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In Secret

by Stephen Damon


On the avenue below

Sunset scavenger trucks

Make their morning rounds


Through quiet city streets

Still asleep beneath

A sky of twilight gray.


I am alone, standing

Before an empty altar

In a quiet unlit corner


Of my life. Praying

To you without words

Or gestures, in secret.





Lit Only by Your Light

by Stephen Damon

Like many Zen Buddhists whom I know, I grew up as a Jew. While many of my friends have completely left their “home” religion, I have tried to use my Zen experience to find new expressions of the ancient truths of Judaism. So, this morning while reading a small collection of prayers attributed to the Hassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslove, I remembered a couple of Zen chants that seemed to elucidate similar issues of the spiritual life. Rabbi Nachman said: we should not be “swayed by the approval or disapproval of others,” and Dongshan told us “Just don’t seek from others, or you’ll be far estranged from self….” Rabbi Nachman said, “To look nowhere but within to come to know my true self,” and Sekito Kisen in The Song of the Grass Hut says “Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.”

While all of these words rang true, I needed to find my own words to make their truths mine, which is another way of saying I needed to find the truth that is not theirs or mine; a truth that is not bounded by the personal pronouns often needed to convey the immediacy of an experience.

When I lose my way
Amidst the songs and
Sorrows of the night

When the moon and stars
Are hidden by clouds
I must depend only

On the truth that resides
In the depths of myself
A darkness of being

Lit only by your light.


Let Everything that Breathes

by Stephen Damon

Let Everything that Breathes

In the predawn darkness
He sees a subtle shape
Almost hidden beneath a tree

A redwood carving of St. Francis
Splintered, weathered gray
A crow upon his shoulder.

He listens to a mourning
Dove chanting an Oo-wah-hooo
Of an ancient solitude.

In the distance, a songbird
Calls to his brothers and sisters
Who soon will gather

In every feather of color
And every manner of song
For morning service.

Together, they will make
A joyful noise of praise
And jubilation.



by Stephen Damon

At the beginning of my last shift at the hospice and respite care facility in which I volunteer I was told that we had a new resident who had just been told that she had but a few weeks left. When I walked into her room I recognized many of the signs of impending death. She seemed to be having a hard time falling asleep. She held both of her hands on her eyes and seemed to be trying to close them. So I sat beside her, holding her hand, stroking her head, and saying little things in a soft voice the way I used to do when my daughter was very young and couldn’t fall asleep. After a few minutes it was clear to me that she was very disturbed and couldn’t fall asleep. She had much more serious problems than the inability to fall asleep and yet this seemed to be the only problem causing her distress at the moment.

So I decided to try some Tonglen meditation with her. This practice is a method for connecting with, and alleviating, suffering — ours and the suffering of those around us.
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting by trying to breathe in their suffering, visualizing it as black smoke. In most meditations we breathe in and out very naturally, trying not to extend or shorten each breath. In this meditation I often breathe in as deeply as I can, trying to take in as much suffering as I can.

In traditional Tibetan practice we are instructed to imagine that the black breath is broken up into small pieces by a granite stone in our heart. I don’t visualize anything in my chest. Instead, I imagine that my “presence of being” breaks the black smoke into smaller pieces of white smoke. Then I exhale the white smoke as deeply as I can towards the person whom I hope to help. I sometimes visualize the person as being swallowed by a mist of white smoke that slowly dissolves as she breathes in. I do this several times, until I feel exhausted. Then I try to sit quietly with the person, synchronizing our breathing as best as I can.

I should say that while I have done this practice with hospice residents several times, I have never noticed any obvious results. But on Friday, after a several rounds, she put down her arms, closed her eyes and fell asleep. I put my hands on her folded hands until her breathing became so deep that I knew she would be sleeping for a while. Seeing this I was filled with a deep longing question that really had no words. I was in front of a mystery and all I could do was be quiet and allow it to enter into myself as deeply as I could.


Falling Leaves

by Stephen Damon

Like free-falling leaves
At the end of summer
My memories fill the air.

I try to grasp one
Then another, but I can
Not catch them all.

Soon the ground will be covered
In sunburned colors of autumn
And the trees will be bare.

I let go of hundreds of years
Open my hands and walk, silent
Watching my silhouette

Fade like the shadows
And sorrows of a thousand
Forgotten dreams.


