Tuesday, March 31, 2009


ZEN WRAPPED IN KARMA DIPPED IN CHOCOLATE is number five this week in the San Francisco Chronicle's Best Seller list under "Quality Paperbacks." Wooooo-hoooooo!!

I guess maybe this touring thing is good for something. I'm at my sister's place in Knoxville, TN recuperating from the first leg of the tour and hoping I survive the next onslaught. The Deep South leg should be a little better because two of the major stops are 3-day Zen retreats, which are usually pretty chill and don't involve hauling ass from one place to another each day like I've been doing for the past two weeks.

A couple things, while I'm here. As I've said a bunch of times I basically no longer read the comments on this blog. On the rare occasions I do peek in it's clear that a lot of folks who post in there don't believe that. But it's true. I know there's some intelligent discussion going on. But the way some of the haters dominate the place just makes me lose interest very quickly.

Anyhow, I looked in there the other day and some guy was going on about how he used to think what I wrote was a breath of fresh air in the Zen world but now he's seen that what I write is just creating a mass of people who don't give a shit about anything. I'd just like to say that in my observation in traveling around the country meeting the people who've read my books, that is definitely not the case at all.

These are people who, to extend the metaphor of the guy who posted, deeply give a shit about everything. I am constantly amazed by the kind of people I'm meeting as I travel. These are not people whose attitude is "fuck everything I do what I want." They are profoundly committed to something greater than themselves.

Maybe they don't look the way we've been conditioned to believe Zen people should look and maybe they don't use the same vocabulary. Hell, I find some of the people who show up to my talks pretty scary myself! But that stuff is just superficial. There's something happening here and it's pretty amazing.

I can't take credit for this at all. Sometimes I wonder what these folks have been reading! It can't be the crap I write.

Anyway, back to the comments. I've found that the Internet is sometimes like a weird alternate universe that doesn't interact with the real world very much at all. I use the Internet, obviously. But I don't really participate in the bizarre artificial social stuff that goes on there a whole lot. People on the Internet don't act or respond like they do in the real world. When Tassajara caught fire and had to be evacuated some of the people who'd lived there started a blog so they could keep in contact. The comments section of that blog quickly turned nasty in ways that could never have happened in the actual physical community.

This is why I have very little interest in so-called "cyber-sanghas." They really are not in any way shape or form the same as real face-to-face communities. Even with the most up to date technology they don't work in the same way. I know it's tough for people who feel isolated from any kind of like-minded Buddhists. But I don't believe the Internet can ever be a substitute for real life personal interaction.

ANYWAY, while I was in DC, Shawn Cartwright, who hosted me there, gave me a copy of D.T. Suzuki's paperback "Zen Buddhism," published in 1956. I've never read much of D.T. Suzuki's writings. But I'm pleasantly surprised to see that most of it isn't too bad at all. He's a very good source for the historical stuff I've kind of neglected.

But the thing that bugs me is his insistence that Zen is illogical, or beyond mere logic. On page 19 of the paperback he gives an example. He quotes a conversation in which a monk asks Master Shin of Chosa, "Where has Nansen (an ancient Buddhist master) gone after his death?" Master Shin answers, "When Sekito was still in the order of young novitiates he saw the sixth patriarch." The monk says, "I didn't ask about the young novitiate. What I want to know is where Nansen went after his death." Master Shin replied, "As to that question, it makes one think."

Suzuki says about this, "What does 'it makes one think' explain? From this it is apparent that Zen is one thing and logic another. When we fail to make this distinction and expect Zen to give us something logically consistent and intellectually illuminating, we altogether misinterpret the signification of Zen."

Reading that I was just baffled. Because to me the conversation is perfectly logically consistent and even intellectually illuminating. The monk asks the master an abstract question and the master, not wanting to discuss abstractions, answers with a concrete fact. The monk persists and the master explains the true significance of the monk's question very clearly. It is the type of question that "makes one think." And that's all it does.

Speculation on what happens after people die simply makes you think. All anyone can do in response to such a question is indulge in abstractions and fantasies. This is what turned me away from religion a long time ago. I wanted to know the answer to what happened after people died and all I got was stories and fantasies. I found the Zen answer to be perfectly logical when it said that all you can ever get from such answers is a peek into someone else's world of fantasy. And I wasn't interested in other people's fantasies.

I don't really understand how anyone can miss this, especially a guy like D.T. Suzuki who otherwise seems to have a pretty good grasp of what's real and true.

Anyway, that's my little sermon on that for today.

Keep buying them books and sending them rocketing up the charts!

Check the list to your left <<<<< to see where I'll be next (Malaprop's in Asheville, NC as it turns out).

Monday, March 30, 2009


I had a great time last night in Baltimore visiting my friend Laura Rachel, tattoo artiste extraordinaire. Laura and I shared the scuzziest house in all of Akron about a zillion years ago. Then a couple years back Laura flew all the way to Japan to attend one of the retreats I led at Tokei-in temple (guess which one in the photo is Laura). That was a big surprise. She liked my first book and got into zazen because of it.

