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My Old Friend

by Stephen Damon

During the past couple of months or so I’ve been spending a lot of time with a dear friend whom I’ve known for over thirty five years. We met when I was in grad school and he helped me find my way as I intensified my studies in Comparative religion. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that he helped me to intensify not only my academic studies but also my spiritual practice, which was just beginning. Over the years in times of crisis and deep spiritual questioning I’ve come to him, not for advice but for support. When I say “support” I mean that when I am with him, a deeper more stable part of myself appears that guides me through any obstacles and difficulties.

Before I go further I should tell you that this “friend” of mine was the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who died when I was fourteen years old. When I was younger, I called him my teacher as he was older and more learned and had a lot more spiritual experience than I had. But through the years as my spiritual practice evolved, I came to see that even his last, most mature books contained reflections mostly on the kinds of things that I have experienced in my own inner search. But, because he was a Christian monk and not a Zen priest, his language was different, which helped me to see things from another point of view than my own. His later books contained less religious words, and less words that had “baggage” of any kind. It was if he was a man who became a Catholic, a monk and a priest, and finally became a man again.

As he matured he became very interested in eastern religion, especially Zen Buddhism. One of my favorite books of his, “Zen and the Birds of Appetite” is a collection of letters between himself and the noted Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki. In this book and others it is clear that he not only knew himself very well, but also knew Zen as well as if he were a Zen monk. Towards the end of his life, his reflections on the Christian life became very similar to the sayings of Zen Masters. In fact, a couple of years ago when I was asked to teach several classes on comparative religion at a local college I used one of his books to make several connections between Christianity and Buddhism. If you took out a few words such as “God” and “Christ” from his later essays it would be impossible to tell his work apart from Zen. While preparing for that class I realized (again) that in the deepest sense there is only one spiritual tradition that uses to different languages at different times and places.

So Merton, or Father Louie as some of his other friends called him, had the same kind of experiences that I had. Reading his later books I would often say to myself things like “yes,” “of course,” and “that’s true.” Occasionally, he would say things that surprised me, which would motivate me to think further about certain things. I became very familiar with not only his literary voice, but also his actual voice as I had listened to many tapes of the talks he gave to monks. You would think that a monk who was not allowed to speak in his monastery spoke slowly, but Merton spoke very fast, ending many of his sentences with “so on, and so forth.” It was if he was always trying to catch up with the thoughts generated by his brilliant mind. I felt like I knew Father Louie almost as well as I knew my closest friends whom I see all the time.

Besides his essays he also published journals, which revealed other, more personal, parts of himself that were not included in his other books. Reading his journalistic accounts of what it was like to wake up at 2 a.m. in his hermitage in the Kentucky wilderness, I felt that I was with him. And, because I had been involved in many retreats in the woods and mountains, I really knew firsthand what he was talking about. I could feel the chill in the air and hear the sounds of nocturnal birds and animals. In a way, his accounts of life as a hermit and my own memories have interweaved into one narrative of a spiritual life.

This past year, perhaps because I’ve been sick and don’t have much energy, I haven’t made the effort to connect with as many people as I used to. But I decided it was time for me to reconnect with my old friend, Father Louie to see what he had to say, so I started reading his first book, “Seven Storey Mountain,” which he wrote six years after joining the Trappist monastery, Gethsemane. This book is a spiritual autobiography of his first twenty seven years that were spent in France, England, and the United States. Apart from all the details of his young life, the book is a story or perhaps I should say a “revelation” of his growing wish for a new kind of life that was not predetermined by the standards of society. When I first read this book, I was very taken by how difficult it was for him to keep this wish alive until he found a way of life that would be its guardian. More than that, I was very impressed by the vital importance this wish had for Merton, and so I realized that I too would have to be very careful about protecting this wish, which was still a very fragile part of myself. I think that one of the most important parts of my spiritual journey has been to take care of this wish.

When I first read the book I was twenty seven, the same age that Merton was when he wrote it. Like Merton who had just entered a religious life I was learning the discipline of a new spiritual practice. He was living apart from the world in a monastery deep in the Kentucky woods or the four walls of my new freedom, as he called it, and I was learning to maintain a daily practice while living in the world. Our paths were different but our search had many similar features and so I felt very connected to his story. As I recall, I took a long time reading the book, keeping it close to me all the time. I read it on the bus to school, in parks on long afternoons, and on my lap at bedtime. It was the story of a man I had never met, but I felt as if it were in some strange sense, my own story.

I may have reread parts of it a few times, but two months ago I started from the beginning and just finished it this week. Now that I am older and have garnered a lot of experience through years of spiritual practice I read parts of the book very critically, noting how literal and limited his understanding of Christianity was when he was just starting out. I dog-eared many pages and underlined lots of passages with notes and questions in the margins. But what was more striking, was how I felt. On one hand I was remembering what I felt like when I was just starting out on the path that my life would take, and on the other hand I felt as if I were reading something that I had written as a young man. I was very familiar with the books that Merton read (most of them are on bookshelves in my library) while he was considering becoming a Catholic, and many of the thoughts that he had were very similar to mine. Also, I should add that we lived in towns that were next to each other, although during different decades. When I finished the book I felt a little lost.

