What Can We Do?

From a Dharma talk given by Laura Otto-Salaj, SDT, Great Lake Zen Center, Milwaukee, WI

January 22, 2022

The other day, I came across an article in the New York Times by Amanda Gorman, written for the anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration. The title was: Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at the Inauguration.

In this article, Amanda talked about how she had been afraid. She didn’t want to disappoint so many people with her poem. Covid was raging and young people couldn’t be vaccinated yet, so she remained unvaccinated. And, there was the issue of the January 6th assault on the US Capitol building, which is where the ceremony was going to take place – at the time, there were rumors of another insurrection being planned for the day of the inauguration. So, there was a lot of noise in Amanda’s head about the ceremony. She had friends telling her to buy a bulletproof vest, and her mom had her crouch in the living room so that she could practice shielding Amanda’s body from bullets. She said someone she loves warned her to “be ready to die” if she went to the Capitol, telling her “It’s just not worth it.” She had insomnia and nightmares, and barely ate or drank for days. She really focused on this decision she needed to make, and so many voices were telling her not to go.

The night before she needed to tell the Inaugural Committee her decision, she was up all night, listening to the quiet of her neighborhood in the early morning. It hit her: she said, “Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear but listening to it.” She said she closed her eyes and voiced all her fears. In doing this, she found that what worried her the most was that, if she didn’t go to the inauguration and read her poem, she would spend the rest of her life wondering what she could have done with the poem – what she could have accomplished. Her poem was not for her. 

Amanda realized that there was nothing else to do but to go to the inauguration. She said, “I can’t say I was completely confident in my choice, but I was completely committed to it.”

There is a lot of unrest in the world right now. Sometimes it feels to us like things have never been more unstable in this lifetime. But the truth is, there has always been bad news. The First Noble Truth tells us that life is suffering, and the Second Noble Truth says that suffering is created by mind alone. Human beings are like this – the Buddha taught that we lose sight of the forest of “just this moment” for the trees of desire, anger, and ignorance. 

But where there is bad news, there is also good news. The Third Noble Truth tells us that we can do something about this suffering, and the Fourth Noble Truth points us to the Eightfold Path, one step of which is Right Action. So, action is really important – it is covered in not one, but two of the Four Noble Truths.

There is a Zen parable which goes something like this:

One night there was a severe snowstorm in the province where a Zen monastery was located – in the morning, the disciples of the monastery woke to find the snow was waist deep. They trudged through the snow to the meditation hall for morning practice.  At the door of the meditation hall, they were greeted by the Zen Master. He asked, “Tell me, what should be done now?” 

One disciple said, “We should all meditate on thaw so that the snow melts.”

Another disciple said, “We should wait in our rooms and allow the snow to take its natural course.”

The third disciple said, “The one who saw the truth does not care if there is snow or not.”

The Zen Master looked at the students and sighed. “Now listen to what I will say. Each of you take a shovel and off you go.” 

Yesterday, the clear and respected teacher Thich Nhat Hanh died at the age of 95. Many people talk about him as the “father of engaged Buddhism.” About that, he said, “To say ‘engaged Buddhism’ is redundant. How can it be Buddhism if it is not engaged?”  He also said, “My actions are my only true belongings.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn often taught, “Just do it” – we hear this all the time in our school. Sometimes we let our emotions or attachments get in the way of action, like being afraid of failure or embarrassment. We say we’re too busy, or we let the inertia of inaction take over by doing nothing, which is a choice in itself. Practice is so important, because it allows us to see clearly the roots of suffering and cut them off through action – in spite of fear, or lethargy, or other issues that can get in the way of doing our job of helping others. One really striking thing that Amanda Gorman said in her article is this: “Fear can be love trying its best in the dark.” The darkness of desire, anger and ignorance, of attachment to emotion, can be cut through with practice. With practice, we can reveal our Buddha nature and use it to act – to help.

Right now, we are practicing Heart Kyol Che, our winter period of intense practice. During this time, we can focus on the opportunity to enhance our practice in many ways. One of the ways in which we can practice is being mindful that our job is to help others – how can we use our practice to attain just this moment, so that we can “be engaged”, to help? Please keep this in mind as we practice today, and through Heart Kyol Che. And, thank you all for practicing so diligently.

Buddha’s Birthday Poem, April 2021

by Pete Neuwald, Senior Dharma Teacher

Siddhartha was born into his life some twenty six hundred years ago.
His mother, Queen Maya, died seven days after his birth.

What was Buddha before his birth?
What was Maya after her death?

If there is no life and no death, then what?


Flowers bloom next to the Buddha.
I see your faces on the computer screen.