Back when I shared a house with her I didn't really talk about my practice. I asked her last night if she was even aware of it in those days, and she said she wasn't. Even now I'm a little reluctant to talk about Zen unless someone specifically asks about it and seems sincerely interested. There's no sense in trying to convert anyone. It's too hard. You have to really want to do it.

And speaking of people who want to do zazen, what an audience I had at the Traditional Chinese Cultural Institute in Washington, DC (actually Potomac, MD)! I was primed to expect a bunch of middle-aged Chinese people who wanted to hear about the Chinese origins of Zen. Instead most of the audience was young punk rocker-ish types who wanted to hear about the finer points of zen practice! The kinds of questions they were asking were things I rarely get asked outside of Zen centers. Amazing. Plus they all dragged themselves out of bed to show up at ten in the morning! Thanks!

So far the tour has been going great, but I am really, really tired. Talking takes a lot out of you. The woman who organized my talk in DC told me it's because talking takes a lot of chi energy. I'm inclined to believe that's true. It takes a lot of something! That's for sure! Plus all the dragging around of big boxes of books.

If you want a review of one of my talks on the tour, take a look at Stone Darth's Live Journal page. Yes it's true. I told all those Zen nerds at San Francisco Zen Center that I hate zen. I do. Sometimes. It's important not to love it too much, I think. If you love it too much you have a tendency to get a bit too idealistic and dreamy with it. Hating zen is no impediment to practice. It's what drives me sometimes.

I got two days off. Well, not quite two anymore. I'll be with my sister and my niece Skylar. I wonder if she'll put me on her YouTube show again. Sock Monkey is traveling with me. I know he'd like to be on the show.

My brother-in-law (my sister's husband) is doing up some T-shirts for me. So I'll have those on some of the later dates on the tour (see full info about upcoming dates to your left). Buy them so I can buy gas and eat!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

10 not 11!

Tomorrow at 10 am (NOT 11!) I'll be at Traditional Chinese Cultural Center, Potomac Community Center Social Hall 11315 Falls Rd., Potomac, MD 20854 (I said 11 before)

Oh, and by the way, the talk at Monmouth University was incredibly lovely, with delicious manicotti (sp?) had by all. Ronni is a goddess! (That's who arranged the thing, masterfully). I talked to counseling program grad students while wearing a button that said "Not your fucking therapist," which was given to me by Violet Blue of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Good times.

Now I lay me down to sleep and prepare for my ten am (not 11) tomorrow.


This is the very first blog posting I've done from a moving Amtrack train. Technology is incredible. I have one of those devices that allows me to access the Internet via cell phone signals. It gets cranky sometimes. But to my amazement it's working fine on this train.

Tomorrow at 10 am (I put 11 am on this before -- sorry) I'll be speaking at the Traditional Chinese Cultural Center, which will be meeting at the Potomac Community Center Social Hall 11315 Falls Road Potomac, MD 20854. It should be interesting. I'm supposed to relate my talk to Chinese culture. That's not a huge stretch. After all, Dogen went to China to bring back the style of Zen I teach. But I'm having to study for this one, which is not something I usually do! Come see me fall flat on my face!

After that I have two days off, the first of which will be devoted to traveling all day. I couldn't get a reasonably priced direct flight from DC to Knoxville, where my sister lives and out of which I will be basing the Deep South Wing of Kalpa-long Cassidy Tour 2009 (thanks to John Graves for the new name of World Domination Tour 09). On April Fool's Day at 7pm I'll be Malaprops Books, 58 Haywood St., Asheville, North Carolina 28801 and then after that I have a four day retreat at the Southern Dharma Retreat Center. I think there still may be spaces available. All the info you need is linked over there to your left<<<<<<<

The talk this morning at Brooklyn Zen Center was one of the funnest ever. What a great group! 50-some people stuffed into a tiny Brooklyn apartment! What a riot!

OK. This typing on the train is proving harder than I thought. Plus the battery in my laptop, which is supposed to last 4 hours, always poops out after about 45 minutes. So I'll leave you with that. See you tomorrow in DC!!!

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Those of you in San Francisco may have already seen Violet Blue's article on me in her Open Source Sex column for the SF Chronicle yesterday. Those who haven't can click on the link above. I noticed most of the comments are from deranged haters. So if you have anything nice to say, please leave some decent ones.

Tonight (3/27/09 Fri) at 6pm I'll be speaking at Monmouth University 400 Cedar Ave, West Long Branch, NJ 07764 at Magill Commons, The Faculty Dining Hall. Tomorrow at 11 am I'm at the Brooklyn Zen Center. All relevant info is linked over to your left<<<<<<<

Also, tomorrow at Hill Street Center in Santa Monica there'll be all-day zazen hosted by Kevin Bortolin, a fellow Dharma Heir of Gudo Nishijima Roshi.