So, this morning, I took Merton’s “The Wisdom of the Desert,” which is a collection of sayings from the Desert fathers who lived in Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt during the fourth century, outside to the garden. It was an unusually sunny morning as I sat down among all the succulents I had planted this spring and opened the book. I felt relaxed and had a deep sense of well-being. I started reading the introduction. I recognized on page after page experiences that I had in my life. Yes, he was talking about Christian hermits of the fourth century who gave up everything, but he could’ve been talking about a Zen priest with a family and business in the twenty first century. The religious words, titles and ideas were different but the experience was exactly the same. As Merton says, the sayings of the desert fathers are important, not because they contain information or theories about the nature of the divine, but because they flow from an experience of deeper levels of life. Reading accounts of experiences that others have had in their practices has helped me gain a broader understanding of my own practice, and of myself. As I’ve studied the world’s religions it’s always been interesting to find myself in the words written in other places at other times.

I’d like to share some examples from the Desert Fathers. St. Anthony said, “The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer realizes himself or the fact that he is praying.” This is very similar to what Uchiyama Roshi said in “Opening the Hand of Thought:” it is incorrect to say that you are sitting Zazen. You should say that Zazen is sitting zazen. There is only zazen. I would add from my own experience, that eventually there is no zazen. There is only a state of deep peace and compassion. There is no Stephen, no Buddha, no anything. There is just a deep sense of a vastness that is greater than outer space (Zen koan).

Merton goes on to say that in prayer, hermits were able to attain a rest, which he described as a kind of simple nowhereness and no-mindness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited self. In another book, Merton says that the most important thing for a person to give up is his or her sense of a separate self. Zen is, above all things, a getting beyond a sense of an individual self by seeing that it is an illusion. “Nowhereness” is a provocative way of talking about the Buddhist idea of emptiness. If there are no distinctions of any kind that give rise to a sense of thingness then reality is empty and there are no things and no “wheres” or “theres.” There is just isness, suchness (Zen terms), or nowhereness.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the experience of the Desert Fathers and Zen is Christian love. Merton says that if one feels that they are giving charity to another he is missing the point. If a monk says that he loves another he too is way off the mark. Love requires a transformation in which a false sense of self is destroyed. One has to see that one’s neighbor is really oneself. And one has to see this self as being and abandoned and lost in God. This is exactly the meaning of the Buddhist idea of interdependence.

In my own practice, I have, from time to time, felt this burden of an alienated, separate self disappear, leaving only a sense of a vast everythingness. I recall one time when I walked into a supermarket’s produce section. Around me were several middle-aged women looking at various fruits and vegetable. All of a sudden I was drenched with the fact that each body was but a manifestation of Buddha. Perhaps those exact words came after the fact, when I came back to my senses. But they do describe the experience of seeing “others” not as others but as manifestations of one reality that could not be divided in any way.

Most of the sayings of the Fathers are just a few lines. For example, One of the Fathers said: Just as it is impossible for a person to see his face in troubled water, so the soul, unless it is cleansed of alien thoughts, cannot pray to God in contemplation. Similarly, Zen haikus are three lines long. During my Zen training I was often asked to write a four line poem to illustrate my understanding of a hundred page fascicle. Often, a Zen master would answer a student’s long question with just one word or just the movement of his hand. And, sometimes a master would answer direct questions with outlandish remarks as if ordinary language is unable to express the deeper experiences of the spiritual life.

Feeling the inadequacy of ordinary language, Merton made up a word, “nowhereness,” to make a point as precisely as he could. Sometimes, even a made-up word cannot express the subtlety of truth. I recall asking a Tibetan lama a question about the meaning of taking refuge. Instead of answering, he adjusted his robes, closed his eyes and said nothing. Perhaps the best example of the inadequacy of language to express spiritual truth is the sixth koan of the classic collection, Mumonkan: When Buddha was in Grdhrakuta mountain he turned a flower in his fingers and held it before his listeners. Everyone was confused. Only Maha-Kashapa smiled at this revelation.

Buddha said: “I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the true aspect of non-form, and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I have given to Maha-Kashapa.”

Maybe my old friend said it best: If one comes close to His dwelling silence makes more sense than a lot of words. Indeed, this morning, under the warm sun with Merton’s words on my lap I felt very close to His dwelling. And so I closed the book and sat quietly, taking in the beauty of the garden, the feeling of warmth on my skin, and my conversation with my dear old friend.

Meeting Lama Zopa

By Stephen Damon

After receiving my diagnosis I have found myself going over the various chapters of my life. I say “found myself” because I haven’t been actively trying to do anything. Instead, memories of major events of my life appear as if from nowhere calling me or perhaps challenging me to review things that have happened to me. Often when I review an old experience I see things that have happened to me from another point of view. It’s as if I am being given another opportunity to experience some of the “hidden” aspects of things that have happened to me that I had missed before. Events that I haven’t thought of in a very long time appear before me as if for the first time. Sometimes, as I am falling asleep I hear the voice of an old friend calling me in whispers to join him or her in another reality that seems very far away. Sometimes, they follow me into sleep and appear as silent companions as I move along the landscape of a dream.

One memory that is especially alive in my mind took place twenty years ago when I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche at an airport where he was waiting to board a plane for Nepal. Before I go into what happened I need to say a few things about who he was and why I was told to meet him at the airport. Lama Zopa Rinpoche is the guiding teacher for the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition or FPMT, which has over a hundred Tibetan Buddhist centers on several continents. I had been a member of its San Francisco Center for about five years or so and had heard Rinpoche give a few teachings, but had never had the chance to talk with him. About a month before his visit, the Director of the center resigned and many people thought that I should take her place. And so, when the center found out that he would be at the San Francisco airport while he waited for a connecting flight, I was told that I should meet him.

