My Journal - Q&A from 4 Months Living as a Zen Monk
Romantic love, the nature of self, right/wrong motivation, and other big questions about the mystery of human experience...
“It is wisdom that is seeking for wisdom.” - Shunryu Suzuki
Over my 4 months living as a guest student with the San Francisco Zen Center, I spent some thousand hours in study and practice.
I did my best to catalog my many questions and answers. What follows is my personal journal of answers I got to big questions. This is not direct quotation. I did my best to capture in my own words the wisdom generously shared with me by the compassionate, skillful teachers I practiced with.
If the insight in these words is unhelpful or mis-communicated it is due to my lack of skill. That being said, I’ve found this knowledge helpful in navigating the essential mystery of the human experience.
I’d like to thank Michael McCord, Norman Fischer, Jiryu, Abbess Fu, and Reb Anderson and the many others who supported my practice. Support SF Zen Center.
PS - Feel free to browse headings for the questions most interesting to you…
How can I tell if my motivation to do something is good or bad? For instance, if I feel compelled to go write an essay or read a book, how can I tell if that’s neurotic, compulsive energy and striving versus sincere,intrinsic motivation? It seems the great masters including Buddha himself went out and started temples, gave lectures, etc. they were very motivated. But I also hear a lot about “effortless effort” or nonstriving…
There’s really no activity driven by completely good or bad motivation.
There are numerous causes for any activity. Say I want to go to the gym. I do that because I want to take care of my body and have fun. Those are probably healthy, intrinsic motivations. I also might go out of vanity or a feeling of inadequacy. Those are perhaps not so healthy.
An extreme example – my spouse needs a kidney transplant. I might volunteer for this out of my incredible compassion and love for her. But at the same time, quite selfishly, I want to keep her around so I can continue to love her!
There’s almost never going to an absolute motivation. The important thing is the ability to sincerely identify the many things going into your activity. As I write this, I enjoy the process of exploring and organizing my thinking. The flow of writing is pleasant and perhaps my effort will serve others. Now I’m also totally narcissistic in thinking that anyone would care to read this. But if they did and these notes turned into a best seller, I’d be very pleased! So there is both some neurotic, gaining (extrinsic) motivation here and some intrinsic, calling fueling these notes.
Most everything is this way. So I think the way is simply to be honest with myself and do the best I can to optimize for good motivation and activity that comes out of spontaneous calling to serve as opposed to coming out of frenetic desire or gaining ideas (think pull rather than push).
Even before engaging with Buddhism, I recognized that romantic love is drug-like. It’s addictive. Once we’re “hooked” we seem to be dragged around by it often leading to suffering. Unlike friendship love that’s sort of a manageable “high”, romantic love seems to make our internal state contingent upon an external factor. I might get in a fight with my best friends and after a few hours I don’t really think about it. But with romantic love I feel a pulling in my chest just waiting for her to reply to my text. What’s the place of romantic love in a life well lived?
This is a tricky subject because romantic love is - in strictly biological terms - a device designed by nature to subordinate your will and reason to the priority of creating offspring. Let’s not forget that while all this religion, philosophy, and wisdom is quite helpful – it all comes out of the human mind. It’s not “real” in the sense of some absolute external truth.
The meaning of life, as expressed by nature, is not for us to be happy, to be ethical, or to fulfill any end other than perpetuating our branch of life. The universe doesn’t much care whether or not we suffer in this process of continuing the species – it just cares that we continue it. (Now I find it rather conspicuous that the universe has left us with a few seemingly “pointless” gifts such as the joy of play or the awe induced by natural beuaty, but I’ll leave that thread for another time.)
So this is the role of love - to drive you to perpetuating your genetic profile. I’ve observed firsthand how it can take hold and dominate me (for better or for worse). So to me it seems risky that I allow myself to fall into a process that will make my internal conditions dependent upon the external. My happiness should not depend so much on the whims of another. It’s very precarious position to be in.
