Exquisite talk by Natalie Goldberg

I recently listened to the most exquisite talk by Natalie Goldberg, the author of “Writing Down the Bones”. She is a long-time Zen practitioner, a wonderful writer and a wise woman, full of human warmth.

One of my favourite quotes from Dogen is: “To study the awakened Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualised by the myriad things”. This talk gave me a whole new understanding of it.

Here’s the link: https://www.upaya.org/2019/03/goldberg-between-two-pines/

Dependent co-arising

Yesterday I received a copy of “Figuring”, the new book by Maria Popova, the genius behind the fabulous blog “Brain Pickings”. The first two pages constitute one of the most exquisite dharma talks I’ve ever seen; it’s an exposition of the central concept of Buddhism, paticca samuppada, often translated as “dependent co-arising”. It’s so beautifully written that I’ve scanned the pages to give you a taster…

The book is widely available, including on Wordery and The Book Depository.

Prajnaparamita: Wisdom

This is the transcript of a talk given to the Paramitas Study Group on March 16th, 2018.  As usual, it draws heavily on talks by respected Zen teachers, in this case particularly Zoketsu Norman Fisher.

Although Prajna is usually translated as “wisdom”, Norman Fisher suggests that it should be translated as “understanding” … because in English, when you say someone understands, you mean they understand something intellectually, but you might also mean that they are sympathetic and kind, that they understand with not just their mind but their heart and their whole being. Prajna is just like that. You understand and you are understanding. So what is it that you understand?

Technically, the perfection of wisdom means that you recognise the emptiness of all Dharmas. All of Buddhist doctrine is fundamentally organised around the emptiness teachings. When we speak of emptiness or the emptiness teachings, we mean that everything is “empty of own being”: things arise and disappear, and that arising and disappearing is dependent upon conditions and influences too vast, complex, and inextricably interwoven to ever begin to tease apart. Nothing exists independently of everything else, and nothing exists forever.

When you practice Prajna, you’re not merely clever; you understand that what you think you know, you don’t really know. When you really take this on board, you’re able to have an open feeling about life. You have sympathy for others, because you understand that we are all in exactly the same boat: all of us are sad and magnificent and mysterious creatures. And we’re sad and magnificent and mysterious creatures together.

Sitting regularly helps us see this, in part because it gives us a break from that very human process of verbal definition and reification, which then shapes our experience of life. If you keep on practising Zazen, you start to undermine the persistent tendency to reify things, to consider things more substantial, independent, and permanent than they could possibly be. As a result, a whole lot of things that seemed terribly important no longer seem so important. You start to have some composure when tough things happen, because you understand that things come and go and they always have, and they always will. It’s a big relief to really see and accept this, and that acceptance helps you to be kind. When you’re tense and upset, fighting with reality, it’s harder to be kind.

Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of Perfect Understanding. He’s often depicted as holding a sword in one hand, and a book – the Prajnaparamita Sutra – in the other. The sword is to slice right through all entangling words and ideas, so everyone can see the emptiness.

As Dale Wright says, “Wisdom… is the ability to face the truth and not be unnerved or frightened. It is the capacity to be disillusioned, but not disheartened. .. Wisdom means setting aside illusions about oneself and the world and being strengthened by that encounter with the truth. It entails willingness to avoid seeking the security of the unchanging and to open oneself to a world of flux and complex relations.”

It’s sometimes said that there’s only one Paramita, and that’s Prajna; or that all the other Paramitas are just the expressions of Prajna. There is no pure expression of Prajna itself; it’s the other Paramitas that are the expression, the manifestation of Prajna. For example, it’s Prajna that makes Dana a Paramita, instead of just ordinary generosity, because Dana Paramita flows from the awareness that we are not separate. And Kshanti Paramita, the capacity to patiently endure difficulties, is not rigid stoicism; it’s sweetened and softened by the felt sense that we are part of a universal process that is intelligent, whole, and beautiful.

To sit in Zazen is to sit in Prajna. As Dogen says, impermanence is Buddha nature. To be is to be emptiness.


In Chinese folklore, as in European folklore, ghosts don’t have feet; it is said that they have to cling to grasses and bushes to stay in one place. In a commentary on the koan MU, Master Wu Men says “If you don’t cut off the mind road, you are a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.”

If we rely on thoughts and emotions, we are like footless, rootless ghosts, being blown about by the vagaries of our minds and hearts, clinging to some shred of something we possess or identify with. In order to be stable, we need to drop down into a deeper wisdom than our ideas or our whims and desires.

Dedicated steady practice over time produces a mode of being that is firmer than thinking or feeling, though it doesn’t exclude thinking or feeling. When we cut off the mind road, we see beyond our thinking and feeling to the root of thinking and feeling, and we grow feet; we become firm and strong and can stand on the earth. We are no longer ghosts, but fully human.

