“Q” is Question & Quest for Truth in Compassion


“Q” is for Question and  Quest for Truth in Compassion

I often say that in Zen, the QUESTION is more important than the answer.  That in Zen, we practice to stay with the question more than having to land on an answer. That the exploration that comes with being able to stay with a question can bring so much richness and unexpected outcomes; perhaps even insight.

That was always what “Q” was going to be about.

And, as I went thru my days the past couple of weeks, trying to get these thoughts about “Q” onto this site, questions arose in me that I had to practice staying with:

How can we hurt and harm each other so much…And so continuously?
How can a group of people sing about a person hanging from a tree??
How can we not see inequality and injustice all around us?
How can people who practice not be able to see it in ourselves?

My exploration also included asking myself how I can say what needs to be said in a way that could be heard?

So, “Q” has become more than holding and working with questions — The exploration took me to the QUEST for how to speak and share what I’ve observed within mainstream, convert Buddhist centers. I offered this talk at San Francisco Zen Center March 14, 2015 out of love and compassion, as encouragement. May it be for the benefit of all beings.

Love & Compassion: How is Selma/Ferguson Here & Now?

“P” is for Prayer


“P” is for Prayer

Perhaps you don’t think of “prayer” when you think of Buddhism. I don’t think most people do; perhaps including Buddhists!

AND, as I kept trying to figure out what to do “P” on, “prayer” kept coming up…..

Perhaps  it’s because there’s been many deaths and challenging aging and illness events in my life and in the lives of my various sanghas members lately….

Here are some thoughts on prayer and how it could fit into a “Buddhist viewpoint.”

Prayer often arise at those moments when we meet a situation that seems beyond our sense of “This is what’s happening ‘to me’ or ‘in my world.'” It seems, to me, to arise at those moments when the LARGENESS of life and living makes us go, “Huh?”….Maybe even “What the f___!”

Another way to put it is….. At those moments of awe. When I was young, I remember hearing in the Presbyterian church we went to that “Yahweh,” the Hebrew word for “God,” means “to be” or “to become.” However, to say this name of God was to be blasphemous. I don’t remember why this was so…..These days, I’m wondering if perhaps, the admonition not to use this name of God was a way to say “God” and what he represents is TOO BIG to think that we could grasp and/or hold on to? Perhaps, that “God” is similar to “All encompassing” so how can we think of even naming this force?

How does one name AWE?

Similarly, at a moment when we find it hard to make sense of the LARGENESS of life and life’s happenings, is when a need for something which can help us to be with this vastness that a prayer is wanted? Something for us to utter in this moment which helps to ground us, to place us, in the midst of such wonder….And , perhaps to also be able to be with the accompanying fear or anxiety; or even with joy which comes with it? Or, perhaps, a wanting of some utterance to help us hold the sadness or grief in such a moment?

At such times, I’m thinking that Christianity responses with the thought of “Yahweh”/”God” and the utterance of “Amen.”

What does Buddhism provide? That’s what I’m pondering……

What’s coming up is Metta, Karuna, and Mudita…..And Upekkha; the 4 Brahma Viharas. These are the four qualities of heart and mind in which EASE and OPENNESS can be accessed and known.

Metta: Open  Friendliness/Lovingkindness….Heck,  “Just Kindness” and Goodwill.

Karuna: Compassion. Willingness to BE WITH. “Respect for the human condition”

Mudita: Sympathetic/Emphatic Joy is the usual translation. I like to say Inclusive Joy. Joy with another.

Upekkha: Equanimity. Balance of mind. Patience when the bigger picture can be accessed or held.

These are qualities we already have and they are qualities we can cultivate. We practice cultivating the ground for easier access to remembering and resting in them when we mos need it.

For those moments when our mind or heart skips a beat and has the spaciousness to not follow its habitual reactions and contractions. At such moment, it’s possible to  utter:

May I meet this with friendliness as it reveals itself to me.

May I be with pain or suffering as it is and not try to make it, or myself, different.

May I rejoice and be happy for my own or other’s good fortune.

May I be aware of interdependence and that all are dependent on many and various causes and conditions. That  all things, people, and situations have a design that I may not be able to see, know, or understand.

