Buddha’s Enlightenment Day Poem

by Susi Childress, Bodhisattva Dharma Teacher

2500 years ago, the Buddha saw a star and got enlightenment,
So they say.
I looked up last night and saw a star, but got no enlightenment,
Or so I say.

Why did the Buddha get enlightenment, but I didn’t?
Did he see a different star, and that’s why?
Am I maybe doing something wrong?
And what did he really get, anyway?

What is enlightenment?

Buddha, me, star, enlightenment, right, and wrong,
Who made this?

I’ve heard that everything is originally empty, 
So is any of this even important?
So many questions! 
The questions swirl around in my head 
Until the Buddha statue on my desk laughs at me
And shouts, “KATZ!”

Outside my house the sky is gray, and the frost melts off the grass.
Faces on the computer screen smile back at me
As I read my poem. 

Happy Buddha’s Enlightenment Day!

Buddha’s Birthday Poem

by Gretchen Neuwald, Dharma Teacher

Buddha’s Birthday Poem, April 2020

2500 years ago
baby slips out from his mother’s side
“a tidal wave without wind”
baby breathes in his first breath
mother breathes out her last
Infinite Buddha breaths
reaching backward forward
through time

At the lakefront
green grass pokes
through decaying leaves
blue waves crash
in and out
a carp carcass bobs
up and down
in the wash

On the sidewalk
bikes zoom past
yellow police tape wraps
the playground
in the breeze

Walkers everywhere
sporting face masks
pushing strollers
chatting at arms length
approaching each other
then stepping

At the stoplight
a runner catches
her breath
Up on the hill
nurses pause
back tears
While black men die
for air

One breath all breath
In out in out in out
Is this living?
Is this dying?
What is this?
Sea gulls shrieking
eee eee eee


From the Dharma Talk, Gretchen Neuwald

The world seems turned upside down, living and dying at the same time. It’s at times like this that the world as we know it seems to be ending; the new reality uncertain.

What is this coming, this going? Is the gate swinging open or swinging shut? Isn’t this the very question that Buddha obsessed about, the question that drove him from his home and family? For seven years he sat examining life and death, breathing in, breathing out, asking “What is this?”

Then one morning, gazing up at the morning star, he attained the truth of life and death, of himself, of the universe. So he passed down this practice to us. Only breath in, breath out.

What am I? What is this?

When you attain the life and death of this moment you attain your true self which Zen Master Seung Sahn called great love, great compassion, only help this world.

It seems to be a “only help, not for me” moment right now. So much sickness, death, uncertainty, and fear, unprecedented in our lifetimes.

Yet unprecedented also is the “not for me, together action” across the globe. So many of us are staying home, social distancing, sewing face masks, and reaching out to those who are lonely and scared.

Certainly we do this to protect and help ourselves, but largely we do it to help others, those most at risk of falling ill and dying and also for all those risking their lives to care for them.

So thank you for joining us this morning. Thank you for being here for all of us.


by Chris Rundblad, Dharma Teacher

This poem made me regard memory in a new way. I had spent months fighting the grief of loss, the end of good times, good places, good people. Memory became a relentless reminder of loss, and no end of sitting and cajoling, “Let it go” helped. And then, this, hanging framed on the wall of an art gallery:

“Remember” by Joy Harjo

Remember the sky you were born under,
know each of the star’s stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is.
Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving way to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother’s, and her’s.
Remember your father. He is your life also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people are you.
Remember you are this universe and this universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.


It hit me then that memory was not just a scab to be picked and wept over, but a way to honor and connect with the whole world, past and present, the three worlds of the Buddha. Swallow our pain, one of our teachers said at a retreat here, swallow it so you can digest it and it becomes transformed into fuel. Then we can be open to the dance that life is and know how to live in a universe where all is in motion, the strongest point of time at dawn and then the giving way to night. I find this poem by our national Poet Laureate such a sweet reminder of what we know to be true from our practice, but sometimes discover anew in different language. I hope you are moved by it too.

