January 9, 2018

Publication on schedule

Shambhala Publications has begun marketing and publicity for The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice. Today I learned that it has been in their top 10 since becoming available for pre-order. Hoping interest stays high once folks actually see it! We're still on schedule for March publication.

If you haven't joined Shambhala's email lists, you might be interested to do so. You can get their general announcements, but also targeted weekly quotes and other things for subjects that interest you (if you click Zen as an area of interest, you might see quotes from the book...).

Here is the link to sign up for targeted announcements, and the general newsletter signup is at the bottom of that page.

The book of course is here.

November 27, 2017

The original face

Lecture given to the Empress Hanazono by Daito Kokushi (1281-1337)...translation from Trevor Leggett's First Zen Reader:

ALL ZEN students should devote themselves at the beginning to zazen (sitting in meditation). Sitting in either the fully locked position or the half-locked position, with the eyes half-shut, see the original face which was before father or mother was born. This means to see the state before the parents were born, before heaven and earth were parted, before you received human form. What is called the original face will appear. That original face is something without colour or form, like the empty sky in whose clarity there is no form.

The original face is really nameless, but it is indicated by such terms as original face, the Lord, the Buddha nature, and the true Buddha. It is as with man, who has no name at birth, but afterwards various names are attached to him. The seventeen hundred koan or themes to which Zen students devote themselves are all only for making them see their original face. The World-honoured One sat in meditation in the snowy mountains for six years, then saw the morning star and was enlightened, and this was seeing his original face. When it is said of others of the ancients that they had a great realization, or a great breaking- through, it means they saw the original face. The Second Patriarch stood in the snow and cut off his arm to get realization; the Sixth Patriarch heard the phrase from the Diamond Sutra and was enlightened. Reiun was enlightened when he saw the peach blossoms, Kyogen on hearing the tile hit the bamboo, Rinzai when struck by Obaku, Tozan on seeing his own reflection in the water.

All this is what is called "meeting the lord and master." The body is a house, and it must have a master. It is the master of the house who is known as the original face. Experiencing heat and cold and so on, or feeling a lack, or having desires--these are all delusive thoughts and do not belong to the true master of the house. These delusive thoughts are something added. They are things which vanish with each breath. To be dragged along by them is to fall into hell, to circle in the six paths of reincarnation. By going deeper and deeper into zazen, find the source of the thoughts. A thought is something without any form or body, but owing to the conviction of those thoughts remaining even after death, man falls into hell with its many pains, or suffers in the round of this changing world.

Every time a thought arises, throw it away. Just devote yourself to sweeping away the thoughts. Sweeping away thoughts means performing zazen. When thought is put down, the original face appears. The thoughts are like clouds; when the clouds have cleared, the moon appears. That moon of eternal truth is the original face.

The heart itself is verily the Buddha. What is called "seeing one's nature" means to realize the heart Buddha. Again and again put down the thoughts, and then see the heart Buddha. It might be supposed from this that the true nature will not be visible except when sitting in meditation. That is a mistake. Yoka Daishi says: "Going too is Zen; sitting too is Zen. Speaking or silent, moving the body or still, he is at peace." This teaches that going and sitting and talking are all Zen. It is not only being in zazen and suppressing the thoughts. Whether rising or sitting, keep concentrated and watchful. All of a sudden, the original face will confront you.

November 18, 2017

Rinzai practice: a brief reply to some common questions

In a recent thread on Dharma Wheel the question was asked, "What would you normally practice in Otokan Lineage?"

A little background: "Otokan" refers to the Chinese Linji Chan lineage transmitted by Xutang Zhiyu (Kido Chigu, 1185-1269) to his Japanese student Nampo Shomyo (also called Daio Kokushi, 1235-1308). Daio returned to Japan and in turn transmitted it to his heir Shuho Myocho (Daito Kokushi, 1282-1337). Daito transmitted it to Kanzan Egen (1277-1360).

