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Reflections on Dogen's Kannon

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   Kannon is the Japanese name for Avalokiteshvara, the Boddhisattva of Compassion. No doubt you’ve seen a representation of him or her (depictions of both genders exist). Perhaps she has a dozen heads. Perhaps he has an eye in the palm of each of a multitude of hands. These physical attributes are intended to depict a willingness and ability to help alleviate the suffering of the world. In fact, Avalokiteshvara is a Sanskrit name variously translated as “Lord Who Looks Down” or “He Who Hears the Cries of the World” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994). Avalokiteshvara at the St. Louis Art Museum Kannon is also the title of one of the fascicles in Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo . In it Dogen speaks of the awesome and mysterious abilities of this revered being, and of our difficulty in understanding and expressing how these abilities might be used. In fact, we can learn a great deal about Avalokiteshvara, Zen, and the nature of knowledge itself by wading into this dense work. In addition to f

Tending Horses in the 21st Century

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This post is adapted from one I wrote some years ago entitled Tending Horses as the World Warms . I wrote that one in response to the continued denial of climate change by so many here in the U.S. – denial that keeps us from taking action to mitigate impending disaster even as massive climate change-related events threaten lives and property all over the world like never before. Since then we’ve all witnessed widespread recalcitrant denial in the face of a deadly pandemic – denial that has made our nation’s suffering and death even worse. It seems that, to our detriment, we just can’t seem to agree on some very fundamental aspects of the reality in which we live. We become attached to the stories we tell ourselves about the way the world is, and we have a terrible time letting them go. Until we’re forced to, that is.    Why do we have this tendency to stay lost in our stories even when they no longer fit the reality that we’re faced with? Is it because we have so much psychic energy

The Karma of a Nation

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  The Sanskrit word karma has essentially become part of the English lexicon. Who is not at least somewhat familiar with the way it’s taken on a “what goes around comes around” sort of meaning in everyday parlance? Which is not really too bad a definition, as far as it goes. If you start doing a little research, though, you’ll find that there’s actually quite a range of thought about the true nature of this thing we call karma . On one hand are very precise definitions, like karma being the result of action coupled with intention. On the other are very broad implications of metaphysical import, like if your good karma outweighs your bad karma by the time you pass on, then you’ll enjoy a favorable rebirth. Otherwise…   Each of these extremes raises questions of its own. The former, for instance, begs the question: “If I do something that causes harm unintentionally, do I still accumulate bad karma?” The latter requires us to begin discussing concepts like souls and the precise “mec

With A World On Fire

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It's been a tough season, and a tough year. The strain is beginning to show. People are doing what they need to do to stay alive, and well, and sane. And so am I. When I saw a tiny bird had died after flying into the window shortly after I arrived at work, I had to find meaning in it somehow. Otherwise I might have just broken down and cried, which actually wouldn't have been such a bad thing to do. So I wrote this poem. This little being has given something of its life energy that I might carry on. I hope it gives something of its life force to you as well. With A World On Fire With a world on fire or drenched beneath the onslaught of a hurricane, And an economy collapsing ’neath the greed of our so-called finest brains, With people shot dead on the streets for scaring lawmen with their skin, And old folks dying in lonely rooms without their loved ones ever coming in, With kids in cages on the border because their lives mean so much less than rules, And whistleblower

One True Teacher

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  “I have never said to my disciples that I am a true teacher. From the beginning I have said that the zazen each of us practices is the only true teacher.”   Kosho Uchiyama   But what about the Buddha himself? Was he not a true teacher in Uchiyama’s estimation? No doubt some would call it sacrilege to answer in the negative. There exists a story in which the Buddha’s entire sermon consists of him holding up a flower. One of his disciples, Mahakasyapa, is the only one who “gets it” – conveying his understanding with a smile. Many Buddhists believe that something passed from the Buddha to Mahakasyapa in that moment. But might it be that Mahakasyapa merely conveyed to the Buddha that his own zazen (seated meditation) had taught him what the Buddha had already realized? Perhaps the Buddha merely led Mahakasyapa to his own true teacher – his zazen – and Mahakasyapa proved to be a student worthy of its teaching.   Let’s get our heads out of the clouds for just a moment, though, and

Faith and Faux Knowledge

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We're experiencing a deficit of faith right now. Its lack corrodes our institutions, and erodes our social discourse. But whether you count yourself among the faithful, or the faithless, don’t assume that you know what I mean just yet. This may well chafe some atheists who might be reading this, but you have faith as well. It’s just that, whereas a Christian places his or her faith in the existence of God, or the Resurrection of Christ, an atheist might place it in love, science, the potential goodness of humanity, or even the prospect that we’d all be a whole lot better off without religion! Yes, we all live our lives by placing faith in someone, or something. And when we find ourselves in general agreement with others regarding the metaphysical concepts in which we have faith, then we might begin to call ourselves members of a particular faith tradition. So, where’s the deficit? How can I profess to such an expansive definition of faith even as I claim that its lac

Wherever Mindfulness Finds You

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Surely this spring will not be remembered as just any other spring. For just as the crocuses are teasing us with tender blossoms and their promise of new life, so it is that hardship and even death lurk just over the horizon. A global pandemic has already taken some of us, and it will take an unknown number more. Surely all can see that life will not be the same for quite some time, if ever. How strange it is to lose that which we’ve taken so for granted! I now look back with fondness at the simple joy of sitting in a coffee shop on a weekend morning. And I lament that we were too busy to take my wife out for a nice meal on her birthday this past weekend, the last weekend we could have done so before the restaurants were ordered closed. I also just happened to visit the library earlier this week to renew my card, only to be told that they’d be closing the following day. How strange it is to say goodbye to one thing after another that all seemed so commonplace as to hardly be wort