Dispatches from Swampland

by Gretchen Neuwald, DT

“Lotuses never bloom in the lofty hills or high terrain. Instead, this flower unfurls its petals in lowly swampland.”
– The Vimalakirti Sutra

I have a good work situation. I am fortunate to have a well-paying job with great benefits and wonderful co-workers. I work at a public library. I am paid to connect people with books, magazines, dvds, the internet, and all manner of wonderful resources. I help people from all walks of life find the information they need or are merely hankering for. How cool is that!  For the most part, I enjoy my work. I find it stimulating, rewarding, even fun. But not always. There are those times that being at work feels less like scaling a lofty hill and more like dredging through a lowly swampland. 

Many times I’m on that lofty hill. I might help someone locate a book they desperately need for a research project. Or I might recommend just the right novel to someone looking for a good read.  On any given day, I might reunite a lost toddler with their parent or a cherished bookmark with its owner. Perhaps its a day when a co-worker thanks me for my advice on dealing with a disgruntled patron. Or maybe I help an elderly person find that tax form they need. Or assist someone else with uploading their resume to a website. I feel pretty good about myself and my job at these times.

Other times my job is not so much fun. I have to tell someone they owe fines or have to pay for a damaged item. Perhaps I have to explain that they can’t get a library card because they lack the proper ID or live in the wrong county.  Sometimes I can’t find the item that they have on hold and expressly came in for.  People often get frustrated and irritated when I can’t help them. I get irritated and frustrated, too, because I want to help and dislike saying no. And then there are those times when someone gets angry, very angry. I find it hard not to get angry back when all that negative energy is directed my way. Sometimes I know I am right and the patron is wrong and I have to be very careful that my choice of words or tone of voice doesn’t upset them. I’m not always successful with that.

Then, there are those times we are so busy that I despair at the long lines of people waiting to check out. I see carts and carts of books that need sorting and shelving and mounds of new books that need processing. At these times it feels like we will never catch up and nothing I am doing will make a dent.  Much worse, though, are the times it is so dead that time just crawls by and we fight amongst ourselves over who gets to shelf books and file library cards. I dislike shelving books and filing library cards, tasks that seem so mind-numbing and menial. 

The worse times by far are the times when I mess up. Sometimes I am not paying attention and an item doesn’t get checked in and eventually someone gets charged for something they have returned. Or I misread the call number on a book and shelve it where nobody can find it. Or I give someone the wrong change back when they are paying a fine or forget to credit their account. So many little details to pay attention to at a library; so many ways to screw up.

When all these low times come together, I feel like I’m drudging through a quagmire of muck.

Everybody’s job entails highs and lows, many much more rewarding and challenging than mine. If you are like me, though, its the low times that give you pause, that seem to stay with you. It’s the boredom, stress, indignities, and messes of everyday life that shake us, that have so much power over us. When we understand that at its root, all this suffering is of our own making, we awaken to our true nature. Buddhist practice helps us see that it is in the mud of every day life that true spiritual growth takes root. The lotus flower only blooms in marshland.

I try to remember this in the swamp of work. All the difficulties and setbacks I encounter at work fuel my desire to practice. The more I practice, the more I see my attachments and the suffering they bring about. Live in the swamp offers up many lessons about attachments. I see that being attached to the idea of “help” isn’t very helpful. Sometimes helping someone means telling them something they don’t want to hear and getting them to see the consequences of their actions. Likewise, I see that being attached to the idea that some work is more important than other work often leaves me bored and dissatisfied. When I see that all work is interrelated and needs to get done, its easier to just do it and not attach to the outcome. By letting go of my attachment to likes and dislikes, I can relax and pay attention to each task at hand. And by surrendering my insistence that I am right and the patron wrong I am able to see situations more clearly and respond more compassionately and hopefully not give in to anger.

So, I tell myself, don’t wish problems and complications to go away; view them as opportunities for seeing attachments and letting go. The lotus remains pure and fragrant, despite its surroundings. It thrives in the muck of life. So may we all.

Don’t Know Mind

by Frank Pauc

September 4th, 2018

We had a big crowd tonight. I went with a couple other people to the psych ward of the VA hospital to visit with the patients. As usual, we brought them snacks and drinks. The ward was full tonight. Twenty-one veterans came to hang out with us. Some of them just stopped by to grab some cookies or fruit. Some of them stayed to play cards. A few of them stayed to sit and talk.

