guide to the Jhanas is. I tend to be more interested in the science behind mindfulness and meditation (as opposed to specific religions and their rituals), and as a result, from my own practice I can confirm the last sentence in this paragraph from that book. (See the attached image.)

Depending on the day, and especially the time of day, the first 5-10 minutes of any meditation session are the hardest for me, because it takes a while to get my mind to settle down. Since I learned this practice, I do settle down more quickly.

The benefits of mantra in meditation practice

As you progress in your meditation practice, the use of mantra(s) is a powerful way to stay focused all day.

I recall reading that Ram Dass said that even when he is speaking or listening to others, that in the background his mantra is always running in his head: “Ram ... Ram ... Ram.”

In the excellent book, Practicing the Jhanas, I throughout your day that you constantly remember to bring your attention back to the Anapana spot, a spot just under your nose.

Practicing The Jhanas

While Zen people are notorious for saying things like, “Sit there and meditate” — without telling you how to meditate — a book called Practicing The Jhanas is the best book I know on the topic of meditation. It not only walks you through how to meditate, it also gets into the different levels of meditation, and what you can expect at each level.

(If you’re only interested in Zen, the book Zen Training is the best Zen meditation book I know.)