February 25, 2017

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 4

Note: this is the fourth in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

We’ve finally come to the last talk in this series. Here, I want to discuss Zen teachers, including so-called “Zen masters.” In particular, we should be clear regarding the different teaching titles that people may carry. Most importantly, we should understand what the responsibilities of teachers are…and what they are not.

The first thing I always wish to affirm when discussing teachers is that all Zen practitioners are ultimately responsible for their own spiritual well-being and progress on the Zen path. Naturally, because guidance and practice instructions from those more experienced than us are crucial for navigating the path, and because our own habitual delusion is deeply entrenched, we should seek teachers who can point the way. In Zen, also, there is the fact of kensho – seeing one’s nature, or initial awakening – as both entrance to the path and the basis of subsequent practice; we can say that the Zen teacher’s initial job is to cause us to recognize our nature, to have this awakening. So teachers are important, and in fact the lifeblood of the Zen way lies in the relationship between teacher and student. Nevertheless, we should remember that this need for guidance from someone who has walked where we wish to go, and seen what we wish to see, does not mean that responsibility for discerning that our direction remains genuine—day after day and year after year—falls in the end to anyone other than ourselves.

For this reason and others, we may certainly take our time when choosing a teacher. It is necessary to do so, really, in order to gain confidence that we will indeed be able to work with whomever we choose. We should not rush to commit to a teacher, but rather should examine several, attend retreats with them, listen to or read their teachings and so on, in order to ensure that there is some affinity. Teachers, in fact, should also take their time in accepting students. Both should never lose the mind that all of us—beginner or advanced, student or teacher—ultimately carry the burdens of our own paths. Zen teachers exist to point out the correct direction, to teach us the methods of practice which help us to progress, and to help us return to the path when we drift off course. But we ourselves may choose those teachers

Following a Zen teacher is thus not a mindless act without agency, or one of submission. It requires a continued discernment and engagement. It is a relationship of mutual exploration, and mutual care taking. In fact, the core practice of the student-teacher relationship in Rinzai Zen—sanzen, or face-to-face dharma encounter—is really not even an encounter between teacher and student at all: it is simply an intimate meeting of two human beings, both deluded and both completely Buddhas, who must there reveal themselves openly in a manner beyond rank, hierarchy or titles. If this mood and function of sanzen is ever lost, then it is certain the relationship will become something twisted.

I believe I have stressed these points sufficiently. It may sometimes be necessary to do so, especially since many of us in the West come to Zen with expectations—perhaps conditioned by the orientalist myth still surrounding Buddhism and Eastern spirituality—of finding all-knowing, perfect masters who will simply tell us how we should live. My first exposure to Buddhism, heavily colored by such myth, led me to want to travel to the Himalayas, where I had no doubt a great master in some hermitage or cave would reveal to me the deepest secrets of existence. Such are the kinds of things we may have to see through in order to actually work effectively with a living teacher. 

As an aside, I did go to the Himalayas and did meet great masters. I was not actually disappointed. What they showed me was not a great secret, though…it was simply to point out that which I already did not lack. This was not at all different from what my later Zen teachers also caused me to recognize. So, perhaps such myths and expectations are not wholly useless, if they lead eventually to the crucial recognition that there is neither West nor East in our own nature, no place where the true master is absent, and ultimately no need to seek for anything. 

Returning to the subject of teachers, there is one more thing I would like to mention. There has been a recent tendency in the West to conflate Zen practice with psychotherapy. There are Zen teachers—some, indeed, who simultaneously work as therapists—who have asserted that there are broad similarities between Zen training and psychotherapeutic treatment, and that the Zen student-teacher bond and the client-counselor relationship (including the ethics governing same) are essentially identical.

There are many reasons these kinds of assertions have become popular, but personally I think they are misguided and do a great disservice to both Zen and psychotherapy. I do not say that, broadly speaking, there are no useful connections between Zen and psychotherapy. There certainly are. However, their ultimate intentions are not in all cases identical at all, and the genuine Zen student-teacher relationship is often in fact nothing at all like that between client and therapist. 

I do not wish to get too deeply into this subject here. I will simply say that to assume Zen teachers are, or should be, trained as therapists is a gross error. A student who would benefit from therapy should, in fact, seek it out from someone so trained, and I think ideally should do so before beginning to work with a Zen teacher. Zen teachers, for their part, should clearly know that they are not defacto trained as therapists, and that the intent of Zen practice may, in some cases, actually undermine a course of therapy. They should recognize that factors such as lack of healthy ego development or boundaries—and certainly, acutely dangerous mental illness—may sometimes preclude Zen practice entirely until such conditions are addressed. 

It is similar, in fact, with unrealistic expectations that Zen teachers are, or should be, trained in “pastoral care” or “spiritual direction” in the manner of Christian ministers in the West. This is also not necessarily the case, and so can be a misleading assumption which does disservice to both vocations. Almost without exception the ordained Zen persons I know, including myself, have no such training at all. Our training has almost solely focused on Zen practice methods with the intent of liberation. To use Western religious terminology: we have trained as contemplatives, not pastors, ministers or priests.

So in short, I think we should all be clear what the intent of Zen training actually is, as the Zen tradition itself defines such. We should be clear what role the Zen teacher plays in that. Should students require something outside the pale of Zen training—like psychotherapy, or spiritual direction—they should be encouraged to seek those things out from persons so trained. This is not to say that Zen has limitations, or that a Zen teacher could not theoretically adapt those disciplines to Zen practice in some cases. My personal feeling, however, is that each is most potent when kept separate. The Zen teachers I respect most who happen to also be therapists do not, in fact, permit their clients to be their Zen students, or their Zen students to be their clients.

Let’s move on now, and talk about the categories of Zen teachers. 

In Rinzai Zen practice, after many years a moment may arrive at which the student—having completed formal training including the entirety of the shitsunai, or course of koan practice, carried in that lineage—is judged to be sufficiently advanced to thenceforth self-guide. Such a person may then be able to receive inka shomei: the "seal of proof" which certifies one as a lineage holder. We sometimes call this “mind-seal” or “mind-stamp;” it means that the student’s depth of Zen experiential understanding at least matches the teacher’s.

Who, then, decides all of this? Who verifies the recipient of inka shomei? Solely the teacher. It is not an organizational matter, but one that occurs within the personal relationship between teacher and student; no one else has any say over it whatsoever.

Now, it is important to understand that inka shomei does not mean the student is done practicing. On the contrary, mind-seal only marks the beginning of a most crucial and difficult phase of advanced practice, and one which there is no guarantee the student will be able to complete. But the main point here is that things are now up to that student. The teacher has done everything that can be done, and responsibility for accomplishing the final leap and attainment of Zen’s fruition—to be accomplished over subsequent years and decades of practice to embody and integrate intrinsic wisdom—now lies fully with the student. He or she has been kicked out of the nest, so to speak.

Such persons may sometimes be addressed as Roshi, “venerable teacher,” or Rokoji, “venerable layperson” if they are not ordained. In English, for some reason they are often referred to as “Zen masters.” But I hope I have made it clear that they, in fact, are not done practicing at all. If they are masters, at this point it really just means mastery of certain practice methods, not status as perfected masters far above other students. Actually, I should mention here also that inka shomei itself is not automatically permission to teach or take students at all. There are many persons who might receive inka shomei, but because of their characters, wishes, or other factors might never be suited to the activity of teaching others. Traditionally, in fact, a person receiving inka shomei is advised to avoid teaching for a period of time—even ten or twenty years—in order to first mature; this is the phase of practice called “nurturing the holy embryo.”

