Notes from a Studio

A Collection of Writings About Zen

Here are Five articles originally written for the Hidden Valley Zen Center newsletter, The Oaktree.  The First three chronicle experiences in Zen meditation during my first four years of sitting zazen.  The last two deal with specific topics:  Zen and everyday life (Work Practice) and Zen and Covid.  


Reflections on Four Years of Zazen

I have been practicing zen meditation for four years now, and I want to share some thoughts about how regular sitting, both at home and in the zendo, has changed me. The truth I am seeking to convey here is embodied in experience.  This is experience is something lived in-the-body, day-to-day. It is a living, breathing, direct participation in life that the words I am writing can only inadequately describe. Doing zazen is living life in the most immediate and direct way.  The miracle of life in all its rich complexity (one could describe it a messy miracle, or better yet a miraculous mess!) is there to be completely experienced.

Through zen practice my mind, once crowded with worries, analysis, thoughts and more thoughts, has let go of the need to control events.  It has let go of the need to judge and assign value to each and every thing that happens.  The mental habit of ’compare and despair’ –  of seeing everything as better or worse than everything else –  has gradually eased up.  I’ve begun to realize how much space judgement and comparison were taking up in my life.  I’ve become conscious of a subtle, barely detectable sense of anxiety, a cluster of barely articulated but ever-present questions: What will happen next?  Will I be OK?  Am I good enough?  What if x happens? What if y happens? These habitual and cunning mental constructs have gradually lost their power.  This is not to say that I walk around in a state of mindless bliss, living in a sort of ’whatever comes is ok, dude’ world.  No, when it’s time to decide, I decide: quickly, naturally, easily, out of a spaciousness opened through zazen. There is a feeling of being at ease, no matter what the situation, and not an obsessive concern with how to be in a given situation, or how the situation might change.  This is a security literally grounded in nothing – a space which holds all and has no boundaries.


              Homo sum: Humani nil a me alienum puto/I am a man: Nothing human is alien to me.

– Terence, c. 190-158 BC

This sentence, written by an ancient Roman playwright who was once a slave, resonates deeply with the experience of zazen. The exploration of my whole being while sitting on the cushion, the going inward, deeper and deeper, reveals everything –  not just the ’nice’ stuff, but all the things I want to cover up and deny. Facing everything, practicing ‘radical acceptance’ means that the light of awareness can shine throughout the mental constructs that make me reactive, rather than active.

Facing the truth of myself, making conscious the mind habits constructed through years of unconscious conditioning, opens me to a sense of curiosity. To sit zazen is to live a question: What is this? What is beneath this? Is there something even deeper than this experience right now? Sitting with a sense of curiosity means that no one session of zazen is like another.  Here is a paradox: Each time I sit down on the cushion, it is the first time I am sitting. Now the ordinary mind has a hard time grasping this.  It asks, “How can sitting in the same way, each day, not be totally boring?” The gift of zazen is that everything becomes new in each and every moment.  Ordinary life, off the cushion, takes on a different texture.    Washing the dishes is just washing the dishes, yet the experience of it, even though I’ve done it thousands of times, is new.  Time off and on the cushion is permeated with this sense of newness, of possibility.

I want to be clear:  Zazen has not provided instantaneous solutions to all the situations life has presented to me over the last four years.  I don’t sit down on the cushion with a question and stand up with an answer.  But in opening myself to all that is human in me, I also open myself to all that is possible.  And from a deep well of creativity, beyond my habitual, conditioned ego, the right response to a situation often arises.  And when clarity is not forthcoming, I am more and more able to simply take any situation ‘hold it on my lap, like a brick,’ just sitting with it, exactly as it is.  Here, Zen is not progress toward a solution; Zen is being the question, right now, fully in this moment.

Sitting has allowed me to let go of the ‘baggage of the past’ – dropping all the painful memories that I dragged around, my personal ‘bag of rocks.’  It has also allowed me to let go of the ‘baggage of the future’ – all those obsessive concerns with how I will turn out, who I will be in the future – that I have come to realize were as heavy a bag of rocks as the past.  This has opened a space for authenticity: “being exactly and genuinely what a thing is said to be” to quote Webster’s Dictionary.

This looking directly, both inside myself and outside at the world, allows me to see with increasing clarity.  I am able to be just myself, as I am at this moment.  I am able to feel this in my body, and  not just as a concept in my head. As Dogen wrote in the 13th century:

…we human beings are continually arranging the bits and pieces of what we experience in order to fashion ‘a whole universe,’ …we are continually arranging bits and pieces of what we experience in order to fashion them into what we call a ‘self,’ which we treat as ‘myself’: this is the same as the principle of ‘we ourselves are just for a time.’

