Don’t Win the Argument, Rouse the Conscience

I’m continuing to think about right speech, and the welfare of sentient beings, and our politics, and our online ecosystem, and the Buddha Way.

I think often of a favorite teaching of my ordination teacher, Seido deBarros.  It’s from Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo Zuimonki.  I put the full text at the end of this post, but Seido’s paraphrase captures it:

“Never win an argument.”

What if this were our motto for online speech?  What if this were our motto for social engagement?  What if this were our motto for Dharma discussions?

“Never win an argument.”

I’ve been listening to sermons of Dr. King recently as I continue my study of the civil rights movement, and I’m struck by the absence of an emphasis on “winning the argument” and by the presence instead of the idea of “rousing the conscience.”  I don’t say “winning the argument” is not an element—maybe it is, but it’s certainly not the frame.

The frame is: a nonviolent appeal to conscience.

The frame is: words and actions intended to rouse the conscience of the nation.

This is more simple, more direct, and more straightforward than winning arguments.  It is making suffering and oppression plain and public, and by doing so reaching in to touch the listeners’ compassionate nature.  This touching must come anyway whether or not the argument is won, because even if we win some argument, in the absence of that touching—that rousing of conscience—there’s just another argument behind it.  So why not dispense with the argument winning and just move directly to the conscience rousing?

Appealing to conscience feels to me much more vital, energized, alive, and awake than winning arguments.  It feels much closer to right speech, right action.  Like nonviolence itself, it has no relation to forfeiture or collapse.  It is not complacency.  It is active, courageous, engaged.  It is, and requires, the practice of the Buddhadharma—contacting our deep nature and allowing that nature to contact others’ natures.

So I don’t need to win you over on this, and that’s not my intention.  But to those who feel this call resonate in their own conscience, please let’s consider taking up this practice together.  Not to win arguments, but to rouse conscience.  To rouse the conscience of those who “agree,” that we all step up and let this awakened conscience truly guide our every day.  And to rouse the conscience of those who “disagree,” that they may be touched in their conscience and not just convinced in their minds.

And through this practice especially may we rouse our own conscience, our own innate compassion and Way-Seeking Mind, and entrust to that roused conscience all of our actions, moment after moment, of body, speech, and mind.

Shobogenzo Zuimonki 5-7, translation by Shohaku Okumura

Dogen instructed,

There is an old saying which goes, “Although the power of a wise man exceeds that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.” Now, students, even if you think that your wisdom and knowledge is superior to others, you should not be fond of arguing with them. Moreover, you should not abuse others with violent words, or glare at others angrily.

Despite having been given great wealth and receiving the favors of some person, people in this age would definitely have negative feelings if the donor were to display anger and slander them with harsh words.

Once, Zen Master Shinjo Kokubun told his students, “In former times, I practiced together with Seppo. Once Seppo was discussing the dharma loudly with another student in the monk’s dormitory. Eventually, they began to argue using harsh words, and in the end, wound up quarreling with each other. After the argument was over, Seppo said to me, ‘You and I are close friends practicing together with one mind. Our friendship is not shallow. Why didn’t you help me when I was arguing with that man?’ At the time, I could do nothing but feel small folding my hands and bowing my head.

Later, Seppo became an eminent master, and I too, am now an abbot. What I thought at the time was that Seppo’s discussion of the dharma was ultimately meaningless. Needless to say, quarreling was wrong. Since I thought it was useless to fight, I kept silent.”

Students of the Way, you also should consider this thoroughly. As long as you aspire to make diligent effort in learning the Way, you must be begrudging with your time. When do you have time to argue with others? Ultimately, it brings about no benefit to you or to others. This is so even in the case of arguing about the dharma, much more about worldly affairs. Even though the power of a wise man is stronger than that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.

Even if you think that you understand the dharma more deeply than others, do not argue, criticize, or try to defeat them.

If there is a sincere student who asks you about the dharma, you should not begrudge telling him about it. You should explain it to him. However, even in such a case, before responding wait until you have been asked three times. Neither speaks too much nor talks about meaningless matters.

After reading these words of Shinjo, I thought that I myself had this fault, and that he was admonishing me. I have subsequently never argued about the dharma with others.


Just to Mend a Hateful Heart

Some friends here at SF Zen Center recently asked me to share my thoughts on right speech for a series we have been doing on the theme.  Specifically, they wanted some comments from me about right speech on social media.

