Turning Points in Living the Zen Life

Navigating the Waters

In Buddhism, this world is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean of Samsara.” Samsara is sometimes referred to as the “World of Patience” in that it tries our patience. Buddha likened the dharma to a raft that we ride—read cling to for dear life—to sail across the ocean, to the “other shore” of enlightenment.

There are various turning points in this process, some positive, some negative, as with everything else in life. Whether they are positive or negative is largely a matter of interpretation, of course. The famous Ox-Herding Pictures illustrate various turning points on the Path, generalized to fit most anyone’s journey into what I call “The Original Frontier™” of Zen. This is the title of a manuscript I am working (and reworking) in collaboration with a couple of professional publishing agents. By the title I mean to point to the frontier that Shakyamuni Buddha discovered, and entered, some 2500 years ago. It beckons to us still, today.

Perhaps the first turning-point precedes even the oxherd seeing the hoof-prints of the ox, the first of the illustrations. It is usually interpreted as indicating one’s first exposure to the existence of the teaching, buddha-dharma. The prints resemble brush strokes a bit, so the obvious analogy is to the written teachings, which is how most of us first contact the dharma.

However, something else, another turning-point, has to precede this event. In order to begin the quest for enlightenment, one has to feel that something—enlightenment—is missing from life. Otherwise, why would you even be looking? Master Dogen touches on this in his tract called “Genjokoan” (“actualizing the fundamental point”), which I featured in last month’s third Sunday dharma dialog on Soto Zen liturgy:

When you first seek dharma
you imagine that you are far away from its environs
But dharma is already correctly transmitted
you are immediately your original self

We are going along with our everyday life, fat and happy, when, one day, it occurs to us: Is that all there is? or, What’s it all about (Alfie)? However normal our circumstances seem, and however full and rich our life is, there seems to be something else that is not quite right, something missing. Matsuoka Roshi emphasized this “unsatisfactoriness,” and claimed that everyone feels it, and eventually comes to Zen to find what is missing. By eventually, he may have meant many lifetimes in the future.

Other turning points in life can precipitate a crisis of confidence, one which either drives us to Zen in the first place, or makes us question whether it is really right for us. Or whether it works at all, for anyone. Let’s take a brief look at a few of the more obvious turning-points that tend to come up with some frequency, in dokusan or practice discussion, from time to time. Perhaps you may find yourself in one of these pictures.

Changing Jobs

One of the most stressful turning-points that many people face today with increasing frequency, is the need to change jobs. This may come about through a personal decision, or one made by one’s employer. In either case, it can be very disruptive. Some folks have fretted that they could not afford to continue their practice during the transition, either from a financial position, or from an availability of time. Both of these judgments are ill-considered, but the pressure feels real at the time.

Zen practice in a community (S. sangha) should not be considered an expense, certainly not an expensive proposition. Zen is about the middle way between extremes, finding and maintaining balance (S. Samadhi) in all things. When going through a job change, or any other of these stressful turning-points, you need Zen meditation more than ever. It will help you to make the right choices and decisions. When you get back on your feet, and find yourself in a more stable position, financially and otherwise, there will be plenty of time to support your center and teacher. You cannot afford to not continue practicing Zen in dire straits. Zen will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no Zen. (With apologies to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.)


Divorce, along with its precursors—unrequited love, unfaithfulness, and irreconcilable differences—is an even bigger bugaboo in today’s society than losing your job, though you would not think so, based on the treatment of divorce in pop media. It is often the theme of comedy, the butt of alimony jokes, a source of shadenfreude, and in some recent publicized cases, even celebrated, with ceremonies akin to a wedding. It often accompanies, or triggers, a change in employment status as well. They say bad things come in threes. 

It is tempting to suggest that if you are against divorce, don’t get married in the first place. This may sound less crass, and make more sense, in the context of the life of monastics. But we do not pretend to be Zen monks. They surely have their critical turning-points as well.
I have been divorced once in my short life, and it is no fun. But the situation that led to the divorce was no bed of roses, either. Whatever the circumstances, divorce is definitely a turning-point. Whether for better or worse (a resonance on the wedding vows) is, again, your call. If both sides are better off after the divorce, as Buddha is said to have said about war, it may be considered just. Of course, there are often more than two sides to the dispute. Children often end up being pawns in the game, who suffer even more than their parents.

Empty Nesters

Speaking of parenting, there is a time-of-life at which point the rug rats are permanently (or so we hope) kicked out of the nest. Sometimes divorce follows this exodus, not coincidentally. In market research, based on sociology there are various time-of-life categories, tracing the normal flow of maturation from womb to tomb.

Like most other models from the soft sciences, these are mainly employed to structure the marketing of consumables. If you still watch the news on television, and ever-shrinking segment of the population, you see this in action. It leaves me wondering what they are going to do when they finally run out of names for new drugs to treat the cascade of ever-increasing illnesses of the aged and infirm (always shown joyfully engaging in cool, strenuous activities). Next, expect to see companion drugs to treat the endless litany of side-effects that the pill on offer causes. 

Aging & Death

Speaking of aging, most of the turning-points that we associate with time-of-life and other transitions in the normal process of living the vida loca, are basically attributable to aging. If we did not age, many of these passages would be impossible. Or at least, more of a choice on our part.

