First PhD Term, Complete

I took my thesis advisor’s advice and did little to no reading, researching, or writing this past summer after graduating from my masters programs. He recommended taking some time off in order to rejuvenate before jumping into the rigors of doctoral work. I traveled a bit, visited family and friends, attended a wonderful wedding, and spent time in the mountains.GoreTrail

When I began my first term as a PhD student in September I felt refreshed and excited. My classes were engaging and I enjoyed the discussions with my peers as I sorted out what this new beginning would look like. Perhaps most importantly, I provided myself with more structure so that my studies would not overflow into the rest of my life and take over, as they had periodically done during my masters work.

I fit my work into a 40ish hour week, making sure to knock off around 5 or 5:30 in the evening. I occasionally worked one weekend day, but tried to make that the exception rather than the rule, and kept the other weekend day free.

I also started training for a marathon the same week that the term started, and this provided a number of benefits. Training provided a counterbalance to my school work, so that school could not occupy the center of my world. I was not willing to lose sleep, eat poorly, or drink too much (caffeine/alcohol/etc.) because those behaviors affected my training negatively. I also found myself less stressed and more energized than during any other school term of my graduate studies.

Overall the term went well. My sitting practice suffered during the term, and that will be a focus for improvement during the upcoming winter quarter. I also plan to write more for Scholar Monk than I did this past term, and I look forward to engaging with you all!

Visiting Jikoji

I recently spent a few days at Jikoji Zen Center, nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Jikoji is connected to my home temple, Hakubai, through our founding abbot and teacher, Kobun Chino Otagawa.

Jikoji is situated in a lovely forest grove along a creek, with deer and turkey families wandering about the forest floor and birds fluttering through the sun dappled canopy. It is a place that is very conducive to practice and to unplugging. Trails meander off in a number of directions from the center grounds, and take walkers along ridge tops and into the company of redwoods.


A bridge over the creek, just downhill from the main Jikoji structures (1)

I noticed while staying at Jikoji that I carry an idealization about monastic living. I often idealize temple or monastery life, believing that if I were able to live in a more monastic setting, that I would sit all the time and practice would be easier. This is a romantic delusion.

Monks living at monasteries typically practice sitting meditation in the morning and evening, going about other business throughout the day – cleaning, working, cooking. Ordinary, everyday activities make up much of a monk’s day. It is only during intensive practice periods, sesshin, that a monk would practice sitting meditation for much of the day.

But sitting practice is not their only practice. Work practice, cleaning practice, cooking practice, walking practice, lying down practice – all activities and non-activities are opportunities for practice. Monastic life is a life of practice, whether sitting, standing, walking, lying down, or  cleaning a toilet.

I realized while at Jikoji that I don’t need to be anywhere to do this. Where would I go to practice? Practice is in the ordinary, the everyday. Sit at home, sit at the temple – it doesn’t matter. Dreaming up some better place to be, where I could finally practice the way that I want to… this is just another way of avoiding the reality of the present moment, with all its pain and discomfort.

Slowly, quietly, dreams slip away.


(1) The photo is from Jikoji’s website, at

Scholar Monks: Deshan, the Old Woman, and Rice Cakes

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

This is a Chan story from ninth century China (1).

“Deshan Xuanjian was a great scholar of the Diamond Sutra, but he was not a Chan practitioner. He was traveling south in search of the Dharma, carrying his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra with him. In the course of his travels he came across an old woman on the roadside selling tea and rice cakes. He asked her, ‘Who are you?’

She responded, ‘I am an old woman selling rice cakes.’ When he asked if he could buy some refreshments from her, she inquired, ‘Venerable priest, what are you carrying in your bag?’

He said, ‘I am a scholar of the Diamond Sutra, and here I have all my notes and commentaries.’

Hearing this, the old woman said, ‘I have heard that, according to the Diamond Sutra, past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungraspable, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you wish to refresh with rice cakes, oh scholar? If you can answer this, you may buy a rice cake from me. If not, you’ll have to go elsewhere for refreshment.’

Deshan was unable to reply. The old woman then directed him to a Chan master nearby. Deshan burned all his notes and commentaries the next day.” (2)

Books burning in fire
Who is the monk, who is the scholar, and who is the scholar monk in this story? The old woman presents herself as an ordinary person, and the story does not even give her a name. Yet she reveals deep knowledge of the Dharma and tests Deshan with a question he cannot answer (3).

