Posted in zen

What’s Zen?

There’s a famous four line description of the zen tradition that has come down to us. This list is attributed to Bodhidharma and it’s really supposed to be what sets the Zen tradition apart, what makes Zen different from the rest of Buddhism and what we can keep in mind as zen practitioners.

These four lines express what the zen tradition is and why it’s important.

A separate transmission outside the scriptures;

Not dependent on words and letters;

Direct pointing at the human mind;

Seeing one’s nature and becoming Buddha.

This sounds serious but maybe it’s hard to understand. So I’ll go down it line by line.

A separate transmission

This means our practice is in our lives. We aren’t simply studying sutras and talking about how great Buddhism is. We are actualizing the teachings in our lives. Hopefully we are also having a dedicated relationship with a teacher and/or a community that can help us on the path.

Not dependent on words and letters

Buddhist writing (and teaching) points in the direction of awakening, but ultimately these things should be viewed as maps and hints, not really as sacred texts. They are to be relied on only in as far as we’re trying to use them to point the way. Most writings have come out of someone else’s experience, an effort to describe the experience they’ve had on the path. These are useful and helpful. But the important point is awakening and we won’t come to that with intellectual understanding alone.

Direct pointing at the human mind

Our aim in this path is awakening, seeing our true nature. Making efforts to recognize our true nature is the beginning of the path. The fundamental nature of our being is awakening and what we’re trying to do is uncover that, not at some later time or in some later life…here and now. Be here now. All the teachings are meant to point us in the direction of our true nature.

Seeing one’s nature and becoming Buddha

Seeing one’s nature is recognizing your true self. Becoming Buddha is actualizing and embodying that. We don’t practice to get somewhere or attain something. We all have Buddha Nature. We have awakening already. We are practicing because that’s what Buddhas do. We are all Buddhas. We are dedicated to seeing our awakening and integrating it into our lives.


The Zen approach takes awakening as the path. As practitioners we strive to give ourselves to our training and follow the path that’s been laid out for us. Hopefully we can rely on teachers and/or communities and truly throw ourselves into the process of awakening.

That’s all there is.



Posted in mindfulness

Bringing the Mind Here

One of the things we’re trying to do in our meditation practice is to bring our minds here, into the present moment. To do this we have to get a handle on our wandering thoughts.

So often in life we aren’t present. We’re daydreaming or ruminating or fantasizing. These things aren’t bad, but we’re missing things in the here and now.

The Buddha said, “Stopping is awakening,” and he was talking about stopping the way our wandering thoughts drag us around. Bodhidharma said, “Put down the myriad entangling conditions; let not one thought arise.” This means put down your crap. Stop seeing the world through the lens of your selfishness. Stop getting carried away all the time by wandering thoughts. Assert control of your mind. If we can do that, then we can awaken to our true nature.

Posted in videos

Living Your Best Life (Video)

This is a talk I gave on an old Zen teaching from Bodhidharma called “The Four Zen Gates.”

In this talk I try to bring an old Zen teaching to life to help us understand it a little better.

Live Your Best Life!



related articles:


Bodhidharma’s Two Entries


my Patreon Page:
My Books:





If you enjoyed this post, feel free to make a donation here. I’m a struggling writer and every little bit helps, even just a single dollar.

Thank you.


Posted in zen

“I have pacified your mind” (video)

This is the story of Bodhidharma and his student Huike.

Let me know what you think.


Upcoming Events:

8/25/18: 11:00AM-11:30AM

Meditation Mob KC

Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

4525 Oak Street
Kansas City, MO 64111

We are going to meet up on the south lawn of the Nelson Museum and we’re going to meditate in public. I’ll give a little bit of guidance and a short talk and we will sit (in the shade of course) and meditate together with open hearts and awakened minds.

Go like the page Kansas City Zen to get updates for events like this.

9/9/18: 9:00AM-10:15AM

Dharma Talk and Meditation

Tam Bao Buddhist Temple

16933 E 21st St, Tulsa, OK 74134

I’ve been invited to travel to a beautiful Buddhist temple to give a dharma talk. While we’re there, we’ll have the opportunity to visit the largest Buddhist statue in America.

