Category Archives: Musings

Zen Training

January is a time when we can take a look at our activity of the past year and recommit ourselves to practicing together over the next year. We have the opportunity to consider what Zen practice is and to remind ourselves of the value of the training we are receiving. We may ask ourselves, what are we being trained to do? How does our training serve us?

When I was young, I learned to parachute from an airplane, but the jump and landing did not go as expected. There were some very real moments of uncertainty in which I relied on the thorough and specific training I had received. Facing danger, I was terrified, but I remembered to return to that training, and following it, I landed safely in a tree.

We may not always understand how our Zen training works, and we are instructed to sit with no gaining ideas, so how should we think about this practice as training? Suzuki Roshi tells the story of meeting a young girl who saw him sitting and said, “I can do it.” After she sat with crossed legs, she said, “And what?” Suzuki Roshi laughed because he said Zen students ask the same question after coming every day and practicing Zen, “And what?” He explains that through formal sitting practice we come to experience something physical, but it is difficult to explain in words. Ours is not a practice of experiencing by mind or teaching, but by direct physical practice for each of us. Being able to fully practice this way, we should be able to express it in some other way too. He says that this happens quite naturally when we can express the same feeling of sitting, the same state of mind in which we do not stick to anything, and this is the purpose of practice. I think this takes a long, long time!

Zazen is at the center of our practice, and to learn not to stick to anything, we return to breath and posture. No matter what arises in the mind or body, we train ourselves to come back to breath and posture, over and over again. This is letting-go practice, or not sticking to anything. Additionally, we train in a variety of practice positions, rotating through them for short and longer periods of time, so nothing becomes “my” territory to protect and defend. This gives us the opportunity to bring zazen right into our daily activities, and when likes and dislikes present themselves, we train ourselves to return to breath and posture. Over time, we begin to see that we can practice in this same way outside the gate. Coming back to breath and posture in the middle of discomfort or uncertainty or disagreement or conflict creates a gap, a STOP, a moment of stillness. We do not know how our training may inform us in that brief span of time; in fact, a possibility may present itself. Our faith in this process grows, as does our confidence.

Sangha is the jewel of our practice. We learn together, observe one another, and develop relationships with our teachers, practice leaders, and each other. In this way, we train in community, encouraging and inspiring others, slowly revealing Buddha’s way, creating harmony.

Along the way, we make many mistakes, which is quite natural. Mistakes are the stuff of life; every single one of us makes mistakes. Mistakes give us the opportunity to see just where we are. Sojun Roshi says that recognizing our mistakes is the most important thing. We do not waste time chastising ourselves for a mistake; instead, we return to the activity, coming back to our upright position. This return to activity is the enlightened moment, remembering, recollecting, coming back; this is what our life is about.

I think the word “training” sometimes gets a bad rap. It may sound harsh, strict, too disciplinary, but the mystery of our practice lies in the training we receive. Zen training leads us without really leading us to a spirit of practice, a state of mind and body harmonizing in a way that makes it possible for us to practice not sticking to anything. We learn to be serious but light at the same time. Over time, this experiential approach to our lives supports us finding our comfort in any situation in which we may find ourselves.

