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 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

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

Sesshin in Laufen

We met once again this past August 24-27 for our sesshin in Laufen, Germany. This was our 8th annual sesshin there at the Kapuzinerhof, a restored 17th century Capuchin monastery. The last Capuchin monks left in the 1970s and the place now hosts events like ours, as well as weddings and the like. Yet something of the old atmosphere clings to the place: fruit trees tended by the monks still fill the walled grounds, and the old choir where they chanted serves as our zendo. Sanzen takes place in a small chapel formerly used for solitary devotions. During yaza in the evenings, we sit outside among the monk's graves.

This sesshin was remarkable for the degree of energetic unity the group displayed, right from the first moments of the opening tea ceremony. Of course most of these students have been training for some years, and many have attended all eight of our Laufen sesshin. We know each other. Yet still, this sesshin was different, and the transformation becoming evident in some of the trainees was truly beautiful to see.

Many thanks to everyone, and especially Rev. Tendo Schrรถder and Rev. Anzan Stahl, the organizers. Looking forward to next year...

July 19, 2017

Zazen posture

One of the students at our retreat this past weekend at Korinji kindly gave me permission to post the photos below. The point they reveal is extremely important for meditators.

In a nutshell: most meditation practitioners sit with excessive lordosis (curve) in the lower back. This is partly due to our modern habits of using chairs, of not doing much physical labor that integrates the body, and so on. But it is also due to downright poor instruction that many teachers give, or to misunderstood instruction.

As an example of the latter, it is common to read in Zen texts that one should "push the hips forward." "Hips" is often used to translate the Japanese word "koshi." But this is a a misleading translation, since koshi refers to the entire lower trunk, not the hip joints alone (or, the iliac crests, which most folks seem to think are their hips). The result: many Zen students after reading such things "push their hips forward" by tipping their pelvises such that their lower backs curve excessively...precisely the opposite of what "push forward with the koshi" means (if you think of how the entire lower trunk engages when, say, pushing a heavy object you will catch the intended meaning). Many Zen teachers, in fact, advise their students to do precisely this.

Unfortunately, this causes the breath to be cut off at the solar plexus, since the diaphragm cannot move freely at all in that position. Because of this, the meditation depth and refinement cannot develop. Even after decades of sitting in such a way (something I have seen some folks do) there will be little transformation, since upper and lower body are not structurally integrated. A body like this will be unable to relax, and so cannot serve as the vessel within which the breath power may circulate. In other words: the samadhi condition cannot deeply manifest. 

Playing into this somewhat, perhaps, is also the odd belief these days that one needs to increase the curve in one's back to remedy back pain, since "the back should have a natural S-curve." Of course, the back already has a natural curve without one trying to make it so....this is not a problem for modern people. Rather, the cause for much low back pain is precisely an excessive amount of this curve, leading to disc compression. All of this makes for good business for "lumbar pillow" makers, of course, but bad advice for people who are in pain.

Zen teachers who advise their students to arch their backs excessively have good intentions, I am certain. The damage done by such bad advice is not excusable, however.

In any case, the first photo shows a common meditation posture. The energetic feeling in this body is moving upward rather than grounded in the earth. Someone who sits this way will experience heat, tightness, or pressure in the head. The breath will be shallow. Thoughts will proliferate.

The second photo shows a natural back position. The body in this photo is settled, and can sit without difficulty for long periods because its structure is aligned. Nothing special is being done here, except that the student has allowed the low back and sacrum area to release, along with the stomach and solar plexus area. This body is integrated, and a deep, dynamic diaphragmatic breath can manifest.

If you practice zazen, please take a look at the alignment of your pelvis. And if you wish to put the above assertions to the test, I invite you to curve your low back as much as you can...and then try to take a deep breath to the belly.

July 17, 2017

Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp

One of the most important texts for Rinzai Zen students: Torei Enji's Shumon Mujintoron. This translation, which includes a teisho commentary by Daibi, is an invaluable resource serving not only as a map of the entire Rinzai path, but also as a basic primer of Mahayana and Japanese Buddhism.

It had been published by Tuttle, but eventually went out of print; copies, when found, are around $100. But the Zen Centre in London, UK holds the original copyright and still makes the work available at an affordable price. I ordered this last week and it shipped promptly.

If you'd like a copy, do support the Zen Centre and their good work. I should mention that they have also kindly allowed me to use quotations from this in my own book...much appreciated!

 You can order online through this site:

June 24, 2017

June 17 groundbreaking at Korinji

On Saturday June 17th, we came out from our Solstice Sesshin schedule to conduct a ceremony consecrating the ground where Korinji's future residence will stand. This summer the excavators will come in, and our slab should be poured by the end of August. Construction will begin in earnest in the fall, with completion scheduled for February 2018...just in time for our firstango to begin in March.

We were joined at our ceremony by community supporters, members of the Korinji board, and several Soto Zen colleagues from Madison. For an hour or so after the ceremony we enjoyed refreshments and conversation together, before our sesshin trainees dove back in to their training. Thank you to everyone who came!

June 8, 2017

Regarding Buddhist online forums

Online Buddhist forums are interesting things. I personally have found that participating at places like Zen Forum International and Dharma Wheel has been useful for my own practice: it has allowed me to absorb the perspectives of a few other senior practitioners in several traditions that I might otherwise never have encountered. These perspectives have in some cases been instrumental in shaping my own.

