living dharma

Lola of the lighthouse, Malcolm Island
June 25, 2017, 9:02 am
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Earlier this week I traveled from Powell River to Malcolm Island. By ferry and road and ferry. Malcolm Island is the northernmost Gulf Island that I have spent time on, and it is a quietly extraordinary place. A lengthy island (28 kilometres from top to bottom) where an attempt at utopian community – Sointula – was launched in 1901; on the west side the island faces the enormity of Vancouver Island and the mountains that range there, snowy peaks jumping straight into the sky, a reverse dive out of the sea where they dip their toes and root their snowy ascent. The east side of the island faces the mainland and the far greater expanse of even more dramatic snowy peaks, rolling in a line from south to north and soaring above one another, over a flat sea that can blow up gales in the blink of a weather eye. This time of year, the days shouldering summer solstice, tends to bring calmer waters, and I timed my visit to a stretch of quintessential coastal British Columbia summer. Cool nights in the forest cabin and hot, bright sun to shine down on every part of you through the sumptuous hours of light.

I was only on the island for a few days (this time) and even though it was a short stay, it was both full and spacious. Time for sitting and staring at the water and the mountains and where they meet and the eagles and hummingbirds and thrush song filling the air and the sea lions blowing on the way by and sitting and staring in a way both attentive and summer trance. You know? Where you are really just staring and breathing and sitting without moving a muscle and not working at any of them at all, and time passes. There was quite a bit of that. And new sounds on the banjo. And fires on the beach at night, to get sleepy beside.

There was time for hiking on one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever encountered. Through richly varied forest and great elder trees that have you bowing in silent reverence, the only response to such deep time majesty. On through rainforest green tunnels and then climbing into dry forest, reminding me of California, and then to the longest and wildest set of wooden steps carved into a canyon I have ever seen. I didn’t count the steps because I didn’t want to know how many I would be climbing on my return journey. A lot of steps – that bring you to the forest floor, a stream out-letting to the sea and an olive green curtain of moss to pass though before emerging onto a pebble beach that runs further than I could contemplate walking, in both directions. And the view. The view. On a summer day all the mountains that have ever been born gathered to visit, to rise up and sing their snowy song to the azure sky. I’m not kidding.

A calm sea and mountains and ancient trees and no one on the beach but me: I have a weird life and some significant parts of it are significantly less than perfect. But I am grateful for finding places like this, for being strong enough to get to them and for being inspired to travel to the places that are considerably more effort than most people are prepared to make.

Ok, ok you say: that’s all very nice, but what about Lola? And the lighthouse?

I wrote this on Malcolm Island so forgive me for dropping into the pace of the place. Circular and looping and sublime; the place, if not the writing.

On my last full day, in the morning, I borrowed a kayak and paddled up the west side of the island. Mountains to the left, unbroken forest on the right. Bull kelp bumping the rudder. Paddling against breeze and no help from the current. Steady paddling for a good while. I’d inwardly tell myself that I would simply paddle to the next point and have a peek on the other side and then maybe head back. One point. Another point. Another point. It started to feel better and better, the rhythm of the kayak paddling practice. The last point I rounded revealed a lighthouse up ahead, and a calm bay to tuck into for a banana and granola bar and a rest before thinking about turning back.

I’d carried the boat up on the beach, well above the tide line; so that I could explore a bit without worrying about my steed bolting. It was a really lovely spot. Well tended. All white and red. A lighthouse that looked like a lighthouse always looks but peering in the window revealed all manner of gear that suggested a modern lighthouse. Forgive me but I couldn’t help thinking that being the lighthouse keeper on Malcolm Island may well be the best job in the world, at least for me.

I was walking over the short grass in my bare feet when I saw a golden retriever in the middle distance, by the house. She woofed somewhat half-heartedly and I quietly said hello back. She was pretty far away so I am guessing she didn’t hear me. I walked along and then the dog came leaping and bounding toward me, tail wagging. She ran straight at me and arrived with her snout making instant and not overly delicate contact with my crotch, very friendly indeed.  Seconds later one of the cutest little girls I have ever seen came running up to both of us. Introductions were made. Lola the little girl of four years and Tasha the dog, with a bit of white beard. All the helloing done, Tasha wandered back to the house and Lola and I headed down to the beach. I told her I was going to rest for a bit and have a snack.

Lola was kind of amazing, and the setting was too (i.e. the middle of utterly nowhere). In this day and age there is some kind of redemptive return to innocence when a four-year-old girl careens across a great lawn and disappears onto the beach with a man she’s never met and who her mother has never met and, honestly, it couldn’t have been sweeter and I was enjoying every moment.

Lola was wearing the pinkest and tiniest crocs I have ever seen. I’ve never been a fan of crocs, aesthetics-wise. But Lola made them look elegant almost. She was sparkling clean and tidy and had cinnamon rose skin and great big brown eyes and was a charming conversationalist. We spoke of large crabs and stones that one falls over and how cold the water is and how she can’t swim in the water right now because of the sea lions and if I would like to come and meet her mother. I said I didn’t want to bother her mother but some part of me thought that maybe I should. And then I could stay and learn the art of lighthouse keeping and I’d live in the cabin on the windward side of the point and split enough wood to keep everyone warm.

I know.

Our visit probably didn’t last all that long and then it was time for me to get back into the kayak to paddle on my way. I told Lola that I hoped I would see her again and that I hoped she would be happy. Both true and heartfelt.

The photo is from the endless beach at the bottom of the canyon along the Beautiful Bay Trail on Malcolm Island.

same same but different
June 15, 2017, 3:57 pm
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I don’t know if every spiritual tradition asserts fundamental unity/non-separation at the core of its beliefs and the realization of its greatest expression? The tradition I know best, Buddhism, definitely does. We’re taught that there is no separate self. And that everything is made of everything else (the teachings on “emptiness” and “dependent co-arising”).