Row the Current You Are In

The first day of sesshin Sojun spoke of cultivating “flexibility,” “proficiency,” and “actualizing the fundamental point.” This seemed to raise a lot of questions for practice discussion. One person wondered: How does one know when one is actualizing the fundamental point? This is an important question: Why do we do this difficult thing called sesshin? One needs inspiration, needs to have one’s motivation quickened, even to know one is in the right ballpark. But then, how does one navigate this path without falling into expectations—fixed notions of how it should be?
I have long thought expedition-length river trips bear striking similarities to sesshins. In addition to the elaborate preplanning required, the whole world condenses down for a period of time to these people—this place, this journey. The motley group becomes a tribe: different from a family, more manageable than a neighborhood, with shared goals and shared operating principles. One is completely reliant on the group, and the group safety depends on the activities of each person.
Wilderness travel teaches one to appreciate silence and vastness. Extended exposure to silence seems to change one’s nervous system in a very satisfying, settled direction. For many years I tried to capture the feeling I carried from a river trip and bring it into my ordinary life. After many failures, I finally concluded that this deep, settled feeling required some kind of continuing daily nurturance, and ultimately found my way to Zen practice.
Rivers were my first teacher. Water behaves the same way the world over: it flows around obstacles and through channels in predictable ways. The first task is to learn to read what the current is doing on flatwater and whitewater. The ability to read current is affected by conditions: water on a cloudy day is more difficult to read than on a sunny one, where the differences in the colors are more dramatic. Likewise, a river full of sediment changes the colors to a monochrome, requiring a shift to reading textures of water. This is a beginning lesson in flexibility.
In a raft, the only current that matters is the current immediately under your boat: your boat will be taken where that current is going. Immediately on either side of you the current may be doing something else, which may affect the pull on your oars, but unless you put some portion of your boat in that other current, it has no effect, no matter how close, strong, or alluring it is, or how much you would like to go where it is going.
In addition to current, one needs to attend to one’s downstream oar. Most of the time one floats at an angle to the current so as to be able to respond more quickly, which means the downstream oar points at the obstacles in the current’s path. If it catches on a rock, the press of the current has the effect of driving it back through the oar-right where it can do all sorts of damage—jam a thumb or knock one out of the raft, to name two.
Navigating serious rapids usually requires scouting. All the rafts stop at the top of the rapid, and assess the best path through. Beginning with identifying the preferred place to land at the bottom on the rapid, one works backward, determining where in the river one should be at each turn and obstacle, until one arrives at the best entry point at the top of the rapid. This is Plan A. The most important thing is not to be attached to Plan A. There are rapids—usually those with the word “falls” in their names—which are by definition “Plan B rapids.” Plan C isn’t a plan at all: it is a crash-and-burn route, where success is best measured by being upright at the bottom, with everyone still inside the raft.
There was a time when I spent hours watching videotapes of runs through serious rapids. After a while, it was clear that the rowers and paddlers divided themselves into several camps. On one end of the spectrum were those who flailed their way through, oars and paddles in wild, continuous movement. At the other end were those whose movements were minimal and precise—a dip of an oar here, a back-row there, each move accomplishing just the right amount of leverage on the raft to place it in the precisely right current. I called these folks zenrowers. I endeavored to be a zenrower. Over the years, I came to feel that I approached it, at least some of the time. Once, I even had a profound experience in a very difficult rapid on the Colorado River, which has become something of a touchstone: after I was through, it did not feel as if I had rowed it; rather, rowing happened.
Then there was Blossom Bar, on the Rogue River in southern Oregon. It is the most difficult and complex of the rapids on the Rogue—a long, boulder-strewn slalom requiring several mid-rapid lateral course corrections. The entrance is guarded at the top by a small-house-sized rock, incidentally also known as a wrap rock. At certain water levels it is easy to pin a raft against this rock with the whole weight of the river’s current. The is known as “wrapping” one’s raft, and it requires hours of lines and pulleys and effort to undo, and is very inconvenient. The whole of the river current pushes one toward this rock, so the first move is to pivot in such a way as to slide to the left of it, where most of the current continues.
As we scouted, our whole tribe watched as a “zenrower” paused briefly above the rapid, and then, with an oar dip here and there, navigated effortlessly through the boulder field. I wanted to zen-row this rapid in the worst way, because in the bow of my raft was our Vice Abbot and his son. Not being confident of any other zen-ness I might manifest, I wanted to zenrow this rapid.
We slipped into the current after scouting, floating briefly at an angle to the current. Immediately, I caught my downstream oar—the very oar I needed to make the essential pivot—on a rock. The oar sailed out of the oar-right, coming completely untethered from the raft, loose in my hand. I watched helplessly as we moved toward the rock—then, up the pillow of water forming on the its upstream side, our noses a few inches from the granite. While I calculated the danger of wrapping, the raft slipped around to the right of the rock. The celebration lasted a micro-moment. I had never been down this side of the river, nor had I known anyone who had. It turned out to be what is called a “rock garden.” While I tried to reset the oar in the oar-right, we pinballed off one rock after the other. The river goddess was kind: we ended upright, all still in the raft, at the bottom, grateful for sufficient waterflow to have avoided getting stuck.
I entered this rapid with a fixed idea about how it was to go, how I wanted it to go. There was little bandwidth left to meet the actual circumstances. I had limited flexibility to respond to this rock, this current, this oar and oar-right.
What is the fundamental point? In various ways our dharma speakers this week have alluded to this: touching big mind; realizing buddha nature; bodhicitta; returning to balance; flexibility. The Vice Abbot said: “Enlightenment is not something added on. It is the thing itself. Activity. Not a performance. Not trying.”
Here we are in this ark of a zendo, traveling together. There is no way out but through. This effort we make, to surrender to the schedule, to surrender to our positions, to become one with our circumstances, is in the service of tuning up. Becoming attuned. And then we turn everything over—our effort, our service, our activity—and the next crew carries it forward just as the cook turns the offering tray over to the head server. Whatever effort the cooks have brought to the food, it belongs to the servers now. We bring forth the dharma together in this way.
Someone mentioned the koan of jumping off a 100-foot pole to describe this letting go. For me that imagery has a bit of the quality of samurai Zen to it. Perhaps a more grandmother-mind way of saying it would be: “There is nothing to hang onto . . . and this is not bad news.” It is the freedom to respond in any situation without any fixed notion, without having to have something happen. Letting what arises arise. You turn yourself over to the river: you can count on being floated.
Suzuki Roshi said: “This Sesshin was wonderfully done. . . . It is because of your bodhisattva-mind, which is to do things for others rather than yourself. . . . We (should) understand that each one of us is a tentative form of the absolute being—whatever we do is the activity of the absolute being, which is not possible to be known by us completely. This is the origin of our life. . . . So the purpose of our practice is to get accustomed to live without being attached to many things but this unknown being. When we find our meaning of life in this way, naturally we can help each other. We will love each other, keeping a harmonious way between us, and between other sentient beings. We are all friends.”
This week we heard some of Aitken Roshi’s gathas. This one was especially apt for our ark:

