A Samadhi of Words

tree at sunset

In his later years, Zen Master Hakuin spoke of entering “a samadhi of words” as he wrote. Like a prophet of old, he was gripped by inspiration – literally by the in-breath, and then the out-breath.

Perhaps we think of samadhi as a state beyond words, an effortless absorption in the moment that words can never touch. But here Hakuin says something different: He is effortlessly absorbed in words themselves, which is to say, with thought. Though thought is not all we are, nevertheless you are not separate from thoughts. You are entirely one with them; they arise as naturally as sap in a tree, and pass like falling leaves. Then your voice is one with the wind and the birds.

Space Is the Place

NBP-cover-onlyBook review: No Better Place: A New Zen Primer by Hoag Holmgren. Middle Creek Publishing, 2019. 

A sense of great spaciousness is apparent in the first and perhaps definitive sentence of Hoag Holmgren’s No Better Place: “Zen Buddhism is a path of waking up to the vastness of who you are.” Immediately Holmgren encourages us to become expansive, to relinquish our limitations, to meet the blue sky in its untrammeled heights.

Subtitled A New Zen Primer, Holmgen’s book comprises sixty-four pithy chapters occasionally verging into epigram (“If reason is an ornithologist, Zen is a raven”). Along with some basic instruction in zazen, it offers a series of lapidary comments on the nature of Zen practice and its functioning, enjoining us to become ever more open and to let go our needless hindrances. Included also are commentaries on the Ten Oxherding Pictures, a collection of paintings from 12th-century China that depict the stages of practice and realization from the seeker’s first inklings of Buddha nature to the full realization of the awakened bodhisattva acting unselfconsciously in the world.

In form and style, No Better Place reminds me most of the work of Robert Aitken, in particular his last book, Miniatures of a Zen Master, a collection of ever-profound musings published toward the end of Aitken’s life. As in Miniatures, Holmgren is unafraid to leave space on the page, to give us room to consider just a few sentences at a time, as one would read a poem. This isn’t a mad dash from page to page; it’s a cup of cold spring water, relished one swallow at a time.

The resemblance between the books may be no coincidence. Holmgren has trained for many years with Danan Henry Roshi, the founding teacher of our own Zen Center of Denver, and Henry in turn trained initially with Philip Kapleau and later with Aitken, becoming sanctioned as a Diamond Sangha teacher. So there is a direct practice connection here, a transmission of understanding as well as style. Along with several quotations from Aitken, we also find anecdotes from the lives of Kapleau and Henry (including a striking story from the latter describing an experience during his time with Harada Tangen Roshi in Japan). The stream flows on and on; the Dharma wind flies unhindered from Japan to Hawaii to the Colorado Rockies.

Like Aitken’s work, too, No Better Place is deceptively simple on its face. I remember reading Aitken’s Taking the Path of Zen and thinking, “Well, sure. This is all stuff I already sort of knew.” But prior to reading it, much that it discussed was vague to me. It provided clear instruction in zazen combined with a small course in Dharma, expressed with concision and elegance. And while primarily written in prose, Aitken’s work looked to poetry for its inspiration, via numerous quotations and lyrical phrasing. Consider, from No Better Place:

“The solution to the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem,” says Ludwig Wittgenstein. Indeed, there are no tidy answers to the big questions. But when there is no highway of thinking cutting you off from the world, there is also no paradox about life and death. There is just intimacy. In the deep-water stillness of zazen, this means that there is just breathing. The breath devours you. You don’t know if you’re breathing the breath or if the breath is breathing you. Off the meditation cushion this means that there is only the lone coyote trotting across the dirt road. There is no detached observer categorizing and labeling. There’s just taking care of a sick child. Just mourning the loss of a loved one. Just watering the garden and pulling weeds. Just this hook of moon rising above the trees, closer than your hand.