The paradox is that our minds can only perceive through separation and definition and reification. But Life – which we also are – is larger than our thinking and our feeling. Prajnaparamita invites us to experience our lives as Life itself, beyond our human need to define and understand, and this requires some kind of contemplative practice, to allow life to show us the vastness of Life Itself. But it also requires that we hold our minds and hearts in a new way – a more stable and open way – and allow ourselves to be led by vow, rather than pulled about by our conditioning.


Dhyana Paramita: Meditation

This is the transcript of a talk given to the Paramitas Study Group on February 16th, 2018.   As usual, it draws heavily on talks by respected Zen teachers, in this case particularly Zoketsu Norman Fisher.

Virtually every spiritual tradition includes some form of meditation, but this word can refer to a wide spectrum of very different practices. Indeed, even within Buddhism it can refer to a variety of very different practices, and not all of them involve what we call mindfulness.

There are practices which are referred to as meditation that promote a kind of trance state, which may be pleasant, even blissful, but take one away from the present moment and out of connection with others. Zazen isn’t like that. It has the opposite effect: it promotes the awareness that you are living in a world with other people who also have lives and dreams and needs and pains, and that those people are exactly like you and deserve the same regard that you would want them to give you. Meditation can’t help but increase your empathy. It makes you reluctant to hurt anyone; that would feel like hurting yourself, and no one wants to do that. Hurting someone else is actually worse than hurting yourself: if you hurt yourself you can do something about it, but if you hurt someone else you might not be able to help them, and they might not be able to help themselves, so they have to live with the effects of what you’ve done to them, and so do you.

So ethical practice is intimately linked to the sensitivity we develop in meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn said it like this: “The human mind, when it doesn’t do the work of mindfulness, winds up becoming a prisoner of its myopic perspective that puts ‘me’ above everything else. We are so caught up in the dualistic perspectives of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But ultimately there is no ‘them’. That’s what we need to wake up to.”

The Buddhist way of life is a deep commitment to working for the wellbeing of others. This is not so much a goal as a paradigm shift in how we view the world. For example, if I want ease, I can reasonably assume that others also want ease… and the practice of securing ease only for myself doesn’t even make sense – what will I do with it? Hoard it, sell it, flaunt it? If I know that the wish for ease lives in all of us, there’s a paradigm shift in how I do my meditation.

Buddhist meditation is also the practice of emptiness. We are all interconnected. So if “I” acquire ease, who is it that acquires the ease? It’s not that I don’t exist, but the “I” that I identify as is always changing; it’s dependent on causes and conditions, both known and unknown, both in my time frame and outside of my time frame.

In writings on meditation, the word ‘concentration’ is often used. In English, ‘concentration’ implies doing something wilfully, with purposefulness and grit, and certainly that’s sometimes necessary. But that’s not the real nature of our practice, and our practice can’t depend on those qualities. Kathie Fisher suggests the word ‘immersion”: a sense of falling into our practice: you can allow your practice to fall on you as gently as water, or leaves, or snow; and you can allow whatever hinders you to fall away under its own weight. In this sense we become concentrated like a stock, rich with the essence of who we really are.

Zen meditation has no goal, “no gaining idea”. Those of us who are parents, or who had parents, know that the less we impose expectations on children, the better it is for them. The same is true for ourselves.  Katagiri Roshi used to say: Settle yourself on yourself, and let the flower of your life force bloom.

One of the ways that mindfulness helps us is that we start to notice what makes us happy and what makes us unhappy. If you sit Zazen tormented by some conflict you’ve got going on with your partner, your neighbour, your boss … sooner or later you realise that it’s just making you miserable.

Meditation sensitises us to the injuries we inflict on one another – and on ourselves. Speaking harshly to someone may be something you never gave a second thought, but when you sit, it comes back to you, and it pains you to think of inflicting pain on another. You also start to be more aware when things like that are done to you: you can’t escape from feeling the hurt feelings you’ve been trying to ignore. Meditation sensitises you to both yourself and to other people. The more you’re familiar with your own mind, and all its twists and turns, the more clear it becomes that others are probably like this too. The human mind is a constant swirl of activity mostly centred around “me”, full of justifications, recriminations, and scheming to get our own way. When you just stop and sit in silence you notice this over and over again, and eventually you realise that this is just normal. You’re a mess, and you’re in good company. And when you don’t take this mess into account, and pretend it doesn’t exist, things just get worse. But when you see and appreciate the mess, and eventually learn to have a little forgiveness, and maybe even a little humour, you’ll be much more generous and kind with yourself and everyone else.

Sitting Zazen regularly helps us to follow George Bernard Shaw’s advice to “Keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world”.  But ultimately, it is a precious opportunity to express our Buddha nature, and to simply experience, undistracted, the miracle of being alive.

