Roshi Robert Joshin AlthouseIt might be exciting to talk about spiritual concepts, philosophies and metaphysics, to wax poetically about harmony and enlightenment. But that actually seems to be pretty far removed from your daily experience. So I’d like to talk about “Ground Zero” where you actually live your life in the trenches.

At “Ground Zero” there is a constant struggle taking place. Everyone is busy surviving, making a living, going to work, making money, putting food on the table and sending kids to school. All over the world, in every country, every day, people are involved in this brave endeavor. It’s really a beautiful thing. You shovel down breakfast to prepare for the daily war. And then you head out by car, by train, by bike or on foot ready to attack, to win, to achieve something.

Is it possible to appreciate what “Ground Zero” is from a direct, experiential level? Is it possible to get close to the bone, instead of philosophizing or moralizing about it? It’s a messy situation. There is constant confusion and bewilderment taking place. Buildings which seemed so solid have disappeared in a matter of minutes. Here there is aggression and chaos. It’s very sharp and painful. It cuts through you completely. You can’t get comfortable here.

So the problem seems to be that you don’t want to acknowledge the pain at all. You don’t have a direct relationship to the pain. You relate to your projection, to your reaction to the pain. You only relate to your struggle to overcome the pain. Either you win or you lose. Either you attack or you will be attacked.

“Ground Zero” rears it’s head through gaps in your daily experience. Some interruption takes place. You have a flat tire on the way to a meeting, and now you will be late. You forget someone’s name. You go to the doctor and are told you have cancer. That moment is a gap and it’s taking place in your daily experience. It’s bewildering and confusing, and you feel slightly embarrassed.

So your first, knee-jerk reaction is to panic, to react. You quickly fill in the gap so that you can maintain the illusion of your own continuity, solidity and invincibility. It’s as if you are trying to make something eternal out of a situation that is constantly shifting and changing. The reaction is your projection. And this reaction then leads to further suffering. The suffering is predictable. It manifests in five distinct patterns of ignorance, aggression, passion, pride or jealousy.

So the spiritual path I have learned from my own teachers starts at “Ground Zero”. It starts by relating to your pain, fully and properly. You practice mindfulness meditation so you can pay attention and be more aware of what you are actually doing. You begin to understand projections. There is always a relationship between projection and projector. They both confirm and solidify each other, freezing space and giving birth to the five patterns of suffering.

So this spiritual path begins by surrendering, by giving up hope, for hope at this point, would be hope for the wrong thing. Hope at this point, would be some kind of spiritual materialism, the use of spirituality to promise some kind of escape from the pain.

If you are honest, if you are brave enough, you will realize there is no escaping your life. There is no escaping “Ground Zero”. The pain is there and you can’t wish it away. It’s a self-existing situation. If you can relate to the pain properly, then it’s no longer so personal. It’s not really your pain because you don’t exist in the way you thought you did. The sharpness cuts through you and begins to wake you up. It has an empty-hearted quality about it. It’s very lonely. You begin to acknowledge your own sad and tender heart. Unless you are able to be alone in this way, it’s not possible to be truly compassionate.

So perhaps you will take this to heart and begin a meditation practice. There are so many ways this practice can benefit your life and those of people around you. Resolve today to begin living a Zen-inspired life of openness, empathy and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty. There is no escaping your life. There is no escaping your death. And this wisdom of no-escape is the spiritual tradition I gratefully, joyfully and whole-heartedly embrace.

Roshi Robert Joshin Althouse


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Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda


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Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you.
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

Native American Teaching

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Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.

Gary Snyder

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“This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginning less time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, Always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

Posted in Compassion, Quote of Week, Zen-inspired Life | Comments Off

photo by Christopher Michael

I used to say when giving lectures to Buddhist groups that if people became enlightened in following the practices of Buddhism that they should combine their study of it with the study of psychotherapy and psychology. Because the best livelihood in this society for someone who is a little enlightened is to be a healer and a psychotherapist. This way they can help people within a framework that is understood here. Otherwise they go back to do something that has nothing to do with sharing their enlightenment, or they try to become a professional guru—and that has terrible problems associated with it.

Being a “guru” is not really institutionalized in our society. It is something weird, and when people try to become professional gurus here they are tempted to play guru games and do all kinds of dumb things. They might go around thinking they are enlightened or pretending that they are, and it’s very hard for them. I’ve often told gurus and lamas that while they are training their students for enlightenment, that they can be building toward a livelihood where that enlightenment can be wielded altruistically for others in a socially accepted and understandable way.

In a way, psychotherapists may wish to consider themselves the vanguard of a new kind of society—a society that truly does value its individuals, where one individual’s development of psychological integration, compassion, emotional expansion, wisdom and insight to the nature of reality is the purpose of the whole shooting match.

by Robert Thurman

Read Full Interview on Tricycle: The Buddhist Review:

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The same stream of life
that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the worlds
and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth
in numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves
of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life
that is rocked in the ocean-cradle
of birth and earth, in ebb and in flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious
by the touch  of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages
dancing in my blood this moment.


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Turtle Island Mandala #9 by Robert Althouse

Turtle Island is a term that comes from the American Indian tradition, used to describe North America. For me, the term carries with it a set of values I share about the sacred nature of the world. In this world there is respect for living in harmony with the earth, with the natural world, it’s communities, plants, animals and many beings.

I place these images in the context of mandalas. It’s difficult for me to describe in words what a mandala means. It is not a concept or a symbol, nor is it merely psychological, though it seems to have a healing power that can restore us to wholeness. Mandala arises out of how our experience organizes itself. It’s not about a center. Centers are uncountable. There can’t be a center without a periphery. There can be no enlightenment without delusion, so the mandala includes our confusion, bewilderment, and chaos. The order and chaos include each other. And then, there is the ground of totality beyond any reference point. The mandala is communicating the richness of this human experience, so perhaps it doesn’t need to conform to our visual preconceptions.

Robert Althouse

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Nature is orderly. That which appears to be chaotic in nature is only a more complex kind of order.

Gary Snyder

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Mandala #22 by Robert Althouse

I find it difficult to put into words, what mandala is about for me. It’s not a concept or a symbol of some kind. It’s not about a center. Centers are uncountable. Mandala arises out of how our experience organizes itself. There can be no enlightenment without delusion. The mandala includes our confusion, bewilderment, fear and chaos. The order and the chaos include each other. And then there is a ground that is larger than this duality as well. And the mandala is communicating the richness of this experience. Perhaps the mandala doesn’t have to conform to our visual preconceptions.

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