Forum: Understanding Dogen

When student approach the work of Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, they find enigma and obscurity, plus great clarity. A roundtable discussion on this.

Lion’s Roar
1 June 2004
Photo by Digital Archaeology.

Dogen has come a long way. When Zen first got hot in the U.S. during the 1960’s, Dogen was just another obscure Japanese master in the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and the American version of Dogen’s Soto Zen school was just a handful of kids in San Francisco doing zazen at Sokoji with Shunryu Suzuki. These days, Soto Zen is all over the country and Dogen’s name is all over Amazon (780 hits). Dogen must be by now our most famous Zen master, ranking up there in the pantheon of Buddhist authors with stars like Nagarjuna (664 hits).

Dogen’s rise to stardom may be partly a function of the spread of his school in America, but his reputation as a Buddhist author goes beyond his status as founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. Like Nagarjuna, and unlike most Zen masters, he is seen as a philosopher. Unlike Nagarjuna and most Zen masters, he is seen as a philosopher with important things to say about Buddhist practice—both how we should think about it and what we should do about it.

As a philosopher, Dogen is probably best known for his emphasis on what might be called the temporality of the absolute, what he likes to call “the koan of realization”—the claim that the ultimate truth is not a timeless principle but what is actually going on around us; or, to put it from the other side, that what is going on is not just one damned thing after another but the welling up of enlightenment in the world.

As a theorist of the Buddhist religious life, Dogen is known for his doctrine of “the unity of practice and verification”—the view that the goal of Buddhism is not a future state of enlightenment achieved through practice but in the present engagement in practice itself; or, to put it more simply, that the Buddhist life is its own reward, beyond which there is no enlightenment.

As a teacher of Buddhist practice, Dogen is known for his emphasis on attention to the details of whatever we do—a style summarized in the Soto saying, “Buddhism is deportment”—and for a particular approach to meditation, in which the practitioner is encouraged to “cast off body and mind,” abandon efforts to “make a buddha,” and “just sit” as the “embodiment of a buddha.”

These teachings and their author are now well known, in both Japan and the West, but throughout most of Japanese history, they appear to have had little impact outside the monasteries of the Soto Zen tradition. Dogen (1200-1253), though the son of a prominent aristocratic family, seems to have been something of an outsider in Japanese Buddhist circles, and his Soto school, though highly popular in the countryside, played relatively little role in the development of medieval Zen culture.

It is really in the twentieth century, with the wide distribution of his writings in Japan, that Dogen emerged from the cloister into the public eye. Among these writings, by far the most famous is the Shobogenzo (“Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”), a collection of vernacular essays that typically take the form of comments on passages in Chinese Zen texts. Widely considered one of the masterpieces of Japanese Buddhist literature, the collection has been translated into English several times.

– Dr. Carl Bielefeldt, professor of religious studies and co-director of the Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford University

Buddhadharma: Many Buddhists know that Dogen is a central figure in Zen, but when they begin to read Dogen, they find him very hard to penetrate. First, why is he such a pivotal figure?

Bonnie Myotai Treace: Beyond Dogen’s significance as the key figure in the establishment of the Soto school, I think he is tremendously helpful to practitioners because he was a very good student. He combines radical thought with the poignancy of a spiritual disciple’s journey. Dogen speaks right to the heart of the matter. He has the poet’s vastness and the practitioner’s commitment to particulars. When you question him, you do find him hard to penetrate.

Dogen challenged not just conventional thought but conventional activity. He asked us to look into the real nature of expression, the mystery of birth, death and time. He asked us take up these issues in a genuine way and to question every word. I don’t think Dogen was ever an easy guy to have lunch with.

One of the characteristics of our culture now is we think hard equals bad or not worth our effort, instead of recognizing that very hard can be a sign of something very deep and significant. Hardness is actually helpfulness.

Taigen Dan Leighton: Dogen is uniquely important to American practitioners because he introduced the Zen mode of Buddhism to Japan. Likewise, we are now in the early stages of introducing Buddhism to the West, so there are a lot of lessons we can take from how he faced this challenge.

