How Stella Got Her Bodhicitta Back

This year I had two New Year's resolutions. The first was to rekindle my bodhi mind. After five years practicing Zen in Japan, wearing the right clothes and getting all the right credentials, I found myself in the odd predicament of having little to no bodhi mind. Bodhi mind (or bodaishin in Japanese) is the mind that seeks awakening. It is the mind that wants to get up early and sit. It's the mind that asks, "What is Buddha?" According to Dogen, it's also (paradoxically?) the mind that vows to postpone our enlightenment for others. I think of it like a small flame. It is the bright part of our practice.

Like a flame, though, bodhi mind needs air to survive. It needs freedom and space. The blessing and curse of Japanese monastic practice is that the form is so strict. You sit zazen whether you want to or not. You chant whether you want to or not. While establishing discipline is useful in many ways, the flip side of severe discipline is that it extinguishes bodhi mind. I remember having this conversation with the father of one of the monks at Toshoji. He was applauding all the foreigners coming to practice in Japan.

"Foreigners understand the true Zen mind," he said, "Because they want to sit zazen. At Eiheiji, everyone is forced to sit zazen every day, and so they grow to hate it. If they don't show up to zazen on time, they get punished. This makes them hate zazen even more. So I don't think people should be forced to sit zazen."

The way to extinguish bodhi mind is too much form and discipline. Some form and discipline is necessary. I think of monastic form like the wood in a fire. You need wood to keep the fire going, to give the flame something to burn, to give the fire a boundary. But too much wood smothers a fire. It needs air.

In this way, I think bodhi mind is a lot like sexual attraction to a romantic relationship. It's the warmth and heat. It's what keeps you going happily and energetically. Of course, it's not the only thing that matters. You need other things. You need kindling, firewood, enough oxygen, no rain. Communication, boundaries, trust, shared values, maturity, therapy (??). And of course, it's possible to have a marriage or a romantic relationship without fire. But then you're just damp firewood.

Bodhi mind is like the thesis in an analytical essay. Without it... okay I'll stop with the analogies. But I could keep going all day!

My second resolution was to stop putting people on pedestals. I actually stole this resolution from a facebook friend. She wrote, "Anyone you put on a pedestal (friend, celebrity, partner, historical figure) will eventually come crashing down. Maybe try no pedestal." So that became a kind of mantra: "Maybe try no pedestal."

I am excellent at putting people on pedestals. This is because I am excellent at falling in love. They are very similar experiences. I can do this not just with people, but with concepts, theories, ideas, isms, communities, cultures, and entire countries. It goes like this: I start to learn about someone/something. Their personality/internal logical/ articulation/ culture/ vibe excites and impresses me. Or I join a new community. I think it will solve all of my problems, or at least, make me less unhappy. I study it/ read it/ hang out with it more and more. I internalize some of its concepts. This makes me feel good, like I belong. I feel seen. I feel like I have an identity. It's basically the mindset of this song from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. 


Things on pedestals do eventually fall down. 

Putting your community or your teacher or the Buddha's teachings on a pedestal is the shadow side of bodhi mind, because bodhi mind left to run amok is about lack. Seeking awakening implies not having it. Asking a question implies not knowing the answer. Putting someone on a pedestal is similar. It means believing they have something you don't have. And I do this with both people and realization.

The tricky thing is, in Buddhist practice we need other people and we need awakening, or at least, some aroma of it. The Buddha reminded Ananda, "Spiritual friends are the whole of the spiritual life." We need community. Not just to provide discipline and form, but to give us happy hormones like oxytocin. We need the fire. 

We need both the fire and the firewood. And the metal grating that keeps the fire from burning down the house. 

So that is my New Year's wish to myself, and to you, more than three months late. May you find your bodhi mind. May it burn brilliantly in the dark, illuminating your way. May it warm your life, and lead to great awakening, if that is your kind of thing. And samsara and nirvana are one. No pedestals. 

I'm doing Zuise in May. It costs ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. If this post ignited your bodhi mind in any way (or poured water on an out of control fire), please consider donating through paypal, so I can be officially certified by the Soto School and continue to make extended sex/fire/analytic essay analogies about Buddhist concepts. Thank you. 


  1. Um... spiffy new site, and the comments definitely work better, but where's the "donate" button?

    I agree with you. The other thing about pedestaling is that the mystery contact beyond the senses is lost, the sense that every inch of it is important to every other inch, even when the mileage is most impressive.

    I know that Vanja Palmers was ready to dance when I told him Kobun once said he came to the U.S.A., not because of what he, Kobun, had to offer, but because there was something happening here that offered to him. I love the fact that Kobun referred to the people who sat with him as his guerrilla army.

    Reading the new book of Kobun's essays, I realize he had another side, and yet I do not feel cut off.

    1. Shoot! Thank you for pointing that out. I don't know how to keep the paypal up there with the new format, so I've regressed.

      I'll have to wait until He Who Understands Buttons returns to use the new layout...

    2. I'll just put you on a lower pedestal. Your intention, honesty, insights... are very admirable to me.

  2. How strange that I read this today, after two days of turmoil and the decision to take a (tiny) break from practice. All the more strange since the name given to me at ordination is Bodaishin.

    Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this post. No pedestals, and as Suzuki Roshi said, give your cow a wide pasture.

  4. Gesshin! _/|\_
    I'm a semi-regular participant in Dogen Sangha LA, and I was *so disheartened* to see your Buddhism with Bodies events were cancelled. I didn't know there was an enrollment aspect, and I regret not making my intention and excitement known to the facilitators, especially given -ahem- Brad's shite politics. Is there any way we can meet up in LA and transmit the readings you helped prepare? Please comment here or email me at

    Be well,

  5. Buddhism is practiced in communities. Enlightenment is achieved in solitude...


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