Changing methods for changing times

In a recent Practice Leader Forum meeting we discussed various methods for offering zen practice and teaching that affiliates of the Silent Thunder Order have undertaken over the years. As this discussion took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the major topics of discussion was that as more people have become familiar with virtual participation of all sorts, some affiliates have seen an increase in participation by a wider audience in our online offerings, including some folks new to and unfamiliar with zen practice.

This, in turn, led to discussion about how to welcome and introduce new participants and even what kind of practice to offer in various forms of online practice. One particular aspect that I would like to focus on here, was how to ‘secularize’ the practice so as to not ‘scare away’ people who would not be familiar with and perhaps put off by a non-western tradition they might find strange and uncomfortable. In fact, that topic resonated with a few practice leaders in different contexts; I would like to discuss two in particular that have had a direct impact on my efforts to promote zen to those who wish to learn.

Secular meditation

My first experience along these lines came when I served as a volunteer chaplain with North Carolina State University. For four years I led meditation instruction, gave dharma talks, and led retreats for college students. While I focused on Soto Zen in terms of practice method and basic teachings, we encouraged a broad view such as inviting guest speakers from other Buddhist schools and visiting other Buddhist groups. At this point I should make clear that I was supporting a campus activity and served at the pleasure of the university administration; thus I saw my role as supporting anyone looking for Buddhist practice, rather than strictly adhering to one school, being as inclusive as possible while maintaining enough definition to have meaning.

dharma talk lake retreat 2014

Elliston-roshi giving dharma talk on Spring Break Retreat 2014

However, even that broad approach was perhaps not broad enough, as some students were clearly interested in meditation, but not on the ‘religious’ aspects. As a result, we split activities into two types: secularized meditation instruction and sitting sessions on weeknights, with more traditional teachings and meditation on Sundays and retreats. While some participants did migrate from the secular sitting sessions to the more traditional zen sessions, we also saw a reverse migration as well - which turned out to be highly relevant to the continued existence of the group.

In short, during my tenure the rise of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and new offerings of yoga and meditation on campus drew enough participants from the zen group that we could no longer meet the minimum size requirement to be an officially sanctioned campus group. Between the logistics limitations that imposed, the continual turnover of a student-based group, and secular competition, the group dissolved.

Yet, the need is there
Does that mean I suggest there is no value to Dogen Zen and the Soto tradition? Definitely not! There is absolutely a need, a hunger for the Buddha Dharma and what the Silent Thunder Order has to offer. This leads me to the second example I alluded to above.

I work for a small tech firm of about 40 people. As with so many businesses currently, we are struggling with how to respond to the current pandemic environment; both externally in terms of customers and the economy, and internally with our team-mates and their family lives.

Fortunately, we have a highly creative team who are actively looking for ways to re-imagine how we work. Just last week, one of those self-directed efforts was brainstorming ways to help with mental health from many directions. In the resulting mind-map below, note one of the major categories they identified was Meditation (yellow cards) - they asked if I would give an introductory talk and offer morning meditation twice per week.

BaU Brainstorming small

Culture Club mental health brainstorming mind-map

“you should just wholeheartedly sit”
So I come once again to the question of “what do I offer”? When I look at the cards in mind-map above, I see terms like “meditation”, “awareness”, “mental health”, and “safety” - all of these are clearly addressed in Buddhist teachings. There are lots of sutras and teachings that cover these topics, but they also bear “religious” labels and dressing that could be off-putting in the secular workplace.

However, I don’t see this as a problem; our teachings also address this. We have to go no further than the liturgy book, where Jijuyu Zammai (Self-Fulfilling Samadhi) tells us that the most important thing we can do is “you should just wholeheartedly sit”. Further, Fukanzazengi tells us precisely what instructions to give for sitting meditation.

That is exactly what I have offered at the workplace in the past; I came to the office early two days a week and set up cushions - I meditated whether anyone else came in to join me or not. Many tried a few times and didn’t come back, a few others came and kept coming such that I had some regulars. I feel this - the offer of simple presence and practicing together - is an incredibly valuable gift we have to offer. However, my experience from the university was repeated - I was able to offer this when there was a space available, then had to discontinue it when that space was no longer available. However, now we are seeing that space is not necessarily the limitation it used to be, so I will investigate how to offer it another way, within my circumstances, to my audience.