These days things do not always happen that way, perhaps especially in the West since oftentimes persons receiving inka shomei are older, or else there may be a need for them to begin teaching quickly because Zen teachers are few. I myself am one of those who began teaching well before the ideal time, and there continue to be many moments in which I am painfully aware of this. 

One difference between ordained persons and laypersons receiving inka shomei, traditionally, is that laypersons generally do not carry the expectation of training a successor or successors to whom the lineage can, in turn, be transmitted. This makes sense, since finding and training successors is a heavy burden, and laypersons generally have other responsibilities precluding them from devoting the necessary time to training such successors. You may recall that in my earlier talk about ordination I defined its essential point to be that Zen-related activity is one’s primary vocation. Of course this is not to say that laypersons cannot teach. There are no fixed rules, and again it all depends on the characters of the people involved as well as the permissions actually granted by one’s teacher.

A final thing I should probably mention regarding inka shomei is this: another term by which it has sometimes been known in English is “dharma transmission.” I do not use this term, however, and not only because it is an inaccurate translation of inka shomei. In fact, this term has caused considerable confusion in the West. The reason is that in Soto Zen “dharma transmission”—shiho in Japanese—in fact refers to something different: a common rank that most ordained persons attain in the course of their training, and which does not in that tradition grant teaching permission. The Rinzai inka shomei, on the other hand, is quite rare, and as noted signifies the completion of formal study and potential qualification to take disciples of one’s own. As a result of this mistaken conflation of shiho and inka shomei, some Soto ordained persons, since they have “dharma transmission,” are incorrectly considered to be fully qualified teachers of Soto Zen. For this reason, I think it best for Rinzai practitioners to not use the term “dharma transmission” for inka shomei, and to just say “mind-stamp” or “mind-seal” instead.

Leaving aside inka shomei now: there is one more certification to mention, which I would like to give to some students in the future. It signifies that they, while not yet Zen teachers or lineage holders, are qualified to teach basic practices such as susokukan (that is, seated meditation using the breath-counting method), fundamental breath practices, chanting, and so on. In other words, these are persons who could be qualified to run practice groups and give basic instruction to beginners. 

Currently I am calling this certification simply “Meditation Instructor.” Since practice group leaders are indeed on the front lines, so to speak, it often falls upon them to give the first instruction to a new Zen student. I therefore do think this certification can be useful. All ordained persons should of course be able to teach fundamentals in this way...certainly at least by the time they receive osho, or senior ordained, status. Laypersons taking Nyudo ordination should also strive to gain these abilities quickly if they do not already have them.

It is my hope to eventually give Meditation Instructor recognition to any such students who are qualified, and for whom it will be useful. Some students who have organized practice groups are already working very hard to introduce Zen training to others. I appreciate this deeply, and wish to support their efforts in this way.

At this point, I hope that these categories of Zen teachers in our tradition are clear: Roshi and Rokoji who have completed formal practice under their teachers, and what I am calling Meditation Instructors who have not yet completed formal practice but may still be able to assist beginners. More importantly, I hope I have sufficiently emphasized that the Zen teacher’s role, even for those we may call “masters,” is not at all to sit in a position above the student, to be aloof and beyond, or to demand complete self-negation. Zen practice itself negates the self, in the most positive manner…there is no need for a person to do it.

Rather, I hope students will view teachers in the manner I have expressed: as experienced guides, as “spiritual friends,” and above all as fellow practitioners. They are human beings who, even if they have climbed a little sooner or higher than us, are now called upon to simultaneously reach down and help others up. Sometimes, actually, they will need our help: "teacher" and "student" are not fixed roles, and we all in the end must be teachers to one another.

When we enter the sanzen room to meet our teachers, it is true that we should view that person sitting before us as a representative of the lineage, carrying its energy and intentions; I for one have no hesitation bowing to such a person. But it is also true that each of us, as students, are the next links in that chain, and the next vessels into which the blessings of our lineages are being poured. This is not something lower; if anything, it is a higher place than that of the teacher. As someone who has now come to teach others in some small capacity, I have to say that in my heart I constantly have the feeling to bow in return—even more deeply than I did to my teachers—to each of these students. Without them there is no lineage, no continuation, and no transmission at all.

I will thus be very pleased—and certainly relieved!—if someday one or a few of them will be able to continue this process onward, and take the teacher’s seat completely away.

With that, I’d like to conclude this series of talks. It was my intention to clarify, for all of us including myself, many of these practices and terms which we use so commonly. Again, I hope it was useful, and I’m grateful to all of you for the opportunity.

February 22, 2017

Publication updates

A few Korinji publication updates (or, what I am spending my time doing these days):

The introductory Rinzai practice text I completed last year is in Shambhala's hands with an anticipated publication date of early 2018. It looks like that may be right around the same time we hope to open Korinji for residential practice (more news on that soon). If the timing ends up such that both projects are completed close to simultaneously, it will indeed be fortuitous.

There are two more books I hope to complete shortly: one is on the subject of "direct pointing," i.e. Rinzai practice methods for the purpose of causing the student to have the recognition we call kensho, or to return to/remember that recognition along the path of post-kensho practice. For someone who has not entered the gate of kensho (or has doubts regarding their recognition) such methods can at least allow them to return to an essential clarity, and provide the basis for the deepening of samadhi (meditative absorption). Some of these practices are connected to teaching activity, but many others are self-pointing practices using one's own body, voice/sound, and mind.

The second text i hope to finish is on the subject of internal cultivation: the energetic and healing practices transmitted in Rinzai Zen.

All of these things are related, of course, and splitting them up into two works is purely for convenience. Regarding them, there are a number of points not always taught or discussed openly...not because they are particularly secret, but rather because they are customarily taught face to face rather than through texts. For a number of reasons, however, I think limiting them in this way is no longer useful.

If I can finish these three works then there will at least be clear, supplemental texts for future use in our Korinji community, containing practice details that are hard to reconstruct if their oral transmission is lost. Zen is not dependent on such texts, as we know...but they sure can help.

I appreciate all the support which so many of you continue to give to Korinji. It is what allows us to continue building our monastery, to practice together, and to work on completing projects like these.

February 17, 2017

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 3

Note: this is the third in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

The subject of this third talk is ordination. It is another subject about which a great deal of confusion exists.

There are several reasons for this confusion. One is that ordination in Japanese Buddhism, for various historical reasons, takes a different form than in most other Buddhist traditions. Another is that in the West we carry preconceptions about so-called “monks” or “clergy,” which are not always useful in this case. Finally, because Zen is relatively new in the West, it is true that the usual ways of doing things in Japan might not work—or do not yet exist here—and so things are still evolving. With these points in mind, I'd like to discuss the types of ordination, their essential points, and their requirements.

To start, we recognize two types of ordination in our tradition: a partial, lay ordination, and full ordination. Both take the same precepts, but the responsibilities are quite different.