Four years ago, this quote from Dogen would have made no sense to me whatsoever.  Now, I can understand it as a lived experience.

I recently saw a flock of migrating birds, hundreds and hundreds of them, landing in trees along the street where I was walking.  As I watched them, they flew off in their hundreds, forming shapes, now an enormous ball, now a swirl of black streaks against the blue sky, now a gigantic triangle – each shape a mass of individual birds.   They were showing me, there up in the sky, what Dogen wrote, arranging the ‘bits and pieces’ of the bird flock now into this shape, now into that.  When I can see my existence, my self, as bits and pieces arranged, like that flock of migrating birds, into a self that is a response to the here and now, then I can be authentically me.  Then I am a self which is genuine response to the moment, not a fixed ego with a limited repertoire of reactive patterns.

When I can see reality for what it truly is, a series of contingencies that is impermanent, then “I” can truly be, in the most authentic way possible.

Four years of zazen has made my life simpler. Four years zazen has made my life infinitely richer.  This is the paradox and the gift of zen.  And to all who have travelled this path with me, I bow deeply and with deep gratitude.


Reflections on Two Years of Zazen

Last month marked the anniversary of my second year of sitting zazen.  In the past year, I completed my first seven-day sesshin, as well as sitting in several shorter meditation retreats.  I also continued to sit at the Hidden Valley Zen Center in San Marcos weekly. Sitting for an hour a day, whether I am at home or travelling, has now become habitual for me.  When I don’t sit, it feels as if something is missing.  When I discuss this with friends, they often ask me “How can you just sit there for an hour?”  My answer is “How can I NOT sit there for an hour each day?”  So much of my life has been taken up with talking – to others, to myself through my thoughts.  But zazen is listening, really listening, for that daily hour, and just being open to what is really going on.

I have discovered that so much of my experience of zazen over this past year can’t be captured by words, by talking.  The words are only rough approximations of the profound experience of ‘sitting quietly, doing nothing.’  Nevertheless, I will attempt to put into words a rough outline of my experiences over the past year, in the hope that it may deepen my own practice, as well as possibly being of some service to others.

The first observation I would like to share with you is that of my continuing discovery of the nature of experience.  My mind wants to put all experience into categories that can be easily classified, and retrieved at will.  This is the nature of the mind.  The mind is also lazy, in that it turns all my experience into black or white/binary propositions (good/bad, beautiful/ugly, desirable/repulsive, etc.)  But through meditation, I have come to realize my experience is determined by my conditioning.  And my conditioning is like a pair of glasses through which the ego experiences reality.  If my conditioning gives me a pair of red glasses, then everything I see (experience) will be red.  If my conditioning gives me a pair of blue glasses, then everything I see (experience) will be blue.  Sitting zazen is like taking off the ‘conditioning glasses’ and seeing directly into reality.

Here’s a quote from Henry James that captures something of the nature of our conditioned view of experience:

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chambers of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.

When I sit, I open myself to the possibility of becoming aware of this ‘immense sensibility’ and of going beyond the ‘spider-web suspended in the chambers of consciousness.’

There is, of course, always the risk of mistaking meditation for escape.  Liberation from the ‘spider-web’ does not mean escape from thought, nor escape from the body, or what the body feels.  In fact, my second year of zazen has taught me to go even deeper into the reaches of my body’s experience, and to listen very carefully to how the body feels.  This is the most subtle of arts, one that starts and ends with the breath.  When I meditate, I open up a space in my body for feelings to manifest themselves.  Sometimes the feelings are raw, painful waves of emotion ripping through my body.  At other times, the feelings have been much more delicate – non-verbal but nonetheless real.

We use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them.  One of the things the screen [mind] hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean the ins and outs of it, its interiors. Like a veil

thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, the screen partially removes from the mind [awareness] the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.

  • Antonio Damasio, The Feeing of what Happens

Here is one of the gifts of zazen – I remove the ‘mind’s veil, thrown over the body’, and fully, truly experience what I am experiencing – and sometimes it is to ‘fully, truly experience’ something for the first time. This process, through meditation, of ‘seeing directly’ opens up the possibility of having a complete experience, one that is not veiled by the mind’s multi-colored glasses.  And if that happens, I can also open up to the possibility of letting go of experiences from the past, often extremely painful memories, that lodge in the body like a stone, or heavy weight.  I have noticed a feeling of lightness and fluidity in my day-to-day living that is the result, I believe, of sitting zazen in order to ‘completely experience.’