This is my last day in NYC proper, so I'm gonna go out and enjoy it instead of spending the day typing on this lap-top.

Thanks to my friend Marc Catapano for taking me on a groovey tour of Greenwich Village yesterday. And thanks to Ellen Scordato, Ethen Nichtern, author of the fabulous One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, and all at the Interdependence Project for kindly hosting my stay here.

I'll be in Brooklyn tomorrow (as I said) and then I'm outta here and on to D.C. on Sunday. Will Obama stop by to catch my talk? We both have connections to Kenya, after all!


That's the first line of the Frank Sinatra song "New York, New York." Actually, I'm sure Frank didn't write it.

Tonight (March 26, 2009 Thurs) at 7 I'll be at East/West Books, 78 5th Avenue (at 14th St.) New York, NY 10011. You better be there, or else!

Tomorrow is Monmouth College in West Long Branch NJ at 6 pm, the next day is the Brooklyn Zen Center at 11 am, and Sunday is at the Traditional Chinese Cultural Center in Washington DC at 10 am. Attendance at all functions is mandatory. You will not be released from the cycle of birth and death unless you're there! All the info you need is linked on the very first link over there to your left<<<<<<<<

Last night at the Interdependence Project was cool and groovey. That's one of my favorite venues. Friendly folks and great questions. Sold a couple-few books too, which is nice.

New York City is fun. It's cloudy outside today! After living so long on the West Coast that seems almost exotic. Last night I was introduced as being from the West Coast, which I almost resented seeing as I grew up mostly in Ohio. But maybe it's the tan. I don't sun myself. But it's sunny there and I spend a lot of time outside so to people "back east" I look all toasty.

I did an interview for a local public access TV show called A Better World and the interviewer asked, "Why Buddhism?" Why don't I just get rid of the silly robes and the other trappings and just teach, y'know, awakening and stuff (actually he didn't talk that way, I just can't recall what he said exactly).

I've thought about this a lot. In many ways I'm very much inclined to do just that, to ditch the whole Buddhism thing and go off on my own. To disrobe (heh-heh) as they say. But I feel that wouldn't be entirely honest. I know that one woman whose name I can never recall, the former student of Kapleau... dammit. People have told me her name at least half a dozen times and it instantly leaves my memory banks. Anyway I know she famously did that, got rid of all the Buddhist stuff and just teaches. And what I've seen of her work is very good (you can tell I've read a lot of it, can't you?).

But for me, it wouldn't work. I am a Buddhist. I accepted Dharma Transmission from a Buddhist Master and if I were to deny that I accepted that I'd be lying. People sometimes think I'm bragging when I say this. But really I'm almost embarrassed that I did this. It is very much out of character. I didn't ask for it. In fact I took a year or so to finally accept it when it was offered. But I did it and now I have to face the consequences.

It's an honor, sure. But it's also a burden. For better or worse I am part of something, a movement maybe, or a sub culture... I don't know for sure. Not a religion. But something else. And it doesn't belong to me.

By the way, I just got some terrible news. They've announced the cast for the Three Stooges Movie that's to begin shooting this year or next. Sean Penn will play Larry Fine, Jim Carrey will be Curly Howard and Moe will be played by Benicio Del Toro. It will not be a biopic, but will be a comedy with those three essaying the roles of the Stooges. I'm not making this up.

Please God, no!!!!!!!!

Whatever. I gotta get out of this dog goned hotel room. See ya tonight!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


OK. Don't forget about the gig at the Interdependence Project tonight at 7-9 pm at 302 Bowery, (Buzzer #2) New York, NY 10012. Be there!!

Plus there's other gigs out here "back East" as they say on the West Coast at East/West Books, Monmouth University, the Brooklyn Zen Center and the Traditional Chinese Cultural Center in DC. All details are on the link over there to your left. You must come to all of them!!

Also, back out West, there will be an all-day Zazen sitting at Hill Street Center this Saturday led by the wonderful and great Kevin Bortolin. Kevin is also a dharma heir of Nishijima Roshi. And not a drama heir of him, as there seem to be a few of! Or at least one very loud and highly dramatic one of... (I can't believe the incredible bullshit that is being put out about Nishijima these days, though can anyone really wonder why the old man isn't talking to the person spreading this deceitful, self-serving ugliness? The supposedly "antisemitic" Nishijima Roshi has done 2 or 3 speaking tours of Israel at his own expense. And that's all I'm saying about that! Except that I sometimes wish I had the wild sex life this joker wants folks to think I have! But if it sells books, I'm all for letting those rumors stand! Oh calm the fuck down! Nobody can take a joke anymore.).

There will be another one of these all-day deals at Hill Street Center in April. But I can't recall the date so I hope either Kevin or John Graves will e-mail that to me. In any case, there are sittings with the Dogen Sangha group there every Saturday while I'm on tour. Don't miss them!

