Skippers (Kneedeep)

Yesterday J and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum to see Spirits, an exhibit of Tsherin Sherpa’s contemporary Buddhist art displayed alongside pencil drawings by Robert Beer.

Spiritual Warrior

Tsherin Sherpa’s playful and irreverent take on traditional Tibetan iconography was a visual delight. I was charmed and amused by deities chewing bubble gum, flashing peace signs, and dreaming halos filled with corporate logos and pop culture icons: the usual junk that passes as distraction.

Oh My God-ness!

We’re so used to sorting the world into the predictable piles of sacred and profane, it sparks something in our brain to see the two juxtaposed: deities, for example, channeling John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever or Lady Gaga at the MTV music awards. Why should art respect the arbitrary boundary between sacred and profane when the spirit knows no such limit?

8 Spirits

Butterflies are a ubiquitous image in Sherpa’s work–the path to the exhibit, in fact, was marked with butterflies on the otherwise bare hallway walls–and butterflies flutter like restless spirits over fields, backyards, and factories alike. The sun shines equally on sinner and saint, and the Present Moment makes no distinctions.

3 Wise Men

Tsherin Sherpa’s work reminds us that we all are spirits in the material world: spirits who practice ancient meditative arts, perhaps, right alongside our otherwise ordinary work, leisure, and social lives. As spirits, we know no limit or hindrance.

Fly High


CLICK HERE for more images from “Spirits: Tsherin Sherpa with Robert Beer”, which is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum through May 29. Enjoy!

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Any person with the ability to observe the world can deduce the simple facts the Buddha taught: suffering exists, things are impermanent, and the quality of our contentment isn’t necessarily related to our external circumstances. There are unhappy people in paradise and people who find contentment in hell. All things change, but there sits at the root of our nature certain enduring tendencies: the grain in the wood of personality, the slant of our inclination and the direction of our days.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Nothing the Buddha taught needs to be taken on faith: you can test anything he said against your own experience, against what you yourself have seen and lived. If you don’t believe that suffering exists, scan the headlines in the nearest newspaper, tune into your favorite TV news channel, or ask the person next to you how things are going, really. Or try sitting with nothing but your own thoughts for ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes: as long as you can stand. How long does it take to sink beneath the skin of surface contentment to find the existential angst beneath?

The Wall at Central Square

If you don’t believe things are impermanent, try loving a child, an old person, or an elderly pet. Whenever you see someone change, grow, or age before your very eyes, you’re seeing impermanence in action. Or take a long view of your own relationships and your own self. How many of the people you loved ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago are exactly the same now as they were then? Take a good, honest look in the mirror. How have you yourself changed over the past decade? Even the most stubborn, entrenched personalities grow old, grow sick, and die.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a fortune teller; he simply was observant. He was, as I keep telling you, a man with eyes in his head. He closely observed the people around him, and he carefully monitored the coming and going of his own thoughts. The Buddha was like Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree: he didn’t see anything particularly unusual, but he had the intelligence to notice the patterns that underlie the seemingly random nature of our days. Apples fall and seasons change. If you don’t believe me, go sit under an apple tree and see for yourself.

The Wall at Central Square

One morning this week, I wrote my journal pages outside, sitting at our backyard patio table. The bird feeder was empty, so there wasn’t the usual flapping, energetic throng of birds, but still there were squirrels foraging overhead, robins singing in the neighbors’ yard, and chipmunks scurrying through dead leaves. There wasn’t a single moment in even my quiet backyard that was truly quiet: there was a constant soundtrack of birdsong, animal rustlings, and insect humming.

The Wall at Central Square

You don’t have to set foot outside—you don’t have to move from wherever you’re reading these words—to experience the constant activity that is impermanence in action. Shut your eyes and turn your attention inward to where your thoughts chatter without ceasing. Try to follow the flow of your own thoughts: the way they inevitably jump from one thing to another. Even when the world around you is quiet and serene, your mind is agile and electric, jumping from one thought to another like a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. People erroneously think that meditation is about “stilling the thoughts,” as if this were possible. Stilling your thoughts is as possible as stilling your own heartbeat or the stopping the flow of blood in your veins. Even if you could do it, why would you want to?