At the same time, this will to love, procreate, and become companions seems baked into the human condition. The Buddha rejected ascetic philosophies that were overly harsh in denying our basic human needs. He found practices (such as starvation) to be rather foolish. He advocated a middle way of fulfilling our needs but doing so with mindfulness and temperance.
As I view examples of the many sexual misgivings that happen when practitioners are asked to maintain celibacy (e.g. catholic church) my hunch is to say that the middle way should allow for romantic love. To deny ourselves companionship seems to be like denying our need to eat and drink.
As I ponder this question I have had three discussions with great teachers…
One approach is to make romantic love the object of practice. With food, for instance, we know that we need to eat. So we should make food an object of practice. Making something into a practice means engaging with it intentionally and skillfully. So we don’t just eat whatever or get sucked down the rabbit hole of addicting food. Rather we try to eat in a way that is enjoyable, sustainable, and nourishing. We practice eating in a way that brings pleasure and satisfaction without the negative consequences that come from a way of eating that is unintentional and pleasure driven.
So with love we can practice around the sensation of love. Notice when we are being obsessive. Try to hold the other person as a separate entity that you are connected to. Prioritize their well-being and ground your love in compassion rather than possession. Having the power to skillfully work with and apply wisdom to romantic love can be a supremely challenging yet enriching practice. Naturally, there will be suffering in fulfilling our human needs just as there can be suffering that comes out of friendship, eating, and survival in general.
It’s important that as companions you must each be fully grounded as your own person. Think supporting and enriching each other but not clinging to or depending on one another. You are like two pillars which together form something greater but stand each on their own.
Kilhal Gibran writes “Love one another, but make not a bond of love: // Let it rather be a moving sea between // the shores of your souls. // Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. // Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. // Sing and dance together and be joyous, // but let each one of you be alone, // Even as the strings of a lute are alone // though they quiver with the same music.”
If each person in the relationship does not have a practice that keeps them solid and grounded then one or both will become codependent. For example, if I am not grounded internally then my state will be blown around like the treetops in the wind with every little thing she does or does not do. And even if she treats me well, I will grow to hate her because she exerts such a force over me even without her trying to.
So my view is that romantic love is a necessary challenge that we should practice skillfully and only consider if we have cultivated a certain level of self-mastery. Otherwise love will master us. And this, as many of us have seen, tends to get messy.
Another teacher I spoke with has a wife and two young children… Wisdom or the Buddha way does not mean cutting yourself off from love or holding something back. Now of course, there can be a practical consideration here. If you feel out of control or totally ungrounded in the romance, you may have to check yourself. It’s not recklessness, but wholeheartedness. It is fully embodying what you feel and being the fullest expression of who you are. We may think of two interpretations of Buddhism. One is a monk peacefully sitting beside the ocean. The other is a monk joyfully surfing on the waves. One can renounce love (sit beside the ocean) or practice with it skillfully (surf). One of these is not necessarily right or wrong. But if you do engage, do so with sincere expression. As Alan Watts reminds us: if you walk – walk, if you sit – sit, above all else don’t wobble.
What’s more this teacher got at a similar realization I’ve had: the best way to be in your relationships is to treat them as if you were dying. You give your full self and all of your love over - nothing held back. But at the same time you do not cling as you know that all things are impermanent. The truth is you are losing the person you love in every moment. If it isn’t a breakup or a falling out, someday it will be death. In fact, it is the impermanence of relationships that gives them their meaning. You are simultaneously loving and letting go in each moment. That is the greatest expression of love.
So first decide if you’re skilled enough to surf, or if you should sit on the beach. Then be prudent in your selection of waves - don’t be reckless. Love wholeheartedly but without clinging. Love as though you’re dying (because you are). And make sure you and your partner are sufficiently grounded in your own spiritual practice and personal develpment.
Friends and Family
I feel in Buddhism there is an image of renouncing one’s family and friends and setting off alone to seek wisdom. Then, having attained this wisdom one is free of attachment and, while still being compassionate and kind, one does not necessarily have friends or deep ties to the community. Think of the image of a wandering monk or a Tibetaan hermit. In my personal experience, however, good friendships and healthy family relationships are the greatest source of sustainable happiness. Further, in my happiness research it seems the scientific consensus is that quality relationships are the most important thing in determining life satisfaction and long-term health (See Grant Study Robert Waldinger). How do we reconcile this?