I'm all wound up from traveling and being on the radio at two in the morning in New York City. So you should ignore me at this point. I gotta get out of this room. It's almost noon (i.e. 9am to my internal clock)!

I promise I'll try to talk some Buddhism here one of these days instead of just being a dork (which is also Buddhist practice sometimes).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


I just arrived in NYC, the Big Apple. Tomorrow, Wed. March 25th, I'll be speaking at the Interdependence Project at 302 Bowery. Be there! I mean it! Man, people are always ragging on me, "When are you gonna come to the East Coast?" Well, here I am and I ain't gonna be back anytime soon. So get it while it's hot, New Yorkers!

In a couple hours I'll be on the Joey Reynolds Show on WOR radio. My bit starts at 2 AM Eastern. I'm not sure if it's streamed or not. But isn't everything streamed these days?

My other East Coast gigs are listed on the link over there to your left<<<<<

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Those of you up in Marin County are ORDERED to come to my book signing this afternoon at Copperfield's Books 140 Kentucky St. in Petaluma at 1:30.

Those of you on the East Coast are ORDERED to attend my events in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC and (no sleep till) Brooklyn!! Info is linked over there to your left<<<< at the page called something like "Book Tour 2009" or whatever.

Speaking of which, I've been removing the dates I've already done as I do them and I have recently decided this is stupid. It makes the tour look less extensive. So I won't be doing that anymore. Anyone know how I can find an older version of the post and thereby reinstate the stuff I've already deleted? It's all deleted on the version on my hard drive. I could retype it, sure. But I'm lazy and busy.

Been thinking a lot about communal Zen practice. I should sit down and write a well reasoned essay on the subject. But I ain't got time. Human beings are social creatures and community is vital to our survival. We all want to be part of a community.

On the other hand, some folks, like me for example, are kind of anti-social types. That's probably the biggest difference between me and Noah Levine. He loves community and spends a lot of time, effort and energy building his Dharma Punx community and maintaining it.

I can't stand doing that shit myself. I'm not a party animal. I used to like the anonymous crowds in Tokyo a lot. But I'm not into the social stuff of building and maintaining community. Even though I know it's important.

How do people like us navigate community Zen practice? Frankly, I don't really know just yet. I do know I'd much rather be in someone else's community than try to start my own. Which is basically what I do when I'm on the road.

This is why I'll often recommend people to just deal with communities in their own area even when they kind of hate certain aspects of them. Obviously if it's a cult or something, don't stay. But if it just chafes at you a little, that isn't such a big problem.

That's about all I can say right now. Just a little interim note that I may try to build on later.

See you on the road!!

Friday, March 20, 2009


For those of you who missed my interview on Pirate Cat Radio yesterday with DJ Scooter Stalin, an MP3 of it is up here (click for link). It'll only be there for like 2 weeks or something. So listen up while you can. It was a pretty good interview, I thought. It took a little while to settle into something. But once it did things got pretty deep. Surprisingly so.

I'm still in San Fran-sissy (oh, calm down!). I got a few more dates (not those kinds of dates, you sillies!) up here, which are:

TONIGHT March 20, 2009 (Fri), 6:30-9 pm - San Francisco Zen Center Dinner & Talk - 300 Page St. San Francisco, CA 94102 (the talk will be at about 7:30, but you can come eat dinner before)
•March 21, 2009 (Sat), 4 pm - Green Apple Books 506 Clement St. at 6th Ave. San Francisco, CA 94118 kpr@greenapplebooks.com
•March 22, 2009 (Sun), 1:30 pm Copperfield's Books 140 Kentucky Street Petaluma, CA sdeignan@copperbook.com

I will also be on Channel 4, KRON's Sunday morning news/talk show on March 22nd with Henry the Gardener. I'm not sure what time I'll go on yet. But I'll make a note of it once I hear. Last time I did the show I was on at about 9 or 10, I think. The one I did previously is the show I referenced in Zen Wrapped in Karma that one of my Dharma Brothers said I looked like a weirdo on. Maybe I'll do better this time.

Last night a guy I know up here took me to this place called One Taste where they teach Orgasmic Meditation. You can read an article in the New York Times about them on line. I didn't really get enough information to draw any firm (heh-heh) conclusions. But I can tell you it ain't Zazen! That's for darn sure. I think I'd like to save my opinions on this for a later piece (heh-heh).

I'm a pretty liberal guy. But I was raised mainly in the backwoods of Northeast Ohio and certain things still make me blush.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I'm gonna be on Pirate Cat radio 89.7 FM in San Francisco today at 2pm Pacific Time. You can hear it live streaming at www.piratecatradio.com/. So listen up, darn you!!

My friend Greg Fain, ino of San Francisco Zen Center, has a blog called The Ino's Blog that you may enjoy. He explains what an ino is in the blog.

