This is a talk I gave at Midcontinent Public Library. This was done virtually without a live audience. I am going to do an in person class with Midcontinent at some time in the future. They have a lot of great educational videos on their YouTube Channel and I’ll post the link below. You should check them out.
It was back in 2017 when one of my teachers, Lama Chuck, retired from the Rime Center. I just called him one of my teachers but I don’t think he ever liked me very much.
When he retired he said something that didn’t mean anything to me then, but it’s jumping out at me now.
You see, his replacement Matt didn’t know if he should call himself a Lama or not, or so it seemed. And Chuck said publicly, in front of everyone, “This is what my teacher told me. If you’re doing the work of a Lama, you are a Lama. Running the Rime Center makes you a Lama.”
In that moment Matt became Lama Matt.
I’m not, however, writing about Matthew Rice and Chuck Stanford here. Maybe some time I will, but not now. I just wanted to write about that one quote.
“If you’re doing the work of a Lama, you are a Lama.”
Today, right now, that quote is enormously meaningful to me. Because you can reverse it. “If you’re not doing the work, then you’re not…”
Twenty years ago I first started exploring Buddhism. I started studying and practicing without the support of a community. I had given up the religion of my family and at first I was one of those irritating atheists that judges religious people. Then I found Buddhism.
And it just felt right to me.
I don’t know if I believe in karma or fate or past lives, although my view of such things have softened in recent years. I just know that when I started learning about Buddhism it felt like something that was already part of me, like I was supposed to find it.
And for 9 years I practiced it by myself. I’m not by nature a very social person. I don’t really have close friends. It’s hard for me to feel like I belong anywhere. So joining a community scared the shit out of me. The truth is I still don’t know how to fit into one. So, I read every book I could get my hands on and I spent a lot of time meditating.
Eleven years ago I joined the Rime Center. I thought some of the trappings of Tibetan Buddhism were silly and I really wanted to practice Zen Buddhism. But the truth is I didn’t know what I wanted. I realize that now. But at the time I definitely wished there was a Zen Temple in Kansas City (there wasn’t and still isn’t)
I became a part of that community. I enjoyed practicing Buddhism with others and I was glad to be there and feel like I was part of something. I started volunteering in the children’s program (called Dharma School) and I eventually ended up running it. I took Meditation Instructor Training classes. I took Refuge Vows and got a Buddhist name (Kelsang Dakpa). I also took Pratimoksha and Bodhisattva Vows.
Vows are serious things and shouldn’t be taken or given lightly. I may write about those vows at some point, but not right now.
I started writing about Buddhism too. Not presenting myself as an expert, just as a sincere practitioner. I like to write, it’s the reason I got an English Degree in college.
Ten years ago I connected with a Zen teacher that lived here. He found me because of my association with the Rime Center. And he convinced me that a person could become a Zen Monk without changing their life very much. (in that organization they use the title zen monk. In most organizations zen priest is used instead)
Now, a few things are at play here. One is a person wanted me to be his student, that felt nice, like getting chosen first in sports as a kid (which never happened to me)
Why did I want to be a Zen Monk? Just because I had read “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, “Hardcore Zen” by Brad Warner, and “The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts. I really think that’s it.
So I was convinced that 1) I could become this without changing my life much and 2) that I should do that. To give him the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure he would say he didn’t mean to convince me of either of those things.
So I went through Zen Monk training, such as it was. I took the vows to become a Monk in that tradition. It wasn’t an incredibly rigorous training and it was mostly online. But I can say that I learned a lot.
But some things about this organization and this teacher (which I won’t name here) didn’t feel quite right. And when he suddenly changed the rules on me, I knew it was time to leave. He said, “We’re going to start expecting monks to wear robes all the time” and I knew I would not do that. I didn’t really want to wear robes at all, let alone all the time.
So I left the organization. That rule was lifted really soon after I left, I think. But maybe things happen for a reason. There wasn’t much of a community to it anyway and during that period I had never quit going to the Rime Center. I don’t think that teacher is running a community now, but I could be wrong.
I still had this idea that he had planted in me though. I wanted to be a Zen Priest. I found some teachers on the internet that were willing and able (maybe even eager) to vouch for me.
The truth is I’m not doing the work of a Zen Priest, so I’m not one. I don’t have any students that are learning from me, I’m not doing Zen rituals for anyone, I’m not serving a Zen Community. And that’s what a Zen Priest does.
