Dear Janet,

It always makes me feel funny when you wax emphatic about what a “dyed-in-the-wool atheist” you are. Of course you’re an atheist. We’re all atheists fundamentally. How could it be otherwise? Saying you’re an atheist is like telling people you’re a human being when nobody doubted it in the first place.

Here’s an atheist story for you, one of my favorites that also happens to be true:

A number of years ago, a much-respected, ninety-four-year-old Zen teacher was invited to appear on Japanese television. In the course of the interview he was asked how he would feel if the communists who outlaw religion were to take over the country. He replied with an enthusiastic smile: “Yes! I’d agree with them. I’d vote for them. Absolutely! Do away with religion!”

All this from a man who had devoted the major portion of his life to what others might call “religion” or might associate with “God” or theism. But of course he wasn’t interested in names. He was interested in the reality point of view. From the naming point of view, anyone can quote the Bible or Torah, discuss Freud or Jung or Marx, believe or disbelieve. But from the reality point of view, no posturing is necessary. “God” is not necessary and “no-God” is also not necessary. “Happy” is not necessary when you are truly happy, is it?

Anyway, I think that teacher was a happy man. Happiness is a wonderful thing. I hope you’ll think about it.

Take care of yourself.


Dear Dave,

It’s funny, but the two most memorable periods of my life, the ones that stick out and resonate, do not seem accessible in words. Or maybe I mean words don’t cover. Three years in the army, ten years of fairly intensive Zen practice — each seems quite memorable, but I’m not sure what makes them so. Maybe it’s that each appeared quite special at the outset and turned, like vermillion leaves gone brown, quite plain.

I didn’t hate the army at the outset. I was too busy finding out what I was supposed to do. Once I got the rhythm, I think I enjoyed the simplicity of basic training. Get up, wash, make your bed, exercise, eat, then learn to march or shoot or throw grenades or whatever. Each activity was cemented firmly to the preceding one until the whole thing became an article of indubitable faith. There was and is no standing aloof from environment; in the military, like it or not, you get a very fine sense of how Hitler did it and why you personally would probably have gone along. Being aloof is for the past and future.

What I’m trying to say is that perspective was not part of the training. The powers that were, for example, never did give us a live human being to shoot at, so we were never wounded in that way. Neither was it ever suggested within my hearing that being the good guys probably boils down, in action, to wanting to stay alive.

Where basic training was physical, language school was primarily mental. Six or seven hours a day, five days a week of learning, in my case, German. It was the best formal academic training I ever got.

From there it was off to almost two years as a pencil-pushing spy in Berlin. Initially interesting, this activity was, in the end, overwhelmingly boring. If the boredom of the military could ever be adequately conveyed, even Rambo would stay home. As it was, the first true cross-section of America I’d ever been privileged to meet (in basic) and the single most intelligent group of people I’ll probably ever meet (in Berlin) all learned boredom together. Contrary to what fast-track thirty-five-year-old teenagers say these days, boredom is a fine discipline because, in the end, it’s your own damned fault. What’s yours is worth knowing about, I think, even when it’s not very pleasant.

At the zendo, I met few people who ever claimed to be bored. The ones I did meet left me flabbergasted. Bored? Bored with someone’s talk maybe, or bored cleaning floors or toilets or dishes. But bored sitting still and silent in a still and silent zendo hall? Sad, yes; angry, yes; joyful, yes; proud, yes; humbled, yes; horny, yes . . . but bored? I couldn’t imagine it. Literally.

For me, it was all very exciting at the beginning. Doing something so hard, so easy, so impenetrably wonderful, so downright magical and mysterious. Wow! Like the army, each newly-learned form attached itself seamlessly to the next until a cloth of unassailable belief was woven. Bells, incense, bows, chants. Be neat, be clean, be inconspicuous, don’t fidget.

Was something actually happening to us during all those years? We’ll never know. Perhaps we could say the virtue slipped away little by little — the virtue and high purpose, the suggested Goodness of it all evaporated in unnameable increments until the best we could muster was a muttered “I don’t know.” Less virtue. Less virtue suits me better — less virtue and more gratitude. What a present! Maybe what those ten intensive years gave us was a willingness not to stink of Zen. I still smell, probably more than you, but as I say, less virtue suits me better.

You know, it is a marvel to me that you can have forgotten the Heart Sutra and other chants. I feel as if I’ve got them in my chromosomes. But you don’t get off scott-free either. It’s not I who slithers off to sit on a cushion each morning. We both smell, turkey breath!

Seriously, we sit and the gratitude grows all by itself. It’s a great replacement for or flip side of self-interest, I think. Self-interest is so satisfying in the short run, but gratitude goes on forever. Never boring. How I hate it sometimes. Shall we create a new compound? Hatred-gratitude.