From the Interesting to the Simple: The Zen of Meister Eckhart

by Stephen Damon

During the past month or so I have been a guest lecturer at a philosophy class on the nature of God at San Francisco State University. We have been reading the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalen and the writings of the 14th Century Rhineland mystic, Meister Eckhart. As I have gone deeper into the texts, especially Meister Eckhart, I have become aware of their strong similarity to Zen. Yes, the terminology is different, but the subject matter and points of view are strikingly similar. Trying to interpret Eckhart I have relied more on my Zen practice and studies than on my work in comparative religion and philosophy.

At first I thought that this was perhaps “my way” into Eckhart but then I came across a book by the Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki, “Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist,” in which he shows the deep similarities between Eckhart and Zen. Here I must emphasize that Zen, considered this way, is not so much a sect of Buddhism as it is a way of directly experiencing the ultimate reality of oneself. Zen uses a language of the self without any “religious baggage.” Thomas Merton, the twentieth century Catholic monk who wrote many books on the inner life, said that Zen “gets back, as far as possible, to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience…of life itself.”

Eckhart frequently focuses on the relationship of the self with God—a relationship that is more of an identity than a similitude. He says that “He who is full of self is empty of God and he who is full of God is empty of self.” He goes on to say that it is a mistake to believe that the aim of the religious life is to make room for God in yourself. He says if there is any “yourself” that is too much of a separation from God. Expressing himself in this way he manages to strip many religious terms such as “God” and “soul” of centuries of interpretation to get to the source of things before human thought and language. He talks about the divine source, or the “Godhead,” which existed before “God became a trinity.”

At times, even his language is Zen like: “God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less.” Suzuki finds statements such as these identical to the Buddhist idea that “enlightenment is nothing more than this experience of is-ness or suchness (tathata)…” For Eckhart, God’s is-ness transcends the conventional duality of the Judeo-Christian tradition: “You should know Him without image, without semblance and without means. But for me to know God thus, with nothing in between, I must be all but He, He all but me. I say, God must be very I, I very God…” This reminded me of a Buddhist chant we recite while prostrating to a Buddha statue:
The one who bows
And the one who is bowed to
Are both by nature, empty.
Here, emptiness means that there is nothing in us or any being that has an independent, substantial existence. Everything is dependent on something else: This is because that is. Eckhart says, “All creatures are a mere nothing. I do not say that they are something very slight or even something, but that they are a mere nothing.” He goes on to say that if you take away “God” from the being of any creature, you are left with nothing. Compare this to the Buddhist idea that we are all Buddha nature.

I remember reading a book by a Catholic monk, “Christian Zen,” in which he uses the methodology of Zen as a way of prayer. In this sense you can have Catholic Zen, Jewish Zen, Confucian Zen, even atheist Zen. As Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Buddhism in Japan said, “It is a mistake to think about Zen as a school or a sect. It is a study of the self.” He goes on to say, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by myriad things. I think of this last statement as a description of the stages of a spiritual life. If the study of your religion goes deep enough you begin to see that it is really describing the self in a broad context that includes many, often hidden, dimensions. Finally you begin to see that if you go deep enough into yourself, “you” disappear. Then you are left with a “something” that is as “vast and unknown as outer space” (Zen koan). Eckhart’s writings about the absolute nothingness of the Godhead are, indeed, as vast and unknown as outer space.

Eckhart is not concerned so much with doctrine, theology, or even metaphysics as he with his experience of the deepest dimensions of reality, which he calls, “God.” His is not so much a “revealed” religion as it is an experiential spiritual practice. Or perhaps, it is a revealed religion, but not in the way we usually mean. In “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” Thomas Merton says: “Christian experience itself will be profoundly affected by the idea of revelation that the Christian himself will entertain. If revelation is regarded as a system of truths about God and an explanation of how the universe came into existence, what will eventually happen to it, what is the purpose of Christian life, etc., then Christianity is reduced to a world view, at times a religious philosophy and little more…Christian experience will not be so much a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ, but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness….” Religion for Merton and Eckhart is not so much involved with thinking about or having knowledge about as it is having direct knowledge of. They are not concerned with “about” as much as they are concerned with “what is.”