A quotation (No Better Place is replete with them, from wide-ranging sources) sparks a reflection on stillness and intimacy; general statements yield to concrete images at once evocative yet rooted in everyday experience (“this hook of moon rising above the trees”). Or consider again, in the book’s most explicit instruction:

The zazen posture, whether on a cushion or in a chair, is a straight back, an alert forward-facing head, eyes half open and softly focused, the gaze lowered. The lower back gently and naturally curves in. Breathing is comfortably anchored in the belly. The left hand rests on the right hand, palms up, thumb tips touching lightly to make a soft circle or oval. The mind’s allegiance shifts to the breath, to the awareness of bodily sensations, to the immediacy of what’s actually occurring right now, here. In this way, zazen is a voyage. There is no departure and no arrival but belief, faith and views are left behind. It’s a journey of verifying via direct experience what the Buddha verified: that you and all rivers, mountains, spiral galaxies, and beings have the same last name.

In these oft-repeated physical instructions, one cannot but hear an echo of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi:

At the site of your regular sitting, spread out a thick mat and place a firm round cushion on it. Sit on the cushion in either the full lotus or half-lotus posture. In the full lotus posture, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. …

Having adjusted your body in this manner, take a deep breath and exhale fully, sway your body left and right several times, and settle into an immobile sitting posture. Then sit firmly as a rock and think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? By not thinking. This is the very basis of zazen.

The form of zazen has not changed much, or indeed at all, and our practice is the practice of the ancients – of the ancient “spiral galaxies,” even. The limitless universe bows and returns to its seat. What could be better?


Early in spring Yama-uba fell sick with a fever. One morning, after a terrible night in which she thought she might die, she woke to hear the crying of a child. Startled, she sat up, looking around with alarm.

“Who’s there?” she called hoarsely. The only answer was more crying. “Hell and death, child,” she cursed, fighting her way to standing, damp with sweat beneath her crude patchwork robe. When she moved, her little pet mouse, Kyojin, scampered from the blankets and sought shelter behind a box. Yama-uba tottered over to the door, lifted the rope latch and looked with astonishment at her visitor.

Her sole visitor: for the child was alone, a little topknotted boy in a beautiful green kimono embroidered with a pattern of interlocking yellow snakes. His face was red and streaked with tears; he might have been two. Breath hitching, he looked up with big wet eyes.

Yama-uba looked, but she saw no one in the rain-glistening forest. “Hello?” she called, loudly as she was able. But no one answered, and her visitor only sniffled at her inquiries. He looked in rosy health, and his attire bespoke wealth and position. But what was he doing out here in the forest? Continue reading


They named the city Solitude, being without a sister on all the planet’s surface, a singular ruin spilling to the cliff-bound edges of a wide, high mountain valley. At least they assumed it was a ruin, for nothing moved among its sharp right angles, or nothing they could see from space; but then, life often acts unseen.

In the end four went down in the shuttle: Tor Mandelson, first lieutenant and pilot; Lida Trent, linguist; herself, Aless Raith, exobiologist; and Aless’s husband, Parnell Jacobs, planetologist. Parnell had consumed four cups of coffee in preparation and was beside himself with excitement as the shuttle descended. “We should have about twenty hours of daylight remaining, followed by eighteen hours of night. Then we’ll see something crazy, you better believe it. All that radiation striking the atmosphere is going to make things light up like a candle. It’s going to –”


Image by Dylan Fowler

“Less chatter on coms,” Tor said, taciturn.

Jacobs just switched to a private channel and kept talking. “So far so good, not even much static, though we are sitting right inside the transmitter, so to speak. I still don’t think we’ve solved the problem of communications, though.”

Every planet had its difficulties: too hot, too cold, too much gravity, too little, no water, all water. Eos was a .92 on the Earth Similarity Index, a prime candidate for settlement; but its sun had a bad habit of emitting solar flares, interfering with radio communication. The first probe they’d sent had passed through the magnetosphere and then just… stopped communicating. It was a real problem; Aless just didn’t want to hear about it now, as they were getting their first glimpses of the planet. “Can we maybe just be quiet for a minute?”


“Can we be quiet? As we land?”

His brow tightened. “Sure. Sorry, just excited I guess.” He seemed to want to say more, but she turned off the channel and that was that.

