All Are Welcome At San Francisco Zen Center! (…to join us in resisting Trump)

The San Francisco Zen Center Abbots and Abbesses – all of whom I know, love, and deeply respect – are in the unenviable position of threading the needle of a public response to the election.  They reached hard for the High Road, for real love and compassion, and they gave it a good shot.

Compassion can sound like condoning, though, and calls for unity can sound like a blurring of deep and important differences.  And so there has understandably been some pushback from the wider SFZC community on this statement of unity and love.

As someone more free than the Abbots to say what’s on my mind, I’d like to offer an alternative, another approach to unity.  It might sound something like this:

San Francisco Zen Center unequivocally rejects the hateful worldview of President-Elect Donald Trump, and vows together to actively oppose its implementation.  All are welcome to join us in this.


I’d like to elaborate.

Buddhism is said to be apolitical, and we often hear that monks are warned against affiliation with political parties.  Leaving aside whether this warning has been heeded historically (it hasn’t) and leaving aside to the question of whether that old “removed from the world” monastic ethic is at all relevant to Mahayana lay Buddhists and Bodhisattva-ordained clergy (it isn’t), the case can be made – as Bhikkhu Bodhi does quite powerfully – that “taking sides” in this election is not a matter of party or personality.  It is not about picking sides out of a desire for the personal or institutional benefits of a patron ruler, but it is about values.  And Buddhism does have some values, an ethical stance.

It seems like an important time to reassert our core values as Buddhists – not just our overriding ethic of “compassion for all” and the wish for the universal welfare of all sentient beings, but specifically some implications of that ethic as we understand it in this place and time.

In that spirit, I would assert that Donald Trump represents the antithesis of Buddhist values in many ways, among them his greed and arrogance, misogny, racial and religious scapegoating, “America first” militaristic nationalism, and disregard for the environment that sustains us.  We can accordingly loudly assert that the San Francisco Zen Center unequivocally and actively opposes Donald Trump’s efforts to transform the country and world in accord with these deluded and unhelpful values.

Saying so is not needlessly divisive or uncompassionate.  In fact it may be the opposite, insofar as it sends a message of support and alliance to those who feel unwelcome and unsafe in the Great Again America that Trump proposes.

San Francisco Zen Center does have publicly articulated positions on issues like Climate Change, Racial Inclusivity, Interfaith Tolerance and Collaboration, and LGBT Equality.  It doesn’t seem like too great a leap to publicly acknowledge that all of these positions stand in contrast to those of President-Elect Trump.  We can be accused in this of “taking sides,” but it is a side we feel our teachings and precepts demand that we take –  it’s a side that emerges from our insight and faith in the deep interconnection of all things, and our practice of caring deeply for it all.

(Not to be naive here either – I am aware that it’s more than coincidental that our positions are shared by most of our secular Bay Area neighbors.)

Buddhist practice is a matter of intention – a Bodhisattva is one who lives with an intention.  It is important to not confuse having an intention with successfully living by it – on the contrary, the moment we make an intention we become aware of our failure to live up to it!  Calling Donald Trump, or Donald Trump’s supporters, “racist” or “ecocidal” or “homophobic” does not at all imply that we ourselves are not also racist, ecocidal homophobes.  The difference is one of intention.  As far as I can tell, Mr. Trump and his supporters are not manifesting an intention to be other than racist, ecocidal homophobes – insofar as they don’t, they are not Bodhisattvas having a hard time fulfilling their intentions but are just not Bodhisattvas, do not value the inderdependent basis of life that we as Buddhists value as the highest truth and calling.

I don’t think San Francisco Zen Center needs to bend over backwards to “include” those who do not intend the Bodhisattva life, and in fact I believe it’s our obligation to push against them, to insist that the Bodhisattva life is in indeed a better life, a better way to live than the life based on personal gain and disconnection from the human and nonhuman world around us.  All are welcome… to come hear us teach this.

