September 7, 2018

Germany #9

On August 26 we completed the 9th annual sesshin in Laufen, Germany. It is always a tremendous joy to practice together with this dharma family that has grown in Europe. Each year I am touched by their sincerity, and at times astonished at their transformation. They are doing the work.

Afterward a few of us went to Switzerland to see some possible sites there for an additional future event. Details will be announced as that is confirmed.

Thank you to all these participants. Looking forward to next year, our 10th anniversary together.

Small joys

Most of the year at Korinji meals are eaten in the traditional monastic way, which involves chanting and other ritual, servers (handaikan), and use of the formal eating bowls (jihatsu) that residents keep near their seats in the meditation hall.

But during seikan, the two short periods of less formal practice each year, only breakfast is formal. Lunch and dinner are more relaxed and eaten family style from the kitchen rather than with jihatsu. Since one of the seikan periods (the current one) falls during the late summer, we can enjoy fresh vegetables from our garden then as well as wild greens and apples.

Today's lunch is a good example of seikan fare: onigiri (rice balls) stuffed with homemade takuan (pickled radish) and shiso leaf. Miso soup with potato, carrot, and daikon. Zucchini, cucumber, and tomato salad.

Seikan is a good time for beginners to visit Korinji to get a taste of Zen monastic life. Daily meditation practice totals 2.5 to 3 hours (instead of the 4+ that is normal during other times of the year). Many aspects of the schedule are more flexible, and there is free time for personal study or solitary practice.

If you would like to visit Korinji, contact us any time through the site:

August 2, 2018

Documentary Project: Carving the Divine

A fantastic and needed documentary project examining Japanese Buddhist sculpture, for those so interested: Carving the Divine.

I was happy yesterday to talk with the director for a Carving the Divine TV short episode. We discussed Zen, and the ways in which Rinzai practice uses Buddhist iconography not just symbolically, but as a sources of encoded information RE body, breath, and the physical and energetic transformation that come with practice fruition. That bit will be posted in the next few months; he is interviewing scholars and practitioners from other Buddhist schools as well.

One may sign up to be notified when weekly episodes are released, here.

June 21, 2018


Just another photo of Korinji. Yet after 15 years of planning and work, this particular spot - a short stairway leading up to the deck - is special.

Around noon today the steps were finished (temporary steps had been in place since March). It seems a small thing, but these steps were actually the last remaining piece of construction.

Therefore, as of today - the summer solstice of 2018 - the building of Korinji monastery is done.

June 17, 2018

Within the room

The sanzen room at Korinji
Rinzai Zen is well-known for its use of koans as a skillful method allowing the student to enter, and afterward clarify, awakening. Especially since the time of Hakuin and his disciples, who organized and refined this method to a very high degree, it is probably even fair to say that Rinzai Zen is best known for this particular practice.

That being said, it is not popularly recognized in the West that koan training in Rinzai Zen is not a homogeneous thing at all. Each teaching line, in fact, transmits its own nuanced style of koan practice, flavored by the personalities and the training experiences - sometimes recorded, sometimes transmitted orally - of its past lineage holders. These transmitted styles of koan practice are called a lineage's shitsunai: literally, what takes place "within the room," that is, the sanzen or dokusan room where master and disciple encounter one another.

Generally, there are two main so-called schools of Rinzai Zen koan shitsunai: the Inzan and Takuju schools, named for Inzan Ien (d. 1814) and Takuju Kosen (d. 1833), both dharma heirs of Hakuin's student Gasan Jito (d. 1797). The different personalities of these two teachers are often said to be what makes their schools of koan practice distinct one from another. As described by Dumoulin in his Zen Buddhism: Japan, "Inzan Ien, a man of powerful naturalness, confronted and pursued his disciples, while the quiet, balanced Takuju preferred a more steady and methodical sort of progress."

Whether or not this and similar characterizations are true, we may observe that in Takuju koan practice one generally works through a series of koans from various collections, such as Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, in their textual order. In Inzan style practice, however, this is not necessarily the case: koans from many sources may be encountered in a mixed order, according to an overall scheme that addresses specific points (and sets particular traps) for the student.

Of course, since each teacher is free to assign whatever practices seem to suit the student regardless of so-called school, no absolutes may be established. Still, it is interesting to think that general trends within the two schools do in fact stem from the characters of their namesakes. Recorded in our shitsunai documents are, in fact, jakugo (capping phrases) given by Inzan and Takuju in the course of their own koan practice under Gasan; from those alone, differences can (indeed, must) be seen.