To learn more about this group, click HERE

Posted in buddhism, zen

Why Zen?

I’m not interested in worshipping the Buddha or Bodhisattvas. I’m not even really all that interested in revering them.

When the Buddha attained awakening under the Bodhi tree he said, “I and all beings have attained Enlightenment.”
I want to actualize that statement. Zen isn’t about bowing to statues, it’s about bowing to our true nature.

I don’t want to follow the Buddha or anyone else. I seek what the Enlightened ones sought. Zen is about dwelling in this moment, rising above or stepping away from the delusions that are a constant part of our lives.

Bodhidharma, the man who brought Zen to China, said it was:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;

No dependence on words and letters;

Direct pointing to the mind;

Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.

Zen is not an intellectual study. It’s not something we learn about. It’s something we do, a direct pointing to our true nature. It’s just the practice of stopping our minds and seeing reality as it is.

Zen is an exploration into our true nature. For those of us that practice it involves stepping out of our thoughts and the labels we try to put on reality. It involves introspection and contemplation, going to the place where we are able to slow down our chaotic minds enough to explore the inner self.
In time, seeing our true nature can come naturally.

I can’t really tell you. I can only show you.

Come sit with me and see what it’s all about.


Posted in zen

Bodhidharma’s 2 Entries

Bodhidharma said there are two ways to enter the path.

Entry through conduct and entry through principle.

He outlined this in a teaching called the Two Entries and the Four Practices. In this teaching he outlines in a clear way what we must do to attain enlightenment.

Entry through conduct is associated with practices that need to be done. This applies to those aspects of our training that require effort, our spiritual cultivation.

Entry through principle is considered the essence of the Zen path. It applies to directly seeing our true nature, which is beyond words, descriptions and forms.

In the practice of the Dharma, both of these things need to be used. Entry through principle represents the cultivation of insight through meditation. Entry through conduct represents the cultivation of discipline.

Entry through conduct is the path of the Dharma as it’s explained in the sutras and commentaries. It is an approach that involves modifying behavior and spiritual cultivation, in which concentration is expanded through meditative practices. It also involves efforts at countering the three poisons: hatred, greed, and delusion.

Entry through conduct is practiced through four methods:

1) The practice of repaying wrongs.

2) The practice of adjusting to circumstance.

3) The practice of non-seeking or asking for anything.

4) The practice of upholding the Dharma.

Repaying wrongs represents understanding that our actions have consequences and trying to mitigate negative consequences that we have caused. This has been described as karma. Our karma has to be understood and improved.

Adjusting to circumstance means doing our best within our environment. Accepting our conditions instead of becoming attached to them is important. Attachment to our circumstances can be either positive or negative. We can enjoy our circumstances too much and be too excited by them. We can also hate our circumstances too much and view life in a very negative way. These are two sides of attachment.

Non-seeking means acting without attachment to personal gain either now or in the future. The self is a delusion, a label we put on our interaction with our environment. If we act in a way that is attached to receiving praise or blame, this is not helpful. In a way, this could be said to be an advanced practice.

Many people come to Buddhism with hope for a gain, for some kind of benefit from practice. But, eventually when one practices, self-centeredness does start to fall way. When we are concerned about our Enlightenment, it can be a barrier to our Enlightenment. Wanting to achieve some attainment can stop us from perceiving the Empty Mind Ground.

The Practice of Upholding the Dharma represents our attempt to perceive the emptiness and impermanence. Our practice allows us to reach the point of Entry through principle. Different branches of Buddhism have different methods of engaging this practice. In Zen the method involves meditation but also interaction with a Zen teacher.

Altering our behavior in this way is supposed to calm our minds and bring us to a point at which we can perceive the Empty Mind Ground.

Entry through principle is a different method that Bodhidharma taught. It represents an insight into our true nature. It is a method for touching the Empty Mind Ground right now and it is difficult for us to understand on an intellectual level.