I’m sorry, I thought.  There is no such thing.  Right speech is impossible on social media – I have nothing to say on the matter.

And that’s why I’ve been away from No Zen in the West, from facebook.  Busy, sure.  Committed to my in-the-flesh Sanghas, sure, and the whole swirl of so-called “actual life.”  But also and maybe mostly because I came to feel that right speech online is impossible, and wrong speech online is excruciating.

Right here on this blog and at least as much on the uncountable facebook posts attached to it, I have seen how impossible and excruciating it is.  I have seen, in myself and in the community, how the vitriol spews and cycles and pollutes and is reborn – exuberant proliferation of hatred, violence, one-upmanship, competition, division.  Missing one another, and missing again, and missing again, an entire vitriol-based ecosystem emerges… a whole vitriol-based world system.

Thus behold the utter frailty of right speech online! It is like a flash of lightning in the night sky, overtaken in an instant.  We await then the next flash of kind speech, of understanding, of curiosity, of compassion, but we know even before it comes that it won’t last when it does – night will seal up right behind it as quickly as it came.

So, no – sorry, I thought.  I have nothing to say about right speech online.  I’ve never done it, and I think it’s impossible.

But my friends kindly persisted, so I had to reconsider.  Is my view really so dark, so defeatist?

If I am resigned to hate and fear being the main thing going on in my heart and our hearts, all the time and forever, then yes, right speech is impossible, or pointless, or both.  If I see right speech as just policing of others expression or sugar-coating my own pain, suppressing the hate and fear in my heart and turning away from the hate and fear and suffering in others’ hearts, then yes, fuck that right speech.

But there are other ways to see right speech, and other ways to deploy it.  Speech is a mirror, and right speech is a path.  So I found it in me to write this for Zen Center, and with this spirit, and this intention, I take one vulnerable, tentative step back into the storm and the night:

Lately I haven’t felt at all like my goal in getting my speech “right” is to achieve “right speech.”  I respect the karma of words, but I’m honestly not working on my speech for speech’s sake.  I’m way more worried about my heart.  I’m trying to get my speech right so that I can try to get my heart right, that’s all.  I’ve awakened rudely to the fact that my speech is a window, a mirror, to my heart.  Through my hateful speech, I see my heart full of hate.  Trying to mend my hateful speech, I’m trying mostly just to mend my hateful heart.

Reading Hakuin in the Age of Trump

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for big hardcover Dharma books, especially ones that have the word “complete” in the title. Complete? Who can resist? So when I saw that Norman Waddell’s translation of Hakuin Zenji’s Complete Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn had come out last month, I ordered it. Hakuin’s great, I thought. Maybe I’ll leaf through.

Right around the same time, I was really interested to read a wonderful series of posts over at Dosho Port’s blog. Dosho’s on a Hakuin kick these days—I recommend looking at all of them. (Start with this one, then here, herehere and here)

So I ordered the book, and read Dosho’s posts, and remembered how great Hakuin is, and I started to read. And what I’ve been struck by is less anything doctrinal or any particular Dharma points in Hakuin’s writings, at least so far (Dosho has some interesting things to say about Hakuin doctrinally, especially in contrast to Dogen)—instead, what’s been powerful for me is more the tone, or the style, or the stance. The feeling of Hakuin. I’ve been really drawn to it, reading a lot—I went back and re-read his autobiography, and looked again at his letters, and I’m joyfully tearing through Complete Poison Blossoms.

It’s taken a few weeks, though, to realize why it is that Hakuin is speaking to me so deeply and directly, why he seems like such good and inspiring Dharma medicine for my practice right now. And the reason, of course, is our time—this cultural/political/historical moment, with Donald Trump in the White House and my whole wounded culture boiling up all around me. Hakuin’s decades-long religious crisis marched right through the emotional extremes of terror and anguish and despair. He was a dramatic and wounded guy, and he practiced within and through the exact states of mind that I feel in myself and in my culture right now. He’s the Zen master of desperation and anxiety and dread, and in a cultural moment so marked by those emotions, he’s just right.

For a set of slightly convoluted reasons, I’ve found myself taking cold showers these days. It all started with trying to drink less coffee (those of you who know me know how much coffee I drink.) It turns out—according to the Internet, at least—that caffeine works on dopamine receptors in the brain and so one of the ways to lessen the impact of caffeine withdrawal is to look for other ways of getting a dopamine boost. And one easy, cheap dopamine boost comes from taking cold showers.