Something else not generally known in the West is that even the Inzan and Takuju schools are not homogeneous traditions. The Inzan school has at least two surviving sub-traditions, the Mino-ha and Bizen-ha. Our own shitsunai used at Korinji, and of course at Daiyuzenji in Chicago where So'zan Roshi is abbot, comes from Omori Sogen through our teacher Hosokawa Roshi. It is the style carried at Tenryu-ji and is, in fact, a mix of various traditions. Since I have trouble keeping those historical details straight in my mind, and for the benefit of our students, I will record them in the note at bottom (with thanks to Hosokawa Roshi, who made all this clear to us some years ago and whom I largely quote there).

If there are Rinzai Zen students reading this who are unclear what practice heritage their teachers carry, I would encourage them to ask and clarify the issue. The accumulated experiences - indeed, the enormous effort, sweat, and blood - of each lineage's forebears together constitute living inheritances that are extraordinarily precious. And, we should understand that these are not static or dead "curricula"; shitsunai can continue to grow and transform with the lifeblood contributed by each generation of practitioners...including our own. It is therefore good, I think, for us to start by knowing exactly to whom in the past - and in what manner - we are each deeply indebted.
Tenryu-ji's shitsunai (carried also by our teachers) is primarily the Inzan school Bizen-ha, with a little bit of Mino-ha and also some of the the Takuju style mixed in. This came about because Ryoen Genseki Roshi (d. 1918) did sanzen for seven years under Razan Roshi at Bairinji, which carries the Takuju style, before he became a student of Tekisui Giboku Roshi (d. 1899) at Tenryu-ji. One of the chief priests of Tenryu-ji also was Gasan Shotei (d. 1902); he did sanzen under Tairyu Buni (Mino-ha, at Shogen-ji Monastery) before himself becoming a student of Tekisui Roshi at Tenryu-ji. Both Ryoen Genseki and Gasan Shotei went on to become Tekisui Roshi's successors, and the shitsunai they transmitted each carries various elements from their mixed backgrounds. Gasan's lineage today is still carried at Shokoku-ji, while Ryoen's remains at Tenryu-ji.

June 11, 2018

Regarding solstices, dawn, dusk (and sesshin)

This coming Sunday our June sesshin, scheduled to coincide with the summer solstice, will begin. This is the final sesshin of Korinji's first ango.

Sitting during the solstice, when the energy of this part of the world is at its peak, is an intentional thing. Such times provide excellent opportunities to profoundly deepen one's meditation. In a like manner, at Tenryu-ji in the past the annual Rohatsu sesshin was scheduled not for the usual early December dates, but rather near the winter solstice: at that time the energy of the world, at its ebb, turns finally to increase...and so in one's practice also a new birth can be experienced.

Related to this, students often ask what times of day are best for meditation. In the hectic daily schedules most of us lead, the answer is: any and all times. But there is, in fact, a traditional answer to the question. The time just before and during dawn, when the entire world comes alive with the sun's energy, and also the time from sunset into dusk, when the world sinks down into calm stillness, are said to be best. This is because changes in the levels of energy, wakefulness, and light during such times have subtle effects on the body-mind. At morning light, and at twilight, it is rather easy to enter samadhi.

It is natural, I think, for different people to prefer one or the other of those times. Mornings are fine, and I especially enjoy the practice of chanting several rounds of Marishiten's mantra - one of my duties as abbot at Korinji, since Marishiten is the guardian of the monastery - just as the sun is rising. But I am particularly fond of dusk. The raucous birdsong around the zendo gradually tapers off then, and the calls of great horned owls and coyotes begin to be heard from far off. The sound of the han, the wooden sounding board, echoing through the trees and down into the dark ravine seems especially poignant then, and filled with a kind of dark, crystalline clarity.

Back to sesshin, I am especially excited about this one as we've finished most of Korinji's landscaping  (awaiting only the sprouting of the grass). This means it will be the first sesshin in which the frequent walk between the zendo and residence - for dokusan, morning chanting, and meals - will take place entirely on a graveled path with steps. How wonderful! If rain comes, we will no longer slide downhill on wet mud as if on skis.

We're looking forward to this intensive training period. Persons interested in being guests may contact the monastery:

June 1, 2018

Weird Wisconsin: Korinji edition

This region of Wisconsin does not lack for legends, ghostly occurrences, and odd happenings; the topography is ancient and possessed of a certain energy that has been often commented upon. So I am no longer surprised when Korinji guests or residents report unusual experiences.

I myself had the first of these. It was shortly after we purchased the land and well before there were any buildings here. Camping in the open one night I was awakened by footsteps, and sitting up found that a 30-ish man with black hair, dressed in a plaid shirt and work pants, stood looking at me. "I'm John," he said. "I used to hunt this land. I had a wood shop in town." Then he was gone. I have yet to research woodworking or similar businesses in town, and whether anyone named John ever owned one.