Deshan presents himself as a scholar, but his knowledge is limited. He carries his extensive works with him, and yet he is still seeking the Dharma. One might presume that, despite all his study, he too knows he is missing something. The old woman, upon first meeting him, addresses him as priest, not scholar. What does she know that he does not?

When Deshan burns his notes and commentaries, does he stop being a scholar? His academic studies brought him south in search of truth, brought him to the teacher selling rice cakes on the roadside. Yet ultimately he needs to let go of his commentaries and notes and seek a different kind of knowledge.

How many scholars pile up publications in the name of knowledge, carrying around their C.V. and pointing to it whenever anyone asks who they are? I already feel the pull of the publishing frenzy and the desire to build a monumental CV that rivals the Tower of Babel, and I am only just out of a Masters program!

How many nameless masters are out there, testing the knowledge of these scholars? Who are the scholars? Who are the monks? Who are the scholar monks?



(1) Chan is a school of Chinese Buddhism that emphasizes meditation. Chan comes from the Sanskrit “dhyana,” which means deep meditation, and is most well known by its Japanese name, Zen. See Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 217-222.

(2) In Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 256.

(3) Reb Anderson describes Dharma as having at least three levels of meaning: “Dharma is ‘freedom from any difference between ourselves and buddha’; it is also ‘the truth that is realized by a buddha’; and it is ‘the transformation of that truth into scriptures and other forms of teaching.’” From Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2001), p. 41.

(4) The image of the burning text in this post is from

Walking the Streets with Ancient Conversations

We Zen monks walk through the deep mountains and valleys, through the brightly lit streets and dark alleys of the cities of this world, with stories of ancient conversations up our sleeves, or in our bosoms, stories of people who enacted buddha’s teaching together and realized the way, stories that encourage us to continue walking the path of devotion to the welfare of all beings. (1)

— Reb Anderson

I read this passage a few nights ago and it touched me deeply. Conversations are ubiquitous in the Zen tradition, conversations between students and teachers, wayseekers and adepts, puffed up egoists and realized peasants. Conversations are the medium through which one’s realization is tested and revealed, and are often paradoxical and bizarre. At least, they appear to be paradoxical and bizarre when viewed from a particular paradigm.

Version 2

Monks walk the world with stories of ancient conversations in their hearts, stories that cultivate sincere devotion practice, and devotion to all beings. I realized when I read this passage that I had been viewing conversations from the same paradigm that struggles to understand the apparently odd conversations that make up these stories.

In the next paragraph, Anderson describes bringing the objects and language of breakfast to a guest that is staying with him. In coming to his guest, they enter into a conversation called “breakfast,” a conversation in which he and his guest, “together with all things, dependently coproduce breakfast” (2).

This draws from the Buddhist teaching of dependent co-arising, in which all things arise out of all things, and nothing is separate or independent from anything else. One way to understand this teaching is to consider all the beings who efforted in order to bring you an egg you have for breakfast: the beings who packaged, transported, and stocked the egg; the beings who built the vehicles, roads, and buildings in which that egg was housed; the beings who fed and cared for the chicken that produced the egg; the beings that grew the food that fed all the beings that efforted to bring you this egg. This is one way of looking at dependent co-arising.

And so, when I, following Anderson, come to my guest, we, together with all things, dependently co-produce the conversation that is breakfast. This conversation is beyond-mutual: there are far more than two parties coproducing the conversation. And really, there are no parties. There is no separation between me and my guest and all things. We are the conversation that is breakfast.

There was a moment in which I understood this directly. As I write it now, my understanding is conceptual, intellectual; it is relative knowledge. I must keep practicing to know it directly.


(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press, 2000) 166.

(2) Anderson, Being Upright, 166.

Lessons from my Master’s Thesis

I submitted my Master’s thesis last week. The whole project unfolded over the course of about 15 months, with the most recent 9 months being markedly more involved. I learned a tremendous amount about how to do research, how to write, and how to manage myself. I also learned a lot about my topic, which included Neoplatonism, Dionysius the Areopagite, apophasis, theurgy, and Christian apologetics, among other things (1).

For a good chunk of that time, the angst that I wrote of a month back has been in play, with some ebbing and flowing. In fact, my reactions to doing the work played a larger role in how the work got done than any actual skills I had or didn’t have. This project was by far the biggest research and writing endeavor I have undertaken, and, it might be argued, my first product as a “scholar.”