I’ve had a number of experiences where “self” disappeared. Mostly in long periods of meditation. These are the jhana states. And they are lovely. The kind of deep peace and ease that many people think is the point of meditation. In my experience of these states, there is a consciousness that knows who “I” am but that is not restricted to the range of my body or what I can see with my eyes. My body has dropped away in these states and my breathing has slowed to two or three breaths/minute. My mind is wide open and truly empty. Thinking stops and being simply is. It’s wonderful and it is one kind of non-self, non-separation. And it comes and goes. While impermanent, it points to a fundamental fact of our being, our ineffably borderless inner and outer states. But these are not abiding felt experiences. They’re informative and inspiring and healing and restorative. And impermanent.

I’ve also had a couple of very surprising experiences of light. Particularly surprising because I had been very skeptical of things like light healing and white light and all such things – things I used to dismiss as New Age hucksterism. Until I had an experience that was all the more powerful because I did not know it would happen and I was definitely not trying to get there. But there I was. First my head filled with white light – from the eyes outward. Then it spread through my entire body. My whole body no longer the body I had always known, but, instead – a field of flowing white light and profound release and a joy I can not describe. I didn’t really need to breathe as it was happening: I suppose I did breathe every minute or so. Not sure. And then it ended. It felt, at the time, like some great unexpected leap forward, while still having to go on and live the life of John Young. It was a few years ago that this happened and, in retrospect, I see it as a lot like the jhana states of deep meditation (though somehow more random); inspiring, healing, restorative – genuine moments in the land beyond the conventional experience of self.

Because of the practice and settings I’ve immersed in, I’ve spent time with some pretty remarkable people; people who have realized many of the virtues and vistas of spiritual discipline. They’re just like the rest of us, and very different too. There is personality and physicality and all that. But they really do roll pretty differently. And I would say, respectfully, that even the truly wise ones that I have spent time with – even they do not exist in a state of abiding non-separation. They know it more deeply than most of us ever will. And they exude a freedom that comes from realization. But they are not in a permanent jhana-like absorption. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they make mis-judgments that are very much Earth-bound and within the realm of conventional reality.

These days, my most authentic connection to oneness and non-self is quite practical. In sitting with the awareness of how much the same we are, how we share so much, how we need the same things for life, how none of us gets out of this alive, how we all suffer, how we all want what is best for those we care about most, how we seek meaning in what can seem so mundane and confusing, how we are made of the same materials. In so many ways, we are oneness….It’s so easy to see the separate. I live on the west coast of Canada. My sister lives in Austria. So far away and so joined we are too. Sometimes I think of the Earth – imagine the whole thing in all its beautiful complexity, its heavens and hells…I imagine all of it and then see it fitting into a vast linen wrap or something. Something that holds us all, that jostles us and intermixes us and REMINDS us how we are ever so together in all of this. And, of course, that’s actually exactly how it is. Well, maybe not the linen wrap. But galaxies and universes and solar systems and containers of ecosystems that support the life forms we are and that we know.

I can relate to all of that in a very real way.

I think that sometimes it can be hard for those who place themselves on a spiritual path, who look for ways to connect to the most high-minded and refined aspects of various traditions and teachings. I think we sometimes put pressure on ourselves to realize something that is an ideal form, a north star that will always be there in the distance, for guidance, and will almost never be realized in a quotidian way. Yes, we may experience the jhanas or have unexpected and sublime moments of white light (or whatever your sublime experiences are/have been). But mostly – for most of us….even those relatively few on a devoted path of awakening to full humanity…mostly it’s about putting one foot in front of the other. Paying close attention to everything inside and around. Doing no harm. Or doing less and less harm. Living with more generosity. And cultivating the kind of eyes that see how we are one thing, one consciousness, one sensitivity to this kind of life on this kind of planet.

Same same but different.

Photo from a summer field in New Hampshire a few years ago, looking out over the Connecticut River and the rolling hills of Vermont.


It’s you, not me
June 13, 2017, 9:54 am
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Saints, seers, soothsayers and fools (in the Shakespearean tradition) have always seen what is there to be seen. Unlike many though, they clearly speak about what they see. This has often led to a swift death (canonization or lionization to come much later – after the demonization, if at all), or some kind of ostracism and marginalization, when what is seen and described is inconvenient or shockingly revealing about what passes for normal, the obscenity or violence or amoral destruction laid bare. It takes a wise fool to speak truth to power and remain intact.

As someone who has lived an odd life that combines many years of progressive political work (both partisan and advocacy from beyond the confines of electoral politics) with the high-minded ideals of life in Buddhist monasteries and intentional community – I’ve always been on the ground, one way or another, of looking at how things are. And then what, if anything, might be done about that, both inwardly and outwardly.

Most spiritual teachers will say that we need community in order to sustain a way of seeing and being that calls what we see by its true name. If we drop mainstream social convention and look honestly at the violence, destruction, brutality and hypocrisy all around us – then we see what we see. We see the juggernaut of runaway climate change. We hear the death rattle of needless famine. We see the unimaginably cruel rape camps and genocides. We see the tax cuts for those who do not need them and the intensification of extreme inequality, hollowing out what we might otherwise build for one another, with one another – a good society for all of us.

I’ve written before about Thich Nhat Hanh’s parable about tigers. Where they need to stay together up in the mountains, as coming down into the village means certain death. His point is that we need support, community, to survive. To nourish our understanding of what it is to be most human as we stand (or sit) determined to witness everything around us honestly, without illusion or delusion. For those living in places of grave danger, this is even more true. For those who live in relatively pleasant places, like small towns on the west coast of Canada, the challenge is to not go crazy – to not feel alone – in honestly witnessing and speaking about what we witness. In far too many other places, the risk is violence and death.

I remember reading bell hooks describing communities of resistance when I lived in a monastery. It made such sense to me, having chosen to live so far off the beaten path; to receive her inspiring words in a way that even a white man of privilege could deeply understand was a gift and a comfort. She helped to articulate an experience I was having, just as the core insights of Buddhist teaching made and make such sense to me, more than anything I have ever encountered.

A few days ago I was thinking about what it would be like to visit Earth from elsewhere: As a sentient being of highly developed moral character and empathic sensibility, with a great intelligence and far-seeing ability. What it would be like to visit Earth with sensors wide open and witnessing what we are doing here, what we are co-creating. Perhaps it would be too much to take in, overwhelming, both the beauty and the horror. I imagine profound mystification – that the dominant species, surrounded by such abundance and possibility, would create such inequity, tolerate and “profit” from so much violence and cruelty, dominate so many other species to the point of extinction. You know?