One of the feelings that was most persistent, and the most subtle, was the feeling of restlessness.  This experience manifested itself in both thought patterns – how much longer till this meditation session is over? – and in the body – a desire to move on, to get it over with, a kind of impatience in the body.  This impatience was echoed by my thoughts – I should be doing this or that, this needs to be done next, I’ll never get caught up with my work if I just sit here – endless variations on the restless theme.  Gradually, I came to the awareness that I was resisting the experience of being fully present, both on the cushion and in my life.  How many times had I been listening to someone, while at the same time thinking of the next thing to say to that person, or the next thing I ‘should be doing’ instead of listening?  How many of life’s beauties had flown by me because I was thinking of the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing?  Sitting on the cushion is like putting a magnifying glass to this feeling of restlessness and allowing the full experience of discomfort, the ‘itchiness’ of wanting to be elsewhere, to arise and dissipate, and arise and dissipate, over and over again, each time recognizing the feeling in my body and returning to the breath.  To do this is to have, however fleetingly, the experience of being liberated from time, of going beneath time in a way that allows me to see restlessness for what it is – a temporary phenomenon, a habitual thought-form, a resistance to the present experience.

I began, this past year, to perceive more and more clearly the true nature of my ‘thinking.’  I put this word, ‘thinking,’ in quotation marks, because I want to distinguish what I had previously taken for ‘thinking’ from the true nature of thought.  That is to say, what I had previously taken to be ‘thinking’ was actually just a set series of mental patterns – fantasies, ruminations, obsessions – that repeated themselves in an endless chain, sort of like an old fashioned juke-box with not 100 selections of 45’s to choose from, but only 3 or 4.  My mind would loop through these limited choices, ‘thinking’ them, and then discard one to go back for another.  I began to grasp what was meant by the observation that most people (including myself) walk around in a dream.  And when something happens that doesn’t fit my limited picture of reality (my dream) my ‘thinking,’ I experience panic, fear and frequently anger – ‘Why doesn’t reality fit my image (dream) of what it should be?’  To let go of this habitual mental rumination, to clear the consciousness of this ‘fog of pseudo-thought’ is to experience a new kind of liberation.  It also allows me to create a mental space for true thinking – a creative, intuitive response to situations that is not limited to those 3 or 4 mental loops I have habitually been boxing myself into.

All of the above leads, sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly, to a dissolution of my old sense of self.  I frequently said ‘I don’t know who I am anymore.’  This doesn’t mean that I acted in erratic or shocking ways, but it does mean that the ‘I’ that used to be a fixed, rigid identity began to dissolve.  Instead of the ‘me’ being defined by a thick black line of paint, it began to feel as if the line between ‘me’ and ‘not-me’ was growing thinner and thinner – the thick black line was being replaced by a thin little wisp of ink barely outlining the ‘me’ that was there. And sometimes, even this line disappeared. This leads to a feeling of lightness – not ‘airy-fairy, high woo-woo’ lightness, but a transparency grounded deeply in reality.  I am at once free of my ‘self’ and connected to everything.  This is not a special state, and not something that once reached, disappears and needs to be sought after and reproduced.  It is, as Brad Warner states “being quiet enough to stop chasing after extraordinary states and simply notice who and what you are right now.”

This past year I came upon this passage in a book titled “Zen-Brain Reflections” by James Austin.  It lists some characteristics that are nurtured by meditation.  Here’s the list:

– confronting the reality of death, and making out one’s will

– letting go of longings and loathing and renouncing negative habits

– focusing attention on ‘just this’ present moment

– softening biased opinions and idealistic notions of perfection

– extending ongoing patience and forgiveness to self and to others

– realizing immanence: the quality in simple, ordinary, everyday things

– relying more on insights and introspective truths than on doctrines

– radiating a playful flexibility and openness from a base of stability

– accepting and reconciling life’s opposites

– expressing a sense of responsibility for others with kindness and selfless compassion

– expressing a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of life and for all those who have eased its burdens

I’ve noticed all of these being nurtured in my own practice.  I want to make it clear:  This is not a ‘check-list’ of steps toward some kind of enlightenment.  But sensing a resonance with the above list was, I found, useful in marking my own travels along the path this past year. And a list like this is not the ‘goal’ of zazen.  While it may be useful in marking progress along the Path, it is not the point of being on the Path. There is something much deeper beneath a list like this, something that, to paraphrase George Eliot, ‘may be accurately observed by us although we are incapable of explaining it.’

