A couple of new poems

Been writing a bunch, happy to say, and these two popped up one day after the other. Hope you enjoy.


The Taste


Suddenly, and for no reason I can imagine,

I smell the sweet sweet flavour of wild cherry

cough drops I loved when I was a boy.

Does it mean I’m dying, to have

such an unusual dreamlike smell

take me over, traveling as it has

from so long ago to where I casually

walked by beside the pantry door?

Well, of course I’m dying. But,

to have it announced

by this taste of being young,

to be given the gift of knowing I just might

be able to lick my lips all the way to the grave!

That is nothing anyone can hope for,

and yet it has been given. Let us pray.


July 20, 2018


The Field


I have decided to come here,

perhaps it is a privilege of age,

to come here to walk around this field

every day at dawn for the rest of the time

I am alive. The breeze at that hour

is soft, or tends to be if there is any

breeze at all. It seems to lift out

of the light that has just lifted itself

up and out from beneath the covers

of the still dark bed, innocent of what

came before, or what is yet to arrive.

I need that renewal, having burned

hot or cold through the fuel I was given

into my eighth decade, and now

have been asked to please burn

for two decades more. I did not demur.

The transparency all things are

does not reveal the end

of even the smallest plan. So I will

wander as I have always loved to do,

and I will circle this field as a rising breeze

in the morning daylight, with my

black dog at my side, or just before.


July 21/22 2018


My new book—The Complete Cold Mountain: Poems of the Legendary Hermit Hanshan

I hope you’ll click the link and take a look at this new book. Kaz and I had such joy translating all of Hanshan’s extant poems, and Shambhala Publications did a gorgeous job, especially with the painting Kaz made for the cover.


News & Reviews

“A deep, inspiring, inclusive study of the mysterious poet Hanshan. This book includes all his poems with a beautiful introduction by Levitt and a thorough historical analysis by Tanahashi. The reader can feel the joy, care, and reverence both translators experienced and share in creating this book about the wild hermit poet. Just read a few of these ancient poems and you’ll want to take off for the mountains and open your arms to all of life, including the pain and suffering. Read more and you will find your own true heart right here in the present. This book should be read by everyone.” —Natalie Goldberg, author of The Great Spring and Writing Down the Bones

“This comprehensive work of original scholarship and incisively translated verses expands our knowledge of an iconic poet. Here is the Hanshan of social fabric and family as well as of monastery and mountain; the poet of parable, rebuke, and opinion as well as of dharma and icy stream. A sharp-tongued observer of society’s failures describes inequality’s effects on the spirit; a rapt solitary shares cliff-edge mind with tigers, free-drifting boats, and clouds. Kaz Tanahashi’s and Peter Levitt’s The Complete Cold Mountain joins the shelf of indispensable translations, confirming and extending Hanshan’s abiding relevance, presence, history, and range.” —Jane Hirshfield, author of The Beauty and Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

“Hanshan may be legendary or he may have been three people, but these poems, wherever they came from, are more real than real. They are living Tao and Chan artifacts, well over one thousand years old, brought to life and framed in the most amazing ways with the deepest appreciation for and direct transmission of their down-to-earth, embodied, non-dual, poetic elegance and existential poignancy by Kaz Tanahashi and Peter Levitt. This work—the poems themselves coupled with the authors’ probing commentaries about their puzzling origins, structure, and essence—is a jewel, with the wondrous property that you can live inside it and let it live inside you for a long, long time.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and Meditation Is Not What You Think

The Complete Cold Mountain is an extraordinary collection of the complete works of Hanshan; brilliantly translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt, it lifts the spirit in the great mountains and beyond.” —Joan Halifax, abbot of Upaya Zen Center and author of Standing at the Edge


July 31, 2015

A Wind


A wind came up out of the dark

that undid everything, there was nothing

left untouched, no end to its undoing.

And then it changed, it became

a wind that made nothing happen,

for a time longer than time itself,

nothing happened. There was

nothing the wind could touch

and nothing the wind could not

touch that happened, and those

things that had happened

and were already undone

were joined by those things

that did not happen, and together

they let go of happening and not happening,

of having happened and no longer happening,

and breathed a sigh. It was a sigh

that was a sign of something great,

something maybe even good,

or even greater than good,

so that years after nothing in the nothing

that was born of the nothing a people

were born who made a god of the good

and the greater than good, and they sighed.

They knew they came from nothing and so

their future seemed secure. It would be

as it always had been, they told themselves,

and each other, and their children’s

children’s children. And it was;

a world of the most competent relief,

created by an undoing wind.






Stone in Stone


Someone’s sitting on the ground.

Head bent, not touristing the harsh

landscape of rubble and stone,

he finds it curious how one hand

encloses the other, how the cause of scars

is not remembered, much less forgotten,

how his life must have been held in some

fashion by these hands without his knowing

what part they played, if any, what use

they provided, if any, or anything else

about them. “And these are only my hands,”

he says out loud. “The rest of me is complete

mystery.” The sun on his neck does not warm,

it imprisons like the flat edge of a steel blade

pressing obedience into his spine. No matter.

No birds wheel above, no lizards flit close

and bow below. Beneath a beating sun,

he sits at peace like a netsuke baking

on the shelf of earth, tucked into the shadow

his body makes, slowly being turned to stone.


JULY 29, 2015

Thinking of Lorca, of duende, as I often do, and about my love of speaking, reading and translating Spanish, somehow my love of my love, la poesía, glanced at me from the other room, and then came walking through the door. In the poem, the phrase qué lástima!, which I say with a grateful smile, means What a pity!

con amor


La Poesía
Rumi said it best,
there are hundreds of ways
to kneel and kiss the ground,
but if poetry’s your disease
then poetry’s the cure—
qué lástima! the treasure of
a hopeless situation—
like all first love,
it never ends.

