Sunday, March 30, 2008

Oh, Woah We're Halfway There!

Whenever I've had the opportunity and/or annoyance of hearing folks talk about various meditation techniques and give big answer to big questions from their followers hungry for big answers to big questions, one common theme I’ve noticed is that whatever style of Enlightenment they’re talking about, or whatever euphemism they’re using for the e-word, the thing they’re guiding folks to is always…




The implication is, of course, that the speaker has got it and can lead their followers to it, or at least that the speaker knows someone – or knows of someone — who’s got it and is thus empowered to help guide fellow seekers along the path. Maybe the speaker’s “almost there” is just a little closer to there, wherever “there” happens to be.

Enlightenment is always just over the next hill, available if only you’d just do this one more thing, and do it sincerely, cuz if you don’t do it sincerely it won’t work, but if you have trouble doing it sincerely send me your credit card number and I’ll help you out. That’s the nature of Enlightenment, that it’s just around the next bend. Or maybe the one after that. Or maybe after those three and a bunch of hills. But it’s always off in the distance. Not here.

And it will always be off in the distance because there’s nowhere else it can be. The very definition of Enlightenment might as well be “off in the distance.”

It’s the proverbial carrot on a stick held out before a donkey. But at least the donkey gets to eat that carrot when he gets to wherever the driver wants him to go. Nobody ever gets Enlightenment. It’s like that movie Logan’s Run where everybody’s waiting to renew and all they end up is getting blown up.

You won’t get the closure they’re selling you because there is no closure. But that doesn’t mean things can’t improve. They can. The Enlightenment salesmen get all bent out of shape whenever anybody points out that they’re selling you pipe dreams that can never come true. Some of them think that nobody will try to do a practice unless they believe there’s some reward at the end of it. But I don’t know if people are all really that stupid.

Instead of hoping for some reward way off in the distance it may be better to look at what’s right here very carefully and closely. Then you can do the real work necessary to make this right here better. Make enough small improvements and -- voila! Enlightenment. It's sudden and instant the same way as the Pyramid of Chaeops was suddenly instantly completed the moment they put that last brick on top.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nishijima Sensei's Health, Tassajara and c.

Lots of people are asking me about how Nishijima Sensei is doing. For those who don't know, he posted a message on his blog saying he was going to the hospital and would not be posting for a while.

I'm as much in the dark as anyone else about this. Apparently not even his Japanese students have a clue. The only person I know of who would know is his daughter. But I don't even know her name, nor have I ever met her. She doesn't much care for her dad's Zen activities anyway and isn't likely to take kindly to calls from strangers about him even if I could find her. So I'm just sitting tight hoping somebody will contact me.

Also, I noticed a few people don't seem to get that my most recent post on Suicide Girls listed only Zen centers I'd had personal contact with. It's not intended as a comprehensive list. I'm reluctant to recommend any place I haven't actually been to or at least know the person who runs it. Which doesn't mean places I don't know that well are bad or anything. I just don't know them. For example, my guess is that lots of the places run by Kobun Chino's dharma heirs -- like Jikoji near Santa Cruz -- are very good. But I've never gone to any of them.

Also, I'm going to be staying at Tassajara for two weeks in early April, trying out one of their work practice periods. Go to their website for info on that. It sounds like a fun and relatively painless way to see Tassajara as it actually functions. There's no Internet service up there. But maybe I can find a way to write blog entires on paper and mail them to someone in the surface world to type up and post.

Gotta go.

Monday, March 24, 2008


My latest article for Suicide Girls just went up. This is an attempt at answering the question I'm most frequently asked. Which is, "Where can I study Zen in my area?" Even people who have read the F.A.Q., where it says I don't have a clue about that will write something like, "I know you say you don't know about a lot of Zen centers. But I live in Bumfuck, Egypt. And I was hoping maybe you know a center in the metropolitan Bumfuck area. By the way, what would be the best bus route to take there because I don't have a car? And can I take my dog with me because I don't want to leave him alone for that long? Plus they have to serve vegan food because I'm a very strict vegan. And the place should be wheelchair accessible because even though I don't use a wheelchair I refuse to go in places that are not accessible. And can I sit in a chair there instead of on a zafu because once when I sat on the floor my leg started to fall asleep? And I don't want them to tell me anything but the stuff I want to hear. So can you ask them to do that too? Thanks! I love your writing. Dharma Punx was one of the best books I read last year!"

Uh, anyway, here's the closest thing to an answer I can muster.

I hope I haven't left out any of the centers I've visited. If I have, then please let me know and I can still edit the article to include you. No slight is intended. I'm just kind of dumb is all.

I just watched a documentary about Bukowski called Bukowski: Born Into This. That guy drank a lot! Good doc, though. And I love the beer shit poem.

