Hozan Alan Senauke, a former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Oakland, Calif. and the current abbot at the Berkeley Zen Center in Berkeley, Calif., is looking back on 35 years of Buddhist practice in his new book, Turning Words: Transformative Encounters with Buddhist Teachers (Shambhala, out now). It features “turning words,” or crucial moments that led to lessons he learned from Buddhist leaders such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, and Senauke’s primary teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman, as well as dozens of other spiritual friends.

In an interview with PW, the Zen priest says the collection is “medicine” for the challenges readers of all backgrounds face today.

How did you choose which teachers and friends to include, and what was the writing process like?

I just looked for the best stories. I did try to do some free-associating; that was fruitful. At first there were only a few things, and as I unclenched my mental fist, other stories appeared. I made space for reflection. All of our lives are like that if we just take the space for reflection. It’s a very common human experience—reminiscing, reflecting on our lives; looking at what moves us.

One of the lessons in the book is, “Let things fall apart.” Why is this so important for readers to understand, especially post-pandemic?

Every teaching, first of all, is a remedy—a form of medicine. And second, this advice was given to me by my teacher when I was trying to control things without accepting the fact that not everything can be controlled. Things will fall apart; things are falling apart. They will do that. It’s inevitably what happens. But how can we meet that with dignity and compassion, and not a foolish effort to control what can’t be controlled? My teacher said everything is going so well; in a moment, it can go away. And it did to all of us. I think just as a community, we didn’t waste a lot of time wallowing around in loss. We said, ‘Well what can we do?’ And we turned to technologies and other ways of connecting, we maintained community, and have grown stronger. Transitions and destabilization called forth new strength.

While you share some of what you have learned about life and socially-engaged Buddhism, you also point out, “I still have a ways to go.” Where do you find encouragement to continue learning?

I am encouraged by living and practicing in sangha—from the example of others and for the continuing opportunity to see the effect of my words and actions. I ask myself whether these words and actions tend towards harmony or division. Living in sangha—or community—involves engagement with others, which can be a stiff remedy for self-delusion.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

These are vivid, compressed stories. Anyone interested in the Buddhist religion might find these interesting. Buddhism is not just something that happens in the meditation hall or with some precious, careful life. Buddhism arises in the small activities of life, and those can be points of awakening—quite apart from any fixed doctrine. The emphasis is on what I refer to as the ordinary mind: what is amazing and transcendent in our lives occurs in ordinary moments.

What is the #1 thing you want readers to take away from it?

Keep your eyes open and enjoy your life. It’s happening all the time, irrespective of your religious or spiritual tradition.