None of the above could have been possible without the support and encouragement of the sangha (group of meditators) at the Hidden Valley Zen Center in San Marcos.  Mitra Roshi, Sozui Sensei and all the members of the sangha created a place for sitting that embraces and nurtures the practice of meditation, the path of Zen.  I express in closing my profound gratitude for their presence and support.

One moon appears everywhere in all bodies of water; the moons in all bodies of

water are contained in one moon.  This is a metaphor for one mind producing myriad

things, and myriad things producing one mind.   Hsueh-Jen

Reflections on Completing My First Year of Zazen

This month I am marking a year of sitting zazen. I’d like to share some of my experience as a way of both affirming these experiences for myself, as well as supporting others who may be be on the same path.

First of all, I want to express my profound gratitude to  the members of the Hidden Valley Zen Center, to Mitra Roshi and Sõzui Sensei  for creating the space for me to enter into the practice of Zen. When I first came to the Center, having discovered it through an internet search, I was intuitively drawn to the warmth and tranquility of the setting. It just felt so right to be there. And the idea of returning for regular practice was very appealing.

Let me pause for just a moment and give you some background. For all of my adult life, I have been attracted to Eastern thought. One of the first books I bought after getting to University (this was long before the Barnes and Noble bookstore chain was  everywhere) was the I Ching.   From there it was a quick progression to the Tao de Ching and many other books of a similar nature. Although I can’t precisely date when I first encountered a book about Zen, I can tell you that through the years,  reading about Zen always produced a sense of peace and serenity in me like nothing else did. So after decades with books about Zen, and acquiring a considerable library on the subject, I decided to take the plunge.  In a way, through all those years, I was like a person who reads and reads about swimming, but who never gets into the pool to get wet. To put it another way, it’s one thing to read the recipe and quite another to bake the cake!

So, a year later, what has it been like to ‘get wet in the waters of Zen’?

To begin with, reading about Zen, or even coming across a report like the one I am writing now, can only approximate the actual experience of it. While ‘sitting quietly doing nothing’ seems simple enough when read about, doing it is quite another thing. The first months of sitting seemed to be a confusion of thought: Was I doing it right? Did my posture seem correct? Why was I thinking, thinking, thinking during meditation? Gradually, and only in retrospect, did I begin to notice that these mental churnings were beginning to calm down. I want to emphasize the phrase ‘in retrospect’. Because in the actual sitting I wasn’t aware of this progressive quieting of the mind. It was only in driving away from them Center after an evening sit, or in the course of my daily activities that I would suddenly be struck at how much more serene I was. I didn’t really feel it as ‘Oh boy! Now I’m Buddha-like!’ but more of a quiet noticing, the way one notices a child absorbed in an activity, and smiles at the observation.

Along with this growing sense of what I learned to recognize as equanimity, I was also experiencing moments of insight that were often deeply emotional and painful. Even though I had been through intermittent years of psychotherapy all my adult life, I was unprepared for the depth of emotion that sometimes shot through me, to the very core of my being, during meditation. There were times when the sadness and pain were like a powerful wave. It was shocking to me to learn how deeply embedded these emotions were, and how sitting quietly created the space for them to come up. What was also surprising was their lack of persistence – that is to say, these strong emotions and painful memories did come up, but they didn’t stay. In the course of returning, over and over again, to my breath while sitting and experiencing these moments, they seemed to dissipate – icebergs of emotion smashed into smaller and smaller pieces through sustained attention. I’m not saying that some painful memories simply disappeared after one sitting, but that once again, in looking back, I would notice that they had gradually lost their punch and their staying power in my field of attention.

Sitting zazen also brought about  less acutely painful, but distinctly uncomfortable moments of self-insight. Or, to put it more colloquially, I began to see what a jerk I was. The stupidity and grasping nature of my own ego became at times disconcertingly clear. Past actions I had taken, past behaviors, I now saw clearly as products of a mind in fear, grasping endlessly for control, I got this’ being the holy grail of the ego’s quest.  This elusive desire was like the poetic ‘arch where through gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades forever and ever as I move’ – control was always tantalizingly in-sight but out –of-reach. Ultimately, the chimera of control was the ego’s clever way of keeping itself alive.