Dogen’s practice is counterintuitive to how a lot of Buddhists usually think, whereby meditation and practice are seen as a means to future enlightenment and the achievement of a goal. Part of what makes him a little difficult for Americans is our consumer orientation. He presents something complete as it is. Practice and realization are one thing. Practice is the expression of realization. His writing is difficult because he is not trying to present a doctrine or philosophy but rather talking to practitioners in a very playful way.

Concerning his historical impact and his impact on practitioners, I would say one of his outstanding contributions is introducing koan language to Japan. He brought an entirely new kind of discourse to Buddhist practice in Japan.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: Although Rinzai is not as big on Dogen as Soto is, Dogen really did set the tone for Japanese Zen. He inspired the whole flavor of Zen we are familiar with—that tone and taste that is appreciated everywhere, even by people who don’t practice Zen. It’s the feeling of entering into the present moment profoundly, the feeling that produces the tea ceremony and flower arranging. It’s the sacredness and power that comes with just being present. This sacredness is the underlying feeling of Dogen’s writing and it sets the tone for the Japanese approach to Buddhism.

In another vein, Dogen’s philosophies and intellectual contributions are stunningly contemporary, especially his language philosophy, which has been much discussed and written about in various arenas of postmodern thought. When the Japanese were looking for an indigenous, profound philosophy that could stack up against Western philosophy, they hit on Dogen as a thinker equal in sophistication to Western thinkers of a much later time. So Dogen is important now, not only for Zen Buddhists but for world religions altogether.

Steven Heine: I would like to address the question of Dogen’s difficulty. Almost all the writings of Chan and Zen from that period present difficulty when people try to appropriate and interpret them in a contemporary context. Dogen presents a dazzling array of materials; he includes references to a wide range of writings from China and presents them in a novel way. Dogen’s offerings have been amply translated whereas most of the other writings from that period haven’t been—with a few exceptions like the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff Record.

I would also like to say that this is a significant time in terms of the evolving understanding of Dogen in the West, since Taigen and Shohaku Okumura’s translation of the Eihei Koroku is about to come out. People have been getting used to the style of writing in the Shobogenzo for years, but they’re going to see an entirely different style in this collection of Dogen’s later teachings. And, of course, once again it will be hard for people to penetrate. But having both of Dogen’s major works available in English will add considerably to people’s understanding.

How does the Eihei Koroku differ from the Shobogenzo?

Steven Heine: The Shobogenzo was written in the Japanese vernacular and in the informal style of sermons given on various occasions. It primarily deals with thematic topics like buddhanature, time and genjokoan. Many of the fascicles also include monastic instructions, which partly accounts for it being hard to penetrate, because it veers from philosophical, theoretical writing to monastic regulations.

The Eihei Koroku contains much shorter sermons that are even more elusive to interpret because they do not contain much commentary or detail. Many of them are derived from Dogen’s presentations on ceremonial occasions.

Taigen Dan Leighton: The Shobogenzo essays are very philosophical—that’s why modern philosophers have been very impressed with Dogen—yet these long essays make it a little more difficult for people to feel the person of Dogen. Even though the shorter talks in the Eihei Koroku were given to monks in a more formal style, paradoxically they reveal Dogen’s personality more. I was at a Dogen conference this year where somebody said that Dogen didn’t have a sense of humor. In these short pieces, you get to see his teaching styles and his wit, his playfulness and his sentiment. It gives more of a sense of Dogen as a human being.

Dogen is commonly thought to have emphasized monasticism, and he did work hard to train a group of monastic disciples. Yet I think Dogen is very relevant in America, where most people doing Zen are practicing in the context of their everyday lives of work and relationship. Paradoxically, Dogen’s monastic writings, like the Instructions for the Cook, give an orientation to applying awareness and presence to everyday activity. These monastic writings are relevant to the way that Americans are practicing precisely because they deal with the mundane details of day-to-day living.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: It’s odd. The Shobogenzo is written in informal Japanese and is much more difficult and formal. The Eihei Koroku is written in a formal Chinese and yet is much more informal and easier to understand. For one thing, there is a language game that Dogen plays in Shobogenzo. If you read it for ten or twenty years, you begin to get a feeling for it. It’s a kind of intellectual yoga. In many cases, Dogen is dealing with the nature of language and thought and how to bring language and thought in line with Buddhist practice. Reading Shobogenzo itself becomes, then, a practice of mental yoga that involves trying to harmonize with Dogen’s way of expression. Once you get used to it, it isn’t nearly as impenetrable as it seems when you are outside of his style. That style of speaking doesn’t exist in the Eihei Koroku.