The Wall at Central Square

Several weeks ago I spent two hours writing in downtown Boston at rush hour. I sat in a café facing a wall of windows with a clear view of a steady stream of people walking down the sidewalks on either side of a narrow one-way street. Occasionally, there was a burst of vehicular activity: at one point, several cars, a taxi , and a police SUV cruised down the street, followed by a lull in traffic. Although the cars moved in sporadic bursts, the flow of pedestrians was constant: people walking singly, in pairs, or loose groups; people talking on phones, gesturing to friends, or pointing to landmarks. One man stopped to take a picture on his phone, then three people passed in a kind of parade, each one steering a vendor’s pushcart: lemonade, hot dogs, Italian ice. Each person who passed was on an errand known only to them, and this activity never stopped during the two full hours I observed it. Trying to stop the rush hour flow of people walking, cars moving, and cyclists pedaling is impossible, as this activity is simply the nature of a city.

The Wall at Central Square

So is the nature of our minds. Our mind is a road at rush hour, with a constant traffic of thoughts moving past. Sometimes these thoughts come singly, one after the other, and sometimes they arrive in bursts of activity. Sometimes these thoughts slow and quiet, and we think we’ve reached the end of them…but inevitably they return, always arriving from unknown origins and wending toward unspoken destinations.

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes our thoughts get stuck and we find ourselves endlessly obsessing over a single idea that returns again and again like a car that keeps circling the same block. But just as it’s impossible to count much less stop every single person that passes down a busy city street, it is impossible to stop the stream of our own thoughts. Thinking is the mind’s job, so it’s both foolish and futile to try to stop it. Why not try to cover your ears, stopper your nose, or paste your eyes shut?

The Wall at Central Square

The contentment that comes with meditation doesn’t come from stopping one’s thoughts; it comes from making peace with them. As I sat typing on my laptop and watching the stream of people pass by that rush hour coffee shop, I had no quarrel with any of them. If I had been sitting in traffic, I would have wanted it to move faster or slower: I would have had an interest in controlling it. But as a mere observer watching the people who pass, I didn’t have to worry about their pace, direction, or destination. When you simply observe your thoughts move through your mind like people passing down the street, there’s no need to worry over them. They’ll find their own way without any interference from you.

The Wall at Central Square

It isn’t our thoughts themselves but our impulse to control our thoughts that drives us crazy. Because the Buddha had eyes in his head, he realized this. If you spend time watching your thoughts, you’ll quickly realize that crazy thoughts, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, and angry thoughts all come and go. These thoughts arise and pass away without reason: there’s no need to try to excuse or explain them, just as there’s no need to excuse or explain the passing of people and vehicles during rush hour.

The Wall at Central Square

We suffer when we cling to impermanent things, and that includes thoughts. If we cling to the idea of “baby,” we’ll suffer when our child grows into an adolescent then adult. If we cling to the idea of “youth,” we’ll suffer when we see our bodies gray and wrinkle. If we cling to the idea “I am a good person,” we’ll suffer when angry, lustful, or selfish thoughts arise. If we cling to the idea “Meditation will make me peaceful,” we’ll suffer when we find our minds to be noisy with distractions.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha realized that all things, including our thoughts, are impermanent because he himself watched them pass. It was an observation anyone with eyes in their head could have made. Right now, look around at the people who pass, then look inside to the ebb and flow of your own thoughts. What can you hold? What can you take with you after you’re gone? If you have eyes in your head, you too will see the whole world is passing, and the only instant we can claim is the very moment at hand.

Modica Way

This week in my “Buddhism, the Beats, and Beyond” class, we talked about Buddhist poetry. I told my class I am not a poet; I told my class I didn’t understand all the poems we read, either. But we talked about poems anyway, and we tried a version of the Natalie Goldberg exercise where you freewrite a list of statements all starting with the same opening phrase.