One man stood off by himself. He was tall and gaunt. He had long, grey hair that hung down limply to his shoulders. He had a beard that matched his hair. The man wore glasses with thick lenses. The lenses made his grey eyes look abnormally large. His arms were thin and blotchy.

The man had a curious look. By that, I mean that he looked like he was curious. He seemed interested in his surroundings, but a bit befuddled.

I spoke to him. “Hi, how are you?”

He smiled and replied, “Oh, I’m okay. I just wish I knew where I was.”

“Ohhhhhh….”, I replied.

The man looked around the ward and said, “I don’t know where I am. It seems like a nice place.”

“Yeah, it is.”

The man went on, “I wonder how long I’ve been here. Maybe I got here today. I don’t know…maybe I have been here a year.” He shrugged. “It’s okay. It would just be nice to know.”

“Yeah”, I said.

I asked the man, “What branch were you in?”

He smiled, “I was in the Army.”

“Me too.”

Then he asked me, “So what did you do?”

I told him, “I was a helicopter pilot.”

His eyes lit up, “Really? Wow. I don’t think I would have had it up here to do that”, as he pointed to his head.

“What did you do?”

The man answered, “I was a medic.” He laughed. “They pointed to three of us, and told us that we were all going to be medics. I remember some of that time, but only bits of it. I wish I could remember more.”

I told him, “I got out thirty years ago.”

He thought for a moment. “I am seventy years old, or maybe I am going to be seventy. I’m not sure. I got out, hmmmm, it must be fifty years ago. Yeah.”

“That’s a long time.”

The man looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, it is.”

Then he paused, and said, “I would like to see my brothers and sisters. I wonder if they are still alive? They were all older than me.”

“I’m glad that I talked with you.”

He smiled again, and replied, “So am I. I think I will grab some of those grapes.”

I meditate with a Zen sangha. We strive to achieve a “don’t know” mind. We try to get to a point before thinking, before judging. We work so hard to accept things just as they are. We attempt through sheer force of will to be in the moment.

I just met a guy with a “don’t know” mind. He doesn’t work at all. He just is. 

I envy him.

The Brahmajala Sutra and the Ten Precepts

by Laura Otto-Salaj, Senior Dharma Teacher

I gave a talk at the Zen Center recently on the Brahmajala Sutra and the Ten Precepts. Included in the talk was another way of looking at the 10 Precepts, by the Zen Peacemakers Order, self-described as a group of “socially engaged Buddhists.” These ways of reframing the Precepts are strengths-based and take a wide view, focusing on ways we can enhance our practice and accept this moment as complete, rather than only focusing on our faults. Members of the sangha attending the talk found them useful, so here they are.

First Precept: I vow to abstain from taking life.

Reframe: Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is.

Second Precept: I vow to abstain from taking things not given.

Reframe: Being satisfied with what I have.

Third Precept: I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust.

Reframe: Meeting the diversity of life with respect and dignity.

Fourth Precept: I vow to abstain from lying.

Reframe: Listening and speaking from the heart, cutting off attachments

Fifth Precept: I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.

Reframe: Cultivating a mind that sees clearly.

Sixth Precept: I vow not to talk about the faults of others.

Reframe: Bearing witness to the offering of each moment; also Unconditionally accepting what each moment has to offer.

Seventh Precept: I vow not to praise myself and put down others.

Reframe:Speaking what I perceive to be the truth, without guilt or blame.

Eighth Precept: I vow not to be covetous and to be generous.

Reframe: Using all the ingredients of my life.

Ninth Precept: I vow not to give way to anger and to be harmonious.

Reframe: Bearing witness to emotions that arise.

Tenth Precept: I vow not to slander the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, sangha).

Reframe: Honoring my life as an instrument of peacemaking, and using the resources at hand.

Motivation for Practice

Note: This essay was written by Jorge Arciniegas as a part of his application for Dharma Teacher training.

by Jorge Arciniegas

Motivation for practice is an interesting topic. Looking back through the lens of memory and past experience, I have come to realize that my motivation for practice has been and probably will continue to be an evolving field, a field that moves ever mysteriously like everything else in this universe and that seems to have a sense of purpose and direction. Like the needle of a compass, that sense of purpose and direction is pulled toward the essence of everything by our fours great vows: 

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all. 

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all. 

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. 

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it. 

