Hof Breathing Exercise



Tesshin wanted to try something different this week.  A fundamental part of Zen is seated meditation, and a fundamental part of sitting is the breath.  Tesshin noted that most religions have things in common like special foods and rituals, but Buddhism is set apart by its special emphasis on the breath.


For this week, Tesshin wanted to share a technique of breath exercises developed by Wim Hof which can strengthen our practice.  The idea is that we would do these breathing exercises before Zazen in order to get our mind and body in the right frame of reference.  


Basically, the practice has us breathing in and out for a number of times followed by a period of holding one’s breath.  The key period is when holding the breath.  The idea is to watch your mind while not breathing.  What goes on?  Can you be with the discomfort?  What do you observe in your mind while holding your breath?  At first, there may be worry that you will not make it for the 30, 60, or 90 seconds in which you must hold the breath.  The worry may become panic and this state of panic may launch you into a whole discussion in your mind about breathing.  However, after a few times, a sort of tranquility sets in.  You may begin to trust your body.  Pretty soon you are swept up in the pattern of breathing and holding.  Ah, another path to a quiet mind – this is the idea!   


Tesshin asked the group to review some information about the Hof breathing method and give it a try.  We will then discuss if it helped with our practice when we meet again.


Brief overview of Wim Hof


Brief explanation of the Wim Hof method


Next, HERE are a few youtube videos which you can follow to do the breathing exercises.


NOTE:  It should be noted that performing these breathing exercises are not necessary for a quality Zazen experience.  Like any other technique, you should start slowly and carefully and discontinue if you feel discomfort.  If you find that they enhance your practice, great.  If you find that they do not work for you, that is OK as well.



Self and No-Self

World Chant 18-Jun-2020


This week Tesshin shared a video showing Zen priests across the world chanting the Heart Sutra simultaneously.  One could imagine the entire Earth was chanting as a single entity for the benefit of all beings throughout space and time.  Tesshin encouraged everyone to watch the video again at the following links …  


After the Heart Sutra chant, Tesshin began to discuss the conundrum of self and no-self pointed to in the Heart Sutra.  He likened this to what physicists discovered about light early in the last century.  Initially, everything in the universe was understood to be either a particle or a wave.  However, confusingly, light was discovered to have aspects of both!  This caused, and still does cause, quite a bit of discomfort in people who expect an orderly universe where each phenomenon is placed in its proper category.


Does this sound familiar?  We are told constantly in Buddhism that there is no-self, however we constantly experience a personal “self.”  How are we to deal with this paradox?  As an example, Tesshin recounted that during this past week his son cut his hand and had to get immediate medical care.  He asked, “Who felt the pain?”  Did you?  Was the blood real?  If it was your child, would you have been content if the doctor stated that nobody has a self, there is no hand, thus there is nothing to fix?  Of course not!  


Thinking about light, we realize that it is not a mixture of particle and wave.  It is not as though we took black and white and mixed it into some amorphous gray.  Light is both simultaneously wave and particle.  Tesshin stated that it is the same with existence –  we are self and no-self at the same time.  It is said in Zen that if we cling to a dualistic “self” or “no-self” we misunderstand reality.  A wise teacher once said, “You and I are the same thing, but I am not you and you are not me.”    


Is this not what the Heart Sutra keeps telling us?  “No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.”  However, it also warns us, “… no path, no wisdom and no gain…”  In other words, do not fixate on either self or no-self.  These are all labels.  So, are we self or non-self?  Here, Tesshin was clear – we are both, at all times, simultaneously.  It is true, there is no individual self as there is only suchness in the universe.  But how can this be?  We are clearly our own karmic package!  We make our own breakfast, after all.  How can there be a self and a non-self?  The cut hand bleeds and feels pain only for one self!  The blood is not a delusion!


We have to be careful – Buddhism is not nihilism!  It is not enough to say no-self and thus no effort!   So how do we understand the simultaneous self and no-self?  Tesshin stated that it all comes down to conditionality.  Something like gravity is unconditional – it is just there!  This gives us a flavor for the suchness in the universe.  What about us and our lives?  We are the result of our karma, our history, and past decisions.  If our actions are conditional, then this is not our absolute spiritual true nature.  We need to understand what is unconditional in our nature?  What is our true nature?  What is constant in us?  This is the point of our path and training!  We live in the world of conditions, of cut hands, and Covid19.  This is all the conditioned world.  We must always remember that there is, simultaneously, the unconditioned world – our true world.  Our practice is to remember this and to cultivate it.  