Some Recent Poems

Here are a few poems from recent writing, one from today:

In Autumn

Sometimes seeing what is not there,
other times not seeing what is,
our legs become tangled,
our hands can’t stop wringing
against themselves. Still,
we live mid-stagger
with pure hearts,
let no one’s ignorance
fool you. People do not
become buddhas. Buddhas
do not become human life.
Unborn and undying
like a torn leaf
in an autumn shower,
when was wholeness
ever not whole?


One first law

It is true, true even when photographing
a still life, the slant of sun
on the side of a building in Tangiers:
If you do not approach things
gently, they withdraw,
pull into themselves,
pull away. A shadow darkening
into itself, a fingerprint on the back
of a memorial photograph
dissolving into the air.
There is no inanimate nature,
not as long as you yourself are alive.


The Circle

She said, “You go all around the subject,”
and I said, “I didn’t know it was a subject.”

–Robert Creeley

To walk in a circle once,
that is, to walk around
in a circle one time,
it is a circle. No doubt.
To walk the circle again
it is still a circle, but
the one who is walking
has changed by walking
it a second time, and
if the one who is walking
has changed, the circle
has changed as well,
since the circle that once
described the walker
has now been described
by the one walking it
a second time. It is
no longer just a circle,
innocent, an empty
moon, a mouth
open in awe
or yawning. No.
Its perfect silence
has been forgotten.
Now it is the place
where someone walks,
walks twice, walks
off their obsession,
with an upturned collar,
a bent head, the sound
of scuffling shoes.
And now here it comes
again, a third time,
to drive all doubt away.
Now the circle is no longer
outside the walker, it is
a feature of the walker’s
mind, an attribute that can
not separate from the walker,
even if it knew to try.
True, if observed from above,
the walker and the circle
might seem two objects,
one active, the other passive,
or incidental, hardly an object
at all, not the one thing
they have become
as a result of the walker’s
effort, for that is what it is,
the walker walks with a limp.

But for the walker the circle
is no longer a circle. It is
a maze without exit,
a mind groove
with the walker no different
from a record needle
playing again and again
the same song, the same
scratches, the same
sad melody of no escape.
The circle can no sooner
escape its having been pressed
into service than the walker
can escape the repetitive
shoe scuff on the ground.
Now the snow begins to fall,
now the leaves turn green,
now they are red or yellow,
and again there are no leaves
at all. The circle has become
immersed, pressed
into the earth
where the walker first
inscribed it with his mind,
and also it has been lifted
into the air, encircling
everything within itself,
like the hat that holds
the thoughts of the walker
in place. Exactly.
Never think a circle
is only round, or that
a walker only walks.
At a certain time,
only walking
circles. Circles
only walk.



                  for Michael Sieverts

the angle of sight is precise
but inadvertent, a stray visual
notation of the moment
composed by the fact of a man
across the courtyard, standing
in his corner apartment kitchen
preparing a meal, cut off at the waist
by the window frame painted
Mediterranean blue, who equally cuts
or seems to based on the downward
cast of head and repeated gesture
of shoulder and arm (the hand
cannot be seen) something
for his noon repast. It is a scene
repeated every day; the man
seems always to be cutting something
with the care of a tailor who always mends.

There is a quiet
that can be observed, or
at least imagined since the scene
reveals what appears a thoughtful
attention as the man bends to the task
in hand. Pristine as it is, the angle
of sight cannot accurately expose
his mind. And this is the truth of it,
our human situation or otherwise.
Both what can be seen and what
cannot is only imagined. Those who
speak only in whole terms forget the frame
of partial seeing, partial hearing tasting
touching knowing; forget our insensible
need to repair what was never torn,
and how it fills things in with the narration
of one who cuts or one who mends,
to make what always has been
the world, something whole.

On the Word “Warrior” and what has become its common use

Preface: A student recently gave a public talk re climate change, and ended by vowing to be a “Buddhist compassionate warrior…..on behalf of all children and young people in the world.”

It was a beautiful talk, filled with insight and heart, given by a wonderful, committed person who offers great service to our world on many fronts. She may well be one of the most socially and politically active people I know.

In my reply to her talk, I included my response to the use of the word “warrior,” about which I have thought, and which I have opposed, for many years, given its increasing approval and self-application by many good people who sincerely work for and want the very opposite of war.

– Eihei Peter Levitt

“As to the “warrior” language you mention, it is clear what you mean when you say this word, and the spirit in which you mean it. This is often or even always the case when the word ‘warrior’ is used by good people in the eco or spiritual context.

So, what’s my concern and why have I continued to disagree with its usage for decades?

Please allow me to do my best to say it this way:

In our meal chant we chant

manjusri bodhisattva, great wisdom
samantabadhra bodhisattva, great activity
avalokitesvara bodhisattva, great compassion
all bodhisattva mahasattvas
wisdom beyond wisdom
maha prajna paramita

When people say “warrior,” and identify themselves through that word in the eco or spiritual context, I believe they mean what we chant in our meal service, with all of the courage [heart] it takes to be wise, compassionate and active intact. But, for me, the difference is that there is no taint of war and all of the ignorance and destruction that is associated with war, when we chant these models of what qualities and human attributes are needed to get things done in the world, given the challenges we created and that we now face.

If more than the fearlessness of great wisdom, great compassion and great activity are needed, with the underlying support of the beginningless and endless sangha of bodhisattva mahasattvas that exist throughout space and time, and all of the wisdom/prajna that exists as well, then I wonder what it could be. Does war, or do warriors, and what makes people willing to kill those who they believe are ‘others’, have something to offer that these bodhisattvas–who are none other than ourselves–do not?

I know that there is an argument that says the word “warrior” is now being redefined, recycled, as it were, when people in favour of peace or environmental or personal health (think yoga, meditation, diet here) use it, but why would we need to use a word that is drenched in the blood of innocent people and their natural environment (think of what napalm did, what the atomic cloud did, to the environment) to express life affirming human attributes, qualities, states of being, actions?

