Enduring Together in Synchrony: Suffering, Karma and Poison.

Thus have I heard:

The corona virus is exposing and revealing fault lines of great suffering, the cause of suffering, the path to transforming suffering, and the main component of that path (view). It is also revealing how karma works and the role of delusion, one of the three poisons (intimately related to the other two, greed and hatred).

David Ho, the famed HIV researcher, was on the Rachel Maddow show yesterday. Just in case any of us [Buddhists] think we have the monopoly on penetrating understanding, listen to Dr. Ho:

We need to be proactive now. No one will be magically spared. If you were to do this simultaneously, now, [all shelter in place] and to ask each state to endure together in synchrony, that would bring everything under control faster. Human casualties and economic loss, overall, would be reduced (in number and duration).

Rather than state to state, we could extend this way of thinking to the world, country by country. Shouldn’t the whole world endure together?

If we ordered shelter in place when Wuhan became bad we might have extinguished the virus by now. It would have been prescient then [to do so], but now, with things being so evident, we shouldn’t be making the same mistake. We need to act, not just for our whole country but for the whole world. To do this we need global leadership.

Maddow: Regarding the recalcitrant states [the ones not ordering shelter in place], does each day they wait mean more people will die?

Ho:  We’ve had enough lessons by now from China, South Korea, Iran, Europe, and other regions, so we should not be making the same mistake. We need to act together now.

Maddow: Some states are saying in effect: “We’ll deal with it later,” it’s not bad here.

Ho: By the time cases in each state in sequence get bad [and states acknowledge it] and take action to shelter in place, much worse damage will have been done. The virus was not caught early and so will have become nearly unbeatable. But if we’d all shelter in place together, immediately and simultaneously, regardless of our current numbers, the impacts would be far less.

There are two clear perspectives here; one leads directly to suffering; it reflects a deluded view that both generates and conveys suffering. The other is more aligned with reality and therefore shows the way out of suffering and the way to prevent unnecessary suffering.

1. The first view implies it’s everyone for themselves, that we are fundamentally isolated, disconnected, and therefore can be magically protected. Exempt, not subject to the same laws, discrete, compartmentalized. What’s implied is, we’re number one. Thus, the leader of one state can say, “we’re not them,” (that other place). The underlying fantasy may be that by virtue of self-isolated specialness, we chosen ones are magically protected.

This is the clear and dramatic expression of the small misguided self we need ‘to forget’ and liberate from: self-inflating, self-referencing, self-aggrandizing, damaging, and delusional. Some say the belief that I am separate from you is our basic problem, and counter with I am you. But I prefer the words isolated, disconnected, non-contingent, walled off, separable.

2. The second view is that we are all in this together, we co-arise, we inter-are. This does not mean we are identical, which implies a collapse of diversity.

A colleague says: ‘My life is your life.’ I prefer the wording of Lila Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator: “My life is bound up in your life.” I prefer this because our lives are profoundly contingent though not completely identical. Watson continues, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

For the good of the whole, of the overall wellbeing, endure together in synchrony.

The educator John Holt named a well-known phenomenon: ‘The helping hand strikes again.’ This implies a view of basic isolation and disconnection: we are fundamentally apart and different, separable, and of course, along with that, better or worse. Both poles, either side of the coin— rushing in to help and fix and save, or protecting ourselves from [insulating from their germs]—implies a chasm, a rift between us. It allows the Governor of Alabama to proclaim: “Y’all, we are not Louisiana, we are not New York state, we are not California.” This causes massive unnecessary suffering.

In the first view, if you don’t see any problems in the narrow now, then there are no problems and no need to prepare or respond. It’s them over there with the problems. This view permeates conduct, lack of response, and so causes grave harm, death, suffering.

Cause and effect, simplified:  What we do here, now, profoundly impacts what happens there, then. As a culture, as a species, we do not get that and cannot get that as long as we’re perceiving through the lens of fundamental isolation and disconnection, begetting more delusion. But wait, the virus is exposing this deluded damaging view.