Strawberries and Tigers

Nun and Tiger


Tesshin opened his talk relating a parable about a nun walking through the forest.  She hears rustling and then suddenly a tiger jumps out and chases her.  After running from this tiger, she is confronted by a ledge and precipice.  What is she to do?  There is no choice but to jump over the edge.  As she sails over the edge, she spies a vine and clutches it for dear life.  What a relief!  However, this feeling of good fortune is crushed when she looks down and realizes that there is ANOTHER hungry tiger waiting for her!!  Tiger above – tiger below!!  


As she is hanging from the vine contemplating her bad fortune, she hears a nibbling noise.  Sure enough, at the root of the vine, there is a black mouse and a white mouse chewing at the vine keeping her alive!  This is crazy!  What else can possible happen??  Just when the nun was about to give up and let the tigers have a nice meal, she notices a strawberry plant next to her growing out of the side of the ledge.  She reaches out for the strawberry and grabs one.  How delicious!  How wonderful!!


So, what are we to make of this parable?  Tesshin explained that the chasing tiger is our karmic history which we can never escape.  The tiger at the bottom of the ravine is our ultimate fate as mortal beings.  The vine we hold onto so tightly is our lifetime.  However, we see that time is chewing away at our life.  The light and dark mice represent the ups and down or the good and bad in our life.  Whether good or bad, the mice chew and the vine may give out quickly or it may take a long time, but either way it will give out.  


However, it is the strawberry bush which is the real message of this parable.  Life is tough and there are many challenges and setbacks!!  We know we are all moving towards our eventual end.  Our choice is what we do in this moment!  We can look at the tiger of the past and despair.  We can look at the tiger of the future and despair.  We can look at the passage of time slowly eroding our very existence and despair.  However, we have another choice.  We can pluck a strawberry.  We can try to find the joy.  It is our mind and thus our choice.  


Tesshin wrapped up by telling the group that especially in today’s turbulent times, we need to remind ourselves that there is beauty and good in this very moment.  Yes, we have karma, and yes time passes and leads us to our eventual end – but in this moment we have the ability to know joy.

What Mind?



This week Tesshin recounted a lecture he was invited to give to the Yorktown, New York school district.  The talk centered on the concept of “Intersectionality.”  The concept tries to get us to understand how different personal attributes combine to explain how we are treated in society.  Tesshin showed the diagram below … 




The group was then challenged to think about these characteristics and consider them from the point of view of our practice.  Tesshin was alluding to the fact that there is a “Modern Koan” for us to consider.  To say that these attributes are part of the five aggregates which lead to delusion really misses the suffering of specific groups of people.  However, to focus on them and define people solely by these characteristics also misses the point.  What do we do?  How do we handle this?


Tesshin was clear here – our practice is all about dealing with uncertainty and holding two mutually exclusive ideas in our head at the same time.  The road to take is one of compassion and awareness.  We must meet ALL people where they are with all their characteristics, however we must always remember that existence is so much more than individual attributes.  


The most important thing to be aware of is your inherent conditioning.  What “automatic assumptions” do you make?  How do you short-circuit your “presence” by automatically adopting your default perception in every situation?  As an example, Tesshin presented this picture …



This is a picture of a school sports coach disarming a violent student.  The coach wrestled away the weapon.  Both student and teacher’s limbic system (fight or flight) are in total control.  The limbic brain represents a hundred thousand years of evolution.  Violence and survival are top of mind!  So, the question is – what happens next?  Does the coach shoot the student?  Does he wrestle him to the floor before the cops handcuff him?  If the coach shot the kid dead – he probably would have been celebrated as a hero.


What would you do in this situation?