And then, of course, there is so much that is transcendently beautiful. So many marginal efforts – as in, on the margin – where so much is being created. Where generative generosity and art and ideas and light ecological footprints and refined spiritual practice raise the vibration, elevate the experience; and continually hit a wall when considering how to scale the beauty at a societal level. So much and so little at the same time.

I think I still get hung up on evolution! Yes, there has always been violence and cruelty and inequity – the energetic signature of humans through the ages. Along with all that is remarkable and graced by grace, that we are and can be. I think I get hung up on that; that we can be and often are so very wonderful, and that we have not evolved to more of a steady state in terms of dwelling on the ground of our greatest virtues.

This all ties back into the talk or essay, or whatever, that many teachers give at one point or another, where they say that everyone is crazy. Because they witness how it is and they see how we let it be the way it is and they know it’s crazy. They’re not wrong. There just aren’t (yet) enough of them, enough of us.

Enduring despair is the worthless conceit of those who can watch safely from the sidelines (said he, who has sometimes been lost in despair on the sidelines). Violent overthrow of that which is violent simply begets more violence. Marginal efforts are marginal. Systems are created and maintained by people. And finding a meaningful way to engage, to make change, to care for one another and not go crazy, is the lot of those inclined to pay attention with intention.

Photo from Santa Fe a few years ago. She really looks like she is paying attention.

Rock, Paper, Scissors
June 2, 2017, 3:33 pm
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I always kind of loved the child’s game of rock, paper, scissors. I don’t know if it’s just a North America thing, or if it is played by children of all ages in other parts of the world too.

For some time – due to the wise teaching I’ve been lucky enough to receive and then through observing the inner and outer world through the lens of that teaching – I’ve known that some energies are incompatible; where one is the other one cannot be, at a level of physics almost. I wrote about this a little bit in the last post, in terms of grasping and the fruits of practice.

The rock, paper, scissors metaphor came to me yesterday, as the latest Trump obscenity was unleashed on the planet, in the form of the decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Accord on climate change. The Accord was already very weak, a series of non-binding voluntary targets that cajoled 195 nations to take action to begin to sort of address runaway climate change as it picks up speed.

I realized that when Trump launched his widely anticipated and wildly ignorant and wildly destructive barrage – I felt numb, mostly numb. The rage and despair that I have felt off and on in response to a lot of aspects of how the world is over a very long period of time (and especially since November 8, when Trump somehow “won” the presidency) wasn’t really there. As a practitioner I notice what I am feeling pretty quickly, usually as I am feeling it – I know what is happening, most of the time! So, I was aware of numbness. Which I understood as not at all a good thing. Numb is a kissing cousin of apathy, lack of agency, surrender – but not the good, spiritually uplifting kind of surrender.

As I became aware of the numbness, I realized that I cannot authentically connect with my own experience of the sacred when I feel numb. Lots of other things become inaccessible too.

I’ve been a searing critic of Big Pharma and the epidemic of psych meds that wash through the veins of so many in our society. Except in those actually vital cases where SSRIs and other drugs save lives – the effect and unspoken purpose of these drugs is to numb people. So that we don’t have to feel what we feel in response to the way the world is. I’ve thought, for years, that if fewer people were walking around with foreshortened/medicated emotional horizons – allowing themselves to feel the full range of human experience in response to the beauty and horror all around us – then we would rise up and act and make the radical changes that so need to be made.

The rock, paper, scissors game came to mind as I was walking in one of my favourite places (from Hurtado Point down to Hurtdao Bay) yesterday. I’d become aware of the numbness I was feeling and I began to consciously call up the sacred. As I called up this energy and looked to the thousand-green beauty of the forest and the pink, yellow and orange flowers and already summer-faded mosses and wind-tossed salt waves and eagles and all creatures great and small – I could feel that energy cutting through the numbness. I made contact with life and life force, my own and the life force all around.

As I’ve mentioned here, I’m feeling an ever-stronger commitment to practice. And as practice moves into whatever this chapter of life is (as life moves into whatever this chapter of practice is), I’ll be looking for what energies are there and how rock, paper, scissors might shape my daily experience.

For example, I know that happiness cannot be there without gratitude. So, I will bring renewed energy to cultivating gratitude every day. I know that compassion cannot be there without understanding. So, I’ll be doing my best to understand people better, to listen more fully. I know that understanding cannot be there without patience. And so on. Sometimes (metaphorical) rock is necessary to gently smash something dangerous, like volatile delusion. Sometimes (metaphorical) paper is necessary, to wrap around a hard edge and transform it. Sometimes (metaphorical) scissors are necessary, to cut through and open a path to something generative.

Simple person that I can be at least some of the time, I’ve always loved rock, paper, scissors. And I also love the practice of paying attention and becoming ever more human.

The benefits of sitting
May 31, 2017, 12:57 pm
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I started meditating in 1999. Like many people I arrived on my cushion through suffering. I’d lived through times of my life with a lot of anxiety and bouts of depression too. It was the new addition of panic attacks in my unregulated emotional experience that had me looking for some way to get through it all. A therapist I was seeing at the time suggested the secular mindfulness practice taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I got the book Full Catastrophe Living and began working with the tapes (yes, actual tapes) that accompanied the text; guided meditations and basic hatha yoga exercises. I felt some immediate relief as I practiced and I also began slowly developing my first genuinely healthy tools for managing my human experience.

Some years later I bumped into Buddhist teaching and, as I have written about extensively, ended up focusing my life around practice and living in monasteries/practice communities for a good chunk of my forties. One way or another, I’ve been meditating for eighteen years. And over the last twelve years, I’ve often done long stretches of several hours of formal practice/day.

Thousands of hours of formal practice and the even more thousands of hours of informal practice (drawing on the fruit of formal practice in the daily flotsam and jetsam of life) have brought incredible benefit, although much or most of it looks very modest. It looks like less damage to myself and others (I’ve never been a physically violent person in any way – I mean emotional drama and unskillfulness). It looks like less reactivity. It looks like more capacity to be stable through very difficult things. It looks like more capacity to stay with my own sometimes wild internal storms.