Forums do have their downsides, however. I wrote the following to address one of these: the proliferation of self-taught or self-certified "teachers," whose chief activity on forums is to hold forth - usually anonymously - regarding Zen practice, mainly according to their own half-baked understanding. Since this seems to me an important point in general, with usefulness beyond the world of the online forums, I'll share it here as well:

There exists an oddly common idea that one can read a few books (or forum postings) about a tradition or practice - or practice some particular method for a few months or years - and more or less "get" what it's all about. 

The truth, however, is that even the seemingly simplest practices are extremely profound. The courses of practice mapped out in different lineages arose only from the truly (at times inconceivably) severe training those lineage forebears did, and therefore contain vast reservoirs of human experience plumbing the depths, so to speak. 

For these reasons, no one should talk about practice with any authority or certainty without having brought it to fruition for oneself (meaning first of all that one is clear what such fruition entails for the methods one is using, then that one has no doubt the fruition has manifested, and finally that one's teacher agrees). Even in such cases, it is still best to preface talk of practice with "In my experience," recognizing that different practitioners reveal different facets of Zen training more strongly or weakly according to their unique conditions and characters. 

As an example: koan practice as it exists in Rinzai Zen. The manner in which this method functions means that one really doesn't see the whole course of the practice - its full logic and ramifications - until one has completed the formal practice completely. In other words, one could only really speak about it accurately from a "top-down" place, seeing the entire "system" after having passed through it. Before that point, much is hidden. After that point, also, a great deal of ripening still has to occur. In fact, we could say that the real meat of Rinzai practice takes place after one has completed koan training...even, after one has received inka from the teacher. 

And yet, everywhere you go online, you'll find folks confidently telling you what koan practice is, how it's done, what it means. The same also for other methods and traditions. It's really a very odd thing, isn't it! 

It's fine for someone who has done many years of practice, whether they be lay or ordained, to speak about their experience in some manner. But even such people should be very careful not to talk much about practice in an authoritative way. Within the course of practice there are many instances where one realizes how myopic and shallow one's attainment has been. Even someone of very deep and sharp ability like Torei says that at the end of his practice under Hakuin, when he finally was able to grasp the master's functioning, he laughed when he considered his previous efforts and understanding. How much more likely is this to be so for practitioners of fair-to-middling ability, such as we mostly are?

I hope that all of us in our community, starting with teachers and senior students including myself, will repeatedly come to feel the surprise that Torei did, as we clearly see how shallow our own understanding truly is. With that humility and great care, we should then be able to support, guide, and counsel one another effectively.

March 31, 2017

Living at Bright Forest Temple

I am pleased to announce that we have released preliminary information regarding opportunities to reside and practice at Korinji Rinzai Zen Monastery. Our new residence is on track for completion in time for the first ango (period of intensive monastic practice), beginning in March 2018. We are therefore now beginning to take applications from interested persons.

The Korinji website now offers information on the following:

1. RESIDENTIAL ZEN TRAINING: general information for persons wishing to reside at, or visit, Korinji for any length of time.

2. ORDINATION INFORMATION, for persons interested in the training for Rinzai Zen ordination at Korinji.

Information regarding these things may be found here: 

Additionally, we have released information regarding

3. FOCUSED INTERNSHIPS IN BUDO OR THE ARTS: these are opportunities to reside at the monastery and do Zen practice, while also devoting time to the mastery of a specific art or discipline. There are three internship tracks, including self-created programs focused on one's existing art or discipline, a traditional martial arts apprenticeship (uchideshi training) under my guidance, and training in forging/metalwork, also under my guidance.

Internship information may be found here: 

A final note: recommended donations for stay at Korinji are specified in the information. These are necessary so that we may fund our monastery. However, sincere practitioners will not be turned away, and scholarships are possible in cases of need or for those who commit to longer periods of residence.

Please contact me with any questions via the Korinji site (serious inquiries only please, and do read the information on the site first since almost everything you need to know is there).

March 25, 2017

Regarding joriki (samadhi power)

From An Introduction to Zen Training [Sanzen Nyumon] by Omori Sogen Roshi, translated by Dogen Hosokawa Roshi. Calligraphy: "Zen joriki" by Tenzan Toyoda Rokoji (with thanks to Jim Mills).

If we treat things as they should be without being upset by our surroundings and without letting our minds be dispersed by them under any circumstances, we may be called masters wherever we may be. This operating power of our minds is called joriki. It is, in short, the operation of no-self. Master Sogaku writes about it as follows, "The right mind operates at each time and in each place to make you take the right attitude and act properly without deviating from the Way."