This is where the tension between presence and conditioning come into play.  Who are you?  Which mind do you manifest?  Are you a one hundred-thousand-year-old lizard or are you human?  Are you a collection of attributes?  Is the other person a collection of attributes?  This is what our practice is all about!  Who are you?  Can you transcend your biology and be truly present in the moment?  Can you transcend labels and automatic default reactions – and look into the humanity of the other person?


What does this look like?  Tesshin next showed this picture…  




SURPRISE!  Here we see the coach whispering – “you are OK, I have you now.”   Initially the violent student resisted as the coach was labeled an enemy and someone out to exact revenge.  The coach was labeled as dangerous.  What is interesting that after the initial resistance, the student relented and eventually even began hugging the coach back.  This picture shows humanity and mindfulness transcending the limbic system’s tendency to violence.  It also shows that the coach – and even the student – discarding easy labels of “Gunman” and “Enemy.”  This outcome shows us that transcendence can happen!!


So who are you and what mind do you choose?  Can you rewire your mind for peace?  Can you learn to transcend labels while simultaneously understanding how characteristics affect people’s life.  Can you look beyond the conditioning of your personal experience?  Can you look beyond the conditioning of one hundred thousand years of evolution?  Tesshin clearly stated that this CAN be done – but it takes work.  This is why we practice!


Code Switching



Tesshin opened his talk this week by asking a very simple question: “When working a koan – who do you identify with?”   Do you identify with the master, student, Buddha, a Bodhisattva, or the fish monger?  As we wrestle with that ‘thing’ which cannot be solved, we try on the hat of each role to see if we can gain any clue.  We soon discover that each role has something to teach, but none of them are a ticket to realization.  There is a point where we start questioning who we really are.  It is that exact state of confusion when the real transcendence happens.  Tesshin noted that this is one of the key insights of Koan training.  


There is an expression in popular culture – “Code Switching.”  In many ethnic groups, members will talk one way with members, friends, and family and another way with people outside of the group.  We also see this in our workplaces.  Think for a minute on the way you communicate in a business meeting as compared with how you communicate causally.  We quickly and seamlessly switch on the fly depending on the person we are with.  Does this imply that identity is fluid and not fixed?  To students of the Path, this fluidity should not come as a big surprise and we should not be alarmed by this.  Tesshin mentioned that this fluidity and code switching can serve as the beginning of wisdom if taught in the right way.  

(Attached is an interesting article on this behavior ) 


As an example, Tesshin raised the example of a video of a woman police officer who broke down at a fast food restaurant because her order delayed.   Tesshin played the video to his children and asked them for their perspective.  As expected, the children related to the officer as the video was told from her point of view and made clear the pressure and sleepless nights she was experiencing.  Tesshin asked the kids to dig a bit deeper, however.  What would the story look like if the person having to wait for the food was a minority patron?  What is the perspective of the fast food workers who are over worked, under paid, and risking Covid infection?  How does perspective change the story?   What was interesting is that the kids became frustrated due to the state of confusion this constant perspective switching caused.  The clear story of a woman’s frustration became unclear and uncertain.  We don’t like this confusion!!  Tesshin was clear here – discomfort is a gateway to wisdom when done right.  Holding multiple experiences simultaneously can be a deep experience.  


Confusion, Code Switching, varying perspectives, discomfort are all “grist for the mill” of our practice.  The path is not supposed to be easy for those of us who want to experience true reality and not live in a dream world.  There is constant work and when we thing we have nailed it down – the rug is pulled out and we have to start again and again.  As a capping statement, Tesshin reminded us not to depend on uncertainty as a permanent thing either!  When we think everything is relative and uncertain – the world bonks us on the head with simple common sense!  There is no relativity when sticking your finger in an electrical socket!!


Tesshin wrapped up his talk with an assignment for the group.  While meditating this week he asked us to look at ourselves deeply in the mirror.  After you do that for a few minutes, try to imagine other people’s perspective of you.  Do not intellectualize this.  It is now what they think of you, but rather what they feel about you or how they ‘experience’ you.  Some examples to consider …

•What is your parent’s perspective? 

•How does your spouse/partner experience you?

•What feelings do you invoke in children? (yours or others)

•What is your effect on neighbors?

•How do you make co-workers, bosses, and clients feel?