My desk

It is of course a beginning, rather than any kind of end. Many seeds of ideas were planted that I will cultivate, grow and explore in the future. I hope to present, publish, blog, and share my work in other ways. Dissemination and conversation are perhaps more important than the initial research itself.

Now that I am a week out after turning it in, I have a few reflections on the process that I’d like to share:

1) Work doesn’t come before family or spiritual practice. This is a guideline I set for myself a while back, and though I don’t always follow it, I had an opportunity to affirm it during my last big push. Instead of skipping dinner and working relentlessly away on the night my thesis was due, I chose to stop for a few hours, cook and eat with my partner.

2) After digging deeply into a topic for over a year, I feel I know less about it now than I did at the start. I’ve heard many variations of this realization before: the more you learn, the more questions you have, rather than answers (2). This seems like a good thing.

3) A nice side effect of #2 is that I feel like I can communicate the topic more clearly, with more precise language than I could before. And I’m not constrained to technical language only, but have a range of words at my disposal. Which is nice, if I want anyone to have a clue what I’m talking about.

4) Don’t take things too seriously. This is going to be a lifelong effort for me. Even though I enjoy humor and can be a goof, I’ve got a real serious streak that is pretty good at killing all joy. I love to read and research and learn, but when the serious angst sets in, it’s all killed. And this violates the first grave precept in Zen, which is:

5) No killing.


(1) Many of these terms may be unfamiliar, and for the time being I would recommend googling them for more information. I anticipate writing more on each of these topics in the future, and when I do, I’ll link to those entries directly.

(2) There is a great Michael Franti song that comes to mind: “I say hey, I be gone today, but I be back around the way; seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know.” From ‘Say Hey (I love You).’

Researching and Writing Angst

I am now writing my Master’s thesis, a project I have been working on for about 6 months in earnest. Today is the day I stop researching and begin the nitty gritty of putting all my thoughts and research onto paper. It hasn’t been easy to make the shift. I keep stumbling across footnotes, journal articles, and books that I feel I must read in order to bring them into the conversation. Lately I’ve felt like this:


Another take on a classic image (1)

But this level of zeal isn’t always good for my health. And anyhow, that process can be endless, and the time has come to stop jumping into rabbit holes and to start crawling back out of them.

I have been surprised at the level of angst this process arouses in me. I don’t consider myself a very anxious person, but when it comes to research and writing, I get gripped. I read and I read and I read, feeling like I know nothing. Then after a while, I start to get it and begin creating critical ideas of my own. This feels good, even groovy at times. Then I read something that has ideas similar to my own, and the groove is gone. Despair comes in: how have I been reading all this material and I still have nothing original to say??? So I dive even more fervently into reading and note-taking, until I start to feel alright again, and the cycle continues.

I have a hypothesis as to what’s going on here: I attach my self-worth to my work. If my work is good, then I am good. If my work is shit, then I am shit. Producing high quality work means that I am a worthwhile person, and so any inkling that the work is not perfect arouses anxiety. Of course, this paradigm is problematic in many ways. No amount or quality of work can ever repair a feeling of worthlessness. Feeling worthless is a delusion that must be worked through via other means.

One way I try to break through this angsty business is to keep a shrine righManjusrit next to my desk. The shrine consists of images of two bodhisattvas (2), an incense holder and a candle. The two bodhisattvas are Manjusri (3), the bodhisattva of wisdom who wields a sword to cut through delusion, and a second bodhisattva, whose name I do not know, who is sitting in steadfast meditation. Whenever I sit down to work, I light the candle, offer incense, and ask that I may cultivate wisdom, cut through delusion, and be steadfast in my practice. Building this ritual into my work is slowly transforming my work into work practice, in Zen called samu. Instead of multiplying my suffering through work, I am trying to understand it.

How do you deal with anxiety in your work, academic or otherwise?


(1) This image is originally from the fantastic blog Hyperbole and a Half. I created this image with the help of Meme Generator.

(2) A bodhisattva is a being who has committed to staying in the world of suffering lifetime after lifetime until all beings realize their true nature.

