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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.

Radical Inclusion: A Key To Peace

My teacher Robert Aitken Roshi was once asked how to enlighten a quadratic equation. He responded: “Include it.”

We are, with all beings, the warp and woof of a vast fabric without dimension and without time, existing right here now. A connective tissue. But we feel isolated and disconnected. As groups and countries, we amplify this state of affairs, creating massive alienation, anguish, and despair.

I recently watched “I Am Not Your Negro,” a film about James Baldwin and racism in America. The certainty writ on the faces of whites as they hurled epithets, spat on, and watched lynched blacks was stunning. They had total conviction that they were right about an incontrovertible ‘fact’: that blacks are sub-human. This is delusion at its most insidious. Caught up, they lost some of their humanity, too.

One meaning of dukkha, suffering, is ‘difficult to face.’ In order to become fully human, to be peace, we must be willing to encounter and include our own afflictions; with kindness, persistence, and skill.

Limitless belonging, vast and fathomless, is our original home. We practice it by the radical act of inclusion.