Master Yamada Mumon, in his lecture on Zazen-gi, explained the operation of the power of samadhi by telling the following anecdote about Master Toko Shin'etsu (Tung-kao Hsin-yueh), who came to Japan from China in the Ming dynasty.
There was a Lord [daimyo] who learned Zen from Toko Shin'etsu. One New Year's Day, when the Master visited [this] Lord Mitsukuni to exchange New Year's greetings with him, Lord Mitsukuni said, "It is New Year's Day today. Please let me present you with a cup of sake (rice wine)." So saying, Lord Mitsukuni took out a large cup and had one of his servants fill it with sake to the brim [and handed it to the Master]. Just then, "Bang!" rang out from the adjoining room. A gun had been purposely loaded beforehand with a blank cartridge and then fired. The Zen Master, without showing the slightest dismay, drank up the sake from the cup in calm silence. Lord Mitsukuni acted embarrassed and apologized, "It is customary to fire a gun in a warrior's house. Please excuse me." 
The Master returned the cup to Lord Mitsukuni in silent acknowledgement of his apology. When the servant filled Lord Mitsukuni's cup with sake, the Zen Master suddenly gave one loud shout, "Katz!" Taken by surprise, Lord Mitsukuni spilled his sake in spite of himself. The Zen Master said in apparent seriousness, "It is customary for Zen men to give a single shout of 'Katz!' Please excuse me."
After relating the preceding anecdote, Master Mumon said, "The power of such a Zen master is called joriki." It was this power that Master Toko Shin'etsu displayed automatically and without any preparation beforehand. It was the same as the spontaneous action of his selfless self. In other words, it must have been the very power of the one who was the master of everything wherever he might be.

This joriki which anchors itself in samadhi and which thoroughly identifies itself with all matters of daily living, is, needless to say, a precious thing that comes from sitting hard in the midst of quiet. Once that state is achieved, it is protected like carrying a baby. One must not forget that its working is the result of hard training in everything one does. Therefore, the attitude that one takes when standing up after sitting in meditation is very important - one must maintain the intensity of concentration that was achieved during meditation.

March 21, 2017

Forward in the wild fields

Words of Engo (Yuanwu, 1063-1135), compiler of the Hekiganroku

When Bodhidharma came from the West bringing the Zen transmission to China, he didn't set up written or spoken formulations - he only pointed directly to the human mind.

If we speak of direct pointing, this just refers to what is inherent in everyone: the whole essence appears responsively from within the shell of ignorance. This is no different in ordinary people than in all the sages since time immemorial. It is what we call the natural, real, inherent nature; fundamentally pure, luminous and sublime. It swallows up and spits out all of space. It is a single solid realm that stands out alone, free of the senses and their objects.

Just detach from thoughts and cut off sentiments and transcend the ordinary conventions. Use your own inherent power and take up its great capacity and great wisdom right where you are. It is like letting go when you are hanging from a mile-high cliff, releasing your body and not relying on anything anymore.

Totally shed the obstructions of views and understanding, so that you are like a person who has died the great death. Your breath is cut off, and you arrive at great cessation and great rest on the fundamental ground. Your sense faculties have no inkling of this, and your consciousness and perceptions and sentiments and thoughts do not reach this far.

After that, in the cold ashes of the dead fire, it is clear everywhere, and among the stumps of the dead trees everything is illuminated. Then you merge with solitary transcendence and reach unapproachable heights. You don't have to seek mind or seek buddha anymore: you bump into them wherever you go, and they do not come from outside. The hundreds and thousands of aspects and facets of enlightenment since time immemorial are just this. This is mind: there is no need to go on seeking mind. This is buddha: why keep struggling to seek buddha?

If you make slogans based on words and sprout interpretations based on objects, then you fall into the bag of antique curios, and you will never be able to find this true realm of absolute awareness beyond sentiments.

At this stage you are free to go forward in the wild fields without choosing, picking up whatever comes to hand: the meaning of the ancestral teachers is clear in all that grows there. What's more, the thickets of green bamboo and the masses of yellow flowers and the fences and walls and tiles and pebbles are inanimate things teaching the Dharma. The water birds and the groves of trees expound the truths of suffering, emptiness, and selflessness. Based on one true reality, they extend objectless compassion, and from the great jewel light of nirvana they reveal uncontrived, surpassingly wondrous powers.

Changqing said, "When you meet a companion on the Path, stand shoulder to shoulder and go on: then your lifetime task of learning will be completed."

[Excerpted from Zen Letters - Teachings of Yuanwu; translated by J.C. Cleary and Thomas Cleary]

March 20, 2017

Muso Soseki's direct pointing

Sermon of Muso Kokushi Upon the Dedication of Tenryu-ji Monastery in Kyoto, 1339 
From the Taisho Daizokyo, Vol 80, pp. 460c-61a

In the tenth month of the second year of the Ryakuo period (1339), an imperial decree ordered the conversion of the detached palace of the ex-emperor Kameyama into a monastery dedicated to the memory of the ex-emperor Go-Daigo, and also nominated the Master [Muso] to be its founding abbot. In the fourth year of Koei (1345), 4th month, 8th day, the meditation hall was opened for the first time [with their lordships Ashikaga Takauji and Ashikaga Tadayoshi in attendance]. At the hall the Master first performed the ceremony in commemoration of the Buddha’s birth and then proceeded to say: 

The appearance in this world of all Buddhas, past, present, and future, is solely for the purpose of preaching the Dharma and helping all creatures cross over to the shore of liberation. The arts of oratory and types of intonation employed by Shakya were all meant to serve as a guide to the preaching of the Dharma, while the Deer Park and Vulture Peak served as places of spiritual instruction. The school of Patriarch Bodhidharma stressed the method of individual instruction directed toward the essential nature, thus setting themselves off from the schools which stressed the teaching of doctrine. But closer examination of their aims reveals that Bodhidharma’s followers likewise sought to transmit the Dharma and rescue men from the confusions of this world. Thus, all of the patriarchs, forty-seven in India and twenty-three in China, each signalized his succession to the patriarchate by making a statement on the transmission of the Dharma. The great patriarch Bodhidharma said, “I came here primarily to transmit the Dharma and save men from their blinding passions.” So it is clear that Hui-k’o’s cutting off his arm in the snow and the conferring of the robe at midnight upon Hui-neng were both meant to signify transmission of the true Dharma from one patriarch to another. In all circumstances, whether under a tree, upon a rock, in the darkness of a cave or deep in a glen, the Dharma has been set forth and transmitted by such signs to whoever possessed the right qualifications...