(3) The image to the right is of Manjusri. I obtained this image from

Lotus in Muddy Water

I read the following passage last night:

In times of famine the daughters of farmers in Japan sometimes allowed themselves to be sold to brothels in order to save their families. It was considered an act of self-sacrifice and filial piety. Under such circumstances, these women did not necessarily lose their self-respect; they were sometimes called lotuses in muddy water. (1)

I was deeply moved by this passage, my heart wrenching and my eyes tearing. I have been listening to the audiobook of The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. This fantastic text compiles stories from across the centuries since Buddha of women teachers, sages, and laypeople who embody Buddhist teachings, and pairs each story with a woman teacher of our time as a commentator. So, the roles women have played in the transmission of the teachings have been fresh in my mind.

I did not realize it until last night when I read the quoted passage, but I have been chanting something similar for years.

Lotus in muddy water

Photo by Dave Chan (2)

At sesshin (intensive practice periods) at Hakubai Temple, we eat meals in a style called oryoki. Oryoki is a precise method of eating that allows one to bring their practice into their eating, and to receive and serve food without talking. I’ll speak more on oryoki in a later post.

At various points during the meal we chant the meal chant in which we honor Buddhas, bodhisattvas and ancestors, remember the effort that brought us the food, make offerings, and consider the diligence of our practice, among other things. The final line of the chant, spoken by the leader, is:

May we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus. Thus we bow to Buddha.

I have always thought of the muddy water as the world of suffering and delusion, and the purity of the lotus as an example we should follow when taking our practice into the world. But now my view of this verse is transformed.

In The Hidden Lamp, there is a story of Ohashi, a woman who sold herself to a brothel to support her family (3). She performed her work, but suffered from pain and sadness from dwelling on her life before the brothel. She met the teacher Hakuin, who told her that realization can happen in any circumstances, and she later awoke to her true nature.

Every time I chant this verse I will remember the women who maintained their practice and realized truth even amidst the most horrid circumstances. And I will do my best to follow their example by being a lotus in muddy water.


(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Rodmell Press: Kindle Edition, 2000), p. 115.

(2) I could not find the original photo from Dave Chan’s blogspot site, but you can find his work here: I retrieved the photo from

(3) Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 41.

To PhD or not to PhD…

That is the question I am currently considering. I received admittance to a doctoral program in the study of religion this week. I was delighted, to say the least, having considered long and hard whether this further educational commitment and career choice was the move for me to make. Working out my thoughts on Scholar Monk has been an important part of this process.

Many say that doctoral study will ruin relationships, take over your life, burn you out, beat you up. I am not interested in allowing any of this to happen. I see how academia encourages this sort of personal and interpersonal breakdown by putting the work before everything. There are so many unreasonable expectations placed on young scholars: publish incessantly, present papers at conferences all over, be educated in one place, do a postdoctoral fellowship somewhere else, and apply for a tenure-track position in an entirely different location, uprooting your life and family with each move. That is the only path to success.

Cherry blossom and moon

Blossom Moonlight by Megan Morris (1)

I say, “no thanks.”

Even though my spouse and I have discussed the possibility of further education, I knew once I was admitted that this would have to be a family decision. And it has prompted a wonderful discussion between us regarding our near-term goals, visions for our family and our free-time, and perhaps most importantly, to set our intentions.

I intend to root my work and study in practice. The slope can get slippery and it can be easy to fall into the “work-first” mentality. It is clear to me that of all things that would come first, scholarly work is not it – family and practice stand out as two very clear alternatives.

Clear and critical assessment is undoubtedly necessary in coming to a decision about doing a PhD. But ultimately, I feel that it is my job to get out of my own way and be open to the unfoldment of the universe. Thinking has its limits, and at some point the time to think through things has come to an end.

So, do it; don’t do it. Does it really matter? Or as the eminent martial arts master, Oogway, has said,”Noodles. Don’t noodles.” (2) Give up the past and future, along with cognition, and allow yourself to be.


(1) This Cherry Blossom Tree Art Print by Megan Norris can be purchased in various formats at

(2) The full quote is “Quit. Don’t quit. Noodles. Don’t noodles. You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There’s a saying: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present.’ ” From the film Kung Fu Panda.

Scholar Monks: Hildegard von Bingen

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

While writing about Hildegard of Bingen, I have the rare pleasure of listening to some of the music she composed over 800 years ago. I’ve included some here for you to enjoy while you read (1):


Hildegard was a 12th century Benedictine nun based near Bingen, a town on the Rhein River in modern-day west-central Germany (2). She was sickly from a young age and was given to the church by her family at age 8. Hildegard grew up living at the church of Saint Disibod under the tutelage of of a female religious practitioner until she was ordained and later came to lead a community of women there.