I remember what happened very clearly. As soon as I walked through the glass door into a very crowded area of the airport, I saw a robed figure who was too far away for me to make out, waving to me. As I got closer I saw that it was Lama Zopa, and I wondered how he could’ve recognized me since we had never met. After I made my way to him I genuflected as is the custom when a student meets a Lama. When I picked my head up, Rinpoche took my head in both his hands and pressing firmly placed it on his forehead. As he did so I felt all the activity of my mind come to a halt. I felt that hundreds of years of confusions, unnecessary questions and doubts evaporated into an emptiness beyond my comprehension. All I felt was stillness and peace, and all I saw was blackness. Then in bright letters I saw the word “Help.” And nothing more. When I looked into his eyes he nodded with a smile. And then he took out a fancy candlestick holder for an altar and gave it to me.

Not a word had been spoken and yet I felt that what had been communicated to me was more substantial than all the teachings and philosophy lectures I had ever heard. I was very aware that the energy of his hands physically changed the structure of my mind. Some might call this a spiritual experience, but it felt very physical. I think that this may have been the first time that I experienced the fact that things that we usually call spiritual or theoretical have a materiality that can be measured. In fact, I think that everything is material. And when I say “everything” I include things such as knowledge, truth, and even God. The duality of spirit and matter was just another false duality that I was able to get beyond during my Buddhist practice.

As I said, I met Lama Zopa more than twenty years ago, but I can still see the color of his robes, the smile on his face, and feel the warmth of his hands. Most strikingly, I can still see the letters of “help” very clearly. I really don’t have the vocabulary to exactly describe how I felt when his hands changed how my mind was working. All my words seem to be only a vague approximation of an experience unlike any other that I’ve had in my life; an experience that was beyond the grasp of ordinary language.

While I had often been impressed by the strong presence that many Tibetan lamas have, I had never experienced first-hand anything that even remotely suggested something other than what my mind could easily understand. Of course, I had read many books about the psycho-physical power that Tibetan masters often have. One of my favorite books is “The Life of Milarepa” in which countless miracles, such as the monk’s controlling the weather and turning himself into a yak, are described. Reading the book (which I have done several times) I have always taken note of the teachings and ignored the miracles. After my experience at the airport I have found it impossible to ignore the many anecdotal stories about the powers of spiritual masters. I think this experience more than any other, changed my way of thinking about the possibilities of a human life. Now, as I am in the early stages of a terminal illness and find myself pondering “the great matter of life and death” it is a vivid reminder of another life that I once touched and now seems so far away.

I bring up this memory because it has appeared and reappeared quite often during the past few months as I adjust to this new stage of my life. Sometimes as I drift off into sleep I can feel the gentle strength of Rinpoche’s hands on my head as I move from one state of consciousness to another. Just the other night as I was falling asleep I saw “Help” lit up in neon colors. I think the reason why this memory has become so alive at this time is that it conveys another measure of things than the one I usually have, a measure that is absolutely necessary as I live this last part of my life. If I never felt his hands, his physical presence, change my state of mind I think I would not believe that another life in this world at this time is possible. It verified beyond any doubt that there is a reality that has its own laws that can supersede the laws of our ordinary, daily lives. And this reality is as physical or material as the one we see and feel in our daily lives. Without this experience I think I might not have a sense of hope that even though I am sick and not as strong as I used to be, things are still possible

I am still on the mailing list of the Tibetan Center where Rinpoche visits, but I now see that what is most important for me is not to meet him again, but somehow to find a way for me to touch the reality that he embodied. When I was younger I felt that I always had to find another book, or listen to another teaching in order to find a “truth” out there, somewhere. I have countless memories of going through the indexes of countless books in hopes of find something “new” that could open a door into another world. Now I feel that everything I need is inside of me and I need to find a way to access it. My practice is to find a state of relaxation and openness in which “truth” or perhaps I should say “reality” appears.

And so this old memory has changed from a recollection of something that had happened to me long ago into a question of what I need to do now, based upon many years of study and practice. Upon reflection I feel that Lama Zopa loaned me something to help my practice, and now I have to find a way to make this “something” my own. Looking back on my life, I have the sense that all teachings I have heard, all the instructions given to me by my teachers, and all the books I have read were loans that had to be paid back by efforts to make them my own; to incorporate them in my daily life. I have used a few of these loans to make real changes in my way of life, but I have not yet been able to repay many of the loans I have been given. These unrepaid loans, although I have great power, remain dormant in the depths of my subconscious. And so I think that one of the things I need to do is look deeply into myself for the teachings and instructions I have been given, and try to find ways to bring them back to life.

Another World

By Stephen Damon

My sister in law, whom I haven’t seen in a long time visited us last weekend. On a quiet afternoon, we began to talk about my illness, and she brought up her husband’s long battle with an inoperable brain tumor. Even though our brain illnesses were very different, we had many of the same symptoms. As she spoke about some of the things that he had encountered, I had the feeling that she was also talking about me. As our talk progressed, she focused on his last days, which I felt were a description of what lay ahead for me, and so I listened with great interest.

She told me that eventually he no longer wanted to talk and just stared out the window to the side of his bed until he finally closed his eyes for the last time. She told me that she had the strong impression that he was looking at another world, very far away. I told her that during my hospice work I often had the sense that a person who was actively dying was beginning to turn their attention to something “else” that they could see, but I couldn’t. They often would have a faraway look in their eyes as if they were looking at something that was both faraway and very close.