Death may be the penultimate turning-point in aging. That’s right—there is yet another, final one, even after death. It is called rebirth. In anybirth and death case, something comes after death.

As with divorce, it is tempting to say that if you are against death, don’t get born in the first place. Birth is, after all, the leading cause of death. Birth is an indeterminate turning-point.

In one of the most startling developments regarding our cultural coping strategies for these turning-points, I recently came across a news article entitled “Putting the fun in funerals.” I am not making this up, because you can’t make this stuff up.

In the Genjokoan—which I have finally (!) memorized; and which seems to touch on nearly everything—Master Dogen weighs in on death and birth (birth and death if you insist):

Just as firewood does not return to firewood after it is ash
You do not return to birth after death
This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma
To deny that birth turns into death
Accordingly birth is understood as no-birth
It is an unshakeable teaching in Buddha’s discourse
That death does not turn into birth
Accordingly, death is understood as no-death
Birth is an expression complete this moment
Death is an expression complete this moment
They are like winter and spring
You do not call winter the beginning of spring
Nor summer the end of spring

Thank you Dogen, for clearing that up. I don’t pretend to understand this fully, but then Master Dogen does not claim to understand it. He merely lays it out as it is, take it or leave it. Interesting to contemplate that birth does not turn into death—hallelujah! But wait a minute—death also does turn into birth. What does that do to our aforementioned concept of rebirth?

As usual for vintage Dogen, when he bludgeons us with an uncomfortable truth, he turns to Nature to soften the blow. Some of us, however, would petulantly argue that winter is, indeed, the beginning of spring, and summer its end. The monkey mind is stubborn.

I find it a particularly compelling expression of Dogen’s understanding that he refers to both birth and death as “an expression complete this moment.” An expression of what?

Turning Points in Zazen

Speaking of Dogen, we owe him big time for the turning-point that came when each of us turned to Zen. If he had not made zazen his cause célébre, we would probably still be smudging ourselves with smoke and engaging in Shamanistic practices, hoping for a revelation.

The turning points in zazen are too many to catalog. The Ox-herding Pictures touch on eight or ten of the main ones. I want to mention just a couple that come up, as this article is beginning to run on, and I am pass the deadline already. Plus, I recognize that you, dear reader, are not 100% responsible for your short attention span, and attenuated threshold of patience. Especially if you are in the midst of a turning-point of your own at the moment.


It may be cold comfort—to those of you struggling with a critical turning-point in your life, or just the aches and pains, not to mention the anxiety, confusion, and generalized angst that can sometimes accompany zazen, and not only at the beginning—but zazen is supposed to be the comfortable way. I think the most reasonable rationale for this assertion is that every other way (to your chosen end) is at least as uncomfortable, in the long run at least.

It has been my experience, and is my testimony, that there is a turning-point in zazen that comes about, where the posture does actually become comfortable. I can also assure you that it becomes comfortable not only in the physical sense, but that the nattering nabob of the monkey mind finally wears itself out, like a kitten or a puppy dog, and lies down to take a nap. Mental and emotional comfort ensue. Of course, your results may vary, especially with any significant change in your circumstances. That pesky turning-point, again.

Eventually, you may even become socially comfortable with zazen. That is, even though your spouse and other family members may not practice Zen, or even understand it; and even though your in-laws insist on making a wedge issue of your devotion to Zen, it is okay with you. You no longer feel the need to explain about, let alone to apologize for, doing zazen.

Of course, this turning-point may precipitate a turning-point in the others mentioned. But you may find that you are comfortable with that, too.


After practicing for some time, even over many years, it may begin to dawn on you that it seems that nothing is happening in your meditation any more. The encouraging and interesting things that used to pop up from time to time—in the form of a creative idea, resolution of a nagging problem, or a cool sensation, vision, or hearing experience—just aren’t happening.

It seems clear that Zen isn’t working, or you are not doing it right. Or you have flat-lined, plateaued. Interestingly enough, Matsuoka Roshi mentioned this, and introduced me to a new Japanese word: cho-da. He said it means a “fall up.” You go along for some time, practicing your little heart out, but are getting nowhere; nothing seems to be happening. Then, one day, if only you do not give up, you go through a cho-da. You fall up! It may be a small cho-da; it may be a large one.

But, you fall up—to the next plateau. A plateau is, by definition, flat. So, once again, just when you thought it was getting good, nothing. The good news is you never go back. The bad news is that the plateaus just keep coming. No one knows how many there are.

Traditionally, there are said to be three major barriers in Zen. The first is physical, getting beyond your comfort zone to true comfort. The second is said to be sleep. Once you are cozy and comfortable in zazen, naturally, sleep would raise its ugly head. I have not heard what the third barrier is, but I suspect that it would involve some kind of plateau. Matsuoka Roshi pointed out that by far the greatest cohort of Westerners who engage in Zen meditation are those who give up too soon.

So if you see yourself in any of these pictures, welcome to the club. If you are uncomfortable in zazen, welcome to the club. If you are plateauing, welcome to the club. This is the most exclusive club in the world. But it is all-inclusive. The only dues it demands of you is everything you have. But the payback is huge. What else can you do that will give you your whole life back? as Matsuoka-Roshi would often ask.