Why So Serious?


During the recent skit night at City Center, I filled in the breaks for scene changes by presenting some less-well-known Zen stories for the delight and illumination of the monks in the audience.

One of the stories was:

A monk asked Joshu “What was the true intention of Bodhidharma coming from the west?”

Joshu replied “There is moss growing on your teeth.”

I got that conversation from James Green’s book The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu. But a few people have come up to me since skit night to ask if I’d made it up. You either have too much faith in me or too little in Master Joshu.

I picked this book up shortly before the fall 2013 practice period at Tassajara, and read through it by sharing the book with three of my friends. We would all sit at one end of the table. I would read one of the short Zen stories, then pass the book to my right and the next person would read the story and pass the book along, etc. It was a good way for me to read this kind of book, as it forced me to take a bit of time to mull over each story before moving on to the next. One morning at study hall, I read a particular story that was quite odd (as many of the stories were). Then I read the explanatory footnote and laughed like a loon. I passed the book along and watched eagerly as my friend read the story, looked confused, read the footnote, and cracked up – which of course set me off again. By the time the last person had read the footnote, all four of us were completely beyond hope – crying, snorting and pounding on the table.

So the tanto came over to ask what was causing this disturbance. I couldn’t talk so I just handed the tanto The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu and pointed to the encounter we’d just read. The tanto read the story, read the footnote, then looked at us and said, incredulously “Seriously? That’s it?”

We lost it. We laughed so hard that we fell out of our chairs. The tanto shook his head and walked away with The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu under his arm. I couldn’t believe it. The tanto confiscated Joshu! I was kind of proud of old Joshu, still causing trouble in the monastery after being dead for more than a thousand years.

I thought of this story because I’ve recently heard a few people new to Zen Center ask me why everyone seems so serious and dour all the time. My initial reaction was We’re not! What do you mean? But I don’t want to deny their experience.

I wonder if it’s the silence and the lack of eye contact during the formal programme that makes Zen students seem grumpy? I’ve always been fairly shy, so the lack of talking doesn’t really bother me, and it was easy to get used to. Also, the robes and the bowing and the chanting in Japanese can be weird and intimidating.

I wonder too if Zen students look at paintings like the one at the top of the post, with Zen Ancestor Bodhidharma glaring out at them (Bodhidharma didn’t have much choice about the glaring, according to the legend he cut his eyelids off so that he wouldn’t sleep in zazen). So we take our practice very seriously. But I know that I wouldn’t still be practising in this way, with these people, if it did not give me great joy (I am certainly not in it for the money!). Somehow, the solemnity is obvious at first brush, while the joy can be harder to communicate. How can you know the kindness and friendliness I feel for you when I don’t speak to you or look at you? This is a real question – if you have advice I would love to hear it!

Please take very good care of yourself.

PS – The story in the Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu went like this:

Once the master was in charge of keeping the fires at the monastery. One day, while everyone was out tending the garden, the master went inside the monk’s hall and shouted, “Help, fire! Help, fire!”

Everyone rushed back to the monk’s hall, but the master had closed and barred the door. No one knew what to do. Finally, Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) took the key from off its hook and threw it into the room through the window.

And the footnote said:

  1. In temples doors are locked from the outside.







More about Self-Compassion


Since last Wednesday’s talk, a couple of people have asked me for the titles of the two books that I quoted. They are A Fearless Heart by Thupten Jinpa, and Healing Emotions by Daniel Goleman.

The Dalai Lama’s initial response to hearing about the phenomenon of self-contempt was to argue that it could not be true, because it would violate the central tenet of Tibetan Buddhism, that all beings want to be happy and to not suffer. My personal experience is that, even though I really hate myself sometimes, I do still want to be happy. However, I believe that I don’t deserve to be happy. Even when happiness comes racing towards me like a dog wagging its tail, I chase it away, because now’s not a good time.

I can’t let myself be happy until I’ve lost at least 10 pounds (20 would be better). Or until I’ve found some success in my romantic life (losing 20 pounds ought to help with that), and responded to all the unread messages in my inbox, and cleared my to-do list. Because if I allow myself to be happy right now I’ll lose my motivation to improve, and I’ll just keep on being a loser.