This lineage, called "Otokan" after Daio, Daito, and Kanzan, is the sole surviving Rinzai line in Japan, eventually inherited by Hakuin and now also carried by us in the West. The question I responded to, therefore, was essentially: What is practiced in Rinzai Zen?

Several folks at Dharma Wheel had also responded, mentioning susokukan (breath-counting meditation), koan practice (including the first koan assigned, often Joshu's "Mu"), and wondering if the shikantaza practice of the Soto school is utilized.

Since there seems to be a lot of confusion about Rinzai practice (and koan practice in particular) I contributed the following post. It be useful here as well:


Koan kufu (practice using koan/wato) is a major method. The first koan taken up can be "Mu," but there are several others commonly used, all in the class of hosshin (Dharmakaya) koans. That is, they are to enter the gate of kensho.

There are a lot of misconceptions about koan practice e.g, that it is a fixed curriculum, that there are standard "answers" that one must present, and so on. Most importantly, popular discussion of the practice can't grasp what the teacher's role is. But without sanzen, mutual investigation done in relationship with the teacher, it is not Rinzai koan practice.

Another thing many people don't understand is that koan practice serves also as a kind of "skeleton" or structure for one's overall practice. That is, within koan practice there are places where pointers to other things are made which one will then take up.

As an example, at some point one investigates the go-i (Five Ranks of Tozan) koans. Through these koan, one begins to really understand what is meant by actualizing or integrating the recognition of kensho, and the rapidly ascending path revealed thereby. The oral instruction given at one point during the go-i koans is to secretly practice the hokkyo zanmai (Jewel Mirror Samadhi) and hen sho ego zanmai (alternating samadhis of hen and sho) for at least 3 years. What does this mean? Well, the experience of what those terms signify is grasped through the koan practice, with the teacher displaying and transmitting the essential points. Then, by undertaking the practice as directed, one can begin to actualize kensho as realization; as my teacher said, "this is where you make it your own." It takes a minimum of three years just to stabilize this in a meaningful way that will not regress. 

So, that is an absolutely essential part of Rinzai practice...the crux, so to speak, of post-kensho training; but books talking about koan practice, and discussions online like this, usually have no idea about these things that are carried within the container of so-called "koan training." The focus is always on the koan writings themselves, not on the actual function for practitioners. Of course this is understandable, since one couldn't know without going through it.

RE susokukan, it is indeed common for it to be given as a first method in zazen, since most people lack the ability to hold a koan or wato in samadhi for any period of time. If one cannot hold the koan uninterruptedly, it won't work as a method. It will likely lapse into conceptualization about the koan's meaning, etc. So susokukan is a very useful method for working with the posture, breath, and method to remove obstructions, develop meditative stability, etc.

Of course for some people, susokukan could itself be a sufficient method for their entire lives. Not everyone is suited to koan practice.

RE shikantaza, in my experience we don't use that word in Rinzai practice. But I would say that what is signified by practice of hokkyo zanmai, from the Rinzai standpoint, is not different from a genuine shikantaza practice, meaning shikantaza in its actualized fruition as the oneness of practice and its confirmation, the unity of samadhi/prajna, and so on. It is a point where we could understand what is meant by "practice-less practice", and that zazen is not actually a method for anything.

Aside from all this, cultivation of the breathing used in zazen (tanden soku) is important. The energetic cultivation methods passed down from Hakuin were important in my experience. There are many things. Of course the usual other practices one encounters in Zen e.g. ritual practice, walking, prostrations, work practice, integration of arts and physical culture, etc. can all found in Rinzai training. A lot depends on the experiences and interests of past holders of a particular lineage...there can be a lot of variation. Since Zen in general takes recognition of one's nature as the entrance to, and basis of subsequent, practice, really we can't say there are fixed methods at all. But naturally different teachers and students have different expressions, tools, powers, abilities, etc.

November 12, 2017

What to look for

As Korinji is scheduled to begin its first 4-month ango (period of formal monastic retreat) in March, I recently find myself in the position of reviewing applications for residence.