Practice, as experienced now, has a tendency to be more and more a continuous moment-to-moment reality, as opposed to a discrete and sporadic event. The sense of practice having an evolving characteristic comes from the fact that in that discrete-to-continuous spectrum I very often find my attention caught in familiar streams of thoughts, feelings and emotions … until a spark of awareness lights up the recognition that I am not those thoughts, feelings and emotions. Perhaps that spark was always there, but during most of my life, so far, I was oblivious to it. Formal practice led me to a precious moment of Grace to experience that spark as the sudden realization that, figuratively speaking, there is a certain distance between the thoughts, feelings and emotions and I. 

Through practice, the very sense of “I” itself continues to vanish. To use an analogy, this vanishing experience is like a flickering light bulb that hasn’t quite burned off. When the old “I” that thinks, feels and suffers seems to be fully in command, the light bulb is on. When the “I” vanishes, the light bulb is off and the same thoughts, feelings and emotions simply happen in the same way in which the wind blows outside. A thought appears and then it disappears. A breeze of air comes and then it leaves. 

If there is a motivation for practice it’s in that space somewhere, to guide the managing, so to speak, of the flickering light bulb. Ultimately, however, the true motivation resides in the complete dropping away of the analogy altogether, in the dropping of every-thing, even this “I”, and in doing so, help this world … Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all … To humbly paraphrase the words of our school’s founder teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, to only go straight keeping don’t know mind, only don’t know, moment to moment and just do it, do it, do it. 

I must say that I’ve been a seeker of something for quite some time. Not knowing what was behind the seeking other than feeling a pull toward something other than “this”, long ago and somewhat unknowingly and haphazardly I stepped on a seeking path. Back then I followed no formal practice and if there was any motivation at all it was simply to alleviate the dread of “this” … Delusions are endless, we vow to cut through them all … 

I think that the power of intention plays a mysterious role and I have come to realize that in spite of all my plans, everything, and I mean everything, in my experience so far happened exactly so as to bring me 

to this very moment, at every moment. Talk about interdependence arising! Not as a concept but as deep unexplainable moment to moment experience. 

When I eventually found ways to formalize a practice, the motivation was quite self-centered as “I” wanted to attain “something”. Of course that seemed quite suitable and indeed it was what worked for me at the time. 

With time and Grace, practice is now just practice and I am not sure that I can put a finger on a motivation for it. As I sit in my living room typing these words while looking out the window, there is a tree outside and my dog is resting next to me. Not just that, but there is a sense that the entire universe is right here and there couldn’t possibly be anything missing. This is practice. But “I” am not practicing. Practice just is. It just happens. This very moment is just as it is. But the moment itself is ungraspable. It can only be experienced. There is no one there to do the grasping and there is no-thing to grasp. There is no motivation behind the seeing that sees the tree or the feeling that appreciates this moment. 

Practice is every day, everything practice. Keeping don’t know mind is a pointer. That pointer becomes blurred when “the practitioner” comes in the picture and wants to practice. But that’s ok too. That’s just the way it is and I can only try and try and try, in earnest and with determination. 

Practice brings me back full circle to the same starting point, but oddly enough the experience of it is not the same. At the original starting point “I” would have thought that the four great vows were, at best, a nice esoteric panacea and move on in search of something better. At this new starting point, the four great vows cannot be explained or understood, yet they vibrantly point to an ever present experiential reality that simply is. “I” am not there, but I am at the same ever fresh starting point practicing to save all sentient beings, practicing to cut through all delusions, practicing to learn all teachings, and practicing to simply be just like this, moment to moment and in doing so be of help to others and to the world. 

Questions and Answers

by Frank Pauc

“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward to what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.”

Jacob Bronowski, from his book, The Ascent of Man

I am actually planning to write about Zen, but I think that the preceding quote from Jacob Bronowski is appropriate, even though he was talking about science, the great passion of his life. Bronowski was a mathematician, and a modern Renaissance man. He loved ideas, but he hated dogma. He particularly loved the pursuit of knowledge.

