Wow, I can’t believe it’s over! My conventional shuso ceremony was on Saturday, and on Monday, Ed, David, and I all met up one more time for what we believe to be the first ever online shuso ceremony. I was really impressed by the sincerity and quality of the questions from the practice period (both in person and virtual). Of course, I did not do justice to them, so I repeat my apology.

Thank you to all of the former shusos who found the time and made the journey, and to my lovely guests!

This has been a wonderfully rich experience for me. Thank you all for supporting me as shuso.

Please let me know if there is anything that I can do for you, in return for the great kindness that you have shown me this practice period.

Please take very good care of yourself.


The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go,
no way to make sense of a world that wouldn’t let you pass
except to call an end to the way you had come,
to take out each frayed letter you had brought
and light their illumined corners; and to read
them as they drifted on the late western light;
to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves.

– David Whyte




A Vision of Bodhisattvas

They pass before me one by one riding on animals

“What are you waiting for,” they want to know…


What am I waiting for?

A change in customs that will take 1000 years to come about?

Who’s to make the change but me?


What business have I to do that?

I know the world and I love it too much and it

Is not the one I’d find outside this door.

Philip Whalen



This Thanksgiving, I’d like to invite you to listen to Abbot Myogen Steve Stücky’s final Dharma Talk –  Gratitude (link goes to the main SFZC website), which he delivered at Green Gulch in October 2013. He died in late December 2013, on the last day of the year.

I have also copied Abbot Steve’s Thanksgiving statement from the blog Subtle Eye that was set up when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer:

Dear Ones,

First, it is an inspiring thought to dedicate this particular day for giving thanks and put “gratitude” on the national calendar as a shared cultural value. Though any great thought may be tarnished and undermined by our usual self-serving narrowness, here is a window of opportunity that can warm the cockles of my heart and yours. It’s an invitation to each of us as citizens, as one member of the millions of us to be generous with each other and recall the many gifts we receive simply by being alive here in this place and time.

The thought of being an American citizen comes with painfully mixed associations for me, especially as I have studied the history of deceptions and the bias of “national interest” supposedly justifying the drumbeats of decades of war, and the persistent failure of our economic system to meet basic human needs equitably. So it is a relief to have one holiday that holds the potential for a wide-open appreciation of a fundamentally generous world and invites us to rise above stinginess and narrow group interest.

With time today set aside for thanksgiving, one may consider:  how best to use this time as a true expression of gratitude? The “practice of gratitude” for me begins simply with saying the word “gratitude” and allowing whatever arises in thought to be regarded as loveable no matter who or what it may be. This immediately cuts off the mind of personal preference and acknowledges that everything, absolutely everything is fully participating in the fact of my existence this moment.

The challenge of this practice often slaps me in the face and sets off a series of seemingly impossible barriers. These days, as you may know, I wake up and say “gratitude” and the next thought is “pain in the belly” or “cancer” or it’s “not fair!” To accept such thoughts with gratitude may be impossible and even contribute to further unwholesome states of mind. So, it is realistically healthier to enter this practice by creating a field of positive energy by first naming what you know from experience is nourishing for you. For example: “Gratitude”… “for my friend Larry” or “Gratitude” for my mentor, my lover, my mother, the person who changed my life, or “Gratitude” for sobriety, my family, this food, the sunlight, mashed potatoes and gravy, the capacity for healing, etc.

It quickly becomes clear that one can create an infinite list of positive nourishments and the mere fact of being alive tells one that positive—that is, “life supporting”—factors outweigh all others. This is a basis for fundamental confidence in reality. Know that this life is rare and wonderful because it is happening right now with the full support of the universe. Wow.

Once the above truth is clear, it is not so difficult to be kind. One naturally wants to give back to that from which one has received so much. And since one has received, and is now receiving, so much from the mere existence of each other, it’s a perfect time to say “Thank You” (I love you).  I invite you to take up this practice today as a positive nourishment practice for yourself. As you do so, I feel even more gratitude and delight.

myogen steve

Please take very good care of yourself.


In Memorium

Picture 014

This past Saturday, we had a memorial service at City Center for children who have died. The next day was my daughter’s birthday. If she had lived, she would be 14 this year. Earlier this month, I celebrated my own 40th birthday.

I often find the month of November very challenging. I tend to spend my birthday berating myself for all that I have not accomplished and reflecting on where I am vs where I ought to be. Then I have to face my daughter’s birthday, and the anniversary of her death. After that, I am in no mood for Thanksgiving.

So far this year, I haven’t been feeling so much of my regular November depression. I think that having a good combination of antidepressants and mood stabilisers has helped immensely. I also think that I’m finally allowing myself to let go of my burden of guilt and unrealistic expectations.

I still feel sad and rather – I’m not sure if wistful is the word – like I want to have a peek into some parallel reality where things had worked out differently, and see what she’s like now.

Shortly after my daughter’s death, a couple of well-meaning people tried to tell me that her life had been so short because she’d come to teach me something, and (I guess) left once her mission was accomplished. That comment made me so angry – justifiably so, I think. I was really offended by the idea that they saw her as an extension of me, that her life had been all for my benefit.

What happened was that my daughter Janelle and I both picked up a MRSA infection in the hospital where she was born. The doctors were able to save me, but not her. I know that I had terrible survivor’s guilt, but I thought that I’d gotten over it a long time ago (it’s been 14 years, after all). I’ve only recently realised that my birthday-related depression is linked to a feeling that I need to redeem or justify my survival. And, if it’s true that Janelle did not live and die for me, I also can’t live for her. Of course, if the world were a fairer or more just place than it is, and if only one of us could survive, it should have been her – I’m sure that she would have contributed much more to the world than I ever will. And the relationship between parents and children is an entanglement that not even a clear-eyed bodhisattva can cut through. I can only continue to do my best with the time that I have left.

This is the blessing with which we closed the Jizo ceremony:

May the eyes of universal compassion witness the love we bear for those who have died and those who continue to live.

May our offerings bring light to the vast mystery of birth and death.

May all beings be held in love.

Please take very good care of yourself.




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.