Friday, December 22, 2017

Bodhi Day: The Beauty of Silent Meditation Retreats

In the Marine Corps. I witnessed many strange and interesting rituals.  Some of them made sense.  Some of them didn't.

But I like to think that I learned something from all of them.  One of these rituals was the use of long, hard runs to celebrate good news.  

For example, if a new commanding officer came to the unit, the company Gunnery Sergeant might "celebrate" that fact by having everyone in the company take part in a 10-mile run.

A route would be selected, unit flags would be unfurled, and a long line of sweaty, screaming jar heads would go running down the street, singing cadence every step of the way.

This type of ritual doesn't make sense on the surface.  Why were we celebrating by running until we puked?  Why couldn't we play soft ball instead!

That's a fair questions. But if I had to do it over again,  I'd make sure we ran little faster, and a little farther during those runs.

In the Marines, we didn't see good news as a reason to slack off.  Quite the opposite, we used it as motivation to train harder, to become better, to be worthy of the good fortune that we shared.

Zen works in much the same way.

That's why I celebrated Bodhi Day this year by taking part in a 3-day silent meditation retreat.  It was led by Venerable Ying Fa, the abbot of Cloud Water Zendo, and it was intense.  We were instructed to remain silent for the full time that we were there, only talking to the monks in case of an emergency, or to Ven. Ying Fa during Zen dialogues.  

Cell phones were absolutely forbidden along with reading, journaling, knitting, or anything that might take away from our single-pointed concentration.  Indeed, we were even encouraged to maintain a 'modest gaze' as to avoid making eye contact with our fellow practitioners. 

This is all standard for a Zen retreat.

During the retreat, I sat in meditation until my legs burned, I shared meals with strangers without uttering a word, and I spent free periods doing walking meditation (e.g. walking in circles with eyes cast downward) until the bell rang for another round of sitting.

This type of ritual doesn't make sense on the surface. Why do we celebrate Buddha's enlightenment through difficult practice.  Why can't we play soft ball instead!

That's a fair question. But Bodhi day isn't a time for taking it easy. Rather, it's an opportunity to embody the Buddha's example. We sit like he sat. We hurt like he hurt. And if we're lucky, we awaken to the beauty of our lives.

But we can't wake up unless we push ourselves to the limit.  And silent meditation retreats allow us to do that. Bodhi day is the opportunity, Buddha is our guide, and meditation is our gateway to enlightenment.

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Bodhi Day: The Beauty of Silent Meditation Retreats

Saturday, December 16, 2017

3 Universal Truths that Buddha Taught

Philosophers have wrestled with the concept of universal truth for centuries. But no one has been able to figure out exactly what it is, or even if it truly exists.

In fact, the existentialist philosopher, Nietzsche famously threw up his hands and stated, "God is dead," while contemplating the question.

Of course, he wasn't claiming that a literal super natural deity had died. Rather, he was expressing the fact that human conceptual thought around things like happiness, goodness, truth, etc. is inherently flawed. As a result, universal truth as represented by God cannot exist.

In Nietzsche's view, the best we can hope for is to live as individuals, constantly striving against one another to impose our will to power upon the world.

The Buddhist view, however, is different. While Buddha would agree that humanity's conceptual view of the world is limited, he observed three experiences that all living beings share. These are often referred to as The Three Marks of Existence in Buddhist literature.

As these experiences are shared universally by all living things, one could argue that they represent the universal truth that Nietzsche claims doesn't exist. Furthermore, since they represent a shared experience, the Three Marks of Existence create a common ground between people, encouraging them to live in unity.

Based on this universal truth, Buddha built a philosophy in the 4 Noble Truths and the 8-Fold path which allows individuals to both understand the source of their suffering and successfully work to end it.

However, to truly grasp this philosophy one must first understand the The Three Marks of Existence. They are as follows:


To put it simply, the first mark of existence states that everything changes. On the surface, this may seem incredibly obvious; but is it? Do we live our lives like everything changes? Or do we quietly believe that while everything else in the world changes, the things we enjoy should remain the same?

In the end, stars explode, rivers run dry, and mountains crumble to dust. Everything in the universe changes, and the teaching of impermanence reminds us that human life is no exception.

Buddha witnessed this for himself when he left his father's palace, and saw aging, sickness, and death for the first time. In fact, he was so shocked by the experience that he renounced the life of a house-holder, and spent the rest of his days as a wandering monastic.

Of course, we don't have to live as renunciants to fully appreciate this teaching. But we must understand that change is an irrevocable part of our lives. To think otherwise is to invite unnecessary suffering.


The second mark of existence is probably the most misleading. It states that there is no permanent, unchanging self. To be clear, this doesn't mean that we don't exist. Rather, Buddha is telling us that the "I" that we think of as the self is only a very small part of a much larger, constantly changing whole.