What is that which we call the “Dharma”? It is the truth inherent in all its perfection in every living creature. The sage possesses it in no greater amount than does the ordinary man. Enlarge it and it will fill the universe; restrict it and it can be contained in a fraction of an inch. Yesterday or today, it undergoes no change or variation. All that the Buddhas have taught, whether as the Mahayana, the Hinayana, the pseudo or the authentic, the partial or the complete – all are embraced in it. This is the meaning of the “Dharma”.

Everything the world contains – grass and trees, bricks and tile, all creatures, all actions and activities – are nothing but manifestations of this Dharma. Therefore, it is said that all phenomena in the universe bear the mark of this Dharma. If the significance of this were only grasped, then even without the appearance in this world of a Tathagata, the enlightenment of man would be complete, and even without the construction of this hall the propagation of the Dharma would have achieved realization.

As for myself, appearing before you today on this platform, I have nothing special to offer as my own interpretation of the Dharma. I merely join myself with all others – from the founder Shakya Tathagata, the other Buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints and arhants, to all those here present, including patrons and officials, the very eaves and columns of this hall, lanterns and posts, as well as all the men, animals, plants and seeds in the boundless ocean of existence – to keep the wheel of the Dharma in motion.

On such an occasion as this, you may say, “What can we do?” [Holding out his staff, the Master exclaimed:] Look here, Look here! Don’t you see Shakyamuni right here walking around on the top of my staff? He points to heaven and then to earth, announcing to the entire audience, “Today I am born again here with the completion of this new hall. All saints and sages are assembling here to bring man and heaven together. Every single person here is precious in himself, and everything here – plaques, paintings, square eaves and round pillars – every single thing is preaching the Dharma. Wonderful, wonderful it is, that the true Dharma lives on and never dies. At Vulture Peak, indeed, this Dharma was passed on to the right man!”

It is thus that Shakya, the most venerable, instructs us here. It is the teaching which comes down to men in response to the needs of their situation. But perhaps, gentlemen, you wish to know the state of things before Shakya ever appeared in his mother’s womb?

[The Master tapped his staff on the floor:] Listen, Listen!

March 19, 2017

Zen, Ken, Sho: Part II

In a recent post, I briefly touched upon an approach to Zen training that our lineage carries called Zen, Ken, Sho. Summing it up in a general way, I wrote:
Literally this translates as "Zen, Sword, Brush." More broadly, it means that the unity of Zen practice, physical culture, and artistic endeavor is a truly well-rounded training for human beings.
Since that post, however, I have received requests from a number of students for more information. In particular, questions have often centered on whether such-and-such activity can fit into the Zen, Ken, Sho model. A number of questions also have come from students who have no interest in something like martial art training, and perhaps worry that the approach of Zen, Ken, Sho means they cannot practice with us. So I would like to unpack the origin and meaning of all this a bit more.

Regarding the origin of this training model in our lineage, it essentially comes to us from Omori Roshi. It is true, of course, that Rinzai Zen has long had an association with cultural arts and physical culture, and that there were many persons in Zen history who cultivated and manifested the embodiment of Zen insight through activities like calligraphy, painting, tea, martial arts, and so on according to their interests. Omori Roshi, however, appreciated the example of one person in particular who was famous for his mastery of Zen, Ken, Sho: Yamaoka Tesshu.

Tesshu was a deeply realized Zen layman of the late Edo and early Meiji period. Training under Tekisui Giboku of Tenryu-ji, he was able to manifest the fruition of Zen. However, he was someone who arrived at this fruition through a unified training of Zen, calligraphy and swordsmanship. From youth Tesshu trained in the Jubokudo school of calligraphy, as well as the Jikishinkage and Itto schools of fencing. It was his encounter with the Nakanishi Itto Ryu teacher Asari Gimei at age 28, though, that threw Tesshu into the great crisis eventually leading to a decisive awakening experience.

In fencing matches with this teacher, Tesshu found that, though he was by far larger and more physically powerful, he could not defeat Asari nor match his inner state. It is said that Asari would repeatedly force Tesshu back across the dojo, causing him to stumble out the door and into the street, whereupon Asari would shut the door behind him. Redoubling his training with ferocity and focusing on swordsmanship at all hours of day and night, Tesshu sought a solution to this impasse.

Finally, at age 45, Tesshu experienced a breakthrough while sitting in zazen. He rushed to the dojo to confront Asari. The teacher, however, declined to fence with him, remarking simply, "You have arrived." After this, Tesshu founded his own school of swordsmanship, the Muto Ryu.