Take care.


Dear Charlie,

I really think it would be better if you stayed away from books for a while. In our practice, one of the hardest things is learning to use your own material, your own life. Thinking and talking as if you knew what others mean or meant is a terrible curse. You need to know what you mean. I realize it is socially acceptable to rely on the “according-to”s and “the Zen-teacher-said-so-and-so”s, but this disease is worse than cancer or AIDS. Cancer and AIDS can kill you, but believing in the intellect will turn you into a living ghost, homeless and confused. Let others indulge if they must. You are a Zen student. This means you are a responsible adult, not a rootless child. Gurdjieff, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, and whomever else you read and admire — all of them may have been very fine, very wise, very loving. But if you cannot stand on your own two feet, how can you ever expect to actualize their wisdom and love? Just think back a little: for seventy years you woke up in the morning and swung your feet out of bed in order to go take a piss. From one end of the world to the other, everyone has to piss in the morning. But this is your piss. Everyone pisses, but no one can piss for you. Gurdjieff, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, and the rest are no different. They pissed in the morning, too. But if you go around saying you’re the same as they are, you miss the point. If you conclude somehow that you’re different, you also get lost. Really it’s not so complicated, is it? If you don’t get yourself up and into the bathroom you’re going to have to change the sheets.

Please take care of yourself.


Dear Siena,

It’s really fine that you can ’fess up that way. Knowing that you prefer women teachers to men teachers is very good. Being ashamed is not necessary. In order to do our practice, you must do it from the point of view of what is true for you. Don’t cheat yourself by lying. Lying includes thinking that your truth is going to work or be true for someone else. No. You can’t know what will work for someone else, but you certainly can for yourself. So don’t generalize about “oneness” or “sexuality” or other topics on which you hold strong opinions. Don’t cheat yourself; just do your practice.

The central problem in Zen practice is the problem of self-interest or egotism. The solution lies in what might be called gratitude. Once egotism is clearly understood, gratitude gushes, natural as a spring. But where it may be easy to say “egotism” or “gratitude,” it may not be so easy to actualize.

Egotism means believing your own seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and thinking. In one sense such things are real, but as long as you don’t know where they come from, as long as you go around saying “I understand” or “yes, but,” I think the problems will remain.

In Zen we say everything comes out of or is informed by “essential nature” or “no nature” or “Buddha mind” or “no mind.” The reason such things are infrequently mentioned is that the minute the egotistical mind hears something like this it starts running around trying to define and control and analyze. Everyone comes up with a different opinion. Sometimes they’re even willing to die for their opinions. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad: poor old egotistical mind running and panting like some short-legged pup, trying to keep up, pretending it has the one thing under control that can never be controlled; that is, change or transience. No one can deny change, but everyone has an opinion or an approach, a way of coping. Yet no matter what the opinion or approach or coping mechanism, still things change, one into the next, moment after moment. Zen is the practice of being very happy with your life, very happy with change. But there is no point in lying about it. Happy is happy. Sad is sad. You shouldn’t pretend you’re happy when you’re not.

“Happy” and “unhappy,” “man” and “woman,” “good” and “bad,” “failure” and “success” — all such distinctions are informed by, made joyful in, your essential nature, your change. But you can’t cheat yourself. Such distinctions as “self” and “other” and all the rest may not be true things, but if they’re true for you, you should investigate them thoroughly. What defines a Zen student lies exactly here — an unwillingness to settle for the superficial opinion, the “informed” judgement, and so forth. Zazen is the practice of investigating this matter to its root and then from its root to the branch. A lackadaisical, intellectual, or philosophical investigation is not enough. Don’t worry. You’re safe. Teachers of either sex may be liars, but this teacher doesn’t lie.

When you feel the gratitude start bubbling up in your zazen and your life, you can be grateful. Gratitude melts self-interest or is the flip side of it — something like that. If you try to fake it, you’ll only cause more trouble. But when it comes, perhaps in the form of a very pregnant “yes,” it will fill you with a lasting, unnameable joy. Yes-body, yes-mind, yes-anger, yes-sexuality, yes-poverty, yes-riches, yes-cockroach, yes-toll-booth, yes-love, yes-failure, yes-success, yes-man, yes-woman. Egotistical mind is full of yes too. But gratitude mind has no wants. From moment to moment it doesn’t cling and so is happy and peaceful. As I say, it’s nothing to fake. Do your practice and if it comes, it comes; if it goes, it goes. Isn’t this the way things really are?

Take care of yourself.