In the second perspective, we know we are intrinsically in solidarity. When we see the tips of the horns above a hedge, we understand right away it is a deer. We do not recoil. We feel with, use our human anxiety as a signal, our sadness as an expression of love, we bear witness, and we act. We see the big intersecting picture and are not trapped in a collapsed time and space bubble, lulled into a stupor by purely sensory data, isolated numbers and figures we take to mean that we’re fine. That their problems don’t affect me.  

Waking up involves connecting the dots. More so, it is realizing how the dots are not dots. How they, we, and all beings have already been connecting. Connecting by nature, and how our willful ignorance of those life-giving interconnections is wiping out the human species and so many more.

Today, we have to be alone to realize we are not alone, and cannot survive alone.

Vast and Wide

Master Yunmen said, “See how vast and wide the world is! Why do you put on your seven-piece robe at the sound of the bell?

This koan is from The Gateless Barrier, a collection of verses and stories compiled by Master Wumen. Gateless? Essentially yes, but when we are hitched to conceptual formulations, investing our attention in trying to figure life out, it presents a barrier (and a means) to realizing the freedom of Zen.

In 1972, I was training at the Maui Zendo. During evening meditation, while everyone was gathered for chanting and meditation in the Zendo (Zen meditation hall). I was upstairs in our tree house dormitory, solitary and absorbed in contemplation. There was a knock on the door that disoriented me, and my teacher Aitken Rōshi entered in his robes. He asked what I was doing, and I replied, “All things are flashing into the phenomenal world,” a phrase from a Zen sutra. He said simply, “And we’re missing you in the meditation hall.”

I was reveling in “vast and wide.” I wasn’t able to respond in accord with my circumstances. When we begin practice, we are caught up in searching for a conceptual answer, a blueprint that explains everything. With practice, this search falls away and we find ourselves immersed: this inhale, this step fill the screen. We become fully invested. Obstructions begin to slough off.

“Why” is the hook. Our conceptual minds gear up: “Why not put on ordinary garb? Why not the two-panel robe? Why rush off in a knee jerk reaction without deliberation?” So many possible reasons and answers.  But when we inquire deeply, fall away, and come awake, we find no opposition at all between “vast and wide” and responding in accord with actual circumstances.

The world is on fire. The awakened one doesn’t sit in a cave and bogart her jewel of no-price. When she hears the bell, when she feels the heat—when she sees planet and beings consumed by greed, hatred and delusion—she bears with it, lets it inform her, and she acts. From the vast ground of original mind, in accord with the actual moment, for the benefit of all beings.

Your Liberation is Bound Up with Mine

Bodhisattva means awakening being: In process of awakening, awakening others, and cultivating his own awakening. It is commonly thought that the Bodhisattva postpones his full enlightenment until all beings have become enlightened. Or, he is already fully enlightened but devotes his energies to others’ awakening rather than refining his own. These seemed dualistic, a bit self-conscious and patronizing, and potentially co-dependent. We all awaken together. What benefits you most deeply benefits me. When I blossom you enjoy the fruits.

Some years ago, I heard this quote about helping from Lila Watson, Aboriginal elder, activist and educator.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

It is joyful to work together to build peace, freedom, and justice. As we do, we are expressing the realization that we are in this together and time is short. In today’s toxic environment, we have AOC, Greta Thunberg and millions of others around the world to remind us and demonstrate that solidarity is joyful. Our subversive, not always fully enlightened “mischief” is not just the means to an end —it is an expression of the Bodhisattva ‘s heart.

Joseph Bobrow | January 30, 2020 | Valleyheart, CA

Unleashing good

I was watching on Democracy Now a group of homeless mothers who have moved with their children into a home kept vacant for years by real estate speculators in Oakland. There are many such homes, the Mothers 4 Housing said: It’s not right for them to be kept vacant as their value builds past affordable limits and excludes working class families. As hundreds of families are without shelter. Now they are breaking a law, a law founded on private property and the “American dream.” But they are standing for another law, activating a deeper ethical principle: equality, and the incalculable value of “investing” in each other’s well-being.

I was listen to an interview with Varshini Prakash the founder of the Sunrise Movement. Millions of young people around the world likewise are breaking laws, written and silently entrenched, about privilege, privilege of humans over animals, plants and all living beings. They are unleashing a force, a disruptive force for good.