Omori Roshi, taking Tesshu as an example, was someone who did calligraphy and swordsmanship in a similar way; he even served as head of the Tesshu-kai and lived at Koho-in, a temple that had been built on land previously owned by Tesshu. Because he, like Tesshu, manifested the unified training of Zen, Ken, Sho in his body, Omori Roshi stressed it in his own teaching. His students would not only do traditional Zen practice, but also calligraphy and traditional martial arts (Budo). Because of his own background as a teacher of Jikishinkage Ryu swordsmanship, he was also able to take the four initial forms of that system, the Hojo kata, and use them specifically as a tool to train modern Zen students in the fundamentals of posture, breath, and energy which they lacked. All of this reflected, and was made possible by, his own training experience. It seems clear also that Omori Roshi was something of a genius when it came to training others, able to adapt various disciplines to address whatever strengths or lacks each student displayed.

At Chozen-ji, the temple Omori Roshi founded in Hawaii, this approach to practice was further informed by the background and training experience of Omori Roshi's students, Tanouye Roshi and Hosokawa Roshi, who served as the first two abbots. Tanouye Roshi was an advanced practitioner of Kendo and Judo as well as a music teacher. The Zen, Ken, Sho training program he developed for Chozen-ji included Zen training (zazen and sanzen/koan practice), Budo (traditional martial arts), the Hojo kata, and fine arts like calligraphy, ceramics and music. Hosokawa Roshi, though not a martial artist, was one of Omori Roshi's dharma heirs who refined his calligraphy to an extremely high degree; he also brought to Chozen-ji his experience of traditional monastic practice, and knowledge of the full koan shitsunai inherited from Omori Roshi. Between these two teachers, then, there was a tremendous depth of practice experience.

Toyoda Rokoji, Tanouye Roshi's Dharma heir and through whose work our lineage took root on the mainland, was another exceptional individual. He was, of course, a master of Aikido as well as a Zen practitioner, and had a background of intensive residential practice at Ichikukai dojo, the famous training hall in Tokyo founded by one of Tesshu's students. Because of his experiences, the training system he instituted for his inner students consisted of severe training in Budo as well as Zen practice. He encouraged training in fine arts, though did not himself have much background in them, and valued the Hojo kata, though he did not personally practice them. Above all, we can say that he considered himself a martial artist, and was specifically interested to express Zen through his Aikido teaching. In fact, upon his own breakthrough, he had been told by Tanouye Roshi that he was then qualified to start his own style of martial arts...much in the model of Tesshu.

As for myself, I was primarily Toyoda Rokoji's student for many years, while simultaneously doing sanzen with Hosokawa Roshi. For this reason my training was almost solely in Zen and Budo following Toyoda Rokoji's direction, and I did not train according to Tanouye Roshi's full model of Zen, Budo, Hojo and fine arts. In recent years, however, I have been studying to fill in the gap of artistic training in various ways. I did not ever practice Hojo much. So'zan Roshi, however, is one of the few western Dharma heirs who has practiced sufficiently in all four aspects of the Chozen-ji training model, and experienced training under Tanouye Roshi, Hosokawa Roshi (whose Dharma heir he is) and Toyoda Rokoji. I know he would like me to learn it.

So that is a bit of background. Turning now to some of the questions I have recently received, I would like to stress something that should be obvious when reading all of this: there is no one set model of training. Zen, Ken, Sho is a guiding principle, a way to express that training can, and should, be varied to suit the individual. It affirms that our practice should be of sufficient breadth to not only arrive at Zen insight, but to embody it energetically and with great refinement. The teachers mentioned above all had their own expressions of this approach according to the disciplines they undertook: Omori Roshi practicing Jikishinkage Ryu kenjutsu and calligraphy; Tanouye Roshi practicing Kendo and Judo and further informed by his background in music; Hosokawa Roshi mastering calligraphy and doing Hojo; Toyoda Rokoji training as a Budo master.

So this means that all of you, also, must express Zen, Ken, Sho in some manner that fits your abilities, backgrounds, limitations, and needs. Arriving at the initial awakening which is the entrance gate of Zen practice, we must all then use whatever tools we can to further deepen and clarify our recognition of wisdom, to cause it to penetrate our bodies with great energy, and to refine it again and again such that it functions freely in a seamless samadhi, illuminating all phenomenon and shining forth from our every action. However, it is this general principle of Zen, Ken, Sho - of awakening, embodiment, and refinement -  that we should preserve, not any person's particular expression of it. It may be that martial arts, for example, don't fit a particular student's condition. But in such a case, we could still ask: what other ways are there to cultivate the intense energy (kiai) necessary for the path, and to express it bodily even in situations of duress and crisis? Martial arts are valuable precisely because they have proven useful for accomplishing this. But what other activities might also be used in such a way?

I think, actually, that there could be many such ways to train, and we should not conceive of any limitations whatsoever to activities that might be integrated within our practice. To say that all persons should do a particular practice activity would, in fact, be ridiculous, and would offend against Zen as an expression of the endlessly creative and harmonizing One Vehicle. I thus do not ever describe Ken as solely martial training, but rather more broadly as "physical culture". It is likewise with fine arts: Sho means "brush", but we do not ever say that only calligraphy is useful to impart refinement and master the use of time, space and energy to express Zen realization through a medium. There are actually many possibilities, such as music, ceramics, painting, writing, photography, various crafts, and so on.

In short, I would like my own students to grasp how important it is that our Zen realization be not solely a conceptual thing, but something arrived at - and expressed through - the body. Only that is the genuine Zen realization. It is in order to more quickly manifest such realization, and to do so in ways marked by great creativity and adaptability, that the principle of Zen, Ken, Sho has been set up. What Zen, Ken, Sho therefore truly means is that we must become people who can manifest our Zen awakening in any activity, and who can freely use many such tools to help other beings. We must become practitioners for whom the line between "practice" and "non-practice" disappears.