When I sit with my friends in zazen
I vow with all beings
To touch and receive and convey
The mind of rivers and stars.

We Offer Light

Bob Boese has been making the candles for Berkeley Zen Center’s altars for over forty years. It hasn’t been his habit to sit with us, but year after year, month after month, he made and delivered candles. I visited Bob last month. We stood in his workshop and he went through how he has made our candles and what that has meant to him as a spiritual practice. I noticed on his wall was thumb­tacked a yellowed BZC phone directory from 1992. When I left, Bob gave me a folder with copies of fifty pages of correspondence about candles, with the lineage of BZC chidens since 1973. It was sweet to see the patient and careful work of a hidden benefactor.

In the past couple of years, Bob’s health has been inconsistent and he couldn’t be as reliable with the candles as he had been. I offered to take over that task. I had made candles as a childhood business. As an adult, I made pillar candles for Christmas presents. It is important to me to have someone personally make can­dles for the altar instead of purchasing them from a store. And if you believe in making merit, there’s no better way of leveraging one’s effort than making candles for Buddha.

When I started making candles for BZC, I tried to make them out of pure beeswax. I thought that was the best way to be consistent with our stated principles about chemical sensitivities and VOCs. But I had no experience making beeswax candles—I had always used paraffin. While Bob’s candles had a yellow appearance, they were actually made of paraffin, too, and he couldn’t help me with how to make beeswax candles. It took quite a bit of trial and error to succeed in making beeswax pillars, and even when I did, they didn’t burn well. I continued to experiment with different materials and methods. I have recently been making candles that are a mixture of beeswax and soy and I am pleased that they burn cleanly and well.

I am glad to have a little craft practice like this. I remember a Zen teacher declaiming that every Zen student should practice an art form as part of their training. If I was artistic, maybe I would be an artist. I am not, but I can make this thing with my hands, knowledge, and care. To add a little Zen, I periodically say the great bright mantra while making a batch. Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

I daydream about developing a three-volume series of mysteries: The Temple Chandler, The Temple Chandler and the Case of the Missing Sake, and The Temple Chandler’s Apprentice. If anyone wants to workshop this, let’s talk.