•If your pet could speak, what would they say about you?  (That tail wag speaks volumes!!)


Tesshin cautioned us that there are people who like us and do not like us – taste the perspective of them all.  Sometimes an adversary can teach us much more than a friend!  You are doing this exercise well if you become uncomfortable! 

Personal Institutions

Personal Institutions


Tesshin used his talk this week by continuing to expand on the topic of the “Three L’s” introduced last week.  This week he wanted to explore using these tools to work through the challenges of the current period which include the Covid situation and the racial tensions in the US.  


The first tool we discussed last week was listening.  This process is a very specific intellectual process which takes place in the prefrontal cortex.  We take in all kinds of information and data.  We should not judge, rather we simply open ourselves up and be present with the reality of all situations.  We strive to do this without our discriminating mind.  Students of the path should recognize this as “Zazen Mind.”    As we know, this sounds easy to do, but the ego is a persistent thing – it never gives up framing reality to its own rules and preferences!  This is why our practice lasts a lifetime and is never really done.  


From there we go into the learning stage.  This has to do with taking the experiences which we have gathered and examining and interpreting them.  This is tricky as it is partially cognitive, but partially intuitive.  We have to ask, who is interpreting?  What karmic “baggage” do we bring to the process of learning?  For instance, how do we process and interpret something like 400 years of racism?  Here, Tesshin raised an interesting question.  What do we mean by something being “institutionalized?”  He asked us to consider that the purpose of an institution is to simply complex situations and to release us from having to hold multiple conflicting points of view.  We look to these institutions to spare us deep interpretation which is exhausting and difficult.  Institutions absolve us from having to consider the karmic ramifications of our actions.  However, we know this is an illusion.  We can never really escape the karmic reverberations of our actions.  Karma is cause and effect – it is how reality is built.  


Tesshin emphasized, however, that not all institutions are bad or deluded.  Institutions of ‘rule of law’ and ‘equal protection’ are valuable.  We all depend on the institution of ‘democracy’ to ensure that the changes we desire get implemented.  By using the term ‘Institution,’ Tesshin was focusing on the ingrained patterns of thought which collectively distract us from the truth of reality.  


The first step in true “Learning” is to understand how the ego builds up our personal institution and understand how this affects our decision-making process.   If you want to change your decisions, you have to consider the karmic ramifications from all angles.  Our practice allows us to shift perspective, because we eschew attachments.  This is an essential step if we are really going to learn from what we have observed while listening.  The issue, of course, is that we desire instant gratification in modern life.  We skip from the listening phase directly to the action phase.  We never take the time to consider and interpret.  Our challenge is not to rush to action until we have deconstructed the deluded thought patterns and complexes in our mind.


To put this into practice, Tesshin challenged us to consider the karmic outcomes of our personal decisions?  He provided us with some questions we should consider when doing this work …

•How do my decisions affect my own safety and security?

What about others in my family and community?

•How does the decision I am about to take impact my “membership” of something?

For instance, being a part of something (family, society, etc.)  Is this membership driving my decision?

How does this decision affect how I develop as a human being…

Emotionally, Spirituality, Socially, Financially, etc.

Tesshin remarked that as we go through this exercise, we will become uncomfortable as a decision may come up against our personal narratives, biases, and preconditions.  


Tesshin next provided an example of how personal institutions can actually hold someone back.  He was on a teleconference this week with a group of personal coaching colleagues.  One participant commented that to make “real social change” one must sacrifice something.  However, the commenter admitted that he was struggling with getting started.  Tesshin remarked here that the participant on the call had done the first part.  He understood the pain minorities were going through, but then proceeded to “short circuit” the learning step and moved directly to the action step.  It was clear that the ego and a superstructure of personal institutions were blocking skillful action in this case.  First, there is the ego that believes that a single person can solve the whole problem.  Second there is the whole institutional loading of the word sacrifice which is tied up in guilt and punishment.  Tesshin suggested that this this person should engage in some deep introspection before starting action.  He could start to think about investing in a better future as opposed to sacrificing.  This investment will lead to a future where EVERYONE is better off rather than some people benefiting and others being punished.  Removing the institution of “guilt” could open up this well-meaning person to new ideas and provide energy to actively start improving things.