So, in the future I may suggest to some of my students that they consider taking up various activities. Those who are naturally introverted and nervous, like myself, might indeed benefit from martial arts or other physical culture. Those who have great energy but are, shall we say, a little rough around the edges, might truly benefit from an artistic practice of refinement. And of course, a person without such lacks might not need to do these things at all. In the end, regardless, the choice to pursue anything is up to each of us; all teachers can do in this regard is make suggestions.

As for the future at Korinji, we will certainly offer training reflecting this model of Zen, Ken, Sho for those persons so suited. Unavoidably, the exact forms this training takes will initially reflect my own character and background. Future abbots will develop things in accord with theirs. But for now I can say that I plan to do metalworking there, since I have trained as a bladesmith. I would like also to see ink painting done there, and perhaps ceramics: our locale may in fact be ideal for a traditional step kiln. Finally, in terms of Budo, Korinji will have its own curriculum. I do not wish to reveal too much regarding this yet. However, following Hosokawa Roshi's advice, I believe it needs to contain forms suited to the modern world yet maintaining insights from the past situations. It needs to also include spontaneous, non-kata practice facing an opponent, since this is the way to more truly test non-abiding samadhi in movement and to realize the instant, free manifestation of kiai.

Thus, in the future there will be many interesting practice opportunities in our community, and events featuring teachers of different disciplines. Basically, when it comes to Zen practice we have a versatile and expansive toolbox. You are all very welcome to pursue whatever interests you.

Everyone, however, has to do Zen exceptions!

March 16, 2017

30 minutes for 30 days

Talk given on March 15, 2017 in Madison, WI.

This lecture is primarily for those who participated in our recent “30 minutes for 30 days” zazen challenge. I deeply appreciated the effort you all made.

To begin - and without taking away from what everyone accomplished - we should recognize that 30 minutes is not really a long time. It’s certainly wonderful if we can sit for 30 minutes or more at least once a day. Even better is twice a day. Omori Roshi said that if we don’t sit for two hours a day, we’re not serious! However, it’s true that most of us cannot do that in the beginning. It’s something we have to build up to gradually. So, this 30-day challenge has been very useful, I think. It’s provided a structure, a ladder, to help everyone begin cultivating their practice.

Of course, the important thing isn’t that we sit for a particular amount of time each day; it’s that we can start to integrate practice with the rest of our daily activity. The line between sitting and not-sitting has to eventually disappear. That’s the real Zen practice. Unless we do formal sitting practice – and a great deal of it – we’ll never integrate in that way. That is the crucial point.

One interesting thing I observed, after speaking with many of the people who participated in this 30-day challenge, is that some of them had difficulty with feeling that 30 days is such a long time. There were also some people who did not take up the challenge, saying “Ah, well, 30 days is too long! I can’t predict that I’ll be able to do that, to not fail.”

But, the thing is, there’s no such thing as “30 days.” You’re only sitting for one day. You’re only ever sitting on one day. “30 days” is just something in our heads, something we project; we don’t actually live 30 days as a block. We only live one day…then one day, then one day. So really, it’s only a One-Day zazen challenge! Each day you sit, you don’t fail. If there is a day on which you don’t sit, it’s also alright: another day comes, and you can succeed again.

This way of seeing is very important. Some of you know that I have a background in martial arts training, so I’ll give another example using that. One year my students and I decided that for our New Year’s day training we were going to do 10,000 suburi: cuts with a wooden sword. There were samurai in the feudal period in Japan who did that kind of practice daily, so we said, “OK, we’re going to do that, let’s bring in the new year with energy!”

Well, it took us all day. If you don’t do that kind of training every day, it’s a hard thing! At the end of that day my hands and arms wouldn’t function. I suppose I had some kind of nerve damage; for a week after I couldn’t type or use a computer mouse. But in any case, I decided that I would brush a calligraphy for each of the participants, even though I’m not a calligrapher. It was very shaky calligraphy since I could barely hold the brush. But the characters I chose read “One cut.” I chose this phrase because, actually, none of us had experienced something called “10,000 cuts.” We don’t live that way. We lived and experienced just one cut, fully, in each moment.

It’s very important to approach practice this way. We don’t have to look at how long our sitting is. We don’t have to judge our sitting, saying, “Oh, today is a good sit, I feel very clear!” or, “Today is not so good, I’m not doing very well today compared to yesterday.” We just completely become one with each breath, using the count, using the koan, moment by moment. Our practice, in fact, can completely change within the space of one breath. It is completely fresh, completely new, with each breath, with each day. All we have to do, moment by moment, is unify body, breath and the method we’re using. If we get distracted or lose the method, there’s nothing to worry about: that moment is already gone, completely gone. A fresh moment is here now, the next breath is already here.

This isn’t anything profound; it’s really just a realistic way to practice. Past and future don’t exist except in our minds. Our actual existence is not past, or future. We exist only here, in this strange, miraculous unfolding, moment by moment. Our practice is also only here…it’s constantly changing. In the space of one moment, we can completely transform. This is the freedom of our existence. It’s not fixed or bound at all. If we can practice in this way, then our practice is always fresh, always new, never stuck. You don’t have to worry about or judge anything. The transformation of the quality of your existence will manifest naturally, with the unfolding of each moment.