These four Brahma Vihara qualities interacts with each other, helping us to hold our awe and wonder with what we could call a “safety net” of ease and openness.

And, if we need to shorten it (like with the utterance of “Amen”) then ours could be “May.”

A prayer of  “May it be possible.”

“O” is for Opposites…., Right?


“O” is for Opposites…. Like Evil vs. Good, Right?

I recently had a conversation with Thomas on the topic of “evil.”

He asked, what does Buddhism teach as the essence and cause  of “evil?” My answer was “Ignorance.” In Buddhism, ignorance is considered the first step in the 12 links of Dependent Origination.  In particular we talked about self-responsibility balanced with the wisdom of interdependence;  so there are many causes and conditions for actions and events.

It was a brief conversation during a lunch break in the midst of a workshop but the conversation stayed with me….

Then there was the Charlie Hebdo shootings and its aftermaths ….And in the same week, the shooting of four men across the street from SFZC’s City Center.

Around these events, I was in the midst of teaching a class series on The Heart Sutra in my sitting group. I was working on a talk to summarize this seminal teaching in the Zen tradition. One of my reference was Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of Understanding. In a chapter entitled “Buddha is Made of Non-Buddha Elements,” he tells a story of a visit between Buddha and Mara which gave me the inspiration for the talk on the topic of “evil;” which seems especially pertinent given these events.

Usually, when we think of “evil,” my take is that our conditioning is to think it as the  direct opposite from “good.” With this dualism as a framework, we tend then to reject “evil” if we want to hang on to “good;” especially the “I’m a good person!” instead of the “I’m a bad person!”

Our continual grasping at “evil” and “good” as polarized concepts — which also often leads to similarly framing groups of people — tends to increase suffering and can trigger reactions of hatred.

When we’re able to let go of our conditioned dualistic framing — when we’re not so rigid in thinking we “KNOW!” what makes another (or ourselves!) “evil” versus what makes another (or ourselves!) “good” —  the possibility for accessing compassion as a response becomes more possible.

That’s my take, framed here at the talk for EBMC’s POC Sangha January 8th:

“Evil” from a Buddhist Perspective: Buddha and Mara

  • What’s yours?

“N” is for New Year! Happy 2015….Yes?


“N” is for New Year! Happy 2015!…..Yes?

2015 is rolling in….. Very soon; in just a few hours for those of us in the United States. This morning’s new shows had scenes of people celebrating the count-downs to 2015 in places such as Australia,  Hong Kong, and Taiwan. THEY are already IN 2015!

TIME…..It’s a construct. We forget this. On a day-to-day basis, most of us take it to be “the truth.” We forget that it’s our agreement on what  a specific marker is; in this case: for what we agree is the passing of a “moment” or “time!”

This became clear to me while I was practicing at Tassajara…

During Practice Periods (PP) there is a sesshin (retreat) every month. One March, in the middle of a 7-day sesshin, it was announced that daylight saving was that night but that we would NOT change our clocks so that the sesshin schedule wouldn’t be effected — mostly so that we wouldn’t lose an hour of sleep; especially important when you were already getting up at 3:50 in the morning!

At which point, I remember my mind coming up with, “WHAT??? Don’t we have to change our clocks?? How can we NOT??? What about the rest of the world?? How can we be ‘out of sink’ from them???”

And then I realized/remembered that “What time  it is” is an agreement which a group of people make together. At Tassajara during a PP — and especially so during a sesshin —- we are isolated from “the rest of the world” so why not?? It’s merely a set of parameters which we all agree to!

Btw, this lead to the realization of another mis-thought— Because it’s really just the U.S. and not “the rest of the world” which has daylight savings!*

As a new year rolls in, it’s often a time when many of us reflect on events of the current year — which is really 364 days which have gone by already; …. so really about the past! —- and realize, once again, the teaching around holding on to fixed ideas/strong beliefs/delusion…. And, about how when we take concepts to be “truths” and then we forget that they are just that — concepts — the possibilities for us to experience suffering is more likely!

