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?’

May 8, 2016


In Rinzai training the method of koan practice is well-known and highly developed. Most students, if suited to it, will take up this method at some point.

However, many beginners do not realize that what we generally call "koan practice" actually contains several different ways of practicing. We may sometimes differentiate, for example, between practice centered on one of the classic koan cases in their entirety, and practice focusing on a word or phrase - the wato, or "word head" - of a koan. The famous practice centered on the word Mu is in fact a wato taken from the first koan in the Mumonkan. The phrase "Who [or what] am I?" is another common wato - not taken from a koan - which is often assigned.

It is useful to differentiate wato and koan practice in this manner because the way in which one engages in kufu - struggle, or grappling - with different wato and koan must flexibly change. All wato and koan are taken up within the samadhi cultivated in Zen practice, and some will require conceptual engagement and expression. However, the initial koan or wato in particular has the function of leading us to cut off conceptual fixation and recognize the original face of self-awareness, that is, to have the experience called kensho which is the entrance gate to authentic Zen training. It must therefore be taken up completely with the body.

These points may also help us to understand the difference between samadhi before kensho and samadhi after kensho; that is, between training to remove obstructions to wisdom and eventually point it out, and the long training after awakening to clarify, refine and integrate wisdom. Both trainings are undertaken in samadhi, but only a samadhi manifesting in unity with wisdom is the true Zen samadhi, able to freely use words and concepts without fixation.

I have used rather technical language here, and beginners don't really need to worry too much about it. But they do need to find out, within their own bodies, how to enter into the samadhi of the initial wato or koan. A student given the wato Mu from that famous first case in the Mumonkan is not to approach it conceptually, trying to understand why Joshu said "No" when asked if dogs have Buddha nature (or why on another occasion he said "Yes," and so on). In other words, the purpose of taking up the wato Mu is not to engage conceptually with Buddha-nature theory and its theorized application to canines! The purpose of this method, rather, is to cause us to enter the gate of Zen awakening for ourselves.

How to do it, then? Students should apply the instructions received from their teachers regarding use of the body and breath to gather the wato together with the energetic currents at the tanden (the navel energy center). These are details which are transmitted through oral instruction. However, regarding the general method and the way in which one should approach it, Mumon - the compiler of the Mumonkan - tells us what to do in his commentary to that first case of Joshu's Mu.

I have been recommending to several students recently that they read and re-read this commentary. Even if they are not working with the Mu wato but something else like "Who am I?", the advice still holds. It is actually very kind advice, to be taken quite literally. It points out in a manner which is easy to understand - though not necessarily easy, in the beginning, to do - how to work with the wato:

In order to master Zen, you must pass the barrier of the patriarchs. To attain this subtle realization, you must completely cut off the way of thinking. If you do not pass the barrier, and do not cut off the way of thinking, then you will be like a ghost clinging to the bushes and weeds. 

Now, I want to ask you, what is the barrier of the patriarchs? Why, it is this single word "Mu." That is the front gate to Zen.Therefore it is called the "Mumonkan of Zen." If you pass through it, you will not only see Jõshû face to face, but you will also go hand in hand with the successive patriarchs, entangling your eyebrows with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. Isn't that a delightful prospect? Wouldn't you like to pass this barrier?

Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate on this word "Mu." Carry it continuously day and night. Do not form a nihilistic conception of vacancy, or a relative conception of "has" or "has not."*  It will be just as if you swallow a red-hot iron ball, which you cannot spit out even if you try. All the illusory ideas and delusive thoughts accumulated up to the present will be exterminated, and when the time comes, internal and external will be spontaneously united. You will know this, but for yourself only, like a dumb man who has had a dream. 

Then all of a sudden an explosive conversion will occur, and you will astonish the heavens and shake the earth. It will be as if you snatch away the great sword of the valiant general Kuan and hold it in your hand. When you meet the Buddha, you kill him; when you meet the patriarchs, you kill them. On the brink of life and death, you command perfect freedom; among the sixfold worlds and four modes of existence, you enjoy a merry and playful samadhi. 

Now, I want to ask you again, "How will you carry it out?" Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this "Mu." If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!

* That is, do not analyze the wato intellectually, giving rise to dualistic concepts by trying to puzzle out its "meaning".

April 19, 2016


We've just completed the first of the monthly zazenkai we're running at Korinji this year. The word simply means "gathering for meditation"; we use it to refer to a kind of short overnight retreat - a mini-retreat, really - that stresses a greater amount of practice than most folks might do in their daily lives. Zazenkai also introduces many of the practice forms used during sesshin, the more intensive retreat periods which are so important in Zen training.

For many of the 11 participants this past weekend it was a first taste of silent retreat in a rural, monastic environment. Spring weather supported us; it was in the 70's during the day and nicely cool at night with a clear, moon- and starlit sky. Spring birdsong, including the drumbeat of woodpeckers, filled the forest in the morning. Coyotes and owls announced themselves at dusk. Because the weather was so nice, we could do both evening and morning dokusan - individual meetings between myself and each student - outdoors on the back engawa (porch). 