If I look from Bronowski’s perspective, I can see similarities between science and Zen. There aren’t many similarities because Zen isn’t similar to anything, really. However, they share a few points in common. Both Zen and science are about questions. In both practices, there is a desire to find answers, but the focus is on the questions. During meditation, some people silently ask themselves, “What am I?”, and then respond, “Don’t know.” Scientists ask themselves questions, and if they are honest, they usually shrug their shoulders and say, “Don’t know”. Even if a scientist finds an answer, that answer is simply a door to more questions. Likewise, if a Zen student catches a glimpse of reality, it is only a small step toward a deeper understanding.

A Zen practitioner may have a rare moment of illumination, where his or her view of the world shifts radically. Scientists can have that too. Scientists cling to ideas and opinions just like everyone else. Then somebody comes along and rocks their world. Copernicus tells people that the sun is the center of the solar system, and the effect is the same as when a Zen master screams “Katz!” Einstein explains that all things are relative, and there is a massive paradigm shift. Quantum physics comes along and suddenly light is both a particle and a wave (sometimes, maybe). A scientist with integrity has to be able to let go of ideas, just like a Zen practitioner must. Both types of people have to experience “don’t know”.

Bronowski notes that science is personal. So is Zen. A scientist has to “feel forward” in the unknown. So does a Zen practitioner. This pursuit of knowledge cannot be done vicariously. Each person has to do it on their own. This type of journey can be risky and requires a certain amount of courage. A person who thinks, talks, and acts differently from others is quite often vulnerable. A Zen practitioner and a scientist both are like trapeze artists who perform without a safety net. The safety net is made up of the things we think we know.

Not many people are scientists. Not many people practice Zen. Most people prefer the safety net. They want the security, real or otherwise, of absolutes. They don’t want that tension, that uneasiness that accompanies us when we stand “on the edge of error.” To be honest, I don’t want that either. But I can’t control my curiosity. As someone pointed out, I am a “seeker”. I keep asking.

Most of Bronowski’s family died in the Holocaust. Once again, he spoke about science:

“It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And this was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

I think I will stick with “don’t know.”



In the moment while in jail

by Frank Pauc

“As horrible as jail was, there were some first-rate guys in there.” – Scott Weiland

A couple months ago, I had the opportunity to spend twelve hours of quality time in the Clark County Detention Center. On Wednesday, April 26th, at about 7:00 AM, I got busted, along with six other people, for an act of civil disobedience at Creech AFB in Nevada. We blocked the entrance to the air base, and refused to move when ordered to do so by the Las Vegas police. The cops arrested us and life got really interesting.

What does this have to do with Zen? I think it has quite a bit to do with it. I am almost certain that, if I had not been sitting on a cushion on a regular basis for a period of years, I would probably never have been involved in this situation, and if I had been, I would have dealt with it much differently than I did.

First of all, the decision to allow myself to be arrested came purely from the gut. It was not a rational decision, not at all. I had never been busted before in my life. I had rejected the idea of getting arrested before the protest started, and then, literally one minute before the cops came, I decided to stay with the other demonstrators and block the entrance to the base. “Fuck it, I’m not moving.” After that, I didn’t check myself. I let events take their course. I truly doubt that I would have brave enough (or stupid enough) to get myself arrested if I hadn’t been doing some meditation. It was like diving into the deep end of a pool for the first time.

I am not saying that sitting Zen necessarily encourages a person to do crazy things. I’m saying that it helped me to see the rightness of a particular action without excessive analysis. I had definitely weighed the pros and cons of the action prior to making a decision, but all that thinking meant very little in the end. All my fears and worries and calculations were cast aside. It all came together in the moment when the guy standing next to me took my hand and said, “Frank, I’m glad you’re here.” Done.

As I look back at the subsequent twelve hours in custody, I know I felt anxiety, confusion, and pain at times. However, it never seemed overwhelming. I never felt resentment or anger at anybody. Mostly, everything seemed interesting. Even when I was sitting around in handcuffs, I could mentally take a step back and just observe what was happening. I had no idea at all when I would get released, or even if I would get released. Somehow that didn’t bother me that much. My main concern was contacting my wife. Otherwise, I was just there.

Sitting in the holding cell with seventeen other guys was a bit like a good Zen practice. I was in the moment. My mind did not wander. Everything was very real and very immediate. I was focused on the experience. It was intense, but it was okay.

I am not suggesting time in jail as a substitute for sitting Zen, but I think there are some odd similarities. The time in the slammer was a kong-an. It opened my mind to a number of things.