Zen by any other name...
Of course, we should offer meditation instruction to newcomers - at my workplace we have a strong tradition of offering and attending “lunch-n-learns” on many topics. I have in the past and will again offer such an introduction to meditation. In 2016 I published a slide deck, called “Meditation - the subtle art of being”; you can find the slide deck here and you are welcome to use any or all of it:

You will see that while I did not hide my zen background and influence, I tried to make it clear that one could approach the practice from a purely secular perspective if desired, and I did not do any chanting or dharma talks in the office environment. However, I did employ one little trick I will share with you.

I remember Elliston-roshi telling me that Matsuoka-roshi encouraged him to take ordination because the modern West is a credentialed society, so he needed to be properly credentialed to serve his growing sangha. I included those credentials in my presentation, but I also looked to credential the practice in another way as well, one that is respected in the tech industry - I borrowed from the reputation of one of the tech giants. I used and pointed to the book Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan. This is a New York Times best-seller was written by an early employee of Google who developed and ran mindfulness and mediation programs for Google. The teachings inside were thoroughly Buddhist, but the imprimatur of such a book in the tech world gave my offering a boost of legitimacy, as opposed to me just promoting my brand of religion.

Even though credentials are important, they are also just labels, “fingers pointing at the moon”. As long as we are doing our best to share our wholehearted practice with others, we are fulfilling our Bodhisattva vow. My hope is that my examples may be of use to others in finding their path.


(Silent Thunder Order)

point of no return pic


April 2, 2020

Meditation Punctuation

Zen is the sentence

of your life once you remove

the punctuation

When we first begin practicing meditation, it functions a bit like the punctuation in this sentence. We interrupt the daily flow of our lives to take a time-out, much as a comma pauses the flow of a sentence, for a brief moment. As our practice progresses, the time we spend in meditation tends to expand, becoming more like a semicolon; eventually more like a period, where life goes on, but we come to a full stop in the midst of it. Along the way, we experience a lot of question marks (???) and even the occasional exclamation point (!). These latter Aha! Or Eureka! moments are what keep us going, in the face of little noticeable progress.

            With time, we experience a phase-shift. Zen practice becomes no longer an interruption in our life, or a sideshow to the midway of the circus. Zen fully embraces the circus, in all its chaos. Matsuoka Roshi once observed, “People visualize the Zen mind to be like the surface of a pond, smooth as glass, reflecting the full moon in the sky above without distortion. When the wind blows, the surface breaks into waves. Bubbles rising to the surface burst, disrupting the calm water in its natural state. If we throw a stone into the pond, concentric circles ripple to the edges of the pond, disappearing when they break on the shore.”

            Stones cast into the still pond are like thoughts that come and go, temporarily breaking the mirror-like surface, and fracturing the reflection of the moon in the sky. If we try to catch the stones and retrieve them from the pond, we stir up even more turbidity, disturbing the mud at the bottom of the pond. If we leave them alone, the pond settles more quickly back into a deep stillness.

            This is a relatively apt metaphor for the Zen mind, as far as it goes. But Sensei also would point out that if you are driving at full speed and then veer off the expressway in an emergency, managing to keep the vehicle under control, miss all the trees, and come to a stop, safe and sound — this is also the Zen mind. The awareness developed in zazen is capable of moving very fast, or of being very still. One capacity supports and enables the other.

            A sentence skillfully punctuated flatters the rationality of the discriminating mind, or citta. Without punctuation, it favors the free-flowing stream-of-consciousness characterized by intuition, or bodhi. In Zen, we do not prefer one over the other, but see them as complementary. Both are necessary to the full functioning of the holistic mind, bodhicitta.

            Wherever you fall on the intellectual-intuitive spectrum, if you reject one or the other, you do not understand the Middle Way. All such confusions are in the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind of the beholder. In Zen, however, there is no real contradiction, no actual dichotomy, just as there is no conflict between the punctuation and the sentence.

            All such seeming dualities are actually complementarities. The punctuation enhances the meaning of the sentence, but would be meaningless without the words. Zen goes beyond words and even thought, but “Although it is not constructed it is not beyond words” from Master Tozan’s “Precious Mirror Samadhi.” All words, such as “pandemic,” try to capture the meaning of that which is beyond words. It is not the fault of language, but only our dependence upon it.