And so what began as a philosophy class in which I wanted to show the similarities between Zen and Eckhart, became an investigation into the way things are without labeling it “Zen” or “Christian” or “mystical,” or anything. It revealed a fundamental question of all spiritual practice: How can I go beyond thinking about things into a direct experience, a direct knowledge, of things “as it is” (Suzuki Roshi) or what Eckhart called “is-ness” and Dogen called “suchness?” I saw that a lot of my Zen practice had been more about Buddha than an experience of Buddha. Taking this in, I remembered something Kierkegaard said that seemed to express my journey over the past month or so: “The aim of the religious life is to go from the interesting to the simple.”


Death, Where is Thy Victory?

by Stephen Damon

When I first met Andrea, our new hospice resident, two weeks ago she was very weak and could barely talk. I had been with many residents who were actively approaching the last day of their lives and so I recognized many of the signs. The nurses agreed that she was getting very close to the end. As I said, that was a couple of weeks ago. On Friday, she was able to talk, not only to me but also to the many people who called her on the phone. And she was able to walk around her room with just a little help from me. I had seen hospice residents rally before but none had progressed to the point that they could walk. How was this possible?

Before lunch we went to the patio so that she could smoke a cigarette and some medicinal marijuana. When she struggled with a match I offered to help her and she said, “No, I have to do this myself.” We were joined by another resident who had been at the facility for several months. Soon they were talking about all kinds of things, especially the kind of love they were experiencing for the first time in their lives. Telling us how weak and hopeless she felt when she first got here, Andrea said that she felt that she was just a day or two away from dying. She said everything changed because of her new surroundings.

She said that she had never before felt the “force” of love. Yes, she said, her daughters and sister love her, but that was because they were family. “You seem to love us for different reasons.” She had a faraway look in her eyes as if she were struggling to find words for something that she didn’t quite understand. In the silence that followed, I found myself also trying to say something about the kind of love we were both experiencing, but decided that the silence was the best way to experience the truth of the matter.

She broke the silence by telling me how the “devil” had ruled her life for many years, making her do things that were bad for her. She said that she always sensed his presence wherever she went. “But not here! I keep looking for him, but I can’t find him. I don’t know how you guys do that…”

Of course, I had read many books, essays and magazine articles about the power of love to heal people, but I always felt a little skeptical. Love could change how I felt about things but it could not change my physical health. Yes, I had seen people improve a little after arriving at the facility, but I didn’t really take that impression in to my mind and heart. Listening to my friends, I now could now put words to things that I had only dimly experienced. I had learned the simple truth that love can heal the body as well as the mind. Yes, Andrea will probably die soon, but not nearly as soon as everyone thought.

On the way to another resident’s room I found myself thinking about a couple of lines from the New Testament: O death, where is thy victory? O, death, where is thy sting?


Of Water and the Spirit

by Stephen Damon

Recently, I read an account of a shaman who was born and raised in tribal West Africa. (Of Water and the Spirit, by Malidoma Patrice Some) When I began reading, I felt as if I were reading a fairy tale from another world that I had never even imagined. In this world, a tree became a huge green lady and a dead man walked and talked. Bodies were transformed into light as they moved into other dimensions of reality. And yet as I continued, I began to get a sense that the author’s story was, in a way, my own story.

I felt that the author’s traditional tribe, the Dagora, represent the deepest part of not only himself but all of us. We all have a deep part of ourselves that feels strange and unknown, even “tribal,” as if it were from a “different time and place.” This part of ourselves, which is often first experienced in dreams, has existed before we were born into the lives that we have. When we first make contact with it, it feels strange and impersonal and yet strangely familiar.

In the story I read, the author was kidnapped at the age of four, by French Jesuits who educated him in the ways of Christianity and the West. When he was 20, he managed to escape and make his way back to his tribe. While the details of his wonderful journey back to his people seemed strange, once I allowed his tale to sink below my discursive mind into my heart, I saw that I was also taken away from my “inner east,” and been forced to live in a way that does not support my True Nature. Like the author, I have found that a big part of my Zen practice has been to “unlearn” most of what I have acquired not only from my school studies but also from the many societal influences in my life.

The way back to the source of our lives is very difficult and requires that we have to “die” to the lives we have been living so that we can be reborn. The author recites a tribal song:

…To become a man I must go,
Into Nature’s womb I must return
But when I come back,
The joy of rebirth for you I will sing.