They landed shortly after dawn in a wide plaza ringed by rectilinear monoliths. The sky was gray-white, the sun weak. As they performed the long series of checks prior to stepping outside, Parnell sounded clipped. Letting her know that if she wanted to be all business, then All-Business Parnell could handle it. At last the airlock opened and they were outside, enclosed in silver pressure suits and laden with equipment. Continue reading

A Bad Day for Abaddon

“Life is a prison,” hissed the demon, exposing fangs that dripped with smoking acid. “Give me your life and I will free you of it. With my aid, you will gain power in the next world, and rule as queen over the kingdom of the dead.”

In-Here-4“I like life,” answered Furoshi, raising the tip of her sword. “Like, there’s a restaurant down the street from me that has this kickass breakfast burrito. I like to go there on Sundays, drink some coffee and chat with the bartenders. I think I’d miss that, if I was a slave to you in hell.”

She’d gone there just this last Sunday, in fact. Hadn’t really expected to travel to hell so soon, but you had to expect the unexpected. Now here she was facing this ugly son of a bitch in a desert of darkness deep in Seven Circles, the hell nearest to Earth. The desert swallowed light like the sands swallowed water; an ordinary light would go out in moments. Fortunately, Furoshi had spent her twenty-first year in a lightless pit of a prison in a goblin undercity, and had learned a nearly telepathic sense of an enemy’s body in the dark. Besides, her sword and whip glowed pretty bright.

“Then never mind the kingdom,” said Abaddon, his lion’s body tensing upon the crumbling head of an ancient statue, “I will take your life for pleasure.” And he sprang.

The sphinx-like demon was faster than Furoshi would have believed, covering the twenty yards between them in two bounds, pebbles spraying, curved claws extending from his eight legs, sharp teeth bared in the human face, snarling. Furoshi barely had time to speak a word of power to the rune-whip in her left hand and flick out the fiery line before springing right in a twisting motion that left a smoking wound in the demon’s first forelimb, where Furoshi’s sword had deflected its motion.

But those eight legs were faster and more agile than any earthly animal’s. Mid-charge they zagged, claws already slashing toward Furoshi’s unprotected face. Abaddon’s frightening visage, surrounded by the writhing black serpents of its hair, stretched and roared, a noise something like a jaguar’s.

No doubt the creature was expecting a quick end to an uneven challenge, but he hadn’t reckoned on two things: first, Furoshi’s armor was heavily magicked, infused with the blood of a steel-golem she’d destroyed years back; second, her rune-whip had almost instantaneously wound itself around several of Abaddon’s mid-legs, and now tightened on them cruelly, while Furoshi hacked at the back legs, half-severing one.

Abaddon screamed in pain and fury, and now the fight really began. The demon was terrifyingly fast, and every part of it was dangerous, from the hissing serpents to the spitted acid-venom to the giant, rusting fishhook of the tail. Unfortunately for Abaddon, Naoko Furoshi was a fifth-level witch of the Bloodearth Order, the chosen successor of her teacher, Kokorono Mizuno Ryu, the Dragon of the Heart’s Water, and her skin was scarred with runes and her katana was magic as fuck, and she was, as they say, a fucking badass. Furoshi put the hurting on that hellspawn, and when she was done, it was missing two legs and the other six were bound tight by the runewhip, its arcs ablaze with eldritch power, shooting sparks where the demon fought against it.

Finally Furoshi put a forceful boot on its neck and pointed her katana at the thing’s eyeball. “You gonna play ball now?”

“Kagejin,” hissed the demon. Shadowkin. “You will meet your doom here.”

“Well, maybe. I mean not here here, though, right? More like ‘here,’ in Seven Circles generally. Because you have to admit, in the here here, it seems like you got beat pretty bad. You could get beat worse, though. Like head-chopped-off worse.”

“Speak your will, witch.”

“I’m looking for somebody,” Furoshi began. Cautiously, she let go the whip – it was plenty smart enough to keep the monster tied tight on its own – reached into the sleeve of her robe and withdrew a photo, a three-by-five she’d printed at Office Depot a couple days ago, when she’d taken the gig. “This one.”

It was a picture of a little boy posing with a stuffed Cookie Monster, blue fur poking from between his fingers. “Peter Lushnikov is the kid’s name. His soul was stolen by a demon named Zaraz, Eye of the Red Storm. That’s who I’m looking for. Know where he’s at?”