Taigen Dan Leighton: How Dogen plays with language—including in parts of the Eihei Koroku—is central to who he is. His language seems very difficult, and we can become quite confused when we try to understand it in the usual rationalistic, linear way. As Norman said, he is intentionally deconstructing language. He often comments on traditional koans and sutras in a way that unpacks dualistic habits of conceptualization. This mind yoga, if you will, helps us see through the ways we get caught by our usual thinking. The point of Dogen’s language is not that it is illogical or nonsensical, as some people have implied. Rather, he is using the old koan stories to show deeper levels of our dualistic thinking habits and the possibility of living the present experience more fully.

Since there is something profound within the contradictions, conceptual knots and word play in Dogen, how do you gain access to that? Do you need to train with a Zen teacher?

Bonnie Myotai Treace: To encounter Dogen is to be stopped in the course of your events, to lift the needle from the record. When you have the willingness to be stopped in the middle of the flow of language or to have your attention brought to a seemingly mundane activity, you are encountering Dogen. The way that Dogen seems to work on us may be particularly pertinent in our culture, where people seem so insistent on charging along. Whatever level of formal practice you are engaged in, if you are willing to let attention be a way to encounter the matter at hand, you shift away from the usual spirit of acquisition, of getting it, of acquiring it, of gaining access.

That is the first step: a willingness to allow genuine attention to be there. When that is in place, then you have trust, as opposed to the kind of arrogance that discards what is not immediately revealed. We shift for a minute from instant soup dharma to the deep flavors of a long-cooking soup. Then, if you apply the real heat—the zazen, the study with a teacher and the liturgy that maintains your allegiance to mystery—you have rich possibilities that can work within or outside a formal training structure. Part of what we miss when we allude to Dogen’s difficulty is that when we spend much time in the kind of attention he demands we become inspired, encouraged and involved in a way that is impossible to describe.

Steven Heine: Dogen’s language game forces you to see things from different perspectives. Here is the original koan record or dialogue. This is the way later people looked at it. Here is another way of looking at it that may be completely different, that may be contradictory, that may be complementary on some plane. And it doesn’t stop there. He is suggesting that there is a wide variety—perhaps an infinite variety—of ways of looking at the same sources, the same ideas. That is its own kind of instant Zen. It is not instant in the simplistic sense, but it forces the reader instantly into the world of multiple perspectives.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: One of Dogen’s chief purposes is to show you that the conventional, ordinary, taken-for-granted way of thinking and looking at the world is actually the cause of your being bound and suffering and confused. So rather than saying that to you in the conventional way, he demonstrates it. His language is the undoing of language. That’s what makes it hard to understand on a conventional level. When you do have the experience of going along with him in unmaking language and exposing your conceptualization, it is soaring, wonderful and inspiring. It can be great poetry.

Taigen Dan Leighton: One way I recommend to work with Dogen is to read his work as if listening to a symphony, to let it wash over you. Instead of trying to get some kind of understanding, play instead. Dogen is a very interactive writer. Turning around the language and turning it inside out, showing us how we are caught by our usual thinking, is part of the joy of reading Dogen. You can join him in playing with the ideas, images, motifs and sayings.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: Even as Dogen lets you soar with poetic freedom, he also grounds you. It is about the sophistication and subtlety of language, but it’s also about how to brush your teeth, go to the bathroom and put on your clothes. What would it look like if our commitment were total? What would it be to not exclude neither the greatest capacity of intellect nor something as simple as whether we slam the door?