Hildegard in the Saint Rochus Chapel, Bingen. Photo by Bob Sessions (4)

Although Hildegard had been experiencing divine visions since she was a child, she had kept them to herself (3). That is, until she received a vision at age 40 in which she was commanded to write and share her knowledge and experiences. Once she did, a monk sent her work to the Pope for approval and she got the papal stamp of divine authenticity.

From then on, Hildegard’s popularity and influence increased. She founded two abbeys, to the ire of male monks at Saint Disibod, and supervised both. She wrote extensively, including theological treatises, poems, texts on medicine and the body, sermons, and letters. Her letters were sent to many in power – kings, abbots, and bishops – directing them in how to live upright lives. She also traveled throughout the region to counsel and guide religious and political leaders. The nuns practicing under her recorded Hildegard’s visions in writing, art and music and a surprising amount of this work survives to this day. Hildegard may be best known for her musical compositions, which include over 70 chants, a musical play, and her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations.


A depiction of a vision of Hildegard. Note her in the lower right-hand corner receiving divine inspiration. Photo by Bob Sessions (5)

I think there are several things we can glean as scholar monks from Hildegard’s life. First, she did not choose the ordained life. Her family gave her away, and long before that she was already experiencing divine visions. The life chose her. This is a common story among spiritual leaders and those with vocations (I think of Augustine being kidnapped and made bishop!), but perhaps a less common narrative among scholars.

Second, she bucked tradition. She did not allow the constraints of the time on her gender keep her from influencing many lives, including those of people in power. Hildegard used the authority granted her through her divine inspiration to push the boundaries of her time – socially, politically, and musically. And she did this from a spiritual base, looking to benefit others, not to further her own position.

Finally, Hildegard’s expression of her life work was not limited to any particular medium. Writing, music, art, consultation and guidance – all were manifestations of her divine inspiration. She even invented her own language with its own alphabet, a kind of secret code. The creative expression of Hildegard’s inspiration was unbounded.

I feel I have much to learn from the commitment, creativity and courage of Hildegard von Bingen.



(1) This track is titled “Honey and Milk Beneath Her Tongue – Favus Distillans, Dripping Honeycomb,” from Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations: The Complete Hildegard von Bingen, Volume 1, by Celestial Harmonies, 2011.

(2) Much of my biographical information is from “Hildegard, Von Bingen.” In Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography, edited by Victoria Boynton, and Jo Malin. ABC-CLIO, 2005. Retrieved from content/entry/abcwautob/hildegard_von_bingen/0

(3) Additional biographical information is from the excellent series on Hildegard from the Holy Rover blog by Lori Erickson at To start, see “With Hildegard von Bingen” (January 28, 2014), at

(4) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from

(5) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from

Monks Get Up Early

Monks get up early. This is one of those things that my teacher told me matter-of-factly. He regularly describes doing what’s needed in the moment in the same fashion: if you’re hungry, eat; if you’re tired, rest; if you see a piece of trash on the ground, pick it up. So, monks get up early.

He expanded on it a little with an example. On Black Friday, people get up early to wait in line at department stores to get the best deals. They are motivated to get up early so that they can be at the front of the line, ahead of all the other shoppers, and therefore have the best selection of things to buy at the best prices. They get up early, and they wait in line.

Monks get up early to wait in line, too. But they are not interested in getting the best spot. They are not interested in getting the best prices. They get up early to wait in line because that’s where the people are. The people are in line, waiting.

Monks get up early so that they can be at the front of the line. They are not interested in getting through first. Actually, they aren’t trying to get through at all. At the front of the line, monks can help others through the door.


There is another reason monks get up early, and that is because it is a conducive time to meditate, while the rest of the world is still sleeping or just waking up. I was reminded of this today while reading the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, having just healed a woman with a fever the day before, goes out into the pre-dawn darkness, to a place in the wilderness, and prays.

Early in the morning, at a remote spot, Jesus makes time for his practice. He starts his day with prayer. Then, when he is done, he can be at the front of the line, helping people through the door.

This was a helpful reminder for me. When I live my life in the world, my tendency is to get to bed later and then sleep a little later to get sufficient rest. This has been the pattern for me over the past month. I had forgotten that monks get up early. Now I remember.