Practice in the Time of the Virus

By Ken Tetsuzan Morgareidge

I have on my bookshelf a volume entitled Zen Under the Gun. It records the teachings of four Chinese masters who lived in the turbulent 13th century when Mongol tribes were dismembering China. The remarkable thing about these teachers was that they were unremarkable, in the highest sense. They did not talk about war or invaders or famine or chaos. They simply got on with teaching the Dharma. They realized something that maybe we should consider: This coronavirus is not a unique or unprecedented situation; it simply casts a light on the human condition that we cannot ignore.

Our human life has always been lived in uncertainty, on the edge of the abyss. But if we put our lives and our practice on hold until we are secure, we will never do anything. To compare our lives now with “normal life” is a mistake. Life has never been “normal.” Periods that we think of as normal, if we examine them closely, have always been filled with disasters, emergencies and crises, here and the world over.

There are always plausible reasons to put off life or practice. But as human beings we have the freedom to ignore those reasons. Human beings conduct everyday lives in besieged cities, read and write books on death row, make jokes in the midst of a bombing raid, and care for children during the plague. That is not denial or sang-froid; it is our nature.

The newscasters have given themselves over entirely to the virus, as if it were somehow selfish or morally wrong to think of or do anything else, and therefore they have actually distanced themselves from reality. The coronavirus will not end humanity. The virus cannot absorb our whole attention because it is finite and therefore cannot support the full attention that our Zen practice requires of us. This is not to make light of anything. People have died; more will die. And when has that reality ever been suspended?

If we allow ourselves to be overcome by fear and frustration we have lost the moment, this moment of practice. To let go of your frustration and fear is to save all beings from frustration and fear. The more narrow our focus in time and in space, the closer we are to reality. Narrow your focus to this moment and this place; that is where we are truly free.

The Bonsai in the Window: Lay Practice in Chi-town

By Josh Mather

Seven years ago, I decided to move to Chicago to pursue my career as a musician and artist as well as help my partner through grad school and beyond. Moving away from the Zen Center was a shock to the system for me spiritually. I missed the sound of the traffic on Speer, the elegance of the Buddha in the zendo, and most of all the endless fellowship with friends over tea and cookies, and even beer and cheese. I found myself floundering to find stability in my practice. The rug had been pulled. There was no wall to lean against.

IMG_1861Throughout my years in Chicago I have sat with several different centers, but none of them felt quite like home. I was lucky enough to come back to Denver for sesshin as well as regular “Skype-usans” with Karin Sensei and rediscover the practice that had supported me for so many years. These short spurts of practice have been a beacon, a lighthouse seen from afar that has helped keep me on my personal path. Sesshin as a focused, intense practice is there to remind me of the well of spiritual water that is always there to drink no matter where my life circumstances have led me. It has helped support me during tough times and allowed me to get myself to the mat at 5:30 in the morning no matter the condition of my body-mind. I am so grateful to the Center and all it has given me, but ultimately I am the one who decides to go over to the mat and stare at the wall for twenty-five or thirty minutes.

Recently, I purchased a bonsai tree and placed it near my altar and sitting place in the window amidst my other plants. At some point, I decided – not sure why – that I would only water this plant during my ritual before sitting. Light the match… light the incense… put the incense to my forehead… put it in the pot… water the bonsai… sit down… set the timer. This seemed appropriate. The plant sits on the windowsill and just is. It accepts when it doesn’t get water, and when it does. It is there when I sit, and when I don’t. And yet, it fills me up when I pour the water over its branches and see it get what it needs. To see it drink, to help it live. It is a reflection of my mind and my awareness. The mat functions in exactly the same way. The cushion exists whether I sit on it or not. It is totally fine with just being a cushion whether or not I use it. And yet, it seems happy to fulfill its purpose. It seems lonely without me – ha!

This is a metaphor that helps with my practice. I am exactly what I am, whether I formally practice or not. Yet when I sit, I can see into what makes me tick, what makes me feel, what makes me, me. There is no need to judge the sitting before or after. Just to sit, just to light the candle, just to water the bonsai. When I pour the water over its branches, I pour water into the universe, the Buddha, the phenomenal world. The bonsai is a reflection of my practice and my practice is a reflection of its life.

Call and Response

From a teisho by Peggy Metta Sheehan on Feb. 28, 2016

Wu-men Kuan, Case 17:

The National Teacher called to his attendant three times, and three times his attendant responded. The National Teacher said, ‘I thought I had transgressed against you, but now I find that you too have transgressed against me.”

The National Teacher called to his attendant three times and three times his attendant responded. And that is the heart of the case, even though there is a comment by the teacher: “I thought I had transgressed against you, but now I find that you too have transgressed against me.”

If you see into the heart of the case, you will have no trouble with the teacher’s comment. The National Teacher called to his attendant three times and three times his attendant responded.

Zen practice/realization is genuinely this simple, this direct, It couldn’t be more direct, but lord knows, it is not easy. It requires our effort to be this simple, effort akin to climbing a mountain of swords with bare feet, and it requires response. You can’t just sit here.

We have a discussion coming up on the calendar in April about the Clouds and Water training program. What is it exactly, how do you begin to participate, what are current members’ experiences with it, why is it beneficial for practice and realization, transformation? What does it have to do with you, with Zen, with living kindly, compassionately, responsively?

Four Infinite Vows: Notes on a New Translation

By Michael Kieran

Originally published in the Honolulu Diamond Sangha newsletter


All beings without limit I vow to carry over;

Kleshas without end I vow to cut off;

Dharma gates without measure I vow to master;

Buddha’s way without peer I vow to fulfill.

Several years ago Nelson Foster, Don Stoddard, and I began work on a new translation of our Great Vows. Our aim was a translation at once more faithful to the original and less prone to misunderstanding. This project has afforded us the chance to transform various misunderstandings of our vows into fertile questions, and hopefully a clearer understanding and appreciation of these vows as foundational to our practice and realization of the Buddha Way.