People love to standardize everything. There are practical reasons, and good ones for that matter, when it benefits humanity. However, when standardization is used politically or as ways to exert power, then it should be protested against. Moreover, how do you standardize something that defies it? Zen is one such thing that could not and should not be confined to a set of protocols or even best-practiced procedures. The Buddha didn’t create rules and ceremonies. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that when he became enlightened, he thought about keeping it to himself because he didn’t think anyone would listen him. Eventually he decided to share what he discovered, but he had always advocated that people should discover reality for themselves. That there are now organizations and institutions that say what is right and wrong and how things should be goes against Gautama’s intentions. I think I’ve always been wary of codification and bureaucracy. Brad Warner wrote a blog post about the standardization of Zen and vowed to fight it to the end. On this I support him one hundred percent.
The air is getting cool, especially in the evening and early morning. The seasons are changing, which has always energized me. Maybe intuitively I’ve appreciated change and look forward to it. But, change is something you take account of after the fact. It is not noticeable in the moment. Actually, change is really an effect of comparisons. Change doesn’t happen in real time. A snapshot of reality reveals something as it is in that moment. Only after we compare it to the past do we know it’s different. Still, the effect seems so real and we talk about it as thought it is a tangible thing. People like to say that the only constant in life is change. I don’t think we are giving reality enough credit, at least not enough attention. Change is an illusion, reality’s sleight of hand. Now you see it, now you don’t. It’s really just a distraction, as all illusions are. If you keep your eyes on the ball, you’re not concerned with where it’s been, only where it’s at. Let historians, bloggers, and detractors worry about the past. Give all of that to them. You, happily, will take a slice of now, which is eternity.
Don’t be attached to your intentions for your own words, for they come with a sliver of suffering. Whether you intended for them to be very abstract or hyper specific, they are like paper mâché. They will bend and bounce and break, and might even get vengeful over time.
At the same time, don’t think they are not important. Like time, they can’t be wasted. They are the best tools we have to offset the fear of today and the worship of tomorrow. They give us humor and paper duck. They prod us with obtuse philosophical questions and cautionary tales. They breakup with us with tender instructions. They give us a sense of justice and delineate right and wrong. They are the language of dogs, if dogs didn’t bark, because they are loyal like monks on mountains.
Just remember to not give two fucks and a moon about them.
Silence does not mean acquiescence, nor empathy, nor aloofness, nor resignation. Silence is simply observation. It means to accept what is, to not turn away or reject reality.
Silence doesn’t equal quiet either. Silence is actually listening, truly and uninhibited. Silence is filtering out the excess, the superfluous, the obstructions, the distractions, and the delusions. It is golden. It is relief. It is truth. It is power. It is resetting to equilibrium, to clarity. We need it as much as we need air and water. In this age of always-on, constant stimuli, digital addiction, we might need silence more than ever.
Silence also means space, to have that buffer where cessation of sensory input could be possible. To have silence on a regular basis is luxurious, but once tasted it you will want more. The more we are connected externally—via internet, social media, digital devices—the less we are truly connected in fundamental ways of reality. In fact, those tools of external connection build walls of isolation and division. The way back to true human connection is through silence.
There is satisfaction in incompleteness. There can be joy in not finishing, contentment in being unfulfilled, and liberation in not attaining. What’s the point of achieving a goal and feeling that fleeting, tangent, ephemeral state of accomplishment only to experience emptiness, letdown, and restlessness shortly afterward? When you crave for a type of food and then gorge until you are filled to the brim, doesn’t that feel uncomfortable? Better to stop the moment before satiety, to savor the taste, but leave wanting. That way the fantasy is preserved. There is nothing more dejecting than to have the construct of your fantasy break down by achieving it.
There is a photo making the social media rounds that shows an image purported to be the final photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, as part of its end-of-life self-destruct choreography after a 13-year mission. This image depicts a breathtaking view of the Saturn cloudscape backdropped by the planet’s majestic rings running vertical to the horizon. It really is a jaw dropping image.