Does this mean that we are practicing to “stay in the present?” Well, I guess many people often use words like that. I often say we should “remain present.” But actually, there’s no need to make an effort to “be in” in the present. You already are. There’s no need to cling to each moment as it unfolds. Don’t make “the present” another object of fixation either; the most we can say about the present, actually, is that it’s also just an idea we have, something we’ve created to describe this seeming odd point at which our imagined future becomes our remembered past.

The truth is that we are the present. We are the passing of time. There aren’t 30 minutes, or 30 days, or 70 years. There’s just one moment. Our practice is right here. Where else could you be, or try to remain? Resting into our practice in this manner is the easy, straightforward way to practice.

So, those are my general comments on the 30 minutes for 30 days.

Now, for those of you who participated, it may well be that you began to experience some transformation or fruition in your practice. So I’d like to talk briefly tonight about some things it is important for us to recognize in our practice.

You may already know that there are various things we should understand which can help our Zen training. For example, we should grasp the meaning of Bodhidharma’s famous four lines about Zen, which reveal the intent and general method of our path. We should understand the general stages of Zen practice…not that these are fixed, but it is sometimes useful to discuss “stages” as an aid to seeing whether or not our path has come to fruition. We should also understand the three general purposes of all Zen practice methods.

What I want to discuss now, however, are three things that we should clearly recognize and differentiate within our practice experience. If we do not differentiate these, and particularly if we conflate or confuse them, it is possible for our practice to go in a mistaken direction. These three things are, first, the mind’s capacity for clarity, second, samadhi or meditative absorption, and third, awakening, or what we call kensho: seeing your nature.

Clarity first. If you sat for 30 days, it may well be that you experienced moments in which the mind’s natural clarity manifested. As you practiced breathing the count with your whole body, for example, you may have started to experience times when the mind seemed clear and awake, yet without fixation on thoughts. You might especially notice this at the end of each exhalation: breathing the count “one” then “two” and so on, there is a moment at the end of the exhalation, before it has turned to become inhalation, in which the mind is completely settled and still. That is a moment in which we can recognize that the mind does have a natural clarity, a spacious awareness, within which thoughts, emotions and other movements seem to arise.

Now, this clarity or spaciousness is not a Zen thing, or a Buddhist thing. It’s just a human thing. You can experience it easily at any time, if you know how. For example, in zazen we have a particular way of using the eyes. Try this now: look straight ahead. When I say “go”, just spread your vision out – activating your peripheral field and permeating the entire room with your awareness – as fiercely as you can. Ready? Go. [a few seconds pass] Alright, stop. During those moments, what were you thinking? [students reply: “nothing”, “my mind was clear”, “I was just aware”, etc.]

So, that shows you your natural capacity for clarity. You can use this method any time you need to. If there is a time when you feel awash in spinning thought, emotion, depression, and so on, go down by the lake, look out over the water, spread out your vision, and remember this. It means that you can regain objectivity in a way; you will see that all those things arising and spinning in your mind don’t actually touch or affect this basic, expansive clarity.

There are many other ways to do this. Anything which causes the mind to become still or momentarily stop will work. For example - and I’m sorry to speak now about bodily functions - there is a moment right after sneezing in which we can experience this. Also, right as we begin to urinate…perhaps especially if you really have to go! When you release those muscles and pee, for some reason – just for a moment – the mind stops. The moment of sexual climax is also like this. Any kind of fear or shock can cause it too, for example if I come up behind you and shout “Boo!” Being suddenly frightened like that, we usually fall immediately into annoyance toward the person who did it, but actually before that annoyance arises there is a moment of complete clarity.

Another time you can experience this is at the border between wakefulness and sleep. There is a place, after our minds have stilled but before we slip into unconscious sleep, in which the mind is completely clear and calm. If you practice to recognize that moment, you can learn to sustain it and use it. There are many methods like this which we transmit, but I believe for now you get the general idea. Using the body and mind as a laboratory in this way is actually very interesting!

Now, is this experience of clarity what we call awakening or wisdom? What do you think?

Actually, it isn’t. I won’t say it’s not good, or not true. It teaches us something about ourselves, but it’s not enough. It is common for people who don’t practice correctly to think that this experience of basic clarity and stillness is equivalent to recognizing one’s true nature, the nature of mind, awakening, and so on. By itself, however, for most people that is not sufficient at all. So let’s not be confused about that.

The second thing we should recognize, now, is samadhi. We can say that this condition of meditative absorption arises when we are able to seamlessly sustain the basic clarity we discussed, by unifying body, breath and mind. Another way we describe samadhi is that it’s a state simultaneously manifesting complete relaxation, and complete focus. It is not a trance at all, in other words. It is a condition that is fully aware and functioning freely, stable and uncompromisingly present, and finally with greatly lessened habit of fixation on anything. The central fixation, the great delusion of our existence, also can be greatly lessened in samadhi: that is, the self-referential fixation of seeing from the standpoint of “I” and “me” becomes less rigid.

Samadhi can be of varying depth, and like our basic clarity it is just a human experience, not a specifically Zen one. All of you have already experienced it at some time in your life. Especially when we are young, we may find that we enter such states spontaneously. I expect everyone here has a memory of such moments in childhood, perhaps looking out at a beautiful scene and somehow becoming one with it such that the world seemed magically alive, vivid and timeless.