It’s the same with the word Dharma Teacher, which I’ve used at times to describe myself. I’m not doing the work of a Dharma Teacher. I have no students. I’m a Speaker and a Writer who is interested in Buddhism, but I’m not teaching anyone.
Lama Matt gave me the title “Gegan” which means Teacher in Tibetan. I felt incredibly honored when he gave me that title. It’s the word that gets applied to lay teachers. That is what I was when I was teaching at the Rime Center, a lay teacher. Although I certainly feel more connected to that title than Zen Priest, I can’t in good conscience use it. I’m not doing the work of a Gegan. That would be teaching Buddhism, which I’m interested in doing, but I’m not doing it. A teacher without students is not a teacher.
What work am I doing?
Occasionally I do teach meditation. I am doing the work of a Meditation Teacher, so I am a Meditation Teacher. I taught at a local library recently and not too long ago I taught at a store called Aquarius KC. I believe just about anyone can teach other people how to meditate. We tend to think there’s some great secret to it, but there’s not.
I’m also a Speaker and a Writer. I’m comfortable saying I am those things. I probably have more in common with Alan Watts than Thich Nhat Hanh, if I’m honest.
I’m trying to do the work of a Bodhisattva by studying, practicing, and cultivating virtue. I’m not going to say, “I’m a Bodhisattva” because that feels bigger than me. But I am an “Aspiring Bodhisattva”.
So that’s it.
I desperately wanted to be a Zen Priest for a little while. I have robes and everything. It’s weird and a little embarrassing to even look back on that now. I do an open awareness practice that is essentially the same as zazen, but I can’t call myself a Zen teacher or anything of the sort. Hell, I met some wise teachers like Dosho Port and Man Hae and this *really* should have confirmed for me that I am nowhere near being a Zen Teacher.
The truth about that is I trained with one teacher for a pretty short time, then I studied with some teachers on the internet. I wanted that to be more than it was. Emailing back and forth with a teacher isn’t really the same as training with them, no matter how much you do it and no matter how much they encourage you. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone that I said that. There are organizations out there that function on that premise. I see that in the modern world people are out there trying to have not only teachers, but also whole spiritual communities that exist online.
I don’t know how that works for anyone, I just know it does nothing for me.
I had a lot more training at the Rime Center, where I ran the youth program, went on dozens of retreats, sat with various teachers, and took many many classes.
I’m closer to a Rime Buddhist with some Zen influence than I am to a Zen Buddhist. And that’s very clear to me now. Maybe I just wanted to be cool and different from the Buddhists around me. I don’t know.
When a pandemic hit and I was struggling with all that uncertainty and isolation, it wasn’t zen teachings that helped me get through it. It was all those teachings I learned at the Rime Center.
Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva has turned out to be the guide to my life. I used to study these teachings while at the same time thinking I was somehow better than them, above them. I was so deluded.
I stopped going to the Rime Center three years ago. And when the pandemic started to lift I decided to go back. And it was just like going home again even though it’s in a new space.
I still want to teach people about Buddhism, but I’m not sure if that’s an opportunity that will ever present itself in my life again. I’m not doing the work of a Zen teacher or of a Gegan, at least not right now.
But I’ll keep doing the work of an aspiring Bodhisattva. Every day I’m trying to do good in the world, to be more mindful, and to help others. That’s what life is about and that’s what I want to do.
In the meantime, I’ve found a way to turn my career into something where I’m helping people that need help every single day as a Union Representative. I don’t want to make that sound like more than it is, but I’m trying hard to listen and to fight for people that need someone in their corner. To me that is the great Bodhisattva action of putting some good into the world. And I have a wife and four kids. And a garden full of Buddha statues in my backyard, because I’ve slowly grown more devotional in my practice. I never thought I’d grow more devotional but I have.
I don’t know what the future holds for me, but I know I’m letting go of things that don’t serve me and don’t seem to be part of my journey.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel regarding this pandemic. We have been struggling with anxiety and isolation for a year and it seems like the sun is coming out now.
Well, I can’t speak for everyone. I’ve been struggling with anxiety and isolation. We have had to face things that we weren’t prepared for. Not only that, but now here in the United States we are a deeply divided people. “People with different views are the enemy” is something that appears to be all too common now. Maybe the pandemic made people a little more prone to that kind of lashing out.