Those who take a partial lay ordination are called Nyudo, that is, those who have “entered the Way.” Nyudo are laypersons who express a very deep commitment to practice, so deep that it may be said that Zen training is the primary focus of their lives. However, because of obligations and responsibilities which they cannot abandon, they are unable to enter into the extended periods of retreat or residential practice which are usual for ordained persons, or to make Zen-related activity their main daily work. Nyudo ordination, then, is a way for them to express their commitment, and if appropriate to take a more visible position of leadership in the community, without causing tremendous upheaval in their lives or the lives of their family members.

Nyudo take the same precepts as fully ordained persons: along with refuge in the Three Treasures, these are the Three Pure Precepts and Ten Grave Precepts. Nyudo do not have the ceremonial and other responsibilities of ordained persons, so in that sense they are quite free. They have historically cut their hair and been permitted to wear at least some portion of the ordained dress, and they do take Dharma names. But they have not usually been monastic practitioners, and so are not required to leave behind their usual vocations or families. When we read, for example, of famous lords or generals in Japan's warring states period who were ordained, these are often Nyudo; they did not abandon their positions (and possessions) to enter a monastery, or go into the mountains to do solitary practice. They continued to run their domains, and may even sometimes be seen in old paintings wearing rakusu over their armor...an interesting sight! Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen are among the most famous of these lords who were Nyudo. Indeed, "Kenshin" and "Shingen" are their Dharma names.

For various reasons, I believe this kind of ordination is actually the most suitable for many people today, and so it is my plan to offer it in the future. If there is a lay student who, having taken the five lay precepts and done perhaps a decade or more of practice, wishes to take on more responsibility for helping to lead the community, but is unable to live at Korinji or elsewhere in order to do the usual residential training for ordination, I would say it's no problem to take precepts instead to become Nyudo. It may also be that there are some persons who, because of age or other conditions, simply cannot fulfill the training requirements of ordination, and yet the depth of their practice does recommend them. Nyudo ordination might indeed be appropriate in such situations.

Now, let's move on and discuss full ordination. Originally, as in most Buddhist traditions, this signified a lifelong commitment to monastic or mendicant life including celibacy, minimal possessions, and the leaving of one's family. In Japanese Buddhism since the middle ages, however, the many rules of Buddhist monastic ordination have been replaced by the condensed set of Bodhisattva precepts mentioned above. The extensive systems of vinaya, or regulations for monks and nuns, which these condensed precepts replaced just never really took root in Japan. Furthermore, for several centuries in Japan ordained Buddhist practitioners have often been given the option to be released from lifetime celibacy, including permission to marry and raise families if desired. In Zen this might happen after an initial period of monastic training has been completed.

There are rather complicated historical, political and cultural reasons for all of this. But for our purposes here, it is enough to recognize that in Japanese Buddhism the situations and expectations of ordained persons have tended to be more fluid, and to display greater variation, than in some other Buddhist cultures. When it comes to Zen in particular, as I mentioned in the last talk, there is also a way of viewing and using the precepts which establishes a basis for flexibility; they have outer and inner meanings. This is true for the ordained precepts as well as the five lay precepts, so much of what I said in that last talk regarding the essential point of precepts applies here as well.

For these reasons, however, we do not today use the English word “monk” to refer to all Zen ordained persons. It is fine to call an ordained Zen person who is celibate, and living in a monastic or eremetic manner, a monk. But if that person then exits from monastic life and, as is not uncommon, enters into family life, certainly “monk” is no longer appropriate. For such persons the word “priest” has come to be commonly used. However, this can also be misleading since it carries other meanings which do not apply here. Our custom around here, therefore, is just to use the word “ordained,” as you may have noticed I am doing. This allows us to then define exactly what sort of ordination, and what expectations, each person carries. 

Given the variation and flexibility I have mentioned, what then is the essential point of Zen ordination? In my view, it is an acknowledgment that the Zen path is the practitioner's foremost priority and central vocation above all other life concerns. To ordain in Zen is naturally to commit to doing Zen study and shugyo for one's entire life. Of course that commitment can be expressed in many ways, or in different ways at different times of life; there is great flexibility. However they choose to express their commitment, though, ordained Zen practitioners are expected to make Zen-related activity their primary work and life focus, integrating all other activities into that.

In other words, fully ordained Zen persons might in some cases have to leave their normal work. They might have to leave, or forgo having, a family. They might have to set aside other career paths and obligations. They might not be able to use their time simply as they wish: there are retreats to attend, ceremonies to conduct for the people, and so on. I should stress that all of this is a vocation one chooses, not a title one is given. Although ordination is often incorrectly viewed in some communities as a rank or position one receives, it actually confers no status above others whatsoever. In fact, it really just signifies that one is a servant of all others. In other words: ordination is a job, not a title.

For these reasons, clearly, persons who already bear consuming family and career obligations might not be suited to ordination (and will likely be unable to engage in the required period of intensive residential practice which ordination at Korinji requires). If this is so, they are encouraged instead to practice as laypersons according to their abilities, and to express their commitment if desired through jukai or Nyudo ordination. In fact, there is nothing at all lacking in the lay path.

Now, for persons in Japan who wish to ordain in Zen, there is a usual manner. Persons so inclined would likely ordain fairly early in life, attend a related university (for example, in the Rinzai school there is Hanazono), and then enter into one of the sodo or training monasteries for a time. In other words, they will already be ordained when they enter into the monastery. After living there at least a year, such a person could perhaps be qualified to run a local temple and provide services to a surrounding lay community. For someone wishing to become a Zen teacher, of course, many more years of training would be required.

Here in the West, however, things must be different. For one, we have few sodo (part of the rationale behind Korinji, in fact, is to help remedy this lack). Most differently, however, very few people here have cultural or family connections to Zen, and so they do not often ordain young. It is more common, in fact, for a Zen practitioner here to begin training as a layperson later in life, and then only after many years to arrive at a place in which ordination seems appropriate; persons applying to live in a monastery in the West are thus not usually ordained, but may expect to do so during their tenure there.

Finally, even after ordination and upon leaving a monastery, such persons in the West may find it necessary to financially support themselves somehow through other means. They do not have local temples to run, or communities requiring their services and donating to support them, unless they build such on their own. Therefore, when I say that ordination means that Zen-related activity should be not only one's life priority, but one's primary vocation, you may understand what a burden this can in fact be here. Ordained Zen persons in the West are not stepping into defined roles...they are, largely, creating them as they go. Taking this positively, we can say that it is actually an exciting time.

There are many interesting questions to explore regarding the evolution of Zen in the West. But let's focus now on what will be required for ordination at Korinji. Again, these are not universal requirements, since different Zen teachers may certainly set different training requirements for their own students. What I will say here just explains how I plan to run the place that we are building.

First, from the standpoint of the fruition of Zen practice, we should always affirm that what is required for ordained persons to effectively serve others is a clear experience of recognizing one's true nature (kensho), and the ability to express the meaning of that awakening to others in some useful way. All of the following should be considered without losing sight of that crucial point.

I would request, then, that laypersons in our community who wish to take up the vocation of ordained life should make a personal resolution beforehand that, once ordained, they will remain so for a minimum of ten years. They should be free of debts or other obligations that would prevent them from living at Korinji. Note that regardless of outside family commitments, trainees residing at Korinji monastery are required to be celibate while there, and can expect periods of weeks or months during which they have only periodic contact with the outside world. It will thus be no problem to call them monks during their time there!