Those of you who do activities like athletics or art may also know such states; some people call it being “in the zone.” You may sometimes so throw yourself into an activity that the sense of separateness from the activity, and of the passage of time, lessens or even seems to drop away. You may feel that you become the painting, or become your surroundings as you run. You might experience the world becoming completely white and still, or sometimes that colors are very vivid…as if a red flower is somehow revealing the original, archetypical red. These kinds of things are experienced when samadhi arises.

Many of you are using the breath-counting method. It is, in fact, one of the best, most rapid techniques for cultivating samadhi. So there is no need to get excited, or be surprised, if you start to experience such things as I have described. It’s just a sign that your practice is deepening.

Is samadhi awakening, then? No, not yet. Again, I won’t say it’s not nice, or not true. It is. But it’s not yet good enough. Well, I suppose it’s true that no matter what you experience, I’ll probably tell you just that: “not good enough.” So you can get used to that! The thing is, even if samadhi manifests so deeply that we feel we have become completely one with everything…even if I feel “I AM the universe”, there is still an “I” there, isn’t there? In that case, it could be a very big “I”...universe-sized, in fact. It may seem to be something transpersonal, as if this “I” has melted into the expanse of reality, but in fact even in that kind of universal samadhi the sense of separate self is still subtly there. We may have gone from the experience of small self, shoga, to big self, taiga. But there is still one more step, one more turning around that must occur, for it to be true wisdom.

Passing beyond even this experience of “I am the universe”, we must enter a truly all-encompassing samadhi in which even the last subtle grip on “I” is let go, and we “die the Great Death” as it is traditionally said. When that samadhi then shatters, and we emerge from it back into the world, we could then recognize that our true nature is no-self, muga.

That is awakening. Awakening or kensho is not something we come to understand. It is the experience of returning to the world after letting go and plunging completely into the void. Coming back to life, we suddenly recognize that our true nature is in fact no-nature. To use positive language, we can say it is utterly boundless.

I have said too much tonight, so let me sum up now. These are three things we should clearly be able to differentiate in our practice: first is the fundamental clarity of mind that manifests in practice and which we can recognize using various means; second is the condition called samadhi which starts to arise in practice, and by which many of our obstructions – including the core obstruction of self-fixation – can start to dissolve; and third is the actual experience of awakening, by which we gain great faith and confidence to continue our practice, and upon which that practice will be based.

After awakening, actually, clarity and samadhi also are different. Using the various methods to return to basic clarity, we come to see that we are in fact returning to the recognition of awakening again and again. Using various practices to cultivate samadhi, we find that samadhi in fact manifests inseparably from the wisdom of awakening, and so its cultivation then becomes the vehicle by which we can seamlessly manifest awakening in all activities.

Finally, regarding these things and especially awakening, you could perhaps understand now that part of the Zen teacher’s job is to help us differentiate, confirm and clarify them when they arise in our experience.

So I’ll stop there. Thank you all again for coming tonight, especially those of you who participated in the “30 minutes for 30 days” zazen challenge. Quite a few people in the USA, and also in our community in Europe, took part. I’m very happy. To be honest, when Myoan came up with the idea for this challenge, I wasn’t so excited. My old-style attitude was something like this: “If they want to sit, they’ll sit. If they don’t, they won’t. It’s up to them!” But she said, “No, you have to give people some encouragement and structure.” I guess that’s right, so I’ll try to be more open to such ideas in the future.

But now, you might want to know, what’s next? So let's say: 45 minutes a day for the next 30 days!

March 6, 2017

Zen, Ken, Sho

Our particular branch of the Rinzai lineage expresses an approach to Zen practice called Zen, Ken, Sho. Literally this translates as "Zen, Sword, Brush." More broadly, it means that the unity of Zen practice, physical culture, and artistic endeavor is a truly well-rounded training for human beings.

Culturally, there are antecedents for this in Confucian notions regarding the ideal education, and later in the samurai ideal of the literary warrior, expressed through the saying Bun bu ryodo (the cultural and the martial are one Way). Naturally similar notions existed in ancient European civilizations, carried forward in the ideals of chivalry and right down to the ideal of the "gentleman" that we still carry.

Of course, whenever bodily or artistic disciplines are chosen to supplement the usual Zen training, they must fit the individual's needs, abilities, physical condition, and so on. This is especially so with physical culture, and certainly no one unable to engage in rigorous physical activity is excluded from Zen practice. There is no one "style" of Zen practice, in other words; to set up such a thing would be ludicrous.

That being said, one traditional expression of physical culture that can still be useful for some folks is bujutsu (martial arts). When used in this context of Zen, Ken, Sho, martial arts become a study not of how to harm others, but rather to realize and and bodily manifest the truth of muteki ("no-enemy"): that is, the non-differentiation of self and other. Martial arts also are tremendously useful for the cultivation of posture, breath and energetic vitality (kiai), as well as for a direct facing not only with conflict, but with the truth of mortality.

For these reasons (and because of my personal background) I am spending a great deal of time recently working on the bujutsu curriculum for Korinji, which may in the future be taken up by some students for whom such training is suited.

Today, laying out some of the tools used in practice, I was struck by the fact that not a single one was purchased: they were all hand-made, and in fact all the steel implements were hand-forged at Korinji. In this way, training in one aspect of Zen-Ken-Sho is being used in service of the others. This is how it should be...

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.