Monday, March 17, 2008


First off, please go read the Interview with Ethan Holtzman of Dengue Fever I did, which is now up at Suicide Girls. This interviewing stuff is a new thing for me that I hope to do a lot more of in the future.

OK. I need some help. Please read the following carefully before responding.

Gudo Nishijima has translated the poem "Fundamental Song of the Middle Way" by Nagarjuna from Sanskrit into English. This poem is very ancient and very difficult. It has been translated a number of times before, though I believe all of the English versions are out of print currently with the possible exception of "Verses From The Center" by Stephen Batchelor, which is not really a scholarly translation but more Mr. Batchelor's own interpretation (this is a valid thing, but it's not what Nisshijima is intending to do). Though this is the case, the out-of-print versions are not all that hard to find thru sites like Powell's, Amazon and Abe Books.

Nishijima's translation is unlike any of the others which, he believes, are all basically incorrect. He does not want his version "corrected" into something more resembling the standard translations.

Three native English speakers have worked on making Nishijima's English version comprehensible to native speakers of English. The first two walked off the job in frustration. Somehow I managed to complete the task to his satisfaction and now he would like to publish it. However I have found that I cannot do this alone.

Here are the problems.

1) The Sanskrit font used by the first guy who worked on the project has become corrupted. There are dozens of other fonts available. So please don't propose fixing the problem by pointing me to a link where I can find a Sanskrit font. The problem is that I can find no way to fix what's already been done except by re-typing every single Sanskrit word that appears in the piece. And there are a whole lot of them. I simply do not have the time to do this. Perhaps someone can come up with an easier fix. But I can't. Before you propose anything, please look at the PDF files that are linked at the end of this blog entry so you can understand precisely what the problem is. If you compare these attached files with one of the existing printed versions of the piece (please do this before proposing anything), you will notice that in numerous places the letters used are incorrect or there are simply blank spaces where letters ought to be.

2) I need a proofreader/editor. I cannot judge for myself what makes sense and what does not make sense to anyone other than me. I do not want a fan to tell me everything is great and I don't want a fan who thinks I want scathing criticism of every line to try and make me happy by critiquing every little nuance. I need a real editor, preferably (but not necessarily) someone with experience working with other authors.

3) We need a publisher. Currently we're thinking that print-on-demand is the way to go. But we're open to any and all other options.

Here are two excerpts from the book. This is the introduction:


And here is chapter 9, which I chose arbitrarily as a pretty good example of what most chapters are like:


There are 28 chapters plus the introduction and an extra chapter devoted to a four line verse that precedes the piece. Most are about this length, though a few are shorter and some are longer.

Please do not respond without reading both of these excerpts in their entirety. If you can't at least do that much you won't be able to do the rest.

The problems listed above are just the most pressing ones. There are plenty of others to be worked out. If you don't like problem solving, don't write me about this. Also don't expect to get paid for this work. In the unlikely event the book ends up making any money you'll get your share. But I don't foresee that happening and I don't have a budget to pay for the work. However, we will give anyone who helps all due credit for their work and it could look good on a resume.

Sorry to be such an ass about all this. But I've been flaked out upon by a number of people who offered to help on this project in the past and I would prefer not to waste a lot of time. If you want to help (and you're very certain you want to help) please write me at:


Monday, March 10, 2008

What Will Zazen Do For Me?

I got an e-mail from Lynn Thompson who does the radio show Living on Purpose. She said:

"I am airing our talk again on again this week,
Monday (10th) 3 - 5pm EST
Tuesday 3 - 5 AM (for European listeners)
Friday 10 am - noon

She also said the show's podcast on Rabble was the most popular podcast they've put up yet, with over a thousand hits. Yikes.

On Sunday, I did the first of three classes at Karuna Yoga in L.A.'s Los Feliz district (1939 1/2 Hillhurst, near the corner of Franklin and Hillhurst). It was a good class although three people got turned away cuz they arrived an hour late due to not realizing Daylight Savings Time started that morning. Sorry. You'll have two more opportunites to get it right, though. Sunday March 16th at 8 AM and Sunday March 23rd at 8 AM. And remember our regular classes in Santa Monica (info to your left).

I got one question at Karuna that I get a lot. It went something like, "If I take up this zazen practice what will it do for me?"

There are a million variations and every Zen teacher gets them all the time. My friend Greg Fain up at San Francisco Zen Center said that the more you practice zazen the harder it is to answer that question. Lots of times Zen teachers will give what seem like flippant, dismissive answers. "Nothing!" is a pretty common response. But we're not being flippant, really, just honest.

Most meditation teachers try to sell you on their technique, so they have nice pat answers to that question. They'll tell you about reaching equanimity, establishing peace of mind, even reaching Enlightenment. In the long run zazen has all of these benefits too. But I hate to stress them because if you're looking for those things in your practice, the very activity of looking for them prevents you from ever achieving them. It is precisely because you're always looking for peace of mind outside of your own real state of mind that you're never peaceful. It's because you look for Enlightenment outside of this moment that you're never enlightened. You certainly can achieve weird states of mind that unscrupulous teachers will tell you are the states you're seeking. But I wouldn't listen to any of them. What do they know about your state of mind anyway?