Once interested persons have arranged their lives to be sufficiently free, they can then apply to live at Korinji. If accepted, they should reside there for a minimum of one year. During this minimum period of residential practice, candidates judged to be suitable may take ordination as Shami (novices), and so begin life as Unsui (ordained monastic trainees). Aside from Zen practice, additional training may also be prescribed during this time according to each person's abilities and deficits, for example Buddhist or other religious/historical studies, training in fine arts or physical culture (in the manner of our lineage), ministerial or diversity training, and so on. Because many people wishing to ordain do not have a background in Buddhism aside from practice, and will not have attended any kind of Buddhist university, there may well be a great deal of such study to fill in gaps. 

My hope is that after at least one year of residential practice and study, an ordained person would at least be able to teach basic meditation to others, and perhaps be qualified to lead a practice group somewhere. Later, senior ordained (Osho) status may be given to ordained persons after a suitable period of time and maturation has passed. The recipient must have extensive experience of Zen practice (in or out of the monastery) including retreat periods over many years, and must be sufficiently trained to run a Zen center or temple, to perform various ceremonial functions, and to instruct others in a variety of Zen practices. 

Finally, I should say that there may be some persons for whom ordination is appropriate despite their not being able to reside at Korini, particularly if their backgrounds or unique abilities have given them an understanding of the embodied aspects of our practice. Of course things must always be addressed on a case-by-case basis, and in general there are no fixed limitations. I want also to affirm that not everyone who comes to do residential practice at Korinji needs to ordain. Laypersons can live and train there, and remain laypersons. It's no problem at all.

Now, none of this is the same as becoming a Zen teacher, which is a completely different thing. Doing residential practice or taking ordination do not themselves make one a teacher at all. However, certainly my hope is that future teachers will arise from among those who do intensive practice, including those who ordain. This is one reason a place of such practice like Korinji is useful.

The main thing, again, is to give life to the Zen teachings by awakening. To be honest, I hope that both lay and ordained practitioners of deep attainment will come out from our community, and that they will in the future manifest Zen insight in the world in endlessly creative ways that I cannot even imagine.

I hope this brief explanation regarding ordination has been helpful. In the next and final talk of this series, I will discuss the various types of Zen teachers, lay and ordained, which we affirm in our tradition.

February 13, 2017

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 2

Note: this is the second in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

Now in this second talk we come to the ceremony called jukai, which means “to receive the precepts.”

Jukai is the ceremony by which laypersons take refuge in the “Three Treasures” or “Three Jewels”—Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha—and receives the five lay precepts: to refrain from killing, stealing, misuse of sexuality, false speech, and intoxicants. The formal name for this ceremony is zaike tokudo: “staying at home [that is, remaining a layperson rather than ordaining], attaining the Way.”

These five lay precepts come from early Buddhism, and are used in nearly all Buddhist schools. The Soto school of Zen is an interesting exception, actually; jukai in that tradition uses a larger set of precepts, as found in the ceremony for full Zen ordination. The Rinzai school holds to the original five precepts for laypersons. Nevertheless, there is a type of partial lay ordination in the Rinzai tradition called Nyudo, “entering the Way,” which also uses the full ordination precepts without requiring monastic practice or the commitments of ordained persons. Thus, the Rinzai and Soto traditions are actually not so far apart. Certainly, the essential point of jukai is the same in both.

Let's first discuss taking refuge. Like shoken, the entrance into relationship with a teacher, we can say that taking refuge is self-negating in a way. It seems gutsy, and not an easy thing, to “take refuge” in anything.

I commonly hear students say that Buddhist practice does not require belief or faith of any kind. I understand what they mean by that: they are saying that our path is indeed one of practice, of experiential realization, rather than blind acceptance of dogma or reliance on saving grace bestowed by a deity. In Zen, one must experience for oneself what is meant by awakening, and so know within one's own body what the word “Buddha” signifies. However, since in the beginning we may not yet have had that experience, such ideas don't help us much. Therefore, there is a kind of minimal faith we must develop in order to truly take refuge in the Three Treasures.

We must at least believe, for example, that awakening and realization are possible, and that these things have been attained by others. The Buddha – along with all the great patriarchs and masters – stand as examples to us. Reading about their lives, experiences, and teachings, we must come to have faith that the path exists, and that they have actually walked it.

Furthermore, seeing that our own delusion is great and that in many ways we might not have the same natural ability, clarity, or power as those great practitioners of the past, we must come to have faith that we too can nevertheless walk such a path. Of course we often hear things like, “All beings possess the potential of Buddhahood, and intrinsically do not lack the awakened nature,” but just repeating such wonderful-sounding teachings doesn't really give us much faith in ourselves, does it. Again, in the beginning these are just ideas. So when we first come to Zen, even though we may know such conceptual teachings well, we still must take a leap of faith and choose to try practicing with our own bodies, and so to see for ourselves if we can actualize the teachings within our lives.

Of course we do not take this leap alone, since we have our teachers and community to support us. But again, these are minimal kinds of faith that we must develop at the beginning of the path. If at least these kinds of faith arise, then jukai can be appropriate.

Now, even better than what I have described above is this situation: based on actual experience arising within the crucial relationship with a teacher, a student begins to be naturally free of doubt regarding the path. If faith has arisen in this way through direct recognition of our nature, then we will know without question that the Buddha we take refuge in during jukai is precisely this one that sees, hears, thinks, and carries around this body. At that point,we can easily acknowledge the awakened beings of the three times (past, present, and future) and ten directions (that is, the entire universe), and say that we firmly commit to take refuge in them and their myriad Dharma teachings. We will know without any doubt whatsoever that this path others have walked is true and genuine, and that they did not deceive us. We can readily choose to follow their footsteps which, though formerly faint to us, are now becoming increasingly clear. We may even realize that, long before we knew it was so, we have been following them. We are already joined to this Sangha that transcends time and space. If a student arrives at this kind of place, then jukai is really just a formality. It merely seals something which has already happened.

In fact, for such a person, it may be that declaring refuge in the Buddha will seem sort of ridiculous, as much so as declaring that one has decided to stand upon the earth and below the sky. It may be that taking refuge in the Dharma, the teachings, will seem akin to saying that one's eyes are horizontal and nose is vertical. It may be that taking refuge in the Sangha, the community of realized noble ones, will seem superfluous since we already entangle eyebrows not only with the Buddhas and patriarchs, but with all creatures, the mountains and rivers, all things and phenomena, without exception. All of this being as it is, jukai in such cases is not a big deal at all.

So I hope it is clear that in Zen, taking refuge in the Three Treasures is ideally a bit more than just saying, “I revere the person Shakyamuni who lived in the 5th century BCE; I have learned about and accept the Buddhist teachings; I go for guidance to the community of practitioners.” At the very least, jukai should mark the arising of a kind of faith in the path, and faith that despite great delusion we will be able to walk the path. But it is even better if such faith blossoms from an actual recognition that one's own nature is not different from what we call “Buddha.” For that reason, shoken is more important in Zen than jukai, and in many cases may come before it. As I said in the first talk of this series, jukai is not required to practice Zen. What is required is that, through the “direct pointing” and instruction of our teachers, we enter the gate of Zen awakening which is the recognition called kensho. Having done this, we can begin the true Zen practice which takes that recognition as its basis. Naturally at such a time we will understand finally what “Buddha”, “Dharma” and “Sangha” mean, and what “taking refuge” truly signifies.