Doing this, one thing that that has become clear is that many people have an interest in Korinji because of specific practice methods that intrigue them. For example, some have read my posts on forums like Dharma Wheel, and think that our lineage's way of practice I have described - with its emphasis on entering Zen through the body, our use of koan, and so on - sounds interesting. Some others are attracted by the beauty of Korinji, revealed in photos on our website. Still others think that Korinji sounds to be a traditional, rigorous place - contrasted with centers that may function more as meditation-themed resorts - and that attracts them

But to me, all of that is actually a completely mistaken approach. It doesn't matter what the location or environment is like: if the teacher and student fit, then the practice can deepen; if they do not, then even the most ideal location or rigorous practice won't help us. It doesn't matter what practices are done, or what lineage (Soto, Rinzai, non-Zen traditions) a place carries; if the teacher and student fit, the student will be able to bring those methods to fruition, catch the energetic transmission of the lineage, and grasp how all lineages rest upon the same fundamental realization. If they do not fit, none of this is likely to happen.

So the most important thing, in other words, is not to seek out an ideal place, specific practices, or some lineage that interests us. It is to find one's heart teacher, no matter where they are, what practices they teach, or what lineage they carry. 

This is not to say that some attractions to a lineage, to a practice, or to a place do not have deep and valid roots; sometimes they do. But just as often, they arise from self-referential and irrelevant notions. And it is only in relationship with the teacher that we will discover what practice methods are appropriate medicine for us. So we should take our time, searching for a teacher patiently and carefully.

This is also not to say that one cannot have more than one teacher in one's life. One can (and, in many cases I think, should). But again, there must be affinity.

Today I received email from an applicant who revealed that he has applied to a number of monasteries simultaneously. I replied that I wish I'd known from the beginning of our conversation that he was, essentially, monastery shopping. I would have directed him to look elsewhere. 

If someone approaches cautiously, with the aspiration to practice Zen within healthy relationship with a teacher and sangha regardless of other conditions, then I feel really encouraged. But someone who approaches full of enthusiastic ideas about a beautiful place, "hard practice", Rinzai Zen, koan practice, kensho, and so on, is usually not clear what they're getting into at all. Those people (and I was one of them) can expect a hard landing. They often miss the essential point that Zen is realized not by means of methods or places, but within human relationship. This is what is meant by Bodhidharma's statement that Zen is "A separate transmission outside the scriptures, not dependent upon words or letters."

What I most appreciate, actually, is someone who doesn't comment about how beautiful Korinji looks, or talk about anything to do with Rinzai practice, but instead asks how cold it gets so they can bring a heavy enough coat.

November 4, 2017

How to start a Rinzai Zen (or any other Buddhist) group where you live

One one of the online Buddhist forums, a fellow member lamented the absence of Rinzai Zen centers in that member's country.

But actually, there is an easy way to bring Dharma activity into your area. Here is the official guide:

1. Decide what teacher/organization/lineage interests you.
2. Find a few other people near you who are also interested.
3. Contact the teacher or org.
4. Invite them.

This sounds flippant, but I mean it seriously.

I often hear folks say that "it would be great if so-and-so group was near me, but they aren't."

Personally I think the correct approach is to grasp how precious any Dharma connection is, and then to move heaven and earth to get to where one's teacher (or prospective teacher) is. Naturally it is often entirely reasonable to live distant from one's teacher; here I'm talking about initial connections. 

But my point is that I personally have met few Dharma teachers who would not fly to the other side of the world if invited (or at least send a qualified representative) assuming that the destination was reasonably safe, in order to help start and grow a new group. Even if it was not entirely safe, I know some who would go anyway.

Dharma orgs and teachers are, in my experience, very interested in spreading dharma and teaching. They are seeking interested people, anywhere. And assuming conditions allow, they will help out. Or make a referral. Or give useful advice.