Tesshin wrapped up stating that the term “Nirvana” translates to extinguish or blow out.  Everyone always talks about enlightenment – why would the state of Nirvana implying blowing out the light in enlightenment?    In all of us there is a flame that penetrates our entire being.  It is the flame of ego, desire, and attachment.  We strive to blow out that flame in order to go beyond pain, suffering, and delusion.  We want to ensure that our decisions are not based on our ego, but rather the reality we have clearly observed and compassionately interpreted.  Our personal institutions are based on the ego.  We need to understand our ego and transcend it to ensure that our decisions are based on our true nature.  If we can do this, then we can rest assured that the actions we take will be skillful and lead to a better future.

The Three L’s



This week was Tesshin’s birthday and after he chanted the Heart Sutra, the entire group broke into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” while holding up birthday signs on the Zoom conference.  Tesshin broke into a huge smile as he was completely surprised!!


Tesshin then opened his talk this week to discuss the events going on in the country.  He mentioned that the Yorktown clergy issued a statement on this sad situation
(Please see the statement attached at the bottom of this post)  


On this past week, Tesshin reached out to two African American colleagues in Boy Scouts about them leading a discussion within scouting about racism in the United States.  The reaction from these two scout leaders were interesting.  The first person responded with “Sure, I guess so, but I am not sure what to say.”  This person is generally regarded as very friendly, into scouts, and generally “laid back” about politics.  He exhibited a desire to help, but had great uncertainty about what he could contribute.  The other gentleman, who is more active in politics, responded with an unequivocal – “Absolutely NOT!”  He asked, “How can I get anyone to understand.  How can white upper middle-class people even begin to understand this issue?  How can I explain the anger and violence seen on the streets?  I can barely make sense of it myself.”  Tessin remarked that there was great wisdom in both responses and any student of the path should see something familiar in these responses.


On the following day there was a scout leadership meeting.  Tesshin asked the wider group what they thought about a formal discussion on the protests, the reactions, and root causes.  According to Tesshin, the one word to describe everyone’s reaction was – discomfort.  Most people are just not equipped to abide deeply with complex and uncomfortable problems.  Nobody in the group really wanted to touch that “live wire.”  Again, students of the path should recognize something here!  Discomfort is the point!  If we are not uncomfortable, then we are really not working.


Finally, this past Friday night Tesshin participated in the Peekskill Community Prayer– and it was his turn to lead the service.  He led the group in a Tibetan guided meditation on the vastness of time and space.  The meditation was not heavy on formal Buddhism, rather the idea was to give the group a taste of the power of vastness of reality and to shift people’s perspective.  After the ceremony, Tesshin shared his quandary about getting people to discuss the protests with the other members of the clergy.  One of the priests, who is African American, chuckled a bit and stated that she was happy to hear the story.  Everyone has been calling on her as the “token African American” to inquire as to what they should be thinking about the situation.  She was feeling very much like the first scout leader – “I am confused as well!  I have no better answer than you do!!”  Again, Tesshin is reminding us about great vastness, but great confusion and uncertainty.  None of this should surprise us.


Tesshin shared these stories to emphasize a point he has been making over the past few weeks.  We practice Zen in order to be present and ready when challenges occur.  This is not an intellectual exercise, but rather a preparation to be truly alive.  The stories above show people reacting with authenticity, confusion, humor, and, yes, anger.  Our existence is not easy – and many problems lack easy answers.  So, what are we to do as students?  Here Tesshin was clear, we do what we always do.  We act in a skillful and mindful way.   We have the tools through practice to do this.  Tesshin called them the “3 L’s” …


First, Listen.   Listen to your inner self, to others, to your family, to nature, to everything.  It is like how we are in Zazen.  We get out of our own way, so we can see the 10,000 things of suchness.  Tesshin remarked that all he learned during his fourteen years in Japan was how to really listen.  


Next, Learn.  We need to let go of our ego and let the 10,000 things we listen to teach us.  Different opinions do not diminish us.  We do not have the complete answer and never will.  Being open like this is where innovation comes form.