Steven Heine: I agree with this wholeheartedly. In the other Chan and Zen literature of the period there is a dichotomy between the recorded sayings of the monks and the monastic regulations. Dogen integrates those two quite consistently and forces you to play the inspirational mind game, but to apply it to the most concrete of activities.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: One thing we should certainly touch on is the profundity and beauty of Dogen’s idea of zazen. I don’t know of anybody who writes about and speaks about zazen in such an inspiring way as Dogen does. His understanding of zazen is crucial.

What is the central characteristic of Dogen’s zazen?

Taigen Dan Leighton: Zazen is not a practice for future realization in Dogen, as we noted. For Dogen it is a celebration, a ceremony. I think it has to do with his roots in Tendai, the vajrayana of Japan, which he practiced before going to China. Zazen, for Dogen, is a way of expressing something deep, of enacting it. In some ways it is a kind of vajarayana practice. It is expressing the possibility of just being present with the reality appearing in our thoughts and feelings, as well as in sounds, sensations and posture.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: Perhaps the central characteristic of Dogen’s zazen is that there is no central characteristic.

We thought it would be interesting to choose several short selections from Dogen for you to comment on, to illustrate how one works with Dogen’s expression of the dharma. We could begin with these passages from the Gabyo fascicle in Shobogenzo:

An ancient buddha said, “The painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger.” This statement has been studied by ancient buddhas and present buddhas. Nevertheless, it has become the mere chatter of seekers in grass-roof huts and under trees. – If you say a painting is not real, then the myriad things are not real. If the myriad things are not real, then buddhadharma is not real. As buddhadharma is real, a painted rice cake is real.

Taigen Dan Leighton: He’s taking a traditional saying from a koan, going back to the idea that Zen is not expressed in words and letters and that the sutras are only a painting of a rice cake. What Dogen does in this section is a typical example of his undercutting false dichotomies and dualistic thinking. He ends up by saying that only a painted rice cake can satisfy hunger.

In so doing, he is stylizing the whole thing. He’s talking about truly understanding what our hunger is and what our satisfaction is and that, in fact, everything is painted. This discussion is a painted dialogue, painted by the phone company. Our idea of painting is yet another painting. He is undercutting the way we think of satisfying and satisfaction. This relates to the first noble truth, and the nature of our hunger and dissatisfaction, how we create suffering by separating ourselves from the world and by reifying false dichotomies.

There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger, you never become a true person. It is necessary to take on something that looks artificial—the forms and the structure of Zen—in order to see true reality, because there is no understanding other than painted satisfaction.

Steven Heine: The pattern is to create a conceptual reversal. Dogen starts with the original expression “painted rice cakes do not satisfy hunger,” and leads us to the conclusion that only painted rice cakes satisfy hunger. I think we could safely guess that if the original expression had been “painted rice cakes do satisfy hunger,” he would have turned it the other way round.

The point is not to end up with the refutation but rather the interplay of the statement and its contradiction.

Steven Heine: Yes, that is the intellectual yoga we were referring to earlier.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: This particular trait is very dear to me because of my long work as a poet. One of the key points here is to take apart the usual Zen dictum, “Don’t mess around with language and study but just get into real experience,” as if we could say this is language and that is real experience, and they are totally separate from each other.

Dogen points out that language is a human experience. What we call human experience outside of language is never really outside of language, because we conceptualize experience. If you divide language and experience, what you are really doing is conceptualizing experience. Just being present with life is neither inside nor outside language. As you appreciate what Dogen is doing here, your feeling for what experience is and your feeling for what language is are transformed.

For me, then, the challenge is, “How can I be a writer and be coming from the center of my experience as a Zen practitioner?” Dogen paves the way for that. In fact, he did that himself. He is very unusual in being a Zen teacher and a writer. Most of the Zen teachers gave talks but they didn’t write. Dogen was clearly a literary person and that has been helpful and important to me and many others.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: He lifts the burden from what is a word and what is silence and asks, what is it that satisfies hunger? It beckons us to just say hello, to meet eye to eye. Even if it’s just passing a bag of groceries from cashier to customer there is a living realization at that moment, and the bottomless hunger and the immeasurable offering meet right there, right here.

Is Dogen like Nagarjuna, the founder of the Madhyamika school, in the sense that there is no ideology to look for but only a process of working on your mind?