Dana Paramita: Generosity

This is the transcript of a talk given to the Paramitas study group on September 29th.


We start with Dana Paramita because that’s the whole basis of practice – a feeling of generosity, giving, loving kindness toward others. Our model for generosity is the natural abundance of being: the boundless generosity of time and space, the ongoing joyful giving of life itself. The universe keeps giving us days, one after the other, never asking if we are deserving, and asking nothing in return; life always goes on making more life, sometimes more than we asked for if it’s something like weeds in the garden or mould on the fruit or an infestation of mice. Life is exuberant; we don’t need to fix or create it, so much as just stepping out of its way.

From this perspective, maybe the best expression of Dana Paramita is Zazen itself. When you sit in Zazen, you are sitting in the middle of the immense fact of life giving itself to life. You’re not interfering with it or obstructing it; you’re just sitting in the middle of it. We could sit there all cramped into our thoughts and worries, obsessed with the fact that things don’t always go the way we’d like – but the effort we make in Zazen is to let all that go, and let life open you up, to let your constrictions fall away and to sit in the middle of the vast, mysterious unfolding of life as it is.

But of course that’s not the whole story. Traditionally, there are three kinds of giving:

  • Giving of material goods

  • Giving of the dharma – of teachings, of wisdom

  • The gift of fearlessness

These three are interrelated. Although the giving of the dharma is considered superior to the giving of material goods, for people without the material capacity to care for themselves, that’s the first concern. An early sutra, The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom says:

Do give gifts, for poverty is a painful thing. One is unable when poor to accomplish one’s own welfare, much less that of others.

In modern times, this idea is restated and expanded upon in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was first described in 1943. Maslow said that the first needs to be met are physiological: air, water, and food, and protection from the elements. Once these needs are satisfied, safety takes precedence – freedom from the violence of war, disaster, and abuse; it may include economic security, and a sense of security around health and well-being. The third level of human needs is interpersonal and involves a sense of social belonging, whether that comes from family or friendships. Once these basic needs are met, there is the possibility of what Maslow called “self-actualisation” – the pursuit of altruism and spirituality: “the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos”.

Norman Fischer points out that in Hebrew, the word translated as ‘giving’ actually means ‘justice’. It’s just and fitting that everyone should have what they need. So in “giving”, we are simply practicing fitting the abundance of the world – that which was given to us – to the need of the world.

Ideally, this effort should be supported by social custom and perhaps social institutions as well. Personal acts of giving are always limited in the face of the overall problem of suffering, which is monumental. Helping one person is laudable, and necessary, but authentic generosity requires more than our individual acts on behalf of those in distress. We are also called to give our attention to the political world in which institutional abuse gives rise to unnecessary suffering. Much of the pointless suffering in the world can be alleviated through intelligent political action, and it was part of the Buddhist agenda from the very start to transform society into one in which the basic needs of food, shelter, and safety are met so that everyone has a chance for happiness, well-being, peace and dignity.

In Mahayana Buddhism, this is part of the the idea of the “Mahayana”, the “large vehicle” on which all members of the society move toward some form of enlightenment together, even when the disparity between the most and least highly developed is immense.

Once basic material and psychological needs are met, the practice of generosity falls short if it doesn’t extend to the dharma, to supporting the liberation of all beings; otherwise, you’ve left people well off but without a gateway into the spiritual life. At this level, too, the achievement of individuals requires this larger cultural framework as a foundation. People are enabled to value generosity, to admire it, to cultivate and practice it, only to the extent that the society’s history and language have made that possible. Wholesome attitudes and social structures can be a necessary expression of the dharma, just as much as the actions of individuals.

* * *

The Diamond Sutra, which emphasizes the concept of emptiness, says that real giving goes beyond concepts of giving. The practice of Dana Paramita helps us to see through our normal concept of giving, which is something like “I’m over here, and I’ve got this – and you’re over there and you don’t have it. Now I’m going to give this to you, and I can give myself credit for doing that, and you’re going to be grateful to me for it.”

This way of giving is deluded. It assumes I have something and you don’t. True giving is the recognition that nothing I have has ever been mine, and that you are not separate from me. Perfect giving means going beyond the conceptual framework of giver, receiver, and gift. Separation is a concept, but it’s not the reality.

We all start practice from a place of self-centred interest: we want to be a better person, and that’s where we begin. Through the practice of generosity, we open bit by bit, to the possibility of unselfconscious giving which doesn’t see a separation between self and other.

There’s a fascinating aspect to this practice. Although we do nice things for people we like, we also come to like the people we do nice things for. There’s a modern name for this; it’s called the Ben Franklin Effect, and predictably, it’s been promoted as a way to manipulate people, but we’re looking at it here as a technique for self-cultivation. (By the way, the opposite is also true: we tend to despise people we have harmed).