These are things that are kind of hard to measure; measuring fewer instances – internal and external – that would be regrettable if they happened; where there is no outer manifestation things are a bit immeasurable (a Buddhist pun, for those of you who know the immeasurables).

It’s not that I don’t have reactivity or that I don’t get triggered or that I don’t suffer or that I don’t create suffering for those around me sometimes. It just happens so (so) much less than would be the case if I did not have a strong, longstanding, committed meditation practice. This is one of the greatest fruits of practice. Never having panic attacks and almost never feeling anxious in any way – also pretty good.

In the weird math of meditation, I would not benefit from practice if I was practicing in order to benefit from it! There is something about the physics and math of practice, where the energy of grasping is simply incompatible with genuinely realizing the fruit of practice. I’m fully human so of course I want to feel as well as I can. But I honestly don’t practice to get anywhere. I practice because I have complete faith in the practice. I practice because I have seen the fruit of practice, for myself and others who practice with clarity of intention, raw honesty and a degree of discipline. Maybe that seems a bit circular or opaque. Oh well.

In my current life, I’m seeing more and more benefit from sitting meditation, particularly when I sit for longer periods. I find that the first twenty or thirty minutes of sitting and breathing is the time it takes for whatever I have been putting into my mind to settle down and empty out. It’s, generally, only from then onward in the sitting practice where I might have enough clarity in my mind and stability in my body/breath for insight to be born. And by insight, I don’t mean a cool or clever thought. I mean a sudden powerful knowing that comes more from the belly level than the head/brain. And, again, if I am sitting so I can generate insight – it won’t happen! That grasping energy that seeks to make things better for me, me, me just doesn’t get me (or anyone) very far.

What I am really noticing these days is that the thousands of hours I have spent sitting through and with everything that comes up in my mind and body – this has made me vastly more able to be with uncomfortable experiences. I don’t have to run from them. I may still feel the very strong inclination to do so. But I don’t. These days I almost never run from an uncomfortable experience, whether it is a hard conversation I’d love to not be having or some other challenging thing. I can get through it, because I know – on some bone deep level – that I can get through a lot of things, that I can breathe into and around them, that they will shift or that I might be skillful enough to shift them, to help them transform from something that could be negative and destructive into something that is either neutral or truly beneficial – for me and those around me. Before I began practicing meditation, I had precisely zero ability to do this. Now I’ve got a bunch, of ability, skill.

A few years ago it occurred to me that the rare true masters are like Olympic athletes, in terms of how quickly they deploy the fruits of their practice, how little damage they do to themselves and others. They’re incredibly fast. They feel everything we feel, the full range of the ugly and beautiful and beige things that flash through our inner view. What’s different is that they see what is happening in the blink of an eye. And they shift or transform destructive energies before they open their mouths or inflict a heart attack on themselves or open fire in the market square. They’re gold medalists at meditation practice and living it from moment to moment.

In my own humbled and humbling version of that, I can see that there may come a day when I earn a bronze medal in the practice of being human. When I might get to authentically step onto the podium, where my beingness will be more fully developed and where I am truly at ease pretty much always. Of course, I am not at all ambitious about getting there (actually true). But it would be nice if it happened some day.

The photo is of the nisidana (monk’s sitting cloth) I had in Plum Village when I lived there. The cushion is from Deer Park Monastery, where I spent six months a while after leaving Plum Village. Both atop the fir floor at my little house in Powell River.

Reflections of a novice monk
May 13, 2017, 8:03 am
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Fresh out of monastery

I’ve been reading through a pretty long piece I wrote when I was a monk and thought I would share it here for the first time. You’ll see the name Phap Nhu’ at the top. That was my monastic name, given to me by Thich Nhat Hanh the day I was ordained. It means True Suchness of the Dharma.

Reflections of a novice monk: Phap Nhu’

Where to start?

It has been such an extraordinarily full time. And I don’t really know where to start, in terms of setting the clock. June 2006 when I came to Plum Village for the first time? September 2009 when I came with the clear intention of ordaining? November 2009 when I did ordain? In truth there is no clock to set. And/but this last stretch, from ordination to the immediately following three-month winter retreat to the monastic retreat (where we were all together in our hamlet with the sisters – 99 nuns and 89 monks – and no lay people in the community for one week) just finished, it has been the most multi-dimensional and layered time of my life.

Challenging. Beautiful. Exhausting. Exhilarating. Incredibly hard. Incredibly easy. Demanding. Destabilizing. Enriching. Confusing. Disillusioning. Inspiring. And quite a bit more.

Now we have ten “lazy days” – a time without any scheduled activity. I normally don’t like clumps of lazy days much, finding them – well – a bit too lazy for me. But now I am so very glad to have some unstructured time to settle into all the doings and non-doings.

Days and weeks roll by without me creating or finding the space to write and reflect fully on all that is happening. And I have been wanting to do that, writing and reflecting, as part of the integration and processing and learning that are constantly underway here, inside and around me: I wanted to do this for me mostly, but maybe also to share with others, since I still have a mind full of words and frames and concepts and containers old and new and since the (hopefully) thoughtful deployment of the written word is still useful. I think.


This word means so many different things to so many people. I’m reflecting a lot on what it means to me, particularly in the context of living in spiritual community 24 hours a day. My entry point into spiritual life, I’ve come to realize, was fairly mystical. Through Thây’s (Thich Nhat Hanh) teaching a portal of sorts opened up for me so that I quite often felt in some indescribable kind of direct contact with Christ or Buddha or St. Francis; the living Gospel and the living Dharma in each footstep, in each breath. This kind of experience can be at least partly auto-suggestion. But it can also have its own genuine and authentic expression, for which there really are no words.

I would say this has changed for me; that I no longer understand my own spirituality as primarily mystical. Though I am a bit emotionally attached to that aspect of spirituality, the kind of experiences and feelings I had when I was first fully opening to this life. These days I will periodically deliberately invite up that space inside me, that mystical ineffability and just see what happens.