I began to see that my mind was conditioned to react, and that this reactive conditioning stretched into my past and the past of my parents, their parents, their parents’ parents  and beyond.  Indeed, I was (and am) conditioned by my culture, my language, my gender, in short, all of the innumerable contingencies of my existence in the world.  This conditioning is very, very subtle, and I am only beginning to notice its quicksilver, ephemeral presence in my everyday actions.  But the more I sit, the more awareness I have of it.

There came to be a sense of the  low level anxiety I was living with on a moment-to-moment basis. My life was being controlled, indeed driven, by a very quiet and persistent motor of thought that was whispering ‘Not enough! Do more! Try harder!’ And behind that was a fear that no matter what I did, how hard I tried, it wouldn’t be enough. The quiet, persistent command to be/do/have more,more and more couldn’t satisfy the hungry ghost inside of me. This insight was astonishing. I had always presented myself as a calm and peaceful ‘got-it-together’ kind of person. But here I was realizing that I was the duck who appears to be gliding across the pond, while all the time paddling furiously underneath the surface to stay afloat and keep up the appearance of serenely. Just that insight alone was an enormous liberation. Having brought that into the daylight of consciousness through sitting was like putting down sack of heavy rocks, and simply leaving it behind, relieved not to be carrying it around and around, getting nowhere faster and faster as the bag got heavier.

There is nowhere to get to! This is neither nihilistic resignation nor permission to laziness, but a simple ‘yes’ to the present experience. And from that conscious ‘yes’ comes the next thing and the next thing. This is practicing ‘radical acceptance’ – saying a deep and reverent YES to everything, absolutely everything in my experience. This does not mean acquiescence/giving up/giving in, but directly and clearly seeing and then trusting, simply trusting, that radical acceptance.

As the first year of zazen continued, I moved from the chair to seiza to half-lotus, moving through the aches and pains that went accompanied each change in posture, and seeing how, like life itself, these things were temporary. Does all of this constitute enlightenment? I have no idea! I have come to realize that ‘enlightenment’ is a verb, not a noun, and that ‘to wake up’ is a process, not a goal that once reached, completes the path . I now sit most days for an hour, sit at HVZC once a week, and have completed some sesshins, the longest being five days. I’m looking forward to a seven-day sesshin at HVZC this summer.

It has been my privilege to enter the path of Zen through the loving kindness of all those who have walked this way for more than 2,500 years.  May I continue the path for the good of all beings.

            For the new locus is never

            Hidden inside the old one

            Where Reason could rout it out,

            Nor guarded by dragons in distant

            Mountains where Imagination

           Could explore it; the place of birth

           Is too obvious and near to notice,

          Some dull dogpatch a stone’s throw

          Outside the walls, reserved

          For the eyes of faith to find.

W.H. Auden, from The Age of Anxiety   (1944-46)




Zen and Work Practice

There’s nothing special about meditation or sitting on a cushion.  Even though zazen may take place in a zendo, or at home, though it may be accompanied by bells and incense, it is nothing special.  There’s nothing to get from zazen! It may or may not make you feel better.  It may or may not help solve a problem or inspire a response to a situation in life.  It may not make you a better person.

                                           Last year a foolish monk

                                          This year, no change.

Ryo Kan Taigu (1758-1831)

If the purpose of sitting is not to feel better, why sit at all? Meditation practice may have the effect of making us calmer and thus better equipped to deal with life’s situations, but if that is all we are looking for, then we are only skimming the surface of the depths of what is available through Practice.  Sitting gives us the opportunity to open up to who we are now at this very moment, Being open, totally open with our whole body, in the presence of whatever is going on at any moment in our lives:  this is zazen.

While zen practice may start on the cushion, if it ends there, we have missed its deeper meaning.

Practice is much more than when we do zazen.  Practice includes all activities. It begins when we open our eyes in the morning and ends when we close our eyes at night.  Everything in between is practice.

Kapleau Roshi, teisho delivered in Warsaw, Poland in 1984

This means bringing the light of awareness to all that we do. Every activity in our waking day is part of practice.  There is no difference between the practice of zen when on the cushion and the practice of zen when off the cushion. Every activity, ALL of it, is zen!

Here is a personal example: I have recently begun to making recordings of free-style improvisations that I create at the piano. The only rule in doing this is that there are no rules.  There are no chord changes to follow, no number of measures to fill up with sound, no musical form to adhere to.  The improvisations are like musical calligraphy.   Sitting at the keyboard, I may have a musical idea in mind.  But the moment my fingers touch the keys, ‘something’ takes over.  Ideas flow and the ‘I’ who sat at the piano disappears.  For this kind of improvisation to work, it is necessary to let go of judgements and thoughts about the improvisation as it unfolds. Extraneous mental activity stops the flow of creativity, and the improvisation stumbles.