So generosity is a training program through which you come to understand, not just intellectually, but as a felt sense, the reality of non-separation by acting as if we’re all in this together, which happens to be true.

And who should we be generous to? Everyone, without consideration, without holding back – and that includes ourselves.

Thich Nhat Hahn says we can offer our joy, our happiness and our love. These are manifestations of the dharma. (Isn’t it a wonderful thought that the cultivation of our own happiness is an aspect of the practice of Dana Paramita?)

We can also share our presence, and our time, and attention. Unlike material goods, where our share is diminished when we give part of it to someone else, being present to another person does not diminish us at all; on the contrary, it enables us to better take in the gift of their existence.

Recognising and acknowledging the existence of another person – just a word, or a smile – can be a profoundly valuable gesture. And there can be times when this gift of recognition is crucial. There are occasions when a person is overwhelmed by the pain of their own existence. Sometimes the pain has a discrete cause – the death of a family member, or a personal failure or disappointment; at other times the cause is harder to determine, like the pain of anxiety or depression. Simply to notice and to communicate a sense of understanding and care is an important aspect of the practice of generosity.

Thich Nhat Hahn also talks about the gift of stability. This is another way to think about equanimity. If we’re stable, we can remain present in the face of another person’s pain or distress, without either turning away or rushing in to fix them. That’s not only giving the gift of dharma, but is a form of the gift of fearlessness.

Sometimes people default to isolating themselves in order to manage their own distress. The ability to see through someone else’s avoidance or distancing of themselves, and to give them the benefit of the doubt, is both a form of generosity and a sign of our own freedom not to be jerked around by our own reactions. It’s never a good idea to take someone else’s behaviour personally, even when it’s intended. Sometimes the gift that a person needs is precisely NOT to conform to their aloofness, but to demonstrate the courage of meeting their suffering with both equanimity and compassion. In such circumstances, we are both giving them companionship in their place of suffering, and lending them our fearlessness.

Another form of giving is apology, with or without amends. Admitting that we acted harmfully, or even just insensitively, is a relinquishment of our own need to be right, and may be exactly what the situation needs. Paradoxically, when we carry shame over something we have done, we may need to relinquish the shame before we can engage with the situation sufficiently to make amends.

On the other side, forgiveness is an act of generosity: a relinquishing of resentment. It doesn’t mean no wrong was done, nor that we’ve forgotten the wrong that was done, but we can give up the grudge we hold against the doer.

And of course wisdom is needed always. Even the most selfless acts of generosity may be misguided and have unintended consequences. Consideration is necessary of both the situation of prospective recipients and the wider context of the situation, as well as our capacity to be generous and helpful in the future.

In a sense, there’s a balance to be struck between self-concern and concern for the well-being of others. It serves no one to give in such a way that you or others are harmed, or your ability to go on serving is undermined. Stories of heroic self-sacrifice may be glamorous, but not always the greatest good. Balance is an inescapable practical necessity.

Lastly, perhaps the most powerful way to cultivate generosity is to realise that everything we have, from material goods to our very lives, has been a gift. Life itself was given to us; we did nothing to earn or deserve this greatest gift of all, and the only appropriate response – as well as the one that feels best – is gratitude. Gratitude ripens us – it softens and sweetens us, and leads us to want to share the gifts we’ve been given.

Some questions to consider as you turn your attention to the practice of Dana Paramita in your own life:

In any given situation, what is needed? What can you give? Who would benefit? How might your giving affect others? What unintended consequences might there be? Is the receiver of the gift empowered or disempowered by it? What are the impacts on relationships – both between you and them, them and others, and you and others? What are the long-term effects?

What motivates you? What rewards do you hope for? Are you hoping to receive something in exchange? To be accepted? To be admired or praised? To simply think well of yourself? There is nothing wrong with any of this; it’s where most of us start, and continue for a long time, though it does change over time. We all give according to our understanding of the separation and connection between ourselves and others. As we develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of who we are and how we fit into the larger world, generosity becomes a more natural act, and eventually simply a spontaneous response to the fact that others are in need or there is good to be accomplished.

What are the likely downsides or difficulties or obstacles to the full expression of what you have to offer? Time? Resources? Attention?

Introduction to the Paramitas

This is a transcript of the first talk to a year-long study group on the Paramitas which began on September 29th.


While the Precepts, and in particular the “prohibitory precepts” are mostly actions to refrain from – don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t misuse sexuality – the Six Paramitas are qualities we can actively cultivate. From the earliest beginnings of the Buddhist tradition, there has been a focus on deliberately shaping the kind of person you are, and the kind of life you will live. This is our singular freedom as human beings; it’s a freedom available to no other beings in the universe, so far as we know.