To demonstrate, I'll use myself as an example. My name is Alex and I have a physical body. However, both my name and my body came from my parents. I have a job and earn income, but ideas like 'job' and 'income' fall squarely into the realm of limited human concepts that we discussed earlier. Their useful tools, but they aren't real in the same way a rock is real when it trips you on the side walk. So it would be a mistake to say those things are me.

Furthermore, I'm writing this article in a language that was created by other people before I was born, and I'm practicing a religion that is also not of my own making. In short, my name, body, faith, language, and job (e.g. the things that people usually associate with the self) aren't truly mine.

In truth, it would be more accurate to call them gifts that I've received from the universe. I'll hold them for a time, but they'll eventually fade away like everything does.

Again, this doesn't mean that I don't exist. It simply means that my life is the result of an infinite number of karmic inputs from the world around me, most of which I'll never understand or appreciate. It's impossible to figure out where "I" stop and the rest of the world begins. The line is incredibly blurred; thus the teaching of non-self.


The third mark of existence is the most straight-forward. It states that the world is filled with suffering. This sounds very pessimistic on the surface, so it's important to put the remark into context. Buddha stated, "The world is filled with suffering," in the same way that we might say, "It's raining outside today."

It's not a good thing. It's not a bad thing. It's simply a fact of life. Our goal as practitioners is to accept this fact, and then find a skillful way to deal with it.

This is important because one major cause of suffering is believing that it shouldn't exist (e.g. we shouldn't get sick, relatives should never be inconsiderate, traffic jams shouldn't occur, etc.)

The paradox of suffering is that the more we accept is as a natural part of life, the more peaceful our lives become.

It should also be noted that the word suffering is used in a very broad context in Buddhism. The death of a loved one is a form of suffering, but so is the neighborhood kid who knocks over your trash can. Thus the teaching is not meant to imply that existence is a long torture-fest.

Rather, it reminds us that life is filled with experiences, both large and small, that don't meet with our expectations. And that's okay. It doesn't mean that we're doing something wrong, That's just how the system works.

But there's still hope. Because if we have a clear understanding of Buddha's core teachings: The Three Marks of Existence, The 4 Noble Truths, and The 8-Fold Path, then we can liberate both ourselves and other from suffering.

In Buddhism, the teachings of impermanence, non-self, and suffering provide a universal road map that anyone can follow. They speak to experiences that all living beings share, and provide a pathway for us to live happier, more peaceful lives.

We don't need to search for universal truth. We live it everyday.

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3 Universal Truths that Buddha Taught

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

3 Buddhist Lessons From a Zen Cat

The more I walk this spiritual path, the more I realize that literally everyone is a Zen teacher. That is to say, every interaction we have with another living being is a chance to learn something more about Buddhist practice. 

Lately, I've been learning a great deal from a Zen master named Enso, who recently came into my life.  Enso is a cat, but that doesn't stop his teachings from coming across loud and clear. In fact, in the month that he's been with me I've learned the following:

Act Boldly

Enso was a stray when he came into my life. It was 40 degrees outside, and my room mate had just finished walking his dog. As they were coming inside, Enso decided to introduce himself. He and Roxie, the dog, played for a bit, and when Roxie came inside the house... Enso came with her!  He's been making himself at home ever since.

I don't know what he was thinking when Enso walked into both my house and my heart.  But I'm guessing it was fairly straight-forward.  He was lonely, so he made friends with a dog that happened to be nearby.  He was cold, so he walked into a warm house.  He didn't waste time worrying about "what ifs" or pondering worst-case scenarios. In typical Zen master-fashion, Enso saw a problem, and he cut directly to the solution.

In life, we are faced with decisions every day that require quick, decisive action. And we're rarely given the opportunity to sit quietly for a moment and weigh the pros and cons. Rather, like a cat who's stuck outside on a cold night, we must act intuitively, and trust ourselves to work with whatever life throws our way.  There is no time for fear.  When opportunity presents itself we must act boldly!

Live Fully

One of the things that stuck me early on about Enso is how he eats. He doesn't simply eat his food, so much as he attacks it.  The entire world drops away, and his entire focus is on consuming his meal as quickly and efficiently as possible. Afterwards, he returns to the bowl several times to check for any stray morsels that may have been missed previously.

However, Enso's single-pointed concentration doesn't end there. I've noticed that he gives the same attention to detail when he uses the litter box. First he inspects the container to make sure nothing is out of place.  He sniffs around and visually checks both the inside and the outside of the box. 

Then he makes an artful leap inside, and begins pawing at the litter to ensure his deposit is made at just the right spot. Finally, Enso turns his face to the wall like a good Zen practitioner and does what he came to do.  It's all very ceremonial, in a cat-like sort of way. His kitty mother must be proud

What strikes me about Enso's behavior, however, isn't the fact that he eats and empties his bowels.  Rather it's how he does these things. Every meal is treated like it's the last one he'll have on this earth, and every trip to the litter box is done with the decorum of a royal wedding.