Modica Way

We took as our lead Allen Ginsberg’s “Why I Meditate,” which several students had been confused by. In our poems, we chose some other thing we do daily–why I walk, why I sing, why I dance, why I read–and we each made our own spontaneous, sometimes illogical list. The logic of our lists didn’t matter; what drew us in was the litany of the words themselves, ever-echoing that opening phrase: “I ______ because…”

I walk because the earth is round
I walk because my feet touch earth
I walk because my lungs breath green air
I walk because it rains invisible mist
I walk because you are here
I walk because sitting is too still
I walk because the earth is love
I walk because my body never tires
I walk to pump the billows of my heart
I walk because some people can’t
I walk because outside is bigger than inside

Modica Way

I walk because the afternoon is long
I walk because life is short
I walk because death nips our heels
I walk because the dog paces and whines
I walk because it is cheaper than gas
I walk because my feet can’t be still
I walk because the body is made to move
I walk because my brain never stops
I walk because I can’t stop
I walk because you aren’t here
I walk to find things I haven’t lost
I walk to chase the sunset
I walk because time marches on
I walk to meet a future version of myself.

Modica Way

My students are open and forthcoming, so a question soon arose. What makes a poem? How is a poem different from other things? Can a quick-jotted list be a poem? What about a story told in ordinary language like prose, but with line breaks?

We talked about Walt Whitman and his lists, and we listened to several of Diane Di Prima’s “Revolutionary Letters.” What makes a poem different from a letter, and what makes a poem different from a political rant? Sometimes the two sound the same, so what makes a poem unique?

Modica Way

My students and I quietly drafted our own ideas about what a poem is and what a poem is not, and we compared the results, which were remarkably similar. We seemed to think poetry is looser than other literary genres: poetry can take a form, but it isn’t limited to that form. We seemed to think that a poem isn’t defined by the particular arrangement of its words and rhythms–it can follow the format of a haiku or epic, list or refrain–but it is defined by the fact that its words are arranged with some sort of intentionality (whether formal or informal) chosen by the poet to express some sort of truth.

Modica Way

We read Gary Snyder’s “Riprap” after having listened to Snyder read several other poems, and we concluded that Snyder’s definition of poetry is as good as any. In “Riprap,” Snyder suggests poets lay words like rocks–carefully, intentionally–to create a path to truth. The way up Cold Mountain is slippery and steep, but a path cobbled together with whatever rocks are close at hand–shattered shards or polished river rubble–can make the way more passable. You still have to walk the path yourself; your experience of the mountain of truth will be uniquely yours. But a line of carefully laid stones can save your life along the way.

Drink your karma away...

Forget about attaining the Zen of cleanliness or peace of mind in a gumball. If you’re too broke to buy good karma, apparently you can drink your bad karma away with a six-pack of Buddhist beer.


It’s hard not to snap a photo of a bird that’s sitting pretty and all but posing for you.

I find it fittingly ironic that mere days after arguing the utter artlessness of the photos I post here, Hoarded Ordinaries took home two Blogisattva Awards, both of them for visual rather than literary merit. According to the folks responsible for this year’s Blogisattvas, which recognize “excellence in English-language Buddhist blogging,” Hoarded Ordinaries is noteworthy for its “Clean, Straightforward, Unaffected Design” and “Creation or Use of Graphics in a Blog.”

Snow lion

I should promptly point out that the presumably clean, straightforward, and unaffected design of this blog has nothing in particular to do with me: Hoarded Ordinaries looks the way it does because when I moved my site to WordPress last year, I picked an off-the-rack template designed by Vanilla Mist (a.k.a. Patricia Muller). I don’t know if Muller is a Buddhist, but I think she deserves more design credit than I do for any presumed “Buddhist” virtues underlying the look of my blog.