Abaddon laughed, a single spiteful cough. “What does it matter?” But when Furoshi raised her sword to strike, the creature’s wet black eyes went wide and it gasped, “The center! Zaraz is at the center.”

“Hell has no center,” Furoshi said, puzzled. “It’s not geographically fixed.”

“Why then Seven Circles?”

“I mean, they’re not literal circles. They’re realms of existence. They go down forever, far as I know. It’s like a dream – it has no limits.”

“Yes, and where the limits end, there you find Zaraz.”

She frowned. “I need directions, not riddles.”

“Seek Croven the Aged, then. Toward the broken moon of Erebos until you see the salt-statues on the plain. He spoke to me once of Zaraz.”

Furoshi regarded her opponent warily. “If I let you up, are you going to be reasonable?”

A hiss; then, “Yessss.” So with a shove of her boot, Furoshi leapt away from the demon, sword raised, and called her runewhip to slither back to her hand, unwinding from foot and claw.

“What is the boy to you?” asked the demon when he was free. “Your son?”

“What? Oh God, no. No babies for me. Ick. I mean, no offense to anyone, just not my thing. No, I’m a professional. People hire me when they have a paranormal-magical missing-persons kind of issue. The clientele are pretty specialized, sure, but you’d be amazed what they’re willing to pay. Now if you don’t mind backing up until I basically can’t see your ugly ass anymore, I’ll be on my merry way.” She waved vaguely with the sword, where the broken moon Erebos was just rising, blood red over the broken stones of the desert.

“We will meet again,” promised the demon. “Unless Zaraz devours you first.”

“Let’s cross our fingers and hope neither happens, shall we? Now go! Get outta here!” She cracked the whip for emphasis. With a final hateful vituperation, the demon turned tail and fled.

After a few spells to make sure he was really and true gone, Furoshi turned and started slogging across the desert. Investigations in hell were never simple and never easy. Still, it beat working in an office all day.

Circulating the Gift

From a talk for the Zen Center of Denver, Oct. 30, 2018.

Today we’re investigating the Eighth Grave Precept, Not Withholding Spiritual or Material Aid, also translated as Not Sparing the Dharma Assets. At our center we frequently add, “but giving them freely where needed.”

Robert Aitken Roshi describes the Dharma assets as “energy and its tendencies.” He further notes that this precept is intimately tied to karma, to the cycle of cause and effect. Energy circulates; we give and receive in turn, over and over again. Nowhere is this more evident than in ecological cycles. Trees grow fruit, which is eaten by animals; animals spread the seeds, and more trees are planted. The wind picks up moisture from seas and lakes; the rain falls; the water returns to its source. Dogen said, “This exertion, too, sustains the sun, the moon and the stars.” Everything is part of this circulating gift; nothing is left out.

There are many stories, not just in Buddhism but in nearly all religious traditions, about the generosity of sages. Perhaps the most famous in Zen is how Ryokan, who lived as a hermit in a simple hut, one night was visited by a thief. Of course, Ryokan had nothing to steal. He said, “You may have come a long way to visit me, and shouldn’t return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” Bewildered, the thief left. Afterward, Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused. “How I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

This story may be apocryphal, but I doubt it much exaggerates the paucity of Ryokan’s possessions. Sometimes he would write letters to friends in the winter, begging for a little miso paste or other food, on the edge of starvation. Yet his spirit of generosity knew no limit. Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the genuine, all-pervading Dharma, not being stingy about a single thing is called the Precept of Not Sparing the Dharma Assets.”

Traditionally Zen monks own almost nothing, just a robe and a set of bowls. Everything else is shared; at the same time, all one’s physical needs are cared for. This is, I think, a beautiful model – everyone giving and receiving as one.

Yet as anyone can see, we also have individual needs, and in our lay lives, those needs are rather more complex than in a monastery. If you give away your car, you may not be able to get to work; give away your house, and you’ll be on the street. No doubt you can live without a job or a house; but what about those depending on you for support? So, we create boundaries. We say, “This is mine, and that’s yours.” But be careful. Build up your borders too much, and you’ll find you’re trapped within them. This is the delusion of self and other.