Recently, I was asked to talk about creativity in the context of Zen. In a way, that is a misconstruction, as Zen is the heart of creativity, not merely a context for creativity. So, even to speak of creativity and Zen is to make a separation that does not exist. Nonetheless, here is a brief video which attempts to explore the relationship to foster clarity.

You can find more videos on Zen, the Silent Thunder Order, and the Atlanta Soto Zen Center on our YouTube Channel.


(Silent Thunder Order)


point of no return pic


April 2, 2020

Point of No Return

Spring: time to wake up!

Step off the hundred-foot pole...

(dive to the bottom)


Spring is the season when dormant life springs back. Notwithstanding Zen’s teachings on impermanence and change, periodic irritants like daylight savings time require us to “spring forward,” which really means that we lose an hour of sleep, assuming that we are still living on clock time. In Zen, waking up is equally relevant in any season, and at any time. One of the things we wake up to in zazen is real time, which is independent of any clock.

            Needless to say, to literally step off the top of a hundred-foot pole, you first have to shinny up from the ground, without benefit of climbing spurs and halter belt. You can expect to slip back from time to time when you hit a slick spot, or to have to hold on for dear life when your strength flags. Needless to say, this is an apt metaphor for Zen practice.

            While falling asleep, you may have felt the sensation of weightlessness, as if you have stumbled, and are freefalling through space, experiencing intense vertigo. This gives you an inkling of what stepping off the hundred-foot pole feels like. A telephone pole is about forty feet high, so we are talking precarious situation. Two and a half times that tall. Assuming the same thickness, that pole is going to be fairly unstable, especially with a heavy body perched on all fours on top. Lots of pendulum sway. Add in some wind, and you can just feel the queasiness.

            Matsuoka Roshi would illustrate this jumping-off point by raising his hand, four fingers clustered together, representing your arms and legs perched at the very top. Then he would say, “One more step!” and instantly open is hand wide.

            Sri Ramakrishna, a Hindu saint of the 1850s living in Calcutta, spoke of an “ocean of consciousness.” One of his students came in excitedly one day and said that he had seen the surface of the ocean, that he understood. The sage told him that he needed to dive in. But the young follower said he was afraid he would die. Ramakrishna encouraged him, saying he would not die, as this is the ocean of consciousness. But he had to dive in, because the “jewels” are at the bottom.

            There are many such poetic descriptions pointing to the nature of this transformative experience, from many different traditions. The Zen approach, at its core, is for you to “just do it.” But of course, it is beyond our doing. We have to allow it to happen.

            At this time, the truth and method of Buddhism become ever more relevant. What Zen prescribes when we “live in interesting times” is consistent: Just sit. This is not a flip or uncaring dismissal of the unusual conditions we face in a pandemic. But it argues that we are always in a pandemic of sorts. Birth is the leading cause of death. This truth does not change with circumstance. We are constantly faced with death from the moment we are born, and even in the womb. “Birth is an expression complete the is moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not call winter the beginning of spring nor death the end of spring” according to Master Dogen in “Genjokoan.” Welcome to spring.


Written by Soun Kosetsu Randy Earl, Novice Priest

In dharma talks I tend to draw from my personal life experiences because that is what I know and thus more authentically represents my own practice and understanding. This means, for better or worse, that my family members often figure prominently in my examples and stories. My youngest child, Duncan, has played this role several times, thus folks have asked me about his interest in Buddhism and Zen and what I have done to share the teachings with him. This post is an attempt to describe my approach to teaching the dharma and zen practice to a child and to share my lessons learned and some helpful resources.

Learning by Imitation

Duncan MeditatingDuncan first expressed interest in the way children learn most things, through imitation. He saw me meditating so he wanted to meditate. Once he showed an interest, I was happy to introduce him to zazen and let him pick it up at his own pace. He started sitting for about five minutes at a time and now sits for about 15 minutes at a time, although not as frequently as I sit. I gave him his own meditation bench (kindly made by sensei!) and cushion, which he has used since he was 6 years old.

Page 1 of 5