Dear Rafael,

Wanting to be a teacher is something that every student dreams about at one time or another, mostly when what being a teacher means is least understood. A lot of people think being a teacher means acting a certain way — silent, reserved, speaking in quiet, loving tones, not criticizing, holding back opinions, doing something eccentric . . . in short, imitation. But behavior no more makes a teacher than putting purple robes on a pig will make the pig king. You are already you and pretending anything else will only cause problems. You must put your karate training to use: take all the energy that goes into your hopes and fears and judgements and opinions and, instead of trying to defeat and suppress them, use that energy itself to return to the source, the essential beginning. Where does the energy come from that allows opinions to go unexpressed, judgements to be withheld, laughter unexploded, and tears unshed? Where does it come from? Once you find the source, then opinions will be OK and there won’t be any question about who the teacher is.

Take care of yourself.


Dear Peter,

You’re right — it is idiotic not to make room for death, but it seems to be a part of our society to shun the natural and elevate the superficial. When, as for you, someone close dies, I think the sadness is greater for all the previous shunning. The reality dam breaks and we all feel some extra measure of grief based on our former running-away. It’s a common thing to look for “answers.”

The central question is, “What is death?” Our Zen practice is very good on the subject as I’m sure you’re aware. But you also sound as if you were looking back, wondering if your now-vague connection with Judaism should be revived. “We live in a Judeo-Christian society,” you said. “Maybe Zen is too foreign.” I think that’s both right and wrong.

Zen practice does not run counter to any religion. Depending on the point of view you might say it either precedes religion or carries the religious promise to honest fruition. If there were no such thing as religion, still there would be Zen — not the trappings and form, perhaps, but the reality. So I don’t think you have to worry about conflict. I do, however, think you should be careful.

We live, as you say, in a society infused with Jewish and Christian ideas. Not to recognize that would be foolish. But the combining of the two, as, for example, in the phrase “Judeo-Christian tradition,” is sloppy and inaccurate. The basis of Judaism, to the extent a basis can be named, is the law. The basis of Christianity is caritas, or charity. Basing one’s actions on the law means that the relationship to God is contractual, a quid pro quo. Basing it on charity means the relationship is one of love. Love is fundamentally egalitarian, whereas law outlines inequalities. I realize that these may be theological over-simplifications, but if you decide to take up religious cudgels, you may want to consider them. Examining the soil will tell you something about the plants that issue from it.

My own feeling is that what makes Judaism and Christianity similar and therefore unifiable is the same attribute that unites other religions; that is, man in relation to God. This is something you will not find in Zen, and I admit to you privately, as a Zen student, that the idea of having a relationship with God makes me laugh. But since that idea causes so many problems, it also makes me want to cry. Still, these are matters you will need to investigate for yourself. Listening to someone else just doesn’t work. Don’t be afraid to ask honest questions of yourself and don’t settle for second-hand answers. Can one people honestly be “chosen” over another? Can God honestly care more about six million Jews than, say, about seven to ten million Ukrainians or a single sparrow? By saying what God thinks or doesn’t think, wants or doesn’t want, what exactly have we said? Such questions and more like them could be asked of any religion. I ask them in the terms I do only to suggest to you how much social pressure exists and what kind of effort is necessary to find your own peaceful ground.

Zen practice doesn’t care so much about God or no-God, theology, belief, politics, propaganda, law, or charity. Your life was granted to you thirty-plus years ago much as your father’s was given to him seventy-plus years ago. Your life is a wonderful thing, but you can choose: peace or confusion, happiness or sadness. It is to help you choose sensibly that Zen practice exists. It has a strict form, as you know, but the object is not form. There is formlessness too, the clear and radiant seeing into the nature of things. But formlessness is not the object either. Form, no form; object, no object; Jew, no Jew; Christian, no Christian — no matter what name you use, still you are alive, still your father is dead, still things are as they are. To see things as they are means to live a clear, free, charitable, and lawful life. Name this life and life flees into names. But when things are as they are, then it’s all over you like a playful puppy. Its name may be death just now or birth, joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain. When you are alive and well and living in Hoboken, then its names are merely tentative matters, convenient perhaps for as 1ong as they last, used for lack of better means. But you have eyes that see and ears that hear. I know you’ll use them to your best advantage.

Take care.


Dear Frank,

You always liked it short and sweet. Here it is:

Don’t sleep and sigh and move around on your cushion in the zendo. It disturbs others, and is conspicuous and self-centered. Don’t sleep and sigh and move around on your cushion at home. Keep your promises. If you want to act like a rhinoceros, go to the zoo.

Just be the Buddha you are, please. Then you can sleep and sigh and fuss around on your cushion like a real rhinoceros.