First, my interpretation of this “image” of Buddhism may be an overly dualistic and simplified stereotype. As I do further research I found the following from Wikipedia
In the Pali Canon's Upaddha Sutta (SN 45.2), there is a conversation between Lord Buddha and his disciple Ananda in which Ananda enthusiastically declares, 'This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.' The Buddha replies 'Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & comrades, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.'
So in this reading of the Pali canon it seems that having solid, healthy relationships with the right people is key to a good life.
A teacher I spoke with adds that this is sort of a paradox. We have to renounce or let go of friends and family in order to fully love them. We let go of the narratives and expectations of what a family or friendship should look like. In doing this we learn to love the person as the human being rather than the sort of role or narrative they fit into our lives as.
I’ve also found it helpful to return to the dying exercise I discussed in romantic love. We can bring this orientation to the rest of our relationships. If I were dying – all my relationships would become unconditional. I would love them all with my full heart, cherishing every moment, yet I would not cling to them. I would embrace them with great care yet not grasp them too tightly – as if I were holding a newly hatched chick. In this way I would be deeply connected yet standing on my own two feet. I think that’s the right way to be in our relationships. When we know we are dying then every moment with these folks is precious yet we know they’re already gone. So we avoid the excessive grasping, toxic idealism, and expectations that so often undermine relationships.
An important, practical caveat to add - unconditional does not mean tolerating abuse or toxicity. Be sure that your relationships are nourishing and healthy. If a relationship does not serve you, and it can’t be improved, Then it can be left behind.
Anxiety to Be Productive
I can tell that there’s an undercurrent of ambient anxiety and neuroticism in my moment-to-moment experience. It’s subtle. I can see this tension accompanying me throughout my day like a small pebble in my shoe that I barely notice. It is particularly geared towards a future-focus: what can I achieve and what should I do with my life? How do I practice with this?
Often your strength is your weakness. Neuroticism and the anxiety to get things done is actually a precious gift. It affords you the opportunity to prepare better circumstances for your future self. It’s good to recognize and appreciate this obstacle.
The first important thing is awareness. I should recognize my propensity for this. And I should hold it as if it were a baby. Let’s say you’re at the supermarket. You have your newborn with you and she starts crying. You don’t get mad at her. And you don’t engage with the crying or try to reason with her to be quiet. But at the same time you don’t let the crying stop you from getting your groceries. You just hold the crying baby in a gentle, tender awareness. You acknowledge it, but don’t become engrossed in it.
This is how I should treat this neurotic energy. It’s just a crying baby to be held – not rejected or answered to – as I go about my day. And with time it will quiet down.
On the note about preoccupation with looking ahead, this is a very human tendency. But remember that your life is a sacred koan. It is an unfolding mystery that has never occurred before in the entire history of the universe. So it’s like a good mystery novel – sure you should try to “figure it out” otherwise there’d be no book. But the journey of trying to answer this question is your life itself. It is the very process of seeking the answer to “what should I do with my life” that becomes the answer to it. So don’t try to beat the game – otherwise you don’t get to play the game. Just treat this riddle as sacred. Immerse yourself in the experience of solving it. For it is the mystery novel that you were meant to write.
Balance Today and Tomorrow
How do I keep a balance between future-oriented striving and being here for the present moment? Because it’s important to plan ahead or think about the future on some level.
Maybe there is no “keeping a balance”. The middle way is the essence of Buddhism. It is a non-dualistic approach that avoids extremes. For instance, the Buddha dharma is in the middle between asceticism and hedonism, determinism and free will, and nature versus nurture.
The middle way is dynamic though. It is something you’re always turning towards! Like slowly riding a bicycle, you are always turning into balance but you never rest there. So rather than a sort of steady-state, perfect harmony, you are really always moving towards balance. It’s like a gyroscope.