This song reminds me of a passage in the Gospel of John in which Jesus tells Nicodemus: “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

We must see that we have lived in exile from our true natures and must turn around and return to the source of being itself. At any given moment we need to make a conscious decision about which way to turn. Do we continue our forgetful lives forever moving away from our center or do we turn around and shine the “light within and then just return?” (The Song of the Grass Hut). Can “we take the road we always forget to take [and hear] the smell of the things forgotten.” (Of Water and the Spirit) We learn that we do not belong to ourselves but to the universe, and everything we do must be in service to it. As it is said in Mahayana Buddhism: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.”

I see that reading a book like this is not about acquiring something new as much as it is remembering or reclaiming something that has been “lost” in me. If I can keep this attitude I will see that whether I read a Buddhist Sutra or a passage from the Bible or an account of a Native American Medicine Man, I am essentially reading about how the deepest part of ourselves is expressed in different parts of the world. To paraphrase Dogen, To study any religion is to study the self.


For Julian

by Stephen Damon

I had prayed the prayers
Of my youth and chanted
The sutras of another time

But they were muted
By the distance of
Your absence.

And on my morning
Walks along the empty
Streets, I listened

To the breeze and stared
Into the distance, hoping
To find a trace you left

For me to follow. But I
Never saw or heard a thing.
But on today’s walk

I turned around the morning
To shine within and returned
To the vast and limitless

Silence that contained all things.
And there you were, covered
In the red geranium clusters

I had placed on your blanket
As we sat in the garden
On the day we said goodbye.


New Year’s Resolutions

by Stephen Damon

It’s the time of the year when people make resolutions to make big changes in their lives. One person resolves to lose weight, another to give up drinking. One resolves to read more books and another resolves to put her books down and go out into the world to do more living. If you look through the newspapers you will see that some health clubs have specials designed to entice people to resolve to get more fit. You would think that everyone wanted to change something about their lives and thought that the beginning of the year was a good time to do so.

So, last week during the lunch at the hospice and respite care center for people with AIDS who are very poor in which I volunteer, I asked the residents at my table about their New Year resolutions. One person smirked and said, “Come on, why would I do that? Why would I need to make resolutions to see that I always fail at whatever I do? Resolutions are for people who think that they can change what they can’t change.” Another resident, agreeing with what his friend had said, looked at me and said that “life was just too hard to make it any harder.” A third resident said his life changed too much from day-to-day to come up with a resolution that would hold from one day to the next. He looked at me and asked, “Ever notice how everything changes so quickly?”

Listening to my new friends I was taken by how well each of them knew themselves, and how well they seemed to know their lives. They were honest—no one was trying to hide anything about their lives. I was impressed by how much of what they said were expressions of what the Buddha had said after many years of practice. A lot of what they said about themselves I had seen in myself. But I had gotten these kinds of observations through my Zen meditation practice. Without sitting and observing what arose in my mind I think I would have had very little idea of who and what I was.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that everyone who has a hard life becomes “enlightened,” or “saved,” or any of the other terms used to describe the “goal” of a spiritual or religious life. To achieve such a goal, to live a life fully, depends on many causes and conditions, some known and some unknown. But I am saying that if other elements are present, living a life on the streets, face to face with impermanence, can be a transformative path.

Upon reflecting on my conversation with the residents I thought about something Dogen had said: “To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self… is to be actualized by myriad things.” So, one could say that the Buddhism or any religion is best thought of as a way to make contact with the wisdom in ourselves. The truth is revealed in a deep part of the self that is often obscured by our “inexhaustible” delusions. The role of any spiritual practice is to end as many delusions as possible so that we may make contact with a part of the self that is intimately connected with the truth about things as they are. Sometimes, a hard life without the ordinary distractions that most of us have taken for granted ends or perhaps prevents many delusions from occurring.

Some of us may look for a meditation practice while others may be more comfortable with a faith-based religion. And some of us who are unwilling or unable to make contact with religion or a spiritual practice of any kind may find that living a life without the ordinary comforts and distractions of our culture is enough to meet the self, face-to-face. And, as Dogen said, if we can truly see ourselves we will be actualized by everything we encounter.


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