Mirror of Zen Blog

Teaching Zen is…


Urging the circles to meet, until they disappear. It’s really possible — even in a short three-day retreat. But then the challenge is, as students develop in their practice, in their sense of life in spiritual community, they then develop new “comfort zones”. And then these require other layers of technology to dissolve. Even Dae Soen Sa Nim himself noted that “training older students can be problem” (and he wasn’t talking about biological age). The circles re-shape to older patterns, or near-facsimiles of them. It is a constant challenge and expenditure of energy, on the part of a teacher or “guide”, to have brought these folks out into the Absolute, and then need to deal with the buckets of shit that come when the student brings their habits (karma) to this “Absolutes”-view. I know this well, from bitter experience — how much suffering I probably gave to my Teacher, it cannot be known.

But when it was pointed out to me – – when the mirror reflected back, as it always does — I always applied maximum effort and openness to resolving it, and evolving.

Schope’s Little Girl

“Sometimes I speak to men and women just as a little girl speaks to her doll. She knows, of course, that the doll does not understand her, but she creates for herself the joy of communication through a pleasant and conscious self-deception.”

Me, too.



This engraving really touches me — a lot. It expresses this part of the Bodhisattva Vows where we vow to save all beings, even those trapped in hell-states. This fucking vow is what keeps me tied down to managing a meditation center, and answering for the 87,765th time why our eyes should be open during meditation, how to treat the thinking that was implanted by peoples’ parents and society, etc., when my more “personal” side might long to live as my monk-brothers now do — meditating, reading quietly in the temple, quiet and unscheduled service to others, visiting quietly with meaningful friendships. Not all of this scheduling and postering, posting and “sharing”, dealing with the housing matters of a small commune of good souls whose bathroom and bedding needs end up being the subjects of meetings that I need to have with people. Don’t mistake — I get enormous satisfaction from helping people to wake up to the mystery and joy of themselves. But the accrual of work, out here in the West with basically zero temple-infrastructure to gird this effort, at the age of 59, has become enormously exhausting.

Anyway, I live by this engraving. Running a Zen center? I might do it for another year, maybe two. But living more simply, with less need to schedule and push people to their own innate knowledge, with all of the financial accounting and legal matters that gather for attention, the need for our public-facing ministry to feed the social media gods on such a constant basis, and the constant need to fundraise to keep the doors open — and then be just a little softer of temperament by the removal of business and decadlines, I could be available (and more effective) for others.

Dan Hillier, “Ground”. Based around the figure from an 1880s steel engraving by J. Rogers of the painting ‘Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane’ by Carlo Dolci (1600s).


Thinking About Thinking


I studied philosophy and literature in university. I was very excited to finally study the nature of reality, as expressed by the greatest minds of history. But I noticed — it would take several years to notice this — that as philosophy meandered into speculations about the nature of speculation, I bailed out. It felt like studying the shadow of a shadow of a hand, when all I was trying to do was to master this hand. This was not giving me any workable insight. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus said, “Much learning does not teach understanding.”

One day, the words of Bodhidharma broke through the clouds to save my view: “If you use the (thinking-)mind to understand reality, you won’t understand your mind or reality.” And then the immense fortune to meet my Teacher, whose celebrated phrase — “Only don’t know!” — pretty much captured the work that really needed to be done.

Zen had arrived.



Raised by an Irish mother, I was raised with butter. I can hardly remember olive oil ever being part of a meal, in any way — either cooking or seasoning. I might still suffer from painful addiction to a brick or two of Irish butter per week. Twelve years of effort teaching in Greece, however, has turned me into someone who can’t live easily without olive oil. (I once consumed over 45 litres of Greek olive oil during a 90-day retreat in Korea, when I first started the ketogenic regimen which is my life’s plan for the foreseeable future.) And as I wish to move more into an exclusive plant-based diet, it’s great to know that there is a fat-cousin to butter that I can rely on, going forward.

On “My Truth”


After being in Asia for some years, maybe decades, I remember coming back to the West and noticing how much people were using the phrase “my truth” to explain or even justify some seemingly willing blind-spot in their thinking, in their consideration of an argument or issue or perspective. It really hit me! Maybe I had heard the phrase used before I left in 1992, but it was noticeable — and grating — to hear this after some time away: its usage had seemingly exploded into view. (One seems to hear statements about ”my truth” more in California, is my experience. Just saying.) Maybe training for 10, 12 hours of daily meditation trying to attain absolute “truth” made it feel very askance to hear this term — “truth” — being used in ways that seemed obviously parochial, at best, and diminishing and even wilfully blind, at worst.

These insights, by Jonathan Shedler, the eminent clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), really align with my gut-feeling on the subject. (And that’s it — just a gut feeling.)

I don’t agree with everything he says, especially the early point that “‘truth’ doesn’t reside in an individual”. Well, yes – – in his overall argument, the point he is emphasizing, this is certainly true. “Truth“ is not an “individual“, personal thing. And yet, simultaneously, what people don’t get – – until they really meditate, it seems, unless they just “self reflect“ with consistency — is that “truth“ does reside in the realm of the individual’s before-thinking-mind experience (“don’t know”), since in that purest view the ”individual” experiences that they are not, in fact, anymore “an individual”, any more than is a text message which is sent to 1 million (or 8 billion) people ”individual”. Truth is universal, absolute, completely non-parochial, but it can be manifested in an individual’s experience of every day life, moment to moment. ”The sky is blue. The trees are green. Salt is salty. Sugar is sweet.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn destroyed all of my philosophy learning at Yale and Harvard — utterly obliterated it as if by 100 HIMARs — with this example: ”A banana, honey, and sugar are all sweet things. But banana sweetness is not exactly like sugar sweetness, which is not exactly like honey sweetness. Then, how do you communicate the truth of the banana, the truth of sugar, or the truth of honey to convince another person perfectly? You tell them, ‘Open your mouth!’ Then you give them a banana to eat, then give them sugar to eat, then give them honey to taste. Immediately, they will attain truth!”