Monday, March 11, 2024

The Upside Down Tree


We came down from the trees three million years ago. They bear us fruit, shade our days, and fuel our fires. It’s no surprise they show up so often in our sacred literature.

            In Norse mythology the world tree Yggdrasil forms the axis mundi, the hub around which the wheel of reality turns. Countless gods across traditions were either born from trees or died on them. The Norse god Odin hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days, just as Jesus was hung from a cross, the symbolic tree of the executioner. Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, and the Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar held nothing more sacred than the Tree of Souls, the source of both the unity and multiplicity of divinity.

            Although the examples are many, one of the most beautiful is the upside-down tree of the Katha Upanishad, Hinduism’s most compelling wisdom tale.

            In the Katha Upanishad a young spiritual aspirant named Nachiketa goes on a mystical journey to visit Yama the Lord of Death—who better to answer his question, “What happens after we die?” Yama takes the boy under his wing and leads him (and us) through a landscape of metaphors, images, parables, and insights that have enraptured truth-seekers for two millennia.

Throughout Vedanta teaching, and in the Katha Upanishad in particular, we find a dizzying blend of dualism and non-dualism, and from the tension of this paradox springs the dynamic energy that propels the investigation forward. We are at once individual things, and aspects of one thing. The mind will of course resist this conundrum, but the heart feels its way through non-conceptual imagery and wordless awareness. This is where analogies like the upside-down tree wield the most power. In chapter 3, verse 1-2 Lord Yama says:

The Tree of Eternity has its roots above and its branches on earth below. Its pure root is Brahman the immortal, from whom all the worlds draw their life, and whom none can transcend. For this Self is supreme! The cosmos comes forth from Brahman and moves in him. With his power it reverberates like thunder crashing in the sky. Those who realize him pass beyond the sway of death.

            Brahman the formless, eternal, changeless sacred ground of being—ultimate reality beyond all thoughts and forms. Yet in this passage Brahman is also given a gender, and spoken of as though he were transcendent, or outside and above this world of forms. And we also see the term “Self” (Atman in Sanskrit)—the word for the presence of Brahman within all sentient beings. In the end, Brahman and Atman are two words for the same thing, at once transcendent and immanent. All matter, energy, and consciousness—in a word, all of this—is an expression of Brahman-Atman, appearing through the distorting refraction of maya as separate things, all the while maintaining its underlying unity and identity. The upside-down tree conveys this paradoxical unity and diversity at the core of Vedanta metaphysics, namely, that all is one, no matter what our perceptions say. And when we realize this, “we pass beyond the sway of death.”

            The task of every spiritual aspirant is to realize—to make real—this oneness. Intellectual, conceptual understanding falls short. Life, it turns out, is not a theological debate. It is a lived mystery, where words and concepts serve as vehicles whose value is to transport us to the realization beyond all of them.  

[This piece first appeared in my column A to Zen in the January/February 2024 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Saturday, October 28, 2023

The Seven Stone Path

After teaching world philosophy, religion, and mythology for 33 years, I thought it
was time to write a book. Lots of people do it, I thought to myself, how hard could it be?

            Fourteen years and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears later, it’s done. The Seven Stone Path: An Everyday Journey to Wisdom (Balboa Press, 2023) is available now wherever fine books are sold.

            The book is built around a simple image—seven stepping-stones that form a path to wisdom. The seven stones are acceptance, surrender, engagement, allowance, enjoyment, love, and integration.

            But first we have to explore the word wisdom. What is it? Why do we need it? How do we get it? When we look at ancient sources we come away with the realization that wisdom is not a set of specific doctrines or logical explanations. In fact, wisdom might be content-free. Wisdom is a way of being in the world rooted in honest humility and the admission of ignorance. Only when we say “I don’t know” can real wisdom emerge.

            The wisdom of acceptance, whether through the lens of Buddhism or Stoicism, counsels us to say yes to our current conditions. By practicing acceptance, we are released from the suffering that results from clinging to our opinions, resentments, and judgments. But acceptance does not mean rolling over and playing dead. Quite the contrary. As we’ll see, meaningful action can only arise from accepting things the way they are.

            The wisdom of surrender means moving even deeper in the realization that we are not in charge. By aligning our mind, body, and soul with the wider currents moving through and around us—Dao, Brahman, God, or Spirit—we tap into an organizing energy far more real than our fear-addled ego.

