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Vasek and Me

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Vasek is the eldest son of my Dharma brother, Vasek Brabec, of Prague, and his wonderful wife, Florentina. He is a child of exquisite intelligence and perception. When his parents noticed a prodigious talent in musical instruments at a very young age, we arranged for a gift of a state-of-the-art piano system for him to train on. I hear that he is quite an accomplished musician now.

Vasek is the Buddhist equivalent of a godson to me. We have a very very special bond. Even though he had not yet developed an ease with English, by our last visit, I hear that now he can speak pretty well.

As soon as the lockdown permits, my very first elective journey will be to take a train to Prague to visit him and listen to his piano playing. Only that.

Vasek now some years later, visiting Zen Center Regensburg for the Opening Ceremony in March 2016:

Two Giants

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An early photo of Dae Soen Sa Nim with two of his earliest Western students. It is a significant photo because both of these men later went on to be two of the most influential and innovative super-spreaders in American Dharma and beyond: Larry Rosenberg (l) and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn (r), the best-selling author and developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy which is practiced all over the world.

I like this photo as a kind of historical artifact of what a great primary spiritual incubator Dae Soen Sa Nim was: neither of these two were as yet developed or well known in their practice at all.

Circa 1974.

Beginner’s Mind

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Before ever encountering anything about Korean Buddhism, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind was the first Buddhist book I ever read. It really touched something inside that didn’t even know it was waiting for this teaching. Simple, clear, elegantly profound, and centered strongly around the point that we need did to sit, above any conceptual understanding – – these impressions drove me to attempt to begin meditation within weeks after graduating from university.

I often say to people that, after graduating from following the syllabus of this professor or that for four years, the very first book I voluntarily chose to read off a bookcase was that classic. And it changed my life forever. I was really, really waiting for it.

I still only recommend reading in Zen books on very, very rare occasions. (In fact, I try much harder to dissuade people from entering the Thicket and weeds of any further conceptual understanding, much more so involving Zen!)

Yet, when pushed strongly, I’ll only suggest a reading if someone has a particular need, or can’t have access to a teacher, and asks me for some recommendation. That book is one of only three books I will ever recommend in Zen, for beginners especially. (The other is definitely Dropping Ashes on the Buddha — first and foremost as the only modern Zen book that truly stays away from conceptual understanding and delivers the student, instead, directly to “don’t know“ on each and every occasion available, and maybe The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma — Red Pine’s excellent translation.)

That’s it. But more even than any of these titles, the “book“ that I recommend with greatest vigor is the “book“ located at the end of your mind, The book so few are willing to take a real crack at.

But I always am grateful to Suzuki Roshi for having opened the doorway to Zen. You could say he was my first Teacher in Dharma. I feel profound gratitude and affection for him.

One of the Last Retreats

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So strangely adjusted to this coronavirus lockdown by now, and this completely emptied-out space approaching one year already, it seems strange to remember this excellent retreat and caring for so many guests in a very full Zen Center.

I wonder, sometimes, with all the talk about the current social-distancing conditions needing to continue perhaps until the end of 2021, if we will ever be able to constitute this sort of atmosphere for people again. There were many many hours of training staff and guests to carry the right practicing attitude in this space during these intensive, highly structured periods of inner work — I wonder if I will have the energy and the enthusiasm to shoulder all of the direct instruction that will be required to get meditation room/living space/kitchen functioning and general community flow to come together even nearly as well as we had developed it by the time this whole situation to hit last year. It’s really all just “only don’t know” about the future of this community after COVID. I get contacted all the time by people asking what our retreat schedule will be this coming spring or summer. Heck, it’s impossible to say anything about having even one retreat for the whole of 2021, what with people needing to sleep and eat and work and meditate in such close quarters as we have here, in this real temple style living