I presented this argument to a practice leader a little while ago, and his response was “How’s that working out for you?”

I believe I said “Shut up.”

When I did seriously investigate his question, I realised that years of relentless self-criticism hadn’t left me any skinnier, or any more productive or socially astute. So I’m embarking on a radical experiment. I’m going to try to treat myself more kindly, and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, I can always go back to self-contempt (but I hope that I don’t have to).

I remember a counselor of mine when I was a kid. I was mad at him for some reason, so I was calling him names in a session. He asked me to please stop.

I rolled my eyes and said “I know, I know. Respect is a two-way street.”

The counselor shocked the heck out of me when he responded “No it isn’t. Trust has to be earned, but respect is free. You don’t have to do anything to earn it, and I won’t take it away whatever you say to me.” I was too cool to admit it at the time, but I was deeply affected by his statement, and I really try to maintain this view in my dealings with everyone – even me. (Thanks, Bill!)

There is something very liberating in the idea that compassion can be given freely, even when I don’t deserve it, or when I don’t think that someone else deserves it. I think that some deep part of me wants to be compassionate, and hurts when I withhold compassion from myself or others.

Please take very good care of yourself.

Leaving Home

Alison's tokudo wisdom water

A lot of people have been asking me “Why did you decide to become a priest?”

I’m afraid that the answer isn’t terribly deep or interesting. My teacher told me that it was time to ordain, so I did.

My teacher had a phone conversation with the tanto after I’d been at Tassajara for a couple of years, and soon before my teacher’s trip down to lead a summer retreat. After discussing some logistical issues around the retreat, my teacher asked the tanto if he agreed that it was high time for me to start preparing for ordination. The tanto agreed, then told me that I should ask Norman to ordain me when he got to Tassajara.

I told the tanto that I would do no such thing. When my teacher got to Tassajara, I said the same to him.

“Why don’t you want to be a priest?” he asked.

“I’m way to screwed up,” I responded.

“I spent a lot of time at Zen Center,” said Norman, “And I’ve noticed that there are a lot of screwed-up people there. It seems to attract them. Don’t you think that these people deserve a priest that can relate to them?”

So that is how I came to ask my teacher to ordain me.

Priest ordination is called “Shukke tokudo,” which translates as “leaving home and attaining the way.” During the ordination ceremony, the baby priest says “Everything has changed, except for my desire to live in truth with all beings.”

Well, I had left home, and Canada, for the Zen monastery several years before that, and I really didn’t feel that very much had really changed. I was still doing pretty much the same things that I’d done as a lay monastic, except that I was doing some of it while encumbered by several yards of unruly black fabric. I still don’t know what being a priest is all about.

But I’m glad that I did it, and I am truly committed to keeping my vows. I’m very fortunate to have the support of my teacher and the community in holding me to them.

Please take very good care of yourself.


Me, too


I didn’t set my social media status to “me, too” in the past few weeks. I’m too old to understand how hashtags work, and I guess that I’d been feeling exposed enough already with the way-seeking mind talk and this blog. Of course, I can say “me too.” I’ve been feeling really angry at the men I know who are surprised by all the “me toos” in their social media feeds, who probably don’t understand why I began the previous sentence with “of course.” How could you not have noticed? It was right under your noses!

And, I also get it. Years ago, I was sashaying through downtown Calgary with a fellow priest, who is of First Nations ancestry. I wanted to run across the street and beat the light, but she insisted on waiting at the corner, because she was afraid of being ticketed again for jaywalking. “Who gets in trouble for jaywalking?” I asked.

“Brown people do,” my friend told me. Oh.

One way of understanding the Buddha’s teaching on the four horses is that the excellent horse represents a person who, upon hearing of a tragedy occurring in a distant land, arouses the mind of bodhichitta. She realises the truth of suffering and impermanence and renounces worldly affairs, and devotes herself to the path of liberation. The next horse represents a person who is similarly affected and motivated when he hears of a fire or hurricane striking his own hometown, or directly witnesses someone injured or dying. The next horse represents a person who is unmoved until tragedy strikes her own parents or children or spouse, and the fourth horse is the person who is not motivated to practise until he is directly affected by a painful situation.