Like Larry, they would often just stare out the window, even when they were talking with me. During these times, I often had the sense that they weren’t leaving as much as they were going to something that I couldn’t see, but was more real to them than the difficulties they were enduring during the dying process. Sometimes, if there was no conversation and I was able to find a deeper silence in myself I would become aware of a subtle presence in the room that I imagined coincided with what they were looking at. Staying with this impression would often lead me to a point where I would lose all sense of everything, except a feeling of presence and fullness leading me to wonder if, sometimes, death was an appearing as much as it was a disappearing.

Aliza finished her story by telling me that after Larry died, she lay beside him and stared out the window to see what he had been looking at. Her voice grew very soft and I could see a tear roll down her cheek when she told me that she couldn’t see anything but the gray sky. She looked at me with deep sadness and longing and said, “There was nothing, really nothing.”

After a few minutes, I remembered a poem that I had written for a hospice resident that I had grown very close to. Digging through the loose papers of an old notebook I found it and shared it with her.

I remember our slow

Walks through the garden

Just outside your window.


Your strength was weak

So we had to walk slowly

Like monks in meditation,


Listening to the sounds

Our shoes made on

The winding gravel path


As the days went on

We walked less and less

And our conversations


Became like the whispers

Of half-forgotten dreams.

After a while you stopped talking


So you just half-smiled

As your eyes drifted out the window

To another world that I couldn’t see.

After whispering the last lines, we became very quiet and I think we both realized that a truth far greater than our words had entered the room. There was nothing else we could say so we just sat there in silence, trying to take in what had appeared as much as we could.


By Stephen Damon

I’ve often noticed that any realizations or insights I might have always occurred when I wasn’t really making any spiritual efforts at all. I might spend a week sitting from early dawn until bedtime in a zendo, but I rarely had any insights or intuitions into anything. Most of my insights would come days or weeks after an intensive. I always thought that was strange, and I never could figure out why that was. I can honestly say that during a forty year meditation practice I may have had just two or three “aha” moments while sitting in the posture of Zazen.

This is not to say that I have only had had two or three insights or realizations, but they have always occurred at odd moments when I really wasn’t trying anything at all. I might be washing dishes or taking out the garbage when a response to a koan that I had been working on in Zazen would appear. While I never understood why that was, I gradually accepted it as “lawful” and just the way things are. It was as if “not trying” was the secret of a spiritual practice.

Now that I am no longer physically able to take part in a Zen intensive or even have a disciplined daily practice I seem to be having more realizations than ever. Of course, most, or perhaps all, of these realizations haven’t been great. I haven’t discovered anything that thousands of other Zen practitioners haven’t already experienced. And yet, some of them have had a profound impact on me, and I hope that in sharing some of them they be of some help to others.

Here is an example of a “little” realization that I had the other day. While I was pulling weeds in the garden I became aware that I was very grateful for being just an ordinary person nearing the end of his ordinary life. This thought gave me great comfort. Gone were all my strivings to achieve something, to become a Buddha or at least a good teacher. Gone was my being proud of some of the things I had accomplished in my life. Nearly everything that had once filled my life with expectations of one sort or another was gone. As it says in the mantra of the Heart Sutra, Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond. Now, there was nothing really to achieve. Suddenly, hundreds of years of practice and study dropped away. To quote Dogen, my body and mind dropped away. For the first time in my life I felt really free. Now, I thought, it is time to really live.

As I reflected on this particular insight I began to see a particular reason for what was going on. I now see some things about my spiritual practice that I had never seen before. I realize that most of my spiritual life was spent in generating great efforts to do or achieve something. Yes, I knew that Suzuki Roshi and others have said that there is nothing really to do when you sit, but I think that all of my “non-doing” took a lot of effort. Perhaps that is why I often felt exhausted after a week-long Zen intensive.

Most of my efforts felt like a battle against seemingly impossible odds. I think I felt that I had to create something “new” in myself that could sustain itself even after the dissolution of death. I had forgotten that Soto Zen is all about sudden enlightenment that appears as if from nowhere. Enlightenment is sudden because it is already here and you are relaxed and open enough to see that. Buddha as well as all of the Zen patriarchs and ancestors that came afterwards agree that we are already Buddhas.

So if truth is already here, if I am already a Buddha, then right effort is not about trying to achieve or make something. For example, there is a story about a Zen master who sees one of his students sitting. He asks the monk why he is sitting and the student replies that he wants to become a Buddha. The master picks up a tile and rubs it. The student asks him why he is rubbing the tile and the master replies that he is trying to make glass. The student says that is impossible and the master tells him it is impossible to become a Buddha by sitting.

It is impossible to create a truth and it is impossible to create a Buddha. All you can do is find a state of deep relaxation where you can be open to let timeless truths appear. This state of relaxation is not a new state that one has to achieve, but is rather the natural state of being human in which a person is able to let go of all things that he or she has learned. Effort is just about allowing the truth that already is to reveal itself. The purpose of sitting is only to Turn around the light to shine within, then just return. The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from. (Song of the Grass Hut) This “turning” is not so much about an active change in a person’s direction as it is a relaxation of one’s autonomic impulse to move forward, and outward toward external things.

So now that I have a great many physical limitations and my energy is quite low, I find it easier to relax into a real not-doing as I can’t really “do” much of anything. My neurologists have told me that my brain constantly overworks itself in order to do the simplest things. When I do try to do “harder,” more complicated things I have experienced my brain just shutting down. When that happens it feels as though I have crashed and many of my symptoms become very intense.