I also find it amusing that my “creation or use of graphics” here on Hoarded Ordinaries should be deemed somehow inherently Buddhist: two years ago, when I was creating and using graphics exactly as I do today, one of the folks behind the Blogisattvas pointed out that Hoarded Ordinaries didn’t actually qualify as either a “Zen” or “Buddhist” blog. I wonder what has changed between now and then to make the “look and feel” of Hoarded Ordinaries seem suddenly (and award-winningly) Buddhist? Have the pictures I post suddenly become more intrinsically Zen-like, or does the fact that I now have a category tag pointing to Zen posts make my site more overtly Buddhist? Perhaps I should ruin the presumably clean, straightforward, and unaffected design of Hoarded Ordinaries by tacking a label at the top proclaiming that it now boasts “New and Improved Zen Flavor,” given how the word “Zen” makes even household cleansers seem cool.


I never was one of the popular girls, I’ve never understood the politics behind awards ceremonies, and I certainly have never entered much less won a beauty contest, so this year’s Blogisattva Awards and the suggestion that the look of Hoarded Ordinaries is downright pretty has left me a bit flummoxed. I guess the appropriate response is to smile and thank the Academy, Buddha, and all the little people who stood beside me on my way to the top. For good or ill, it seems that as a Buddhist blogger I’m more effective (or at least more award-worthy) when I’m choosing blog templates and posting pictures than when I’m actually talking about Buddhism. If nothing else, I guess these two awards go to show that when it comes to the Zen of Buddhist blogging, silence is better than holiness, especially if you’re lucky enough to sit pretty.

Main Dharma room altar

On Saturday, I drove to Rhode Island to attend a Buddhist precepts ceremony and subsequent festivities at the Providence Zen Center. As I’ve noted here before, going to PZC always feels like a spiritual homecoming. Although I’ve never lived at PZC, I’ve spent enough time there on retreat and attending ceremonies that there’s something decidedly familiar about its buildings, grounds, and familiar faces.

And then there are the Gold Guys.

Providence Zen Center has not one but four gold Buddha statues: the largest in the main Dharma room, a second in the smaller upstairs Dharma room, a third in the octagonal peace pagoda, and the fourth in the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery up the hill from the Zen Center. (These pictures show the main Dharma room Buddha as well as the one in the monastery: I didn’t photograph the Buddhas in the upstairs Dharma room and peace pagoda during this weekend’s visit.) As I’ve noted in a previous post on Buddhist iconography, newcomers to the Providence Zen Center who come from a Judeo-Christian background are often uncomfortable with big gold statues that look like idols. Speaking from my own Catholic-turned-evangelical-gone-Buddhist perspective, though, I’ve grown inexplicably fond of the Gold Guys.

Main Dharma room buddha

PZC’s gold Buddhas aren’t gods or idols: truth be told, they’re actually hollow. But like a familiar doll or stuffed animal, these Buddha statues do seem to carry an aura of personality, as if they are looking down and watching the various goings-on happening in their midst.

During Saturday’s welcome ceremony for new Dharma teachers in training, Zen Master Soeng Hyang admired the newly re-gilt upstairs Dharma room Buddha, trying to remember how long she’d sat with him. Now that Zen Master Seung Sahn is gone, the Gold Guy who now sits in PZC’s upstairs Dharma room is one tangible link to the Gray Guy who founded the Providence Zen Center and the international network of Zen Centers and practice groups affiliated with it. Zen Master Gray Guy is dead and gone, but the Gold Guys he brought over from Korea–and the human men and women who sit with them–still carry on.

Dharma room Buddha

Although the Gold Guys are just statues, if you spend enough time with even an insentient object, you get a feel for the personality of the thing. If we attribute familiar personalities to our cars, boats, and other everyday objects, why wouldn’t we grow fond of the accoutrements of our spiritual practice, especially if they have human forms and faces? Given the long hours on retreat I’ve spent cross-legged and achey, cross-legged and sleepy, cross-legged and scatter-brained, or just cross-legged and cross, it’s comforting to think someone in the room is cross-legged and comfortable, even if he’s really a hollow man with gilt that’s only skin deep.

