On a visit to some Buddhists incarcerated on a jail barge, I had to improvise how to practice Zen, just like we always have to improvise our practice.

Dharma talk given December 29, 2019, at the Village Zendo’s year-end retreat.

* * *

Audio only:


I sent out a message to the sangha last week, asking if I could take pictures of you meditating at home for a magazine story that I’m doing. I got some interesting responses.

Myogetsu answered, “I’d be happy to do so—but I don’t think that me sitting on an office chair in my bedroom is quite what they want.”

Keiko wrote, “If you wish, I could do this. But my place might not be very photogenic, because I don’t have an altar. No little statue or incense or anything.”

A lot of us have an image of Zen, and we don’t measure up to it.

When I think of Zen, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of a monk with a shaved head, wearing a robe, sitting in lotus position on the floor. It’s weird. Where does this image even come from? I practice with the Village Zendo, which is very far from monastic. I’ve never even been to Japan. Very few people here have shaved heads. And the image that comes to mind is a man even though my teacher is a woman.

As a photographer, it’s a challenge for me because I want to take photographs of us as we really look, and show that to other people, to see us as we are. But the images that I’m attracted to making are exotic and mysterious and monastic.

What’s your image of the Zen? What’s the first thing that pops into your mind? What color skin does Zen have? What gender is Zen for you? How does Zen sit?

Maybe the most important question is: Do you think that you look Zen?

So, let’s fix this now. Let’s take a minute to look around the room at each other. I know it’s against the rules, if you get in trouble, tell them it’s my fault. Look at all of the different kinds of hair, colors of skin, colors of eyes that we have. The different positions that we’re sitting in. The different clothes that we’re all wearing. I’ve been to monasteries where everybody sat on the floor and everybody wore the same robes. It’s beautiful. It’s like a ballet company. It’s rows of bodies in uniform moving in unison. I used to wish that the Village Zendo was more like that.

But now I like all the different clothes we wear. It’s like Buddha Mind’s fingers reach out from the darkness into this room where we all wiggle together but we each have our different fingerprints, unique.

So my image of Zen now is this. Lots of different looking people all practicing together.

And I know that this is getting super cheesy. This is like a dharma talk from Sesame Street. If you wanted a subtle and erudite talk you should have seen me a few years ago when that was what I was trying to do. This is better.

When we’re on retreat, it’s a constant improvisation. We try to structure it, we’ve got a printed schedule, we read from sutra books. But we never really know what’s going to happen next, particularly during zazen. Every minute is unexpected. One minute you’re calm and alert. One minute you’re frustrated. One minute you’re gassy, which is I find is a side effect of meditation retreats.

And your job is to improvise a response to this minute of zazen. To improvise practicing being calm, or being frustrated, or being gassy. Meeting each one anew. You can’t treat every minute of Zen the same. Each one is its own fingerprint. It’s got its own whorls and arches and loops.

If you don’t like how your meditation is going, trying to make it into something else is counterproductive. Dissatisfaction, also known as suffering—or in Sanskrit it’s dukkha—dissatisfaction is wanting this moment to be something else. If we try to make our zazen always the same, always calm and happy and alert, that’s counterproductive. That’s just more of the same.

If you’re here to free yourself from suffering (that’s what I’m here for), the way to do that is embracing what a moment actually is. However frustrated or gassy it is, you’ve got to move towards it and deal with it as it’s actually occurring in the moment, extemporaneously. And it takes courage. That’s why we do it together.

I want to tell you a story about Zen improv.

So, a couple of weeks ago, my partner Keishin and I, we went to a place called the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, which is a jail barge moored off Hunts Point, the Bronx. There’s a man imprisoned there, I’m going to call him Charles, he’d requested some kind of Buddhist services. Keishin and I are connected with the jail system so that request found its way to us and we decided to go.

The email just said there’s an inmate at VCBC, so I Googled that and saw an image of a prison boat with 800 people on it. So we rented a Zip Car and we drove up on a Sunday morning. We got to the parking lot. The guard opened up this big razor wire gate. We drove through. The gate closed behind us. He opened another big razor wire gate in front of us and we were into the parking lot.

It was misty and as we approached it, the boat loomed up over us through the mist. Gray and blue prison blocks stacked up seven stories tall looming over us, it looked like an evil Lego model.

We park and we walk across this little gangway onto the deck of the barge. Total slapstick ensues, because we can’t figure out how to get in. The entrance is a little hatch, and it’s just marked “security entrance,” in a long blank gray metal wall. And it’s got two big handles on it. We turned both handles one way and we gave it a tug. We turned the two handles the other way and we gave it tug. Nothing was happening. Nobody was around. I felt like an idiot. I was sure that at any moment, somebody was going to jump out and arrest us for trying to break into jail.

Finally we figure out that we just need to give the thing like a really hard tug and it opens up and we’re in.

So obviously we have no idea what we are doing.

We get inside, it takes half an hour to find the officers who know who we are, what we are doing there. They lead us down to the chapel below decks where we’re going to meet whoever had heard the announcements that there were going to be Buddhists there today and wanted to talk to us.