The rest of my Bay Area dates are:

•March 20, 2009 (Fri), 6:30-9 pm - San Francisco Zen Center Dinner & Talk - 300 Page St. San Francisco, CA 94102
•March 21, 2009 (Sat), 4 pm - Green Apple Books 506 Clement St. at 6th Ave. San Francisco, CA 94118 kpr@greenapplebooks.com
•March 22, 2009 (Sun), 1:30 pm Copperfield's Books 140 Kentucky Street Petaluma, CA sdeignan@copperbook.com

And don't forget about the Interdependence Project in New York City on March 25th. That's at 302 Bowery, (Buzzer #2) New York, NY 10012.

There's more info on my page of tour dates which is linked over there to your left<<<<.

My book signing at Diesel Books in Oakland yesterday was one of the best I've ever done. I'm usually a bit leery or at least cautious about bookstore events. They range all over the map, from a Spinal Tap-like disaster in Cleveland where literally one person showed up, to the one in Greenwich Village that got hijacked by a couple Christina Fundamentalists* who used the Q&A session to advance their own views, to some really amazing places with attentive and fun audiences. Last night was one of those.

But, as per usual with me, I forgot to bring my camera. So the actual contents of the event will be forever lost to the ages.

And speaking of ages, one of the greatest people I met last night was a woman named Lea. I know it's impolite to discuss the age of a lady. So I'll just say she was well beyond what's usually thought of as my target demographic of young punk rockers. But she was so sweet and kind and expressed such a love for my books I almost felt like I might be doing some little bit of good. Or at least providing some quality entertainment value. Thank you Lea and thank you everyone who showed up last night!

*I only caught this type-o after I posted the blog. But I'm leaving it in because it amuses me to imagine what Christina Fundamentalists might be. Obviously I meant to write "Christian Fundamentalists."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Here I am once again in San Francisco. I have not eaten any rice-a-roni yet. But they tell me it is delicious.

Those of you in the Bay Area will have loads of opportunities to hear my words of Deep Cosmic Wisdom™. Or at least a few bad jokes. And I will draw stegosauruses on your books for you.

The dates are over on the link to your left. Or, if you can't be bothered with that much dragging of a heavy mouse and clicking with your sore, tired, old finger, here they are:

TODAY March 18, 2009 (Wed), 7 pm - Diesel Bookstore 5433 College Avenue Oakland, CA 94618 events@dieselbookstore.com
•March 20, 2009 (Fri), 6:30-9 pm - San Francisco Zen Center Dinner & Talk - 300 Page St. San Francisco, CA 94102
•March 21, 2009 (Sat), 4 pm - Green Apple Books 506 Clement St. at 6th Ave. San Francisco, CA 94118 kpr@greenapplebooks.com
•March 22, 2009 (Sun), 1:30 pm Copperfield's Books 140 Kentucky Street Petaluma, CA sdeignan@copperbook.com

(note that the scheduled gig in Petaluma on Thursday night has been canceled)

I'll also be on Pirate Cat Radio 87.9 on your FM dial (I hear FM radio is in stereo!) at around 2 PM on Thursday March 19th.

Also, Uku Leitinen has put up a whole bunch of very new audio files of his talks with Nishijima roshi on his blog. These were recorded just a couple weeks ago. Listen while they're hot!

Also, also, the folks at the Interdependence Project in New York City wanted me to remind you that I'll be speaking there on Wednesday March 25th at 7 PM. Last time I was there it was a sell-out crowd. So they wanted me to mention here that if you're planning to go, please reserve yourself a spot now before they're gone. That's at 302 Bowery (Buzzer #2), New York, NY 10012.

I've been thinking a lot about institutional Zen and its position in the world of Buddhist practice. I do this every time I'm at San Francisco Zen Center. I'm not a member of the place, nor is it my lineage. But I have a lot of friends here.

If institutional Zen were the only type of Zen there was I would never have bothered with Zen at all. Yet I'm not against it, really. I'm happy that places like SFZC and even the dreaded Soto-shu exist. But it's hard for real practice to survive at a place like this. Hard, but not impossible.

Of course, it's hard anywhere (that's what she said!). What may make it worse at a Zen institution is the illusion that it's not hard there, that it is provided for you at a place like that. Practice is never provided for you. No matter where you are, you gotta do it. Just because a pretty space is offered and there's a schedule with the requisite mean looking people to enforce it doesn't mean you don't have to put just as much into it.

Nor are the big institutions the only place where practice can happen. I get a sense from some of the mail I've received that some people may think so. But that's like thinking you can only be a good Catholic at the Vatican.

My computer is being a little poopy to me today, which is making it rather difficult to type this out. So I'll take that as a sign from God (or whoever) that I've said enough.

Maybe more later...

Monday, March 16, 2009


I have a new Suicide Girls article up now. It's called "Women, Evolution and Buddhism" and that's what it's about.