We do actually stand for something.

So if there is someone who supports Donald Trump who would like to come to San Francisco Zen Center to work on deepening and clarifying their intention to live in wholesome and harmonious relationship with all things, as we too are trying against the stream to work ourselves on these things, then of course they are welcome.  They are welcome with all their obstacles and karma, just as all of us are welcome.  But their racist, ecocidal, and homophobic act of supporting Donald Trump is not something that we can or need to affirm.  You are welcome here despite your act of hatred, just as I am welcome here despite my many and daily acts of hatred.  But we will not in the service of “unity” or “empathy” condone or ignore it.

So how about this as a statement of inclusion:

San Francisco Zen Center unequivocally rejects the hateful worldview of President-Elect Donald Trump, and vows together to actively oppose its implementation.  All are welcome to join us in this.

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Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!

Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!

This is the old, strange, and troubling line from the great Shantideva that ran through my head deep in the night on a recent sleepless Tuesday, amid involuntary convulsions of body and mind, wracked by shock and fear for my children, my friends, and my planet.

The fuller line, in another translation:

The power of good is always weak, and the power of evil is vast and terrible.

This may seem despairing – Really?!  Good will never prevail?! – but in fact I find in it an antidote to despair.

Evil, injustice, and inhumanity are not some exception, are not evidence of things having gone horribly wrong somewhere.  They are just the basic state of things, not to mention the overwhelming historical truth of humanity.

The remarkable thing, the exceptional thing, the incredible, unprecendented, unimaginable thing in this world isn’t the collapse of reason and justice and humanity – it’s reason, and justice, and humanity!

Selfishness and hatred shouldn’t alarm us.  Compassion should.

Norman Fischer in a post-election comment reminds us of the Dalai Lama, all that he has lived through without losing his compassionate attitude.  I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that, but I think this is one of them:  His Holiness isn’t coming from the assumption that things are “supposed to be” good.  He is coming from the assumption that the tremendous thing, the tremendous opportunity of this world, is goodness.  And it’s a tremendous opportunity, a tremendous project, just exactly because it’s not the basic state of things.  We practice wisdom and compassion, and we practice it relentlessly, precisely because it’s so fleeting, so frail.


Undertanding that things are not “supposed to be” good now also points to some equanimity with respect to whether they’re “going to be good” later.

Later isn’t the issue.

Buddhism is not an optimistic religion (notwithstanding the guarantee of universal Buddhahood a zillion kalpas out).  And Buddhism is not a pessimistic religion (notwithstanding abundant teachings on the irredeemable and endless vileness of samsara).

In Buddhism, optimism and pessimism both are entirely beside the point.  “It will get better” and “it will get worse” are just thoughts, mental formations.  Neither thought touches reality, and neither is at all necessary for the full expression of the Bodhisattva’s Vow.

If it seems to you that one of those thoughts is helpful – in the same way the thoughts “my breath” or “friend” might sometimes be helpful – then by all means think it!  But as Bodhisattvas let’s not stick to any of these thoughts, or believe them too deeply, or put any kind of lasting faith in any one of them.  The ground of our life, and of our action, lies elsewhere.


So what does Shantideva say, what is his point?  How do we live and act in such a world of vast and terrible evil, atop such a frail goodness?

By vow, that’s all.  We abide in a vow to live for the sake of the awakening and well-being of all sentient beings.  No conditions at all make it easier or harder to live by that vow.  It is not easier to be a Bodhisattva under Obama, nor is it harder under Trump.  It is not easier when well nor harder when ill.  It is not easier in abundance nor harder in loss.

We have no problem and no excuse, only opportunity.  And there is never, ever, cause for despair.


Here’s Shantideva, in the Padmakara Group translation:

Thus behold the utter frailty of goodness!

Except for perfect Bodhicitta,

There is nothing able to withstand

The great and overwhelming strength of evil.