At a memorial for Toni Morrison, Oprah read a moving excerpt from The Song of Solomon: ‘Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. We live here! On this planet, in this nation, in this county. Can’t you see that? Can’t you see? We got a home right here in this rock, don’t you see! We got a home in this rock, and if I got a home you got one too! So grab it. Grab this land! Take this land, hold this land, my brothers. Ain’t nobody crying in my home. I want you to take this land, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on — you hear me? Do you hear me? Pass it on!’”

Unleashing good, indeed.

Walking the Path

I’m happy to announce that there are still spaces in our cohort.

Walking the Path is an opportunity to be part of a supportive cohort to learn Buddhism through a program of study and practice.

 November, 2018 – June, 2019

Program components

* Daily meditation practice at home.

* Readings: An article or book chapter, and a new essay by Joseph each month.

*  Personalization (Inquiry), reflecting on the experience of practicing and studying. Writing a short piece on this process of inquiry each month. Joseph will read and provide personalized practice feedback.

* Informal interaction and sharing among cohort members.

* Monthly 3 hour in-person workshop: Sitting and walking meditation, a dharma talk by Joseph, sharing in dyads, Q and A.

*Two daylong retreats.

For more information: jbobrowATcominghomeprojectDOTnet

A Raft, Ferrying Us to the Other Shore

I usually say Zen is not like Mr Clean: Good for all surfaces and purposes. It’s best practiced without a particular purpose. But this is remarkable. The practice, as a raft by which we cross over, described metaphorically in Buddhist sutras.

Waking Up from War (and Other Trauma)

Dear friends,

Check out this page for audio and video—interviews, meditations and presentations— on  integrative approaches that transform trauma and generate post-traumatic growth. Also, our Coming Home retreats with veterans, families and care providers and the healing process we discovered: Turning Ghosts into Ancestors.

Good wishes,



Welcome to my new blog. I’ll be posting on a range of topics, from psychotherapy to Zen, from poetry to social justice. Often, I’ll begin with my experience of the world we live in— its beauty and ugliness, its pains and joys— and take off from there. I’ll post links to talks and interviews, audio and video, as well as earlier writing that still seems of interest. I’ll discuss what I’ve learned about integrative approaches to transforming trauma, and the ways psychotherapy and Buddhist principles and practices complement each other in helping us heal, wake up and create lives worth living.

There is so much anguish in our world today. Much of it is unnecessary, fueled by unbridled greed, hatred and delusion. We live for better and for worse in the midst of it. Right here, we can develop stability, clarity, and suppleness of heart. Right here, we can discover our profound connection to our fellow humans and to all beings, and embody that intimacy in our living.

Feel free to be in touch; dialogue connects and enriches.

“We are put here, a little space, to learn to bear the beams of love.” — William Blake

Opening to the Ordinary

Our minds work like a search engine. Type in a word or phrase (or experience a series of lived moments) and a slew of “answers” emerge. On a computer or a smartphone, we see auto-fill activate; experientially we jump to conclusions. It is this, or it is that, or it is the other. From just one or two cues, we compose an entire reality in the blink of an eye.

Now, this is a useful ability since it simplifies things and helps us make sense of a teeming profusion of input. But if we want to find peace or see into our true nature and the nature of all things, it can be maddening, too. In zazen practice, we observe just how doggedly we try to understand by formulating, categorizing, conceptualizing, and figuring things out. But what happens when we stay alert to this codifying activity, then recognize and unhitch from it, establishing our awareness in the present moment?

Auto-fill loses its grip. Zen invites us into direct experience, a transmission beyond name and form.

Are you already trying to figure out “beyond” or enter it into your search engine?

There is nothing wrong with thinking or with associating to our experience. But they won’t bring us to “the dearest freshness deep down things” (Gerard Manly Hopkins). They won’t help us awaken to the ordinary as extraordinary. Release your hold on auto-fill mind, give yourself over to this very moment, forget yourself as you just inhale, exhale, shop, and wash your face. Life and death, joy and sorrow, grime and sparkle, friends and enemies, will become your teachers, showing the Tao clearly and vividly.