Now, let's discuss the five lay precepts received in jukai. Regarding precepts, I should begin by pointing out the obvious: as the precepts are a human creation, not commandments received from a god or supreme being, they can and will shift according to culture, era, and individual context. It is important, I think, to stress this especially in the West, where the religious traditions within which many of us were raised (or at least, the cultural backgrounds colored by these traditions) are enmeshed with absolute, dualistic views of good vs. evil, of pure spirit/soul vs. impure matter/body, of discomfort with sex and with the feminine, and so on. Furthermore, those are traditions that hold out a threat of eternal condemnation and suffering as the consequence for breaking absolute, divinely ordained rules.

But our approach is different. As human rules, precepts are things we are meant to use as human beings, that is, as normal, deluded, flawed people. Precepts are tools, and like all tools will be useful in some situations but not others. In general we can say that if there is no problem, a precept might not be needed. If I do not have a problem with stealing or getting drunk, for example, what possible use is taking precepts addressing those concerns? There is no need to do so. How do the precepts support our practice? How do they help create conditions conducive to the experience of clarity, the non-harming of self and others, the dissolving of habitual delusion, and the eventual recognition of wisdom? These are the questions which should frame our practice of the precepts, rather than concerns of breaking or keeping rules.

And, they are a practice. Each of the precepts is a teaching device to which we must give life through repeated examination. Each precept has a common meaning, as well as a hidden or inner one. The function of this inner meaning is, in fact, to directly point out to us our own nature. It is that intrinsic wisdom which is the essential point of Zen, and so it is that which we must call the source of true morality. If we can approach the precepts from this standpoint, then truly we may be able to use them properly, rather than be used by them This is the most important function of precepts in Zen.

Finally, there is one more thing we must say about precepts in general. It is that, ultimately, they are mostly impossible to keep. There is always some standpoint from which it may be said that we are all breaking all of them, all the time.

The precept against killing, for example, is completely impossible. Why do I say this? It is simply because by living at all, we unavoidably kill. As living beings we consume life, and there is no way around this. It is of course easy to see this in the act of eating meat; even if one has not actually killed the animal whose flesh is consumed, it is clear that meat or fish we purchase for ourselves was in fact killed for us, and so we cannot deny that by doing so we support and encourage the actual acts of slaughter. Is being a hunter worse than this, when it may be said that hunters at least most often try to kill their prey quickly and mercifully, rather than within the mechanized horrors of factory farming or industrial fishing?

I am not here saying it is wrong to eat meat; the Buddha and early Sangha were not strictly vegetarian, though the Buddha did forbid monks from killing animals for food, and from eating meat specifically killed for them. Some of the purposes for such rules are perhaps obvious and not so mysterious, given that the monastic order he created depended on alms from the surrounding community. What I am saying, though, is that eating meat or fish is participation in killing, and that unless one is truly a mendicant in the manner of the early Sangha—whose members begged for food, eating whatever they were given without discrimination and without preference for or the purchasing of meat— then one is indeed a party to killing. So, in that case the one choosing to eat meat must look at the truth with clarity, and decide what is best for oneself. Whatever the decision, one must try to see how it can fit with practice, and how to integrate it within practice. At the very least, for example, someone choosing to eat meat could say the mealtime mantra for the dead animal or fish, and in so doing generate an intention to encompass those creatures within one's path, just as they are joined to one's body when eaten.

Now, my vegetarian and vegan friends will here perhaps think they have chosen a superior path, but of course farming of any kind kills infinitely more living creatures than all the slaughterhouses and nets in the world. “But, these are just insects and other such things, unintentionally plowed and crushed in the act of tilling and harvesting...they are not higher animals,” is the usual reply. I find this line of reasoning odd, however, when I hear it from persons who simultaneously criticize “speciesism.” The fact is that in the Buddhist view these are all sentient beings. It is true that in the Buddhist teachings, human beings have been considered higher in a way than animals, and the killing of a human life viewed as a crime in a manner that killing other creatures is not. But again, it would be disingenuous for someone avoiding meat for ethical reasons to use such arguments. And finally, what of the lives of plants—living things that research increasingly suggests possess a kind of sentience? Can one avoid killing these and still eat?

So, perhaps I have made my point. In one way or another, we are all killing something and are parties to killing, all the time, every day, if we eat...no matter what our diet may be. In fact, we kill constantly simply by walking around on the earth with two feet. How many small creatures have I inadvertently crushed in this way? How many creatures died in the production of the goods I buy, or the extraction of resources upon which my modern life depends? What kind of burden upon other living things have we all been our entire lives?

Allow me to be the first to confess, then: I certainly killed today. I am truly sorry that my existence causes other creatures to suffer and perish, and so I try my best to minimize it. That way to minimize it may be different at different times, in different contexts, and according to different conditions. But I try my best. And above all, I try not to avoid looking at it, or to forget this fact that my life is fueled by other lives, and that those consumed lives make it possible for me to practice. Knowing this, I resolve to not waste those sacrifices, and not to waste my life which they have made possible.

But, it does not stop there. As I mentioned, there is an inner meaning to each precept. I therefore must confess that there were many times today—again and again—when I, unable to actualize the seamless upwelling of liberative wisdom which is the Zen path, fell back into my old dualistic, deluded ways of seeing. At those moments, in fact, it is true that in a way I killed the people I saw, I killed the trees and plants, I killed every object I encountered, I killed the entire universe, and I killed myself. Is this not also a truly grave offense? In fact, it is just this offense which has thrown me again and again back into the ocean of samsara, from beginning-less time until now. Today, like all of my days, I committed it constantly.

And so it is with all the precepts. If I am working with the precepts, it is my practice to look at myself carefully in this way, to recognize that I am constantly failing, and to resolve to do my best even when it seems impossible.

I may ask myself: did I steal something today? Did I benefit from the theft of anything, anywhere, from anyone? And further, did I fall into the delusional concept of ownership, of there being “things” I could possess, or of being one who possesses?

Did I misuse sexuality? This does not just mean “Don't sleep with someone who is bound to or under the guardianship of another,” the common meaning of this lay precept.  Did I fall into dualistic fixation upon or attachment to anything at all—my phone, my creature comforts, a person I love, my habitual dislikes, my comforting routines, my closed-mindedness or prejudices, the stifling yet oddly soothing contraction of view that seems to be taking root as I get older? Where am I attached, and to what have I become addicted?

Did I tell the truth today? If I hold up this teacup and say to you, “This is a teacup!”, is that the truth? Or is it the most outrageous lie, and one which utterly kills the cup?

Did I get drunk today? Am I not constantly drunk on the intoxicant of ignorance? Am I not high on my few, feeble glimpses of wisdom, using them to bolster rather than dissolve habitual views? Is it not true that I am, in fact, wandering in a sort of ultimate, endless bad trip of the delusion called “self vs. other”?

In Rinzai practice, at some point in our training we have the chance to look at precepts in a profound manner like this, by taking each up as a koan. But there is no need to wait for those koan, or even for jukai. You can practice with the precepts now by asking yourself such questions.

I hope each of you will consider deeply what it means for you to take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and what it means to take up the practice of the precepts by examining not only one's actions of body and speech, but crucially also of mind and intention. Taking refuge and the precepts are tools that must support the ultimate aim of our practice: to embody awakening.

