Thursday, October 21, 2010


The Wheel of Dharma Blog is now Open Sky

I've changed teachers, I've changed the name of my group, and I've changed blogs.

Come visit the new blog HERE

Friday, October 15, 2010

It Gets Better Project - Impermanence & LGBT Youth

The It Gets Better Project is a video project started by author and sex/relationship advice columnist Dan Savage. Given the recent string of gay teenagers killing themselves as a result of bullying from their peers, people from all over the world are offering support and encouragement to any young people who feel so hopeless about their situations that they're considering hurting themselves.

Sometimes we perceive the dharma through dire-colored glasses, especially when it comes to a teaching like impermanence, one of the three marks of existence. We understand this means that we all eventually die, everything changes, all things eventually end, blah blah blah.

On the positive side it's important to remind people who are suffering intensely that their suffering can and will also change. Impermanence also applies to things and feelings and situations that suck.

It's especially hard to realize this as a teenager when a year seems like forever and the thought of getting through a few more years of harassment at school is unbearable, but things really do have a way of changing.

May everyone suffering right now know that.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

De-Bitching Karma

“Karma's a bitch.”

This sums up the way most people seem to understand and talk about karma.

For starters I find it kind of funny because based on this definition of karma, the potential bad karma incurred by making such a statement is completely lost on the person saying it.

Karma is not some divine form of reward and punishment that gives us an excuse to judge the behavior of others based on their current circumstances. We shouldn't go around with the idea that we know what's "good karma" or "bad karma". One man could be a paraplegic living on public assistance without a friend or family member around him. Another man could also be a paraplegic but also a millionaire with a nice supportive family around him. Yet both of them are still paraplegics.

The Buddha essentially described karma as action and result, or cause and effect. We have intentions and thoughts that evolve into behavioral patterns and actions. We are then left with a particular kind of experience that is the result of our previous intentions, behavior patterns, and actions. That’s all.

He even said that not everything we experience can be explained by karma, that there are other factors involved that are more physical/chemical/situational in nature. So it's pointless to attribute every single little thing that happens on a given day to how “good” or “bad” we were in some past moment.

So often we think that if someone does something we find hurtful or offensive, we can take comfort in the fact that “they’ll get there's.” Inherent in that kind of thinking is an underlying desire to see someone else suffer because we felt hurt by them in some way. Cultivating within ourselves a desire to see others suffer causes ourselves to suffer more, and by extension we cause more suffering for others.

Everything that happens around us is a reflection of our mind at that moment. So if we feel upset or angered or joyful or bored or content or offended, that experience is the result of whatever we’d been cultivating other consciously or not, starting with our mind. And those thoughts we harbor that generate feelings are like seeds we are planting for future outcomes, whether we realize this or not. The things that go on around us aren’t to blame or thank for our current experience: we are.

How we keep our mind at all times is crucial. We need to be aware of what kinds of thoughts we nurture with our time and attention. Noticing what kinds of thoughts we tend to entertain is the best way to gauge what our karma will or won’t be at some future date.

From the Dhammapada:

1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

2. All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book of Zen

Watch the animation HERE

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

No Young People in American Zen?

There's been a very interesting discussion for the past few months at No Zen in the West - A blog and Dharma forum from Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler.

It certainly does appear that Zen centers aren't attracting large numbers of younger people, and this is causing some people alarm. What I thought would be a brief response to a thread about this at No Zen in the West turned into this:

I think the issue is a tad more generational in nature than reflective of how one Zen center packages itself over another.

The fact that older folks (and at 42 that adjective applies to me too) tend to be more active in Zen centers is not necessarily something to be alarmed by. Today's 25 year old will be a 45 in 2030 and at that point in time might be more inclined to get into the dharma and practice. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, since I didn’t really come around to practice until just about 7 years ago. It took me some 35 years and a couple of major life experiences to get my ass on the cushion.

However, my pragmatic side thinks that youngish people today are just plain reluctant to embrace any kind of structured religion or spiritual system no matter what. That’s what the 2009 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life seems to suggest. Just look at attendance at the mainstream churches and synagogues: there’s been nothing but a steady decline over the past few decades.

The insatiable spiritual quest that young people were on in the 1960s and 1970s just doesn’t exist right now. It was all the rage at the time of the Buddha, and perhaps it will come around again one day in the future. But it sure ain’t happening right now, and we can’t force it. These things are cyclical.

I don't subscribe to the argument that the most outwardly thriving Buddhist centers are doing something "right" and the rest had better get with the program and do something similar. We in the West are struggling to find a way to adapt and present the dharma in a manner that makes sense to this particular culture at this particular point in history. It will take some time to evolve and most of us will probably not see how this ultimately gets worked out, assuming it ever does. But if and when a distinctly Western form of Zen emerges at some point in the future, it will need to happen organically.