One place on the Korinji grounds about which guests sometimes comment is the dark ravine bottom below the main gate, where a foot bridge crosses over a gulley cut by storm run-off. I often advise that this quiet place - still and in shadow even at midday - is an especially ideal place to do yaza (solitary free meditation practice) at night. But those who do so often find that they can't bear the place. It has, they say, a kind of overwhelming energy, generally described as dark or extremely yin in character; not sinister, but strongly present and hard to endure. Unless one's meditation is extremely stable, it is felt, the conditions there can be energetically crushing.

I personally find that area comfortable and not off-putting. The contrast between the dark ravine and the open, brightly lit hillside above is part of what attracted me to this land. But I do like the idea that our small bridge marks a place of transition, like the span for which Ichabod Crane galloped. Here at Korinji perhaps it marks a point of passage at which you had better have your act together, and set your intention strongly, before going up to the monastery gate.

Finally, this was reported to me only last night: it seems that several of the Korinji residents believe we have a recurring spectral guest. One of the them, while striking the han (a wooding sounding board), has watched with surprise on several occasions as the figure of an old Japanese man wearing black robes (the garb of a Zen monastic) walked suddenly up onto the porch and into the zendo. Simultaneously, another resident inside the zendo sensed - and saw out of the corner of her eye - the movement of someone actually entering the hall. On yet another occasion, this same figure was seen standing on the upper deck of the house looking out over the trees.

Of course, there definitely is one old man walking around in black robes here: me. But on these occasions it seems I was elsewhere accounted for.

So if you visit Korinji, I can't guarantee that you will not have such experiences. My advice is this: if you run into an old Japanese monk wandering the grounds, please just place your palms together and bow. And when you walk the trail from our parking area down into the ravine bottom where the wooden footbridge sits, walk across carefully, with focus...and perhaps a little quickly!

May 29, 2018


A first bookcase was completed today: the seed of Korinji's library.

Nearly 30 years ago a friend and I were shown a kindness by our refuge teacher in Kathmandu, who invited us to use his monastery's collection of English-language books for our studies. Unexpectedly today I find myself recalling that time with some emotion, as I unpack and shelve these books for our own small library.

Some of them have been in storage since university days; now they've reached their final destination.

May 10, 2018


After a few false starts it seems that spring is truly here at Korinji! It's all blossoms and bird song around the place.

But I recall that the beginning of this spring/summer ango felt more like the start of a setsu-ango - the "snow" retreat that runs through January. Snow indeed kept falling throughout March and April...six inches here, 8 inches there, with melts and mud in between. For the first month at least our residents often endured temperatures inside the zendo down into the teens.

The first morning of ango particularly hit each of us quite hard, I think. The deep emotion I felt as we woke at 4:30am and made our way downhill, in frigid darkness under a brilliantly starlit sky, is indescribable. But later that day one of the residents commented off-hand, "I felt cold  even in the roof of my mouth!" I thought that was brilliant: really, how often does one feel so cold that even the palate and throat have no warmth? I immediately wrote a verse to capture the feeling of that morning:

Picking our way through frozen mud,
     Orion steps up from the zendo roof.      

Inside the hall, bitter cold penetrates
even to the roofs of our mouths.

The wood is damp, the stove won’t light.
Breath and stretched spine are fire enough.

Incense and steam from nostrils mixed:
an offering to Monju Bosatsu.

"Breath and stretched spine" refers to a method that one can use to generate heat during zazen. Though the surface of the skin will still feel uncomfortable, one does not feel pierced through by the cold or lose core heat. But then comes kinhin - walking meditation - and the cushion of warm air in and around one's clothing while sitting in stillness is suddenly stripped away. We eventually began practicing zazen inside the residence on the most bitter days, or when ice and snow made the walk to the zendo treacherous.

But I am grateful for the experience of beginning this first ango at Korinji within cold, still whiteness. And now the ground that was frozen solid has warmed and yielded to the hoe. Behold our new garden plot, nearly ready for planting...

May 3, 2018

Zen and Food

A typical dinner at Korinji: plain brown rice, zosui (a stew made from the past few day's leftovers...this one has zucchini, carrot, miso, crumbled tofu, and ginger), broccoli salad (the broccoli is leftover from lunch when it had been baked with sesame oil and salt...but now chilled and mixed with vinegared cucumber and more leftover tofu), and finally homemade takuan (pickled daikon) which will be used with tea to clean the bowls before being eaten.

Meals here are eaten formally using jihatsu (nesting bowls) and chopsticks. Breakfast and lunch are both essentially a kind of ceremony that includes chanted texts, the empowerment of a small portion of the food to be dedicated as as an offering to all beings, and reminders to not only be grateful for the food, but to use it well to fuel one's practice. Dinner is less formal...meaning no chanting.

These meal forms were originally developed as a way to feed many monks quickly in large monasteries, and in a manner that would not interrupt their absorption in practice. Though beginners often find these protocols difficult, with a little time they become enjoyable and relaxed. Although there is no conversation, one feels the communal energy very strongly during these group meals.