Compass and Lamp

I started this blog in June, 2010, after a daylong blogging seminar hosted by the local branch of the California Writer’s Club. I was trying to write a fantasy novel, and popular wisdom at the time was that in this 21st century, aspiring writers needed to learn self promotion, which requires an online platform. I dutifully created Facebook and Twitter accounts, and TheFirstGates. Fortunately, blogging quickly took on a life of its own.

Almost from the start, I broke every rule the teacher of that blogging class presented, chief among them, the “one topic per blog” rule. He had eight blogs. The mere thought of that makes me tired! Though clearly an A-type, I am blessed with a strong laziness instinct, which often saves me from creating extra hassle for myself. A firm believer in Hillman’s model of the “polytheistic psyche,” I give most of the personalities time to roam around here. Continue reading

More notes on Buddhism

Prajnaparamita, Sanskrit for "The perfection of wisdom," is often personified as a goddess of transcendental wisdom in Buddhist iconography, as in this 13th c. stature from Java. Public domain.

Prajnaparamita, Sanskrit for “The perfection of wisdom,” is often personified as a goddess of transcendental wisdom in Buddhist iconography, as in this 13th c. stature from Java. Public domain

If you have not already done so, please read the previous post as an introduction to this one. I’m going to discuss two additional questions that are commonly asked about Buddhism. Then I’ll list some of my favorite references.

Is Buddhism a religion?

For some people it is and for some it’s not. There are Buddhist churches, similar to any other church, though westerners usually focus on the contemplative dimension with its “spiritual but not religious” nature.

The first long Zen retreat I attended was led by a Catholic priest at a Sisters of Mercy Retreat Center. This was not watered down Zen. The priest, who bears the title, Roshi (master) is member of a recognized Japanese lineage, as are other Catholic priests and nuns. The church allows this, holding that Zen is not a religion, but a means for exploring the nature of awareness. I’m not aware of any contemplative Buddhist tradition that requires members to drop their other religious affiliations.

Is Buddhism atheistic?

Buddha never talked about metaphysics. He focused on suffering and the path to enlightenment as the end of suffering. Often when he was asked about ultimate things, he refused to answer. Once a monk asked, and Buddha told “the parable of the arrow.” As Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk explained it:

[Buddha] said, “Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.” Life is so short. It must not be spent in endless metaphysical speculation that does not bring us any closer to the truth. (the parable of the arrow).

So it’s accurate to say Buddhism is non-theistic, but it isn’t explicitly atheistic either; Buddha never said one way or the other. As Brad Warner, a Zen priest for 30 years, puts it in his book on the subject, There is No God, and He is Always With You, it depends on what you mean by “God.” If we mean some large, powerful being “out there,” who created us at some finite point in time and pulls strings, then no, Buddhists don’t believe that. If we’re speaking of something like Paul Tillich’s “Ground of Being,” then I think it’s implied in much Buddhist writing and by many Buddhist teachers I’ve heard. To quote Anam Thubten as I did in the previous post:

There is Buddha in each of us right now who can never be defeated by the force of inner darkness, the force of greed, hate, attachment, and delusion, and that Buddha has no form, no image. That Buddha, indeed, is residing in all of us as our pure, quintessential being. We must always turn our attention inward whenever we have the desire to seek divinity, or Buddha, God, or Brahma. (The Magic of Awareness)

Japanese brush painting, by Lone Primate, 2007, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

Japanese brush painting, by Lone Primate, 2007, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

Buddhist Resources

The best resource of all is a nearby sangha (group of practitioners) or meditation group in one’s own area, if it’s a good fit. Meanwhile, here are a few books and websites that I find valuable.


A Path With Heart (1993) by Jack Kornfield.
This is the first book on Buddhism I’d recommend to someone wanting to learn more. Part spiritual autobiography and part introduction to Buddhist thought and practice by an influential teacher of Vipassana (Insight Meditation). Kornfield, a co-founder of Spirit Rock (web link below), gives fine descriptions of some of the difficulties westerners may have when approaching eastern traditions.