This reminds me of a quote that's attributed to Layman Pang, a lay Buddhist who lived in 8th century China.  He described his way of the Buddha by stating:

"How miraculous and wondrous, hauling water and carrying firewood!"

In other worlds, Pang saw ordinary, everyday activities as a wondrous, and he treated them as such.  When he hauled water, he just hauled water. When he chopped wood, he only chopped wood to the exclusion of all other things. He devoted himself 100% to everything that he did, because he knew that everything he did was special.

I'm convinced that Enso thinks in much the same way.

Be Content

As much as I love my cat, I honestly haven't given him much. He gets two square meals a day, a clean litter-box, and lots cuddles when he's in the mood. But that's it. He doesn't play with the expensive toys that I bought him, and he isn't all that crazy about catnip. Instead, Enso is perfectly happy with spending his days staring out the windows and attacking my shoelaces.

If we're being honest, I'm a little envious of him.  How much simpler would life be if people were content with the little things in life. How much calmer would my life become if my desires were limited to food, water, shelter, and the occasional bit of affection?

To that point, the Zen masters of old used to caution their students against the use of a luxurious bed. It was believed that two much comfort would distract from practice, and lead to increasingly extravagant desires (e.g. a nice bed, requires nice sheets, which have to match curtains, etc.)

Enso sleeps in my bed most nights, but he definitely got the memo about keeping it simple. I marvel at the level of contentment and quite joy he garners from ordinary life. And I strive to emulate it each day in my practice

There is an old saying which states, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." Truer words were never spoken.  As I continue to practice, I learn that life is constantly presenting me with unexpected teachers to help me along the path; such is the case with Enso.

In the past, students honored their Zen teacher with gifts of food or money in exchange for the Dharma. But Enso doesn't have a begging bowl, so he'll have to settle for lots of belly rubs instead.

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Buddhist Lessons From a Zen Cat

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

White Clouds: A Buddhist Perspective on the Purpose of Life

What's the purpose of life? This question has followed me like a shadow since I was a teenager.  That is to say, I've always wanted to know why I'm here, and if there's some special meaning to my existence. 

In the past, this was the cause of a lot of hand-wringing and sleepless nights because it's one of those questions that doesn't have a definite answer; at least not in a conventional sense.

In college, I attempted to find a solution in existential philosophy. I tore through the works of Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, etc. in an attempt to solve the puzzle of my life's meaning. It was an exciting time during my studies, and I read many fascinating works. But I'd be lying if I said that I found an answer to my question.

In the end, I learned to make peace with not knowing my purpose. This wasn't a perfect solution, but it helped me sleep at night. After all, there were some things in life that my frail, human mind wasn't capable of piecing together. And I felt no shame in admitting that.

Later, I became Buddhist, and I decided that my life's purpose was, to save all sentient beings from suffering. This is a wholesome, noble endeavor. But it's not without problems.

After all, how does one go about saving all sentient beings? And what happens if we fail?  To be clear, I haven't abandoned this goal as the attempt to save all beings is an incumbent part of Mahayana Buddhism. But I no longer think it's proper to call it my life's purpose.  My thinking changed as a result of reading the following koan.

A monk once asked Shozan, "Is there any phrase that is neither right nor wrong?" Shozan answered, "A piece of white cloud does not show any ugliness."

In this dialogue, the monk was wrestling with one of life's big questions. In his frustration, he asked Shozan, "Is there any phrase that is neither right nor wrong?" In other words, he wanted to know if we can ever truly escape duality. Can we live a life without criticism or fear?

Instead of giving a direct answer, Shozan turned the monk's attention to the clouds in the hope that he would learn from their example.

White clouds don't show ugliness because they don't seek validation.  They don't look to others for guidance or ask questions like, "What's the purpose of my life?"

Instead, they focus on existing 100% as a cloud; without fear or reservation. That's all that's required, and that's more than enough. Because a white cloud that lives fully eventually becomes a rain cloud. And it delivers precious water to rivers and trees.

In it's wisdom, the white cloud does not seek the purpose of life. Rather, it lives each moment of life with purpose.

As I pondered this thought, I realized that my search for meaning was rooted in dualistic thinking. I was convinced that there must be, "something more" than normal life, and this conviction caused me a great deal of ugliness/ pain.  Furthermore, my search suggested that my life was lacking in some way.

However, this koan has shown me that I don't need to try and become a good Buddhist, brother, or friend. I simply need to embody those roles fully. I need to focus on living 100%, and being present to the people around me. If I do that, then like the white cloud who eventually delivers rain, I'll give the world what it needs, precisely when it needs it.

I don't need to find the purpose of life. I just need to live.

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White Clouds: A Buddhist Perspective on the Purpose of Life  

Friday, December 1, 2017

3 Dharma Lessons I Learned From the Ocean

My first experience with the open ocean came in 2005. I was serving with the U.S. Marine Reserves, and my unit was sent to Louisiana to do disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. The situation on the ground was terrible, but it only got worse when we found out that Hurricane Rita was about to make landfall.