Buddha is Absurd

– Terry Kinzel

A couple of years ago I became interested in Albert Camus and after reading a short biography he became one of my heroes – mainly for his resistance work in Nazi occupied France, his advocacy of justice in general, especially in Algeria where he was born, and, although having been a communist at one point, his rejection of Stalinism. I read a little of his philosophy with limited success.

Then the pandemic hit and I took up Camus’ novel The Plague to see if it could inform my life under COVID-19. The plague is described in the novel as a bubonic plague and is set in the mid-1940s, but is based on a typhus epidemic in Oran, Algeria in the mid-1800s. While many of the scenes are playing out in our midst today, the novel was really a means for Camus to explicate his philosophy of Absurdism.

While my acquaintance of both Buddhism and Absurdism is so minor as to be considered trivial, I noticed some correlations between the Four Noble Truths and Absurdism.

First Noble Truth

            Buddhism: suffering is an innate characteristic of existence.

            Absurdism: suffering is universal, life/the universe is without meaning.

Second Noble Truth

            Buddhism: suffering comes from attachment (to the idea of a separate self?)

            Absurdism: suffering comes from the attachment to the idea that life can and should have meaning.

Third Noble Truth

            Buddhism: the cessation of suffering is possible

            Absurdism: the cessation of suffering is possible

Fourth Noble Truth

            Buddhism: the Noble Eightfold Path

            Absurdism: full acknowledgement that my life is meaningless and then I will die. However, by perceiving and then just doing my job my suffering will be relieved. 

The last point in Absurdism is (to my limited understanding) obscure. In another book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus explains this philosophy in a series of essays. What I think he is saying is that most other philosophies based on the assumption that there is inherent meaning to life are unsatisfactory in that life has no meaning. Even Existentialism, which postulates that while life has no inherent meaning, it is possible to achieve meaning by how you live your life. This, Camus says, is false. He says that it is not possible to achieve meaning, but it is possible to achieve a satisfactory life by “doing your job.” His image in this is that of Sisyphus, bound by the gods to struggle each day to push a giant boulder up a steep mountain, only to have it roll back at night and have to start again the next day through all eternity. Camus’ famous quote here is “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. While I don’t pretend to understand the Noble Eightfold Path or Absurdism, it seems to accomplish Sisyphus’ task and be happy, he would have to achieve all the elements set down.

Discussion Notes for “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World”

By Gretchen Neuwald, Dharma Teacher

[We thought we’d share notes that Gretchen Neuwald compiled for a recent discussion of the book, “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World,” by Boshan (translated by Jeff Shore).]

Boshan Yuanali was a Chinese Zen Master of the Ming Dynasty, who lived from AD 1575 – 1630. His two texts, “Exhortation for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt” and “Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse Doubt,” have been called some of the most important doctrines of doubt meditaion.

Jeff Shore is a professor of Zen in the Modern World at Hanazono University in Kyoto.

The book “Great Doubt Great Enlightenment” (Seon Masters Gou, Muyeo, Hyeguk, Uijeong and Seoru) was read in concert with Stone’s book and provided a great deal of background on the central role doubt meditation holds in Korean Zen, or “Ganhwa Seon.”

Great Doubt and Ganhwa Seon.  What is Ganhwa Seon?

Arousing great doubt or question in meditation is one of the main techniques used in Chinese Zen. This technique is known as Huatou in Chinese Chan tradition, Wato in Japanese Zen tradition, and Hwadu (Hwado) in Korean Seon tradition.  The translation of “hwadu” literally means “word head” or “before speech” and refers to a phrase or a very short sentence. “Gan” means to observe or see and “Seon” is the Korean word for Zen, so Ganhwa Seon means “investigating Hwadu Zen.” This type of meditation is considered by some to be a shorter, more direct path to enlightenment than other forms of meditation.

Many credit the Chinese Zen master Dahui, (1089-1163), a member of the Linji school, with developing this technique. Dahui used hwadu in part to counteract the intellectualism that had begun to creep into kongan practice. He was also interested in teaching the lay community, particularly the Chinese scholar officials. Their support was crucial  for the survival of his school because these lay officials controlled the appointments of abbots to public monasteries. Dahui maintained that  hwadu meditation “can be carried out by layman in the midst of their daily activities.”

Even though Dahui was the first to formalize doubting meditaion, the first teaching can be said to go back to the Sixth Patriarch Huineng (AD 637-713). Huineng taught his fellow student Ming by asking “While not thinking of good or bad, what is your original face (true nature)?” According to the Platform Sutra, Ming got enlightened because of that question.