            The wisdom of engagement, rooted deep in acceptance and surrender, moves us into the field of action where, by the melding of our courage and intention, we rise into our rightful place in the necessary work of creating beauty, facilitating justice, and serving others.

            The wisdom of allowance draws us into an even deeper understanding of right action. From Daoist sources and the voices of the world’s mystics we learn how to wield our talents in deeply fluid alignment with the energies already unfolding around us.

            The wisdom of enjoyment reminds us that alongside life’s necessary suffering, it is also our birthright to experience and embody joy. There is beauty and delight everywhere we turn, and missing that robs us of life’s greatest truths and treasures.

            The wisdom of love take us all the way down into the primal oneness of all matter, energy, and consciousness. In the final analysis, our lives are not our own. The universe, or God, has taken form as us, and the longing we feel for truth, beauty, God, and one another is God’s longing for God.

            And finally, the wisdom of integration lifts us across all paradox into Rumi’s field “out past all ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing,” where “the world is too full to talk about.” Beyond all contradictions, where words fail us, there lies a final unity, and when we have our being there, wisdom wells up through the cracks of our everyday lives like holy water.

            The Seven Stone Path is made by walking. No one can walk it for us. But we can walk it together.


Find The Seven Stone Path: An Everyday Journey to Wisdom on Amazon or wherever you like to buy books. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Gateless Gate

In all areas of human endeavor we rely on the expertise of others—the dentist, the attorney, the chef. Why would the fulfillment of our spiritual needs be any different? It is only natural that in times of need we turn to spiritual guides for help.

            But therein lies the danger—the illusion that spiritual enlightenment is something we can attain second hand; the mistaken presumption that the footsteps of others can do the walking for us. The Chinese and Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism is particularly focused on this common error.

One day, 13th century Zen Master Ekai gathered his monks for a talk. Always eager for knowledge, the young aspirants leaned into the words of their venerable teacher, sure that they would be of enormous value. Ekai sensed the time was ripe for an unexpected lesson.

“The great path has no gates,” he said, “thousands of roads enter it. When one passes through this gateless gate he walks freely between heaven and earth.”

It isn’t difficult to image the monk’s sideways glances, checking to see if anyone understood a word of what the master just said. What the heck is a gateless gate?

            “Zen has no gates,” Ekai continued. “The purpose of Buddha’s words is to enlighten others. Therefore, Zen should be gateless. Now, how does one pass through the gateless gate? Even such words are like raising waves in a windless sea or performing an operation upon a healthy body. If one clings to what others have said and tries to understand Zen by explanation, he is like a dunce who thinks he can beat the moon with a pole or scratch an itching foot from the outside of a shoe.”

            Then Ekai launched into a series of koans—unanswerable riddles designed to confound and ultimately disengage the mind, clearing the way for authentic satori or enlightenment. Later Ekai wrote the following account of the event:

            “In the year 1228 I was lecturing monks in the Ryusho Temple in Eastern China, and at their request I retold old koans, endeavoring to inspire their Zen spirit. I meant to use the koans as a man who picks up a piece of brick to knock at a gate, and after the gate is opened the brick is useless and is thrown away. My notes, however, were collected unexpectedly, and there were forty-eight koans, together with my comment in prose and verse concerning each. I have called the book The Gateless Gate, wishing students to read it as a guide.”

            To this day, Ekai’s The Gateless Gate is regarded as a masterpiece of Zen wisdom—even if it is one of the most exasperating philosophical works ever recorded. At the playful heart of the project is the notion that enlightenment cannot be conceptualized, codified, or conveyed second-hand by anyone—no matter how clever or erudite. All words and teachings can do is shake us awake to an unmediated awareness of our own essential nature. The moment you try to describe or explain it, any nascent awareness vanishes. The more fervent the grasping, the lower the yield. The fact that someone wrote the koans down was frustrating to Ekai, because writing wisdom down often dooms it to domesticity, misunderstanding, and misuse. But we’re grateful to that nameless monk anyway because now, 900 years later, we too can be challenged by these odd and edifying riddles.

All quotes from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings compiled by Paul Reps (Charles E. Tuttle: Rutland, Vermont, 1958) 113-114.

[This piece first appeared in my column called A to Zen in the November/December 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, September 4, 2023

Water Mind, Honey Mind

Great spiritual teachers have a way with words. Jesus, Buddha, Laozi, and countless others use the vernacular of their times to make eternal truths relevant to the context of this moment, this culture, and these challenges. One such teacher is Indian guru Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981).