You may have grasped by now, actually, that to call precepts “rules” is really not correct; they are more like lenses, revealing to us our fixations that give rise to unskillful—perhaps even mindlessly harmful—patterns of thought, speech and behavior. It can be said that someone who has utterly embodied awakening, and brought all the activities of body, speech, and mind into accord with it, is never apart from the essence of the precepts. It can also be said that the precepts, if they are misused or become themselves objects of fixation, should be completely smashed. There are even cases in which I might advise a student to break a precept intentionally, if indeed adherence to it revealed a brittle fixation. Breaking or keeping a precept is not the point; the point is what such breaking or keeping reveals, and how we could direct our practice in response to that.

As for myself, since I am just a normal, deluded practitioner, I can just say that taking up practice of the precepts, like most practices, involves a process of failing constantly, and of just trying again and again to do my best.

We should remember that Hakuin said that it would be better for some practitioners to go to a gambling house—where at least they will engage in activity with their whole beings and with great energy—than to practice quietly in a dull, torpid state no matter how admirable that may appear. In this vein, I would say that from the standpoint of practice it is much better to be actively engaged in many arenas of life, and to be willing to fail again and again while tumbling headlong like a boulder down the path. To strictly and precisely observe precepts, but to do so timidly, without energy or freedom, is to miss their function as liberating tools. I have heard that Tanouye Roshi once said that it was easier to train a student who was “an asshole” than it was someone who possessed a mild, nice personality; the former at least had a kind of native energy, and would eventually learn refinement. The latter, however, would find it challenging to ever develop the intense energy that successful practice requires. This is also interesting.

In any case, whatever our characters and predilections, I think it clear that a useful sixth precept might perhaps be to abstain from taking oneself and one's practice too seriously.

Unlike some other Buddhist paths, Zen is not a path of renunciation, but rather of encountering all things with enjoyment and inner freedom. To succeed in such a practice, and in fact to manifest any practice worthy of being called “Zen” at all, we must give free rein to our energy, burning brightly like roaring bonfires. If we think that it is wisdom to become like cold, lifeless ashes, then no matter how holy we might appear it cannot be called authentic Zen.

If we can use something like jukai—taking refuge in the Three Treasures and taking the five lay precepts—to guide the direction of our fiery energy, to stoke the fire of our training, and to reveal our sticking points, then these tools will be useful. Using them, we can make our bodies and lives like kilns, which do not dampen the fire contained within but in fact concentrate it. If, on the other hand, we set up precepts as rigid rules reflecting our own fixations—perhaps because we so crave for someone to tell us how we should live and what we should do, rather than to ourselves be courageously responsible for navigating the confusion and constantly changing contexts of real life—then it may be better not to receive them at all. In such cases it is likely we will misuse them to dampen the fire of our practice, and the Buddha in which we purport to take refuge will remain something far, far away.

January 31, 2017

Madison zazenkai report

Our half-day zazenkai (mini Zen retreat) in Madison concluded this past Sunday afternoon with eleven participants. After the opening tea ceremony at 8am, our practice schedule included zazen, dokusan, breath/internal energy cultivation exercises, and chanting. I gave instruction regarding how to use body and breath when chanting to activate the function of okyo, dharani and mantra. We finished with more zazen and a final tea at 1pm, after which we had a wonderful brunch nearby. The ordained folks reconvened for a few hours after that, to review aspects of kuyo (ceremony).

Many thanks to all who joined together to support one another in practice! The next zazenkai in Madison is in March, and we'll have an overnight zazenkai at Korinji in May, followed by our long sesshin in June. Our full event schedule may always be seen at www.korinji.org.

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 1

Note: this is the first in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

I want over the course of a few talks to clarify what is signified by several Buddhist ceremonies, or what I have in the past called “milestones on the path of practice,” that you may come to witness or participate in as a Zen student. Regarding these things—and the names or titles that go with some of them—a great deal of confusion exists. I hope this will help clear things up.

Specifically, I will discuss shoken, which is the ceremony by which we formally enter into relationship with a teacher; jukai, by which we take refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and take up the practice of the five lay precepts; shukke tokudo or ordination, which is a commitment to the Zen path as the primary focus of one's life; and finally inka shomei, by which a teacher hands over responsibility for carrying the lineage to another.

First, though, I want to begin by saying that Zen may be practiced by anyone. The things I will discuss express important aspects of Buddhist teaching. But we do not care if you call yourself a Buddhist, and you are free to practice with us even if you never experience any of these things. Zen over the centuries has emphasized a very direct, practical approach to awakening which is not limited by the language or customs of Buddhism, and in fact in our practice we must each eventually transcend “Buddhism” with great freedom. We should keep that in mind.

On the other hand, Zen itself is certainly a lineage of Buddhist teaching and practice. So if we truly grasp the essential point of Zen, we should also be able to express how that point is the essence of all Buddhist teachings. If we truly understand the rationale for practicing Zen in the first place, we will also understand how Zen in fact fulfills not only the ultimate intent of all Buddhist practice, but the highest goals of all spirituality. If we are not able to understand these things, we need to study and practice more.

Because of preconceptions or bad experiences with religion, it does seem that many Zen people—even if they do not have any other strong beliefs or religious affiliations—prefer not to think of themselves as “Buddhists”. That's fine. But then, they seem to have no problem saying they are “Zen students.” In some cases, I think they might not understand that there is no difference or conflict at all between Buddhism and Zen. One label is really not preferable to another.

With that said, again, I would never tell anyone that they must identify as a Buddhist to practice with us. It is not our purpose to convince anyone to believe something, or to adopt some new identity. Everyone is responsible for their own beliefs. What I just want to point out here is that there really is no such thing as a sanitized Zen apart from the Buddhadharma, the Buddhist teachings. But the Buddhadharma also is not something that binds us at all, and it is not a religion in the mold of Abrahamic faiths like Christianity or Islam.

Despite my lingering on these points, it is alright to relax and not worry too much about them. It is enough if we can understand that the essential meaning of Buddhism is encompassed within Zen, and that in Zen training we rely on both our master and those Buddhist teachings to check or confirm our realization of awakening. If we are able to have genuine realization, then labels aren't important. What the Buddhist teachings point to will be manifest clearly here, in our own bodies.

Returning to our topic, then, first we'll discuss shoken. Shoken is a brief ceremony that a student and teacher perform privately. It signifies that the student wishes to follow the teacher as his or her guide on the Zen path. It also means that the teacher accepts responsibility for training the student. Really, it means that they accept responsibility for each other.

During shoken you are brought in to the sanzen room, where you are formally introduced to the teacher and bow three times. In that moment you really are negating yourself in a way: you acknowledge that your practice is not just “yours,” but will be fulfilled within human relationship. You acknowledge that you need others, and are not apart from them. You are inviting the teacher to participate with you in your practice, and so to make it a mutual exploration of wisdom. At this time you also give a small gift to the teacher, perhaps a few sticks of incense or a small, symbolic amount of money. The teacher accepts your gift and gives personal instruction for the first time within the new relationship. And with that, a mutual responsibility to revere and care for one another is accepted, and the relationship is sealed. We can say that a karmic link has been established between you.