We jumped on the U.S.S. Shreveport, a navy ship, in order to ride out the storm at sea. It was while I was cruising around the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane that I found out that I get sea sick. We were on the ocean for the better part of a week, and I spent most of that time throwing up.

Unable to keep anything down, I got dehydrated and light-headed, but I still had a job to do. So, each time it was my turn to go on duty I fell into a not so pleasant routine of getting up, throwing up, and getting back to work. Needless to say, I was one of the first people off ship when we finally came back into port.

Thankfully, not all of my experiences with the ocean have been negative. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to go body surfing in Huntington Beach, CA, whale watching in Cabo San Lucas, and splash around like an idiot on Florida beaches. While doing all of this, I learned the following lessons from the open water that have truly inspired my spiritual practice.

Know When to Float, and When to Swim

The ocean is incredibly beautiful, but I’ve learned that it can also be dangerous. This is especially true where riptides are concerned. A riptide is a localized current of water that flows directly away from shore. People that get caught in them can find themselves rapidly pulled out to sea. Despite the danger, however, one can survive getting caught in a riptide if they keep their cool.

The key is to never fight the current. Doing so will only result in exhaustion and increase your potential for drowning. Instead, float on your back and locate the shore, then swim parallel to the shore until you are out of reach of the riptide (they are usually less than 30 feet wide), then swim towards the beach.

This is good advice for swimming in the ocean, but I’ve found that it’s also an excellent way to approach life. The world is full of riptides (both real and metaphorical) that can drown us if we aren’t careful. It can be tempting to waste precious energy fighting against the current in order to prove a point or get where we want to go faster.

But the direct path isn’t always the best path. In other words, we must use our inner wisdom to know when it’s time to center ourselves by going with the current vs. when it’s time to swim hard towards our goals.

Build a Container for Good Things to Happen

One of the truly incredible things about ocean water is how much life exists within it. According to scientists, there are over 1 million individual species of plants and animals in the sea. This includes massive humpback whales who live in all major oceans and tiny seahorses who are only found in tropical waters. There’s the great barrier reef which is composed of billions of coral polyps, and octopi who can change color at will.

The amount of ocean life that exists is fantastic, but what’s even more interesting is why it exists. We must remember that there are no magical incantations or preternatural powers being used to create all of this abundance. Rather, the ocean is simply the perfect container for different forms of life to manifest.

It provides the right salt content for tuna, the right temperatures for jellyfish, the right pH levels for sea weed etc. And then the universe takes care of the rest.
Over the years, I’ve learned that this is also true of human interaction. For example, we have no control over what people say to us throughout the day. Conversations may be pleasant, or they may be absolutely dreadful. It’s completely out of our hands. But like the ocean, we can create a container that encourages good things to happen.

This can be as simple as smiling when we see our coworkers in the morning. Or making a point to compliment a friend’s outfit. These small gestures create an environment where pleasant conversation can occur in much the same way that ocean water creates an environment where sea life can flourish.

This is true in all aspects of daily life. If we focus on building a suitable container for good things to happen, then the universe will take care of the rest.

Work with What Life Gives You

Countless rivers flow into the ocean each day. Some of them are clean and teeming with life, and some are heavily polluted. But the ocean accepts them all. Over time, the ocean’s currents are able to mix the good and bad river water together until it’s purified, and suitable for supporting life.

In this way, something that could be a source of great suffering, polluted water, is transformed into a source of happiness.

As human beings, we have the power to do the exact same thing. It’s inevitable that both good and bad life experiences will flow into us throughout the day. This can be a cause of great suffering. However, we have the ability to end that suffering by learning to practice acceptance and working with everything that the world gives us.
There is a very simple, but profound quote from Rev. Gyomay Kubose which sums up this teaching perfectly.  It states, “Acceptance is transcendence.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that we should sit passively like roadkill in the street. But the simple truth is that there are many things that happen to us each day that are out of our hands (traffic jams, bad weather, layoffs, etc.) If we can learn to approach these things from a place of acceptance, like the ocean, then we can use the currents of our spiritual practice to purify them.

The ocean is a source of life for every creature on earth. It’s also a fantastic spiritual teacher. Through careful practice in the laboratory of daily life we can use its teachings to work with what life gives us, create containers for positive change, and discern the appropriate times to either float or swim with life’s currents. In this way, we can make life better for both ourselves and others.

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3 Dharma Lessons I Learned From the Ocean

Saturday, November 25, 2017

3 Buddhist Practices for Creating Harmony

Sangha (community) is one of the three jewels of Buddhism.  Buddha cultivated the practice of building community when he created the monastic order, and laid out rules which allowed his monks to live in harmony.