No Self No Problem (2009) by Anam Thubten
The most important single work in turning my attention to Buddhism. I found an earlier edition of the book and attended a daylong retreat (the first of many) with Anam Thubten a few weeks later. There’s a link to Anam Thubten’s website below.

An Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality (1987) by Lama Thubten Yeshe
The best introduction I’ve found to Tibetan Buddhism by a renowned 20th century lama and member of the Dalai Lama’s tradition. “Dwelling deep within our heart, and within the hearts of all beings without exception, is an inexhaustible source of love and wisdom. And the ultimate purpose of all spiritual practices, whether they are called Buddhist or not, is to uncover and make contact with this essentially pure nature.”

Awakening Joy (2010) by James Baraz
James is a teacher at Spirit Rock. I bought this book several years ago, when he gave a local daylong retreat here, and just started reading it. It’s the most “ecumenical” of all these books. The author presents 10 themes, with exercises, to increase our wellbeing now, where we are, not at some future time when we are enlightened. The book meshes with an online course he teaches. Website below.

Online Resources:

Spirit Rock. An insight meditation center north of San Francisco that hosts retreats all year long. See especially the “Meditation101 tab” for the basics of insight meditation and dozens of talks by visiting instructors.

Dharmata Foundation. This is Anam Thubten’s home page. Well worth checking the calendar from time to time. From his home center in Point Richmond, CA, this Tibetan master travels extensively. In May he gave retreats in South Korea, Little Rock, AR, and Maine. In June, he will teach in Princeton, NJ, New York, NY, Maui, and Grass Valley, CA. Hearing him is well worth the effort (here is one account I’ve posted of a retreat with him).

James Baraz. Here is James’ website and teaching schedule with a link to his Awakening Joy course (available online).

Tricycle. The pre-eminent Buddhist magazine, with 20+ years of articles from all traditions. Check out a hard copy in a bookstore for a directory of dharma centers by region. There are always online retreats available to subscribers.

Peaceful Sea Sangha. Website for Edward Espe Brown, who I’ve posted about here several times. He also travels and teaches widely, with a trip to Prague, Austria, and Germany scheduled over the next month and a half. His audio teachings are wise and hilarious. I discovered a poem I recently referenced, “10,000 Idiots” by Hafiz, in one of them.

I could go on and on, but this is already long enough. These are only a few suggestions. Feel free to comment or email with any specific questions, observations, or resources of your own.


by all means by Edward Espe Brown



“Growing up meant you were competent and stayed out of trouble…When you hit the wall, who or what would see you through?”

Traditional Zen practice is both very simple and very formal.  Think of classic Japanese brush painting.  In Zen, there are prescribed ways of bowing, walking, holding the hands in meditation, and so on.

At the end of by all means A ZEN CAUTIONARY TALE, Zen abbot, Edward Espe Brown, includes a photograph of himself, in full Zen regalia, with a stern expression on his face, and a pig puppet on a cushion beside him.  Traditional Zen masters don’t give dharma talks with pig puppets any more than traditional authors use upper and lower case in their titles like Brown does here.  by all means lies outside traditional book categories, which ironically, makes it very Zen.

When Edward, as an adult, rescues Ponce (two syllables) the Pig puppet from a cat named Turtle (not a puppet), his affection for Ponce allows him to explore many issues, especially those of abandonment:  how others abandon us, how we abandon them and ourselves, and all the things we do to try to compensate:

“A lot of things that Edward did were very important because it was important to him to be doing important things and not just wasting his time.  Otherwise how could he have any respect for himself? And wasn’t it important to be self-respecting? Because if you left it to the others, there didn’t seem to be a lot of respect going around, and you weren’t likely to get much.”

