All posts by Jim Riis

At This Very Moment, Just Sitting

It’s 4:15 in the morning and I‘m moving smoothly down the cloister of the Shasta Abbey toward the Buddha Hall for the first meditation period of the day. The stars are pulsing in the crisp air, a temple bell tolls softly in the distance. My body and mind are thickened and distorted in a jetlag-like discomfort. I could be miserable. Instead, I feel like a transparent jewel sinking slowly into some welcoming oceanic depth.

I slip through the door of the Buddha Hall with a bow and enter into the candle-lit darkness. There is the delicate swoosh of robes as monks move about setting up the Hall. Crossing the room, I bow to the altar and stand, pausing for a moment to take it all in, to be just here. Even rushing to my sitting place would be a distraction.

I am before my sitting place, bowing, and suddenly I feel I am bringing where I truly sit to this particular spot. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing to think too much about. The jewel continues sinking.

Settling further into the stillness after the meditation bell rings, there is the sound of Rev. Master Jiyu’s grandfather clock ticking, the sensations of my body settling in, the noticing of thoughts thrown up like graffiti on a wall that then slide away. Emotions bubble up, some with images, and go the way of the graffiti-thoughts. I notice a smoothness to it all, a gentle and seductive pleasure. I notice that the clock’s tick has disappeared and returns at the moment it’s loss is noticed. How easily I am pulled from my sitting place by small pleasures, little absorptions. It’s helpful to have the tick-tock and to hear each tick and each tock.

The bell signals the end of the meditation period and the bowing helps loosen up my spine and open my heart. As we begin walking meditation, the slow and deliberate steps work to further align my body. The tick-tock returns as I find my internal “sitting place” while taking each step, every step.

Two tings of the inken (signal gong) end walking meditation. A bow in the walking meditation circle, a bow to my sitting place, a bow to the sangha in front of me and all beings, and I am back in my sitting place. Tick-tock….tick-tock…

I notice now that I am waiting for something. Oh, I’m waiting for the seven morning beats from the huge drum in the Buddha Hall. Roaring beats that vibrate the body and brighten the mind – or wake me up if I’ve drifted into dozing. I used to resist waiting, which of course turned waiting into impatience. Now waiting has more openness to what might show up next. And that translucent jewel wordlessly says go ahead, you wait, I’ll just keep dropping deeper.


It’s mid-afternoon. I’m on my way to the kitchen for meal preparation. Fatigue is showing up and I’m containing it with a sort of “Zen sternness”, a bit of a frown, stiffer movements, a serious bearing. This doesn’t feel right. I want to loosen up but I don’t know how. That little unspoken voice now says smile into your heart! And it happens just like that. No method, nothing really to do other than notice. I’m every bit as fatigued, but lighter somehow. Now people are smiling back at me as I near the kitchen.

An animal funeral. Fritz the schnauzer has died. As I make an offering, I remember his vitality even when he was deaf and blind. I reach for gratitude that his suffering is through, but stumble instead over my own anticipatory grief at losing our aging dog. I touch Fritz’s body to scratch his ears and I am shocked by the lifelessness of his corpse. I have touched dead bodies before – parents, work mates, strangers – but this throws me. I am not pulled off of my sitting place, I am yanked off and thrown down. I am split open from head to toe, a schism opens in the universe.

A flood of questions arises: how can Fritz be so dead when he was so alive? If alive and dead are so different, what to make of this discontinuity? How can his corpse have Buddha Nature? Is all of this ceremonial a sham to make us feel better? These questions come not as words but as flashes of deep emotions of fear and sadness, a spiraling down to a core abyss of vacuity and meaninglessness. The heart-smile is frozen in ice.

I stand by the grave-site in the animal cemetery, reciting the Homage to the Buddha’s Relics with the monks and lay sangha. With the others, I put a shovel of dirt in the grave and join the procession back to the cloister. The fissure continues but to a lesser degree. I ask for help, a quiet internal cry. The little unspoken voice says you’re being given everything you need exactly when you need it, you don’t need to reach for more. I find myself talking back with some defiance: “but I’m not reaching, I’m resisting”, and the tears flow.

Sitting in meditation again, looking at that resistance. Just looking at it. No manipulation, no resistance. A quote, possibly from Dogen, comes to mind: When a piece of wood burns, don’t confuse the ashes with the wood. When there is wood, there is wood. When there are ashes, there are ashes.
I’m walking to the kitchen to join in the food prep. A monk smiles at me and my heart thaws.


This heart-smile is carrying me through my tiredness, through aches and pains of hours of sitting. It helps me see through my arising defensiveness when being corrected for tasks I misunderstood and provides the space to just simply bow. It helps me not resist the clouded mind-states or bristling memories that show up from time to time. There’s lucidity to this heart-smile that is not to be looked at but to be looked through; the lucidity of the jewel, which now spreads in all directions.