Although Zazen is the central practice of Zen, it’s not the whole practice. The whole practice is the whole of your life. For most of your life you’re not sitting in meditation; your life off the cushion is not only where the fruits of your practice can be seen, but provides a cornucopia of practice opportunities.

Buddhism is a radically practical system; the primary purpose of its philosophy is to guide the practice that is our life. At the centre of this practice is the cultivation of particular ideals of human character. We might think of character as that part of our overall identity that is shaped by the choices we make, rather than a given of our birth or our personal history. It is through our character that we undertake enlightening practices in the first place, and it is our character that becomes enlightened. When we act in accord with our own vision of the good, our acts are shaped by that vision, and our character is in turn shaped by our actions. Our behaviour forms, as well as expresses, our character. Cultivating character in this way presupposes that we are both free and responsible.

The Paramitas constitute a series of bases for training our minds and hearts, but – like the Precepts – they also describe the qualities of an enlightened being.  If you really know, in your heart and your bones, that everything is transient, and that nothing, including our “selves”, has an existence independent of everything else, you would naturally act in a way that manifests these qualities.

And as we found in working with the Precepts, our understanding of excellence grows as we develop and move toward it, and we revise and enlarge our image of what perfection might be. As one sutra says, “Enlightenment is just the path, and the path is enlightenment.”  This was very much a perspective emphasised by Dogen: to be moving along the path of self-cultivation is the very meaning of “enlightenment”.

The Sanskrit word traditionally translated as “perfection” is paramita, and there are different versions of the origin of the word. By one account, paramita derives from a word meaning “gone to the other side” – something is perfected when it has gone right beyond what it would be in an ordinary life. But other scholars link the word to one which means “excellent” or “supreme” – something is perfected when it arrives at a state of excellence.

In English, the word “perfection” is actually rather troublesome. It implies a final point of completion, beyond which no further development is possible; if something is perfect, you don’t want to mess with it, as that would just ruin its perfection. Not only would this be the end of practice, but it implies that there is a version of “perfect” that is the same for all people in all situations and all times.

Nothing could be further from the essence of Buddhist philosophy, which is that all things change in complex ways, that nothing is fixed or static, everything is contingent and contextual, and that like everything else, the path of enlightenment is open and ongoing, without end.

A more fitting way of thinking about the development of character would be one that fits our actual possibilities, and that can be revised as our situation in life changes, or as our horizon of understanding expands. So the idea here is that enlightenment is not something static and unchangeable, because human beings are not static and unchangeable. Our practice evolves with us, and in response to the conditions and challenges we face. The Paramitas, like the Precepts, are all about relationship: our relationship with others, with the world, and with ourselves. And they are best studied in relationship with our dharma sisters and brothers.

The Six Paramitas are:

DANA: Generosity     This overlaps with the Precept of not taking what isn’t freely given, and giving all that you can.

SILA: Morality     Proper conduct, which requires the self-discipline to hold back, and not act on every impulse.

KSHANTI: Tolerance     Patience, tolerance, and endurance. The ability to meet situations creatively, to make use of them and not be laid low by them.

VIRYA: Energy      The ability to apply ourselves with enthusiasm and diligence, to have the strength and courage to offer ourselves wholeheartedly.

DHYANA: Meditation      The capacity to be attentive to what’s actually there, rather than lost in the windmills of your mind. The capacity to work with all of the Paramitas flows from our sitting practice.

PRAJNAPARAMITA: Wisdom     The actual felt sense that all dharmas are empty of independent existence. It is said that prajnaparamita pervades all the others.

These qualities describe the path of our Bodhisattva practice. We practice precisely by practising generosity, moral conduct, meditation, patience; we apply ourselves wholeheartedly. This is how we find a way to live in this world as it is, with some happiness – hopefully helping others and not making things worse.

Like the Precepts, the Paramitas are a lifetime practice, and as we found when working with the Precepts, they are like a piece of cloth – wherever you pick it up, you are picking up the whole cloth. Each of the Paramitas implies the others. In order to practice Generosity, you need to be attentive, you need energy, you need patience, and God knows you need wisdom, otherwise you get ridiculous projects like the NGO that gave Jersey cows to the people in the mountains of Nepal, or the people who sent lingerie to the refugee camps. The generosity was there, the wisdom wasn’t. We can be quite misguided in our efforts to be generous, especially when we are offering out of our own distress at the other person’s suffering, or our own fantasy about their suffering. It requires a degree of wisdom to know what to give, and how to give, for the real benefit of not just the direct recipient but the wider sphere.

Now more than ever, in these crazy times, we need to live lives that are full of integrity , meaning and benefit to others. We can’t afford to be living on this planet just thinking of ourselves. We need a bigger way of life. But we’re just ordinary people in the world – what could this bigger way of life mean? What do the Paramitas look like when we live them?