Aside: There is a wonderful scene in Little Big Man – one of my favourite films of all time (if you haven’t seen it you might really like it – there are a few racy bits that are challenging for monastics). Chief Dan George plays a character who is Dustin Hoffman’s character’s grandfather, a wise Cheyenne elder. In the scene, Chief Dan George is preparing to die; perched on a mountaintop, having danced his death dance he lies down to welcome death. Dustin Hoffman sits solemnly by his side. It starts to rain. Drops fall on the chiseled features of the old man’s face. His eyes blink and then open and he says, “well, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.” They laugh and go back down to the village to eat…, it (the mystical invitation) is like that; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Another aside: From Jessie Harriman’s This Soul Has Six Wings, “I wonder if mystical life is really about visions, or if it’s about looking again at the pieces you’ve already got: a rocky marriage, a job at Dollar General, a double rainbow. And if you see the kingdom of God there if you stare long enough. I wonder if it’s about holding yourself still as a mirror. Or just about making a big old scene, waving your arms wildly…..there must still be something worth saying, worth pointing to.”

Anyway. Asides aside, I do not consider my spirituality as all that mystical at this time. I suppose I am in a more practical time of spiritual life. The practice of living in spiritual community. Plum Village is perhaps utterly unique because our community places an enormous focus on community (unlike other monasteries both Buddhist and not Buddhist, where there is a great deal of time alone, in silence, in a separate cell or hut or cave or whatever). On being together. A lot. On always sharing a room (I have three roommates), on cooking together, walking together, working together, meditating together – plus all kinds of practices that are designed to build community and brotherhood/sisterhood.

All kinds of people come here to ordain. From all over the world. For all kinds of reasons. Many of these reasons flow together seamlessly and harmoniously and some less so. Some of us are easy to get along with and some are not. Some of us have worked out our demons and some of us haven’t started yet. I find myself surfing waves of judgment and anger about and at many people not at all infrequently. I see things almost every day that I perceive as being completely at odds with the very accessible, clear and profound teachings we regularly receive from Thây.

This is a big part of my spiritual practice these days.

In my mind and in my heart and in the teachings of Christ (that started me down this path – yes – when I was a little boy) and in the teachings of Buddha and the many great teachers that have come since… all of this there is an unmistakable, inarguable, un-ignorable imperative that a spiritual life is only a true thing if it is rooted in acceptance, patience, forgiveness, equanimity, generosity – love in other words.

This is central to my great aspiration, the bottom line under-girding everything that I am doing and the line I have been trying – very inexpertly – to walk these last few years: Love. Everyone and everything. It turns out I’m very average in this sublime aspiration. And that is humbling.

Another big part of the spirituality that I am coming to understand and orient around has to do with letting go, or non-attachment. This is, of course, completely connected to being able to love easily and fully. Particularly since I arrived back in late summer to prepare to ordain – I’ve been practicing a lot with the many faces of desire. Desire and aversion, the leaning toward and the leaning away from (neither one ever really there in the present moment). And attachment to that leaning.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching desire of every kind. Just to catch it as it arises so that I can practice seeing it clearly before it transports me to some crazy place in my mind and maybe in lived expression too. Yes, there is searing sexual desire. But every other kind of desire too. Desire to be warmer. Desire to be cooler. Aversion to that person and the desire for him to be quiet or to go away. Desire for the community to understand and follow my understanding of the teaching. Desire for apple pie for dessert. Desire for the sun to shine. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut (one of my first teachers now that I think about it) used to say.

So. Yes. This is humbling. The following of the monkey mind and the training to not get caught, grasping and proliferating around every little thing that passes through my frequently over-heated brain pan.

I like what Ajahn Sumedho says about meditation: “Rather than just developing a method of tranquilizing the mind, which is certainly one part of the practice, see that proper meditation is a commitment to wise investigation. It involves a courageous effort to look deeply into things, not analyzing yourself and making judgments about why you suffer on a personal level, but resolving to follow the path until you have profound understanding.”

So, my spirituality, as of March 2010, is about renewing that commitment every day. Trying to allow the necessary courage to bubble up and see clearly, in a way that is expressly not about me; trusting that when/if I can see from this non-egoic place, everyone benefits enormously. And, in a classic Zen paradox, the first person to benefit from this kind of “correct” practice is me.

Part of all this is cultivating discernment where judgment now too often prevails; the ability to observe and hold against the backdrop of values and my understanding of practice without loading in story and judgment and invective and such. From that place of discernment good decisions get made. From that place of discernment wise actions are minted (there is a great short clip of Ram Dass interviewing Thây about anger and activism on YouTube – where Thây speaks about lucidity, worth watching).

I’ll close this bit with another quote from Ajahn Sumedho’s Four Noble Truths (a slender book that has become invaluable to me):

If you are someone who is always being wounded or offended by life, you have to run off and hide or you have to find a group of obsequious sycophants to live with, people who say: ‘You’re wonderful.’ ‘Am I really wonderful?’ ‘Yes, you are.’ ‘You’re just saying that.’ No, no I mean it from the bottom of my heart.’ ‘Well that person over there doesn’t think I’m wonderful.’ ‘Well, he’s stupid.’ ‘That’s what I thought.’ It’s like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes isn’t it? You have to seek special environments so that everything is affirmed for you – safe and not threatening in any way.

Pretty poignant.

Oh – one truly final thing here and not at all an easy one. I have realized that my experience of living in the monastic community, so far, is distressing in how I feel the quality of the energy in our daily life: I rarely sense – palpably – that I am in the presence of the energy of mindfulness. And even more rarely do I feel I am in the presence of something I experience as spiritual energy.

By spiritual energy I don’t mean something righteous or pious or religious or stuck in form and convention….it is like when you are walking in the forest on a hot, humid summer day and you find yourself standing in a small, circular clearing in a glade you somehow never saw in this stand of trees before….the wind has been blowing from the south all day and just as you enter the clearing the wind dies….there is a primordial silence….just as you enter the clearing a deer also enters the clearing, maybe six metres away….she looks into your eyes and you return her gaze without moving a muscle…..for however long this moment lasts you are in the presence of Presence….for however long this moment lasts you are in the stillness of Stillness….that quality of energy.

