A warrior, who was about to engage in battle, asked the Buddha to sum up his teachings in a word, the Buddha responded, “awareness.” Zen practice is about awareness. It’s that simple. Yet it seems complicated because our minds are complicated. When we practice sitting meditation we are practicing awareness. When we wash the dishes, do the laundry, be a parent or use the toilet, Zen practice is to do all of these things with full body and mind.

Usually when we engage in an activity our minds are spinning about, scattered and distracted, preoccupied with the future, the past, or something other than the task which lies before us. Awareness brings us back into the moment. Even if confusion and anxiety are present, that’s OK, if we are aware that we are “confused and anxious” we will not be consumed and pulled about by these passing emotions or thoughts. As human beings we experience all states from joy to sorrow. But we do not need to identify with them so concretely and immediately feed them and make them grow bigger and more powerful.

Awareness Is..

Awareness is to watch them dispassionately, and in the light of awareness these states will dissolve on their own. To be aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotional states is worlds away from being unaware of them and being tossed about by them. The key to awareness, as always, is to return your attention to the present moment, with time one can see that in the present moment, all is flux and flow, like a stream. With that insight we can now function and be responsive to our present life situation without being hampered by the usual fears and anxieties that we took for such “solid” and “real” things.

With practice we can become aware of life as it unfolds moment to moment, before our experience “hits our filters” of likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices. Our minds take hold of reality as it is, and divide it into things that appear solid and graspable, but of course reality is ungraspable, as it is in constant change. Useful as our discriminating minds are, they trap us into taking the concepts and ideas that describe reality, for the living reality itself.

Awareness brings us into the reality of our lives before our experience is “filtered.” This “intimacy” with our experience allows us enormous freedom. No longer “trapped” by our discriminating minds of likes, dislikes, opinions and our self-centered ideas, we can now respond to situations in accordance with reality itself.

Learn To Train The Mind

To practice awareness is nothing special or difficult. You only need to train yourself to watch your mind. When your mind begins to “lean” toward or away from things; thoughts, emotions, feelings or anything at all. All you need to do is notice that it’s doing that. That’s it. You don’t need to try to stop your mind from doing these things, or feel bad about it, or scold yourself when you notice these things. This approach only causes more agitation for your mind. Simply watch the mind, take notice of when it’s leaning and the mind will stop leaning on it’s own. You don’t need to control anything; in fact you cannot control your mind. But in the bright light of awareness, the mind will begin to straighten up itself.

One of the most effective ways to develop awareness is through the practice of Zazen, Zen meditation. If we get into the habit of putting aside a certain time every day to deliberately and intentionally engage in the practice of developing our awareness, we will eventually be able to call upon it at any time in our every day lives. Eventually we will be able to spend more and more time in awareness rather than lost in thought or caught up in some story line our mind has conjured up. Now a full life is possible in the present moment, the only moment where our life takes place. With practice we can touch the ground of our existence, and realise who and what we really are and live out of that realisation, rather than out of some idea we have constructed of what we are and should be.

For more ideas and training examples visit Zen Mountain Monastery.

Harmony with a japanese pocket knife

Japanese Pocket KnivesI often carry a pocket knife with me and have been asked on many occasions whether this in fact has a negative karmic effect. After all the Buddha said “dwell with the rod laid down, the knife laid down”. However I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive.


My pocket knife is a tool, not a weapon and it would never be used to harm or even threaten anyone. Everything unfolds through karma, through the cause and effect of out intentions and actions. Therefore it is the intention that is they key. My training and beliefs mean I would never use my pocket knife to threaten or harm any living thing


No one would question how handy having a sharp and portable pocket knife can be. In Tibetan culture the knife is indispensable and essential to daily life. Men and women, boys and girls , all Tibetans carry knives. Often they are decorative but in more modern times the pocket knife has become more common. They are portable yet can still be appreciated for their style and design.