Going back to the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Santideva teaches that the antidote to resentment, contention, and disdain is the practice of just like me. Just like me, all beings wish to be happy and avoid suffering. This can go against the grain of our self-protective instincts. I’ve got enough problems of my own, don’t ask me to take on other people’s problems; I can’t help you, don’t ask me to confront the injustice and misconduct in our Dharma community/ profession/ work place/ circle of friends. So instead of just like me we say it can’t happen here.

When I tried to report a pervy junior high school teacher, I was dismissed as a liar because my story was too similar to another girl’s complaint. Years later, I was pregnant at the same time as a very good friend, and it brought us much closer together. But after my daughter died, my friend decided that I must have done something wrong, and wasn’t shy about sharing this theory with our mutual friends. Our friendship has never recovered, although I did, and do, understand her motivations. If she accepted that Janelle’s death was a tragic, unforseeable, unavoidable catastrophe, she’d have to also accept that it could happen to any child, any family.

And these strategies can seem to work. We can drive away the inconvenient employee or friend, send the grievances underground, and keep on pretending that we’re peaceful and safe. It’s tempting.

Which is why I’m so glad that Abbot Ed has been presenting and lecturing on Suzuki-roshi’s teaching of “independency” and Dogen Zenji’s teaching of “identity action.” According to Nishijima and Cross’s translation of the Shobogenzo, the Japanese characters for “identity action” are a translation of the Sanskrit term samanaarthata, which they define colloquially as “being in the same boat.” We’ve always been all in the same boat, and I think that, in these times, it may be an even more pressing and immediate truth. When facing truly global issues like climate change, we can’t wait until we’re personally affected to care and to act.

With a gentle expression, practice identity action for all people.

Please take very good care of yourself.

Public Speaking


Not this Wednesday, but next Wednesday the first of November, I’m scheduled to give either my first or second Dharma talk – it depends on whether or not you count the way-seeking mind talk. I asked for and received a lot of sage advice from the teachers and practice leaders at City Center, and I set aside Sunday afternoon to begin writing the talk. I cleaned my room instead. Then I read a book about dogs. It was pretty good.

I mentioned this procrastination to my therapist today, and he thought that I was joking when I said that the Buddha listed public speaking as one of the five great, universal fears. He should know better by now.

In case you’re interested, the five fears are listed in the “Book of the Nines” and include: Fear of losing one’s livelihood,  fear of loss of reputation, fear of speaking before the assembly, fear of death, and fear of a bad destination (also translated as “fear of losing control of one’s mind). You might ask (like I did), “If there are only five fears, why are they listed in the Book of the Nines?” It’s because the five fears are overcome by use of the four powers: wisdom, energy, blamelessness and beneficence (beneficence, or “sustaining a favorable relationship” is further broken down into: giving, kind speech, beneficent conduct, and impartiality, which is the topic of Dogen’s fascicle on “The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance.”

The five fears also make it into the Avatamasaka and Samdhinirmocana Sutras as well, where the antidotes are described as joy and as generosity, respectively.

I probably won’t be joyful, generous, blameless and wise enough by Wednesday next to be cured of stage fright. And it’s really interesting to reflect on the human qualities that are remarkably similar across culture and throughout time.

Well, I’d better get back to work on my talk.

Please take very good care of yourself.



Peer Support


In sorrow we grieve together, in happiness we rejoice together. Everybody knows the useful function, but they don’t know the useless great function.

I’m really glad that Abbot Ed brought this phrase from the Book of Serenity to our class and tea this week. I’ve already written and spoken a bit about my struggles with feeling useless, with feeling that I have to prove my usefulness in order to be loved and to earn a place in the community.