Or with its preceeding verse, in Crosby and Skilton’s translation:

At night in darkness thick with clouds a lightning flash gives a moment’s brightness. So, sometime, by the power of the Buddha, the mind of the world might for a moment turn to acts of merit.

This being so, the power of good is always weak, and the power of evil is vast and terrible.  What other good could conquer that, were there not the perfect Awakening Mind?

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There Is No Seeing Clearly

These days, “after Dallas,” I’ve been thinking a lot about bias – this thing we are supposed to overcome, the root of so much suffering and destruction in our country and world.  And I’ve been thinking about it in terms of the classical Yogacara teachings of Vasubandhu and the great Chinese monk Xuanzang, whose “Treatise on the Establishment of Mind Only” (Chengweishilun) is the basis of the Japanese Hosso Sect.  I think that these teachings have something really interesting and important to offer to the conversation about bias, and it’s something that resonates across Buddhist schools and teaching lineages.  I’d say it gets at the essence of Zen, too.

In a nutshell:  No one is unbiased.  No one sees clearly.

Or, at least, pretty much only a Buddha is unbiased.  Only a Buddha sees clearly.

And by “Buddha” I don’t mean the Zenny “you and all beings are Buddha” kind of Buddha, much less the ultra-Zenny “rocks and tiles are Buddha” kind of Buddha.  I mean the Ten Stages Buddha, the Three Great Kalpas to attain Buddha, the Mahayana Buddha, the Buddha that if you are reading this you most certainly, I guarantee, are not.

When I purify myself of every single hindrance, every single slight tangle of emotion or worldview – then, just maybe then, I’ll see things clearly.  In the meantime, forget it.  Really forget it.  I am NOT seeing clearly.  Not even close.  Never.

No!  Not even that one time… when the world suddenly crystalized crisp and perfect and clear as a still lake.  Even that time, and the ones like it, I was not seeing clearly.

And I most certainly am not seeing clearly right now.

It’d be good to admit this.  It’d be good, if nothing else, to see just this one point clearly.


I’m finding this principle of radical and thoroughgoing humility all over the teachings, but especially in two little details of Yogacara.

The first has to do with the deep and quiet workings of the unconscious “I-making” mind, the manas or seventh consciousness.  This deep mind, always hidden, functions constantly to divide.  Diligently and patiently, carefully and thoroughly, without missing a beat or even a sliver of opportunity, it divides me and you, subject and object, grasper and grasped.  All day and all night, manas cuts.  By the time we are conscious of “a world,” or even a moment of color, a sound, a flash – that world is already divided.

Sure we can see the world in more or less divided and deluded ways, more or less tainted by our ideas about how things are supposed to be.  We can work on seeing more clearly, on mistaking the rope for a snake a little less often, and we can even succeed in some measure.  This is our practice, our effort, and it’s worthwhile.  It matters a lot, in fact.  Sometimes it might make the difference between life and death.

But however much we succeed in our conscious work of clearing the mind of its biases, the manas remains.  No matter the insidious prejudices and views we manage to identify and overturn, the manas is still there working, cutting up the world, and, along with its partner the eighth consciousness, shaping it to our habits of seeing and being.  Unless we’ve achieved Buddhahood, or pretty close to it at least, we aren’t free of this basic dividing.  We aren’t free of me and you, us and them.


Along with this constant, hidden manas, the other detail I’m turning over is the teaching that the five consciousnesses – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching – never operate in the absence of the thinking consciousness, the manovijñana or sixth consciousness.  It may be that there is some direct perception – I perceive immediately that color, that sound, that flash – but it’s never in consciousness without some supports.  There is always along with it the operation of the thinking mind, and that thinking mind can’t help but to color it, nudge it, name it.  Even if just barely.

According to these teachings, I have never seen something directly, just as it is.

Never!  Not even that time, or that other time.