That’s what we’re going to be exploring.

In this class, be generous in your listening, and courageous in speaking. As our practice deepens, bit by bit, in a variety of ways, we create activities, habits, practices, that accord with our vows. Use the space to try things out – you might not be sure of an idea, but it’s a chance to see what it’s like when you express it – is it true? Is some part of it true? As always, we have the opportunity to practice within the microcosm of our Sangha, in the ways we relate to each other.

An Introduction to Precepts Study

This is the text of a talk I gave at the start of the current cycle of Precepts study, in September 2016.  Much, if not most of it, was shamelessly lifted from the very wonderful talks given by Zoketsu Norman Fischer on the subject; audio recordings of these and hundreds of other talks can be found on the Everyday Zen website.



The Precepts are properly called the Bodhisattva Precepts. The word Bodhisattva literally means “enlightening beings”, beings who work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings. As Zen practitioners, our way is the way of the Bodhisattva: all of us are Bodhisattvas in training.

It has been said that Zazen consists of two parts: sitting down, and getting up again and taking our places in the world.  We sit in order to cultivate the spaciousness and stability that makes it possible to practice beautiful conduct. That’s the whole point of practice.

Practice is about beautiful conduct. It’s really about how we live: how we conduct ourselves on a moment by moment basis, through our own lives, and in relation to the lives, and the Life, around us.

And the Precepts simply describe beautiful conduct. They’re not rules about “right and wrong”, but rather the way someone would inevitably conduct themselves from a felt sense of being inseparable from the flow of life.  When we truly know, in our bones and our blood, how deeply our lives are intertwined, it is inevitable that we will aspire to support life in every way that we can. This felt sense is the basis for beautiful conduct.

But of course, all conduct isn’t beautiful; recent (and not so recent) political developments are painful reminders of this. We’re human beings; we get anxious, we get angry. We experience ourselves as separate, and sometimes at odds with, the world, or parts of it.

So the Precepts can also be a lens through which to look, in a way that’s up close and personal, at some of our conduct that arises from a sense of separation and being at odds with the world. The word “Dukkha” – which is usually translated as “suffering” – literally means “a wheel out of kilter”.  When we feel out of kilter, the Precepts can help us name the wobble, so that we can feel into it more closely, and get to know that part of ourselves.  As we view our behaviours through the lens of the Precepts we might recognise some of these behaviours as outdated habits; and it’s more than likely we’ll run into parts of ourselves that are afraid, angry, that feel isolated or in despair.  Bringing these parts into the light of day, where they can be met with compassion, opens them up for healing.

And in the process, we will certainly discover, over and over again, that it’s simply not possible to follow the Precepts in some absolute way, as if they were rules. It’s sometimes really hard to know what’s good or bad, right or wrong – and the longer we live, the more we realise this.  Life is just too messy, too complicated, every situation is unique, and we have no idea how things will actually turn out once we’ve launched an action onto the ocean of life.

So although we may sometimes feel regret, or remorse, for things we’ve done – and may even find ourselves continuing to do – there’s never any need, when working with the Precepts, to condemn ourselves, and certainly no need to condemn others, who are struggling with the same complexities of the world and their own conditioning, just as we are. In looking closely at ourselves, and how we conduct our lives, we simply discover how painful it is when we don’t apply the Precepts. And that can motivate us to try something different: something more wise, more compassionate, more generous – something that looks more at the whole situation rather than just one little part of it that we identify with.

So we just face each moment according to our best understanding, and our vows, and try to see what’s the best way to conduct ourselves right now.  Given who I am, given who you are, given the situation – it’s not always easy to know, but we do our best.  And if we’re lucky we get a little help from our friends, who are on the same path.


Each precept is understood on three levels.

The first is the literal level; the ordinary literal understanding. The first articulation of the Precepts was actually a list of rules – it was the rules that made it possible for a group of young men, monastics, to live and practice together on a daily basis.

On this level, “don’t kill” means literally don’t kill, don’t murder; but considering it in a broader sense, it also means not to kill in other ways: not to diminish anyone or anything, not to undermine someone’s confidence or creativity, but to nurture life. That’s the literal level.

The second level is called the compassion level. At this level, we recognise that the network of causality in this world is complex and subtle; nothing is linear.  “Pick up one speck of dust, and the whole world comes with it”.

So sometimes, not to kill one thing is to kill something else. In fact, it’s impossible not to kill; even the most scrupulous organic farming, even the life of the strictest vegan, involves the deliberate or accidental killing of living things.  So at this level we vow that when we have to break Precepts, it’s always from a place of compassion. Our lives are actually full of rules, from the law of the land, to the rules of our communities, our workplace, and our own families, not to mention the internal requirements we have of ourselves.  So part of this vow is to break those rules when it is necessary in order to be kind.