We learn how Edward lived in an orphanage after his mother died when he was three.  We learn how he turned his anger on the stuffed animals he had as a kid after he got out.  We see how childhood issues live on inside the adult and how Ponce the Pig reacts at a critical moment, when Edward abandons him.  At first Ponce weeps, but then he closes his eyes to meditate (the pig is a dedicated Dharma practitioner):

“He found his heart swelling even though nothing changed outwardly. The space within was like that: vast and expansive, warm and tender without dimensions.  All of his friends were gathering just as fast as he could think of them. A burst of astonishment flashed through Ponce.  Left without any capacity for thinking about what was happening, he was one with everything, and everything was a part of him.  No separation could be found.  Dazzling!  What was there to think about?  Nothing needed figuring out…”  Edward learns his lesson and reconciles with Ponce in the end because it’s that kind of a book.

I enjoyed by all means, but it’s not for every reader. It is not an instruction manual in Zen or a book of eastern philosophy.  If you have no interest in Zen or have not spent time talking to puppets as I have, the book might not appeal.

If you are in doubt, I suggest you check out some of the Dharma talks Edward has made available on his website.  If you like them, you’ll probably like the book.  The talks, like this book, are simply another way that Edward, with abundant humor and compassion, tells his truths, using all means. 

A retreat with Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

Saturday was the fourth time in as many years that I’ve attended a daylong retreat with Edward Espe Brown,  Zen abbot, author, cook, and altogether a charming and extremely funny man.  In 1965, Edward became a student of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  When his teacher founded the Tassajara Zen Center near Big Sur, Ed became the head cook (as an author, he is best know for the Tassajara Cookbook and the Tassajara Bread Book).

Much of his learning took place in the kitchen, which gave him several unforgettable teaching stories. He relates his frustration in trying, without success, to produce a “perfect” muffin.  He tried numerous recipes and variations.  Everyone else thought they were great, but he was never satisfied.

One day he managed to taste a muffin without his usual preconceptions and found it delicious.  In that moment, he realized the source of his earlier discomfort – he’d been comparing his muffins to the “perfectly” shaped Pillsbury muffins he’d eaten as a kid.  This discovery led to one of the core ideas he tries to communicate as a teacher: we have the choice of living our lives according to someone else’s recipe or trying to discover our own.  “There is no by-the-book way for you to be you,” he says.

Given this background, it’s no surprise that he started the day by saying, “I’m not going to give you any meditation instructions, because then you might try to follow them – and be looking over your shoulder to ask, ‘How am I doing?”  The simplest instruction in Zen, “Just sit,” is the hardest to practice.  Similar things can be said for writing or painting (“Just write/paint what’s in your heart”) – and many other areas of life as well.

Such instructions (or lack thereof) assume the student knows the basics and some has experience.   This was true for the group that gathered on saturday.  It allows a generous teacher like Edward Brown to invite the student to seek what lies beyond a lifetime of learning how they are supposed to be.

Ed once said, “What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.”  That’s a nice sounding aphorism, the kind of thing I jot down in notebooks.  Saturday’s retreat was a chance to test the waters, and as I hope I’ve made clear, at its best, Zen is about everything in our lives. I’d heard that Ed had written a new book, and it proved to be a fine example of finding our own way.

He has several traditional books in print on Zen and cooking, and he also edited a collection of Suzuki Roshi’s teachings.  When I’d read the title of his new book, By all Means A Zen Cautionary Tale, I assumed I’d be in for traditional reading.  Instead, I was surprised and delighted to find he’d written a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical story of his adventures a little pig hand puppet.

When I asked him to sign a copy, I said, “This is great.  For my first 10 years, I had hand puppets.  They were my closest friends and confidents.”

“Ah, then you know,” he said.  “They’re powerful, aren’t they?”

In my next post, I’ll review By all Means, and after that, maybe the topic of conversing with inanimate things.  Please stay tuned!


PS:  When I posted this, I forgot to add a link to Edward’s home page, Peaceful Sea Sangha. In particular, I recommend the recordings of his talks, which give the flavor of his teaching style, his concerns, and his humor.

Permission to be ourselves

Not long ago, I came upon a post by Zen practitioner, Tomas Qubeck, called “Zen: How to Recalibrate Myself Back to Zero.”  Tomas discusses his love of solitary retreats.  I’m with him on that score, but then he adds an unusual twist – “Just recently I have realized that this ‘zero’ refers to ‘zero purpose’.”