In September I got married, bought a house, and moved. It may have been the most eventful month of my life. Right in the middle of the pandemic my life had some big changes. And in October I got a new position at work.
At some point I realized I really was not meditating anymore. I enjoyed thinking about meditation. But I had fallen off the wagon.
I wanted to do something to re-commit myself. That’s when I started building a statue garden. My house had a shocking amount of old dead leaves in the backyard and some vines. I started cleaning that up and I discovered there had once been a tiered garden. As I was out there thinking about putting up Buddha statues, I found a statue. It was Fiacre, the Patron Saint of Gardening. I suspect he’s one of the lesser known Catholic saints. I decided to keep him in my Buddha Garden. He gets to stay and represent what used to be there.
I was making space for statues and then one by one getting them and placing them in the garden. There’s still some clearing to do out there and probably always will be. It’s a work in progress that never ends.
The spiritual life is too. I think there’s a deeper meaning to this. I didn’t create a sacred space. I uncovered one. You don’t become your true self, you don’t even awaken your true self, really. On the spiritual path you REVEAL your true self. Like finding a statue buried in leaves. It was there all along.
I have a statue out there that’s roughly the same size as me. And he’s surrounded by various other, smaller statues. And I go out and I spend time with them. I burn incense and rake. And one day I found myself chanting.
Chanting is my least favorite spiritual practice…or at least it was.
Being out there in the Buddha Garden, clearing leaves in a mindful way, brought me back to my practice. I’m chanting the Vajrasattva mantra for personal transformation 108 times per day.
Then a stranger reached out to me and offered to give me a big indoor statue. I have a big white Buddha in my living room. Like the one outside, this statute is life size. Getting that statue felt important. And having him right there, reminding me every day to practice…that means so much. I sit with the Buddha every day, burning incense, sitting, counting my mala beads, and chanting.
The truth is I struggled with everything.
I’ve been really interested in having a really simple spiritual practice. I wanted to just grab my cushion and sit for a little while each day.
And ultimately that wasn’t working for me anymore. Stilling the mind wasn’t enough. Taming the mind wasn’t enough.
The truth is that I needed something that hasn’t been part of my practice for a while. Heart centered practices.
I’ve for a long time had this view, “I want to be a Zen Buddhist, I want to be a Zen Buddhist, I want to be a Zen Buddhist.” I don’t even know why. Even when I was receiving teachings and empowerments at a Tibetan temple, I just wanted to be a Zen Buddhist. Even when I was named a Teacher (Gegan) in the Tibetan Rime Tradition, I just wanted to be a Zen Buddhist.
But the truth is putting myself into a box hasn’t given me everything my practice needs. I’m a Mahayana Buddhist. I practice the Great Vehicle, the Way of the Bodhisattva, the path of Wisdom and Compassion. The box isn’t real and it never was.
I don’t need to limit myself. All of the teachings and practices are available to me. They’re available to everyone and on this path no one gets left out.
I’m looking at a more open-hearted practice, a practice that builds bridges and brings people together. That’s not to say I’m changing all my teachings. I’m not. But I’m learning that practices that bring kindness and equanimity are just as important as practices that bring clarity and wisdom.
All these things run together as part of the spiritual journey.
My first encounter with Buddhism was the Tibetan tradition. I’m still leery of Tibetan Buddhism, but I’m welcoming elements of it back into my life.
The spiritual journey It’s with that in mind that I’m going to do a series of teachings on Training the Heart soon. Look for that in the near future. Let’s open our hearts and minds. Let’s open them as widely as we can. No one is left out.
Training the Mind is important, but Training the Heart is too. And if I’m sharing any teachings with others, it needs to be the teachings that I’m finding benefit from myself.
My new book, Sharpen Your Mind, is now available for purchase. You can click here to order your copy.
Are ancient teachings meaningful to our modern lives? Can regular people like you and me get something out of studying and practicing a 2600 year old spiritual tradition? In this collection Daniel answers these questions and more. This is about meditation practice for the real world. This is about applying ancient teachings to our lives and finding new meanings.
Daniel and Alicia talk about Baizhang and the Wild Fox. I invited my soon-to-be wife Alicia Marley onto the podcast again to talk about the second koan from the Gateless Barrier Collection. This is an odd koan with some magical things going on and the lesson might be a little hard to find. Our conversation ended up taking us pretty far afield from talking about the koan and we ended up asking questions like “is chanting important?” and “Can meditation make you a better criminal?”