It is a sadness to me that I rarely feel this kind of energy – reverence, grace, flow, ease, deep happiness – in the monastic Sangha (though I still often feel it within – most often in contact with nature but also in the formal practices of sitting and walking and touching the earth). I know that I felt pretty much daily, strong contact with these energies – mindfulness and spirituality – in my lay life, particularly in Morning Sun (with Michael and Fern and Candace). So I know what it feels like and I know that it is possible to generate this miraculous energy with others. Maybe it is just that I am narrow-casting my energetic sensors and there is a more expansive mindfulness and spirituality here that I just haven’t connected with yet. But, honestly, it really doesn’t feel like that energy is present very often.


I had a great conversation about friendship with a few other monastics during the monastic retreat just finished. Two nuns and one monk. All of whom have spent a lot of time in the community. The conversation was great because it was totally honest and open. It was quite a bit less than great – or I felt quite a bit less than great after we wrapped up – since much of what I heard I found to be troubling; about how it is very difficult to be fully open in the community…about how open-ness and vulnerability can be met with various kinds of indirect punishment and betrayal of one’s inner life. This seems to be more endemic among the sisters but it is here amongst us brothers too.

My position in that conversation and now is that deep friendship and emotional honesty are not optional. Nor, in my view, is anything other than emotional honesty at the heart of the teachings that we all embrace when we become Thây’s disciples. For me this is critical. Not that we or I need to force my particular Western version of emotional honesty on others: I need to learn how to be more sensitive and skillful for sure. But, yes, critical. To live with anything but emotional honesty and open-ness would be to live with a kind of poverty that has no virtue or positive value.

The conversation was also interesting in the context of nuns and monks cultivating real friendship. How to do that in a way that is not problematic in the kinds of attachments that can crop up where there is intimacy of any kind, even if it is an intimacy that respects all aspects of the monastic code? I’m brand new at this, at least in a monastic robe. But I very much hope to find a way to develop and deepen real friendship, with sisters and brothers.

And on that note I do feel fortunate: I have some monastic brothers with whom I share pretty close to everything. I’m told that I’m very lucky to be entering the community when I am, since it is not always this way…since years can go by where you might have no one in the community to whom you feel truly close. So – I’m grateful to have the connections that I do and hope that they proliferate. We’ll see.

Engaged Buddhism: What is it and how much is enough?

There were and are many aspects of Thây’s teaching that spoke and speak so powerfully to me that I am doing what I am doing. As an activist I was deeply affected by Thây’s elaboration of engaged Buddhism as the war in Vietnam wreaked havoc and destruction. During and after the war Thây’s teachings and actions have continued on many levels simultaneously; spiritual, non-partisan and actively engaged in some of the most tragic suffering endured in different parts of the world.

That one could lead a spiritual life and be of service outside the monastery, in the thick of social and environmental justice efforts – to me this is utterly compelling.

There seem to be as many understandings of what engaged Buddhism is here as there are ways of being in the practice and not being in the practice. For some, having a website that makes some teachings available qualifies as engaged Buddhism. For me there is a different threshold that I understand to be rooted in the teaching and in the precepts, particularly when it comes to being present with suffering.

For me, engaged Buddhism is doing some kind of prison chaplaincy work or offering basic meditation classes in an AIDS clinic in Tanzania or handing out bottles of water in a refugee camp or producing thoughtful discussion papers and shrewd communication of same in conjunction with international meetings such as the one recently held in Copenhagen (on climate change) – these kinds of things.

Moreover, engaged Buddhism, for me, needs to reach beyond a (mostly) Western middle class constituency. The work that we do here in retreats with thousands of people is incredibly beautiful and important. Lives are, literally, saved. And many lives are immeasurably improved. A kind of healing happens because of what we offer here unlike anything that I’ve ever heard of anywhere else. And that is precious.

But we are not reaching, in any way, the tens and hundreds of millions of people who will never have the resources necessary to come here and attend a retreat. What about them? How can the essence of what we do here be relevant, accessible, respectful and culturally sensitive in the favelas of Brazil? Or the war zone in virtually every American inner city? Or the Gaza Strip?

For me these are live questions and ones that I will have to dig up the courage and determination to explore as part of my monastic life.

Habit Energy

For those who are not familiar with Buddhist psychology, habit energy is a very useful term and way of understanding: It is our, often accidental, mind training. Our life experience of how we respond in different situations, mostly on auto-pilot. So – we may be defensive or sarcastic, or open and compassionate. Habit energy is not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, much of what we do here is to train in new habit energies; to let go of all views, to be patient etc.

And habit energy isn’t just what we learn in our lifetime, beginning when we are children. Habit energy is transmitted by our ancestors too.

Habit energy is a big project for me these days, four habit energies in particular.

  1. The energy of leaving. Even though I have been incredibly happy here much of the time, I sometimes think about leaving. Or it is less that I think about it and more that suddenly the thought is in my mind. I’m relatively good at recognizing it but I am not always able to stop the train from leaving the station, from grasping onto the idea and proliferating around it….getting lost in a story without really wanting to.

I have been leaving all my life. I think I know where it started. When I was very little – maybe four years old – I knew there was something fundamentally wrong in my family. There was no real happiness, no stability, no harmony. I wanted to fix it somehow. And in my little immature mind, somehow I knew I couldn’t. I think that experience was central to how I have engaged with difficult things: Somehow my brain got wired in a way that responded to difficulty by leaving. And because my mind is clever I could always give a great compelling explanation of why I had to leave; jobs, partners, cities, countries etc.

It’s still with me I see, this leaving energy. It is painful and hard and I will just have to be patient with it, take care of it and hopefully get some wise help with it.

I also see that this leaving energy is part of my genetic makeup. As the descendant of Russian Jews and Irish Catholics, there is a lot of leaving in my gene pool. A lot of problems that really couldn’t be fixed and a lot of leaving that had to be done in order to survive. So there is that to take care of as part of all this. Oy.

Finally on this point: this is where a well developed sense of discernment would be so useful (rather than reactivity and judgment)…yes, I am feeling very sad these days about the quality of the practice and the energy in the monastic community – on a lot of fronts. And yes, the quality of the practice and its weakness is clearly a concern for some of the older brothers (as was shared with us wisely last night by one such brother)….being able to watch the process of change or non-change (improvement or a further slide) from a place of solidity and discernment will be invaluable in deciding how I want to engage as a monk or if I think there is nothing I can do as a Western novice. Discernment. Solidity. Recognizing this powerful habit energy of leaving.