When I first saw the image on Twitter, I had in mind to share it. So I saved it for later. Something told me, though, to make sure it’s the real deal. A quick Google search validated my caution. It turns out that the image, which first surfaced on Facebook, is an artist’s concept (most likely a digital painting).
Only after the image had gone viral did the truth come out. The impulse to share on social media overrode any thought to verify. Even after seeing what the image actually was, some people were commenting that it was a better image than the actual one—meaning they preferred the made-up fantasy over reality.
For the record, the actual photo Cassini took shows a blurry image of Saturn taken in visible light using a wide-angle camera at a distance of 394,000 miles from the planet surface. Cassini was entering Saturn’s upper atmosphere from the night side of the planet. The light it managed to capture came from the light from the sun reflecting off the rings. Despite the awesome rendition of the artist’s concept, IMHO, the real image depicts a reality that is far more interesting and amazing—because it actually happened.
I was talking with Dave Cuomo, who manages Angel City Zen Center, about sangha membership and how to attract more people. This question came up:
How is that some American Buddhist organizations have hundreds of members (and thousands more followers online)?
ACZC is a misfit when it comes to your typical sangha. It’s “Zen Casual” compared to more formal and ritualized places like Zen Center Los Angeles, Zenshuji Soto Mission, and Hazy Moon Zen Center, to name a few Los Angeles-based Zen institutions. Outside of Zen, there are more organizations, like InSigntLA and Shambala (and the soon to close down Against the Stream), for example, that have large memberships and are well funded.
That’s not to say that ACZC has any less to offer. In fact, from Koan Night to weekly dharma talks, Q&As, podcasts, yoga, writing workshops, and monthly day-longs, ACZC offers a full schedule, in addition to daily zazen sits. The atmosphere is welcoming and the discussions are lively. The members that attend also have demonstrated competent knowledge of Buddhist concepts, so the sangha is clearly doing something right.
However, membership has been wanting. So what is everyone else doing that ACZC isn’t?
For one, ACZC isn’t promising any enlightenment. Aside from the fact that enlightenment isn’t the point, that’s just something that would be irresponsible for anyone to offer, let alone promise. ACZC isn’t offering to make you feel better or give you answers to pressing questions. That’s not what the practice is for, though those things may happen in the course of your practice. There are no robes, strict rules, or formal hierarchies.
What ACZC does offer is a rigorous adherence to core Buddhist principles, a no frills approach to Truth, and a non-ritualistic but still respectful acknowledgement of customs and history. It’s not traditional, but it still embodies the spirit of a temple. It’s not formal, but still full of heart. It’s Zen Casual, not Zen Anarchy, and no less Zen.
So, what are the other places doing that gets them so many members? I would say the real question isn’t what they’re offering, or what ACZC isn’t, but rather what are people looking for? It seems—and this is a very generalized observation—many people are looking for a support group type of environment. They are seeking places with like-minded people, where they feel safe and not alone. They want sanctuary for their feelings. Nothing wrong with any of that, of course.
There is a cerebralness at ACZC that at the surface may seem to be contrary to those things. For newcomers, ACZC may seem too heady and not enough metta, or heart. That would be the wrong conclusion. You get out what you put in. That’s especially true of ACZC, where there is zero upselling. Like Zen Buddhism, this sangha emphasizes sustained, sincere practice and with it comes practical realization and inner peace.
Moreover, there is sanctuary at ACZC, just minus the cliquish vibes of some of the other places. One of the things that really appeals to me about ACZC is that it never touts its brand as “authentic” (though it is) by advertising its lineage (even though there is one). That stuff is superficial anyway. It’s the teachings and what it espouses and the sincerity of intentions that are truly valuable. That’s where ACZC shines. Gleaning value in membership numbers is foolhardy. After all, Master Dogen himself probably had at most 50 students at his temple.
Angel City Zen Center has a monthly writing workshop, usually on the 3rd Saturday each month. Today, on the 4th Saturday of the month (ha!), ACZC held the workshop after its weekly zazen, discussion, and community lunch.
