Tag Archives: precepts

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birthdays, too,
hold misunderstood questions
alongside bright smile greetings.

at the end of the day,
I stayed late at the Temple
to water Roshi’s flowers.

oceans of bright clouds,
oceans of solemn clouds.

The final couplet comes from the words of Dogen in our school’s translation of the Ninth Precept.

Refuge

I was tired, and my family was most of the way through dinner when I walked through the door. I would have only an hour to spend with the kids before they would go off to bed. I joined them at the table, anticipating stories about the day. Instead, I heard complaints about what had been prepared for dinner. Shortly afterward, calls to clean up blocks and legos brought tears. Short voices from children and adults alike arose from attempts to complete homework that had waited too long.

I needed refuge.

I looked for it in the memory of the night before, when I had lain down next to my five-year old son after tucking him into bed. There had been a few minutes left before our usual lights-out time, and he scooted to make room as I moved the spare pillow up next to his. He noticed that his older brother was reading in bed, and sensing an opening to keep me right where I was, grabbed a book of his own. He asked me about each of the pictures in the book of trains and made comments about which ones he liked best. He came to the end of the book and glanced at me, perhaps expecting I would get up to say goodnight. When I didn’t move, he leaned over the edge of his bed for another book.

It’s Go Dog Go, Dad. I’ll read it to you.

I watched him as he concentrated, listened as he matched the words to the pictures, rescued him when a page was just too tricky. The wind chill blew well below zero outside, but the room was hushed and I felt warm in the embrace of my son’s company. When it came time to turn out the light, he reached for a sticky note on the floor beside his bed.

For a bookmark, Dad. We can start there tomorrow night.

And so tonight, as everyone’s dissatisfaction with the present moment was apparent, I was desperate to climb back onto his bed, find that bookmark, and pick up right where we had left off. We struggled through the rest of the evening routine as best we could, then he and I flopped onto the bed, our book right where we had left it. He propped up his stuffed Eeyore doll under his arm – to help him read, he said – as I retrieved the spare pillow at the foot of the bed. We settled back to where we had been the night before.

My refuge disintegrated.

His reading was halting as he struggled with almost all of the words. I grew frustrated when, line after line, he encountered the word around, yet he somehow couldn’t read it. The phone rang and the light didn’t seem quite bright enough for reading. To my dismay, nothing felt the same. Page after page, I wanted the world to flow just as it had the night before. My attempts to help, to give us both that little nudge, couldn’t turn the calendar back a day. Time was passing too quickly, and each page too slowly. We picked a place to stop and I stood up to turn out the lights.

As I kissed him goodnight and walked across the room to my other son to stroke his cheek, I rested briefly in my frustration – and finally found my refuge. Right where it had been waiting for me all along, in the Buddha nature of the moment as it was, in the Buddha nature of my sons, in the Buddha nature of disappointment. Not in the memory of a moment gone by.

Standing there in that moment, I knew that by reaching back to try and recreate the night before, I had been trying too hard to take refuge. That’s what the vow says, after all – I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma. Perhaps it is a relic of translation from ancient Pali, or maybe just an unfortunate semantic coincidence, but there’s nothing there to be taken. As if refuge were something that I could grasp or a place that I could go.

How many times have I gone down that path?

Refuge, instead, finally came from letting go, from an acceptance of what was already there for me. And while refuge can find foundation in a vow and in the great determination of Yuanmiao or Hakuin, it blossomed tonight in the suddenness of resignation, finding purchase in the ceasing, for just a moment, of longing for something more. In openness and softness.

Both boys were asleep within moments as I headed downstairs to stand with my wife at the kitchen sink, where the dinner dishes still awaited.

Let me rest 
against your extra pillow,
the embroidered one 
from your crib years gone by,

while you lean back 
amongst the blankets
and read to me.

Go ahead and ask me
what each page says,
and tell me,
in your right-up-close voice,
which ones
are your favorite pictures.

Scratch the turning page
against the flannel sheets
until the very last one,

then offer me another reprieve.

Reach down to your
old apple-crate bookcase, 
and murmur to yourself
about which book
you might choose next.

Saving All Beings

I was very late coming home from work last night – it was after 11 o’clock, and the whole family was asleep. I thought for a moment, as my wife turned over when I entered the room, that she might be awake in our bed, but she was quiet and still by the time I joined her. And so when I awoke this morning, I was anxious to see them all. I knew that the kids would have to run off to school soon and I would have to return to work, but I looked forward to the short time we had as I walked down the stairs.

Which made it all the more painful when, minutes later, I took the box of cereal from my son’s hand as he poured it, and sent him away from the breakfast table.

I would tell you that I long for simple moments of being with my children, times when notions and expectations drop away. I had just such an opportunity at the table this morning, as my boys found themselves possessed by silliness – each look from one brought the other practically to tears from laughter. Their voices rose as they called to one another, taking turns making faces just subtle enough to hold the expression for the few seconds it took to send his brother back over the edge. Knees knocked against the underside of the table as cereal squares spilled and milk droplets dripped off of their spoons.