These rules have changed slightly as Buddhism has spread between different countries and sects.  However, they are still a key part of practice.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for practitioners to recite the rules of their sangha together prior to a meditation retreat as a reminder of what is expected. This ensures that whether one is visiting the center for a couple of hours or a couple of years, they will have a quiet, contemplative space to train.
That being said, it’s not just monastics who need to live and work peacefully together. Householder Buddhists who have bills, jobs, families, etc. also have a responsibility to build cohesive communities.
Thankfully, there are several Buddhist practices that help lay Buddhists live harmoniously with their neighbors.  Incorporating the following gems into daily life will allow you to live happily with everyone you meet.


The practice of wisdom encourages us to see past the conceptual world which separates people into groups.  Of course, that isn’t to say that everyone is identical.  Rather, it means that our differences are only surface deep. 
At our core, each person possesses Buddha-nature which is the pure, undefiled mind of Buddha.  In other words, all people are basically good, and we are united by our shared potential to realize enlightenment.
In times of conflict, however, we may resort to an ‘us vs. them’ mindset.  This divisive thinking can result in hurt feelings and physical violence. 
That’s why the practice of wisdom is so important to creating harmony. It reminds us that while surface-level distinctions are real, they are only a very small part of who we are as people.  
Thus, even if we are at odds with the person standing before us, we can still strive to be kind and respectful to the Buddha that resides within them.


One of the simplest and most effective ways to build strong, healthy relationships is through generosity.  However, this practice is multi-faceted, and easily misunderstood. 
People without large financial resources may believe that they aren’t able to help others. But this isn’t true.
While money is an effective tool when working with charities, the practice of generosity can take many forms. We can give our time by volunteering with organizations that we admire. 

We can give our labor by performing a service (cooking meals, giving rides, babysitting, etc.) for friends and family. Or we can simply brighten someone’s day by paying them a compliment. The opportunities are endless!
Acts such as these help to break down the illusion of separateness between ourselves and others that often leads to conflict.  Even better, this isn’t a one-way street. 
Buddhism teaches that the practice of generosity often results in Mudita (sympathetic-joy). In other words, we experience happiness ourselves each time we bring happiness to others. 
In this way, being generous allows us to create harmony both in our communities and in our own minds.


Of all the Buddhist teachings which lead to a harmonious society, effort is probably the most important. In much the same way that a car doesn’t run without gasoline, spiritual practice is impossible without effort and dedication.
That being said, it’s easy to become discouraged by a 24-hour news cycle, which only shows us the worst in humanity.  The key thing to remember is that the practice of effort is not about perfection. It’s about progress
It’s about being willing to try, and keep trying over and over again to make our corner of the world a little bit better.  Because if we’re willing to try 10,000 times, then that’s 10,000 seeds of love, compassion, and decency that have been planted into the soil of human consciousness.  
It’s inevitable that good things will grow from that soil as long as we make the effort, do our best, and keep planting seeds.
Sangha is one of the three jewels of Buddhist practice for good reason. When people are able to exist peacefully with one another, it creates a harmonious environment where we can live more authentic lives.  
The practices of wisdom, generosity, and effort help to build communities where this is possible. We just need to put in the work.

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3 Buddhist Practices for Creating Harmony

Friday, November 24, 2017

Zen Koans: Preparation for Life's Tough Questions

We're reading Zen Koans by Rev. Gyomay Kubose as part of my lay minister training. The class discussions have been challenging, insightful, and they've caused me to reflect on how koans have affected my practice through the years.  

My deep love of koans actually started before I was Buddhist. I have a B.A. in philosophy, and a large part of the curriculum was studying and writing papers on thought experiments like The Trolley Problem and The Prisoner's dilemma. 

The goal in these investigations was to stretch my reasoning abilities to the max, and force me to investigate the root cause of my ethical choices. These exercises planted the seed which allowed me to be open to koan practice.

That being said, it has become clear to me over the years that koans and thought experiments have very different goals. The thought experiments worked to help strengthen my conceptual mind. In contrast, koans work to help me see past it.

The way I work with koans is fairly informal.  When I read them on my own, I simply sit with each one for a while, and search for what the deeper meaning might be.  Other times, I don't even do that.

Instead, I read them, and enjoy the conversations from all those years ago.  The word koan has a very heavy, formal meaning these days.  But I can see many of them being birthed from the notes and idle gossip of aspiring Zen students.  In my mind, I imagine them sweeping temple floors, and trading stories about teachers they met, and turning words they heard over the years.

For me, koans have never been about solving some great riddle or seeing through the fabric of space and time.  They've been about catching a glimpse of the life of ancient Zen teachers (Joshu, Tozan, Nansen, etc.), and bearing witness to how they lived in the world.

In this way, they remind me that life itself is the most difficult koan of all.  How do I  walk a spiritual path in a secular world? How do I build relationships with  people who have different religious/ political views than me? How do I balance my checkbook!?

As I continue to read and study Zen koans, they give me insight into these questions.  They assist me in hearing the sound of my inner wisdom during difficult times.  And they help me know what to do.

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Zen Koans: Preparation for Life's Tough Questions

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Keep pedaling: The Buddhist Secret to Effective Meditation

Attack the hill is a catch phrase that's heard at least twice during every group bike ride.  It's usually shouted at the bottom of elevation changes as a way to motivate cyclists.