Since not many people seem to realize that they have the power to initiate new activity in their areas, I'm posting these thoughts. Today, actually, I had an email from someone who lamented that there were no Rinzai Zen centers in his part of the USA. I live a few hours drive from him. If he's really interested, he could come here for a weekend. If there were a half-dozen people like him interested in doing an introductory weekend retreat, I would go there...and would feel obligated to do so. Just pay the gas. Or not.

But that kind of initiative doesn't seem to come easily for many folks.

Consider yourself encouraged.

October 19, 2017

Dharma sharing

I was pleased and honored to take part in the recent grand opening of the Tallahassee Chan Center. The center's guiding teacher - Guo Gu - is an old friend; we met 27 years ago during a series of 7-day Chan retreats in New York under his late teacher, Ven. Sheng Yen. Those retreats were pivotal for me, essentially setting me on the path that led to my own root teachers and Rinzai Zen ordination. I therefore feel a deep sense of gratitude and debt toward Master Sheng Yen, and was eager to repay it in some small part by supporting Guo Gu.

There were many wonderful meetings over several days between dharma brothers and sisters from different lineages, and I believe ripples of activity arising from these connections in the future will be wonderful. For now, I'll let the Tallahassee Chan Center's blog tell the story...take a look here.

October 2, 2017


The foundation of Korinji's residence is done! From here things will move quickly. We're on track to begin our first ango - monastic training period - in March. See www.korinji.org for more information on residential practice opportunities at Korinji.

September 19, 2017

Phase two

The site of Korinji's residence was cleared today.

Here's a shot looking downhill from just above the future house site. Those of you who have been to Korinji will recognize how much clearing has been done.

Excavation and pouring of the foundation soon...

September 9, 2017

It's official

Although not due for release until March, the book has been listed on Amazon for more than a month; apparently this is not uncommon, as word of upcoming publications propagates through various distribution channels.

So I'll go ahead and announce it officially: the book is available for pre-order on Amazon.

The inscription on Hakuin's self-portrait gracing the cover reads:

Within the meditation hall
I am hated by the thousand buddhas.
In the company of myriad demons
I am despised by the myriad demons.
I crush those who practice false Zen,
and annihilate those blind monks
who can't penetrate Mu.
This evil, worn-out shavepate
adds one more layer of ugliness to ugliness.

September 8, 2017

Next year

Korinji has released the tentative schedule for its 2018-19 monastic year (subject to on-time completion of construction there).

The monastic year that will be observed by residents at Korinji is divided into two four-month practice periods called ango. There are three sesshin - one week periods of especially intensive meditation practice - in each ango. Between ango there are shorter periods of less strict practice called seikan. During seikan the residents have more freedom, and may travel to visit their families.  ​

Here's the schedule. For more information, see www.korinji.org.

SUMMER Training Period (Ge-ango)​​​
March 14: Beginning of the summer training period
March 15: Commemoration of Shakyamuni's parinirvana (Nehan-e)
April 8th: Commemoration of Shakyamuni's birth (Hanamatsuri)
April 15-21: Sesshin
May 20-26: Sesshin
June 17-23: Summer Solstice Sesshin
July 15: Ceremony for the deceased (Urabon-e)
July 16: End of the summer training period​ ​ ​

SEIKAN (interim period of less formal practice)
July 17 - September 30​​
[August 23-26: European Sesshin in Laufen, Germany] ​ ​

WINTER Training Period (Setsu-ango)​
October 1: Beginning of the winter training period.
October 5: Memorial for Bodhidharma (Darumi-ki)
October 14-20: Sesshin
November 4-10: Sesshin
December 2-8: Rohatsu O-Sesshin
December 8: Commemoration of Shakyamuni's enlightenment (Jodo-e)
December 31: Year-end Ceremony
January 1: New Year Observance
January 10: Memorial for Rinzai Gigen Zenji
January 17: Memorial for Hyakujo Ekai Zenji
January 31: End of the the winter training period​​ ​ ​

SEIKAN (interim period of less formal practice)
February 1 - March 13