After that, there are of course responsibilities and a kind of etiquette to be observed. But what it mostly boils down to is that you should communicate regularly with your teacher regarding your practice, and you should practice exactly as he or she directs you to do, to the best of your ability. From the teacher's side, it is also a kind of self-negation: in the sanzen room, where the two of you will meet often as you strive to explore and manifest the fruition of Zen training, there actually should be no so-called “teacher” or “student” roles at all. Now, traditionally it is said that we should view our teacher as a Buddha. But please don't be confused about this. The teacher is still practicing, just as you are. The teacher is truly a Buddha, but so are you. The entire point of the relationship is for both of you to manifest that. It is certainly important to approach one's teacher with a kind of reverence and care, but actually teachers must approach students in precisely the same manner. It is a mutual reverence.

Shoken is actually a brave thing, a gutsy thing to do. But it is also crucial from a practical standpoint. There are many things in life which are difficult to learn without help from a teacher; if we try to self-learn and self-guide prematurely, we are almost certain to become lost. This is true for Zen. It is also true that without human relationship, the full energetic transmission of Zen cannot occur. In that regard, actually, the teacher needs the student just as much as the student needs the teacher.

So this is the way to approach encounter with the teacher, even if we have not yet fully developed a faith in ourselves or others as Buddha. What the word “Buddha” refers to is something that is constantly shining out from the eyes of both teacher and student as they meet. When conditions are such that this is mutually recognized, we can say that the minds of the teacher and student momentarily mirror one another. This is like a strike of lightning which is followed in the same moment by thunder; or a voice calling out and an echo immediately returning without any gap; or a flint and steel meeting and the spark instantly blazing out. This is one way that we can awaken in relationship with the teacher.

Therefore, if someone says that training with a teacher is like a kind of therapy, or an ongoing casual conversation about practice, they are mistaken. Encounter with the teacher is itself the crucial practice. In one sense shoken is not a big deal, but in another it is the beginning of all possibilities in Zen, and the foundation of realizing that our practice is not for “I” alone. Our practice must encompass and include all beings and phenomenon, and clearly reveal that these altogether are not different from the original face of our own nature. The relationship between teacher and student, of which shoken marks the beginning, is a place where this way of seeing can decisively manifest.

I have to admit to being somewhat lax regarding shoken in the past. I have usually allowed almost anyone to come into the sanzen room right from the beginning to ask questions and make a connection. But later, at least by the time these students were ready to begin working with the wato and koan practice methods, I should have established the formal connection with them through shoken. Often I have dispensed with the ceremony, even though more and more I have come to feel that it is an important thing.

In the future, therefore, I plan to be more careful about this. Anyone who did not get to do shoken in the past and wants to do it, just ask. And since our incense is always burning away, I would be happy to receive a few sticks!

January 11, 2017

Zazen is not concentration

There is a common misunderstanding. I believe, that will hinder zazen (meditation): the idea that it is an
exercise in concentration.

This misunderstanding is common enough that my statement may sound controversial at first. And naturally we do often use words like "concentration" and "focus" when describing the beginning practice of zazen. But there is an important distinction between the usual meaning of concentration, and the true concentration that must manifest in genuine Zen meditation.

According to the usual meaning, we can say that two things are required for concentration: the subject who concentrates, and the object of concentration. If we are discussing meditation specifically we might even say that three things are required, by adding the method used to concentrate on the object, for example susokukan (breath counting).

With this kind of common concentration, many beginners take up zazen. Having been told that they should, for example, count their breaths with great focus, they set about doing precisely that. With effort, they gather up their minds and concentrate entirely on their exhalations, attempting to watch each one with a seamless continuity of attention. They are cautioned not to count an exhalation and then allow the mind to lapse into distraction; rather, they are directed to count the entire thread of each exhalation, as if intently watching a ball which has been thrown into the distance.

This is all fine, and a useful way to begin. However, it is not yet Zen at all. The reason, of course, is that the common kind of concentration is an inherently dualistic exercise: the watching of an object, the breath, by a subject. Furthermore, it is really difficult to maintain such dualistic concentration without exhaustion and cloudiness. Now, if we have been able to have the experience of recognizing our nature, kensho, through the teacher's direct pointing or other means, then naturally our practice could be different than I have just described. We may count the breaths from within that recognition, that is, giving rise again and again to it. But many students do not have such a clear recognition immediately. So here I am speaking in terms of practice before kensho.

This is the place where the physical details of zazen are crucial. Should a student simply do the method described above using the mind alone, with little physical engagement other than painfully sitting hour after hour in the formal zazen posture, little progress will be made even after several years. However, additional instruction is given orally by the teacher according to need, regarding how one cultivates the breath and senses to unify body and mind. Samadhi - meditative absorption - is thus able to manifest, and the student will experience that the separation between meditator-as-subject and breath-as-object becomes less rigid, or drops away for a time. At such a moment, we can say that real breath-counting has begun.

In other words, the common kind of concentration - that is, "concentrating on" something - is not really a factor in this practice at all. The goal is not actually to count the breath or concentrate on it. Rather, the student must manifest with the body a practice of "becoming one with" the count. Body, breath and the method must unify. When the divisions between inside and outside, meditator and object of meditation, are seen through, then for the first time it is genuine practice.

Of course, in general it is the teacher's job to impart the meaning of real zazen using words, the body and other means. A qualified teacher will aim to change the student's state using his or her own, meaning that the experience of integrated samadhi may arise spontaneously within the student, providing an important basis for the subsequent practice. There is not much that can be said about that here. But in terms of words, when teaching the breath-counting method I no longer tell students to "count the breath." Instead I tell them to "breathe the count." There is a subtle difference they may catch from this way of describing it, I think.

It is good to remember that the enso, the circle, is a symbol of Zen teaching and practice. It is not split into two sides, one of which concentrates on the other. We can say it is "one," though this one is not some thing separate from another "one." Instead we just say it is the realization of "not-two." Our breath-counting, or the way in which we kufu (work with our whole existence) to enter into a koan, must be like this.

So I would like to ask my own students to stop concentrating so hard. As Dogen said, "just throw body and mind into the house of the Buddha." Which is to say, breathe the count with your whole body, become the koan with your whole body, become the zendo as you enter, become the person as you speak to them, become the cold or the hot, the pain or the pleasant feelings that arise. In meditation, don't concentrate rigidly on anything, letting your mind fixate and stop upon it until you are exhausted. Relax completely, and dissolve into your meditation method completely with your body.

This requires a certain kind of faith. But if practice is correct, that faith will naturally arise too. So there is nothing to worry about at all.

January 9, 2017

Torei Enji's Zen Practice Advice

Torei Enji's Zen practice advice applicable to everyone, from Shumon Mujintoron (Zen Centre translation, titled Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp):

If...your spirit and morale slacken, all the more rely on this vow/aspiration [to practice for the sake of saving beings]. If faith in the heart is shallow and weak, all the more rely on this vow/aspiration. If obstacles are many, all the more rely on this aspiration. If you are intelligent and clever, all the more rely on this aspiration. If you are stupid and dull, all the more rely on this aspiration. If your seeing into the true nature becomes fully clear, all the more rely on this aspiration. If your insight and function become fully free, all the more rely on this aspiration. Right from the beginning, from the first aspiration of the heart to the final end, there is no time when you do not rely on the strength of this vow/aspiration.

Reciting the Four Great Vows, directing them from the mouth outwards, and inwardly ever holding them in the heart, invoking them as a prayer day by day and continuously pondering them, then just like a wondrous scent or an old strange custom, or like fine mist that yet drenches one's clothes, or as the smell of incense pervades and clings, so the awareness of Buddhas and patriarchs will ripen of itself and, benefiting oneself and others, everything will be accomplished.
To state it concisely: by the power of the vow of Great Compassion all karmic obstacles disappear and all merit and virtue/strength are completed. No principle remains obscure, all ways are walked by it, no wisdom remains unattained, no virtue incomplete.
The first requirement for trainees, therefore, is to let go of "I" and not to cling to their own advantage.