In my years of teaching college composition classes, I’ve read many essays by homesick freshmen describing the places and objects that mean “home.” After reading piles of papers describing the almost magical aura of places like Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I’ve come to believe that the tendency to make icons out of everyday objects is an essential part of human nature. Children are creatures of habit, so they rely heavily on those simple rituals that remind them they are loved and cherished. The lesson of Grandma’s bottomless cookie jar or Grandpa’s magically replenishing candy dish is that there’s one place where you’re always loved, even when you’ve been naughty or Mom says you’ve already had enough sweets.

Dharma room altar

Although it might seem absurd to say that PZC’s Gold Guys feel almost grandfatherly to me, I do think these ritual objects carry the same sort of iconic power that Grandma and Grandpa’s house wields in the hearts of so many of my college freshmen. Just as Grandma and Grandpa will always (or so we hope) have cookies, candy, and other treats set aside whenever cherished children come to visit, Providence Zen Center feels like home to me in part because I know the Gold Guys will always be there. No matter how many times I nod off while meditating, slip and slouch in my meditation posture, or fall off the practice bandwagon entirely, I know the Gold Guys continue to practice unmoved and unmoving. No matter how many times my attention wanders and I find myself doing anything but meditation practice, I know the Zen Center with its Gold Guys will be there when my attention and intention return.

The Providence Zen Center just paid a hefty chunk o’ change to give their Gold Guys a makeover, commissioning master gilders to re-cover their hollow forms with gold leaf. So even though Buddha’s been sitting a long time, he’s looking fabulous these days with a fresh application of ruby-red lip paint and spring-green eyebrow and moustache appliques:

Dharma room Buddha

Precepts ceremony

Although to non-Buddhists it might seem silly to spend good money fixing up a statue that’s not much more than a glorified doll, the real value of a bright and shiny Buddha becomes clear during a picture-perfect precepts ceremony when rows of Gray Ones assemble beneath the Gold Guy. Providence Zen Center isn’t about a place or even the objects assembled there: it’s about the people who congregate in their midst. Just as the magic of Grandma and Grandpa’s house is really about Grandma and Grandpa, their hollow house being of secondary importance, the iconic power of a place like Providence Zen Center is only indirectly reliant upon liturgical accoutrements. Gold Buddhas are wonderful, but flesh-and-blood practitioners are even better, their beauties being far more than gold-leaf deep.

For this reason, my favorite image of this weekend’s Gold Guys is one in which a smiling statue seems to be leaning to listen as Zen Masters Wu Kwang and Dae Kwang give congratulatory speeches to new preceptors: a trio of smiling Buddhas, one of them gold-skinned and hollow and the other two gray-clad and whole.

Smiling Buddhas

Buddha altar

At first glance, this looks like a fairly standard Buddhist altar. There’s a Buddha, candles, and incense holder. There’s a meditation bell-in-a-box at Buddha’s right knee, and a supply of incense at his left. There is a baseball-sized moktok–a hollow wooden percussive instrument–draped with meditation beads at six o’clock, a black and brown striped stone draped with meditation beads at nine o’clock, and a snail shell draped with a wooden rosary at three o’clock. Yes, I like beads of either a Buddhist or Catholic sort: in good ecumenical (or heretical) fashion, I used to count my Buddhist prostrations with a Catholic rosary. (Lord Buddha and/or Jesus help me.) From this up-close view (and you can click the image to look closer), the only striking thing about my altar are the two bouquets of dead carnations in old, moldy water. A good Buddhist would take better care of her altar flowers…and she’d dust more often.

Buddha altar with crucifix

Viewed several paces removed, though, the meditation altar in my home office looks a bit less conventional: a bit more funky. Yes, that’s Jesus on the cross (in a triumphant resurrection pose) hanging above Buddha, and a stereo underneath. In front of the right stereo speaker are two chanting books (one falling apart from age and use; the second its replacement) and a pocket-sized copy of the Dhammapada. On top of the stereo is the CD case for Peter Gabriel’s Passion, the Islamic-infused soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ. Above my meditation mat and cushion, a banner says “Buddha,” but the overall statement here is “Eclectic! Ecumenical! Eccentric!”