And what does it say about our ability to come up with new visions, new actions and solutions, new paradigms, that are creative and truly representative of our vision for a world that nourishes and supports life in all of its dimensions, when we choose (remember, it is a choice when we say what we say) to depend upon a word that is associated with devastation, destruction, and the ignorance that is at the root of such effects?

It does not inspire confidence in me to think we cannot do better than to recycle the language of the dualistic, divisive consciousness and paradigms of a history I find shameful, criminal and against everything that people truly want for themselves, for all generations to follow, and for the miraculous life of all citizens in what we still call and somewhat objectify as ‘the natural world.’

American poet William Carlos Williams said that we cannot die “unless death has first possessed the imagination.” I admit this may be arguable from a certain standpoint, but I love the emphasis his statement places on the unified expression of body and mind ie when the mind, in every part, both seen and unseen, says it is time to die, we can die.

Let me say, then, what I most believe: we cannot and will not have peace, or sustainability, or pervasive, meaningful change in the direction of a life that is completely in favour of providing the nourishment that life itself truly needs, unless peace, sustainability, and life-giving nourishment fully “possess the imagination,” and every means through which this imagination is expressed. I say this in the spirit of a story I mentioned in my dharma talk this last sesshin, when our ancestor Yunyan said to Dongshan, who was about to depart, “You are now in charge of this great matter; you must be most thoroughgoing.”

We intuit and experience the world in many ways, but, by and large, what we call ‘thought’ takes place in language, and so the language we use is an essential conveyor of our thinking. In mystical Judaism it is said that when a word is used, it releases the inner qualities of that word–what that word was intended to express from its very seed or origin–into the world. Perhaps the most famous example in western culture appears in Genesis where we are told that the creator said, “Let there be light,” and instantaneously, “there was light.” The word and its inner meaning or expression were one. This, we are told, is how light was brought into the world. From a Buddhist perspective, let’s just say that the causes and conditions that make light possible were present, which is how and why it came to be.

Words come with the associative qualities that both personal experience and culture provide, and, like all things, whether they are seen or unseen, they come with their roots attached. Given the power of words to create a world, to which I’ve just referred in the story above, it matters a great deal which words we use, and how we use them. After all, it is we who are now in charge of this great matter, and so we, too, must be “most thoroughgoing.”

That said, the word war has as a Latin root, gewin, which means “struggle, strife,” and as the Old High German root, werran, and the German verwirren, which means “to confuse, or perplex,” which suggests that, originally, the sense of the word that has landed as war, or warrior, in English, is “confusion, or to bring into confusion.”

Given all I’ve written thus far, I don’t believe much of a further comment is needed about this etymology, other than to say that if offered the chance to study with, follow, or be a warrior by any description, I will defer to the advice of Melville’s character, Bartleby the Scrivner, and say, “I prefer not to.”

How about if I stop here? I’ve used plenty, too many, words, I’m sure, but I am grateful for the opportunity to say them. Please know that I honour the extraordinary work you have been doing for a lifetime, and am profoundly grateful for your continued and active commitment to creating a world based on the values we share, and so it is in the spirit of supporting that work that I’ve written as I have.”

True Expression Retreat Coming Up

Dear Friends

In the summer of 2013, I began to offer a one week summer retreat here on Salt Spring that combined yoga (led by incredible, experienced and inspired instructors), zen meditation and practice (which I introduced and led), and afternoons of writing, painting, movement/dance, etc. The first year was such a overwhelming success with participants that we did it again last summer. Again, people loved the retreat. (You can read about it at the site by clicking on the Testimonials.)

That said, I’m writing to invite you to take a look at the site, which you will see by pasting this link into your search browser (what DO they call that thing?)


and see if this is something you’d like to attend. If you are not able to, if you would consider sending this along to friends or groups whose members might like to know about it, that would be wonderful. Thank you.

We are now 1/3 full, so we encourage signing up sooner than later. In order to ensure a great experience for everyone, we limit participation to under 30 people.

PS – the physical location and the food they prepare are phenomenal. All this and heaven, too? Yes.

thanks so much

Interview on Zen Practice and Writing

Oh, it’s been so long since I wrote something here, I know. Life, she flies.

But I just received this link from some wonderful people in Great Britain and I thought to post it here for you to take a look at. It’s not very long at all, but I enjoyed doing the interview very much.

Here’s the link:


And, since apparently I’m from the very very slow school, it just occurred to me to repost this link since it relates to the one above.


thanks for your patience.


Letters from Auschwitz

Dear Friends,

What follows are two letters based on my participating in a five day outdoor retreat at the death camp known as Auschwitz. I have included some photographs taken during the retreat and, most importantly, I have done my best to talk openly and from the heart. Here we go:

November 4, 2012: Just before

Dear Sangha and Friends

some of you know, beginning tomorrow I am participating in a Zen Peacemaker retreat at Auschwitz, led by Bernie Glassman and Eve Marko. I have been in Poland most of the last week, visiting some dharma brother friends, and having some incredible experiences. I wrote a note to our Zen sangha earlier today and I suppose I feel like posting it here for you to read as well. Maybe there is something in this. I hope so.

Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath on Friday night) with Tanya Segal, a woman rabbi here in Poland, was amazing. She is the first woman rabbi in Polish history. She also has long flaming red polish/russian jewish curly hair, and her guitar and young congregation singing the service so wholeheartedly and with such joy filled my heart with a profound gratitude and serenity. The rabbi seems to be a somewhat introverted person – it’s in the way she stands and holds her body, and sometimes seems to disappear into an internal spaciousness with which she is familiar before speaking – but she was willing to come to Krakow to establish a small Jewish community in a place where many Jews still are reluctant to say “I am a Jew.” So courageous of her.


The service was held in a museum of Jewish history, which they use as a shul  (synagogue), so we sang and chanted in a room with photos of the Holocaust and Auschwitz around us, and I thought, “Yes, this is how it is and has been, a small band surrounded by images of some of its history, still dedicated to its practices, and thereby to the survival of the people and their Way.” This time the small band is led by a wonderful woman who has not let history or her natural introversion keep her from sitting up straight, being what she is, giving voice to the songs and prayers that have sustained her people and herself, and then offering such wise midrash, the teachings and interpretations of Torah.