“If we color our activities with all the unnecessary evaluations, judgements, conclusions, opinions and so on, then we are dirtying our activities and dirtying our minds.” – Kapleau Roshi, ibid.      

So my improvisations are an example of Work Practice!  Spontaneously creating a sound-structure while being present, without concepts and judgements, is Work Practice. Allowing whatever happens to happen, without expectation or the desire for a ‘perfect’ result, is Work Practice.  To simply be in the moment of creation (and every moment of our lives is a moment of creation!), is Work Practice. Is this easy? Yes! But can it sometimes feel difficult and scary? Yes!  If we have a lifetime of conditioning about how things should be, then seeing things as they are can appear difficult.  If we can see things just as they are, letting go of how we are conditioned to think they should be, then it can, especially at first, feel like we are walking forward without a map. It can feel like we are shining a bright light into an unknown room. We see clearly, and the more we see, the more the shape of the room changes.  Its dimensions unfold in our light as we step forward. What we thought was a square room changes into a corridor.  What we thought was a corridor changes into a round room.  Shapes, dimensions unfold as we move with our light. But we cannot know what we’ll see next.

I record an improvisation.  I listen to it.  I may or may not like what I hear.  I may hate it one day, and like it the next.  It may sound wonderful two weeks later, or I may decide it is not worth keeping. I may share the recording with others and receive compliments.  Others might politely ignore my efforts. No problem!

“If we sit in zazen egolessly, if we perform all daily activities in the same way, without judgement, without evaluation, taking tings as they are, then we are actualizing Buddha nature.” – Kapleau roshi, ibid.

Sitting at the computer, writing this article, the thought comes “Is this good enough? Will people like it? Will it be understandable? Is it clear?  What if it isn’t?”  Letting go of thoughts like this, letting go of thought, is letting go of control of the outcome.

A leaf falls from a tree into a stream.  Depending on the strength of the current, depending on where the leaf falls, it may flow quickly and easily downstream.  Or it may get caught on a rock and be pushed into the muddy bank, where it decays.  It may be picked up by a passerby, who, looking quietly at it, perceives some deeper truth.  The leaf doesn’t know what will happen – it just flows.

Not knowing, with a clear mind and deep curiosity:  This is Work Practice!


Covid Zen

Every moment of life presents us with an opportunity for deeper understanding, deeper clarity, a more profound realization of the simple truth of being.  This life in the time of Covid-19 is such a moment.  At times like this, the ‘ordinary mind’ – reactive, fearful, labeling, judging, worrying –works to  assert  its delusional superiority.  ‘I’ve got this,’ it says ‘I’m in control.’ And it attempts this in the face of a stark truth made visible by the extremely contagious nature of this virus: Our life is, and has always been,  subject to contingency. Our existence, no matter how much we try to control events, is subject to the workings of chance.

Who we happen to be standing next to, and  how closely, who they stood next to, how closely, who that person stood next to – the chain of circumstance, usually hidden by the façade of order  that lies like a thin sheet of ice over our civilization, is melted away by an anarchic  viral force that can only be perceived by the most sophisticated of technical devices.  We are, as we have always been, vulnerable to the force of fate’s fickle finger.

Here the practice of Zen offers the possibility of liberation:  breathe in and out, and repeat, letting go of all attachment (yes, even attachment to our health and well being.) Just  breathe in and out again.  What is present now? Where is the ‘I’ that fears, analyzes, hopes, reaches for the quick cure, the return of prosperity, the attachment to what was or what might be?  Breathe again, in and out.  Notice what is here now.  Yes, fear.  But also quiet, the absence of traffic, the clarity of bird song in the morning, temporarily freed of the buzz of the city coming awake.  Feel the web of human connection being exposed, paradoxically, by separation. Breathe in and out again, and everything changes.  Now ‘form is emptiness/emptiness is form’ becomes not conceptual but experiential – a lived rhythm of ceaseless  change,  expressing an unchanging truth.

Sit quietly and do nothing.  Embrace this moment fully and let its richness, both beautiful and tragic,  unfold.  There has never been a moment like this on the planet, this moment with both its omnipresent danger and its  opportunity for a more profound opening to the mystery of life. Tune into that.  Take a shower.  Watch a hummingbird.  Hug a child.  Sew a mask. Do the next thing that needs to be done, simply, with an ever increasing awareness.  This is Zen in a time of Covid: an opening, a gate.  Breathe and walk in!