And so I have come to realize that what I really need to figure out is how to relax more completely than ever before. How to relax in a deeper way has become a focus of my inner life. And sometimes when I come to a deeper relaxation what appears is a simple truth that changes everything I had thought of before. It’s as if my entire life before I became ill was a long Zen retreat full of intense efforts, and now I’ve come home where all I can really do is take care of the daily concerns of an ordinary life. And doing so I have “returned” to a life that I had never really lived before. I can see that I have a lot in common with centuries of unknown monks who did “nothing” but sweep leaves off a garden path or pound rice in the kitchen. More than that I have a lot in common with countless others who had no spiritual practice at all. As I walk down the sidewalks in my neighborhood I feel as though all the faces that I see are not “others,” but really just manifestations of something that is appearing in my own life: life as it is. Experiencing this gives me not only comfort but feelings of great love and compassion.

Now I can admit (quite easily) that I had thought that all my accomplishments had set me apart from others. My small self or ego had created a fictional life that I was proud of. And while I “knew” that was the case I still felt that my life was a work of non-fiction. Now, I see that it is this small, fictional self that is being forced to give up things by being sick. A couple of years ago I had given a lecture at San Francisco State about something Thomas Merton had said: The only thing one has to give up is his idea of a separate self, but his words described a spiritual goal I could never reach. Now, as my ability to create new story lines for my fictional self wanes, it seems less like a goal and more like a description of the life I am beginning to live.

From the Interesting to the Simple

By Stephen Damon

[If you haven’t read my previous two post you might do so before reading this one.]

MSA (multiple systems atrophy) is a progressive disorder and so as soon as I get more or less used to my symptoms another one appears or I get more test results indicating the progression of the illness. A few days ago, I got the results of the extensive neuro-psych tests that I had taken a month before. The tests were a very comprehensive examination of the many functions that make up our cognitive ability. They tested such things as memory, attention, perceptive reasoning, and many other functions that I didn’t even know I had.

Reading the reports I learned that I had many areas of severe disability along with many areas of “low average” and “borderline” ability. I had many areas in which I scored less than all the persons who had ever taken that test. Alongside all those low marks I managed to score “superior” and “very superior” on all functions that had to do with verbal ability. So that is why I can still think, talk, and write about things that are important to me, especially this illness.

While I have been able to adapt to all the physical disabilities that I have, including not being able to walk without a cane, these neuro psych results have been very hard to deal with as they reveal how badly parts of my brain are working due to atrophy. The symptoms that express these disabilities are more subtle than the physical symptoms. I had learned to deal with physical limitations due to countless sports injuries and surgeries. And even though my current physical limitations have to do with injuries to the brain and not to tendon and ligament tears, I’ve been able to pay more attention to the physical symptom rather than the underlying brain atrophy. I guess you could say that I was, to some extent, in denial.


But all this changed when I studied what percentile I was in on various neuro-psych tests. While some of the results were not too bad, many were in the less than 10 percentile, and some were less than one percent. Reflecting on these results, I realized that I felt that it was as if my brain disorder had been a theoretical diagnosis that didn’t interfere too much in my life. Most of the literature talked about the later stages during which a person is almost completely disabled and not able to do very much by him or herself. I thought that since I was in the early stage that didn’t have too many symptoms I wasn’t really sick yet. But all of a sudden the theoretical had become very immediate, very practical, and very hard to ignore. I was sick!

In a sense I have always been a “theoretical” person interested in studying and teaching great ideas of western philosophy and the spiritual traditions. I could even take something very concrete in my life and turn that into an hour Dharma talk about a spiritual principle in Zen Buddhism. A friend of mine once remarked that I didn’t have common sense, but had uncommon sense. And of course I took that as a compliment because I was a philosopher. In a sense, I could take just about anything going on in my life and turn it into an idea.

Now, of course Zen is famous for saying that there is nothing holy in the scriptures and that there is no need to study the sutras or ideas of any kind. All you have to do is “just sit” and learn how to take the results of meditation when you walk down the street or drink a cup of tea or eat bowl of rice. There are countless stories of “ordinary” men and women discovering those kinds of things in their everyday lives. In Zen there is nothing “supernatural” or metaphysical or even religious in the usual understanding of the term. Everything is ordinary. The first koan that was given to me to study was, “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Practicing with that koan I began to change my way of thinking, but it would take a long time and a grave illness to see that any kind of thinking was of limited help.

Not only is truth immediate and practical but it is physical. There are stories of monks experiencing truth with their body as well as their mind. In Koan 23 in the Mumonkan, a monk who has just understood something says, “I am like one who has drunk water and actually experienced himself whether it is cold or warm. In other words there is nothing theoretical about truth. Again I have to admit that I didn’t really get that during my Zen practice. It is only now that I am able, or perhaps forced, to let go of the philosopher in me and really experience whether a truth is hot or cold, dry or wet.

Putting all this in another way, Soren Kierkegaard said that “the goal of the religious life is to go from the interesting to the simple.” I must’ve read that sentence when I was in my early twenties, but it still has a presence in my life. It’s a thought that will appear in my consciousness as I walk down the street or look out my window. It’s really never very far from my conscious awareness. Some people say that they have angels that watch over them, but I seem to have quotes from spiritual masters, east and west, that come to my aid from time to time. It’s not that I necessarily understand these quotes, but I do have a strong sense that they are true. Although I have used Kierkegaard’s quote to illustrate various elements of the spiritual life, I always had the sense that I hadn’t really understood or experienced it. Now, I am beginning to see how simple things are if I let go of the part of my mind that wants to theorize and philosophize.