And you all should be reading Gudo Nishijima's blog. He's posting new stuff there all the time. In the comments section I learned something I never knew before about vipassana.

The event at the Bodhi Tree went well. A fun time was had by all. So did the talk at Dharma Punx yesterday.

My book tour starts on Wednesday in Oakland and continues forever. See the link to your left for dates, addresses and everything else. See you there!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


First I hope all of you reading this show up at my talk/book signing at Bodhi Tree Books in Los Angeles tomorrow March 12th, 2009 at 7pm. The address is: 8585 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, CA 90026. It's free and open to the public. Be there or be square! Seriously. At this Buddhist bookstore it would be nice to see a Buddhist author get the kind of massive audience they get for crystal gazers and astro-hypno past-life regression acts.

Also, I'll be at the Dharma Punx place in Hollywood leading zazen and talking on Sunday March 15th at 11am (I'm one of the "and others," thanks...). This will be a monthly thing. Although I won't be there for the April one and I'm not 100% sure about May, my Dharma Brother Kevin Bortolin will lead the ones I can't make it to. The address is 4300 Melrose (between Heliotrope and Vermont) Los Angeles, CA 90029.

More Q&A from the letters bin:

It bugs me that Gautama Buddha left his family. The message I get from your books (and other Zen writing) is that you don't need to run away to find enlightenment, the truth, or whatever. If you happen to be a prince with a wife and child, those circumstances are not obstacles to your practice -- they are your practice. Also, you shouldn't hurt or neglect the people and things in your life to pursue some abstract goal. It seems like this part of the historical Buddha's story is inconsistent with these principles. The way the story is usually told, I get the impression that he wouldn't have been able to find enlightenment if he hadn't left his family -- in other words, having a family life really was an obstacle to his practice. I've also heard stories of others who left their families to join his original group. So here's the question: How do you think one should interpret the fact that the historical Buddha and others in his group left their families? Also, what would you say to someone today who wanted to leave his or her spouse and children in order to devote more time to sitting?

This is a tough question to answer adequately. Let me tell you a story first. When I took the Buddhist Precepts from Nishijima Roshi, he didn't require me to shave my head. But later on I decided it might be useful and expedient to do the ceremony through the Soto-shu just so my name would be on the books there. The Soto-shu requires you to shave your head for the ceremony. So I did.

Afterward I needed to explain to friends and co-workers why I suddenly looked like a skinny version of Curly from the Three Stooges. I still lived in Japan at this time. So I told them I did 出家 (pronounced "shukke" -- shoe-kay). The 2 Chinese characters used to spell this word out mean "leave home."

But I hadn't left home, in the literal sense. I lived in the same house with the same wife and had the same job as before. This is not at all uncommon.

OK. So there was this Chinese-style vegetarian restaurant I used to go to a lot near my house that was run by a Taiwanese woman who was a devout follower of some sort of esoteric Buddhist sect. She asked about my shaved head and I told her I'd done shukke. She turned red in the face and steam shot out of her ears. "You haven't done shukke!! It's just for show!!! Japanese Buddhists don't know anything about real shukke!!!!"

Then she brought out this scrap book full of photos of the monks in her sect with horribly deformed people, apparently helping them do stuff. The photos seemed designed to emphasize the various deformities of the people they were helping in sharp focused, brightly lit, colorful graphic detail, almost like hardcore porn does with genitalia. "This is real shukke!!!!!" she shouted.

While I had to admire those monks for their charitable work, the woman at the restaurant's attitude toward that work showed me there was some kind of problem there. This incident has somewhat colored my attitude toward so-called "engaged Buddhism" ever since. But that's a whole 'nother subject.

To me leaving home is more of an attitude than a description of a specific act. The monks she showed me photos of had indeed left home in a literal sense. But I wondered if they'd really left home at all. Of course, I didn't know them, so I can't say. But her attitude toward them was based on a very strong attachment to a specific (and very common) way of viewing the world. I wondered where she'd received that attitude.

There's certainly a basis of truth in the stories we hear about Buddha and his earliest followers. But things might not have been like we imagine they were. In the days when living your whole life in the same house with an extended family was the norm, "leaving home" could mean moving to your own place three blocks away. In that sense, almost all of us these days "leave home."

The story has come down to us in its present form to emphasize Buddha's commitment to pursuing the truth. "Leaving home," to me, means adopting the attitude that the pursuit of the truth is more vital than the pursuit of what society (home) tells you is important. Even if your mom tells you the most important thing is to marry a doctor and live on a hill with a car the neighbors will envy, you need to be able to reject that and look for what's real.

But that doesn't mean running away. Running away is futile. Even if you run very far away from home to a remote mountain monastery, as long as you carry the same attitude you always had you'll never truly get away. You'll just end up transferring all the stuff from home onto the other people in the monastery.