The third level is called the ultimate level; this is the ineffable, mysterious level.  I’m not at all sure I understand this, but I will offer you my very imperfect understanding, which is twofold: First, when your life flows from an awareness of the indivisibility of all things, and the sacredness of all things, rules just get in the way.  Spontaneous right action occurs.  We’ve all had moments like that.

Second, every ethical value contains a paradox. How can we support life when to be alive is to be dying?  How can we speak truthfully when the truth can’t be contained in words?  This is sometimes called the koan level of the precepts; it’s the level of engaging with the impossible, just like when we vow to save all beings, or to end all delusions.  It’s impossible, and that’s what we do.

One of the things we become familiar with in the process of studying the Precepts is our tendency to make sense of things without all the relevant information.  In fact, we never have all the relevant information, but our minds are designed to connect the dots and fill in the blanks, compulsively making meaning based on the tiniest smattering of information, combined with what our unconscious – our working model of the world – already “knows”.  It takes some discipline to slow down and let ourselves not know, because it’s uncomfortable to not know, and we have to build up some tolerance for the cognitive discomfort of not knowing.  Sitting Zazen is helpful in this.

Another way of looking at this is “Where do we take refuge?”  Do we take refuge in our beliefs, in our stories about how things are, which is to say: the way we are accustomed to connecting the dots?  Or can we open our perspective to something more spacious and mysterious, that includes more of the world.

Traditionally, the first three Precepts are the Refuges:

I take refuge in Buddha.
I take refuge in Dharma.
I take refuge in Sangha.

The Pali word translated as “refuge” is Sarinam; it means protection or shelter.  The English word refuge means “to fly back” – to return, to fly back home, to our actual true home, to our true nature.

Buddha is not a thing; it’s the essential nature of existence itself, beyond projections, desire, and wish.  It includes and embraces everything: all the coming and going, arising and passing away.  To take refuge in Buddha is to recognise this as our true home –  as what we most deeply and truly are – and to return to it over and over again, as the primary commitment of our lives.  We turn the mind around, from where we habitually and unconsciously take refuge – in our beliefs, in our entanglements, all the things we grasp at, both inside and outside – and find that we can appreciate all those things as forms that arise and fall away, without having to be caught up in them. We can take shelter in the only thing that’s reliable – our own true nature – and it’s a continual, never-ending, commitment and process.

If Buddha is this naturally arising undivided awareness, Dharma is what we’re aware of: the reality of life as it is.

In a more narrow sense, Dharma refers to the teachings; the guidance we receive from teachers who can remind us of what we are, and who help us to return.

And if we’re open to it, we receive teachings all the time, from everyone and everything. There’s a beautiful poem by Dogen called the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, about the teachings of the Mountains and Rivers, based on a poem by an 11th century Chinese poet, Su Shi, that contains the lines:

The voices of the river valley are the [Buddha’s] tongue,
The form of the mountains is his pure body.
All night long, thousands of Sutras.
On another day, how can I tell them to others?

Sangha is the community of practitioners.  In most countries of Asia, the word Sangha refers to monks and nuns, people who have taken formal vows of renunciation.  But in contemporary Zen, we understand Sangha to include not only those we practice with in a formal way, but also the web of causality that embraces everything that is, not only practitioners but all human beings; not only human beings, but all living beings; not only living beings but all sentient beings: stones, trees, mountains and rivers – these are all members of the Sangha.  To embrace all of life — all that is — as our own life is, in the widest sense, to take refuge in Sangha.And it’s quite natural for us to forget about all this; that’s just what it’s like to be human: we forget. People are walking, perfect miracles, and at the same time so tragically messed up.  They can be counted on to be fear-driven, to act not from their best selves, but from some part that is out of kilter.  Normal, everyday consciousness is a state of forgetfulness of who we are.

So we need to be clear about where we aspire to take refuge, so that we can recognise when we take refuge somewhere else, and remind ourselves and each other of who we really are, and what’s important.


The next three Precepts are known as the “Pure Precepts”.  They are basically (in the simplest rendering):
I vow to refrain from evil.
I vow to cultivate goodness.
I vow to live for the benefit of all beings.

Everything’s in there, but they’re a little too general to give you much traction in working with them.



And so we come to the ten “Grave”, or “Prohibitory” Precepts, which have been condensed into eight for the purpose of this course of study.

1. Not to tell lies.

2. Not to publish other people’s faults.

3. Not to extol oneself and slander others.

4. Not to use intoxicating drinks or narcotics, nor assist others to do so.

5. Not to take what is not given.

6. Not to commit or participate in unchaste conduct.

7. Not to be angry.

8. Not to lead a harmful life nor encourage others to do so.



We’re not just studying the Precepts as a theoretical exercise, nor even as a psychological exercise.