People have a tendency to slow down when they start climbing a hill. It's an instinctive attempt to avoid the tight muscles and extreme exertion that comes with a hard climb. 

The phrase attack the hill is meant to shake us out of that mindset, and remind us of what we really need to do in order to reach the top; pedal harder.

This is necessary because as the bike begins to climb, gravity takes over, and we lose forward momentum.  In fact, if we give in to the initial instinct to slow down, we may lose all momentum and come to a complete stop.  That's why we have to pedal hard, with everything we've got in the beginning.

Once that's completed, the name of the game is to keep pedaling.  It sounds simple, but when our quads start to burn, and shortness of breath kicks in, it's very tempting to coast for a minute. But the momentary relaxation that comes with coasting results in the loss of forward momentum; momentum that we have to work twice as hard to get back.

Finally, it's important to keep the bike in the highest gear possible. The rookie move is to shift to a low gear so that pedaling will be easier. That's okay for beginners, but all of that easy pedaling results in very slow-going. The more efficient route is to pedal slower, in a much higher gear. It's harder, but it results in more forward motion with each revolution of the pedals. It's also a better workout.

To recap, if we want to ride up a hill in a reasonable amount of time, we need to do three things:
  1. Attack the hill, and pedal hard in the beginning
  2. Keep pedaling until we reach the top
  3. Use the highest gear possible
This method is both simple and effective., but most people don't use it.  It's hard, and people don't like doing things that are hard. So we shift to a low gear, or pick a path with no hills when we ride. Maybe we even go so far as to not ride at all because staying where we're at physically/ emotionally is easier than dealing with sore legs and a sweaty body.

Meditation works in much the same way.

There's a lot of mysticism and expectation built up around the practice of seated meditation. We hear words like enlightenment and satori, and we think there must be a secret to being a good meditator. In truth, the method for this practice is quite simple. 
  1. Sit on the floor or on a cushion in a cross-legged position
  2. Place your hands in your lap with the palms upward, right hand resting atop the left, and thumbs tips lightly pressed together
  3. Adopt a noble posture with the spine straight
  4. Breathe from the stomach, and focus on the feeling of air moving in and out of your lungs
  5. When your mind wanders, and it will, bring your focus back to the breath without judgement
  6. Don't move
That's it. That's everything involved in seated meditation, the practice that Buddha himself used to realize enlightenment.  But if its so simple, why are people so unwilling to do it?  Perhaps it's because meditation is a lot like riding a bike uphill.  It's simple on the surface, but there's a lot of hard work involved.

For example, in order to do this practice successfully, we must be willing to sit with whatever unpleasantness comes up.  We have to experience the anxiety of wondering, "Am I doing it right?" We have to endure the ache of sore muscles and stiff backs without moving, and feel every bit of emotional hurt that manifests itself.

In short, we must be willing to struggle a little bit in order to practice meditation just like we must be willing to sweat if we want to make it up a hill .

The only secret if we want to use that word is consistency. Just like our legs get stronger each time we jump on a bike, our minds get stronger each time we sit on the cushion. Over time, the practice acts as a sort of exposure therapy for our minds. The more we feel anger without giving in to it, the more we experience mental pain without reacting, the less control our emotions have over us.

Eventually, we start to get bored with our thoughts. The same trigger that used to illicit a level 12 meltdown gets downgraded to a 7, and then a 3.  As our confidence grows, we start going for longer "rides", and the hills we experience during meditation seem smaller.  Eventually, they get overshadowed by the inherent contentment that lives within us.

But that can't happen if we don't keep pedaling through the hard parts.

That's why we must attack our cushions in the same way that cyclists attack hills.  Even if we only meditate for 1 minute a day, through consistency and hard work we can realize enlightenment in this lifetime.

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Keep Pedaling: The Buddhist Secret to Effective Meditation

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Stolen Goods: A Hard Lesson on Life and Non-attachment

I walk out of the yoga studio feeling like I might start floating.  My skin is rippling with energy, and I feel incredibly relaxed.  Even the 40 degree temperatures and light rain don't dampen my mood as I walk happily down the street. 

On a whim, I step into a nearby book store, promising myself that I'm only there to look.  Then I notice that they're doing a sale, buy one get the second 50% off, so I treat myself instead.

Once my purchases are tucked safely in my book bag, I head over to my favorite coffee shop and do some writing.  But things are different today.  It's like my heart has cracked open, and the words are flowing out of me like river.  Hours pass without me realizing it until I finally stop, mentally exhausted, and read over the several pages of text.

Hmmm... it's not perfect, but it's still pretty damn good. Smiling, I gather my things and head back out into the street.  I've got just enough time to ride home, drop off my stuff, and pick up my donation for Food Not Bombs.

Humming to myself, I walk around the corner of a nearby building expecting to see my vintage, baby blue touring bike waiting for me... but it's not there.  . 