The basis for the teachings is the weekly parsha (portion) of the Torah. On this night the parsha was about how every time god asked Abraham (the progenitor of the Jewish people). “Avram, where are you?” Avram would answer, “Here I am.” Or, “I am here.”

The rabbi pointed out that Avram did not refuse to answer, as if to say, “I am not here”, or make an excuse, or blame something or someone for his absence, or say, can you come back later when it’s convenient, but he stood up where he was and as he was and said, I am here. Here I am.

And because he did, he never missed a chance to be in touch with the divine presence that called him. As a result, he did not miss any opportunity to participate in life – with the divine, with Oneness, however you want to say it, supporting him every moment in the never ending dance of the relative and absolute working together. The rabbi told us “to live means to do your part, not to hold back, to participate.”

And so again I thought, “Here is the Sandokai that we chant every day in our Zen practice, with the relative and absolute, as the chant goes, meeting in mid air.” When I thought this, some of Chagall’s paintings came to mind, where the recognizably earthly figures from shtetl life float above the earth, sometimes with their violins in their hands, sometimes with their Beloved in their arms, meeting, and meeting meeting, because they too know the importance of saying “Here I am. I am here.” And, “I am Here.”

How perfect this parsha is for those of us going to Auschwitz tomorrow to bear witness, where it will do no good to back away, to hide, or to seek a personal haven of denial. Only I am Here will help us to withstand the rigour of this journey and go all the way through. So I felt deeply grateful to this rabbi who chose the celebration of shabbat (which, in the tradition, is the time the feminine face of the divine returns to the world to share her light and the peace of the sabbath) to remind us of where we are, and through where we are, Who we are as well.

It seems a good note to end on since early tomorrow we enter Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have avoided reading any of the information sent by the retreat so I would know nothing ahead of time. Maybe foolish, but I’m willing to be so.

And besides, the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order that sponsors this retreat, are:

not knowing

bearing witness

loving action.

Sounds nice – but not so easy to do. Already I see some of the fear constellating in different forms or behaviours of people. And I have been told to be careful by my Polish dharma brothers, one of whom told me that each time he has gone to Auschwitz, he was unwell for the entirety of the following year, and by the other who accompanied the Dalai Lama to Auschwitz and told me that the Dalai Lama just cried the whole time. Of course he did.

I may not have it right, but it seems that we will walk in the mornings, maybe 2 miles, from where we are staying near the camp called Auschwitz 1 to Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau – where more than one million one hundred thousand people were murdered) and then sit down in a circle and meditate on the train tracks that brought the prisoners inside the gate that mocked them with the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Labour sets you free.)

I believe that we will do this every day, along with saying Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for those who have died), sitting in council, performing rituals of various kinds, eating our soup and bread for lunch outside Birkenau Gate, etc. We will spend every day during daylight hours and no matter the weather conditions walking the horror ground in all of its particulars, bearing witness as we do, discovering what not knowing and loving action might come to mean, and, we will do many ceremonies of various kinds in the name of honouring life in its boundless manifestations. I have no doubt there will be surprises of every nature and kind over the next five days we are there.

One thing, because I remembered it just now, and then I’ll end. A young woman introduced herself the first night as being “from Germany, a noble family.” [There was an implication in the phrase, I was told by a native speaker, regarding the family’s history during the war.] She is a lovely, open person, very warm, and referred to being happy to be able to attend, but she also said that, because she is somewhat disabled, she will ‘have to move physically slowly because it’s the only way I can move.”  So we will walk with her.

She ended her introduction by saying that during the retreat she was going to receive jukai (the Buddhist Bodhisattva Precepts) in Auschwitz. I took the opportunity to talk briefly with her afterwards and expressed how incredible I thought it was for her to be receiving the precepts there and how happy I was that she would receive them. She said, “I have no idea what it will be, but I want to do it so much.” I was deeply touched by her sincerity, and by her taking this important step exactly where and as she will. It is another kind of walking she will lead us in, and, after all, history turns when we turn it. As the old Zen saying goes: Wowser!

So much is here for us when we say, “I am here.”

with love for you all


November 14: A letter upon my return from Auschwitz

dear sangha and friends

thanks so much for all the love and care. it did and does get through, believe me. I’m pretty tired and I find, now home, I’m a bit of an echo chamber, not so much of the visual, though that comes in sharply as it wants to, as of the effect of our entire experience. So there is nonstop singing of a few healing songs in my head all through the day and night, no doubt because I need to hear them and, as well, because the actual moments when we sang them were so poignant and often overpowering since we sang them to those who perished at Auschwitz.

And there is the constant sound of german, polish, french, israeli, palestinian and english accented voices as a tape looping itself through my day; plus, the noticing vis a vis bearing witness continues as well, except now it is just during my daily living where it needs to be – and, yes, there is a difference in how things sound and appear.

I am  pretty tired, very, jet lagged and still not well since I remained feverish and  ill the whole time I was there. the cold and rain didn’t stop us from practicing, but they didn’t help, either, except in a way I can’t quite explain.

so the place and the people I was with at Auschwitz now populate this curiously empty room I find myself being, which only gains in size and volume as it fills, pushing off the usual senses of space and time and allowing the boundlessness of no-space, no-time to fill with so much human livingdying, insanity, cruelty, depravity, suffering, generosity, gentleness and love all mixed together in a way that is so visceral it is difficult from moment to moment to tell the voices and lives I now carry of those who perished from those with whom this journey was completed only days ago. in this way, the retreat is not completed, will never be completed, but continues taking place, and may always do so in its way, though no doubt with decreasing apparent presence. still, there is a vastness where it carries on and I hope it does so in future days as well.

but there is no way, really, to say it, at least for me. A writer, I did not write a single word while I was there. No need for notes, I suppose. No desire to objectify the experience in language rather than live it, which I went to do, or, maybe I just wanted to, as the saying goes, “get it while it’s hot” and keep it cooking as it would, trusting I would know what I needed to know when that knowing was needed. My joy is in knowing it will find its way into the world, sanely, modestly, to lend a hand. A poem of its own kind, perhaps, at the least.

a wonderful man from the retreat, Jay Hamburger, just wrote to say he took quite a few photos while we were there. [all of the photos on this entry are Jay’s. I believe if you click on the photos they will become larger. Then use your back arrow to return to this entry.] here is one he snapped of me reciting the names I was sent by friends and friends of friends, to honour them and the people who went by those names before losing their lives in the holocaust or, specifically, at Auschwitz.