Dogen said “Ordinary people are pulled by their karma; Bodhisattvas are led by vow”.

There’s a lot of confusion about the term karma.  There’s a popular misconception that it’s a sort of cosmic system of rewards and punishments, and that if you act harmfully, you’ll be punished – if not in this life, then in some future life.

If we think about this a little more deeply, a different picture emerges:  What we identify as “myself” is simply the sum total of causes and conditions, both now and in the past.  We have certain behavioural tendencies – including habits of thought – simply by virtue of the millions of years of evolution that produced the life forms that we are.  And we have other behavioural tendencies – including habits of thought – as a result of our personal histories.  We find ourselves, in every moment, situated in a complex and subtle web of influences, most of which is completely beyond our awareness, let alone our control – and any action we take reverberates in turn through that web so that we can’t possibly know the ultimate outcome.

All of this is karma.  Karma means “action”.  It’s the sum total of all the actions, now and in the past, in this vast, indivisable, always changing, universe.

But here’s the thing: as human beings, we have the possibility of setting a course through it all. We don’t have to passively go with the flow like a dead fish, acting out all the impulses rising up out of our conditioning, being pulled this way and that.  As human beings, we have the capacity to find a Polestar, an orientation point that allows us to transform the “given” of conditioning into a path.

I particularly like the metaphor of a Polestar, because it illustrates the difference between a vow and a goal.  A goal is something you hope to achieve; it’s a place you can arrive at – so you either get there or you don’t, and then it’s done, and you’re onto the next thing.  A Polestar is an orientation point; and vowing is dedicating yourself to that.  Vow is dynamic, it’s not just setting your course but continuously moving along it, wholeheartedly.

Vows are actually impossible to achieve. To take the Bodhisattva Vows as goals that could be achieved, is delusional. “Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate all of them?”  “Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to overcome all of them?”  Who do we think we’re kidding?  So a Vow is not a Goal.

A Vow is also not a promise.  A promise is something made to someone else, some sort of Authority, even if it’s masquerading as an inner Authority, like a New Year’s Resolution.  If we keep a promise, we’re good kids; if we break it, we’re bad.

A Vow is a grown-up thing. It’s you, as an adult, standing up in the world and conducting your life according to all the wisdom and compassion, including compassion for yourself, that you can muster in any given moment.  And the next moment, and the next – each moment a Dharma gate, each moment a new chance to realise liberating action.

As we make the shift from being pulled by karma to living by Vow, it’s not that karma disappears.  It’s still there, and it’s powerful.  It’s guaranteed that we’re going to continue to make mistakes and do things we find regrettable.  When we chant “delusions are inexhaustible”, it’s the truth.

The question becomes: Where do you turn, where do you take refuge? Knowing that both your conditioning and your Vow are there, where do you commit yourself?  To your karma, or your Vow?  Your karma may be the storyline of your life, but what is your life about?

The Precepts are vows. The meaning of these vows opens up to us as we move into them, exploring them in our own lives, from our own perspectives.  As they open up, we grow into them, and the purpose of this group is to support each other in growing into our vows.  I hope – actually I know – that we will all learn a lot from each other.

So let’s start by reflecting on what brought us here, what is your deepest wish?  What is your life about?

Dear Human



Dear Human:

You’ve got it all wrong.

You didn’t come here to master unconditional love.

This is where you came from and where you’ll return.

You came here to learn personal love.

Universal love.

Messy love.

Sweaty Love.

Crazy love.

Broken love.

Whole love.

Infused with divinity.

Lived through the grace of stumbling.

Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often.

You didn’t come here to be perfect, you already are.

You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous.

And rising again into remembering.

But unconditional love? Stop telling that story.

Love in truth doesn’t need any adjectives.

It doesn’t require modifiers.

It doesn’t require the condition of perfection.

It only asks you to show up.

And do your best.

That you stay present and feel fully.

That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall

and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU.

Its enough.

It’s Plenty.

                                                                       ~ Courtney A. Walsh

The pleasure of really looking

A lovely snippet from the Grauniad:  Rose Blake, the daughter of the artist Peter Blake, describing a family visit to David Hockney in Los Angeles when she was 11.  He took them on a choreographed tour through the mountains set to music and timed with the sunset:

“It was a totally sensory experience, a living work of art, and even as a child I was aware of this. It was about light, landscape, colour, music, time passing and, above all, the pleasure of really looking. Hockney believed in this pleasure more than anyone.   As we drove through the rolling hills he said: “Looking at the world is good for you. The world is very beautiful when you look at it.”   As the sun set and the music crescendoed, I realised this drive was about being alive, being in the moment and being a tiny human being in this big beautiful world.”