On some level you may indeed be able to say you "get something" out of the daily practice of zazen. I certainly wouldn't have kept it up for 25 years if it was a complete waste of time. But in order to get anything out of it, you need to drop the idea that you'll ever get anything out of it. Just see clearly where you are at this moment. That's enough.

Gotta go do some paying work now. Bye!


Almost immediately after that piece went up, some anonymous poster wrote:

*I certainly wouldn't have kept it up for 25 years if it was a complete waste of time.* That's a pretty dumb statement. Here's the deal on Hardcore Zen you said just sit. In Sit Down and Shutup you said you have to sit half-lotus. And Dogen says you can't get to the real zen unless you have a teacher. I'm disappointed as the more I get into it the more it starts to sound like all the other stuff out there.

This question brings up another interesting aspect of the practice, which relates to the initial question. Nobody’s going to try to sell you Zen. Well, some guys (I won't name names) want to sell you something they call Zen. But that’s not Zen.

Why would I try to sell you Zen? I don’t get any money from it. I don’t get any brownie points from the home office in Fukui Prefecture. I don’t get any crowns in Heaven for winning more souls. I have no reason to try and sell you Zen. You think I make money on the retreats and classes? Ha! Those fuckers always end up costing me my shirt. If I didn’t have a day job and a career as an author I couldn’t even consider doing them. I think most Zen teachers have a similar attitude about selling the practice. Want a lucrative career? Don't be a Zen teacher.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am trying to sell you my books. Go buy them! I get money from those. Part of the reason I maintain this blog is to flog those books. But that’s a different animal altogether. The books are about my Zen practice. But the books themselves are not Zen practice.

The reward I would get from more people practicing Zen is a more peaceful, stable world. And I do want that. So, yeah, maybe I am trying to sell you Zen. I take it all back.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

OM and EGO

I'm listening to one of my two new favorite bands right now, the mighty OM. They are a duo consisting of bass and drums who play droning sludge rock that sounds like a 33 rpm Black Sabbath record played at 16 rpm very, very loud. I already mentioned them in an earlier post, I think. It's the most amazing sound I've heard in like forever.

My other new fave band is Dengue Fever. I just did an interview with them a couple weeks ago that I hope to post to Suicide Girls soon.

I did my interview with Nina Hartley last week. That was very interesting. Who knew a porn star would have so many opinions on Zen? And all kinds of other interesting stuff. A very intelligent woman!

Just this morning I finished sitting a retreat at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center where I am right now as I write this. It was a great retreat, one of the best I've ever done. They've got an amazing group down here. I did three talks, one of which was recorded. I'll see about getting a pod cast of that up here once I get a copy.

I've been thinking a lot about ego lately. In early Buddhist writings in English you read a lot about ego. But it seems these days the subject isn't addressed much. I've deliberately avoided the word myself. I think this may be because a lot of mistakes were made by those early practitioners in the West. They thought that Buddhism was all about destroying the ego. Which is true. But this was taken to mean we should beat ourselves up, and destroy our personalities. It was seen as some kind of spiritual virtue to act like you had no personality, no opinions, to be passive, to be a doormat.

Of course that approach doesn't help anything. Ego is an illusion. That's true. Yet we all occupy a specific place in the universe and it's our duty to be what we are. That means it's fine to have a personality, to have opinions, to have (gasp!) preferences. It's natural, good and useful. The trap is when we think these things are "mine." My personality, my opinions, my preferences, my self.

For me this retreat was a lot about seeing how I do that. Sometimes there are things you need to say and to do in order to fulfill your role in the universe. But we have a tendency to latch onto our role in the universe and try to affix it to something that doesn't exist, to some kind of a permanent self that belongs to us. It's an absurd idea. Self belongs to self. I belong to me. Why are there two of me? But we all do it, senseless as it is. In doing this, we go beyond what's necessary as our role in the universe and begin, instead, to act in ways intended to preserve this fiction of self. Once we step over that line, we can't do anyone any good anymore. We just end up in a battle of egos like the War of the Gargantuas.

It's hard to find that line where we are asserting what needs to be asserted yet not stepping into the land of ego. It usually involves acting humble (though sometimes not) and that's hard to do. It's not a passive, milquetoast kind of humility that's called for. It's a kind of assertive humility that is, at the same time, completely unlike passive aggression. God knows I fail at this a whole lot.

ANYWAY, it's not that we seek to destroy the ego, so much as to realize it's just a useful fiction. Shunryu Suzuki said that we have a personal self that appears and disappears. It's not a fixed thing. It exists in order that the universe might express itself, not in order that I can express my self.