Zen and Doubt Meditation came to Korea by way of the disciples of Huineng. Korean Zen Master Chinul (1158-1210) is considered to be the most influential figure in the formation of Korean Zen. Like Dahui, he promoted formal Hwadu practice in Korea. He was so successful in popularizing this practice, that it continues to play a central role in Korean Zen today, as it does in China and Japan.

What is Hwadu?

Hwadu is a short question or phrase that is used as a subject of meditation to focus the mind and arouse doubt. Hwadu’s are based on the encounters between Chinese Zen masters and their students (public cases known as kongans), except hwadu’s are shorter phrases than the actual kongans.

A hwadu is used to cut through the pathways of language and thought so that you awaken to your original mind. In Hwadu practice, you investigate and focus on the doubt sensation brought on by the hwadu. You, the practitioner, do not try to answer the question intellectually or with conceptual thinking. Instead, you bring your whole being to focus on the doubt brought on by the question. If you continue to hold this doubt, it will cause the cessation of thought. In continuing to take up the hwadu, unceasingly, it will build and build until it forms a great mass or “block of doubt,” in which you “can’t go forward, can’t go backward.” Once you become one with this doubt and completely surrender to it, it is said to  “explode.”  At this point, your mind opens and you obtain your true nature.

Some examples of hwadu’s are: “What am I?,” “What is this?,” “Dried shit stick,” “Original face?,” “What is Mu?”  Whatever the hwadu, they all point to the same thing, the one big question-  the question of our ultimate reality.  “What is life and death?,” “Why do I suffer?”- all boil down to “Who is this asking this question” or “What am I?” And isn’t this the very question, that brought us to this practice in the first place? So holding this question, this sensation of suffering or dis-ease, keeps us in beginner’s mind and reminds us of the pressing matter of our own life and death. As Chinese master Gaofeng states “The thousand doubts, the ten thousand doubts are just this one doubt. Resolve this doubt and no doubt remains.”

The intensive nature of this practice might seem more suitable for monastics, but Dahui maintained just the opposite. He said that monks like himself, “are on the outside breaking in; lay people are on the inside breaking out. The power of the one on the outside breaking in is weak; the power of the one on the inside breaking out is strong.” Dahui and other Zen masters stress that it is important to carry the hwadu in daily life- eating meals, going to work, talking with friends; however, you may be unable to take up the hwadu when concentrating wholly on a task. In that case your mind should naturally return to it when the task is finished. (Zen Master Seung Sahn compared taking up Great Doubt to a hen sitting on her eggs or a mother whose son is away fighting in a war.) Both Dahui and Boshan stress the importance of seeking the guidance of a good Teacher and Dharma friends when embarking on this practice.

So in today’s discussion we will be using the book “Great Doubt: Practicing Zen in the World” that offers the translation and commentary of two short texts authored by Boshan (1575-1630), one of the leading Zen masters if the Ming dynasty. The texts are “Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Rouse Doubt” and “Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse Doubt.” Boshan like many Zen masters, took the name of the mountain, Mount Bo, where he was active. He is also known as Wuxi Yaunlai and Dayi.

Boshan left home as a teenager to study and practice Buddhism. After five years of intensive study, he received full ordination. He then became the student of a very demanding teacher who consistently rejected Boshan’s insights. One day, while sitting meditation on a rock, he heard a crash from a statue falling nearby and had a sudden realization. The following year he was greatly awakened when watching a person climb a tree. After taking Bodhisatva precepts, he taught at several monasteries before settling at Mount Bo. He was one of Wuming Huijing’s four Dharma heirs. He died in 1630, leaving behind several Dharma heirs and lay disciples.

Boshan wrote these “Exhortations,” part of a much larger work, when he has 36. In his writings he emphasizes the importance of great doubt:

“In Zen practice, the essential point is to rouse doubt. What is this doubt? When you are born, for example, where do you come from? You cannot help but remain in doubt about this. When you die, where do you go? Again, you cannot help but remain in doubt. Since you cannot pierce this barrier of life and death, suddenly doubt will coalesce right before your eyes. Try to put it down, you cannot; try to push it away, you cannot. Eventually you will break through this doubt block and realize what a worthless notion life and death is—Ha!  As the old worthies said: Great doubt, great awakening; small doubt, small awakening; no doubt, no awakening.”

The Times They are a Changing

By Mike Zinke, Bodhisattva Teacher

Times were much simpler when I was young. People were either a Republican or they were a Democrat. Occasionally you might find someone claiming to be an Independent but everyone just kind of figured an Independent was someone who hadn’t decided who to vote for yet. I remember my dad was a Republican and my mother was a Democrat. That’s about all I knew really as politics wasn’t discussed a lot in the house. My parents just accepted that they disagreed on who should run the country. For most of my adult life I was fairly ambivalent about politics. A friend talked me into helping hand out flyers for Jimmy Carter once but other than that I didn’t get too involved and didn’t give it much thought. Well, there was one time when the Mayor of the town where I grew up (population 2,000) paid my friend and me to sneak around at night and put his bumper stickers on cars. I think we got a nickel for each car we tacked his name on. Hey, times were tough and I was about 12 at the time.