In a now classic collection of transcriptions of his talks called I Am That, a vivid portrait emerges of an ordinary man who, through a series of extraordinary experiences found himself in the role of spiritual teacher (guru) to seekers from all over the world. Nisargadatta never claimed special status, and assiduously avoided the trappings of spiritual stardom. He ran a humble tobacco shop in Mumbai, and received visitors in his tiny apartment above the store. A tape recorder preserved the dialogues, and I Am That was born.

            Nisargadatta taught non-duality, or Advaita Vedanta, the Hindu school of thought that claims that all is one. What sets him apart from other Vedanta teachers is the plain language and down-to-earth style of his message. While deeply indebted to his own guru, and respectful of the ancient lineage of which he is a part, his message was clear—teachers point the way, but in the end you are your own best guru. If we are one with the sacred ground of being, then we all carry within us that which we seek. Ceaselessly looking outside ourselves for wisdom only prolongs our confusion.

            “Gurus are like milestones,” he said. “It is natural to move from one to another. Each tells you the direction and the distance, while the sadguru, the eternal Guru, is the road itself. Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and wisdom, life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.” In an age when so many define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” these words are like medicine. It’s okay to doubt, it’s okay to draw sustenance from different spiritual and religious sources, it’s okay to look back over your life and see a meandering path. Everywhere you went, and in every community you joined, you found milestones to mark the journey into the depths of your own authentic oneness.

            In one particularly striking image, Nisargadatta offers counsel to all of us who struggle with our meditation practice, and the persistent distractions of the thought-stream. Regarding our thoughts, Nisargadatta says, “Your very fighting them gives them life. Just disregard. Look through…It is disinterestedness that liberates. Don’t hold on, that is all. The world is made of rings. The hooks are all yours. Make straight your hooks and nothing can hold you.”

With the simple image of hooks and rings Nisargadatta quells our default addictive acquisitiveness—the strange habit we have of always holding onto everything as if we owned it. Simply straighten the hooks. Be deeply and intimately present with everything we love, but without the consciousness of ownership.

            In another image, Nisargadatta points to the possibility of true serenity available to us all. “The mind exists in two states: as water and as honey. The water vibrates at the least disturbance, while the honey, however disturbed, returns quickly to immobility.” As we move through this next busy week, reflect on your own reactivity to all of the triggers around us. Are we the water or are we the honey?


All quotes from:

Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That, Translated by Maurice Frydman, Edited by Sudhakar S. Dikshit (Acorn Press: Durham, North Carolina, 1973)

[This piece was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, July 3, 2023

The First Teaching

 “Burying the lede” is a journalism term for when the most important idea is buried
deep within an article. (They invented a new spelling to differentiate it from the lead used to make typeface for the printing process.)

            A quick look at the first teachings of Jesus and Buddha reveals one thing: They most definitely did not bury the lede. Instead, their first teachings conveyed the central theme of what would become their life’s work.

            The gospels tell us that after Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, he went into the wilderness for forty days. When he returned the first thing he said was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2) Repent is an awkward rendering of metanoia, meaning “change of mind.”

On the heels of his own profound transformation, Jesus begins his teaching career not with a demand for obedience, nor with a call to obsess shamefully about our mistakes, but with the suggestion that we simply let go of our old ways of thinking—our prejudices, our conditioning, and our second-hand explanations. What’s the point of learning new information, no matter how true and insightful that information, if the very cognitive routes by which we process that information are clogged with distorting, structural errors? It is not a new world we need, but new eyes and a new mind with which to see and understand the world.

            In India 500 years earlier a young seeker named Siddartha Gautama had his own spiritual transformation in the wilderness. After a long period of study, practice, and meditation, Siddhartha shifted, seeing through the fog of conditioned consciousness, glimpsing the essential nature of things, and thereby earning the nickname Buddha—“the one who woke up.”

            After his enlightenment Buddha walked out of the woods and met with a few old friends in a deer park near Benares. There he gave his first teaching—the Deer Park Sermon—the two core themes being the Middle Path and the Four Noble Truths.

            Born from his own experience, Buddha suggested avoiding the twin extremes of over-indulgence and self-mortification. Both paths are equally self-obsessed and lead nowhere. Instead, walk the middle path of moderation and follow the Four Noble Truths.