In Buddhism and Shinto knife ceremonies have great religious significance. The lay community use them in their daily lives. Food preparation, arts and crafts and many more all use knives of some sort. So let us not be blinkered to the usefulness of a sharp blade. For I do not believe it is strictly against our religious tenants.


Knives also have symbolic attributes. The Kila for example is used as a ritual tool meant to signify stability on a prayer ground during ceremonies. And as a tool for exorcism. To quote from Muller-Ebeling


“The tantric use of the phurba (kila) encompasses the curing of disease, exorcism, killing demons, meditation, consecrations and weather making.”


Over 2500 years ago the Gautama Buddha advocated being frugal. The first nuns and monks were taught to make their robes from simple fabric that was unwanted. That is u wanted cloth: scavenged from rubbish dumps and burial grounds. These might be remnants that had been chewed by rats or oxen, scorched by fire, soiled by childbirth or used as a shroud to wrap the dead.


Being frugal or thrifty is a way of life for us monks. It pervades most things we do and for our shopping habits it is no different. Looking for a bargain is not just the province of the lay community, but for people like myself as well. Recently while online shopping ( yes we do that too ) I discovered a wonderful place to buy pocket knives. It appealed to me greatly, it’s simplicity of design and purpose.


I was looking for Japanese Pocket Knives. These seem to me to best exemplify the style and form I was looking for in a pocket knife. A folding knife small enough to use as an every day carry all (EDC), but one with enough history to make it an object of beauty in itself.


After performing a suitable amount of research I decided on the Aogami Warikomi Brass Cased Knife. With it’s monogramed samurai engraved on the brass handle and a small 3 inch blade, it was perfect. This small pocket knife sharpens pencils fantastically. It’s almost organic, watching the fine blade slice through layers of soft wood to reveal the carbon lead tip. This little gem also works well for opening mail. Yes I still get snail mail..


A knife is only a weapon by intent and many find them a useful tool in life.




5 Ways to Make Obstacles into opportunity

Turn Obstacles Into Opportunity“Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by your reaction to them. And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next.” – Ben Carson

Recently I’ve been working with one of our monks who has been working a lot in cultural change, especially in personal dealings and also in a wider context in organizations. From him I learnt so many things, but I thought for now we would focus on how to turn obstacles into something positive. This may focus more on the immediate response to the issue but if we bear in mind what our intention is – to avoid the conflict and hopefully be happy – then we can turn potential chaos into change. Use your brain and try and apply:

1) Your intent informs your response:

Believe it or not, the intention you have when approaching things will actually shape your results. Intention is what we really feel, or that feeling we are carrying about a particular issue. Say for example I go into a mediation session, or a discussion with someone about mutual issues, but I’ve already decided that I’m not going to budge, the other person is 100% wrong and there is no way I’m going to listen to this third-rate person’s crazy ideas.

Result: The other person does not want to listen to our ideas, thinks you are a third-rate person and knows you are 100% wrong.


Because what we feel on a subtle level bleeds out into our environment. We all know the expression ‘I was getting bad vibes off of him/her’. Well, it’s true. In eastern philosophy we understand there is a subtle body and from that body we send out a particular energy. If we constantly send out negativity, we are basically sticking up an advertisement to the world saying ‘I don’t like you.’ The natural reaction is to respond in the same way. So when dealing with conflict try and stay positive, try being open and centered rather than reactionary. We will be setting ourselves up for a better ride.

2) Take a step back: Take some time to consider how to respond.

Often when dealing with conflict; in a relationship or at work, the tendency is to feel like we have to react ‘right now!’ and that ‘if I don’t it will all go wrong.’. This is a complete fiction playing out in your own head, you actually have all the time in the world, really. Or at least enough time to go ‘ok… hang on… time to think NOW.’

There was a cartoon that I used to watch as a kid that was a send-up of costumed super-heros. One classic line was ‘can’t talk… gotta move fast, gotta save the world!’