If we have a national failing, I’d say this is it. We have enormous wealth, yet perennially seem unwilling to provide for those less fortunate. What we think we need for ourselves expands forever outward, while what we are willing to give shrinks accordingly. We build walls around ourselves, trying to protect an entirely illusory security. Comfortable circumstances too often result in hard hearts. Who hasn’t observed tycoons who hoard their wealth, while the homeless on the street share their last crust of bread with their neighbor? It’s for this reason that Zengetsu said, “Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.”

Once on TV I saw a comedian interviewing a Muslim imam. Islam has a strong tradition of giving, especially to guests; testing this, the comedian grabbed a book at random off a shelf and said, “What about this book? It’s mine now.” And without a trace of hesitation, instantly, the imam said, “Yes, it’s yours. It’s a gift.”

Some say that all religions are the same; and while I don’t really believe this myself, it does seem to me that most religions are alike in at least one way: they all encourage a sense of devotion in their followers, which is to say, a sense of combined generosity and gratitude. This is both critical to cultivate in spiritual practice, and is the natural fruit of that practice. In giving and in giving thanks, we reflect and encourage the generosity of others, the generosity of the whole universe. In our iconography, this is depicted as the Bodhisattva Kannon, endlessly pouring out the waters of compassion upon the seas of the world, endlessly giving.

Please don’t think, also, that materialism is the sole concern of this precept. It’s just as easy to be stingy with our time, our empathy, or our effort. We may be stingy with ourselves – failing to recognize our own needs, or allowing our fear of failure or fatigue to prevent us from really exerting ourselves. Don’t hold back!

Dogen said: “One phrase, one verse – that is the ten thousand things and one hundred grasses; one dharma, one realization – that is the Buddhas and Ancestral Teachers. Therefore, from the beginning, there has been no stinginess at all.” What is there to hold onto, after all? Seeing this clearly, we are free to respond to others unreservedly, without a single thought of you or me.

This is Dana Paramita, the perfection of giving, of generosity. Dana is relinquishment, and as such is at the heart of our practice. Every day we sit down, straighten our backs, calm our breathing, and let go of everything. We loosen our grip; we give ourselves to the practice; and in giving ourselves, we give everything. Then we find that the universe gives back; it fills us up to the brim and more, it overflows with gifts: the sweetness of an orange, the clatter of the autumn leaves, a smile from a friend. Really, everything is a gift, all life is a gift. In this light, even our pain and discomfort are transfigured. If you can see this clearly, then as Dogen said, “The treasure-house will open of itself, and you will be able to enjoy it to your heart’s content.”

The Shadow of All Things Past


Orrin hadn’t wanted such a large group, but his sister, Patience, wouldn’t be dissuaded, so in the end they were four, including his friends Matt Deving and Tom Rodriguez. Patience was the youngest, at eleven; Orrin the oldest, at fourteen (and the tallest, by a good five inches). Before dawn they made their way to the surface with their bicycles. In the early days of the Fort, you wouldn’t have been allowed outside at all without a rad suit, but these days even kids were allowed outside to play. There was talk of moving to the surface entirely, and some families had – there was obviously more space up there – but most still preferred the security of the great underground bunker that was Fort Haven.

They brought protein bars, and plenty of water, at least a gallon each; Orrin insisted on checking each backpack individually, and brought a little filtration system too. As the day went on it would get hot – a hundred and ten, maybe – but by that time they’d be down in the city. It would have made sense to go at night, but none of them wanted to be there after dark. “Everyone set?” he asked when they were gathered by the road.

“Let’s go already,” Matt said.

Orrin had read that the Romans built roads to last a thousand years, but it seemed like the Americans’ hadn’t lasted ten. Occasionally the kids took to the blacktop where sections still remained, but mostly they rode on the gravel shoulder. Rusted hulks of vehicles were lined all along the roadside or pushed down the ravines, long ago moved for the convenience of travelers. The kids kept peering into them, looking for skeletons, but it had been a long, long time, and most had collapsed into dust.

As the day lightened the landscape came clear: the mountains at their back, rough rocks and scrub grasses at either hand, the plains ahead. Once there had been trees, but they had all died in the Fall, and been burned for fuel by the survivors. At a small rise Orrin paused, staring into the sun. “There it is.”