            The first three of the Four Noble Truths are, simply put: life is characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction, suffering and dissatisfaction are primarily caused by attachments and cravings, and reducing attachments and cravings would reduce suffering and dissatisfaction. The Fourth Noble Truth is a list of action items called the Eightfold Path.

The first three Noble Truths are the diagnosis and prognosis. The Eightfold Path is the prescription, the behavioral and thought-level changes that would reduce selfish attachments, which would in turn release us from the wheel of suffering and dissatisfaction. Many of the eight suggestions have to do with learning how to think differently. In a word, Buddha is counseling metanoia. As he said in The Dhammapada, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts.”

            Our mind is the tool with which we grip and hold the world. Before we can change the world, we must change our minds. And the work begins not with second-hand explanations but with the immediacy of self-examination, courageous purging, and loving transformation. As we suspected all along, wisdom is an inside job. 

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the July/August issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Emptiness of God

Like every religion Hinduism evolved over many centuries, each successive wave
of conquest and migration adding new and often conflicting elements. Like a snowball rolling down hill, over time religions hide their internal contradictions beneath layers of apparent coherence. But closer inspection melts the fa├žade revealing the depths.

            Beneath the brash polytheism of Hinduism lies a quiet philosophy of non-duality—the metaphysical claim that all is one. So which is it? Is divinity to be found in hundreds of diverse gods and goddesses, or is divinity a singularity, the very ground of being, a boundless, formless field in which all energy, consciousness, and matter takes form? The answer, I’m afraid, is yes.

            Nowhere is this contradiction more powerfully exposed than in the Kena Upanishad, composed around 3,000 years ago. In this playful parable the gods Agni, Vayu, and Indra have just defeated some demons and restored order. As they proudly pat each other on the back a mysterious being appears. It is Brahman, the formless One from whom all the gods draw their power. But they don’t recognize their visitor.

            Agni approached the being saying, “I am Agni, god of fire. I can burn anything.”

            “Burn this,” said the being, tossing down a piece of straw. Agni tried to burn it but it would not burn. He slunk back to Vayu and Indra defeated.

            Vayu approached the mysterious being.

            “Who are you?” the being asked.

            “I am Vayu, god of air. I can blow anything around.”

            “Let’s see if you can move this,” the being said, pointing to the piece of straw.

            Vayu tried and tried but could not move the straw an inch. He too slunk back to his friends defeated.

            Agni and Vayu turned to Indra, their leader, and said, “You have got to find out who this mysterious being is!”

            As Indra approached the being it vanished and in its place stood Uma, the Goddess of Wisdom.

            “Who was that being?” Indra asked.

            “That was Brahman,” she said, “from whom comes all your power and glory.”

            It was up to the Great Goddess to bring these proud boys back down to the ground by reminding them that they are not the source of ultimate power—they are merely its instruments. The deeper wisdom is clear. All of our powers and abilities come from a deeper source. Our consciousness is an aspect of the one consciousness. Our creativity is an aspect of the one creativity. Our loving is an expression of the one love coursing through all energy, matter, and manifestation. Each of us is the embodied presence of the formless sacred source of the universe. But it’s ok if we forget sometimes—even the gods forget.

            Now comes the final realization—that our idea of God is just that, an idea. What the idea re-presents is beyond concepts, forms, and words. All god-portraits are foregrounds of a depth that goes down and down and down. The idea of God is an empty chair—there’s no one or nothing sitting there. Our concepts are helpful until we forget that they are empty, and that the reality to which they refer forever eludes our conceptual grasp. But we experience this ultimate reality here and now in the gaps between our thoughts, in our loving kindness, and in the beauty of the field out of which our lives arise like poppies in the summer sun.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the May/June 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, May 15, 2023

Love is the Mystery

There is a higher reality that words, concepts, and sermons can’t reach. We try to
point to this reality with carefully wrought language, theology, and doctrine, but the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The map is not the place. The menu is not the food.

For those of us who teach, preach, and write this news is somewhat deflating. We thought we were getting close to naming the mystery. But in the end, all we can do is cultivate in others a willingness to deepen into the mystery that wells up through the cracks of their own lives. This is why Buddha simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. This is why Lao Tzu wrote that “Those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.” Even Jesus seemed exasperated as he chastised his disciples in chapter thirteen of the Gospel of Thomas. “I am not your teacher,” he said. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring I have tended.”