So I’ve been giving it a try, and it’s worked—I’m drinking less coffee, and they really are energizing, the slap of them, the shock.

All of which is just to say: that’s just what reading Hakuin is like. Forceful, direct, enlivening. Like an icy blast of water.


Changing the subject: some of you know that I published a book of fiction—my first!—last fall. Here’s a link to an interview I gave about the book (namedropping Dogen and the Avatamsaka Sutra). You can order the book from Amazon, of course, or directly from the publisher. If you’re curious, I hope you’ll take a look. It’ll generate lifetimes of merit, I promise.


A Zen Priest Ordination / Una Ordenación como Sacerdote Zen

If you heard some celestial celebrations on November 19, 2017, it was likely the Bodhisattvas of the cosmos rejoicing at the leaving home priest ordination of Sanriki Juan Felipe Jaramillo  at Hakuan Zendo, Montaña de Silencio, in Medellín, Colombia.

Si escuchó celebraciones celestiales el 19 de noviembre, 2017, seguro que fueron los Bodhisattvas de los cosmos regocijandose al ver dejar el hogar, el shukke tokudo, ordenación como sacerdote Zen, de Sanriki Juan Felipe Jaramillo en el Zendo Hakuan, Montaña de Silencio, en Medellín, Colombia.

I performed the ordination with the support of Central Abbess Eijun Cutts and others at the San Francisco Zen Center, following Sanriki’s completion of a practice period at Tassajara and his thirty-plus years of Zen practice prior.  The Reverend Densho Quintero, Dharma heir of Shohaku Okumura and head teacher of the Comunidad Soto Zen de Colombia assisted in the ceremony, and much of the Montaña de Silencio Sangha was in attendance.

Celebré la ceremonia con el apoyo de la abadesa Eijun Cutts, con quién Sanriki cumplió un periodo de práctica en Tassajara, y otros maestros del San Francisco Zen Center, todos conscientes de que Sanriki lleva más que trienta años practicando la Vía del Zen.  El Venerable Densho Quintero, heredero en el Dharma de Shohaku Okumura y maestro de la Comunidad Soto Zen de Colombia ayudó con la ceremonia, y estaban presentes muchos de los practicantes de la Sangha Montaña de Silencio.

I am overjoyed to be able to share this news with you, and to make this public announcement of Sanriki’s priest ordination in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  May his practice continue to bring benefit to living beings, and may all beings continue to support and sustain him in his sincere practice.

Me da mucha alegría poder compartir esta noticia con ustedes, y anunciar públicamente la ordenación de Sanriki como sacerdote en el linaje de Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  Que su práctica siga beneficiando a los demás, y que todos los seres sigan apoyándole y sosteniéndole en su sincera práctica.


Kosan, Sanriki, Jiryu, Densho

Este último cabello se llama shura…

Sanriki recibiendo el linaje


Announcing Online Course: Encountering the Teachings

We don’t use No Zen in the West much to plug events, but as our email subscriptions have grown I realize that there are many of you who aren’t in my other circles of contact.

So if you haven’t already, please consider if this online course I’m offering would be a good fit for you.  I’ve had a good time preparing it, and I’m looking forward to its launch next week!

The class is called “Encountering the Teachings,” and it is a romp through the major doctrinal streams of Buddhist doctrine, as classified by early Chinese Buddhists – karma, no self/abhidharma, emptiness/madhyamaka, mind-only/yogacara, and Buddha nature/tathagatagarbha.  My intention has been to include enough reflection and perspective to give some grist for experienced students “re-encountering” the teachings, but not to be so technical that newer folks will be lost.   Especially alive for me as I prepare the course has been the “contemplations” videos, which I put together on each of the five areas of teaching that we are covering.  I hope that these contemplations can help us really feel and appreciate and enter the worldview of each teaching.

As I’ve appreciated before when offering these programs, the online platform is 100% flexible, and people can participate or not participate to whatever extent they’d like and with whatever pieces they are most interested in.

Anyway, check it out if you are interested!


Homage to Grandma Dakini, Grandpa Dharma Protector

If in the last few years you have invited me to teach a class or give a Dharma Talk, or asked me in one of my capacities to attend an administrative meeting to do my little part helping one of our temples or affiliates to stay afloat and thriving, chances are I’ve said I can only do it on a Monday or Wednesday.  If it’s not something I can do late at night over email, chances are it’s on a Monday or a Wednesday.