Part of each day we sat in meditation at the selection site where with the flick of a finger the SS doctor determined the fate of prisoners who arrived by cattle car transport. One of the cars from those transports stood on the tracks just meters away from where we sat, the sets of tracks on both sides of us hemming us in with the rigidity—dare I say it?—the gleaming perfection of unforgiving steel.

A flick of the doctor’s finger to the left, and those prisoners deemed unfit for hard labour were herded without hesitation down a long path between barracks to the gas chambers and the crematorium just beyond. Having just arrived at Birkenau, little did they know what awaited them at the end of that walk. A flick of the finger to the right, a few months or longer of unbearable living would be their fate. So this is where we sat and, each in turn, spoke the names we were given and the names we brought.

I was so deeply honoured to receive many names, and made a mala (like a rosary) of wooden beads, and then wrote each name on a small adhesive strip and attached the names, one to each bead, so I would have them to wear in Auschwitz. I did wear them the entire time, all 108 names, except while sleeping, as I did with my rakusu (buddha robe) and, when it was time for Kaddish or for any honouring, I also put on the talit, jewish prayer shawl, my grandfather gave to me 53 years ago for my bar mitzvah. You see them in the photo.

What you can’t see is another mala made for me by Markus (also known as Vikash) another wonderful man who lives here on Salt Spring. The beads of the mala are made of rose petals, each one hand rolled into an almost perfect sphere, and then attached to a cord. He made 18 such beads for me to wear just around my left wrist, over the pulse, so my own life could pulse into them and touch what remains of their fragrance. In mystical Jewish numerology, 18 is the number for chai, which means life. I placed this mala close to my face many times during the retreat, to remember life’s true fragrance. To never forget.

When it was my turn to pronounce the names, I found that I could not just say them. As I listened to others speak their list of names, loud enough for everyone to hear, I found I was frightened to hear them spoken in this way, despite the safety and silence our collective meditation brought to the site of selection. In my ears, the naming almost sounded like a roll call of the living soon to die instead of the honouring it was. I couldn’t–didn’t want to–bring myself to make such a sound of their sweet names though I knew the heart and intention of those good people around me who spoke them in a way that was as loving, honouring, respectful and true as anyone could hope for. Perception can shift at Auschwitz and mine seems to have done exactly that.

So when it was my turn I stood and just sang the names with as much tenderness as I could in a melody that came spontaneously out of my mouth. In this way the mala of 108 names I wore became a song whose lyrics were those precious names sounded fleetingly into the cold air.

After that period of meditation and honouring was over, a rather large German man with a very sweet and open face came up to me and asked where the melody had come from. I tapped my heart and said I didn’t know more than that; I had never heard it before.

He seemed surprised and said that the melody was almost exactly the same as one currently used by Chinese Zen monks during their morning service. “Perhaps,” he said, “you were a Chinese monk in your last life,” and he smiled. “Perhaps,” I said, “but I don’t’ know anything about those things. I only know that the melody came out of my desire to honour these people the best way I can. The rest is a mystery as far as I’m concerned,” and we laughed gently together in the mystery.

To laugh in Auschwitz is no small thing; a precious bit of  sustenance to be shared. Then he smiled at me again, sweetly, and gave me a strong and considerable hug. “Yes,” he said. “To honour is what we are doing in this awful place. And to bear witness to that honouring. That’s the important thing. To love.”

There was a great deal of love there among the members of the retreat; after all, what else was our pain made of beside our loving as it encountered the unbearable cruelty known as Auschwitz. Loving those we know, those we don’t, those who lost their lives to this human disaster, those we know and don’t know whose lives we want to secure and protect in the future: Loving and cherishing.

When poet Mary Oliver asks in her poem what we will do with our “one wild and precious life,” this loving and the actions that may come from it are not such bad replies.

On our last day at Auschwitz, after our meditations at the selection site, we made a journey through some of the stations of the camp we had lived with for five days, and ended up near dusk at “the pond of ashes” where we would hold jukai, the Bodhisattva precepts ceremony I mentioned in my first letter above. We also had come here to once again honour those who perished, and those whose names we brought with us, with one final recitation of the Kaddish as we placed one candle for each name at the memorial tablets and around the pond. Each of us carried one or more candles through the camp until we reached the pond.

The pond is a terrible site because it is one of the places where the perpetrators dumped the overflow of ashes from the nearby crematoriums. But it is precisely because of this that we wanted to be there, to support the receiving of precepts and vows during jukai while some of us made or renewed our own vows and others prayed, each of us engaging our own way of offering, remembering, and honouring.

After placing our candles, some of us began to chant, pray or meditate around the pond, while others gathered to support the receiving of the Bodhisattva precepts. It had been a long journey through the camp to the site and the woman who had traveled all the way from Germany to receive them had been lovingly brought there in her wheel chair.

As the ceremony began I chose to meditate beside another wonderful man, Genjo, a brother in the dharma who had pretty much practiced throughout the entire retreat in his robes and sandals no matter the external conditions of rain or cold. Once, however, the wind and driving rain got pretty bad and I was happy to see he had put on a bright purple hat with ear flaps. Zen in action! Right response to conditions. When I saw that he decided to be kind to his shaved head, and the actual head adornment he had chosen, it made my heart lighter and, again, the sweetness of the moment was precious.