Finally, do the Labor.   Don’t just hold the knowledge – put the learnings into action.  The important thing is that we don’t try to start here.  We MUST do the other steps first if we are going to be any use to anyone.



Attached:  Yorktown Clergy statement 


We, the clergy and faith leaders of the Interfaith Clergy Council of Yorktown, stand in solidarity with those of you here today.  Like all of you, we are heartbroken and outraged by the brutal murder of George Floyd.  We further condemn the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the other 1249 Black victims of police violence since 2015.  The streets of America are stained with the blood of innocent black men, women and children.  The individuals we mourn today are the most recent martyrs in this country’s four-hundred-year history of racist violence and oppression.  


We mourn also, the more than a hundred thousand individuals who have died in the Covid-19 pandemic, knowing that the same systems of inequality and injustice mean that communities of color have suffered profoundly and unequally.   


As people of faith, we believe that every life is sacred.  Though we connect to the Divine through different traditions, we are united in this belief and in our call for justice. We believe that it is our responsibility, as faith leaders, to speak truth and call upon our communities to put into action the ethics and teachings of our traditions.  With that virtue in mind, the injustices carried out against our fellow brothers and sisters can only be labeled with one simple, yet clear, word – wrong.   

Further, we strongly support not only all of you gathering here today, but protestors across this country.  We condemn the violence that has been unleashed on peaceful protestors. Taking to the streets to cry out for justice is an especially brave act in the face of a Pandemic, and we acknowledge that standing against oppression is sacred work. Regardless of town, religious community or heritage, we support your peaceful gathering of solidarity against racial injustice. As exemplified by so many past moments in our faiths, when good people stand together and demand that we, as a nation be better, we have the power to transform the status quo.


Whatever your vision of sacred presence–and by whatever Name you know God–we call upon you, Eternal One, to be with us as we work to rebuild this society into a land of justice, equality and peace.   We pray that Rev. King’s dream will become a reality–not someday, but this day.   A dream where ALL peoples will be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  And where we will dwell together in a land that holds every breath as sacred– and where we can all breathe the air of freedom.

What Can Bees Teach Us?

Zen Bees


Tesshin used this week’s talk to consider some of the dramatic events occurring in the country.  Specifically, he shared with the group a discussion he had with his family over the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.   He asked his children for their reaction about the recent police killing of a black citizen and what it meant in terms of justice, how we treat each other, and inequality.  More importantly, what can a single individual do about this?  The children knew that the situation was clearly “wrong,” but became quickly frustrated because there was nothing that they could immediately do to fix it.  “What are we supposed to do about it?  I am just a kid, after all!!”   As the conversation progressed, one youngster became very uncomfortable and wanted to leave the table.  Others sort of froze and seemed to be waiting for guidance from their father.  On top of this, his wife was upset as the situation was presented “un-sugarcoated.”  She asked if this line of conversation was fair – especially for the youngest ones?    Tesshin noted that he was not after a right or wrong answer, but rather was trying to create an experience of discomfort and tension.  He noted that in order to solve a problem one must be present with discomfort, confusion, frustration, and perhaps even helplessness.


Tesshin next noted that he keeps bees.  One issue with bees is that the hive needs to be regularly treated for mites in order to keep the colony healthy.  Although, he uses organic treatments, this activity still has a significant effect on the bees.  It is normal that during the treatment, the bees flee the hive, and usually straggle back over time.  This time, for some reason, the bees did not return quickly.  On top of this, there was a big rain storm after the treatment.  Bees caught in the rain would be killed by such a violent storm.  Sure enough, the next morning Tesshin found a bunch of dead bees scattered around the hive.  What was very interesting, however, was how the remaining live bees behaved after the crisis.  At first, young bees emerged from the hive.  These were clearly very small and immature.  They sort of wandered around, bumped into each other and even fell off the hive edge and hit the ground.  It is clear that they were confused, disoriented, and clearly not helping anyone.  Other more mature bees – just stood around and did nothing.  They were not falling over the edge, but they were mostly inert and apathetic.  Lastly, what looked to be the oldest and most mature bees were dragging the dead bees and debris outside the hive.  They would carry dead bees far away from the hive.    This behavior, known to bee keepers – is called “Righting the Hive.”  The older and mature bees knew that in order to survive the rain and mite-treatment “crisis,” it is most important to right things as quickly as possible.  Tesshin asked, what are we to make of the confused, apathetic, and diligent bees?  Can the bees teach us anything about ourselves and how best to “right our own hive?”   