Down in the part of the boat where we were it’s spooky. It’s this brightly lit metal jail with no windows, just long halls with locked metal doors. Every once in awhile you’ll turn a corner and there’s a Christmas tree. It was weirdly quiet for a jail. Mostly you heard the whoosh of the ventilation system or the buzz of the fluorescent lights. Everything was a little too small. You lose your sense of direction.

So we get to the chapel. It’s a small room with a podium with a dusty bible sitting on it and some chairs. The officers bring in the men who are going to meet us, one by one. The first one, I’m going to call him Ken. Laid-back, friendly guy in his late 20s, short dreads, some face tattoos. He’d been on the barge for two weeks, he had one week to go. He was awaiting extradition to another state. One of the most incredible things about him was that he said how happy we was to be there, that this was the perfect place for him to be.

I asked about his meditation experience. Some of the other people on the cellblock had been teaching him yogic breathing techniques, and he had some meditation experience. He’d learned to meditate from YouTube videos, which I thought was pretty interesting. I learned from reading Zen books and filling my mind with a bunch of ideas before I started sitting, and these days we meet a lot of people who have tried out the Headspace app before they come to us. It’s all great, as long as it goes deeper. As long as it leads to practicing with a group and a teacher and the precepts, all of these different ways to start are amazing.

After we talked to Ken for a couple of minutes, two more men, Charles and Lee, came in. Charles was one who had requested us to come: middle-aged man, black, very quiet, and gentle. He had been chanting. He was practicing Nichiren Buddhism, he’d been been doing it for the two months that he’d been on the barge. He showed us a Soka Gakkai International chant book that he had marked up all over.

And he was there with a guy I’m going to call Lee. I think he was Chinese. He didn’t speak very much English. He had very intense, worried energy. He was staring at the floor. His eyebrows were kind of knitted up the whole time that he was there. He’d been on the boat for eight months, which might explain a few things. And he had also been chanting during the time that he’d been on the boat.

So we had these three men with us, and we had to figure out something helpful to do together. I offered a 15-minute, bare-bones introduction to zazen: sitting on chairs, upright, touch your thumbs together, watch your breath, drop your thoughts. We sat silently together for a little while in a circle. And, because my gaze was down, I was looking at their shoes. The jail—people there are so temporary, so the jail gives them all the same black canvas sneakers.

We finished sitting, I asked what everybody’s experience had been like. Then I asked Charles to lead us in a chant.


…which is “Homage to the Holy Lotus Sutra.” It’s the main chant for Nichiren Buddhists. Charles had a family court date coming up that he was really worried about. And he said that he was having very difficult conversations on the phone with his wife. He has a wife and kid in the city, and he’s been chanting to wish for a good outcome to the court date. And he chants before he talks on the phone to ask for 20 minutes of conversation without anger or blame.

And that was it. That was the visit. We went back up through the hatch and got into our Zipcar and went home.

None of this looked like the conventional image of Zen. There was no robes, no incense, no bells. But it was profoundly Zen to practice that way. I think we’re going to try to set up a regular monthly visit to the boat next year and it’s going to be complete improv. The population there is constantly changing. Men are coming and going every week and we will never have the same group twice. We’ll never know who we’re going to meet. We’ll have to decide in the moment how to be helpful to each other there. We’re going to have to think on our feet. I think it’s going to be awesome.

There’s a koan in our study text about improv. It goes like this.

Yunmen instructed his assembly, saying, “I am not asking you about it before the 15th day; but see if you can come up with something about it after the 15th day.” No one responded, so he himself answered for them: “Every day is a good day.”

What’s this about “before the 15th day” or “after the 15th day?” In the Chinese lunar calendar, the 15th day is the day of the full moon. So, what he’s asking about—brace yourselves, here comes the word—he’s asking about enlightenment. He’s asking about before you have that moment, and then after that full bright moon moment. What can you say about these?

BULLSHIT!! Every day is a good day.

In our book, Zen master Baochi has a verse on this koan. She wrote that,

On clear days, the sun comes out;
When it rains, the earth is damp.
There is no need to think about anything else
Except being able to finish up your business.

That’s it.

I think maybe master Baochi knew something about people’s conventional images of Zen. Yuuka told this story yesterday, that when Baochi went to a male teacher to prove her understanding, he said, “You are a manly man.”

In this verse she wipes it all away. Male and female, monastic and lay. When the sun is up, it’s warm. When it’s raining, the earth is wet. Your job is to improvise a response. Finish up your business.

And she says “finish up,” but don’t let her trick you. We don’t ever finish. It’s continuous improvisation. There’s never going to be a moment where you say, “Aha! I figured it all out. From now on I know exactly how things are going to go and what I need to do.” You’re going to have to go on winging it for your whole life.

But the good news is that winging it is enlightenment. Practicing the way we do here, extemporizing a response to every minute of zazen, every minute of living, that’s it, that’s the whole secret. And when we do that, that’s a good day.

Nothing’s ever the same twice, obviously. That’s what “every day is a good day” means. Each minute is a fingerprint, a mark that Buddha Mind places in spacetime. It will never be repeated.

So let’s practice this way together this week.

Don’t try to make your zazen the same from moment to moment. Right? Deal with it as it comes.

Definitely don’t try to make yourself fit some image you’ve got of Zen.

Take each minute as it comes, appreciate it as an expression of Buddha’s body, and improvise a response.

Image: Vernon C. Bain Center, seen from a kayak