In any case, he and I meditated close to each other at the pond, as did a few others while the air filled with the taking of precepts in German. I don’t speak or understand the language, except for the parts somewhat close to my limping Yiddish vocabulary, but it was extraordinary to sit in meditation at such a place while hearing that sound. To meditate at the pond of ashes and to hear the sound of a woman offering her life to the liberation of all beings, bar none, was a moment of great healing for many of us. “May it heal all the terrible sounds of this place and our world, past, present and future,” came to mind as I listened. “Despite what we know, what we have done, what we don’t know, what we have not done or failed to do, may the mysterious path of healing be our way.”

As it says repeatedly in the Kaddish, “And say Yes. Amen.”


True Expression

Hello Friends,

I’m excited to let you know about a brand new retreat I’ll be offering here on Salt Spring Island next summer from July 20 – 27, 2013.

It is one of my deepest convictions that in order for us to live as we were meant to live, we must find ways to express authenticity, intimacy and joy in every way we can.

True Expression is the first time I’ve combined my approach to meditation, yoga, writing and art in a retreat format that will inspire and nourish expression that is authentic, enjoyable and true. In addition to the retreat itself, I know you’ll love the serene and gorgeous environment of the location [not to mention the delicious meals we’ll provide!] so if this sounds good, please read on.

Participation is extremely limited and people are already signing up, so if you’d like to know more about True Expression, please go to the website and have a look. If you think of a friend or someone else who might like to attend with you or on their own, I thank you for sending the link along.

Please also feel free to contact me through this site if you have any questions about the retreat.

Wishing you all the best, I hope to hear from you soon.





It’s been quite some time since I added to these notes, but this morning something clicked in while writing to a dear friend, poet and author Deena Metzger. When I was done writing to her, it occurred to me to post it here for others to read and, who knows?, possibly enjoy. She and I were having a rare visit since I live far north of her digs, and, as we tend to do, the conversation veered toward language and the marvelous possibilities it holds, especially in the realm of the origin of words where, I feel, the extraordinary early intuition of human beings can often be found.  I’m posting this, pretty much as written to Deena, but please consider it might also be a letter to you. After all, given that I’m posting it, it is:

And so —

In Consideration

a funny thought jumps in after reconsidering our conversation about the words consider and its dear cousin, considerate, viz: if, as we talked about, the etymology of the word consider does, in fact, imply that to be considerate is to align oneself with, as it were, the stars,

from com meaning with” + sidus (gen.sideris) meaning “constellation” cf. sidereal,

it could point to two well known phrases that make pre-tty curious buddies, all in all:  “not my will, but thy will” and “may the force be with you”.

Now, even as I write these seemingly odd linguistic companions, with, of course, a smile now I see what they are, especially the latter, I am put in mind of how everything tends to bend one a little more and then a little more again toward the earth as we age. A kind of gravitational pull, then. We grow smaller in body and, often, the head seems to more naturally bow. I like this part especially since, as you know, it is my conviction that we could never bow respectfully or in gratitude enough. Call it spiritual aerobics, if you will, but whatever one says, and no matter how anaerobic this gesture may tend to be, I believe it is, as the fitness gurus tell us, ‘good for you’.

Of course, if things go well, this growing smaller in body does not include the largesse of heart’s compassion, or the expansiveness of the mind in one’s consideration of “the great matter of birth-and-death”, as Dogen said, but even one’s shadow makes a less considerable mark on the planet as we continue to move here and there, as and where we can, and I can’t help but feel the benefit of this as well.

When People Ask Me “What’s my sign?” I Often Think “Enter”

I’m no astrologer, as you know. I continue to refuse to know or even pretend to know anything about how this star, that star, or various clusters of stars and planets may or may not affect who and how and what as we go about our daily lives. When I was a boy I was given a glow in the dark Bulova watch with a silver wrist band that held it snugly to me. At night, I’d place it beside my bed where I could reach it and then, with the obsessive repetition of both the lover and the child, reach over in the pitch dark of my bedroom again and again to see the watch face glow. Often I’d feel that I was looking into the heavens at some marvelous planets or stars, and the steady and consistent turning of the so-called second hand made me feel that I was witnessing the wheeling of the planets around the sun. No one, I knew, could convince me that I wasn’t seeing exactly this, though I never spoke of this with anyone lest they come up with that ubiquitous killer of a child’s imagination when in the hands of a well meaning though pedantic adult: information.

I haven’t lost this quality of fascination, by the way, born of knowing very little but what the imagination produces in response to the world before me, and so my refusal to be involved with signs and houses and all of the language of astrology that I’ve heard since the sixties is rooted in my simple desire to be able to look up at the night sky, as I often do, and see the stars shining without the obscuration of knowing a thing about them except that they are marvelous to behold beyond anything I might be able to say about them or pretend to understand. The stubborn insistence of child’s vision, or a poet’s wanting to be careful not to fill his head too close to the top with unneeded data has not damaged me all that much, I believe, so all goes well. [And, if it has, would I know?]

What The Other Foot Says

Now that I’ve made my case against knowing of a certain kind, and I feel it is rock solid with the absolute conviction of a child who knows his paper sailboat can take him around the world, let me speak briefly while standing on the other foot. I love knowing everything about everything I can know about, since it is often the case that I am equally fascinated by the slightest detail in a way no different from my fascination with my beloved Bulova watch. After all, it is often the case that one minor, usually overlooked detail or fact will consume me for days or weeks as it makes its way through the darkness of the imagination until even I can see the glowing seed it has become, that holy causation of an outbreak of poetry which nothing can inoculate against except that other killer of the imagination: lack of attention.

And, to push my cart further down the aisle just a wee bit more before I end, or at least this note does, I feel it is very much my obligation to know what I can as a way of respecting the thingness of things, the process of processes [prounounced pro-cess-sees in my mind] in this never-ending spin of interconnection that gives us the world we live in and, hopefully, tend with a tenderness it deserves and increasingly needs.