What appeals to large numbers of people is not necessarily indicative of quality. And having said that, we need to be aware of what seems to be resonating with people and to learn from that. The answer is somewhere in the middle I suppose.

My concern is that attempting to bend over backwards to try and please every possible age and cultural bracket would likely result in a watered down, feel-good, love and light approach to Zen practice that makes me want to barf.

All it takes is a few creative individuals with the right intention and means who can inspire interest in the teachings and more importantly, teach people how they can help themselves and others through meditation. We’re already seeing a handful of people like this, and they’re planting seeds for their students and contemporaries.

And the dharma will survive.

Here’s an interesting article about the decline of interest on the part of young people when it comes to anything even remotely religious in nature.

Thank you all for your input on such a complex matter. This has been a great discussion to follow. May it lead to some useful conclusions that can benefit everyone.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Finding a Teacher. Leaving a Teacher. Being your Own Teacher.

Last month I decided to end my seminary training with my Zen teacher. This wasn't a decision I made quickly or lightly, but one that felt completely clear and right by the time I let him know after so many months of careful consideration.

I've no malice towards the man--in fact I kind of love him, really. However, a combination of logistical, philosophical, and personal reasons left me little choice but the one I made. Looking back, on some level I knew from the start he wasn't the right teacher for me yet I dove in because I think it's important to have some consistent guidance and feedback for one's practice. This wasn't possible due to his travel schedule and aside from that I found that our interviews just weren't resonating.

There's a little more to it than that but I'm already somewhat uncomfortable saying as much as I have because I have the utmost respect for this man and I deeply admire what he's done and wants to continue to do.

Lately I've been practicing with two Kwan Um school centers since I think Seung Sahn and his teachings are awesome.

This experience has reminded me that ultimately we are all our own best teachers. The Buddha made it clear that the dharma is to be our guide above any illusory authority figure. It's the dharma we are called upon to answer to and not any one teacher. In fact as I understand it, learning and practicing was supposed to be more of a communal/friendship based system in the early days of Buddhism. A few hundred years after his death the student/teacher roles we are now left with morphed out of who knows what. And the whole Zen Master thing was concocted hundreds of years later.

Anyway, I'm coming to a final decision about seminary (with another Zen order) this fall that so far seems like a very good fit. It would give me the opportunity to serve people in a capacity that honors the calling I've had for several years now and feels appropriate for how I want to contribute to circulating the dharma.

As a very good monk friend of mine said recently, the dharma has a way of pulling us in the right direction at the right time.

Here's to hoping he's right.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

1,000 (B)OWS!

Last Saturday at Chogye Sah Temple here in Manhattan, I showed up for their monthly 1,000 bows practice.

I'll let the Kwan Um School website explain it better than I can:

From the Dharma Mirror - Manual of Practice Forms:

Prostrations could be likened to the 'emergency measure' for clearing the mind. They are a very powerful technique for seeing the karma of a situation because both the mind and the body are involved. Something that might take days of sitting to digest may be digested in a much shorter time with prostrations.

I showed up at 5:00 pm and Myoji Sunim (the Abbess of the temple) was there encouraging everyone as they started bowing. Her chanting and hitting of the moktak provided an intensely effective focal point to the practice. For the second hour (yes it takes about 2-2.5 hours to do 1,000 full prostrations) the chanting was done by Myong Haeng, the Vice-Abbott.

There's sitting and walking meditation, chanting, and bowing.

This isn't for the physically weak--as of today (4 days later), the soreness in my legs is just starting to subside. I don't recommend such practice for anyone with leg, knee, or foot problems.

While I was skeptical at first I can easily say now that this practice was the most demanding and mind-clearing of my life.

Monday, June 21, 2010

True Blood, False Dharma

Last night on True Blood Lafayette said to his cousin Tara "The Buddhists weren't crazy when they said that life is suffering!"

Here we go again.

A few months ago, Bill Maher dismissed Buddhism as being nothing more than a philosophy the spews "Life sucks, then you die."

Wrong again.

It seems that people have lots to say about Buddhism without knowing very much about it.

The "Life is Suffering" part comes from the First Noble Truth. Personally, I don't like to translate it as "suffering" since the word that was originally used was a Pali term, "dukkha." which refers to our constant sense of unease or dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. Dukkha is that feeling we have that things are always a little less than ideal--it's always a little too hot or too cold or too boring or too matter how things are, we're always wishing they were just a little bit different.

Yes, the Buddha taught about this dukkha or unease, but he also taught about HAPPINESS. And for some reason the world doesn't seem open to hearing about this part. I think it's because many Christian religions see suffering on earth as its own reward, but we can talk about that later.