My corner of the blogosphere has been buzzing with talk of altars–home altars–those quiet corners of our abodes where we display whatever sort of objects and amulets remind and return us to our practice. It started with Dave and moved to Rachel, with various other bloggers and blog-readers contributing to comment threads along the way. Whether you see an altar as a site of sacrifice or a point of visual focus, it seems quite a few of us have actual altars–or shelves of precious mementos that function like altars–that point to the sacred nature of home and hearth.

In last year’s post on Buddhist iconography, I explained that Buddha statues and the altar accoutrements that accompany them aren’t the trappings of idolatry. Instead, Buddhist altars are points of visual focus: fancy or funky reminders of our own intrinsic awakened nature. In thinking more about home altars versus the fancy type you see in churches and Zen Centers, I realize that our altars are a kind of alter ego: a visual expression of what we cherish and value. Looking at my home altar, you can tell I’m ecumenical not orthodox, I’m a bit funky or even eccentric, and I’m not particularly particular when it comes to housekeeping. Perhaps there’s a coffeetable book in this notion of Altar Egos: My Altar, My Self.

So, what’s on your altar?

UPDATE! As either fate or chance would have it, Fran blogged her home altar yesterday, and her post reminded me that I’d forgotten to mention Augustine’s colorful contribution from July 15th. It seems I need all sorts of reminders, altar-oriented and otherwise, to keep my forgetful mind on track.

Ji Jang Bosal

Make no bones about it: if you’re squeamish about Buddha statues and other overt examples of Buddhist iconography, the Providence Zen Center is the kind of place that will make you (repeatedly) lose your lunch.

Main Dharma room altar

One of the things we talked about at this weekend’s Kwan Um School of Zen Dharma Teacher retreat was the eye-popping Buddhist art that can be found in our Korean-influenced Zen Centers. Since most of the folks who practice in our School weren’t raised as Buddhists, these colorful cultural trappings can be very off-putting to newcomers. As someone who was raised Catholic and was “born again” in college, I came to Zen with something of a Christian double-whammy. The first time I walked into a Zen Center and saw a huge gold statue looking back at me, every fiber in my good little Catholic-turned-evangelical soul was screaming protestations: “No! Not an idol! Run away, sister, and repent!”

Apparently I’m not the only one who had (and eventually overcame) such a vehement first reaction. During his presentation on Buddhist iconography, Zen Master Dae Kwang, himself raised as a corn-fed Nebraskan Presbyterian, recounted how another Dharma teacher used to come to the Zen Center every morning for 5 am bows and then would immediately go to a church around the corner to pray for forgiveness. “Three of the Ten Commandments,” Zen Master Dae Kwang explained, “forbid idols and idolatry. That’s how much God hates gold statues!” God’s distaste for devotional art notwithstanding, the Providence Zen Center is chock-full of scarily exotic statues, altars, and other iconographic tchotchkes, so any Zen Center resident or Dharma teacher necessarily has to spend a lot of time doing damage control when freaked-out Christians, Jews, or Muslims gingerly set foot into a Zen Center for the first time.

Side altar, main Dharma room

So, here’s the skinny on all those Buddha statues: they aren’t idols. Although you’ll see Zen-heads bowing in front of such statues, you’ll also see us bowing to our meditation mats, and to our food, and to one another. Bowing is simply a sign of respect, a sort of Buddhist “pleased to meet you.” Although there have been times on retreat when I’ve felt like worshipping my food, that isn’t why I bow to my bowls before digging into an eaten-in-silence meal. Bowing is a physical sign of both humility and interdependence, an acknowledgment that our individual selves aren’t separate from the rest of the universe. When a Buddhist bows upon entering a Dharma room, they bow as a sign of gratitude to the silent practice energy of that place. The room isn’t a god to be worshipped, and neither is the statue that’s found in that room.