Well you don’t. You can comfortably take at least half an hour to put your ‘rational-hat’ on and approach the issue from another angle. Or better still take a day, put it on hold, center yourself. I can assure you that the world won’t end.

3) What you said and what you thought

Conflict is almost always based on a lack of communication to begin with, and then futher compounded by not communicating properly when trying to resolve the issue.

‘A’ said: Great to see you. I’ve been trying to catch you on ‘project X‘

‘A’ thought: Where the HELL have you been? I’ve been after you for hours. I need help! Why wont you help me? Don’t you know about ‘issue Y’?!

‘B’ said: Oh hi, great to see you. We will catch up with that on Monday. I’m headed out early this week.

‘B’ thought: I can’t really be bothered dealing with this now; I don’t feel it’s that important.

Now A hasn’t established if B knows about the issue, hasn’t been honest about the distress he feels, and, because of assumptions is probably going to put B off.

A better dialogue would be:

Hi B, listen im in a little bit of a crisis here. Issue Y is happening with project X. Are you able to help me? Do you have the time or can we work something out?

Sometimes we feel that if we are too honest then people will take advantage of us, but if we assume and don’t explain in a calm and centered manner then we won’t get anywhere. So after we put our intent to the forefront and have taken some time out, when we come to talk we won’t cut our nose off to spite our face.

4) Firm foundations build stronger relationships.

If we understand what all the ‘cards’ are then we know where everyone’s priorities are at and what values-system they are working with. We can better work together to facilitate one another. Ok, this won’t mean it’s ‘all roses and cotton-candy’ forever, but things will run more smoothly, especially if we follow the 3 previous points.

Nine times out of ten you will both have the same values but just prioritized differently. Open out the dialogue in a non-confrontational kind of way with a view to as much as possible facilitating everyone. This is real compassion, and if you talk to anyone involved in selfess work they will tell you it’s a real joy; the point is build a proper foundation, then build the Empire State Building.

5) Loosing the battle to win the war?

Often when we have conflicts we are all about winning, but winning can come at a price – usually at the cost of long term relationships, future prospects, and these days, most people’s own personal sanity.

When we are focused with winning our own personal battle we will lose sight of why it’s an issue in the first place. We’re in conflict because of some friction, so we want to be out of that friction. It takes more energy to keep on fighting with a ‘might is right’ approach than to concede issues that are less important to readdress them in a better forum later. See you can invade a country with a big army, but if they don’t want you there, its going to be a long drawn out conflict. But if you invade, fight a little but ‘win the people then it’s about a million-times easier. So don’t be afraid of a little humility.

Give it a shot and I know you will see how by taking these apparently indirect steps towards your goal, you will actually see how you can get closer to it and see that existing more harmoniously is a lot more fulfilling.

Failed Success

Failed Success

Failed Success
They say failures are stepping stones to success. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking how success can be a slipping stone to failure! Swami Prabhupada once commented how he faced two great tests in his life. At one point he was stripped of everything, left penniless and alone, an unknown mendicant with no fixed abode. Later in life, however, he achieved unimaginable success and recognition as a powerful spiritual leader of an international movement. He saw both as divine tests. Both required immense equanimity of mind. Both were opportunities to draw closer to God. Dealing with failure is no mean feat, but maintaining spiritual purity in times of achievement and prosperity is just as tough.

Success can divert our attention from the internal journey we are on. If success gives birth to pride and breeds a mentality of looking down on others, then what have we really achieved? If success instigates complacency, inattentiveness and a false sense of security, then how bright does the future look? If we become intoxicated by success, enjoying the limelight and fame instead of using it for a higher purpose, then how long before we are humbled? It’s interesting that we often identify external success as a sign of spiritual vibrancy. But maybe it’s not.