The Four Noble Truths bear some repeating, so here they are:

1. Life is Dukkah (full of unease, dissatisfaction, discomfort)
2. The cause of dukkha is craving and attachment.
3. There is a way to end this discomfort
4. The way to end this dukkha is through the Eightfold Path

Friday, June 11, 2010

Weebles Wobble but they Don't Fall Down

When I was a kid I used to play with WEEBLES. Weebles are egg shaped toy figures that are weighted on the bottom so no matter how hard or how often they're pushed, they wobble around for a bit and then stand completely upright once again.

When people ask me why I meditate or whether or not I've seen any difference in my life since I starting sitting several years ago, I'm reminded of Weebles.

While I still have my ups and downs and get all kinds of crazy at times, those periods don't last nearly as long as they once did. I recover much more quickly than I used to from a bout of depression, anxiety, anger or obsessive thinking. The benefits of sitting on a regular basis are crystal clear, and I absolutely see a huge difference in the way I respond or don't respond to certain situations, circumstances, and people that would have once sent me spiraling out of control for days or weeks.

Weebles are awesome dharma teachers. Pay attention to them.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Human Route

Coming empty-handed, going empty-handed - that is human.

When you are born, where do you come from?

When you die, where do you go?

Life is like a floating cloud which appears.

Death is like a floating cloud which disappears.

The floating cloud itself originally does not exist.

Life and death, coming and going, are also like that.

But there is one thing which always remains clear.

It is pure and clear, not depending on life and death.

Then what is the one pure and clear thing?

-Zen Master Seung Sahn

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Zen Hillbilly Granny

I love this scene from a 1966 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies

Granny makes an art out of showing the beatnik kids how potatoes are dug up. She takes a mundane event and does it completely and authentically without having to try and think her way through it.

The beatniks are just trying hard to be counter to something while Granny is just being Granny.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Posture Matters

Most of the time I sit in Burmese posture. This is generally a more manageable posture for anyone with knee issues (and I certainly have my share). So when it's necessary, it's necessary.

More recently I've been training my body to adjust to half lotus. What's preferable about the lotus or half lotus position is that they're more stable and easier on the back. It takes less work on the part of the back musculature to keep yourself upright.

I highly recommend introducing your body to half lotus or if you can handle it, go for full lotus. Take care not to hurt yourself in the process but a slight amount of tightness in the knee at first isn't unusual as you adjust so give it some time.

Zen is primarily a physical practice and it isn't supposed to feel nice and easy all the time. Having said that, beware of the Zen Nazi's out there who claim that the only way to sit is in lotus or half lotus, and if you're not sitting that way you aren't truly doing Zen meditation.

That's hogwash.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere

Or so the song went something like that.

For me, sitting is the best thing I can do for my sense of sanity and well-being.

We're told not to expect anything or have any goals or agendas when it comes to practicing, and for the most part I do agree. But there is absolutely a tremendous benefit to meditating on a regular basis, even if it's just for 5-10 minutes a day. Better that than an hour once or twice a week, trust me.

What goes on when you're sitting goes on throughout your entire life, but you probably just don't realize it.

When we meditate the silence fosters a kind of self-awareness that isn't as readily available during the course of a normal distraction-packed day. However it's very easy to avoid the work of studying ourselves because it's much more fun and tempting to engage in fantasy, planning and speculation.

We don't meditate so we can excel at the art of meditation.

If you can sit and concentrate your mind long enough and regularly enough, you can bring that quality of stillness and clarity with you into the rest of your life.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Salvation is Right Under Your Nose

Just open your eyes

Pay attention


Be kind

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Use Your Karma Before it uses You

People often whine about "their bad karma"; usually those things they're faced with in life that they perceive as challenges or obstacles. I'm not altogether sure how to make sense of reincarnation or how choices made in the past could end up impacting the future. And it gets pretty dicey when we try to discern the reasons why some people are suffering while others appear to have an easy life. The chain of events that form our lives as they are today are very complex and mysterious so it’s best not to get too caught up in the prequel and instead simply deal with this movie we find ourselves in.

We all have to cope with circumstances that are less than ideal—that just comes with being alive. It doesn’t matter how we got to where we are today because all we have is right now. What matters most is what we do with our present situation.

To borrow the often used analogy, don't stand around questioning where the arrow in your chest came from, just pull it out.

Paying someone to tell you who or what you were in a past life is ludicrous and a waste of time. If you believed you've lived before and want some insight into your past incarnation, then simply look at your life as it is right now. That will tip you off to all of the decisions you made before. Everything comes from something. If you plant an orange seed, you get an orange tree. Just figure it out without attaching to the endless list of possible reasons and stories and explanations.