And so now I go, knowing not knowing and unknowing into the day with wonder in my heart and love, as always, at the fore. In other words, Good Morning. It’s so good to talk with my friend.


A wild ride for them what likes ’em – on a day when Easter, Passover, the Buddha and Spring share a cup o’ tea








Caution: Curves Ahead!!

Okay, I admit it; this may be a bit of a ride, but it was an awful lot of fun to write, so if you are able to buckle up, there’s a bit of retelling of some stories that may sound almost familiar by the time I’m done.  My Easter-Passover-Buddha’s Birthday-Spring present for those of you who can handle the turns.  And, with apologies to the others. But, honestly, I do hope you enjoy!

This morning a very dear friend in New York sent a note that included this innocent and quite thoughtful two sentences:

The word “Easter” and most of the secular celebrations of the holiday, come from pagan traditions. Anglo Saxons worshipped Eostre, the goddess of springtime, and the return of the sun after the long winter.

And, so, since this friend is a friend of long standing, as they say, (though I have invited her to sit down many a time) I wrote her a playful reply. But when I was done with my epistolary response, which might be seen by some as an apostle’s epistle (oh, the mood is good this morning, I warn thee) I thought some of the people in our Zen sangha, and some others of you, might enjoy a bit of it, because today, after all, is the day called Buddha’s Birthday by some in our tradition – and so I send my reply to my dear friend as a bit of a birthday card to all of you, with love. But put on yr seat belts, as I said; the line for the ride starts here:

“Dear N —

Ah, yes, but let us go back further to the Greeks, even following this nutcase friend of yours (me!) who once wrote in a poem about Eos, the Greek Goddess of Dawn, from which the Dayglo Saxon’s, to whom you refer in your note and who worshipped Eostre, may have gotten The Big Idea.

And then let’s go back even further, knowing without question that even before language may have reduced itself to greater complexity from the simple, direct pointing of the good old grunt, folks in the old days, like, the real old days before calendars and possibly even before time, noticed and said in their monosyllabic manner: Hey, it’s warmer; look, flowers; wanna do it? Which is why one never truly needs to move past the grunt as a complete means of communication for what “stirs the loins and makes the poor heart sing.”

Of course, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was sadly too often right when he wrote, “but in the morning, she has terrible teeth, and really hates po-e-try”, for, after all, the pleasures of conversation are not small, tend to last longer than ‘the act’, and definitely are highly valued in our little cabal, wot?

And then around 2600 years ago comes this guy who says, in a way that prefigures the Beatles, “Yeah yeah yeah, that’s nice, but who put all these dead bodies outside my father’s palace?  They’re mucking up my illusion.”

And so he wanders, very much in the style of the Dusty Springfield rock’n’roll hit that went, Just wishin’, and hopin’, and thinkin’, and prayin’, until he finally realized he hadn’t realized anything, and so, dumbfounded (which is pretty much an accurate description of how I’ll be found, though possibly not alone) he sits down and shuts up and after a while has a visitation from the big Sh-zam!

Whoa!  He opens his eyes after sitting for a mere onetwothreefourfivesixseven days and nights and there she is, just like she always was, the Morning Star, only Big Belly (having been an acetic for years prior to this, this image is likely not an apt description) had never noticed it quite as it really was before: shining with no discernable inside or outside, upside or downside, me-side or you-side, self-side or other-side, etc.

For in that moment what came to life, just like a wee daffodil (get the theme, here: dumb founded, daff-odill? I’m telling you I’m hot after this morning’s zazen and the subsequent tiny bit of lovin’ called espresso) was a realization so great that even he couldn’t miss.

So, Old BB let loose with that good old fashioned Buddhist shout out which goes (repeat after me): Whoa! and which is often translated in spiritual communities as Wow! And further which is a major part of what some Buddhists might mean when they bow – infrequently but many times accurately called around my house “the Bow Wow”, which ends the question of whether or not a dog has buddha nature as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway – back to the tatter of story ’bout the glory: Sure enough, the young Siddhartha lad opens his eyes and everything else he is and he sees it and sees it clear: The Morning Star. Me. Whole World. Just One life. Or something of that order.

And all that wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ is in there, too, with its catchy little melody, so, no tears on this Dusty Spring Field Day; not a wet whit or whisper. And so he, like everything on the earth around him, is warmed by the growing enlightenment of what is, as the dawn and his dawning turns into day, and he figures, “Hey! Not bad. Not bad at all. And, not good either – but, why mess with people’s heads?  I’ll stick to Whoa!

And, forever after, as forever before, don’t you know, since we must remember this is part of what in that big Studio in the Sky the Engineers call Recorded History, and in the pre-vinyl days when a needle was something you looked for in a haystack, or a piercing light ray, they probably had this understanding down like feathers on a duck, so don’t get all Extra! Extra! read all about it about it since the real news ain’t new, don’t you know, it’s just us finally tuning in on the Good Old Radio Dial — anyway, forever after, people started saying Happy Birthday Buddha round about now.  And this is part of the why.

And now I must rest, believe me, because it takes a lot of energy to use so many words to say so little when all I wanted to do in response to your missive was break into a chorus of a song by Stevie Wonder (note the name, fellow logos monsters, for right now ’tis the season for it for sure) and sing: I just called to say I love you.

and I do –


One year since Fukushima

This weekend, at the Heiwa Peace Garden on our small island, we will commemorate the disaster at Fukushima, Japan.  I was invited to make a statement before a moment of silence was offered in memory of this terrible event that will not stop resounding for quite some time.  It was an honour to be asked, and so the only way to answer it was to speak from the heart.  I’m posting here what I’ve written with the sincere hope that it may help to bring about something good:

Memory as a Seed for the Future

What can be said when disaster strikes?  What needs to be said? Usually, not so much. We stand silently in awe at the enormous power of tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires, tornadoes, as nature has its way. We see the power of nature at these moments, but we must remember that we also see the power of nature in the very small – in a snowflake or lady bug, the glance of an eye, in the ability for a seed to grow into food, or into the enormity of a cedar with its sheltering limbs.