So…”Yes, I agree to this concept of ‘a year’ and of ‘2015’”…. And, with it, to wish a Happy 2015** to you, yours, and all beings!! May it be filled with realizations, and, therefore, ease!!

Warmly, Liên

* Oh, and neither Arizona nor Hawaii observe DST! …For another twist, check out the Navajo Nation’s take/agreement on Arizona’s on observance of DST: http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2012-11-12/daylight-saving-donut-arizona-ken-jennings-maphead

** “2015,” of course, is based on the Gregorian/Christian calendar.
  — Being Vietnamese American, I also agree to the concept of “Lunar New Year.” From which, we are still in the midst of year #4713; changing on Feb. 19, 2015, the year of Sheep/Ram.
— By the Buddhist calendar, we are in year #2558. This is calculated from the Budda’s Parinirvana in 543BCE. Interesting explanation at https://www.facebook.com/BuddhAmbedkarWe/posts/467070390030531

Also, click on the “Upcoming Events” tab for a list of 2015 practice opportunities!

“M” is for May — “May we all have inner & outer safety”


“M” is for May

For me, the word “may” brings up “May I…” — As in the phrases used in the practice of cultivating metta:

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be well.
May I have inner & outer safety.
May I be peaceful & at ease.
May I be happy.

I was “given” these phrases to carry and recite/chant many years ago by Margarita Loinaz, a teacher from my first sangha, the Women of Color Sitting Group. My memory is that the middle phrase about safety  — not typically used in traditional metta practices — was added, given my early life in Saigon during the American War.**

“May” seems like something very appropriate for our current times. I’m thinking especially so after the lack of justice done in Ferguson last week….New York, this week….Somewhere else next week?…. I’m thinking about how difficult it is for inner safety to be known and strengthen when outer conditions are so completely devoid of not only equality and what we were taught as our “inalienable rights” but also just pure human respect and decency.

When I had started to ponder about what “Buddhist teaching” I could offer for “M,” what continued to come up was “may.” It was always in relation to the metta phrases but my initial thoughts was about it in context of the holidays season…. Especially as, these days, I often offered “goodwill” as  another interpretion for metta/lovingkindness.

That was the impetus when I sat down to write this post, ….. And, (you all know how I like to be inclusive with “and” as opposed to “but”) it now feels completely appropriate to include Ferguson, etc.

Since goodwill is something we especially think about and bring forth at this time of the year, hopefully, it will bring with it a broadening  not only of our hearts and intentions but also our views and actions towards all. To echo the last post about “love as an action,” may we also realize that, with goodwill/lovingkindness, comes responsibility.

These days, my take on the Mahayana path— and the Bodhisattva vows which comes with it —  is that it’s all about broadening our perspectives (Wise View/Understanding), taking responsibility for our karma (read: becoming aware of our unconsciousness; really, the -ism’s — Wise Intention/Thoughts) so that we can live a life engage in wise-compassion (Ethical Conduct: Wise Speech, Action & Livelihood), strengthened by our practice (Wise Mindfulness & Concentration).

Therefore, for this time of year and for our current times, I’d like to offer, in particular:

“May WE ALL have inner & outer safety.”

Deep, warm bows to all, Lien

Find a related talk on this page: ebmcPOC-Buddha’s Enlightenment Means Black Lives Matter

** In Vietnam, it’s called “the American War;” to reference it from conflicts with other colonizers such as China and France.

“M” created by Netsui. Thank you! Go to “Netsui Arts” for her great works!  https://www.flickr.com/photos/netsui/

“L” is for Love


“L” is for Love


My all-time favorite line on love is from bell hooks:

“To begin by always thinking of love as an action

rather than a feeling

is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner

automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.”

I appreciate this way of framing love because it takes it beyond the conventional view of it as a feeling or an intention. Yes, it can be these things and our resulting actions and behaviors — individually and/or as an institution — can have grave impact.

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote which speaks to this: Our Way

B coming down steps

Love is an exploration. Join us after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for The Love Series — an offering of the Access To Zen Sitting Group.

“K” is for “no Kidding!”


“K” is for “no Kidding!”