Bodhidharma said:

When conveying the tradition of enlightenment, it is understood that all beings—whether enlightened or unenlightened—share exactly the same true nature. However, the Buddha-nature is obscured by a layer of dust which prevents the ‘real’ from manifesting. Give-up delusion and return to the real by concentrating (and stilling) the mind so that it is broad, and all inclusive. Then there is no self or other, and there is no difference between a sage and an ordinary person. Firm and unmoving, there is no falling into the written teachings. This deep realization is in accord with the principle. There is no discrimination, and all is silent and non-active.

This is the most important principle of Zen, as it was taught by Bodhidharma. The enlightened state is our true nature. We have delusions that are preventing us from realizing that, but if we can get past those, then we can enter the Empty Mind Ground. This means leaving behind our delusions and our discrimination between self and other.

Bodhidharma’s message is the message of many of the Mahayana sutras, that nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and worldliness, are really one and the same. This is, in a way, a rebellion against the Theravada ideal that preceded it.

Theravada Buddhism promoted the notion that nirvana is something we are trying to attain, some special dimension of reality that we are trying to reach.

Bodhidharma’s teaching challenges Theravada Buddhism, because it takes away the idea that Enlightenment is only available to an elite few accomplished monks, and declares that it’s available to everyone, in this very moment.

As samsara and nirvana share the same essence, there is no difference. As the entry through insight and the entry through conduct share the same essence, there is no difference between them either.

Enlightenment is available to all of us, right this moment.

These two entries are the foundation of the Zen School in China.


Posted in Uncategorized

The Four Reliances

Sometimes we make mistakes and stumble on the Buddhist path.

It happens to everyone. This is a list from the Buddha of things we can rely on on the path to help us avoid going astray.

The list comes from a teaching called the Four Reliances, which is found in several Mahayana scriptures.

1) Rely on the Dharma, Not on People.

This is the idea of the finger pointing at the moon. Teachers are very helpful, but no one can give the Dharma to you. You have to practice it to gain the benefits. If you don’t practice the Dharma and have experiences with it yourself, then you won’t make progress. Great Ultimate Truths require that we learn them for ourselves. A teacher can be very good at showing you the moon, but you have to actually look at it yourself to see it.

2) Rely on Wisdom, Not Just an Accumulation of Knowledge.

It’s important to remember that the wisdom of Buddha Nature is already within us. We just have to tune into it by clearing delusions. We can fill our heads with stories and facts about Buddhist practice, but that won’t equal the amount what we receive from a single moment of awareness of our Buddha Nature. If we can rely on wisdom and look at the world with it, then we can see things as they really are instead of seeing things through a cloud of delusion. Studying the teachings is helpful, but for real success on the path, we have to understand them intuitively as well as intellectually.

3) Rely on the Meaning of the Words, Not on the Words.

The truths expressed in words aren’t the words themselves. This is important. In all aspects of our lives we label things and become beholden to those labels. Bodhidharma said that real truths are “Beyond words and letters.”

4) Rely on the Complete Meaning, Not the Partial Meaning.

We should practice and study until we have a really deep understanding of Buddhist teachings. The deep meaning of the Dharma is the truth of our Buddha Nature. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. It can be easy to have a shallow or moderately deep understanding and think we’ve attained Enlightenment. We need to be on guard against this.

Posted in tattooed buddha

When Buddhist Practice Becomes Routine

prayer wheel

Historically, there have been two forms of Buddhism.

Actually, there are a lot more than two, but I’m just going to talk about two here.

For simplicity I’m going to refer to them as Temple Buddhism and the Other Buddhism.

Temple Buddhism exists in temples—often simply among monks and laypeople that visit them. Temple Buddhism is centered around the temple, as the name suggests. It involves strict adherence to traditional forms, whether they seem helpful or not.

The Other Buddhism leaves the temple. The Other Buddhism involves going to the forest or going out into the street to take the Dharma to other places. It involves innovation. Often that innovation ends up leading to a new form of Temple Buddhism,which is different from the original.