Coming to My Senses: Confessions of a Recovering Thinker

Rev. Master Mugo’s recent postings about vision, landscape, and soundscape reminds me of one the first articles I read about Buddhism. It was entitled Come to Your Senses!. I don’t even remember the author. It appeared in a poorly printed sort of magazine of metaphysics of the 1950’s that my dad had laying around the house. The article suggested that by properly using the senses one could eventually achieve Enlightenment. This was not standard cultural fare at the time and it caught my attention.

I walked around the house wondering if I was “properly using my senses” and speculating on what being enlightened would feel like. I asked my dad how to use the senses correctly and remember him saying something along the lines of “pay attention to what you’re doing”. Since I was a kid who ran a lot of fantasies in his head most of the time, this wasn’t anything new for him to say to me, so I disregarded it as a parental correction to my normal absent-mindedness. But something germinated.

By the time I went to college, Eastern philosophy was catching on and I enrolled in a survey class. The class was so full that it was moved to an auditorium. There was an excited buzz in the room. The professor ambled out to the podium, adjusted the microphone, and in a quiet tone told us that he was disgusted with the popularity of the class. He preferred the small classes he used to have and, frankly, he didn’t think many of us would get it. He said that the entire course could be summed up like this and, despite his obviously arthritic hands, the professor slammed a fist down on the podium and said: “Don’t think about it!”

Of course I thought about not thinking about it for the rest of the semester and beyond. I studied hard. I learned a lot. I was especially excited about learning that the discriminatory mind was considered a sense. I could justify thinking about not thinking that way. But the professor’s fist striking the podium had a significance that sounded beyond all that thinking and beyond my earnest attempts to acquire understanding.

Over the years, and with the benefit of a Zen practice, I began to see that acquiring in general seemed to get in its own way. It just pushed what I was after further ahead of me, like those old vaudeville comedians who drop their hat and kick it further away when they step to pick it up. Eventually, however, studying Buddhism became less and less an issue of obtaining something and more and more of recognising signposts left by those who went before.

The same evolution has seemed to occur with my senses. Early on, it was natural to reach with my senses, particularly seeing, hearing, and thinking, but none were ignored. Over time, it has seemed better to let them be, to let them do their job, to not push them or cut them off. I’m finding, for example, that relaxed vision sees more, relaxed listening hears more. For me, this non-forced sensory opening up seems to encourage a general open-endedness in my perspective that is beneficial. Not just relaxing, or informative, or helpful, or assuring, but, well, more human. It reminds me that we are not just homo sapiens (those who know) but homo sapiens sapiens (those who know they know).

Living Ambiguity


Nancy and I crunch our way down the gravel road on a late afternoon beach walk. A car rolls up, window down. Our neighbor Nancy, sister in name and mirth to my Nancy, tells us with a smile that her fourteen-year-old son, Jack, has given everything he has and everything he is to the devil. He’s made his pact with Lucifer and dies. It’s just a hard thing for a mother to witness even if it is a play. Neighbor Nancy is now in a hurry to bring Jack something to eat before he appears in the next Young Actor’s Guild’s performance of Dr. Faustus. Jack is Dr. Faustus. We really shouldn’t miss it.

As far as my Nancy and I are concerned, Jack is a local treasure. Actor, singer, raconteur, Jack is a member of a creative family that has brought laughter to the neighborhood. Jack has already helped us get reacquainted with Gilbert and Sullivan, so why not Christopher Marlowe?

Fast forward to the next evening: Nancy and I are sitting in the small theater of the Theater Arts building in the local university amidst the pre-show buzz and chatter. The man next to Nancy asks: Which child is yours? It’s a friendly crowd, here to witness and encourage.

Waiting to see Jack, I take in the stage setting. Angular, minimal, sharp contrasts between light and dark. As the play unfolds, a pattern of clever use of space and a smooth flow of complicated movements is established. Then there is Jack-as-Faustus: he acts with his whole body in a way that remains in harmony with his speech. And it’s a very physical part.

I also begin taking in the arc of the story. I came here because I appreciate Jack and Jack-as-Faustus, in turn, is bringing me back to the archetypal struggle between good and evil, right into the apparent separation between heaven and earth. That’s when I notice the scanner kicking in.

The scanner that I’m talking about here seems to lie below the surface of my self-awareness. I can’t describe it well, but it acts like a sort of software in my psyche that scans incoming data from all and any source. I can tell when it’s moved beyond an idle and is considering something more actively. This scanner seems to look for puzzle pieces, connections between things, perspectives that lead to wholeness; it has an inclination to look through to the Big Picture.