Far below, the ghosts of roads still lay etched upon the earth. Upon that grid the broken remnants of human activity lay like cracked and discarded teeth. Disordered heaps of steel and concrete were dotted with larger structures; and in the far distance, a cluster of high-rises, or at least their skeletons, still clutched at the cloudless sky.

It took three and a half hours to reach the outskirts, by which time their asses were hurting bad from the bike seats. They stopped several times to rest and drink water, but Orrin kept pushing them on, thinking how much harder it would be on the return trip, riding uphill.

They came to a concrete bridge and rode it over a dry riverbed, and at last came to a building, or the remnants of one. It was large but low, constructed of cinder blocks that still retained some traces of beige paint. Of course the roof had long since fallen in.

“Should we go in?” asked Thomas.

“It’s why we came,” Orrin said, setting his kickstand.

“What if there’s someone inside?”

“There’s not.”

The double doors, made of ancient red-painted steel, still hung from their hinges. When Orrin opened the right it squealed like a disgruntled spirit. What if there was someone inside? But then, who could live here? What would they eat, with all the animals gone? Insects? He’d heard that’s what the Scratchers did, in their desperate surface lives: harvested beetles and ate them.

He shoved his way inside and entered a wide and roofless hallway. Nothing much but sand and debris from the roof, ancient boards, bits of metal. He turned at the first doorway.

Chairs and desks, dozens of them, in chaotic arrangements, tumbled and rusted. The color of the chairs’ plastic surfaces had only partially faded, orange, red and blue. He felt the others come up behind him and look over his shoulders, except for Patience, who peered around his stomach. “It’s a school,” she whispered.

Of course it was. Had been. He turned and went on. There might be a nurse’s station.
Indeed there had been, the red cross on a kit on the wall still visible. But it had been looted entirely, probably in the first days of the Fall, leaving nothing but grit and cobwebs.

They rode on, past the square concrete footprints of vanished houses, vehicles burned down to the axles. “Where are we going?” Patience asked.

“There,” Orrin said, nodding at the cluster of high-rises. If there was anything worthwhile, that’s where it would be.

The sun rose higher, and they sweated beneath their baseball caps. The dead city seemed to go on and on. He’d seen videos, of course, but he hadn’t realized it was so vast. Millions of people had lived here. How many in Fort Haven? Two thousand, stuffed into their concrete chambers like ants in a hill. How many at the larger refuge of Centcom, a hundred miles south? Maybe twenty thousand. And in all the world? A few million? Fewer than had lived in this single city.

They passed the remnant of a stadium, an enormous, half-shattered circlet of steel and concrete, like the discarded crown of a long-dead god. And on, until they stood at the foot of one of the high-rises, looking up awed. It was the tallest structure they had ever seen, by far; and it was a blasted ruin, the top third missing, its windows shattered or melted.

They did not try to go inside, but continued past plazas of dust and broken monuments, rubble heaped like mountains, avenues of drifted sand, and one building that had collapsed at an angle and still stood leaning wildly, like a soldier trying to stand on a broken leg. Further east, where they dared not stray, the destruction was still worse, the landscape reduced to an uneven expanse of cracked black glass.

Finally, in the heat of the day, they chose a building that was comparatively intact. They wandered its dead halls touching the gray faces of computer screens, the pitted and melted plastic, picking up broken bits of objects whose purpose they could only guess at. In its open-faced lobby they sat and ate, saying little.

They explored a few hours more, finding much of interest but nothing of use, until in late afternoon Tom pointed to a concrete wall. “Look at this.”

On the pale gray surface lay dark patterns. After a moment the shapes fell into place, and Orrin’s blood ran cold.

Three human-shaped outlines were etched there, each in a running pose. Here they had been caught; here their forms remained, forever fleeing. “Ghosts,” breathed Patience.

With difficulty Orrin tore his gaze away. “Just shadows.”

“Are we going to keep looking?”

He shook his head. “There’s nothing good here. It’s all gone.”

Together the four began the long hard ride back home, the sunset flaring in their eyes. Long before they arrived the moon rose, and its battered and lifeless face seemed a foreshadowing.