I had the opportunity to witness and join them in this playfulness, this joy. Instead, I found myself simply wanting it to end. My body pulled back, my breath quickened. They laughed. I tensed. I told them that it wasn’t time to be silly and reminded them about their table manners. I sent them away.

I suppose there are legitimate reasons to help my children shape good table manners; in our relative world, they are important. But what am I teaching them about their laughter? And it goes beyond the table. My boys’ joy often finds its expression in moments that are loud and frenetic, unconstrained by any adult’s ideas about how it should look or sound. As they laugh and jump, as they delight in any noise they can make, they are meeting the world, living fully in what is offered. Unfiltered. Present.

In receiving the ten Grave Precepts of Buddhist practice, I vowed, recognizing that I am not separate from all that is, I vow to take up the way of not killing. This precept is often applied to the choice of whether or not we eat meat, or how we respond to a mosquito in the bedroom. But it also speaks to asking my boys to calm and quiet themselves, to experience and express their joy differently than the way in which they have found it. What dies then?

In receiving the Pure Precepts, I vowed to save all beings. But when I ask them to be something different because their expression of themselves is impeding the quiet I was hoping for, what does my response mean to them? What do they make of that experience when the world presents something so real, and their father tells them it isn’t right – not right now, not right here?

What am I teaching them about their laughter?

Back at the breakfast table this morning, I sat alone and wanting the moment, like many before it, to be different. Not because it was too noisy, but because it had now grown far too quiet. I went and spoke to my son and asked him back, telling him I knew he could use his best manners while he finished his breakfast.

At dinner later in the evening, he told me that he had tried to buy a gift for me at the school holiday fair. It was a baseball bat that was engraved with World’s Greatest Dad. He had seen it the day before and brought his money into school. I looked at him in silence for a moment as he finished telling me the story, about how they had sold out by the time he got there. I asked him to come sit on my lap. He had trouble sitting still, as still as I would have liked after another long day at work. But you can’t always sit still when you’re busy saving all beings. Or at least your Dad.

The Lure of Accomplishment

My teacher often says that Zen is not a self-improvement project. And it isn’t. But it has changed me. I have noticed that I spend a lot less time planning my career, thinking about my degree, or fretting about how much money I’ll end up with. For that matter, I’ve pretty much let go of any idea of enlightenment beyond what I already have. Yet it seems that I still get caught up in trying to accomplish things – they’re just much smaller.

My mother stopped by on Sunday to spend some time with the kids. She and my daughter sat animated at the kitchen table, chairs pushed close together. They were piecing together a plastic cup, sponge, string, and some googly eyes, making a toy my daughter first made when she was she was five or six years old. If you wet the sponge, squeeze it tightly around and slide it down the string just so, it sounds an awful lot like a gobbling wild turkey.

(I am completely enamored of my daughter’s love for this sort of thing. She’s almost 10. I sometimes catch myself realizing that I expect her to be older by now, and that I’m so happy she’s not. But that’s mostly another story.)

This was just the sort of moment that I complain about not having the chance to witness or be present to. The possibility of being with my family, absorbed in something together, absorbed each others’ company. Except that I didn’t join them. I stood right there, leaning up against the butcher block counter, thinking about getting the lawn mowed one last time before winter, about getting the family budget balanced, about the need to roll out insulation in the attic and fix the broken glass in the window up there.

So much to accomplish.

There is real suffering in the desire for the moment to be something other than what it is, for it to be simpler. And there is a sense of impossibility in these moments, too.¬†Graciously accepting what a moment has to offer could mean dropping away my own concerns and being fully present with my wife or child. But it also must mean accepting the part if me that feels the conflict, that part that is pulled away by a nagging mind wanting to do and to accomplish. In the world of emptiness, one isn’t better than the other. In the world of form, of fatherhood, of the kind of impermanence that means childhood years are short, I sure know which one I prefer.

For all of the regret that I might muster on my drive to work or in the quiet hours after bedtime, though, that moment in the kitchen has already passed.¬†Zen practice is very reliable in that all that it asks me to do is to sit down. Perhaps there is no answer to the lure of accomplishment, either, but to sit down – or stand up, or run around – and play when someone comes asking. The small change may come. Or it may not. But I’ll be there.

Big Trucks



My daughter went to see the nurse at school yesterday, not feeling well, and she came home early. I wish I could have been there for her. Not because she needed me – her mother was there for her – but because it was a moment that I missed. I would have loved that hug.

Even though my wife teases me that I wouldn’t be able to manage all the day-to-day muck work that she does – and I think she’s right – I’m jealous of what she gets to witness. I would love to be there for the game of crazy eights with our five year old after his older siblings have gone off to school, for the trip to the library after school to see all three of them pore over books, for the trips to the pediatrician to watch them have their reflexes tested.

Monday morning, a holiday, I took the boys to Home Depot to buy concrete for a basement project. I bought new filter masks for them so they could help without filling their lungs with fine portland cement, and we came home and poured concrete. They poured the water and acrylic fortifier, talking eagerly about which one they liked best. Look at the concrete dust, they said, fully aware, fully present. Meanwhile, not wanting the concrete to set, I spoke too quickly to them as I moved in the tight spaces.

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