Instead, the purpose of Buddha statues, altar paintings, and other iconographic images is purely symbolic. Representations of the the historical Buddha, the Buddha’s heavenly incarnations, and various other mythic characters are designed to point inward, not outward. Meditating in front of a Buddha statue, a Zen-head isn’t worshipping much less praying to that statue. Instead, a Buddha statue is a physical symbol of one’s own true, compassionate nature. The historical Buddha never claimed to be a god; instead, his teachings point to the fact that everyone has a latent ability to wake up and realize their true connection to all beings. Like a sports-crazed kid who covers his bedroom walls with posters of Shaquille O’Neal, Buddhists simply surround themselves with images of someone they want to be like. Buddhists don’t worship the Buddha any more than sports fans worship Shaq or Lutherans worship Martin Luther. The flesh-and-blood man who earned the title Buddha simply showed one way of waking up. Statues and paintings of that man and his various mythic counterparts simply point to the need to enact that way for oneself.

Dharma room altar

If all these Buddha statues are simply symbolic, why have them at all? There certainly are religions (Quakerism being one) that eshew all religious trappings in favor of a bare-bones approach. For all of Zen’s emphasis on spiritual minimalism, it still derives from a visually rich tradition. True, Buddha statues, altars, candles, and incense aren’t necessary: it’s entirely possible to meditate and gain enlightenment without any of these fancy accoutrements. By the same token, though, we as embodied creatures rely on our senses to steer our thoughts and emotions. Separated from our family, we cherish photographs that remind us of our loved ones even though we technically don’t need such reminders. Although it’s possible to get romantic without candlelight and flowers, sometimes we need a sensory nudge to get us in the mood. At times, sitting Zen can feel no different than waiting for the bus: it’s easy to zone out and let one’s mind wander. A gleam of candlelight on gold or a whiff of wafting incense can serve as a powerful reminder: this room is special because this moment is unique. This truth applies everywhere at all times, but sometimes we need additional physical reminders.

Peace pagoda

Long-time Zen practitioners often use the term “Dharma candy” to refer to all the fancy Asian accoutrements that tease the eyes and senses of Zen Center visitors. Truth be told, meditation is boring. If we expected newcomers to sit following their breath in an unfurnished cinder block basement, we’d probably get very few repeat customers. As much as many Westerners recoil at the “smells and bells” of Buddhist practice, exoticism nevertheless has a huge appeal. Like candy, enormous statues and looming pagodas have very little nutritional value spiritually speaking. Simply looking at a Zen temple won’t earn you any karmic points; instead of snacking on candy, you have to dig into an entree called practice. But if the sight of a lovely Asian temple nestled in changing trees provides a sweet enough taste, perhaps you’ll be tempted to stay for an entire meal. Meditation can be bitter medicine, and devotional art serves as a spoonful of sugar. When your mind wanders during meditation, chanting, or bows, there is something colorful and interesting to focus your attention on. A peaceful Zen Center filled with beautiful things points to the special quality of one’s True Nature. Yes, enlightenment is no different from ordinary life, but at the same time it is special. Precisely because enlightenment can happen anywhere at anytime, we set aside special, extraordinarily lovely places to remind ourselves of that fact.

Greenhouse buddha

One of the intrinsic paradoxes of Zen practice is that it is simultaneously iconographic and iconoclastic. One famous Zen story recounts how an impoverished monk chopped and then burned his temple’s wooden Buddha to keep warm: when push comes to shove, fueling the practice fire is more important than devotional formalities. At the same time, though, Zen-heads are meticulously careful about tending their altars and practice spaces: how you keep your altar is how you keep your mind. Whether made of gold, wood, or stone, a Buddha statue is like your mind: efficacious only if you pay attention. Left to its own devices, a stone Buddha will collect dust like any other inanimate object: left to its own devices, a stone Buddha has no inherent power. The power of any iconographic symbol lies entirely in the eye of the beholder; although a sign can point you home, only your own legs can get you there.