Living a simple, “ordinary” life one can let go of all the distinctions and judgments that he or she used to make sense of things. “Just living” one can get beyond the duality of ordinary and extraordinary. As an example of this I have seen in my hospice work how a person’s last breath is both “ordinary” and extraordinary. On one level, a person breathes out, but doesn’t breathe in, but on another level there is often a great sense of ease and peace. Sometimes, a dying person emanates great feelings of love and compassion that seems to saturate the air in the room. In the moments after a person’s passing there sometimes is a presence that seems vast and inconceivable. One breath not taken reveals, at least sometimes, something that is beyond our understanding. Some might want to interpret that to fit into some religious dogma, but for me it seems most fitting to just be as open as I can to it.

And so I am continually trying to be truly open to all the external and internal influences of my life. To be open to anything I have to let go of all of my previous judgments and theories. I have to put “The Critique of Pure Reason,” Plato’s “Republic”, and even the “Platform Sutra” back on my bookcase in order to live simply. That being said, I still have to take some of the great ideas of those works as real as the air that I breathe. Studying at the beginning of a person’s search for truth is indispensable, but after a while one reaches a stage where one has to make truths real and even physical.

So now, the “theoretical” is a hard and fast fact of my life. Here is an example of what I mean that happened a couple of days ago. I was on my way to the Zen Center, but decided to look for a place to get coffee since I was a little early for a meeting. Then I quickly changed my mind and decided to go to the Zen Center to sit quietly before my meeting. I knew the street I was on, but I had no idea of where I was in space. It felt like I didn’t understand how to maneuver through space at all. More than that, the very idea of space made no sense to me. This is an example of my limited visuospatial ability that had scored less than one percent. The first time that this had happened to me I became anxious, impatient, and very frustrated. But this time I found myself deeply relaxing into the “unknowness” of the situation. I found myself letting go of everything. And when I say “everything” I mean everything that I had ever experienced or thought of before. I felt more free than I had ever felt before. It was one of those little but nevertheless life-changing experiences that will stay with me forever. My illness had given me an experience of the way things are that had been too subtle and elusive for me to get even during years of intense Zen practice.

It was as if I had discovered the “spacelessness” of space. Usually our minds use space and time to understand nearly everything that is going on in our lives. These seem to be categories that our mind uses to understand ourselves and the world. But for a few moments I was able to let go of space, and experience things more intimately. There was no intermediary to my experience. To use Suzuki’s language, I was able to let go of my “small” mind.

And so I now see that my illness is, above all things, a teacher for me. I’ve seen this aspect of an illness before when I had a chronic psychological problem (agoraphobia). Sure, Buddhism teaches us that everything can be your teacher if you are awake and alert to whatever is appearing in your life, but this feels a little different. As my brain atrophies I am less and less able to rely on it as I could before. Over and over again I am forced to live with nothing to rely on. I see that because I can’t rely on my brain or even my past experiences I have to respond to each moment of my life as if I were a beginner.

Suzuki Roshi talked about Beginner’s Mind in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and I have studied that for nearly forty years and given many dharma talks on it. But as I said earlier, my understanding was theoretical and even philosophical. Now it is what is right in front of me, minute after minute after minute. Each moment I have to figure out how to live as if I have never lived before. It is as if everything I thought before was a dream and only now could I live this life for real. How wonderful!

Every Day is a New Day

by Stephen Damon

Sitting down at my computer I just reread what I wrote last week, and while it seemed to capture a lot of my honest impressions of this new stage of my life, I realized that almost each paragraph was just the beginning of a study of myself. And I wondered if a lot of my work has only led me to beginnings of one study or another that never went very far. Of course, any study of myself or the world around me cannot come to an end. If it seems to, all that means is that I have given up a search that needs to go on indefinitely. I have learned over and over again that anytime I think I’ve come to an understanding of something it always seems to be at least subtly incomplete. So the question becomes can I keep on searching, not for an answer, but for an ongoing sense of the endlessness of things.

And so I need to challenge myself not to give up my search toward an understanding of the big questions that now appear more clearly than ever before. And while my life feels more finite than ever before can I feel that my search will go on indefinitely? I feel that what I need to do is balance that which has a definite end and that which somehow is endless. Is there a way for me to include both of these “facts” without trying to judge or make sense of what may not make any “sense” at all.  In a sense, can I see that I have two natures that need to be reconciled in my sense of what I am?

Can I wake up each morning as if it were the first time that I have awakened from a period of sleep. Can I allow, and perhaps foster, a sense of the wonder about just being alive at this particular moment? For an example of this, imagine that you have just traveled to a city that you have never visited before. You wake up and you have a sense that you have never been there before and you need to decide how best to spend the day. You feel that everything is new and contains almost infinite possibilities of discovery.

A few months ago my mother told me to make a bucket list of things I wanted to do and places I’d like to visit. I have to admit that I really couldn’t come up with much of anything. Thinking about it I realized that the kind of traveling I needed and wanted to do didn’t require passports. I realized that I needed to “travel” my inner world. And while I may have seen many of the sites in this subtle world, I wondered if I could feel that I had never really seen them before. Perhaps because they had changed and perhaps because I had changed. Could I keep a sense of the newness and the unknown as a challenge to meet the day ahead has wholeheartedly as I could? Could I plan my day as if I were somewhere I have never been before?

While all this may seem a bit theoretical I have come to rely on an ancient Tibetan practice to help me face the fact that each day is new and filled with great possibility. In Buddhist practice, especially Tibetan Buddhist practice, one learns that it is important to be aware of the fact that the moment of death may come at any time. In fact it is suggested that you bring this awareness to mind before your morning sitting. More than that, can one keep this awareness in the back of one’s mind as she or he moves about their day?