As Faustus begins his bargaining for fame and gain, my scanner highlights a phrase of what Faustus sees as one gain of making a deal with the devil: to be resolved of all ambiguities. Hmm-m-m, goes the scanner. And suddenly I become aware of an evolution in how I see ambiguity. It used to drive me crazy. It seems that this tension has fallen away for me somehow.

Hell, for me, is not an afterlife issue. I have a reputation with myself (and with Nancy and R.M. Mugo as well, I suppose) of moving in and out of hells on a regular basis. Hells of various depths and dimensions, from bristling to excruciating, come and go. And, likewise, heavens. I am trying, to the best of my ability in the moment, not to pursue or push away either. In that there is a contentment that reaches beyond both.

But there is a price, I find. Not a price that can be bargained for though, but a price that I have to live. Simply put: I must be willing to not know what is going to happen next. I’m not talking about paralysis here, this is not about fear. Well, it may, on occasion, require being with fear or insecurity but it’s not about being driven by fear or insecurity. Ambiguity has become for me an increase in possibility, a wider field of possible action. Life as one surprise after another, moment to moment to moment….

The scanner continues and notes a comment the servant demon Mephistopheles makes to Faustus: Hell has no limits, nor is circumscribed in one self place…. All places shall be hell that is not heaven. Hmm-m-m, again. Sure feels that way when I’m mired in a hell realm. But there’s something else here: assuming the imperative to pick between heaven or hell as fundamentally real just might squeeze out any sensing of what is eternal in the present moment.

How can poor Faustus escape this split? Well, he doesn’t. And now I am back watching Jack-as-Faustus splayed on the ground in his death scene. He cries out to God for salvation and dies. A crowd of black-robed figures moves slowly toward him, the lead figure holding the contract Faustus has with the devil. The lights dim just as she reaches the body.

One Perspective On The Spirit Of Jade

The first reading of Ayse’s posting on Dealings with Pain had me refreshing the altar in our home on which we have all our memorial pictures and ashes of family, friends, and pets. I made an incense offering and sat watching the smoke rising and curling and dispersing. I let go of the surge of love and liberation that Ayse’s penetrating description of sensing the thoughts of love and compassion directed toward her brought up. Letting it go, letting keep moving, circulating to where it is needed and benefiting from it passing through.

I made a copy of Ayse’s posting and gave it to a friend who has been struggling with cancer for 18 months. I read that Dave Robinson had passed on a copy to his mother and then followed the link to Dave’s blog. And then I read of Angie’s struggles and of her style of wisdom. And then I read of Adrienne and her daughter’s plight. I think of those who have read and not left comments, of those who have read and allowed themselves to feel somehow less than because they don’t feel adept at handling things as well as Ayse. I think of Rev. Master Mugo who has felt her way along with Jade Mountains in the fog, in the sun, and with bright going-on-ness.

And as postings go on, I sense this kaleidoscope of images of us all. As this compassion and love circulates, we are all Ayse, Dave, Dave’s mother, Adrienne, Adrienne’s daughter, Angie, Wick, Andrew, Jim, R.M. Mugo, those of us feeling less than at the moment….. At the same time, it seems so important to see each slice of color of this kaleidoscope, each individual.

I am reminded of a quote from Lily Tomlin, an American actress and comedian, who once said: Let us not forget, we’re all in this alone. May we all look past the either/or choices of a world that looks to be this or that and see that there is More Going On.

Walking In The Fog


There’s a story that people around here tell about how the local airport was built during WW II to train American pilots how to land and take off in the fog in the event they had to fly out of England. The spot was picked because the fog was so dependable. I don’t know if this story is true but it is true that the fog is dependable. It’s also varied. If someone came up with words to describe the different kinds of fog – snaking along the ground, catching in trees, or standing as a wall – the North Coast would have as large a vocabulary for fog as the Inuit have for snow.

But walking along the surf’s edge, none of this really makes any difference. The impact of such a shroud is so immediate that it requires no back-story. There is no horizon, visibility is reduced to less than 50 meters, and the gray-green color of fog and water mimic one another. The hiss of the surf is muted, no birds cry. There is the feel of bare feet on wet sand and the slow accumulation of moisture in my hair and on my body. It’s as if the fog is pushing back on my senses, nudging me to stay closer to my body.

Suddenly there is an invitation to step away from this closing in: thoughts. Oh, how interesting and different from yesterday I wonder if the El Nino is having an effect on the amount of fog we’re getting? I wonder….. but I step out of that thought stream and return to watching and stepping. Stepping and noticing. And then I notice that I have forgiven myself for something. Or maybe I’ve forgiven someone else for something. I don’t think it matters. There’s just the feeling of having put something down, of having a lighter load, of an unfurling of sorts. As my head goes back in a chuckle, I notice the strong glow of the sun above me. I stop and just gaze. The sun gently and firmly embeds a reflection of itself in my core. Any consideration of when the fog might burn off disappears.