Silent Illumination (mozhao) is a formless meditation practice.*
The Buddhism I really teach is Silent Illumination Chan. Its is a meditation practice founded entirely in the awakening of our true nature in the here and now.
These words aren’t used for no reason. “Silent” represents the core of our being. Some people prefer words like “emptiness” or “no self.”
What’s that? It’s our mind before thinking. Before we think about our baggage or the projections we put on the world. We have a lot of narratives and constructs around ourselves and the silence represents what’s underneath all that. There is what’s been called a “don’t know mind” or “beginner’s mind” that exists underneath these layers.
I call it silence.
When we can engage this silence, we can gain some insight. We can see that things are impermanent and that everything is connected. Sometimes this is called Selflessness, which is a kind of heavy and hard to understand word. It just means that we are part of the world. We didn’t come into the world, we came out of it and we are connected to everything.
The silent part of our mind is free from the coming and going of all our distracted thoughts and delusions.
We could say the silence is like the sky and all our thoughts and delusions, all of our bullshit, is clouds passing through. They just pass through and they’re gone. We don’t have to do anything except: not obsess about the clouds. The sky isn’t really effected by the clouds, and you don’t have to be effected by your shit.
The true nature of your mind is free from disturbance. And we can tune into that silence even when we’re in the middle of turmoil—even when everything is going wrong. That silence is still there. It’s not something outside of us. It’s not something we’re trying to gain; it’s there underneath. The nature of the mind is free of all that nonsense. And I call it silence.
Illumination represents the natural function of our minds, which is wisdom. This is related to silence because it’s that empty nature that allows this wisdom to appear. This is openness—mental freedom—the ability to change and liberate ourselves.
Illumination is the function of wisdom and it responds to the needs of ourselves and others.
It’s where we learn how to see things as they really are and have a more dynamic and clear view of the world around us. This is clarity beyond the stories we tell ourselves and our self image. It’s the sky without the clouds.
The practice is sometimes called “the method of no method” and that’s why some may find it difficult at first. Silent Illumination isn’t really a practice. It’s rooted in the idea that we already have the wisdom we are seeking.
To compare it to other forms of meditation, Buddhist meditation is usually put in categories of either calming (samatha) or insight (vipassana). One of these is designed to help bring stability to our scattered minds. The other is to gain insight into the nature of our minds.
Silent Illumination includes both. Traditionally it’s said that calmness leads to meditative absorption and insight leads to wisdom. In Silent Illumination these aren’t practiced separately. They’re practiced together because the truth is there is no separation. The true nature of calm is silence.
So how do we do it?
In sitting meditation we don’t try to do anything. We don’t need to try to force the clouds to go away. We just try to be aware of each moment. Just pay attention to the sitting that you’re doing.
We’re not trying to follow the breath; we’re not trying to keep a mantra. We’re not visualizing anything. We’re just being here. Be with your body sitting. Stop doing everything else and just sit. Every time you get distracted, just come back to sitting and notice how sitting feels.
Just be here.
When we sit in this way, the mind calms down and calmness (samadhi) comes. And after we do it a little while, wisdom (prajna) follows. And even if you have powerful experiences, even if you think you’ve made some wonderful attainment, still just come back to the sitting. This is all there is.
This is just a brief introduction. My favorite practice is the method of no method.
Last night I took my seven year old stepson to meditation with me. I don’t take kids to meditation unless they ask to go. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that would NEVER take a child to a meditation event and I do understand that. But I believe that, as mindful parents, we should share the practice with them if they’re interested. Some people believe kids can’t really get much benefit from meditation practice and I really disagree with that. A long time ago I used to teach meditation to kids. Sometimes I think about doing that again.
Anyway, he was determined to attend. I don’t know why. There are four children in our house and he’s the only one that seems interested. He has gone in the past and (to my surprise) participated in the whole meditation. An hour of sitting still is a long time for anyone, if we’re honest.
But, although he really wanted to go, he also brought some activities. He said, “Just in case I get bored.” He brought some Dogman books and a notebook for writing and drawing.
I wasn’t leading the practice. I had invited a zen monk named Thich Tam Cu to come lead for the night. He did a great job, by the way. So, I had the opportunity to just be a participant in the meditation practice, instead of leading.