On November 3, at the A2Z Sitting Group the topic will be:

Gone Girl   and the   Fukanzazengi

Yup, you read right. No Kidding. Last Monday, in A2Z Sitting Group, I began to talk about Dogen treatise on zazen.  Dogen’s “koan,” you could say, is if we are enlightened then why do we need to practice?  For many  of us, the same question can be framed as:

“Why practice?”

“How do I gauge my practice?”

“If I don’t become calmer, nicer, better, XXXX-er then what’s the point to practicing?”

It seems that these questions play out most in our ideas of ourselves and in relationship with others. As we got into our studies last Monday, what felt most enlivened was the examples of and our discussions around relationships.

I saw Gone Girl last weekend. It’s been nudging at me.

Preparing to present the Fukanzazengi and in our discussions, more and more it came up about how Buddha Nature is not  separate from ourselves and how we interact in life…..

Interactions….. So yes, I’m going to relate points from the Fukanzazengi to the movie. You heard it here first. No Kidding.

It’s done! Click here to view:  Variety

“J” is for Joy


“J” is for Joy

Currently, my take on joy is  that it’s easier to experience, feel and intuit than to be able to define clearly.

Joy is often talked about in relation to working with anger. Here are some words from viewonbuddhism.org, quoting the Dalai Lama on these topics:

…there are various factors that contribute to attaining that level of joy and happiness which we conventionally also recognize as sources of happiness, such as good physical health, …the wealth that we accumulate, …and a circle of friends we trust and with whom we can relate emotionally.

    Now all of these are, in reality, sources of happiness, but in order for one to be able to fully utilize them with the goal of enjoying a happy and fulfilled life, one’s state of mind is crucial. If one harbors hateful thoughts within, or strong or intense anger somewhere deep down, then it ruins one’s health, so it destroys one of the factors. Even if one has wonderful possessions, when one is in an intense moment of anger or hatred, one feels like throwing them—breaking them or throwing them away. So there is no guarantee that wealth alone can give one the joy or fulfillment that one seeks. Similarly, when one is in an intense state of anger or hatred, even a very close friend appears somehow “frosty,” cold and distant, or quite annoying.

    What this indicates is that our state of mind is crucial in determining whether or not we gain joy and happiness. So leaving aside the perspective of Dharma practice, even in worldly terms, in terms of our enjoying a happy day-to-day existence, the greater the level of calmness of our mind, the greater our peace of mind, and the greater our ability to enjoy a happy and joyful life.

Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

Joy is something I’ve explored some….While not fully able to define it, the end of this talk shares some thoughts on “inconceivable” and “conceivable” joy:


Photo: “J” created by Netsui. Thank you! Go to “Netsui Arts” for her great works!  https://www.flickr.com/photos/netsui/

Beginning SEPTEMBER 8th, A2Z Sitting Group Moves to Mondays


We’re sitting together on Mondays now!! 

Beginning September 8th, 2014
(no meeting on Labor Day, 9/1)

Same time:     7:30 – 9 p.m.
Same place:   SFZC Conference Center at 308 Page St.
Same topic:   16 Bodhisattva Precepts thru Sept. 22

Go to this page for complete info: http://www.accesstozen.org/sitting-group/


Photo by Deb Svoboda. Go here for her amazing work!


“I” is for “I have Buddha Nature?”


Dharma talk at City Center on August 16

Note: It’s Katagiri Roshi who said, “The function of the mind is to secrete thoughts.” I quote this line from him all the time so not sure how I got it wrong yesterday! Didn’t even know it ’til later.

Here is the Terry Ehret poem at the end of the talk:

sometimes in the open you look up
to see a whorl of clouds, dragging and furling
your whole inventoried history. You look up
from where you’re standing, say,
among the stolid mountains,
and in that moment your life
becomes the margin
of what matters, and solid earth
you love dizzies away from you
like the wet shoreline sucked back
by that other eternity,
the sea. At times the spinning
earth shrugs you off balance,
gravity loosens its fist, hoists you into the sky,
and you might spend your life trying to recover
this nearness to flight.

Thank you,  J. Delfina Piretti, for use of your calligraphy!