People of today who want to dump their spouses and kids to run off to the mountains ought to examine themselves and their motivations very, very carefully. Lots of people run away from responsibilities to "find themselves." But not so many of them have a real commitment to the truth. It would be better to find the truth in the life you're living, with the responsibilities you've already accepted. Responsibilities have a way of finding you even if you run away from them.


In your book you talk about how it is important for Buddhist practice to be religious, even if it is not "spiritual". This makes sense to me but I live in a state where the only zen center is run by a guy who believes his group therapy technique can give people enlightenment in a few hours-- if not faster-- and I don't have a lot of money for traveling this year and so I am wondering if there is something I should be doing differently to make my meditation practice more specifically Buddhist. Right now I sit each morning and evening. At the end of each meditation period I recite a version of the Bodhisattva Vow. Reciting the vow is something I only began to do recently and it does seem to add something to the meditation period. Is there some other things I could be doing to make the practice more "religious" in a positive way?

Do I say Buddhist practice should be religious? Man, I never know what the Hell I say sometimes!

I guess maybe you're referring to the idea of sitting with a group or doing some of the ceremonial stuff. I do believe the ceremonial or ritual type stuff is important. But I think you don't need a whole lot of it.

Last Saturday someone asked the purpose of the chanting we do (we chant the Heart Sutra and the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo and do prostrations). I said, "Entertainment." Group chanting really only serves the purpose of providing entertainment and acting as a group bonding ritual. It's probably a slightly better form of entertainment than trolling for YouTube videos of drunk college girls making out. But it's still entertainment.

I think a home-based practice is fine. Me, I do my sitting at home, and don't neglect the bows to the cushion and away from it before and after sitting. Recently I've been chanting the "Five Reflections" meal chant before breakfast. My teacher chants this before every meal even if it's cold take-out from the local convenience store. He also chants the verse in praise of the Buddhist robe before putting his robe on prior to doing zazen. Reciting the Bodhisattva vows is nice too. These kinds of things kind of reorient your mind toward practice in a concrete way.

But the core practice is always zazen. That's the one you should never do without.

Enough for today! I gotta go get my car smog checked.

Sunday, March 08, 2009


First the plugs. My next talk/book signing is at Bodhi Tree Books in Los Angeles at 7pm March 12th. The address is: 8585 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, CA 90026. It's free and open to the public.

Also, I'll be at the Dharma Punx place in Hollywood leading zazen and talking on Sunday March 15th at 11am. This will be a monthly thing. Although I won't be there for the April one and I'm not 100% sure about May, my Dharma Brother Kevin Bortolin will lead the ones I can't make it to. The address is 4300 Melrose (between Heliotrope and Vermont) Los Angeles, CA 90029.

Continuing with the Q&A stuff:

I was angry today. I have made this commitment to sit zazen for 20 minutes every night before I go to work. Not wanting to break this commitment to my self, I sat. I sat and I was angry. It took me a good 10 minutes to calm down, and yet I was still angry. I sat, I breathed. I sat with my anger. I acknowledged it. By the end of the 20 minutes I was still angry, but in a way I was "OK with it." I wanted to ask you about your experience with anger and sitting zazen. I would assume, being that your a human being just like my self, that you would have dealt with this as well.

According to "reliable sources," I am an angry Zen teacher -- perpetually in the thrall of seething rage! So who better to ask?

Actually, I don't feel a whole lot of anger anymore. Not like I used to, anyway. I used to be a breaker of stuff. The dashboard of every car I owned was caved in. All of my closet doors were beyond repair.

My experience with anger in zazen is pretty much like yours. It's good to do zazen when you're angry because you can't do any damage that way. You let it be just as it is but you refuse to act upon any of your habitual responses to it. Still, by sitting you are acting on it. Zazen is not avoidance!

Anger is the ultimate ego boost. "Bad" feelings are much better than "good" ones to reinforce your sense of self because they give you something clear to contrast it with. I'm not like that guy! He's wrong! I'm right!!

And, in truth, maybe you are right. Which will only make it worse!

Anger is energy. But it's not very useful. It squanders your resources and makes you behave stupidly. So it's best to avoid. It's energy the way eating Pixie Sticks or shooting speed is energy. If you're right and the other guy is wrong, you need to deal with that situation without anger -- if you're truly interested in resolving it and not just interested in proving yourself right. It's no good to be complacent in the face of a situation that calls for change. But it's no good to scream and yell because that just builds up the other person's anger and exacerbates the situation.

Sometimes walking away is good too. Sometimes you walk away and you stay away for a long, long time because you know the situation is not going to be resolved as long as it continues to anger you.

OK? Be happy!


I made an appointment for instruction at a local Soto Zen place. It went well and I had decided to start trying to sit with them. Then, near the end of the interview, the guy I spoke to mentioned that at some point a person (I'm sorry, I don't remember the correct terms) would come around and, if we gave the signal, hit us with a stick.

What is the deal with being hit with a stick in Soto Buddhism? I still want to sit with this group, but I don't understand the stick and it kind of freaks me out.