Right after the Buddha’s death, the Sangha started organizing as monks in temples. And this worked out for a while. People venerated the Buddha. They chanted and did rituals in his name, spent time meditating and it was good.

But then there have been the renegades. I can point to a lot of examples.

Bodhidharma arrived in China and saw a Buddhism that was practiced in the temples there. He thought this Buddhism was lacking, so he went to live in a cave by himself. In Japan, Ikkyu left temple life to go teach the Dharma to prostitutes and alcoholics. And Dogen, thinking that the Buddhism in Japan wasn’t authentic enough, took the journey to China to try to find “real” Buddhism.

In Thailand Buddhadasa Bhikku left temple life to create a retreat center in the forest.

The Buddha himself went to live alone in the forest because he found the spirituality of his time to be lacking. That’s where Buddhism comes from.

We’ve lost a lot of this maverick spirituality in modern Buddhism. People are concerned with being attached to temples, practicing the exact way their teacher did, and not really thinking much outside the box. I’ve known plenty of Buddhist teachers who spend a lot of time just telling stories about their teachers, even doing an impression of their teacher’s accent (when it’s a foreign teacher). To me that’s really weird, but it’s very common.

Like religion in general, too often Buddhism can just become routine.

We perform rituals with no real meaning behind them. We just go through the motions, without really being serious about our practice. I can point to parallels in other religions, like the people who go to church and just sing beautiful hymns in monotone voices, without even thinking about the meaning or enjoying the spiritual practice.

It’s out of these kinds of issues that the Other Buddhism has repeatedly emerged. Because rebellion is what the Buddha did, it’s a natural part of Buddhism. That’s why there are such diverse lineages and practices. Change is an integral part of Buddhism.

To an extent I think we’ve lost sight of that in the modern world. People do have a tendency to think that things have to be a certain way because they always have been.

I often wonder, why.

Posted in tattooed buddha

Bodhidharma: Barbarian Master

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”
Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.”
“There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.”

Bodhidharma appeared in China in the 5th century.

It’s unclear where he came from, but it was probably India. He has been described as having blue eyes and a beard.

He has also been described as a barbarian. His Buddhist name is Bodhidharma and he is credited with bringing Ch’an Buddhism to China. He is also credited with creating the martial art that would come to be known as Kung Fu.

People told a lot of stories about him and was already famous when he arrived in China. It’s said that he spent nine years in a cave meditating and that he invented tea to help him stay awake during long meditations.

This is the story of Bodhidharma meeting the Emperor. Emperor Wu was a big supporter of Buddhism.

Emperor Wu: “How much merit have I gained for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”
Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”
Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”
Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only void.”
Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?”
Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”

This is how Bodhidharma taught. He challenged ideas and preconceptions.

His teaching was simple. He said we should focus on practice, rather than spending too much time giving faith and devotion to religious texts. The idea that Enlightenment is with us already comes from Bodhidharma.

He described Ch’an Buddhism as:

“A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters;
By pointing directly to mind
It lets one see into [one’s own true] nature and attain Buddhahood.”

The practice he spread was simple sitting meditation. He said we should sit facing a wall, with our eyes open, and just follow the breath.

That’s it, straightforward and simple. Direct and right to the point.

Our true nature is always with us.

All that we need to do so find it is settle our minds.



Posted in buddha

On Taking Refuge in the Buddha

On Taking Refuge in the Buddha

“Whoever sees his true nature is a Buddha.”

What does it mean when we say we are taking refuge in the Buddha?

For most of us Refuge Vows are taken fairly early in our practice. Does taking refuge mean that we’re asking the Buddha to do something for us? No. The Buddha was just a man. When we go for refuge in the Buddha, we are declaring that we want to follow his example. But, we are also taking refuge in the Buddha within, our true Enlightened self. The state of Awakening that is within us is what we are really taking refuge in.

When the Buddha saw his true nature he became Enlightened. This is a journey that we can take as well.

At our core, we are Enlightened, we just can’t see it because our minds are obscured by layers of delusion. But, deep down, the truth is there. Our journey involves penetrating through these layers of delusion to find our true nature, to know it intuitively.