Thich Tam Cu is someone I don’t know very well. He’s from the American South and many years ago he was in the United States Navy. He’s a Zen monk and hospital chaplain now. He’s student of Sunyananda Dharma who, a long time ago, was once my teacher. He’s been studying with him way longer than I did and is still studying with him today.
Whereas I decided a long time ago to take my teaching in a non-traditional direction, Thich Tam Cu did the opposite. He wore a yellow robe when he led meditation, because he wears robes when he teaches. He’s actually not as traditional as I thought he would be, but more traditional than I am. He uses humor just like I do, which I didn’t expect.
It seems like I swear and talk about memes, drinking, and how fucking hard it is to start and maintain a consistent meditation practice in all my dharma talks. Not traditional, a little different. I’d rather be your friend and inspire you than be your teacher.
Anyway, what I discovered was that his style is similar to mine. That time I spent training with his teacher may have had more influence on me than I realize. Who knows.
Maybe ‘traditional’ is just a word I’m attaching importance to that isn’t there. I’m probably not as different as I think. If I’m honest, for a second there I thought to myself, “Maybe I should get the robes out of the back of my closet…”
Anyway. I was there and we were sitting, doing a very similar practice to the one we do when I lead, presented by this monk in a very similar way to the way I present it. 30 minutes of meditation, just like we do when I lead.
My stepson sat with me a few minutes. Then he left to go across the room where he had his bag full of activities. It’s a big room, he was pretty far away.
We were sitting there doing the practice and I heard this ripping sound. Paper getting slowly pulled out of a notebook. Then, I heard some other sounds. He made a paper airplane and he was throwing it. He was, however, still being quiet, as quiet as one can be when throwing a paper airplane.
At first I thought, “Why the hell is he throwing a paper airplane? He knows what we’re doing here! He’s going to bother everyone.”
I was not mad, but I was irritated.
And I decided, since we were meditating, to bring attention to that irritation.
And I realized two things.
First of all: No one cared but me. No one even noticed.
He’s seven years old. He far exceeded all expectations for a 7 year old boy, as far as not bothering anyone. Between the meditation and the discussion (which was a Q &A) we sat there for an hour. That’s a long time for a kid to be quiet and all he did was make a paper airplane. (!)
And that’s when I found equanimity. In truth, I was only irritated for a moment. A moment was all I needed. That’s what meditation really gives us, I think. A little extra space between thoughts, or between stimulus and response, or a chance to reflect mindfully and stop a growing irritation. This is something that happens to all of us often. Some nonsense thing happens and we make it a bigger problem in our minds that it really is. We get bothered by so many things. The poet Charles Bukowski said, “We are flattened by trivialities, eaten up by nothing.” I really like that quote.
Would I have found equanimity if I wasn’t meditating at the time? I don’t know. Everything was quiet so it was really easy for me to hear the crafting of a paper airplane. In a more active day-to-day situation I may not have even noticed, and I wouldn’t have had that expectation that I was putting on him to be quiet. And the expectation I was putting on the room to be a quiet place.
The truth is that in meditation we’re learning how our minds work. We’re learning to see those gaps between thoughts. And when we learn how to do it on the cushion, the hope is that we strengthen those pathways in our minds so we can also do it when things happen off the cushion. The training we get in meditation is supposed to help us when we’re not meditating.
Otherwise, why are we doing it?
So, that’s my story.
A real and personal lesson. The gaps are really important. The space between thoughts. If we can get handle on that, we’ll be a lot happier.
This is the story that gets told as the beginning of the Zen tradition. The Buddha was a beloved and well known spiritual teacher. People just followed him around and listened to what he had to say. He would regularly just get up in front of a crowd and start dispensing wisdom.
On one occasion he stood up before a crowd. They were all very excited, thinking they were about to hear some great wisdom, something that would really awaken or encourage them.
The Buddha stood up and just stood there silently. Then, he held up a flower.
So, we can imagine, the crowd is thinking “What the fuck?” They were expecting some great, serious, profound teaching and they didn’t get one. It was just a flower.
They were holding onto their expectations, memories, and disappointment.
And one guy in the crowd smiled.
Why did he smile?
He smiled because he wasn’t holding on to anything. When he saw the flower, it was just a flower. He wasn’t carrying all the baggage and expectations that we often carry. Sometimes a flower is just a flower.
This story is meant to inspire and encourage us. If he can see the flower and just see a flower, so can we. We don’t have to bring all of our baggage into every situation all the time. We can also just smile at a flower.