External success is surely a gift of God, but those achievements must be kept in perspective. Real success is internal success. Sincerity of purpose, purity of desire, dependence on divine grace, dutiful and determined effort – these are the components of internal success (not necessarily detectable by external signs). In 1965, upon arrival in America, Swami Prabhupada made an incredible prayer: “make me a success or failure as you wish”. For most of us the thought of failure is scary, demoralising and humiliating. Not something we’d welcome with open hands. Am I ready to try my best, be an outright failure, and still remain happy and satisfied? That complete detachment from external results, however, is unimaginably powerful. It comes from a heart which values internal purity and recognises divine grace in whatever form it may come. Will I ever be able to submit such a prayer with genuine feeling? It seems a long way away, but I sincerely hope so.

First World Problems, Third World Solutions

First World Problems, Third World Solutions

First World Problems
I had been in front of a computer for long enough. Doing battle with a failing PC, trying to find new software for a Mac, having Chrome crash on me every six seconds while looking at updates for the site and having a message about Skype crashing even though I had closed it about an hour ago.. And all after I had spent an hour dealing with the Urban Monk accounts and helping another monk with a tonne of admin and some e-pub files that had not gone to plan.

It was just another day at Urban Monk HQ, and there I was at quarter to six, staring at a computer that would just refuse to do what I asked it. It was increasingly becoming impossible to work with.

When in frustration I turned to one monk, he laughed and said, “Welcome to the world of first world problems…” And it hit me. “You have lost serious perspective!” a voice in my head shouted.

I was feeling like the world was melting down just because I couldn’t use a computer. I’d had a day where sixty-million-and-one things had happened and I hadn’t had time to even think, but really how much of a issue was it?

I’m still going to get up tomorrow.

I’m still going to be able to eat.

My life will not end just because I’ve had a busy day and been so unconscious that I chose to get stressed and not think about it.

The sky hasn’t caved-in just because I couldn’t get something up on the Urban Monk site NOW, so really what is the issue?

When I sat there for a couple of minutes I realized that there wasn’t really a big issue. Bad things happen to us on a daily basis, but unless it’s a genuine issue like I’m covered in honey being pursued by a grizzly bear, how much of an ever-present danger is it.

For most of us in the West I think this is something we can relate to.

We don’t have food-shortage issues, in fact some of us have a food-excess issue.

For most people who are reading this blog I think it’s safe to say that shelter isn’t an issue.

We have clean running water.

We won’t get attacked by snakes if we go for a walk up Primrose Hill.

But still… somehow we need some drama in our life.

I was thinking back to when I was in India late last year. On my travels I stopped at a small farming community which had two buildings with more than one floor. All the others were less than grandiouse – thatched rooves, mud brick walls. Basic. With a temple at the centre of town.

One thing that struck me about the people there. They weren’t stressed. In fact, quite the opposite. You could see that the men and women worked hard. They had minimal education but by the age of about 11 they were out in the fields with the family, and then in the evening all the families would gather together at the temple and speak on spiritual subjects and practice mantra meditation to music.

It sounds like paradise doesn’t it?

Well even paradise has its problems…

I was speaking with one man who was like the head of the town, and its spiritual leader too. I told him that a lot of people would be envious of his lifestyle seeing it as paradise compared to all the issue that come with ipad’s, software updates and social networking. He looked at me and laughed. (This is a strangely re-occurrent theme for me when I speak to people… I wonder why?) He said, “Yeah, we have problems too. Drought, that’s a problem. Then no rice. Then we have other problems like GE crops.” He went on to go through all the issues that face a village like younger people wanting to move to the city or bring the city to the village, people wanting to sell-out to major companies and move elsewhere for what seemed like a better life.

I had to ask him. “So how do you deal with your problems?”

“I meditate and I remind myself that there are always problems, there will always be problems, but if you have spirituality then you have one thing that will not fail you when things go wrong.”

In the heat of the moment it is very easy to get wound-up in what we think matters, but these little problems are not as big as ones faced by people in other countries and they are still happy. They don’t become a catatonic of mess if their iPhone malfunctions. We need perspective.

I realized that I’d lost perspective and I went to my desk closed my laptop that had well and truly crashed, picked up my meditation beads and went for a walk.

It works, trust me!