Tesshin noted that most of us fall into that middle category of seizing up and becoming apathetic when challenged with a crisis.  What can a single individual do anyway?   This is a defense mechanism.  We feel as there is nothing to do, so we watch the news, read the newspapers, and comment on how terrible the situation is.  Then we get distracted with another thought and we jump to that.  However, even if we don’t have the perfect answer, can we at least slow down and be present with this problem – right here and right now?  Can we avoid the temptation to distract ourselves?  This is what Tesshin was trying to teach his children and what he was teaching the group during the talk.  We practice mindfulness in order to be ready for situations like this.  The practice teaches that we must face reality as it is and not how we would want it.  Reality is not sugarcoated!  We must not run away by becoming apathetic in the face of problems.  


Even worse that apathy are the individuals who fan the flames through their own delusion.  Tesshin likened these to the immature bees falling over the edge of the hive.  Buddhism talks about a “raging elephant mind” stomping around and causing more damage than helping.  To combat this, we must look deeply inward.  We must come face to face with our own delusions and how they manifest in our actions.  Is the step I am about to take really going to help or will it only magnify the pain?  Am I prepared to do nothing rather than to cause harm?  Is this action about how I feel or is it about the injustice I am trying to combat?  Again, this level of reflection comes with deep practice.  It comes with sitting with suchness and not grasping at what we want reality to be.  We must be willing to sit with pain and hurt.  Sometimes action is not the answer.  It does not help the hive to jump headlong over the edge and smash into the ground.  


Tesshin likened the diligent bees to those who solve problems.  These are typically the ones who just get in there and start skillfully fixing things.  These are the ones who normally do not get the attention.  They calmly and quietly get to work.  These are the front-line health workers during the Covid outbreak.  These are the religious leaders in Minneapolis endeavoring to get all sides to talk and see each other as people and not monsters.  Human nature naturally looks for the dramatic.  We look at the bees falling over the edge.  What we need to do is look at the centered ones getting the hard work done.  How do we become like those bees?  We do it with practice.  We practice year after year so that when crisis hits, we are sure, stable, and prepared.  Only then can we make real progress.


Tesshin is exhorting us to practice for our country, our communities, and ourselves.  This is the vow we take to save all beings.  Practice is “righting the hive.”  Once we can control our own delusions, we can take the next step and the next step after that to fix problems.

Your Dominant Note



Tessin’s mentioned to the group that he was absent last week as his father passed away at the age of 94.  His mother died a year back and it was pretty apparent that his father died of loneliness.  Although Tesshin did travel back to Pittsburgh, the actual funeral service had to be broadcast via Zoom as religious institutions are closed for social distancing.  The family and friends then formed a caravan of cars from the funeral home to the cemetery.  Unfortunately, even cemeteries are enforcing social distancing – as such only next of kin were allowed in to observe the actual burial.  Again – another Zoom broadcast was necessary instead of everyone being present together.  It goes without saying that these arrangements were unsatisfactory, but it was the best which could be done.  That is the lesson of this time – we do not strive for perfection, rather we strive to be as skillful and compassionate in a chaotic time.  Tesshin reminded us that good enough is good enough.  The goal is to be kind to yourself and others!


One of the ceremonies performed during a funeral is to reflect on a person’s life and to understand what it meant.  For his father, Tesshin remarked that the major chord was his unbelievable degree of gratitude.  He always had a “thank you” and was happy for your presence.  He never missed an opportunity to express his love for his family and friends.  This is probably why the death of his long-time wife was such a blow.  Tesshin remarked that his father had the “gene to cry” and was not afraid to show his emotions.  Tesshin joked that he has inherited this gene.  He related the fact that his kids laugh at him when he gets misty eyed in movies!


