All Places Are Sacred

I noticed the small Ganesh statue behind the counter as I was purchasing a six pack of Hard Orange Cream Ale. The statue was pink and enclosed in glass, as little statues of this kind sometimes are. I thought he appeared to have a beatific smile, but who the hell can tell if an elephant is smiling? Not me. The Remover of Obstacles wasn’t facing the customers, it wasn’t there for all to see. It was there for the man working behind the counter to look at.

And it was very small. It certainly escaped the notice of most patrons. I only noticed it because I notice iconography and spiritual things. That’s when I realized that the Indian man who runs the liquor store in my neighborhood is a Hindu. Not a surprise at all, of course. But it just served as a big reminder to me that spirituality exists everywhere.

People tend to think that spirituality only exists in sacred places. Those of us who are paying attention, the mystics, see it everywhere. There’s a metaphor we talk about in Buddhism sometimes. It’s called “Indra’s Net”. It’s an infinitely vast net filled with jewels. Each of the jewels not only reflects all of the other jewels. This represents the interconnectedness of all things. Every jewel reflects every other jewel. There is no separation. We are the same. You and I reflect each other. We are not separate from one another in any meaningful way.

Why did I mention this?

The description of Indra’s net tells us that everything is connected. Not just temples and sacred spaces. Everything is connected and everywhere is a sacred space.

More importantly, our spiritual practice doesn’t just exist in the temple and on the cushion. Our engagement must be in all of our lives.

I think that’s why even when he’s in what might be the least sacred space he goes to, that Indian man has a little sacred figure displayed. Because sacredness and spirituality exist everywhere, not just where we expect them. The mystic’s journey doesn’t exist just at specific places and times. The mystic’s journey is ongoing.

The world is my temple.

The Teachings of Clouds


My two favorite historical Buddhist teachers called themselves clouds.

I wonder sometimes if that is significant. In many ways there were not similar, but they both inspire me a great deal.

What does it mean to call yourself a cloud?

A cloud is like a wayfarer—a traveler just passing through. A cloud doesn’t stay, but it can do a lot to make the sky look beautiful when it’s there. A cloud is soft, not hard. Indeed, it is so soft, you can’t grab hold of it at all.

But a cloud is also unstoppable. A cloud can get through any obstacle with no difficulty at all.

A cloud can take any shape. It can be whatever form it needs to be.

A cloud doesn’t get pulled this way and that by the circumstances of the world. It just goes on. A cloud is free. A cloud doesn’t want or need anything. And it doesn’t waste time comparing itself to other clouds.

I’m going to tell you about these two Buddhist teachers who called themselves clouds, but I’m going to go backwards, so I’ll start with Master Xu Yun.

The lineage that my teacher transmitted to me was the lineage of Xu Yun.

Xu Yun was a Ch’an Master in China and he lived for 120 years. He lived from 1840 until 1959. Just imagine the amount of history he witnessed in that time. He called himself Empty Cloud. He spent a lot of his long life restoring old temples in China that had been destroyed. That’s why he was a cloud. He traveled from place to place, spreading the Dharma and helping it have a more solid foundation. He gave teachings to many people.

It’s said that he received Dharma transmission in all five of the original Ch’an lineages—an achievement that is mostly unheard of.

So, that’s why he was a cloud. Why was he empty?

In this we should, I think, take empty to mean selfless. He wasn’t caught up in the trip of I-Me-Mine, that we all so easily fall into. He saw himself as part of an interconnected whole. That’s why he was able to dedicate 100 years of his life to rebuilding temples for other people.

Xu Yun is the inspiration behind my lineage. His tireless work throughout his long life is something that impresses me.

The other cloud I want to write about has nothing to do with my lineage. He, in fact, didn’t leave behind a lineage and he didn’t transmit the Dharma to anyone. He lived in Japan during the 1400s. His name was Ikkyu, and he called himself Crazy Cloud.

He was like a cloud, too. He traveled from place to place giving teachings and had a habit of going to places where other Zen teachers would never go. He taught in brothels and bars. He was often seen giving teachings to artists, musicians and homeless people.

This is why they called him crazy—a title he was more than happy to accept.

He wasn’t very comfortable in Zen temples with the other monks. He found them to be more political than spiritual, with different monks competing for the highest positions. And he didn’t see much point in staying there. He wanted to take the teachings out into the world, so everyone could learn, instead of just those who visited or stayed in temples.

His temple was the world.

In the history of Zen he’s often viewed as both a heretic and a saint. He was wild and free in a lot of ways and I think a lot of us wish we were wild and free. But, at the same time he was incredibly dedicated to spreading the Dharma and gave teachings at every opportunity.

So, those two people are my inspiration. Xu Yun is the spiritual founder of my lineage and Ikkyu is my personal hero.

I want to be a cloud too. Do you?

Why Are You a Buddhist?

People ask me once in a while why I’m a Buddhist.

Sometimes they ask because it seems weird and foreign to them. Sometimes they ask because they think I should follow some other religion. Sometimes they ask because they are simply curious (often I am the only Buddhist that they know).

I never really have a good answer.

It would be easy to say, “Because meditation practice has become a regular part of my life.”

But, that doesn’t work. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate. I could have embraced meditation to manage my anxiety and improve myself without becoming a Buddhist.

People do that all the time. A lot of the people I meditate with practice other religions or no religion at all. And that’s okay.

So, why am I a Buddhist?

It’s the fastest growing religion in America, but still uncommon.

People sometimes ask me if my parents were Buddhist, if I was raised in this religion.

No. My parents weren’t Buddhist.

That makes me think, of course. Some of us step outside the religion we are raised with, but most people don’t.

I was a bit of a spiritual explorer from the beginning, but I’ve come to understand that a majority of people just don’t think about spiritual or religious topics much.

Why do we think that a good reason to accept spiritual teachings is “because my parents did” or, “because the people around me do”?

Seems weird to me, but I guess that is the way we think.

There’s nothing wrong with staying with the religion of your parents, but this assumption that we are supposed to strikes me as bizarre.

That being said, why did I become a Buddhist?

I sometimes think losing my parents was a part of the reason. Suffering often leads people to ask big spiritual questions.

The Buddha lost his mother as a young child. Zen Master Dogen lost both of his parents as a child. They were both inspired by these great losses to seek out and understand the truth about suffering and our place in the world.

Did the deaths of my parents cause me to search for spiritual truths and ultimately find Buddhism? I think so. So many people in the world don’t ask the deep questions: Why are we here? What causes suffering? What is reality?

The suffering caused by my loss led me to these questions.

But why Buddhism?

There are many spiritual paths I could have entered to ask and try to answer great spiritual questions. But Buddhism was the one I chose.

Sometimes, though, I think I probably didn’t choose it.

The truth is that when I learned about Buddhism, I felt pulled into it like gravity. I had to learn more. So I started studying and studying as much as I could. It felt like something had been missing from my life all along and I was finally finding it— a coherent and developed philosophy that matched the way I look at the world.

The cultivation of the six perfections (generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration and wisdom) seems like absolutely the best way to live my life. I am on a mystical path of self transformation.

Any other path wouldn’t feel right to me.

I resisted at first. For a while I was studying Buddhism, but I didn’t want to become a Buddhist. But I couldn’t resist. Like I said, I was pulled into it like gravity.

One of my Zen teachers said he thought I might have karma from a past life that directed me to this path.

I’m not sold on the idea of past lives. I’m a skeptic in that regard. But that statement made sense.

Why am I a Buddhist?

I can barely imagine not being one.