It is possible that once or twice the thinking was just the most miniscule thread, made just the most miniscule impact on that flood of “red” that hit the eye, that flood of “d minor” that filled the ears, that moment we’d swear we saw something, felt something directly.  Impartially.  Just as it was.  Without prejudice or bias.

But however much it seemed that we were for a moment “unbiased,” in fact manas was there, cutting the moment into “me” and “it.”  And the thinking mind was there, offering its commentary, putting the event on the right shelf in the pantry of our delusion.

And if we think otherwise, or would even swear otherwise, let’s consider perhaps that the movement of sixth and seventh consiousnesses may have just been a little too quiet, a little too subtle to register.

Am I sure I saw clearly?  Are you sure you saw clearly?  On what basis are we so sure?  Is that basis outside the realm of influence by manas, by thinking, by expectation, by conditioning?

And to the extent that I still object, that I still really do swear that though I’m not quite yet a Buddha I’ve still once or twice managed this feat of clear seeing, I should consider this too:  Isn’t the position “there is no clear seeing” 100% safer, more solid, more skilfull, and more trustworthy than the alternative?  If we don’t accept that we can’t ever see clearly, what’s to keep up from falling back into that worn-out, war-making delusion that “me, for one, I see clearly!”


So I take it back, we can see clearly.  But all we can see clearly is this:  we can never see clearly.


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Mindfulness or Menmitsu?

I’m not alone in feeling that the practice of mindfulness has utterly transformed my life.  When I say that Zen gave me my life, I’m basically talking about mindfulness – that simple and life-changing instruction to pay close attention to what’s happening, beyond any judgement or conceptualization, in each moment.  To notice that I’m alive.

That deep debt notwithstanding, the “Mindfulness Movement” bugs me.  (And I’m not alone in this either!)  It bugs me like maybe only family really can, and on a lot of counts, not all of which are even consistent with each other.  For instance, it bugs me that it’s too secular, and it bugs me that it’s too Buddhist.  The list goes on.

Instead of just griping, though, I want to offer an alternative word.  A companion word that offers a useful angle on Buddhist practice.

This is menmitsu – “attention to detail.”  “Continuous intimacy.”  “Soft and subtleness.”  “Warm-hearted, thorough diligence.”  Suzuki Roshi says that it is to be “very considerate… very careful in doing things.”  This menmitsu is the defining character of the Soto Sect – it is the flavor, the style of the lineage (menmitsu no kafū 綿密の家風).

Menmitsu is about caring for things.  And of course we can’t care for things without some basic attention; of course “mindfulness” underlies menmitsu.

But there is an important difference.  Mindfulness as it’s usually taught points inward.  That makes sense – “inside” is where we spiritual types think the real deal is.  (Thank you, Descartes.)  Menmitsu points outward.  Outward.  To relationships with people and (maybe especially) with objects.

Volumes have been (and are currently being) written about how “mindfulness” – what could have been a powerful antidote to the excesses of our age – instead risks being swallowed up by the narcissistic, gain-oriented, capitalistic self-improvement culture we live and breathe in.  It’s about how I feel, and what I’ll get.  What matters is me.

Menmitsu, as an enactment of the immutable truth of the total connectedness of all things, includes but is not fundamentally about looking within, or about any kind of inner awareness.  Menmitsu isn’t about an inner state.  It’s about taking care of things.  It’s not about me; it’s about the fork, the dish, the person I’m looking at.

That shift from “me” to “you” goes hand in hand with another transformative shift, from “what can I get” to “what can I give.”  Mindfulness, at least as it’s being sold around town, can seem like something I will get – something for me, by me, about me.  And of course our self-centered, gain-oriented patterns will follow us into any practice we take up, but menmitsu is more sharp, more clear on this point:  it is about what I can give, not what I can get.  If we’re going to live in the world of “you” and “me,” let’s at least see the practice as something from me, not something for me.

How about letting that one take over our culture?  How about a Menmitsu Movement?