Acting from lucidity and not in the heat of the moment.

  1. Romantic energy with women. I’ve had thousands of intimate experiences with women over three+ decades. So much energy devoted to creating, maintaining, being in, managing, processing and worrying about this part of life. So many exceptionally beautiful moments and so much suffering too. This part of my life, this way of seeing myself and being seen by others – it has been such a big part of my identity, my way of understanding who I am in the world.

It will take some time to arrive at a truly different place in terms of how I relate to women. I am hyper-vigilant about this energy and am very careful in observing the monastic code (“fine manners”, as we call them). But, yes, it will take some time to come to a place of ease and relaxed flow – especially because I want to be open and available to everyone. I don’t want to hide in some kind of fear from half the species.

It has actually been a lot easier than I thought it might be, so far. Some pretty distracting moments and some intense images and dreams but that all seems completely normal given my past life. This is another one of those areas that will take a lot of patience and strong determination.

  1. Negativity and judging energy. A while ago I realized that I have been perfectly trained to suffer as a monk. Or really – just to suffer as a human being. I grew up in a very intolerant and judgmental family and my father (while he has some nice qualities) is the most negative person I have met in my life (and I say this as someone who has worked in some breathtakingly cynical political milieus). The lingua franca at our dinner table growing up was sarcastic and unpredictable and rich in judgment of almost everything under the sun.

While I left home, under traumatic circumstances, at quite an early age and wandered for five years before university – when I did hit university I studied almost uniformly sad and deeply troubling issues for five years; politics and economics and international development and U.S. foreign policy – all from a radical left, angry and profoundly negative perspective. I then went into a professional life in and around politics for fifteen years (albeit to change the world for the progressive better), where the air one breathes could not be more noxiously negative and cynical and intolerant and where one’s successes are often measured by the amount of pain and suffering one is able to inflict on one’s opponents.

Then I met the practice.

And for the last four years, since I began to devote all my energy to practice, I have been unpacking all the negativity and judgment I have been carrying around for a long time. Not so easy. But vital. As in actually vital; where life can only be fully experienced out from under the shadow of relentless negativity. Which is not to say I will no longer look into darkness. Because there is plenty to be looked into fruitfully. It is part of me and it is definitely part of the world we live in.

This is another one of those tricky, delicate spots where it is hard to find the right balance. For whatever reason I am one of those people who seem to be determined to ask the hard, uncomfortable questions and to follow them wherever they go, even when they lead to some pretty awful places. This is the practice of looking deeply, as we call it here in Plum Village. And it is my observation that most of us – monks very much included – would rather do almost anything than look deeply. Or we would rather do anything other than act in a radical – hopefully skilful – fashion in response to what we find in our radical (as in the Latin meaning of looking at the roots of the situation) inquiries.

Finally – looking at my ancestral lineage, there is a lot of negativity and judgment here too. Irish Catholics and Russian Jews were almost always in one terrible situation of persecution, dispossession, violence or impending violence of one sort or another. To have a negative frame about life and to judge one’s many tormenters would seem to be a pretty understandable response to the circumstances over many generations. In other words, this too is in my blood and it will take a lot of conscious awareness and determination (and, yes, ease and flow and such) to transform these qualities, or at least to leaven and balance them.

  1. Arrogance and superiority. A good (monk) friend and I were sitting drinking really good coffee in a lovely café in the quintessentially gorgeous French village of St. Emillion a few weeks ago. We were wholeheartedly into an informal “shining light” conversation – shining light being a practice we do here at least once a year. At one point my friend said to me, “what makes you think that you’re better than anyone else?” It was a great question and because we love and trust each other and because I had space to receive just about anything – it was actually helpful to get the question, straight up and unadorned like that.

I reflected for a few hours on this question. And I realized that, in part, I still drag around some old arrogance and superiority because people have been telling me I’m better than others pretty much my whole life. Because of how I look. Or how my voice sounds. Or how I am able to articulate ideas. Or because of how I sing and play music. Or how I do athletic things. Or how I cook. Or how I write. Or even how I practice Thây’s teachings. Quite a few aspects of my persona have been seen and called out as being better than how other people do on various fronts.

It was interesting, recognizing this. And, of course, all of these seemingly favourable comparators have been offered up as compliments and kindnesses. But they turn out to be unhelpful in some ways if one is set on developing a genuine equanimity and non-discrimination.

I also realized that these randomly distributed qualities that I have – that they have played into my core pathologies and suffering. Having grown up in an unstable emotional environment I have always used whatever charms and capacities I have available to shore up the supply of love around me and try to, somehow, make the situation be ok. I haven’t been un-genuine in any of this. I have been myself every step of the way. But my native talents, capacities etc. have somehow co-mingled with my foundational suffering in a way that cross-bred quite a bit of arrogance and superiority over time. And, as my psychiatrist and psychologist friends tell me, superiority is just a mirror image of inferiority and insecurity; which rings true I suppose.

So. There is that to reckon with too on this path of transforming all suffering and becoming truly free and offering any and all fruits of practice to all living beings. Plenty to work with for however many years remain in this sack of skin and bones I still sometimes think of as me.

Finally, I am poignantly aware that all four of these habit energies have a way of piling on each other, feeding off each other and each one driving the other and then the other and then the other and then going back to the beginning of the cycle and starting again. It is insidious. And it is where mindfulness is the only real solution; being able to see clearly what is going on and to make a choice that is free of the little prisons these habits tirelessly construct.

When I started out on this path I saw it as being all about service and radical simplicity. And, ultimately, I still see it that way. But I also see that it is about freedom. The more freedom I have within, the more freedom I can offer – not from theory and parroting the teachings of others but just letting whatever wisdom might be kicking around bubble up and over all on its own; the infinite stream of wisdom that is there for all of us. Including me, if I can just get “myself” out of the way.