These are not holy days.  The remaining five days of the week are not some sort of Zen Sabbath.  (Although how awesome would that be!  Soto Zen Buddhist Association, can you get to work on declaring that?)

It’s that Mondays and Wednesday are when my kids grandparents come over.  Whether or not you appreciate what I do (and somehow this blog has seemed bring along as many who don’t as who do), it is all accomplished in complete dependence on the grandparents.

Grandparents don’t only keep the whole capitalist machine running.  In my case, they also keep the Dharma Wheel turning, lurk behind whatever tiny ways I myself help to turn it.  They are the much-loved but unpaid and under-acknowledged domestic workers who enable incalculable swaths of the economy, religious workers included.  Not to mention they raise and care for millions of children whose parents are incarcerated, deceased, or out of the picture for a thousand reasons.

But apparently, according to the State Department guidelines on the Supreme Court travel ban decision, they are not legitimately “close family”.  Trump, Tillerson, and our friends at the State Department are asserting that a child’s relationship to their grandparents is not a bona fide connection.

Of all of the profoundly dehumanizing, cruel, and heartless things the anti-immigrant and “tough on crime” Trump administration has said and done, this one is getting profoundly under my skin.

Of course there are many American families with grandparents out of the picture for whatever reason.  Economy, geography, mortality, alienation.  Having grandparents present in a family is a privilege in this culture and economy.  I respect that, and respect the pain in the all-too common separation of grandkids and grandparents.  This is a separation no amount of Skype can overcome, and for some it’s easier to take than for others, but either way it’s a pervasive and unfortunate feature of our society.

But be that as it may, there is no excuse to then cut grandparents out of the category “close family”.  Maybe a grandparent-free family is how Trump or Tillerson has it, a billionaire’s version of real family.  But it’s not my reality, and it’s not my version of family.

So how about your local Zen priest?  Where are his or her kids while they’re doing the clergy work that the Right feels is so vital in providing services to society?  In the case of yours truly, if he’s actually attending something, which is to say if it’s Monday or Wednesday, then his kids are with their grandparents.  So if you appreciate what I do, don’t thank me, thank my parents and parents-in-law.  They are behind it.  It is on their backs.

Many people in the last year have shared George Lakoff’s work on understanding the success of the American Right in terms of notions of family.  From Bush to Trump, the hodge-podge of values associated with the Right is made coherent by a common reference to a tough and demanding patriarch.  “Father knows best.”  If you think spanking is important, chances are you voted for W and 45.

It seems this same reductive, backwards view of family is where these people are coming from when they so blithely write grandpa and grandma out of “close family”.  This latest disparagement of the grandparents (not to mention the egregious and ongoing anti-LGBT rhetoric and policies), is more of the same tired celebration of the the middle-class, white 1950s nuclear family that made America Great last time.  Mom at home with the kids, and Dad at the steel mill or busy at work excluding African-American renters.   Mom (girl), Dad (boy), kids (cis-, straight) – that’s close family.  Those are the only bona fide family relations.  The rest is just extra.

Maybe this is a fundamentalist Christian idea.  Maybe it’s part of the White Supremacist package.  It’s reeks a bit of both, but I don’t know for sure.

What I do know is that it’s heartless garbage.  It totally misses the reality of my family life, for one, not to mention the lives of many other families in which grandparents serve an even more vital function than they do in mine.  And tragically, with respect to the travel ban, it just further works against the success of immigrant families in this country.  The story we hear everyday is that if they’re here, they need to contribute!  And contribute they do.  But how can we ask that and in the same breath disallow them the social structures and social support that enables those contributions?

My kids grandparents are the great unacknowledged Dharma Protectors of the temples I serve.  Fierce Dakini Grandmas and fierce Dharma Protecting Grandpas, I bow to you with palms together, in deep gratitude.

Donald Trump and his cronies do not define my bona fide family, and never will.  And I am furious that they continue to try.  May we join the Wrathful Grandparents across the world and rise up against them.  Fierce compassion to meet heartless injustice!


The Least I Can Do

I’ve been finding myself lately remembering and sharing a story.  It’s the story of a couple of exchanges I had with the head cook at Green Gulch Farm shortly after 9/11.