Ah, the kiyosaku! The "staff of instruction!" Yep. It's a common feature in Zen temples. In the old days it was common for a guy to come around looking for anyone who was slacking off in their practice and just whack them with the stick. That still happens, but it's pretty rare. Nowadays places that still use the kiyosaku tend to use it only when a student specifically asks for it.

Neither of my teachers used it. But I've been to temples where you could ask for it. I found that incredibly annoying. You're trying to do zazen and all of a sudden from the other side of the room, whack! whack! I hate that!

People who like the kiyosaku will go on and on endlessly about the benefits. How it stimulates the nerves and spurs concentration and blahblahblah... Once I was at a retreat where some kiyosaku lover went on and on like that to Nishijima Roshi. Nishijima just listened politely and when the guy was done he said, "That may be true. But I think it's better to wake up by yourself."

Still, if the only place in your area is one that uses the kiyosaku when students ask for it, I'd just go. The masochists generally get tired of it within the first few minutes and the rest of the sitting is peaceful and quiet. Plus if you never ask for it, you never get hit!

Friday, March 06, 2009


The Dharma Punx thing in Santa Monica on Monday was fun. I'm guessing between 0 and 3 of the 70+ folks who saw my talk there will show up at Hill Street Center tomorrow at 10am (see details on the link over to your left). We shall see...

I keep forgetting to mention my talk/book signing at Bodhi Tree Books in Los Angeles at 7pm March 12th. The address is: 8585 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, CA 90026. It's free and open to the public.

Also, I'll be at the Dharma Punx place in Hollywood (they got more than Starbucks I tell ya!) leading zazen and talking on Sunday March 15th at 11am. See the post below for the link and other details.

Ventura College was loads of fun last night. Thanks to all who attended! The conversation kept drifting into Big Questions of Life, The Universe and Everything. That's understandable as it was the college's philosophy club after all. The problem with Ultimate Answers is that every last one of them, no matter who it comes from, is sheer speculation. Zen training seeks to get students out of the area of speculation and back to reality. So we don't really address those questions.

I'm a bad Zen teacher, though (as I know many people will vouch for). See, sometimes if you know a teacher very well, on rare occasions that teacher, when she is alone with you and no one else is looking, will indulge in such speculations. This is a very private thing. I've even had teachers openly deny the things they speculated on with me in private when I've brought them up in public. I, on the other hand, often speculate a bit too much in public. I need to stop that. Anyway, I doubt anyone takes me very seriously so it's probably OK. Just remember if you hear me speculating about those kinds of big questions I don't know my ass from a hole in the ground.

And neither does anyone else.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


On Thursday night (my frikkin' birthday) I will be speaking up at Ventura College. Here's the info:

Thursday, March 5 at 7:00-9:00pm
At the Staff Lounge next to the Food Service Area
in the Ventura College Cafeteria

It's open to anybody. But you'll have to check the Ventura College website for specific directions. I've never been there myself so maybe we can wander around looking for it together!

Also, on Sunday March 15th, I'll be at Dharma Punx in Hollywood leading zazen and speaking (I am listed as "and others" on the website, uh, thanks...). This will be a monthly thing. Although I won't be there for the April one and I'm not 100% sure about May, my Dharma Brother Kevin Bortolin will lead the ones I can't make it to. The address is 4300 Melrose (between Heliotrope and Vermont) Los Angeles, CA 90029.

My talk at their Santa Monica place on Monday was fun.

My friend Nina found this great clip of Louis CK's appearance on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. Click on the words "Louis CK's appearance" for a clearer version of the clip. I've embedded a less clear version below:

It's really true that we take the most amazing things we have for granted or complain about them. The title is "Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy."

My friend Bret pointed me to this article on the human brain. Check out #1 on the list, "Subconscious Behavior aka Best Guessing." This is something Nishijima Roshi talks about a lot. We make our decisions instantly and then think about them. The process of thinking can sometimes lead us away from doing what intuition has already told us we ought to do. This is why we sit zazen, to learn to trust our innate intuitive abilities.

Finally, I thought of something during my talk on Monday at Dharma Punx. But I didn't say it because I didn't quite have the words yet. So I'm gonna try saying it here.

The reason we sit the way we do in zazen is to practice stability. If you've ever been on a boat on a choppy sea you know how good it feels to get back on dry land. The experience of the stability of the solid Earth is not just a physical sensation. It calms your nerves. People pay good money to go to amusement parks and get swung around and turned upside down and suchlike all to experience disorientation and instability.

Zazen is the ultimate stable posture. It is the real practice of stability itself. This is why the posture is absolutely crucial. And I'm not referring here to the twisting up of the legs (although full lotus does seem more stable than most other postures, if you can manage it). I'm referring to sitting on a cushion using your knees to form a tripod and keeping your back straight such that your spine balances on top of your hips. This posture makes you feel stable physically and mentally in a way that no other posture possibly can.