January 8, 2017

2017 New Year Dharma Talk

Today in Madison we chanted Ryogonshu, the long dharani from the Surangama Sutra, after which I gave this short New Year dharma talk (slightly edited here for wordiness):

It has been the tradition with some teachers in our Zen lineage to give a New Year's message, and to comment on the kiai [the energetic quality or patterns] that may affect us in the coming year. The lunar new year is shortly coming, and in the Chinese zodiac this will be the year of the Rooster. So looking at things from the standpoint of that traditional zodiac and elemental theory, we might be able to say “this year may be something like this”, or “in this year, it might be best to approach things such-and-such way.”

I don't want to make that kind of prediction today, though. There are two reasons for this. One is that, honestly, I don't have that kind of ability. Someone like the late Tanouye Roshi perhaps did; he had sufficient kan [the intuitive clear seeing arising from deep realization] to say what the coming year might hold. I do not, so it's better for me not to put on airs and try that kind of thing.

But another reason is that, as Zen practitioners, we should not worry too much about the kiai of the year. We talk a lot about kiai, we use that word a lot. We sometimes say, for example, that a place has a certain kiai that is positive or negative; if it is negative, some people will say they don't feel comfortable going there, and will avoid that place. Or we might say that such-and-such person has a kind of kiai which is very bright and powerful, and we want to be around them, or conversely that their kiai is a little off, which means we feel uncomfortable. In this vein we also talk a lot in Zen about “according with the conditions,” meaning that we should clearly see the circumstances of our existence and harmonize with them.

However, there are some problems with all this if we're not careful. It is easy to get hung up on concepts of kiai, or of according with conditions, such that we forget something really important: as Zen practitioners, we should be able to transform the kiai of a place or person. We should be able to arrange the conditions through the power of our awakening. If we are truly Zen practitioners and come to embody a deep awakening, then these things follow us...we do not follow them. Of course that's just a dualistic way of talking, for convenience; the meaning, though, is that we are already not separate from the conditions, not separate from the kiai of a place or person. That being so, what is there to fear?

Nothing is fixed, and if we have power arising from our own realization, we can transform not only ourselves but also people, places and things through a word, through an action, through practice, or even through our simple presence. This is the attitude a practitioner should take, not obsessively worrying about the kiai of anything. I recall that the late Chan [Chinese Zen] teacher Sheng-yen talked once at a retreat about fortune-tellers in Taiwan. He said that the traditional fortune tellers there don't like to make predictions for Buddhist practitioners, because too much can transform; there is no way to predict. That is a good thing to understand!

If we worry a lot about kiai, it is actually just because ours is not strong. If we worry about conditions excessively, it means we have not yet seen through them, and realized self and conditions as illusory.

All of you have taken the Bodhisattva vows. At least, if you chant with us you have, even if you did not know it! The first vow is to save the boundless beings. What does it mean that beings are boundless? There is a deep teaching there, about how nothing binds us at all. You also vowed to cut off your own delusion and obstructions, and to practice all the Dharma gates which are infinite – meaning all the practices, including sitting, chanting, walking, mantra and dharani like the Ryogonshu we chanted today, everything. And you vowed to attain the way of awakening, the Buddha-Way, Butsu-do.

I am sorry if we didn't tell you what you were chanting! But the point is that from the moment you direct your life according to these vows, you have completely changed your existence. You are no longer a common, worldly person...you are a Bodhisattva. Now, it is your job to ceaselessly practice and refine yourself, to help others, to be of use to them. Even with just your presence – your ba, that is, the field emanating from your existence – you can help others if your practice is strong enough. This is the kiai that arises from your body and mind being one, from your embodied realization of the truth that “the entire universe is the True Human Body.” We can be one of those people around whom others feel their burdens lifted, their sadness dissolved – like Toyama Ryusuke, who Omori Roshi wrote about. Ryusuke had tuberculosis, so many people came to see him. But although he could not speak, those visitors felt afterward that a weight had been lifted from their lives. This was solely due to his vibration, the kiai he manifested – the quality of his existence.

People like that may seem unusual, but we can be like that. We should practice to become that...not waste our time worrying about the kiai and conditions which we imagine, in a self-referential way, surround us.

So that is the message I would like to give for the New Year. It is true that the world seems increasingly disordered and chaotic, and I am sure that feeling will increase not only in this Rooster year but in others to come. Actually, humans are not so different from 500 or 1000 years ago: same problems, same delusions. True, things move faster now, and the effects are much greater. It is natural that we are apprehensive about the future.

But for us as practitioners, the question is this: “How should we enter into such a world?” It is not with fear, or with the feeling of being a victim of the conditions around us. As Zen practitioners, we should be able to transform our conditions. Embodying our intrinsic wisdom and compassion, manifesting our intrinsic clarity, we just set about the business of helping others, of being useful to them. We move through the world as Bodhisattvas, even if in some situations there is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, and nothing we can control. Even if all we have to give comfort to others is our presence.

So, wishing all of you a happy New Year, and we will continue to practice together.

August 2, 2016

If your own heart asks

Some students recently expressed frustration that they have not yet been able to attain some insight using the first koan. They have been practicing with it for a few months.

Regarding advanced training in Zen (i.e. the all-important training of integration for many years AFTER the completion of koan practice), Hosokawa Roshi once said that if a person cannot accomplish this, it is basically because their motivation/aspiration is too weak. How much more so this is the case, I think, when discussing the beginning gate of practice which is that first hosshin (dharmakaya) koan.

To contrast, Reigen Eto (1721-1785), one of Hakuin's students, described his own experience of koan practice this way (from http://rakudo.jp/en/contents/9_koan.htm):
A long time ago, when I was in the middle of training at the Shoin Temple in the Suruga district, under the supervision of Master Hakuin, I began concentrating on a difficult koan on New Year's Day in 1740. In the Fall, four years later, was able to pass through it for the first time. 

In those four years, I did not have one word of useless conversation with other people, and as there were no funny or interesting things, I didn't smile at all. When I saw other people laughing, I didn't understand. Once I entered a twilight period, with only tears, I fasted both summer and winter, ate soybean powder, drank water, and every five to seven days hid myself from people and went on retreat in places like Shinto shrines in the mountains.

In winter of that year, I was given another difficult koan by Master Hakuin. Because my doubts had not cleared up, from the beginning of December I locked myself in an inn. I cured my empty stomach by asking for food from a neighboring house once every three days, and by the end of February the following year, I still had not left the inn. I didn't go to the Master's temple for the New Year's celebration or the autumn Festival of the Dead.

So at the end of February that year, I experienced the great joy of passing through that difficult koan. This was so wonderful that it is impossible to describe. In the beginning of March, when I humbly went to the Master's temple, he was extremely happy for me.
It seems more common lately than I recall from 10-20 years ago for Zen students with many obscurations to blame the practice methods, rather than themselves, if there is not much progress. If we examine whether or not our individual daily practice and effort is sufficient, though, a line from a poem quoted in Hagakure is useful:

‘How will you reply when your own heart asks?’