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
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.