Bonnie Myotai Treace: Yes, you just can’t grab him.

Steven Heine: Dogen’s bottom the line is remarkably similar to Nagarjuna’s in terms of deconstructing misconceptions and not leading to a fixed conclusion but open-endedly divulging the array of possibilities.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: I agree. But on the other hand, Nagarjuna doesn’t say do zazen, do this ceremony, do this, do that. The writings of Nagarjuna that are usually cited are wholly philosophical. Dogen wonderfully combines philosophical perspectives, mind yoga, and very specific details about how to practice.

He is also leading a community.

Taigen Dan Leighton: That’s very important. In all of Dogen’s writings, whether they were written or given as a talk, he was talking to particular people. It’s easy to abstract Dogen’s writings as if he were a philosopher presenting doctrine, but he is always talking directly to someone. Modern Dogen studies show that particular people who studied with him had particular deficiencies in their Buddhist education and Dogen is talking to these particular students. So, while reading Dogen we can consider to whom he is saying a particular thing. He is a spiritual teacher; not a philosopher, even though what he left us could be seen as profound philosophy.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: In a way that makes naked all philosophers. It is easy to overlook the fact that every philosopher exists within a certain context and every statement about the nature of reality is made at a certain time and place. Awareness of that lightens the tendency to think, “I need to enter this all in the filing system and then I’ll understand.” Dogen exposes that and leaves you with something less solid, more liquid. You can’t stop where it is going to flow or how it is going to change.

Steven Heine: Dogen was developing this multi-perspective outlook in his teaching so that it would address different audiences but not compromise its ability to be heard by many other possible receivers of the message. This was an important feature of the monastery system he was trying to develop.

Let’s consider a passage from one of the Shobogenzo fascicles that many people find quite difficult, Uji, or “Existence-Time”:

Time is already just Existence, and all Existence is Time. The sixteen-foot golden body is time itself. Because it is Time, it has the resplendent brightness of Time. We should learn it as the twelve hours of the day.

Taigen Dan Leighton: Uji relates very much to traditional Buddhist ideas about time. When I talk about this, I always refer to the ten times of the Hua Yen school: the past, present and future of the past; the past, present and future of the present and of the future; and all nine of those together. Dogen’s point is that time is our being, our presence, our experience. It’s not some external container. Time also moves in many different directions; it’s multi-dimensional. It’s not, as he says, yesterday to today to tomorrow. It’s moving in many different ways. We start to understand, for example, that how our talking about the past changes the meaning of the past right now and in the future. The story we tell about the past makes the meaning of the past different depending on what story we choose to tell.

What he’s really talking about is how we see our experience. He says we should question our idea of time. We should include the idea of nine o’clock, ten o’clock, eleven o’clock. We don’t get rid of that, but we can get rid of the idea of time as an external container. What he’s saying about time is relevant to modern physics. In string theory, for example, there is a completely different orientation towards reality and it seems congruent with what Dogen is saying here. There is not an absolute, ultimate envelope of time that we are in.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: To understand Uji it does seem to be helpful to bring in material from other areas. Recently I was studying Uji once again and at the same time I was studying a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel called The Sabbath. It turns out that the sabbath is all about time. Heschel’s philosophy of time divides time and space. He says space is the material world, stuff, and time is inherently sacred. That’s also Dogen’s take-home message. He’s saying that we think of time as some objective physical container in which we are moving, but, in fact, time is a flow of being. It’s a flow of our being not limited to our small, physical, locatable selves but it is rather our immense buddha-selves. When we recognize time as that, our experience of being, our experience of time, becomes quite different. Heschel’s idea of time is not the same as Dogen’s idea of time, but I think it does help to understand and appreciate what Dogen is saying. He’s making an argument for the sacredness, the non-objectivity of time, and the inseparability of time from ourselves, our own experience.

