From My Correspondence with Albert Low

I recently came upon a file of email exchanges I had with Albert Low when I first began formal Zen practice, during an era prior to the advent of Skype or Zoom. These are some extracts from that correspondence:

“Our practice is to follow the breath. While thoughts may present a great obstacle to doing this, nevertheless the practice is not to empty the mind so that it is possible. We follow in the midst of the distractions. In any case, the real difficulty is not the thoughts but our inability to let be, to let go of the illusion of being the controller, the doer. The great difficulty is that we cannot decide to let go.”


As one sits, one will become aware of an “underlying tension, and this tension if allowed to be will become a restlessness, a dissatisfaction, a concern, anxiety, and so on. One must sit in the middle of this confusion.”

Likewise, as one makes an effort to be “present” during the day, one will again be aware of this tension, which is the effort of one’s thoughts to preserve the sense of “I.”


“It is following the breath that is the true spiritual exercise, not following the breath. Generally speaking we cannot follow because we are so anxious to be in control. I might have said at the same time that ‘Thy will be done’ is the basis of all spiritual work.”


“Let me remind you that the difficulty with counting and following the breath is that we have great difficulty letting go. We want to control the situation, do something, do it for a reason, and so on. This keeps the practice in the ‘conscious’ surface mind and under the illusory control of it.”


“Easy or hard, it makes no difference and please do not judge your practice. While you judge your practice you look upon it as something that ‘I’ should do ‘well.’ It is doing the practice that matters, not the result of the practice. I know that this may seem difficult to understand. We are so results oriented. By doing the practice, the deeper parts of the mind are awakened. That you cannot know this is happening makes no difference. It is like a lake. The surface of the lake is always changing but the depths as a rule remain the same. With practice, however, the lake is made progressively deeper. Yet still the surface of the lake is now ruffled, now more calm, now raging, now quiet. The surface is what we are aware of. The depths determine your character; the surface your personality.”


Much of our activity is dedicated to nurturing, developing, protecting and enhancing one’s personality, which is made up of the “memories, judgments, prejudices, ideas, thoughts, and reactions that converge upon a core or center and make up what I call ‘me.’”

Elsewhere, Albert noted that the term used by the Buddha in the First Noble Truth – dukkha – is  the word used to describe an axle which is off-center. That results in there being two centers – the center of the wheel and the center of the axel; the result, of course, is a vehicle which wobbles.

That, he suggests, is how it is with our inner life. “It is as though we are trying to establish, in addition to the natural center of gravity in a situation, a personal pivot or an axle around which the world must revolve. All our struggle and effort, all our relationships with others, are dedicated, at one level or another, to establishing, maintaining, perpetuating this pivot, this center of gravity around which the world must revolve. This means, in turn, that our relationships with others are always in the form of cajoling, pushing, persuading, seducing, forcing, manipulating or whatever, to encourage them to revolve around our center.”

That center is our personality, and, as Albert frequently asserted, “Zen has nothing of value for the personality.”

So: “Make no demands on the practice. As long as we expect something from the practice, we are expecting it from the point of view of that central false pole.”


“A koan isn’t something you’ve been given to solve. It has to be your own question. And the question becomes the answer. I’m sorry that sounds so zenny, but there you are.”

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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