For a moment, I stand on the sidewalk and stare dumbly into the air.  As the reality of my situation hits, my heart drops into my stomach, and I forget to breathe. But there's no denying the truth.  My bike has been stolen.

It's hard for most people to understand the bond between a cyclist and their bike.  But if you're a serious rider who puts in lots of miles or lives as a full-time bike commuter like me, your ride starts to become a part of you.

You have stories and matching scars that bind the two you together.  There's that slight tear in the bike saddle from when a truck ran you off the road.  There's that scar on your left forearm from when you crashed during a rain storm, and fond memories of 100-mile rides that left you feeling both exhilarated and exhausted.

In other words, it wasn't some random piece of metal that went missing. It was my friend.

In a daze, I walk around the neighborhood hoping to locate the perpetrator.  But after an hour of searching I give up hope.  My bike is gone, and it's never coming back.  My initial sadness is replaced with anger as I ponder my next move.  The food share is in less than an hour, but helping others is the last thing on my mind.  I feel hurt and pissed off, and I just want to go home.

I take a few steps in that direction, mentally preparing myself for the 3 mile walk back to my house, but then I stop. I start thinking about the men and women who come each week, and how much they depend on the donations. 

The guy who gets extra apples to share with people at his AA meeting, the woman who gets grapes for her son, and the random people who just want a snack before jumping on the bus; they didn't do anything to me.  Why should they suffer because of my misfortune? Is my attachment to my bike getting the best of me?

Buddhism teaches that we can end our suffering by practicing non-attachment.  Often times, this is misunderstood to mean that we shouldn't care about things.  But that's not correct. Caring isn't the problem; it's the holding on.

Buddha discovered this when he left the palace and witnessed the four sources of suffering:
  • Birth/ Living
  • Aging
  • Sickness
  • Death
The thing to remember, however, is that it's not the things themselves that cause dissatisfaction. It's the loss they represent.  For example, aging is a cause of suffering because of our attachment to youth.  

This is why Buddha taught the middle-path as a means to liberation.  He didn't reject the world.  But he also didn't grasp onto it.  Instead, he allowed things to come to him when they were ready.  And he allowed them to leave just the same.  In this way. he held onto life with open hands.

Is this the lesson that I'm supposed to learn; that life giveth, and life taketh away? 

It certainly seems like it.  Because there will come a day when everything I am will be taken from me.  My body, my mind, and my memories will all crumble into dust.  Eventually, even the dust will be gone.

Bicycles are no exception to the rule.  I was always going to lose my ride. It just happened sooner than I expected.  It hurts, but there is no need to dwell on it.  I just need to accept what happened and move on with my life.

With this in mind, I take a deep breath, and try not to look at the people zipping around happily on their bikes.  The world took something special from me today, but it gave me something better.  It gave me this moment, and I've got to make the most of it.

With renewed purpose, I turn my steps towards the market, and start making a list of the produce I'm hoping to collect.  The food share is starting soon, and I have work to do.

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Stolen Goods: A Hard Lesson on Life and Non-attachment

Sunday, October 29, 2017

3 Buddhist Practices For a Better Life

The practice of Buddhism is full of rules and rituals that can be over-whelming to the average person.  Remembering when to bow, how to sit, and where to go to the bath room can be frustrating when all we want to do is ease our mental suffering.

Thankfully, there are many dharma practices that translate easily into everyday life, and they don’t require years of practice to learn.  Incorporating these gems into your daily routine will make life calmer, simpler, and more fulfilling.


This is a Japanese word that is most often translated as mindfulness. However, in the context of Buddhism it would be more accurate to call it loving attention.  This practice is demonstrated in the way that Zen practitioners carry themselves during meditation sessions. 

Everything is done with ceremony.  The hands are held just-so when bowing. The incense is placed on the altar in a very specific way, and there is often an elaborate ritual for signaling the beginning and end of practice.

The reason for all of this attention to detail is that Buddhism teaches that every moment is sacred.  In fact, this present moment is the only thing that's real! The past is a distant memory and the future is a dream.

So the here and now is treated as a rare and precious gift because it's literally all we have.  The practice of menmitsu trains us to appreciate how special this moment is by causing us to focus with rapt attention on what ever we happen to be doing at the time.

However, you don't need to be in a Zen monastery to practice menmitsu.  Remember, every moment is sacred. And that includes the mundane ones in which we are going about our day at work or having dinner with friends. 

Menmitsu isn't about what we are doing, rather the focus is on how we are doing it.  By giving loving attention to the minutiae of every day life (driving, washing dishes, speaking with friends, etc.) you gain a greater appreciation for the specialness of every day life. 

In this way, putting away the groceries takes on the same importance as attending the altar in a Zen center.  And getting dressed for work is just as special as putting on bowing robes for meditation.  By attending to regular life with menmitsu we can recognize the sacred beauty of life's mundane events.