-Mark Copithorne

Benji Poem

A cloud obscures the moon.

A dismayed teenager takes to her bed for three days, then cuts herself.

A fragment of the mind breaks off,

floats to the ceiling,

and surveys the scene, asking:

“Is this poem even in English?”


When we live in exile, we may think we are flourishing: we have a loving
husband and two children . . . but the longing for home arises.

We ask: “What can I rely on?”

We ask: “Shall I follow the minor precepts to the letter,

or follow my heart?”


Then abruptly: the sight of blood, the hand leaving the handrail . . .

and we resolve to return home to family,

to Old Plum Mountain.


When they meet, Sei and Sei-jo melt together,

and her father Chokan rejoices!


Compassion is the child of wisdom.


In the Biblical parable, the prodigal returns home

amid wonder and redemption and feasting;

But this miracle was possible only because of the primal rupture

and the bitterness of long estrangement.


When you hit the boiling water, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Mountain and valley: not two, not one.

Not hiding.


present moment       wonderful moment


                                                                                      —Gyoshi Kirei Rob Lyons              

Following the Wellness Guidelines: A Personal Experience

In last month’s newsletter I described the revised Wellness Protocol, particularly recommendations on how we would deal with illness during sesshin. Little did I know that I would be the first case study. I began to cough and sneeze a little on day one of Rohatsu, but thought it was allergies. By day two the coughing got worse and I got laryngitis. I was very busy that day shopping and getting ready to be head cook the following day. When I spoke with Sojun, he suggested that I leave sesshin. “But who will cook tomorrow?” I argued. Hozan, who was also present, said, “You need to follow your own guidelines and stay home.” Then he volunteered to take over as head cook, so I left sesshin. I got much worse by the next day and developed full-blown flu symptoms. I rested and was quiet at home during the rest of sesshin and felt much better after five days of rest and taking care of myself. Take-home message: If you are ill during sesshin, it REALLY is better to stay home and take care of yourself.

Shuso Poems

Walter Kieser recited this poem from memory during his first Shuso talk:


The Wild Geese

by Wendell Berry

Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye,

clear. What we need is here.
* * *


Benji Mary Duryee recited this poem at Walter’s Shuso ceremony, June 12, 2016:


Everything you need is here.


Difficulty piles on difficulty.

Moment after moment


With boring scientific theories.


Words.  Words.  Words.  Words. Words. Words. Words.           

Words.  Words.

The thwack of the shuso staff

Cleanses the palette

For the next sip of wine.

His fan whisks away words.


High above the Canyonlands —

above the confluence of

two ancient rivers —

the fledging eagle shouts his freedom,

and abandons to the vast, empty, sky.

Everything we need is here.

* * *

Mary adds this comment:

      It is always dangerous to explain poems, however the underlying stories might be interesting or amusing.

     Last summer, when a large group of family and friends rafted down the Green River in the Canyonlands, my granddaughter (age 10) was standing one evening at the edge of the river, intently watching it turn from its usual chalky green to a brick red-orange, when Walter walked over to see what she was looking at. She looked up at him and said, “Walter, don’t spoil this moment with one of your boring scientific theories.” He has recounted this often with great delight, and denies that he was about to expound.

     Once when hiking across the mesa above the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, three eagles reeled overhead, one of them crying out. Back home we learned that eagles do not vocalize — except when they are fledging. We had been watching the launching of an offspring and its parents.

On Meghan’s Birthday

firmly rooted,
easygoing deliberateness,
Meghan walks her walk

with southern grace, New York edge
and California whatever,
Meghan talks her talk

showing us the path of continuous practice
in all seasons of life,
our friend.

Zendotime or, Manas’ Lullaby

Zendo time,
and the sittin’ is easy.
Thoughts stop jumpin’,
and the knees feel fine.
Oh, you breathe in and out,
And the wall is good-lookin’.
So hush, little manas,
Don’t you cry.

Well one of these mornin’s,
You’re gonna rise up from bowin’
and you’ll open your heart
to accept everything.
Every day’s a good day
just as it is.
So keep on a sittin’
with the Buddha and the sangha close by.