Buddha was asked what is the cause of death? – BIRTH.  We are all heading in the direction of death.  So, what are we to make of this?  Death is a time to reflect on life.  We are all experiencing this now as so many people are being affected by the Covid situation.  For Tesshin, reflecting on his father, the dominant note was gratitude.  What will be your dominant note?  What will you be remembered for?  It will not be for making that next $100 or having the fanciest job in your family.  


Tesshin next asked about practice in a time of stress.  Many congregations are seeing the incidence of sadness increase while energy decreases.  What about our own practice – how do we prevent atrophy?  We must engage so that our energy does not dissipate.  Where is our practice this week, next week, and in the future?  Can practice serve as the dominant note of our life?


We always have the freedom to choose – Do you practice love, gratitude or do you practice despair and delusion?  What is your dominant note?  No time to lose!  It is said that “Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost.”  We must concentrate our energy and get focused!   Tesshin asked what will you remember from the Covid period?  Are you walking through it blindly in a trance or are you actively engaging with it?  Generations in the future will ask “What did you do during covid 19 crisis?”  What will you answer?  Will you shrug your shoulders, or will you state that it was a time to strengthen practice and be of service to others?  Will you be able to say that you entered the crucible of practice which was nothing like it was before the crisis?  


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding everyone that the community garden is now open and is a great way to get outdoors and still be safe.  The garden is more necessary now than ever as more people are food-insecure.  Tesshin asked everyone to make an effort to pitch in.

Confusion is Wisdom



Tesshin used his talk this week to look back at how enlightenment was attained by the historical Zen masters.  Dogen built a system of 1000 days of training.  When a new monk started, emphasis was placed on rules and processes.  Every waking hour had a ceremony and procedure.  There were strict procedures for eating, bathing, sleeping – even using the bathroom.  After the monk became comfortable with the rules, a process of “controlled chaos” was introduced into the monk’s life.  This was done by either intensive Zazen or koan practice.  Tesshin remarked that koan study was very helpful for him as it broke apart his normal way of being and thinking.  In Zen training, this chaos practice is much more intensive than simply learning the rules of monastic life.  The confusion and chaos are designed to break the ego’s hold on reality.


Zen keeps asking the question – when everything falls apart what remains.  If all your identity is gone – what does it really mean to exist?  If there is no meaning to existence – what remains?  Zen is constant process of “peeling the onion.”  We remove layer after layer until nothing is left.  


Tesshin mentioned that many people think the old masters gained their enlightenment by careful and long study and many hours on the cushion.  While time on the cushion is important, the historical record is clear – many masters achieved enlightenment only after confronting great loss leading to deep anxiety and confusion.  This is important for us to appreciate.  In our modern western practice, we do the koan work, but then we go back to our nicely constructed life.  We keep going back and forth.  Zen, life, Zen, life.  We then wonder why we never make progress.  We dip our toes into the confusion, but then retreat to the safe place.  This is not what happened to the great masters of the past.  For them everything fell to pieces, and then, at the precipice, everything came together in a great realization.  


So, what does Covid-19 mean to us?  Is it really breaking down our comfortable place?  Is it the fire which can fuel an authentic practice?  For many of us, our closest held truths are beginning to fall apart.  People are losing jobs, businesses, loved ones, and normal social interaction.  What we thought was true is not true anymore!  When we are not living the life we have so carefully constructed for ourselves – what is left?  All we seem to be left with is confusion and anxiety.    However, the masters of old have taught us that confusion is the raw material for wisdom!!  Tesshin exhorted us to embrace this fact, and not to run away from it.  We have the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – so we know what to do and have others to rely on.   With the three treasures, we can be fearless in the face of the confusion.  We may even be able to use this terrible situation as a gateway to a more real and fervent practice.


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that we should not lose fact that we are still sentient beings in a physical environment.  Specifically, we should not forget the somatic experience of our spiritual path.  The body is a “partner on the path.”  This is why our practice has always been more than sitting on the cushion.  For instance, the flower arrangement we did this week is important.  It touches all of the senses.  We see the beauty and impermanence of the flowers.  We smell the flowers.  We hear the sounds of nature when we are out collecting the flowers.  Lastly, we felt the cool spring breeze while collecting.  Tessin reminded us that being present in the moment while in the physical world is a great aid when facing the confusion and angst of a time like this.