This is the word for effort or great zeal in Japanese Buddhism.  Nothing in life gets better without hard work and dedication.  Life itself is no exception to this rule. It's common in conventional society for people to think that hard work should be reserved for only the most important things in life.  We do calculations in our head, and we decide how much energy will be devoted to a given task based on the expected reward.

That being said, Shojin requires us to take a different approach.  We don't do a task in the hopes of getting a reward.  Rather, we train ourselves to see the task as its own reward.  In this way, we elevate ourselves by elevating the importance of our work and the energy that we put into it.

An example of this can be seen in the practice of Shojin Ryori which requires Japanese monks to prepare vegetarian meals without the use of modern equipment.  A delicious meal is the end result, but the process of creating that meal is where the real training is done. 

The early morning visit to the market where vegetables are selected, the long hours spent chopping them by hand, and the meticulous process of balancing colors and flavor-profiles into a tasty, visually-appealing meal are where the true marrow of shojin are found.

In this way, we can turn literally anything into part of our spiritual practice by doing it with a mindset of shojin.  There is no such thing as busy work or killing time.  Every task is important, because each one is an opportunity to practice the dharma. 

Standing in line at the grocery story teaches us patience. Being stuck in traffic teaches us how to endure.  And a friend who asks us for help is kindly letting us practice generosity.  When we approach the world with a mentality of shojin we shift our mindset.  And when we shift our mindset we simultaneously change our lives for the better.


A rough translation of intoku is, "good done in secret".  It epitomizes the Buddhist ideal that we should do good works without expectation of reward. This is empowering because a sad fact of life is that doing the right thing is no guarantee of a good outcome.  When this happens it can be easy to think, "Why did this happen to me?" or "I don't deserve this."

But intoku teaches us that we don't do good deeds in the hopes of a reward.  Instead we do them because the deed itself is the reward.  The feeling that comes from helping someone in need is priceless. More importantly, it's very easy to do. 

We can listen intently while someone talks about their day, compliment a friend on their outfit, or simply refill the coffee pot at work when it's empty.  This practice isn't about doing something big and flashy.  Instead, it's about constantly being on the look out for small things we can do to make life nicer for both ourselves and the people around us.  In this way, we make the world warmer, and more welcoming for everyone.

Over the past 2,600 years Buddhist teachers from countries all over the world have found ways to incorporate the dharma into daily life.  To that end, the practices of menmitsu, shojin, and intoku represent three methods that have been proven to create positive change.  By incorporating them into our daily lives we can make things better for all sentient beings.

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3 Buddhist Practices For a Better Life

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rick and Morty: The Szechuan Sauce of Desire

I'm what you would call a late-adopter when it comes to T.V. shows.  Maybe I'm part hipster and I shy away from trends. Maybe I'm too lazy to keep up with what's cool. Or maybe not having cable cuts me off from the world more than I realized. 

I don't know.  I just know that I rarely find out about the "hot new thing" on TV until it's been out for several seasons, such is the case with Rick and Morty.

The show is about Rick; an alcoholic, genius scientist who's constantly dragging his family into adventures all over the universe.  Sadly, he spends part of every episode ranting about how life is meaningless.  But no one's perfect.  Rick's comic relief is his 14 year-old grandson, Morty, who is both well-intentioned and painfully naïve.

The show is interesting because it's multi-layered.  You can watch it at a surface level and simply enjoy the dark humor, or you can explore some of it's deeper, philosophical concepts. 

I choose to do the latter.

Case in point, some fascinating, real-life events were recently inspired by the show.  In one episode Rick goes on a rant about the great-tasting Szechuan sauce that McDonald's put out several years ago as part of a promotion.  The sauce is no longer available, but Rick swears that he won't stop searching until he finds that sauce, even if it takes 9 seasons!

Eventually, McDonald's got wind of the episode, and they decided to do a one day promotion where they would make the sauce available.  Countless Rick and Morty fans lined up hours before the restaurants opened in the hopes of getting sauce.  But the universe played a cruel joke.  Only a small amount of Szechuan sauce was available at each store, and most people didn't get any.

Madness quickly ensued.

It's easy to stand on the outside looking in and write this off as a bunch of fan boys with too much time on their hands.  But was their behavior really that strange?  If you switch out the words Szechuan sauce with IPhone, money, or enlightenment, are they any different from the rest of us; constantly striving for more.

This begs the question, would life be better if we learned to stop wanting? Would suffering end if we let go of our desires; trading them for contentment with what we already have?  Is that even possible?

Or are we the hungry ghosts of Buddhist legend who wander the earth, eating constantly, but never feeling full?  For a hungry ghost, their quest for satisfaction is the source of their despair.  This can also be true of human beings.

In my practice, I've found that the less I want from the world, the more I appreciate what I've been given.  And the less I live in the future, the more I appreciate the present.  Happiness isn't found in sauce, religion, or consumerism.  It's found in the here and now.  But we can't enjoy this moment if we're always looking for something better.

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Rick and Morty: The Szechuan Sauce of Desire