To help with this, the Tibetans have come up with a practice that you can do every morning. The first moment you are awake, before you even move your head or scratch an itch, you get a sense that this day may be your last day. Some have suggested that you imagine that this day is your last day. I have just started this practice and so far I haven’t noticed many results, but I have practiced it before and I have noticed that after a month or so, everything begins to change. I have noticed that my actions seem more mindful and I have wasted less time. Even small things like picking up the morning paper from the driveway becomes a possibility for me not to be lost in dreams but to be as present as I can.

To be honest, I have to admit that I have never stayed with this practice for very long. But now I see that I must try to do this every day for as long as I can. And perhaps on the day that it turns out to be true can I meet the unknown, not with fear or trepidation, but as something new to be experienced with all that I am. Can I experience the moment of death not as a self-limited instant in time but as a boundless and endless manifestation of the way things are?

Hello again.

Hello again. My apologies for taking so much time away from this blog. Since I last wrote I have had to deal with several health issues, some of which were not that serious, but still required a lot of time to recover from, and one, which will be with me until I die, is extremely serious. In September, I was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, which is an extremely rare progressive neurodegenerative disorder with a life expectancy of 5-8 years after diagnosis.

Needless to say that diagnosis was a shock. And yet I never had the “why me” thought as it somehow felt familiar. More than that, it made sense to me that I would get a rare brain disorder. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but I have learned to take seriously some things that don’t make sense. Or maybe it’s better to say that something “nonsensical” sometimes makes sense to a part of ourselves that we really don’t know. It’s always there, but we rarely, if ever,  make contact with it. I think that this deep, hidden part of myself was awakened by my terminal diagnosis. I guess you could say that I needed a “shock” to make sense of things.

During my years of Zen practice I have tried as much as possible to keep in mind the “great matter of life and death,” but in hindsight I would say that it was much more of an abstract idea than it was a hard and true fact of my life. I always kept in mind the chant that is often written on the han, the wooden plaque which is beaten by a wooden mallet to call people to the Zendo: Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life. 

Yes, I had read those lines in one translation or another a thousand times, but it never forced me to strive to awaken and it certainly never prevented me from squandering my life. Of course I knew that my life was short and someday I would have to be alone facing my death. But that someday when I would confront the great unknown, always seemed pretty far away, even at the age of 61. All that changed when the neurologist explained this devastating illness. I felt it was necessary to think in a new way about important things. More than that I felt it was necessary to live my life in a new way. But where to turn for help? To the sutras, to the teachings of Zen masters, to the teaching stories of Judaism, my home religion, or to my teacher? I have consulted all those teachings over the years, but now I felt that the only place to look was to myself. As it says in The Song of the Grass Hut: Turn around the light to shine within, then just return. The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.

After over forty years of inner work, I felt like I had to learn everything all over again. In a sense I felt like a beginner. Of course, I knew that Suzuki Roshi told us that the expert in us knows very little and our only hope is to contact our beginner’s mind. I had given many Dharma talks about just that. But again, this great thought seemed somehow abstract to me. I have to say that all the great truths, east and west, north and south, that I had studied over the years seemed abstract, metaphysical, and beyond my reach.

But, after getting the diagnosis I knew that all this had to change. The next day, sitting at the breakfast table I read an excerpt from a koan that I had printed and framed: Every day is a good day. And I thought to myself, “Is that really possible, now?” I decided to try to see that, especially as my symptoms became more and more disabling. Now, six months later, I can’t say that I feel that every day is a good day, but I do feel that every day is new and filled with great possibilities. In fact, this illness manifests itself differently almost every single day so each day does feel new. I experience some of my symptoms all the time, but many come and go. Each day does feel new and distinct, not part of an imaginary continuum that we construct to give ourselves a sense of permanence.

My Zen practice continues, although I have had to lessen its intensity. In a way I have had to come up with a new paradigm of practice with the help of my teacher, Victoria Austin, who had a lot of experience with brain injury. Over the next few months I hope to be able to describe some of the “new” things I’ve been trying as well as talking about this stage in my life, with all its challenges. I hope to share my journey towards a closer, more intimate relationship to the “unknown,” which seems to be closer than ever before.


by Stephen Damon

The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.

His large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.

“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”

“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.

Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.

Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”

The priest obeyed.

“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”

The priest proudly stepped over to the right.

You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”

Before we get into our story, I’d like to say a few words about Bankei.  He was a well known and highly respected Zen teacher, who was posthumously given the title Kokushi, or National Master.  Unlike other masters of the time he did not use classical Chinese or give lengthy commentaries on sutras in his talks.  His talks were attended by women and men, rich and poor, literate and illiterate—everyone.

He said, I won’t tell you that you have to practice such and such, that you have to uphold certain rules or precepts or read certain sutras or other Zen writings, or that you have to do zazen. . . . If you want to recite sutras or do zazen, observe precepts, recite the Nembutsu or the Daimoku, you should do it. If you’re a farmer or a tradesman and you want to work your farm or your business, then go ahead, do it; whatever it is, that will be your personal samadhi. I think that this teaching is especially valuable today as American Zen moves from the monastery to our homes and workplaces.  As Zen practitioners living in the world, we will need to find our “personal Samadhi” outside the monastery gates.

His teaching was very simple.  He directed his students to make contact with Buddha nature, which he called the Unborn or Fu-shō, a birthless, deathless, timeless, spaceless, boundless awareness and aliveness. He told his students, you have received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom.  He told his students “to abide as the unborn,” to “not get born.”  Don’t become anything—not a “me” nor a “Buddhist,” nor “enlightened.”  Buddha Nature has existed from beginningless time, and has no cause. It just is.