[I say some more about menmitsu in a recent public talk.]

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Online Dharma and Cheese Sandwich Buddhism


One of my favorite stories from our San Quentin Sangha is of the guy who ended up in our group as part of a long and involved strategy to get a cheese sandwich.  In a nutshell: Buddhists can be approved vegetarians, approved vegetarians can get two slices of bread with cheese in between instead of two slices of bread with bologne in between, so the best way to get the cheese is to join the Buddhists.

I forget if he got the sandwich.  The point is, he got distracted once he arrived.  Distracted by the silence, and the Dharma, and the warmth.  He became a much appreciated member of the Sangha, practicing with us for a couple years before his eventual parole.

We don’t care why you come.  Cheese sandwich?  Ok.  Putting to rest agitated ancestral spirits.  Ok.  Protection of the State?  Ok.  Stress reduction?  Ok.  Enlightenment?  Ok.

Because the point is that once you arrive, something else can happen.

So my friend has coined the phrase “cheese sandwich Buddhist” – it’s the one who thinks they are there for the sandwich, and doesn’t yet know they are there for the Dharma.  (Or maybe they’re really, really just there for the sandwich…)

So should we advertise our Sangha as the ticket to cheese sandwiches?  A while back I did a post on proselytization, reflecting on how deep and old and central the tradition of Buddhist proselytization is, and how recent and Western this idea that “we don’t do it.”  In that spirit, maybe we should have a big cheese sandwich painted on the door.  Isn’t the point just to get you in the door, since once you arrive something else can happen…?

This is on my mind because I’ve been working with some great folks in charge of San Francisco Zen Center programs to try to spread the word about an online course on Breath that I’m launching in a week or two, and trying to find ways to spread the word, and even entice people to come, without offering too many cheese sandwiches.  Without reducing the Dharma to the deli.

Those of you involved with SFZC may have come across some of our efforts, past and present, and may have noticed that in the rush to “make available” the teachings we’ve fallen down from time to time on the cheese sandwich front.

Hot and crispy!  Come and get ‘em!  Today only!  Hot and crispy and stress reducing!  Just 99 cents!

To put it bluntly, we’ve been told that the way to get people interested in our programs is to tell them what they are going to get out of them.  We need to remind people of what they don’t have right now, and make sure they feel how awful that lack is, and then let them know that by doing our program, they too will get it!

Hot and crispy!

That makes a lot of sense.  Why would any of us do anything if not for the cheese sandwich?  When have any of us ever done anything other than for a cheese sandwich?

Of course I will only look twice if I’m promised something I want.  What’s in it for me?

The problem is that the actual promise of the Dharma is that we can stop needing to get what we want.  And the actual practice of the Dharma is to do something without trying to get something out of it.

We don’t practice for cheese sandwiches.  We don’t practice for ourselves, or, as Dogen has it at least, not even for others.  We practice for the Dharma, or for no reason, or for its own reason.  Or because we have no idea what else to do, or just because we have no idea.

“What can I get” is the root of suffering.  And “what can I get” is the mantra of our time.  So mayve “gaining nothing” is the very best medicine for our age.  But how do we pitch that?

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After much back-and-forth and much hand-wringing (“how can online Dharma possibly be authentic or responsive?” “what can I possibly say about breath and how could anyone possibly care?!”), I’m stepping from the hundred foot pole and into the pixelated dust of the digital marketplace…


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No Limits to Shakyamuni’s awakening?

It’s been a long time since Jiryu or I have gotten it together to post something here, but I wanted to share a link to a dharma talk I gave in Houston last week at the end of rohatsu sesshin.  In it, I try to take up the question of where different Buddhist schools have drawn the limits of the Buddha’s awakening as a way to try to understand our particular Soto Zen way.  Limits and limitlessness–it was fun for me to consider.

So is it cheating to use a talk as a blog post?  Yes.  Yes it is.

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