Plum Village, for all its human foibles, generates a steady stream of miracles and magic. Somehow all of the incredible beauty that has unfolded here over many years creates a force field or rare energetic container in the universe: It helps to have one’s sensors set for the miraculous and magical.

Last night I had a classic magical Plum Village moment. It was very cold and I was bundled up and lying in a field looking up at the night sky. Countless stars and only the wind moving through the oaks, sounding through leaves that have clung to branches all winter.

I was reflecting on arrogance and how to receive compliments. In particular, I was reflecting on Thây’s answer to a question about how he handles all the adulation and worship and reverence that are offered in his direction wherever he goes. He said that he never takes it personally. That with whatever lavish praise or appreciation are offered he does a kind of mental Akido and simply turns to the side to look behind him. To see his parents and his blood ancestors. To see the Buddha and all the wise, authentic teachers who have been transmitting the teachings over 2,600 years. He never lets it get stuck in some idea of him. He said if he ever took it personally it would destroy him.

Just as I was reflecting on all this, a star fell from south to north. For a long time. Luminous. Ineffable. Instructive.

There is more to say I think but whatever it is needs more time to steep and move through whatever it is that’s developing inside me.

(The photo was taken a week after I disrobed – stopped being a monk. At a farmhouse where my son and I were staying for a few weeks. A couple of kilometres from Plum Village.)

Where is the wisdom?
May 4, 2017, 9:48 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Me with Su Ba

A few years ago, when I was living in New Hampshire, I pitched a radio series to National Public Radio (NPR). It was called A Public Conversation About Four Things. One of the four things was wisdom. There was a dance of sorts: it was an interesting process but we never did get to yes, NPR and I. Which isn’t to say I have stopped thinking about this stuff (the other three things were freedom, stewardship and citizenship).

As life bumps along here on our beleaguered planet, I am often reflecting on wisdom. Where does it come from? How do we value it? Where are the wise ones? What role does wisdom play in the social construction of our lives? Or is wisdom, these days, exclusively a private matter?

For all kinds of reasons, we’ve seen a diminution in the tradition of public intellectuals in our cultural and other institutions. Not that intellectualism can or should be equated with wisdom. But, at their best, public intellectuals pose(d) questions and explore(d) them with us, so that we might see clearly, both where we have come from and where we could/should/would go from here. The best of that tradition is not beholden to partisan politics or narrow self interest. The knowledgeable ones simply love knowledge and exploration and are happy to share their journey with us. Done well, it’s pretty great.

That tradition, in its purest forms – at least in Canada and the United States – is in serious decline.

The downside of intellectualism – even at its best – is that it can be all head and no heart. Profoundly human affairs become abstractions. Great suffering becomes math. People become statistics. Without heart and body integrated seamlessly, and humbly, with mind, there can be no real wisdom. Or so I have come to believe.

Similarly and for so many good (well, bad actually) reasons, religious institutions are in disrepair and disrepute. Whatever purity may ever have dwelt in the tender breast of church, mosque, temple etc. – these have also been tainted with violence, abuse, corruption and discrimination.

Our educational institutions have become increasingly focused on churning out workers and technologies; workers to operate the technologies and technologies to operate and/or replace the workers. Wisdom is not a prized value in our schools and universities, except maybe in the most rarefied of places, like Cambridge and Oxford, where very few get to think, feel and integrate in a free and luminous fashion.

At the level of global economics, the rapid rise in extreme inequality salts the field on which wisdom might root and flourish. If you’re one of the billion+ people struggling to survive on less than $1.25/day – you do not have time to reflect on the qualities you wish to develop in yourself and foster in those around you. You are fleeing violence. You are homeless. Your children are malnourished and may never have a chance to develop their unique potential.

The 1% who preside over our system of extreme inequality are also unlikely to develop wisdom, or value it: They would not live the way they do if they had authentic wisdom. Theirs is a life of gilded fear, walled off from the very system that allows them to live with far more than they could ever possibly need.

Some energies, qualities and capacities are, at a level of human physics, incompatible. Wisdom and greed do not go together. Wisdom and hate do not go together. Wisdom and fear do not go together. Wisdom and addiction do not go together. And so on, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say.

Whither wisdom? Where is it and what is its future?

My own limited, somewhat odd, life experience has put me in the way of wisdom a couple of times. In Buddhist monasteries and intentional community. Places away and apart and dedicated to developing things like compassion, awareness, emotional responsibility and self governance, physical well being, radical simplicity, humility, honest inquiry – within and around: rolled all together and done in an open-hearted way, you end up with at least a bit of wisdom.

I’ve definitely noticed that the few wise people I have met do not live their lives anywhere near the mainstream of our society. They live at a remove and offer into the storm. They all seem to know that there is no real place for them in the machine and while they have tremendous compassion, they also know their limits and the limits of our society in its present chaos.

I’ve also definitely noticed that every wise person I’ve encountered and every authentic teacher that I have been inspired by – they all give a talk at some point called something like, “everyone is crazy.” They observe the way things are going in our society. They observe what is valued and what is not valued. They see the violence embedded in our various systems. And they come to the naked, honest, inescapable conclusion that (nearly) everyone is crazy.

And many of us know this. We know we’re crazy. We know it’s crazy. We would like to live with wisdom. Surrounded by wisdom. Be wise ourselves. But we don’t have the teachers and daily role models and support and institutions and systems that articulate wisdom and tattoo it on the cell structure of our shared human moment.

In some weird but related way to all of this – this is some of why I am drawn to be present with great suffering. People who are dying. Addicts who have hit bottom. Those struggling with utter darkness. Great suffering erases so much so quickly. It knifes through artifice and convention and leaves a beating heart looking for a way to make sense of life, and death. I have somewhere between few and none of the answers when I spend time with those who suffer. But I am somehow never more alive than where artifice and convention are burned at high heat, to fine ash, leaving only raw human possibility.

It would be great if wisdom were valued and explored and developed in other moments than those of exquisite suffering or unbounded time in spacious monasteries!

Where do you encounter wisdom? Where does your wisdom come from?

The photo above is from my first winter retreat in Plum Village years ago. The four-legged matriarch of the small temple where I was living often perched on my lap and soaked up all the love she could get; surely a wise practice.