So rather than thinking I have to be “in balance” I should focus on coming back to center the best I can. When I’m ruminating or stressing over future plans - I can come back home. But maybe if I’m feeling a little complacent or I’m traveling to the airport I can turn towards the future.
A key tenant of Zen Buddhism is going beyond the dimension of conceptual thought. They say Zen is like climbing a 100 foot pole in order to jump off it or using a thorn to remove a thorn. The pole and the thorn represent Buddhist concepts that serve the end goal of freeing the mind being trapped by concept. So then why bother with rituals and robes and rules? Shouldn’t we go wander around in the woods or something? How do we separate the wheat from the chaff – the essential wisdom of Buddhism from everything extra?
For some people it would be much better to go wander in the woods!
There’s nothing special about Zen. I personally think the Buddha way is to go your own way. To take the universal principles expressed in Buddhism, but make them your own.
Shitou said “I walk alone.” Of course we are one with everything. We experience the universe embedded in an infinite web of causal relationships with all other beings, so we are not “alone” in that sense. But to say, I walk alone. That means I am responsible for being on my own two feet. I am responsible for insight and right living. I will not accept things dogmatically. I will be open minded. I will discover the truth of what is taught to me for myself. And I will discard what doesn’t serve me.
Maybe the robes, rituals, and what some might consider “fluff” of Zen are necessary. Maybe they are not. This is up to you, the practitioner.
So there’s somewhat of a delicate balance here. Where does one draw the line between what I might call “core wisdom” or the fundamental essence of Buddhism embedded in the many rituals and cultural traditions (eg tea ceremonies)? There is no line. It’s up to you to draw it. But do so with caution and humility.
Intuitive vs Intellectual Understanding
In contemplative practice and eastern philosophy as a whole there is this idea of insight beyond intellectual understanding. This has been compared to a finger (concepts and philosophy) pointing at the moon (ultimate truth). It’s using the intellectual to arrive at immediate, intuitive, experiential insight. I feel my intellectual side is really strong. But my experience and intuitive understanding are lacking. To use a metaphor, Zen is like climbing a high tree so that you can leap from the top. I can climb very well but I don’t know how to leap.
You don’t “leap” the same way you climbed. You don’t drop the finger the same way you point. You don’t forget the same way you remember.
The best advice I’ve gotten is not to “try”. In other words don’t “try to not try” or don’t make effort at effortlessness. Don’t try to leap by climbing. Can you see the pattern? Just stay ready – always ready – and eventually it will happen of its own doing.
Drop the dropping it. How could you possibly drop something by trying to pick it up?
If you just stay ready then intellect doesn’t matter. The intellect can be doing its thing and you’re just there – ready. Your intellect can fail you, you can get dementia. But you’re still there – ready.
It’s also worth noting that, despite the rich body of accompanying philosophy, zazen (sitting meditation) is like a form of yoga. That may be surprising for people given the western image of yoga. But the point is that it is a body practice. It’s about connecting to our embodied (emphasis on bodied) experience of reality. So it’s ultimately about sitting and connecting with your body and direct embodied experience more than some intellectual exercise.
Now, I don’t have to be too self critical. Thoughts and complicated ideas about Zen are not bad. But they’re not really the point. These thoughts during meditation are like birdsong or raindrops. You don’t need to think but you also don’t need to try to not think. Just treat the thoughts as birds chirping or rain drops falling. Don’t think of “leaping” or trying - just stay ready.
Making it Your Own
On some level I think I expected to come to this monastery and have some strong insight about needing to change my life. But I feel like I’ve fallen more in love with my life. I feel like I am not suffering as much as I’m told I am. I’m certainly not immune to suffering, but I think I kinda have it made. At the same time this could just be delusion or my confirmation bias. I’m wondering how to reconcile or distinguish between genuine contentment and self-affirming delusion?
Well, how are things?
You live in the wealthiest country ever known to man. We have so much to be grateful for. It’s really mind blowing. You have a lot of great opportunities to make a living doing things that fit your strengths and interests. You’re financially stable. You have, fortunately, maintained rather healthy relationships with friends and family. You really have got it made.