But, we are nature, too, of course, and as such, we have some power, some ability to use our human nature, which includes the ability to learn from the past and remember, to understand and not ever forget what we most value in life, what kind of world we want for our children and for all of earth’s creatures: a world where peace presides, where weaponry has been put aside, where clear thinking, seeing and foresight leads to the kind of good decisions that promote life and diminish that which has even the smallest chance of causing harm to anyone, to everyone.

One way to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that Japanese people were sacrificed so that all may see the horror of nuclear war.  It is not the only way to think about it, but it is one way. Now, less than seventy years later, we have the great misfortune of seeing Japanese people sacrificed yet again, perhaps this time so that all may see the horror of so-called nuclear peace when faced with actual life and its circumstances, as opposed to some drawing board dream of nuclear perfection.

It is a horrible sacrifice to have to make, and I grieve for those directly harmed. Still, one year later, I cannot help but shake my head in disbelief at the magnitude of the disaster that continues even as we stand here on our peaceful island.

Let us not be powerless in the face of such knowledge. Let us determine to use nature’s power in human form to dedicate ourselves to clear thinking, understanding, and foresight; to allowing compassion to guide our decisions, and to the far seeing vision of true leaders – elders and young ones alike – so that the likelihood of such disasters is erased from our world. Among all their other miraculous powers, certainly the powers of the human heart and mind are meant for this.

In the silence that follows now, please allow a seed of such compassion, of such clarity, foresight and vision to be born in this circle, and let us seek a way, together, to plant that seed on this island, to the benefit of life everywhere, for all of time. If we say we cannot, we never will. If we say we can, we just may discover how.

Peter Levitt

Teacher, Salt Spring Zen Circle



January 23, 2012

I’ve put a new entry in the Zen section under today’s date that talks about intimacy in our practice and in our lives in the world.  I hope you’ll scroll on over, click the Zen link, and read along.  I think you may enjoy it if you do.

Speaking of intimacy, we had a beautiful snow here, and, for once, the power didn’t go out.  Then, four days later, the rains came heavily on, and the winds, and now the meadow shows its winter green again, without a trace of what just days ago held us at the window in wonder. Soon enough, all of this beauty, all this activity, and the silence of the season, will make the crocuses blossom.


For the new






Hi Everyone

I’ve been a nonblogger for a bit longer than I had thought to be, but I suppose all I can say is “I was gone”, and in a most wonderful way.  I had the opportunity, for the first time, to go to Maui in Hawaii – and, also for the first time, to snorkel. I have to tell you, I was so overwhelmed by the immense beauty of our world right there under the water, I forgot to breathe and almost got into trouble. Not the best way to snorkel, by the way, but I couldn’t help it – just to see the astounding life going on right beneath the surface of the ocean was almost more than I could take.

Truly, we know so little of our world, and yet all it takes is a peek below the usual, the expected, the predictable, the world of that lie of contemporary life called ‘been there done that’, which tries to tick off actual life experience as if it was balancing a cheque book. Bah! Humbug!

The Year of the Snorkel Meets The Year of the Dragon

So, here’s a thought, or, something that might like to glorify itself as one: why not make this a snorkeling year, with the proviso that we will remember to breathe; breathe life into our lives, our works, our doing, our understanding, as we make ourselves available to what is right in front of us, though we may not have noticed it before, or forgot, in the haze of living, to keep looking.

Some of you may know, by the way, that the word spirit comes from animus, and animus is rooted in the Indo-Europeon seed syllable ane, which means ‘breath’. So, spirit and breath can never be separated, and it’s a pretty good reminder, not to mention a great ad for meditation. I hope you don’t mind this tangent, but I love how etymology can sometimes show how wise the earliest intuitions or our species prove to be.

Okay, back to snorkeling: we can practice this at first with ourselves and see if we can see beneath the surface of who and what we are a little more than usual. It does take a bit of courage, truth to tell, since we tend not to want to have anything push us off our well worn spot, but it’s worth the doing, especially in a hunt for beauty, or any other salient thing.

Or, if we are really brave, we might try doing this with someone we care about, like a partner or spouse, or even a child that drives us to distraction (there’s a phrase!) I know it’s more convenient to believe that what we think about those close to us is really true – ah, if only they could see it (my way!) – but why not give ‘em a break and see what’s really there.

And, finally, if we find ourselves in an ecumenical mood, how about peeking below the surface of someone we tend not to like so much? Maybe one of those super heroes of our personal pantheon we like to dislike and who might be called, in typical superhero language, one of The Annoyers. I hear they have some extraordinarily beautiful colours and stripes, but we have to be willing to strip down our view of them a little and put a bit more effort into looking in order to see them as they are.

Turtles, Picasso and a Capital A

While snorkeling in Maui, I got to spend a full half hour no more than 5 meters from shore with two feeding turtles. And, I don’t mean little turtles from our childhood aquariums, for these were easily 3 feet in length. Old ones, they were. They were bobbing and eating and floating and flowing with the movement of the current and the waves, and they allowed me to be within 4 feet of them yet remained undisturbed.

Perhaps they could tell I was no threat, more of an amazed onlooker who, this time, remembered not to hold his breath. I can’t tell you the effect of seeing these beauties, but it was not small. And, just to raise the stakes, some fish whose unofficial name is Picasso fish for reasons that are obvious when you see them, (just take another look at the photo at the top) moved in and out of the turtle feeding area. Local colour enough to thrill my heart and blow what’s left of this wee mind.

Here’s to a good year for all – though I might spell that last word with a capital A just to tell you what’s really in my heart. Truly, each one of us (and here comes the pun since despite the fact that it’s early morning, I can’t hold back any longer) a treasure in the swim of things.

If you enjoyed this and feel like letting a friend know about this or other entries, thank you so much.