The head cook at the time was a lovely and compassionate priest a decade or so my senior.  This kind, sensitive priest was really moved by 9/11, felt in it a clear call to step up and step out, to build bridges however he could and do his part to heal the world.  So on his free time – which for a tenzo isn’t much – he threw himself into a non-profit project geared, as I recall it, towards inter-religious unity and understanding.

For my part, I was a young and dutifully uptight Zen student and soon to be ordained priest, assigned to work under him for a while in the temple kitchen.  I was sincerely concerned with and devoted to the temple rituals and forms, and, especially given the sanctified role of kitchen work in the Zen tradition, I took my duties very seriously.

One of our agreements in the kitchen was that all of the staff were to wear a head covering, a bandana serving the function of a hair net you would expect food professionals to wear.  The dispositional differences between the tenzo and I had already been clear well before 9/11, and I think our positions on the head covering would suffice to express it.  In short, I felt pretty strongly about such minutia of our procedure, and the tenzo felt considerably less so, had a wider, softer view of things.

So against this backdrop, sometime in that first week after 9/11 I confronted the head cook incensed that other kitchen workers weren’t wearing their head covers.

“This is our practice!  Why aren’t you enforcing it?!”

A heated conversation ensued in which he tried to point out that I was narrow-minded and uptight and judgmental, and in which I tried to point out that he was abdicating his duties as tenzo and priest.  I forget who won.

In any case, as such things go in community, a day or two later we apologized to each other.  In doing so, the tenzo summarized our positions nicely, and reflected them against the deep anxiety and despair and confusion we were both feeling about world events.

He said something to the effect of, “My feeling was that with the world in this state, how can you be worried about head covers?!”

I really appreciate that.  Especially now, as those of you who have been following No Zen know well, I too feel that call to turn fully to the world.  Why – especially now – should we worry about what foot we walk into the zendo with?  About where our thumbs should be when we put our palms together in gassho?  If we’re supposedly such selfless Bodhisattvas, why not turn our minds and hearts to the actual challenges of our shared human family, to the deep hatred and violence and suffering and pain in our society and communities?

But then the tenzo summarized what he felt I’d been saying like this:

“So my feeling was that with the world in this state, how can be worried about head covers?!  But I think what you were feeling was that given the state of the world, isn’t covering our heads the very least we can do?!”

I really appreciated, and still appreciate, that reflection.

Isn’t taking care of this little detail right in front of me the least I can do for the suffering world?  And the deeper, the louder I hear the worlds’ suffering, doesn’t that raise the stakes for this engagement in detail, for this taking care of at least the little thing right before me?  This is menmitsu.

I don’t know about head coverings; it’s not my thing right now, I don’t work much in the kitchen.  And for most people most of the time temple forms and procedures are anyway beside the point.

I also don’t know about non-profits.  There are some good ones, for sure, and I’m not sure quite how else we think the world will change.  And we do need it to change.  Or, for those awakened readers beyond “need,” consider at least that, important or not, it’s well worth giving this little life or two to help it to change.

So what will we do?

I know that I do have something to take care of right now.  Sometimes that something is global, and sometimes it’s minute, just right here at my feet.  Sometimes it’s a non-profit like the tenzo’s.  And sometimes it’s a child, or a dish, or, yes, even a bow.

The vital point for me today is that whatever it is, can I live it as my response to the suffering of the world?  However small, however huge – can I hold what I am doing and how I am doing it as the least I can do for this suffering world?

When I don’t open to the suffering of the world, it’s because I fear the overwhelm that lives right there.  The helplessness, pain, despair.  And who wants that?  So, like many of us, I push away the immensity of the pain – my own and others’ – and return to work hard at my spiritual or not-so-spiritual bypasses.  “What pain?”

But what about, instead, the least I can do?  What about opening to the full range and scale of human suffering, of the suffering even of all beings, and then engaging the energy of that suffering, the energy of our longing for it to cease, into our practice, into our activity?

Open to the suffering of the world – this world – the least I can do is to cut this carrot nicely, carefully.  The least I can do is found a non-profit.  The least I can do is appreciate my life in this one breath.  The least I can do is disable this bulldozer, sabotage this pipeline, lock to this gate.  The least I can do is spell check a blog post.  The least I can do is put my forehead to floor.

Not avoiding the global, but not missing the minute, may I live my life entirely as a reply to the suffering of beings.

That is living with intention, and that is dedication of merit.  And that, as I understand it, is the Bodhisattva Path.