If you sincerely and authentically feel things are going right then don’t rain on your own parade! That would be foolish. Don’t convince yourself you’re suffering when you’re not. There are going to be plenty of times in your life when things are not going well. So just as you wouldn’t try to amplify the bad, why would you try to dampen or undermine the good?
At the same time, yes, there is likely some level of delusion and confirmation bias there. You have it, the teacher has it, the Dalai Lama has it. The important thing is the extent to which it’s operating. Clouds or fog can be like delusion or bias. There is always going to be some level of moisture in the air but then there’s a whole spectrum from light mist to fog to partly cloudy to overcast.
So to me it seems like the wisdom of Zen is let the good be good and let the bad be bad. Cherish the good and embrace the bad.
Play the Game or Not
My view of “self” sees the ego or the “functional self” Jackson Kerchis as sort of like playing a game. It’s like - I get excited about this thing, then I go do it, then I need my next fix. Or put my best foot forward and give a good impression to win someone over. These are games I’m playing - the achievement game, the social success game, etc.. But at the same time I kinda like playing the game. It’s like playing a role playing video game (RPG). Or playing slow pitch softball. I know it is empty - a trivial construct - but I kinda like playing it. Is it okay to sort of play the game but know I’m playing a game? Or do I have to renounce my engaging in all these games?
The important thing is sincerity. But then we must balance the practical.
I think it’s fine to meet the moment with the appropriate, practical energy. For instance if you’re going on a date then maybe you pay a little more attention to your outfit and your hair and stuff. That seems like you want to make a good first impression. Of course if you spend hours obsessing over it, that’s not great.
Another example might be interacting with your boss or teacher. So if you go through your top ten compliments you could give them and try to orchestrate your interaction with them so that you can compliment them or butter them up, that's insincere. But if you are talking and they say something wise or helpful then maybe you give a compliment. That seems honest.
So of course there are games – like hard drugs etc. – that you have no business playing. But it seems reasonable to play the right games sincerely and authentically. Don’t try to game the game, just play the game. Maybe you want to keep playing slow pitch softball. You don’t need to obsess over it or cheat or get so wrapped up that you forget it’s just a softball game. But you can still play it for the sake of playing it. Plenty of life’s other “games” are like this too.
Awareness in the Way of Awareness
Tony de Mello puts words to this very well. He says “Your ego in its cunning way can try to push you into awareness. You’ll be met with resistance. You can be anxious about being aware all the time. You want to be aware to find out if you’re really aware or not. Your attitude should be more like I want to be aware, I want to be in touch with whatever is and let whatever happens happen, if I’m awake fine and if I’m asleep fine. The moment you make a goal out of it and attempt to get it you’re seeking glorification. When you actually have awareness you won’t know – your left hand won’t know what your right hand is doing.”
My capacity for mindfulness or awareness has increased since being here. I have a lot of moments that I call “coming back”. Of checking in – ‘where am I?'. But it feels like these mindful moments are a double edged sword because it’s like the increased capacity for awareness also presents me with a greater capacity to be anxious or questioning about my awareness. I think Tony’s explanation is spot on for what I’m experiencing…
This can be a struggle for people who are achievers - obsessive or motivated.
Perhaps that’s why there is a Zen story of that goes something like this: a student says to his teacher, “how long will it take for me to reach enlightenment?'' and the teacher says “at least ten years”. The student says, “I will sit every day and study all the books and never stop practicing.” The teacher says, “Great, then it will take at least twenty years.”
We often think of awareness as this divine, bright, amazing thing in every moment. In truth, most of the time things are mundane. When you’re eating your lunch. That’s nice. But it’s mundane. Awareness is letting things be. It is “letting the mundane catch fire”. Don’t try to force things. The moment you question or analyze your awareness, you collapse the entire experience.
So don’t try to catch yourself in it or you’re like a fisherman who gets caught in his own net.
This relationship to awareness applies to meditation too. Just like eating your lunch, let the “coming back” to awareness be mundane. It should be almost unconscious like rolling over when you’re half asleep. Just come back to awareness in that way rather than thinking it’s some big thing. This will help to avoid making awareness into a ladder of achievement and pride to climb. And it will help prevent awareness from interrupting itself so to speak.