I remember people could actually talk about the issues without causing arguments or fights to break out. People just accepted that others might have differing opinions. Now we are experiencing the most divided times I can remember. Somehow we have gone from that simpler time to a ridiculously complex time where people don’t talk with you about their political beliefs, they talk to you about them – they are not expecting a response from you. If you were to disagree, the probable outcome would likely be an argument and hurt feelings.

I’m not sure of how we got to this point but it seems like everyone is angry at everybody for no apparent reason. Some contributing factors may include the highs and lows we all experienced in the past several months with the political news, terror scares, shootings in Milwaukee, rising crime, the economy, etc. We try to process all this information but after a while it’s like your mind says “enough already” and wants to stop but the urge to know what’s going on still remains. Zen Master Dae Kwang says our minds are like a calculator, storing data, storing data, storing data on and on until we finally hit the Clear button by taking time out to sit and clear our minds. We know through all of our meditation practice that when thoughts enter our mind we look at them, realize where they came from and then let them go but it seems like the data being sent from various sources has increased its speed from 16 Mbps to 50 Mbps and continues to increase so much that the Clear button is being worn out.

Compounding the issues with the data onslaught are the new terms ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’. So with all the data flooding the airwaves we now don’t know what is real and what isn’t. We try to sort it out, we try to discuss things with others but we find that difficult as well because everyone holds onto their own opinions very strongly and engaging in a normal discussion isn’t likely. My wife, Kathy, and I also have found it odd that many people now simply assume that you hold the same view on today’s issues as they do and freely, often too freely, espouse for their causes without knowing, or asking about, your views. On several occasions we have both had experiences with people, some of whom we didn’t even know, simply start telling us their opinions on everything from gun control, Obamacare, religion, immigration, politics, and a host of other subjects while making the assumption we held the same opinions, for or against those issues, as them.

So, how do we deal with everything that is going on in today’s world? How do we deal with people that feel the need to pour out their feelings on different subjects while assuming that we have the same feelings? How do we discern alternative facts from facts and fake news from real news? How do we calm others when the stress of current issues causes them to suffer?

I think our Zen practice can help us cope with today’s issues in several ways. Of course we all know one basic teaching of Zen is that all things are impermanent and will eventually change and/or go away. When we spend a lot of our waking hours worrying about the issues we disagree with and wanting them to change then we, of course, cause our own suffering by having desire for things to change immediately and allowing those concerns to overrule our daily activities. When others engulf us with their opinions and assume that we share the same opinions instead of trying to convince them to see our viewpoints we should simply smile and acknowledge their statements knowing that to disagree would be fruitless and would lead to an argument. Later you can use subtlety in your actions to support a correct view and weave around the disagreement and probable argument. Somewhere in the past years of Zen practice a knowledgeable teacher told me that everyone is right and everyone is wrong. We must understand that others have differing opinions and we must accept that their opinions belong to them. We don’t preach to people about our beliefs or try to persuade them to convert to our beliefs. Instead, we show our beliefs through our actions.

When we practice Zen we work on showing compassion for other people. When we show compassion for others we are setting examples that will eventually be adopted by others for them to also show compassion through their actions and so forth – like a domino effect. All actions are dependent upon other actions (dependent origination – this exists because of that and that exists because of this) good actions help foster other good actions and that is our goal in this practice.

We know what has happened in the past is already over and can’t be changed, we know that we have no control over the future so we must look at the present moment with our practice. How do we help others? How do we cope with all the issues in today’s environment? There are many ways including protests, petitions, etc., but most importantly we must continue with our Zen practice – more now than ever.




Welcome to our new Web Site

Welcome to our new web site. We have decided to go completely digital and will no longer be publishing a paper copy of the “Moon on the Water” newsletter. (We do have an archive of published copies of “Moon on the Water” which you can find here.) Instead of publishing paper copies of the newsletter, we will be publishing blog articles (like this one) which we hope will be more timely, responsive, and definitely less expensive to deliver. While we understand that some of you may prefer a paper copy of the newsletter, we have found that most people now prefer just checking it out online. The medium has changed from a hard-copy newsletter format to digital content, so if you want a hard-copy, you should be able to print out the blogs from your device.

Thank you for your support and understanding!

Pete Neuwald, Abbot, Great Lake Zen Center