If the teacher is not the message, and if the message cannot be received second-hand, then why do we gather in spiritual community to hear sermons about how to better ourselves and draw closer to the sacred source? As a guy who often gives those sermons, this strikes me as a particularly urgent question. What, in the end, are spiritual teachings for? Why do we need any of this?

You might as well ask a tree why it leans toward the sun. We love language, talking, and teaching because concepts are what we know. They’re how we know. In a way, they feed us.

First we perceive the world, then shape those perceptions into thoughts. As Adam named the animals, we name the concepts taking up residency in our consciousness, even going so far as to order them into hierarchies, because with naming comes judgment, prejudice, and bias. There is no such thing as value-neutral thought. We fall asleep and forget that we do not know the world as it is—we know only our thoughts about the world. This dynamic leaves us vulnerable to self-aggrandizing narratives that lionize us while diminishing the other. Prejudice seems baked into cognition itself.

Our innate need to discriminate and ascribe hierarchies must be deliberately disrupted and discarded. The good news is that the deeper part of us already knows this. Beneath the conceptual realm there is a concept-free field of awareness unbound by the limitations of thought. The world’s wisdom traditions call it by many names—Atman, Buddha-mind, spirit, inner Christ—and it is our essential nature. We have our being there. The conceptual mind is ill-equipped to experience this deeper reality. Realizing one’s sacred nature is more a process of  unlearning, of getting out of our own way. No matter how Herculean the effort, how can you become what you already are?

One of the most notable hallmarks of awakening is humility. Less and less do you need to prove that you are right. You recognize that every religion is true—that they all work, like maps, to show the way home. You stop straining and start softening. Freedom replaces fear and anxiety. You no longer argue about the meanings of words. All of the names of God are fine. Or none at all. In the end, only one word—love—serves us best as the name of the nameless mystery that we are. 

[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the March/April 2023 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Wordless Sermon

Zen Buddhism traces its origin to a single afternoon in the life of the Buddha.
One day Buddha gathered his followers for a dharma talk as he had done many times before. But on this day he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. How would you feel if your minister tried that this Sunday in church? Awkward rustling sweeping through the congregation. Sideways glances turning to outright confusion. But on that long-ago afternoon, one man, Kashyapa, met eyes with Buddha and smiled.

When the Indian Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China in the fifth century CE he penned the famous mission statement of this nascent movement: “A special tradition outside the scriptures, not dependent on words or letters, directly pointing to the mind, and seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

As a movement, Zen Buddhism replaced all of the normal trappings of religion—scriptures and beliefs, devotion to deities, dependence on authorities—with the direct experience of life as it is, pulled into sharper focus through the practice of meditation. In fact, the Japanese word Zen is a rendering of the Chinese word Chan, which is a rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana meaning “meditation.” At the heart of the entire Zen project is the claim that we already are what we seek. We just have to empty out enough to realize it.

Another hallmark of Zen is its refreshing dearth of boundaries. “Your entire life is Zen,” said Bodhidharma. Our natural proclivity for compartmentalization is gently (and sometimes not so gently) shaken loose in the practice of Zen.

After a recent talk on Zen Buddhism, a woman raised her hand and said, “I came here looking for something tangible, but this was all very abstract.” She was right. I felt her disappointment. She was looking for guidance. An old Zen story popped into my mind. Maybe this will help I thought.

A young man went to stay in a Zen monastery. They graciously took him in and he was invited to participate in all the activities of the community, primarily meditation and chores—lots and lots of chores. One week passed, then another, then another. But nobody was talking to him about Zen. His frustration grew. Finally, he worked up the courage to go see the master. 

“I came here to learn about Zen,” he exclaimed. “I have been here a whole month now and no one has said one word to me about Zen!”

“Have you eaten?” asked the master.


“The go wash your bowl.”

Stories like this drive us into the immediacy of this moment, reminding us that true religion is not in books, beliefs, ministers, or rituals. All of those things are the plates we eat off of—they are not the food. Lived experience is the food. Every lunch is as sacred as a Eucharist. Washing your bowl sanctifies this moment as powerfully as any prayer. The mind asks for answers and explanations. But when the Buddha held up that flower, he was gently rebuking our tendency to build conceptual barriers between us and the here and now. 

Kashyapa understood what the congregation did not—that something sacred passes between us in every moment as if there are no barriers at all. Because there aren’t. Kashyapa passed the test, becoming the second patriarch after the Buddha. He understood the wordless sermon.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2023 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]