The writing workshop, while a platform for exploring and flexing creative muscles, also serves as an exercise to build communal understanding, compassion, symbiosis, and empathy. I’ll elaborate on this in a bit.
I attended the workshop for the first time, without prior conception and certainly with a degree of apprehension. I’ve never done anything like this before and was nervous about embarrassing myself. There were, indeed, very creative writers in this group. But they were also extremely supportive. The format of nonjudgmental analysis and sharing of present impact cultivates a safe and lighthearted atmosphere that makes you forget that you’re living in Los Angeles, a city that can be lonely and superficial, if not downright merciless and cruel.
The workshop started with a 20 minute zazen that ends with a topic prompt, from which we free-write for thirty minutes. Then we go around the room reading our respective writeups. Each reading is followed by everyone taking turn to share what impact it had on them and what their impressions were, all with zero judgmental and personal preferences.
The second part of the workshop had us use anything we heard and took notes on in the first part of the workshop to synthesize another writeup. This is where I mentioned about this being an exercise in building communal symbiosis. Because to write up the second piece, we had to listen to what everyone else had to say. Whether or not we agree or liked or disliked what we heard, we had to hear them. As we compose a writeup using their words and ideas, we essentially enter their mindspace, which is how understanding, compassion, and empathy starts. The result is a deep connection with everyone involved, even if we don’t know each other’s personal histories.
I tell you, everyone’s writeup was amazingly creative and great. This entire group has legitimate writers, even if they don’t do it for a living. Everyone’s writeup had me shaking my head in awe over how good it was. There was prose, stream-of-consciousness, poetry, creative fiction, social commentary. Everyone in this group is truly talented, creative, and most importantly, good-hearted.
I really did think what I wrote didn’t come close to everyone else’s in terms of quality and originality. I’m not being modest, just cognizant that it was my first time and I did my best, which is fine with me. I look forward to continuing this writing process with the group in the future. I know I could learn a thing or two from everyone there.
Anyway, here is what I wrote in the first part of the workshop, followed by the second part. Be nice. (The topic prompt, by the way, had a political bent. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it’s not important because no one really used it as a basis for what they wrote.)
• • • •
Clever people think they are clever. That is their nature. They identify with that label. Little Johnny was told he was a clever little boy and he grew up liking that. The problem is that everybody is clever, too. Little Johnny knows this deep down, though he may not know it truly, only that there is some nagging sensation that points to this. So he devises ways to show off his cleverness, but in a way that really illustrates how unclever other people are. In short, Johnny is an asshole.
A whole generation—maybe several generations—of Johnnys have been fostered in this country and as a result we have a clever country on our hands. A prevailing character trait for Johnny is that he doesn’t want to be just like everyone else. The urge for different, i.e. superior, is strong. Everything then becomes a measuring stick. There has to be results! Society has been built with this mentality, where metrics means more than right. Never underestimate the power of self deception. Whole industries are built on this: advertising, marketing, sports, Hollywood, award shows, the list goes on.
How do we break this cycle of self-destruction? I have no idea. The only thing I know is that we created this problem in the first place by doing things. Doing more things does not seem like the solution. Nor does looking into the past. People like to say that history repeats itself. That seems silly and wrong. Everything happening now is new. If anything is real, and that’s debatable, it is the cosmic law of cause and effect. Don’t believe that at your own risk.
• • • •
(This piece is based on what the others in the group wrote and on notes that I took throughout the workshop.)
Who are you?
Confusion is the flavor of the month,
Like the fleeting nature of hellos and goodbyes.
Still, we have
Desires so viscous, sheets can be erected
And spun into a
Rope called hope,
Which can lift the
Embarrassment that has become customary
Ointment for our narratives.
After all, the rebound is the reason.
Everything happening now is new.
Against the Stream announced today it will be closing its operations as of September 30. This is a shame, because the organization benefited a lot of people.
ATS leadership sent a letter to its membership detailing the conclusion of a lengthy internal investigation of sexual assault by ATS’s founder, Noah Levine. The letter stated that they explored ways to keep the organization viable, but were unable to find a solution.
Read the letter in its entirety from lionsroar.com.