Light and Dark


Refined and common speech come together in the dark,

 clear and murky phrases are distinguished in the light.


In the light there is darkness,

but don’t take it as darkness;

In the dark there is light,

but don’t see it as light.

From “Harmony Of Difference And Sameness,” a poem by Zen Master Shitou Xiqian and chanted in Zen temples around the world.


Winter Solstice is coming in a few days. I am looking forward to the move back toward longer days. This has been a very mild winter for us, and for that I am very grateful. But, man, I have such a hard time with the long stretches of dark during this time of year.

At my Zen center we are studying the Sandokai, a poem that is chanted in Zen centers throughout the world. The poem has a lot to say about light and dark. I’ve quoted a couple of lines above. Last night at our meditation meet-up our teacher gave a talk about light and dark and elaborated on how the poem is telling us that darkness is unifying. In the dark we can’t see differences, it is when the light comes that we notice details. She told us about the wonderful way she experienced during a predawn meditation session at a retreat. As she sat, the sun rose and she noticed how it illuminated and showed her the detail of what was around her, rocks sitting in the distance  were revealed to be people sitting  a small distance away.

I can’t say I’ve had this kind of experience. I’ve only experienced darkness as a negative thing and something that I’ve avoided.  I am, admittedly, a little bit afraid of the dark. I have to fall asleep with the light on in the bedroom if I am alone. I never seemed to grow out of this infantile fear.

However, this Buddhist way of looking at the dark is different.  That the the dark represents our interconnectedness.

I don’t have anything really to say about it except, “wow.” It’s a new way of looking at the world. And I wonder how I can use this understanding to help me get through the winter?



Thoughts and Opinions

Last night I listened to a dharma talk about emptiness.  The talk was really good and it clarified the philosophy really well. At the end of the talk we had a discussion, in which I was trying to express my thoughts as they came to me but I feel like I didn’t quite get them out in the way I wanted to. So I am writing about it here. Because writing is a better mode of expression for me than talking.

When I first learned about the idea of emptiness in Buddhism it kind of freaked me out. My initial feeling about it was that it was an empty void, which both depressed me and scared me. I was under the impression that Buddhism was all about finding this state of “empty void” and then that is where one would find happiness. I just couldn’t understand how this state of “empty void” could be a happy place. And I felt like I would never be able to achieve this state of “empty void.”

However, the rest of the teachings of Buddhism made a lot of sense to me, so I stuck with it. And as I learn more about it, the philosophy of emptiness makes much more sense.

If you think about it, really think about it, you will see that nothing is real. Things become “real” because our brain assigns meaning to those things. For example, at my painting class the other day the teacher kept talking about two different shades of blue paint that we were supposed to use. For the life of me, I couldn’t see two shades of blue. I saw two shades of green, but only one shade of blue. My brain interpreted one of her shades of blue as green. So for me it was green, not blue. (remember The Dress?)

Things get really mind-blowing when this idea is extended to people. Yes, this idea of emptiness extends even to us. There is no “me” that is set in stone. I am projecting a version of Moni out into the world. But that projection is passing through your own filter of who you think I am. So I am actually a different person through your eyes. So who is the real Moni? A real, solid, Moni doesn’t really exist. There are multiple versions of Moni depending on who you talk to.

This idea of emptiness as it applies to the self really has really become more understandable to me as I cultivate online friendships. I think in the “real world” it’s harder to see this because you are dealing with a flesh and blood human. But it’s easier to see with relationships that take place online because you don’t have the benefit of flesh and blood. Your brain is forced to create this person in your head to make up for the missing pieces. We are doing this with every single person we know, real life or online, or whatever. The person you are relating to goes through all of your filters and you create a version of that person in your mind. And none of this is bad. Or even good! It’s just the way our mind works.

So the idea of emptiness seems way less scary to me now. Well, it’s kind of scary. it’s a different way of looking at the world and the idea of things not being set in stone is a weird idea. My brain wants order because that is what brains do. But it also helps to understand this idea a little bit as well. I know there is a lot more to learn regarding this philosophy.

The first noble truth

Thoughts and Opinions

I was at my meditation group last night, listening to our teacher talk about the 4 noble truths. As she was talking I had an insight.

You have probably heard of the 4 Noble Truths. They are a central teaching of Buddhism. When I first encountered Buddhism this is how they were presented:

  1. Life is suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by desire
  3. There is a way out of suffering
  4. The way out of suffering is to follow the Eightfold path.

I liked this practical list very much because I wanted to find a way out of my suffering. But it took me a long time to realize I couldn’t get off so easily. The fact that I wanted to find a way out of my suffering was causing me suffering. Hence the 2nd Noble Truth.

The key is to turn inward and accept the suffering. Maybe even honor it. For me it was the grief over losing my stepdad. It was so unbearably painful to watch him die and I wanted to feel anything but that pain. But, instead, I really needed to feel the pain. I needed to accept it and feel it. And, indeed, in accepting it and moving through it, I found my way out of it.

So the insight last night for me was that suffering is part of the path.



“In practice, we should repent rather than have remorse. To repent is not to feel remorse, but to feel one’s faults, realizing they are faults, and try one’s best not to make the same mistake again.”

– From “How To Be Faultless” by Master Sheng Yen. Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2016

Really? Is it really that simple? I don’t have to beat myself up? I can just simply realize my mistake? And move on? Hmmm.

Discipline and routine

Life, Thoughts and Opinions

I’ve been meditating for about 7 years, but I have had a really hard time sticking to a regular meditation routine. It seems like it is really easy to talk myself out of it. Any excuse will work for me. Meditation is, if I’m being honest, quite boring. All you do is sit there for 20 minutes. That’s it. My brain haaaates it. So my brain will come up with any excuse not to do it.

Since December I have come up with a way to the cushion each morning that has worked! First thing in the morning I have to take medication (for my hypothyroid) and I can’t eat anything or drink coffee for an hour after I take the medication. Since my brain is pretty much useless before coffee I’ve been able to negotiate with my brain that time for meditation. So my routine is: wake up, take medication, meditate, yoga. When I’m done with all of that I can drink coffee and do anything that requires thinking.

This has been a tremendous breakthrough for me! Daily meditation has changed my life for the better, boring or not. There is a part my me (the thinking part. stoopid brain!) that feels guilty or beats myself up  that this is the way I have had to talk myself into meditating daily. But then I think about Zen Buddhism itself and all of the forms and routines built into it. Zen looks kind of religious from the outside because there are so many forms. It can look weird from the perspective of someone looking in without knowing what is going on. But I realized that the forms are there as a container. They are there to get you to do the practice and prevent your brain from talking you out of the practice. I realize that my little routine of taking my medicine and then meditating is a form that I have made up myself so I can do the practice. And it works!

Now if I could only come up with something for exercise and eating healthy! (my brain has sabotaged me today in both of these disciplines).