Steven Heine: You can indeed compare Dogen’s view of time with modern physics. You can compare it with Jewish mysticism or other forms of philosophy or theology. You can illuminate it from a number of different directions. For example, philosophers from Aristotle to Heidegger have had ideas that have similarities. However, Dogen is not particularly systematic in his approach to time. There are suggestions about time in Uji, obviously, in Genjokoan, in Bussho and in a few other places. They are all very tantalizing, but it’s a little tough. We wish we could sit him down and say, “O.K., give it to us straight.” But the message overall seems to be about the internalizing time. You are in control of time; you are the master of the moment. Break down the barriers of practice and realization, the barrier between means and ends. Time is being, being is time, and it’s within us.

There is also a kind of poetry in this section, when he talks about “the resplendent brightness of time.”

Bonnie Myotai Treace: That’s a good one to let wash over you. This is Dogen’s great shout. Knowing without knowing is resplendent. You trust that shaking of the eardrums When one of these arrives from Dogen, it settles in my heart and I feel like someone’s hand is on my shoulder. It leaves my intellect and becomes a sense of pressure on the skin, a touch.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: This teaching is also quite practical. The other day I was working with a group of business people on time management. Everybody’s so freaked out, doing all these things at once and feeling oppressed by time. So I talked to them about Uji. I’m working on this myself, because I also run around. So I remind myself, “Wait a minute. Time is not this objective, outer phenomenon whereby I have to do this many things in this amount of time. Time is my life, time is being.” As soon as I realize that and feel that touch that Myotai is talking about, I don’t to feel time pressure. The businesspeople understood this.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: There’s another line in Uji that’s always been one of my favorites, where he says, “You should learn that unless myself puts forth the utmost exertion, and lives time now, not a single thing will be realized nor will it ever live time.” I remember the first time I read that I felt such a sense of intimate life being encouraged. There is a gate that opens to the past and a gate that opens to the future, if you will. You suddenly find yourself right at that nexus point. It’s very stilling and it requires everything of you. It can’t be deferred or delayed. It’s just.

Taigen Dan Leighton: There’s something he says along with that which is profoundly comforting and consoling. Even though he is talking about fully engaging, he says, “Just actualize all time as all being. There’s nothing extra. Our so-called extra being is thoroughly an extra being. Thus, the time-being half-actualized is half of the time-being completely actualized. And a moment that seems to be missed is also completely being.” So even though, as Myotai said, there is some way in which our full engagement of time is demanded, even if we only can get that halfway, that’s completely half our being-time. That’s comforting. It allows one the freedom and space to actually dig into being-time.

Steven Heine: You took the words right out of my mouth, because I also find that part very inspiring, particularly: “Full being-time half-known is a half being-time fully known.” Half and full are relative terms, but whatever you exert yourself to, the exertion can be complete in a particular instant.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: Time can also be an excuse for despair, and I think Dogen offers a very skillful treatment. When we hear the gatha before we retire each evening, “Take heed, do not squander your life,” if we are practicing in a genuine way at that moment, there is excitement in the heart. If we are ready to explain or complain, we drop into the attitude of, “It’ll never be enough,” or, “I’ve squandered it all already.”

Is there a sense in which this teaching about time deals with the basic struggle in the first noble truth?

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: We are always struggling against the fleetingness of time. With Dogen’s time, every moment is intimate, uncanny and complete. Even at the moment when we aren’t exerting ourselves, even when we think we are confused and there is no time, time is complete, life is complete. All of the past and the future are in fruition at every point and that is the part that is so comforting and intimate. There is no struggle, no grasping, at that point.

Bonnie Myotai Treace: Struggling is just struggling.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer: Struggling is also complete.

Steven Heine: It’s interesting that Dogen comes out of an aristocratic background that pervaded some parts of Zen culture in China and Japan. The literati spent their time going to poetry contests and trying to amuse themselves intellectually and aesthetically, a kind of salon or café life. The Taoist poets often asked, “How do we kill time?” Dogen is saying that before time kills us, we have the moment.

Clearly, you can spend a lot of time with a little bit of Dogen and keep pulling more out of it. Let’s consider another famous line from Dogen from Genjokoan: “To study the self is to forget the self.”

Taigen Dan Leighton: For many students, when they hear this, they want to jump to forgetting the self. The point of it is we need to keep studying the self. That is forgetting the self. As the Dalai Lama has said, non-self in Buddhis

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