I feel my time perception has dissolved since moving to a monastic setting. (This has continued on some level now entering the working world). Have you experienced this? The days are fairly long but they blur together. And now the last few months feel like a few weeks…
This is normal. When my teacher was in Tassajara for 6 years he said it felt like 1-2. The days are long - they stretch out forever then a month is gone before we know it. The monastic environment is very strange in that we have so much time for simply being with time. Things are also very regimented, so we pay very close attention to time (10 minute walking, 40 minute sitting, etc).
Futher, many of our usual landmarks and structures we use to orient towards time are absent. The typical 5 days work and then 2 day weekend structure is gone. There are also fewer “landmark” or cognitively significant events (weekend trips, weddings, etc). I’ve had an interesting time examining the cognitive-construct nature of time.
It’s like traveling the open ocean. You might go 500 miles. You have idea where you are or how far you’ve gone. Then you finally hit land and you realize you’ve gone 500 miles. Moment to moment there was no sense of travel - then upon reaching the destination the sense of having gone 500 miles is realized all at once. That’s sort of how weeks and months have felt here.
But really, this whole question is rather ridiculous… I mean what should a week feel like? Is there an official description somewhere? It should feel like seven days? Well how does a day feel? This so called problem is all my own mind games.
Egolessness as Egoism
Now this is a bit tricky to put into words. But a large part of Zen practice is concerned with learning not to identify with this constructed image of “self”. It’s sort loosening the grip of the ego. Stepping back a bit from this idealistic construct of “Jackson Kerchis”. I worry that my practice of checking my ego can be another form of egoism. Sometimes I get ego gratification and swell with pride in thinking about how I’m getting weakening the grasp of my ego. “Oh look at me, I can see how my vanity is compelling me to do this. I must be so wise. I’m almost enlightened!” . This is rather ironic. It’s like taking pride in how humble you are.
I’m wondering how to avoid this or work with it.
Compassionate awareness is key.
It’s good that I notice this ironic trick of making egolessness, humility, and non-striving into a game of ego, pride, and achievement. But I shouldn’t be too harsh. The ego is like a little kid. It gets sad or giddy. It’s very fickle and temperamental. It’s immature! So I need to nurture it with love and also firm discipline when needed.
Another useful red flag is to notice if I’m curious or over eager to share my knowledge with others. If I feel very inclined towards the latter, that may be a problem. Especially, if I want to lecture or give unsolicited advice to others on ego renunciation. That is a good way to check in and see if I’m making my practice into an object of pride. The Zen way is curiosity.
Finally – it’s helpful to have old friends! They will bring you back down to earth. They will help check you and make sure you don’t fly too high on your sense of your development.
Essence of Zen
Basically my summary of Zen is it’s wanting the good and not wanting the bad but not getting wrapped up in this wanting. The Buddha said - I will let no pain have power over my mind. Then he said - I will let no pleasure have power over my mind. But that doesn’t mean we should be indifferent. We should choose pleasure over pain but let neither one dominate us. Is this right?
Well first off - I should probably check myself. I don’t think anyone can make a short summary of Zen - certainly not me! Further, it’s almost paradoxical to do so. To return to the finger pointing to the moon analogy. It is like trying to write a comprehensive verbal description of the moon. What can I say?
But, practically speaking this is on the right track. Maybe I want the cashews at breakfast to be perfectly roasted. But if they are not perfect that is fine - no problem. A friend said that Buddhism is not about not wanting things, it’s about how we are when we don’t get what we want.
I should maybe add that there is a strong process focus. Life is not preparation for something else. You should fully experience the process and loose yourself in the activity of whatever you’re doing as opposed to being overly focused on extrinsic gains. I shouldn’t spend my life doing things I don’t enjoy or distracting myself to serve my desires or aversions. As Buddha said above do not let these things have power over the mind.
I should do my best to live a good life and be happy but when things aren’t good or I’m not so happy, I am just fine - no problem.