The first line of the Baoyue’s commentary has been really up for me this week as well. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about peer support in Zen practice. I had my first online practice group meeting on Monday, and we had a really great discussion about home practice. I had to admit that I have never been successful in sticking to a home practice. Before I moved to Zen Center, I had the good fortune of participating in two sitting groups which each met twice a week. And I only really became diligent about showing up once I’d taken on some responsibilities in each group – basically I don’t show up for zazen unless someone besides me is holding me accountable! So I really admire those practitioners who can hold themselves to a meditation schedule at home.

I’d also like to recommend highly SFZC’s online zendo! It’s a fantastic meeting place if your schedule allows from 6:30-7:30 am PST, Monday to Friday.

I reflected on how fortunate I am to be living in a temple where zazen is built into my schedule, where everyone meets to sit together and the whole building resounds with the drums and bells that call us to practice. Of course, it’s human nature to not appreciate the good things we have, and I find it really hard to get out of bed some mornings. I had a resident tell me the other day “You’re really a kind person, so I feel guilty for the nasty thoughts that I send you when I hear you run the wake-up bell!”

This week was also the first meeting for the resident priests of City Center. It’s a strange thing to be a Zen priest in this place and time (maybe in any place and time), and I certainly don’t know what it’s all about. Somehow, I’d assumed that the other priests around the temple knew what they were doing so it was really heartening to me when pretty much everyone agreed to needing more peer support. (And more sleep, but that’s a lost cause!)  I’ve had several conversations with my teacher and mentors about how I wish to manifest and develop as a priest, but I didn’t know that I could ask my peers to help me.

The Bodhicharyavatara cautions against three kinds of emotions: envy towards those who are superior to us, rivalry towards those equal to us, and arrogance towards those inferior to us. Even here at Zen Center, which has the stated purpose “to express, make accessible, and embody the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha” I still have trouble letting go of feelings of rivalry towards my peers. For me, that mostly manifests as a kind of reticence, hesitating to reveal information that could be used against me, or make me look incompetent or ignorant. Unfortunately, even this most enlightened of workplaces is not free of office politics.

Which brings me to the third event this week that made me think about peer support: on Wednesday instead of attending a Dharma talk, the community got together to read the Pure Standards (Guidelines of Conduct) for Residential Zen Training. My feelings towards the Pure Standards are very similar to my feelings towards the schedule – a mix of deep appreciation and day-to-day exasperation. It’s annoying to see people not following the rules, and it’s even more annoying when people remind me of the rules. And the rules exist to remind us to treat each other and our practice place with restraint, courtesy and kindness. And intimacy is only really possible in an environment of restraint, courtesy, and kindness.

This is my first time on the online programs site, and I am really looking forward to discovering how we create a supportive community together without being able to meet in person. At the same time, I’m trying to open myself to a more vulnerable relationship with my fellow residents here at the temple, where I can say “I don’t know what I’m doing, and I need help.”

Please take very good care of yourself!


Good Example

green gulch 081

It was nerve-wracking for me to speak publicly about my physical and mental health challenges, and I really want to thank the City Center community for your kind and non-judgemental response. Since then, I’ve been asked a couple of times about “setting a good example,” which is one of the expectations of a shuso (along with cleaning the bathrooms and running the wake-up bell). Since my talk, I’ve had a couple of people ask me how I hope to be a good example for other practitioners with chronic health problems. They asked me on a day where I’d been too busy to do my nebs, so I am probably not off to a great start.

Master Shitou’s other famous poem is “The Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage,” which ends with the line “Don’t separate from this skin-bag here and now.” This skin-bag is my human body, and here and now is the current experiences within my body in this present moment. Of course, it’s actually impossible to separate myself from my body (where else would I go?), but it’s also very difficult to stay with a body that’s painful or deficient without wanting it to be some other way.

One time that I had pneumonia at Tassajara, I remember one practice discussion where I was frustrated and cursing my worthless lungs. The practice leader said softly “But they are working so hard for you.” I felt this huge wave of gratitude and compassion for my struggling body and mind, and I realised that I’d been holding it back for a long time – I didn’t think that I was allowed to appreciate and love myself until I’d (through sheer force of will) fixed everything that was wrong with me.

I suppose that I would like to model a kind of self-acceptance, and to be open about how difficult this self-acceptance is for me.

Please take very good care of yourself!