Enso circle.  CC-by-SA-3.0

Enso circle. CC-by-SA-3.0

I know from experience that letting go of purposeful action for any length of time is a very difficult practice.  Why would one even bother?  Tomas observes that an urge to be purposeful often “shows up in my mind, [as] an image or…a sense of how I want to feel or be. All of this necessarily involves a moving away from how and what I am just at this very moment.”  Sometimes busy-ness can be an addiction, he says.

I’ll leave you to read his reflections, which have nothing to do with quitting our jobs, living in caves, or any other oddball decisions his title might suggest if you take it literally.  My own thoughts veered in a different direction.  Thinking of “purposeful action,” reminded me of something I heard Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown say at a day long retreat:

“No matter what you do, your inner authorities will not be pleased.”

I’ve written several posts about Edward Brown.  I enjoy his humor, the deceptively “simple” depth of his insights, as well as the wisdom he gained as a chef and the recipes he shares in his Tassajara Cookbook.  I’ve attended three retreats with him in as many years and jotted down some of his pithy statements.  In Zen, one carries such sayings in the mind, turning them over until fresh meaning emerges.  Here are four others I’ve found valuable.  I often remember them at interesting moments.

What is precious in us doesn’t come and it doesn’t go.  It is not dependent on performance.

Are you going to be a rule follower, or are you just going to be you?

No one else can give us permission to be who we are.

There is no by-the-book way for you to be you.

As you might guess, Edward Brown, who was trained in traditional Zen by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is charting his own course these days.  If you want to learn more about his style of cooking and Zen, you can visit his home page and and listen to some of his teachings at The Peaceful Sea Sangha website.

What Is Your Innermost Request?

On Saturday, Zen teacher, Edward Espe Brown, gave his second all-day retreat of the year for the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group.  Zen is not exactly “my thing,” but like the SBMG as a whole, I’m ecumenical, ready to look for insight wherever I can find it, and I really enjoy Ed Brown.  Zen is actually so free of doctrine that Catholic priests have become advanced practitioners, and Edward Brown is un-doctrinaire even for Zen.  At the start of the retreat, after the hostess introduced him and  listed his “credentials,” Brown said, “Yep, I’m certifiable.”

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown

“I’m not going to give you very many instructions,” he said.  “If I do, there’s the danger of wondering, ‘Am I doing it right?'”  This is one of Brown’s constant themes:  no one else can tell you the right way to do Zen or life.  One statement framed both of Brown’s visits this year, a quote from his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:  “When you become you, Zen becomes Zen.”  Zen is about “becoming authentically you,” Brown said.

Brown is an accomplished chef and uses lots of cooking metaphors.  One time a group of his students was tasting a dish and one of them asked, “What am I supposed to be tasting?”  To Edward Brown, that a question all of us ask in one form or another:  “What am I supposed to be doing?”  “What am I supposed to be feeling – or experiencing – or thinking?”  “What am I supposed to be writing?”

Understanding the point takes a bit of subtlety; it does not deny that we have an “ordinary” self that must operate in “relative” reality and know how to balance a checkbook, check the oil, boil an egg, or get a job.  Brown was directing remarks to that “unmanifest self,” the “big mind” within us, our Buddha nature.  “It’s the sky not the weather,” he says.  It’s the larger “us,” that can only say, “I am,” not “I am this or I am that.”

Because this silent knowing is so often drowned out by day to day concerns, it often requires a strategy to hear it.  Meditation is one strategy.  Another is learning to ask the right kind of question.  Brown posed one such question:  “What is your inmost request?”  What do we want in our depths?

He did not mean our ordinary wants and needs, however pressing.  He gave an example, saying that for many years, his inmost request was, “I want it to be ok for me to be here.”  Questions like this do not come with fast or easy answers.  There is nothing fast or easy about becoming authentic, especially in a culture that fears real individuals.  If we’re looking for others to tell us what to do, they will be glad to oblige.

Yet failing to ask what we really are and what we truly long for carries a greater risk.  William Stafford, the poet, put it this way:  “a pattern that others made may prevail in the world and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”