What we don't realize is that what might look and feel and smell like bad karma could really be our saving grace. The things that suck about our lives are the things that leave us the most room for growth. They can be our tool for awakening so we can better help ourselves and other people.

When we see our karma as nothing but punishment for past deeds, we're more likely to be complacent and fall into self-pity mode. Using use our life situation as an excuse rather than as an impetus to give to the world in some way means that our karma is using us.

So instead of getting wrapped up in how you may have arrived at your own particular version of misery, and why things seem to suck as much as they do, you can take what you have in this life, both the good and the bad, and make use of it.

Use your present situation in life to help other people no matter what it is. At the very least you can pray on your pain in the hopes that no one else has to feel it as you do. Or at the most you can find some way to help alleviate it in someone else.

So instead of letting your karma get the best of you, use it to full advantage and transform it into your own unique means of saving all beings everywhere.

Or for starters, help just one person.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life.

The interviewer asked, "When you pray, what do you say to God?"

Mother Teresa replied, "I don't talk, I simply listen."

Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, "Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?"

Mother Teresa replied, "He also doesn't talk. He also simply listens."

There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next.

Finally Mother Teresa breaks the silence by saying, "If you can't understand the meaning of what I've just said, I'm sorry but there's no way I can explain it any better."

Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King Day Prayer

I recited a prayer yesterday at the 6th Annual Interreligious Prayer Service for Peace and Justice commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King. It took place at the Unification Theological Seminary on West 43rd Street. I was there on behalf of my teacher who needed to be at the temple for Sunday services. Sunim had given me an awesome version of the Metta Sutta Meditation on Lovingkindness to read but when I arrived I was given something much shorter due to time constraints (there were 9 people reading a prayer from their respective faiths) While I'm not sure who wrote it, it was pretty decent nonetheless. I had to practice saying "beneficent celestials" (whatever the heck they are) a few times before my spot because I'm very often and easily tongue-tied. Had I known that phrase was in it beforehand I'd have reworded it because I don't think we should be holding our breath for friendly aliens to help us here on earth (or perhaps I'm being too literal) but what's done is done. 

You can see the video here (thanks to my fiancee and his iPhone)

Monday, January 11, 2010

Seven Buddhalicious New Year's Resolutions

Since most of us have surely broken our resolutions by now, I came up with a list that makes sense to me and doesn’t involve any new gym memberships, money expenditures, schooling, or dietary restrictions:

1. Set aside at least a few minutes a day to be still and silent. Let the mud settle so you can have some clarity and peace of mind. As my teacher says, it’s more important to do a minimum amount of practice regularly than a maximum amount of practice sporadically. Translation: five minutes a day every day is better than forty five minutes once or twice a week.

2. Practice generosity even when you're not in the most generous of moods and may feel like you'd much rather be the recipient than the giver.

3. Don’t indulge the voices and thoughts from inside that criticize yourself and others, and keep you mired in the past and worrying about the future. This isn't about repressing them or pretending they aren't there mind you, but just about not giving any weight to them anymore.

4. Recognize the power of speech and use words wisely. I'm talking about a post-"I’m not gonna be PC" mindset where you don't just say anything that comes to mind simply because you can, but instead realizing that the words we choose and use have a very real impact on ourselves and others. I've actually had to explain to several people recently why it's not ok to use the word "gay" to describe something as being outdated, overly feminine (whatever that means), distasteful, or geeky. 

5. Look people in the eye and smile at them even if you think there's absolutely no chance you'll ever see them or need them again. This applies to the bank teller, the grocery store check out clerk, a homeless person, your next door neighbor (this can be a hard one for New Yorkers),  your annoying mother, just about anyone you encounter on any given day. And don’t get pissy if they don’t smile back or respond, don’t expect anything at all, just do it freely and openly and notice how it feels (even if it feels strange).

6. Pay attention. Don’t get lost or zone out throughout the day, or rush through the things you consider a chore or a nuisance. Wash the dishes carefully and mindfully.  Shovel the shit off the sidewalk with the same attention you’d give to arranging a vase of flowers.  Keep an open and curious attitude toward the physical experience of each moment. Don’t miss out on your life in search of the next momentary distraction in the form of food or sex or shopping.

7. Remember that we’re all made of the same stuff, the same universal substance. Recognize the divinity and worth in every living thing, even if you don’t care for the particular form that it’s currently taking. It doesn’t make sense for a wave to see itself as any different from the foam at its tip, so try not to hate anyone even if they act like “the enemy.” H20 is water at one temperature, steam at a higher temperature, and ice at a lower temperature. Yet it’s all H20 just the same.