The trainees did well. Since most are beginners, there were not many who could take on the various roles needed to run this kind of retreat. So myself and Myoan (Kristen) Radtke, who served as jikijitsu (the meditation hall monitor), took on multiple roles. I served as tenzo (cook) and server (handaikan) for tea. Myoan took on a general care taking role usually reserved for an officer called the shika. Next time, however, some of the students will be ready to start learning these jobs.

This was our first formal training in the zendo since its completion this past autumn, and I was pleased at how the building feels. Everything about it - from the design of the space, to its directional orientation in regards to the setting and rising of the sun, to the placement of windows and doors - feels "right". And the energy of the place is changing now that it is finally being used for practice. One of the students, who had never visited Korinji before, commented to me, "After I parked I starting walking down into the forest on the trail. I started to feel like I was in a different world. By the time I got to the gate, I felt so nervous I was almost shaking."

I was very pleased to hear exactly those words!

You can see some more photos from zazenkai on Korinji's Facebook page here.

March 22, 2016

Work day

Korinji today was warm and grey, 60F with weak sun hidden behind clouds. We're due to get another, perhaps final, snowstorm tomorrow...six to ten inches.

I spent the afternoon cleaning up some of the construction debris that remains around the meditation hall: wood cut-offs, screws, bits of plastic and metal. Samu periods during our zazenkai and sesshin this year will focus on removing these and other remnants of our seven-year zendo project. Next spring, if all goes well, we'll break ground for the house and start all over again.

Most visitors know there is a creek in the valley below us, but not everyone knows that our property actually touches upon it at the northeast corner. A portion of Korinji's land was once cow pasture, and there is one long, thin corridor that juts straight out for several hundred feet from our eastern property line to reach the stream; this allowed the cows to be watered. The cowpath is long overgrown now and blocked by fallen trees. Eventually we'll clear it, perhaps put a small deck or even tea house there where the water can be heard. The creek was running a little high. We (dog and I) walked down to check it out: coyote prints were everywhere in the sand.

Had hoped to glue up and screw together the butsudan (which is sitting assembled but wobbly). It was still too cold in the zendo for glue. But all the butsudan accessories are now in place. I lit some senko and did a first sanpai to this beautiful new altar.

On the way home we stopped to explore a nearby cave just off the road; crawling through it on my hands and knees, I could see that in the back chamber a racoon was sleeping. We stopped also alongside one field to see what it was on the ground picking at a deer carcass: a hawk and a bald eagle, eating together.

2016 Zazenkai and Sesshin

Our zendo being done, we're eager to start using it. I'll be at Korinji today and tomorrow, cleaning up some winter debris from the trails, adding recently acquired items to our butsudan, and in general sprucing the place up. Meanwhile, info and registration are now online for the monthly zazenkai (short overnight meditation retreats) we'll be conducting beginning in April. Zazenkai are excellent opportunities to deepen your Zen practice, to begin learning the training forms used at sesshin (intensive Zen retreat), and of course to spend time in the beautiful natural environment of Korinji. Details here.

We will also conduct a short sesshin at Korinji October 14-16, Friday evening through Sunday morning. Details TBA. In November I will lead a weekend retreat focused on Zen and Budo (martial arts): we will explore training of posture, breath, energy and forging of the "center" through the forms of traditional martial arts. Other events will be added to the calendar shortly. Get on Korinji's mailing list here.

March 21, 2016

Waking up

The blog is back online. Stay tuned.

March 20, 2014

On hold...for a little while

Well, the time has come! Rinzai Heartland is shifting into mothballs for a bit.

This blog (more of an online newsletter, really) was started way back in 2007. At that time we'd begun fundraising for the dream that would be Korinji. Reading those early posts, I'm surprised to see that we'd already started using the name "Korinji" then, even before we'd found and purchased our property.

But then, that's been our method all along: envision, believe and give life to our dream through words...and then trust that somehow it would actually manifest. And so it has, thanks to all of you who've shared that dream.

Now in 2014, a completed zendo perches above the forested ravine which cuts down through the center of our 17 acres. Our community continues to grow, with active practice groups in several states and in Europe. We continue to envision and dream, preparing for the next phase of Korinji's development.

As we've grown it seems we've moved away from using this blog, in favor of communicating more directly with our members and friends via a monthly email newsletter. We think it's more effective. None of us are true bloggers anyway, so the newsletter format fits better right now.

Maybe that will change. I think when I've entered into full-time residence at Korinji, you may see Rinzai Heartland return. It may then serve as a true blog, or at least a repository for random thoughts and images reflecting our practice and the change of seasons in our beautiful forest.

So farewell for now. If you aren't on the Rinzai Zen Community mailing list, please join here. You'll receive our newsletter, event announcements and all the rest.

And we'll see you at Korinji.

~ Meido