The Nichiren priest thought of himself as something.  He had been “born” a teacher and a priest of the best sect of Buddhism and had no need to learn from anyone else. He identified with an “I” that stood out in relief from “others.” He identified himself, not from the point of view of his original nature, but in relationship to external things. We all do this. We are husbands in relation to our wives and mothers in relation to our children.  At work, we are subordinates in relation to our superiors.  But Bankei was an expert in showing people how to make contact with the life that exists before it is defined by relationships to external conditions.  No matter how a person would define himself, Bankei would ask, “what were you before you became [that].” I remember reading that a student once asked Phillip Kapleau if a Jew could be a Zen Buddhist.  Kapleau responded, “What were you before you were a Jew?”

I don’t know about you, but I knew that when Bankei asked the priest to “come up beside me,” he had already won the dharma debate. Bankei used skillful means to trick the priest into responding to his simple request without interference from his previous judgments about Zen. Skillful Means, sometimes translated as tactfulness or ingenuity, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism. It is the practice of transmitting the Dharma in different ways to the diverse variety of practitioners.

 When Bankei said “You see, you are obeying me” the priest was no doubt shocked, and at least for an instant was able to let go of everything with which he had been identified. His ego had been outsmarted! For a moment or two, he wasn’t a Nichiren priest or a wise man or an anything—he just was.  Letting go of all his previous judgments about Zen and Bankei as well as all of his cherished beliefs about himself, he was able to take a seat beside the teacher and listen to the Dharma. 

We all need to have this kind of experience.  We need to be freed from our dreams of self sufficiency so that we can experience the urgency and opportunity of each moment.  But the ego is very good at what it does, and it needs to be outsmarted so that it can let go of the life it has created and rest in the unborn. Sometimes we can do this by putting ourselves into intensive conditions such as Zen sesshins, and sometimes we need a teacher such as Bankei who is adept at using skillful means.




The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance

by Stephen Damon

This morning, I found a poem I had written during my priest training.  My teacher had asked me to write responses to all of Dogen’s fascicles in Moon in a Dew Drop, and I often used verse to express my thoughts. 


A bodhisattva

Travels the four directions

Of the Buddha Way



Freeing all beings

Ending all their delusions

And realizing

Buddha’s Way.


With each breath you take

You illuminate the way

Taught by buddhas

And ancestors.


With just one remark,

A small phrase from a sutra

You plant a seed

For all lifetimes.


Your act of giving

Transforms even an atom

Of dust into gold

Precious jade.


The six perfections

Of the Bodhisattva Way

Practice giving first


Be kind in your speech

Addressing some with praises

Others with pity

All with love.


Practice this method

With everyone you will meet

During this lifetime

And the next.


Follow this teaching

With great care, contemplating

Its power to transform

All beings.


Your actions will help

Sentient beings throughout

Countless lifetimes near

And distant.


Each beneficial

Action you take towards others

Should be done without



Of self and other

Friend, enemy, or stranger.

Act out of oneness

Not twoness.


When you help a tree

The grass will grow, a frightened

Child will sleep through

The cold night.


Sometimes a tree

Is just a tree, other times

It is the blue sky

Above you.




by Stephen Damon

Occasionally, one hears a story—true or made up—that seems to evade the continuous discriminations of the mind and sinks to a deeper part of oneself.  Perhaps the best examples of these are the countless Zen stories depicting Masters challenging their students or questioning the insights of their colleagues, often recorded in koans.  While some of these stories may be based on things that really happened, most are legends designed to have a specific impact on a listener.  But every now and then you will read an actual account of a well-known historical figure. 

Just the other day I came across just such a story about Eihei Dogen, the found of Japanese Soto Zen that I’d like to share with you.  Dogen was a brilliant, gifted Zen Master who thoroughly and carefully studied Buddha’s teachings.  He was one of the most innovative and influential of all Buddhist thinkers, who wrote many incomparable fascicles that have been translated into many languages.  Perhaps his greatest work was the multivolume Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. 

As Dogen approached his death, instead of entering a deep state of meditation or giving one last teaching to his students, he took out a long sheet of white paper and wrote the Japanese characters for Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which he hung on a pillar in his sickroom.  Weak from his illness he got out of bed and circumambulated the pillar, chanting, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”  The Triple Treasure had become his center of gravity around which his life revolved.  Everything else—all his fascicles, koans, poems, and monastic teachings—were only commentary.


I find this story so compelling because taking refuge has long been a central part of my Buddhist practice.  I start each day by lighting incense on my altar and reciting the refuge prayer three times as I make full prostrations.  And I end each day by reciting a Tibetan version of the refuge prayer as I fall asleep: I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  By practicing generosity and other far reaching attitudes may I achieve full Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Sometimes, as I drift off to sleep I can “hear” the prayer in the background of my consciousness. 

Both the Pali and the Latin for “refuge” implies a return to a safe place or sanctuary. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha all have many levels of meaning from the most immediate and obvious to something that is “beyond” anything that can be named.  

I have sometimes found it very helpful to sit with the idea of taking refuge,  or just returning.  It’s not really a matter of returning somewhere as it is to reverse the usual momentum of one’s life. So, taking refuge is returning not only to something that can be named like “Buddha,” it also can refer to that which cannot be named—the original source of being.  It is returning to one’s self—to one’s sense of “I am.” While I try to start each day by returning to this “place,” I invariably go into exile during the day.  Seeing this inner exile, seeing how I let external influences pull me out of myself, I try to make a “return” before I let go of my day.





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