Monday, July 17, 2017


A while back I gave a wordy talk on nothing. That is, nothing in the Zen sense. Now I’d like to say some more about nothing and something about form.

Dictionaries hedge on the word “form.” They say form is:

1. The shape and structure of an object,

2. The body or outward appearance of a person or animal,

3. The essence of something,

4. The mode in which a thing exists.

Talking about form isn’t too difficult. Form is usually associated with something that’s real or concrete, such as a thumb, or a chair, or a mountain. We can also think of form as something that isn’t quite solid but still has shape, even though that shape may be a changing one. Say, a puff of smoke or a cloud in the sky.

Generally we think of form in a physical sense as a figure that takes up space. Form often refers to something whose shape might be spherical (a marble), or cubical (a box), or irregular and fluid (an ocean wave).

Emptiness isn’t so easy to nail down in words because we tend to think of emptiness as an absence. As a nothing. When there is no shape, no form, no anything, that might be emptiness.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

Let’s consider form and emptiness, and see where we go, if anywhere.

At first it might seem that form and emptiness aren’t worth mentioning in the same breath because they are so different from one another. It’s a little like talking about oranges and cucumbers together. Sure, oranges and cucumbers are organic, and they are foods, but they don’t have much else in common.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

In Zen terms, form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Each has meaning in its own right, and each is meaningful to the other.

Consider a three-dimensional piece of sculpture, or a two-dimensional painting, especially a painting done in traditional sumi-e, or Japanese Zen, style. Space that isn’t occupied by solid material or by brush strokes is as significant to the whole work as space that is filled with solid material or a brush stroke. Here, something and nothing are equally important because each helps to define the other, physically, visually, and—in the observer—emotionally.

Consider your thumb. Like everything else it’s composed of what science calls molecules, atoms, various subatomic particles, and lots of empty space—the space between all that other stuff.

However, what science calls electrons, and protons, and such are thought to be not physical entities but quantities of electromagnetic radiation. Science doesn’t call these quantities “things” but quanta.

So, your thumb isn’t a solid, after all.

The science of matter and motion, which most of us were subjected to in high school, is called classical physics. It’s based on the conclusions of Isaac Newton (late 1600s), who considered existence to be a three-dimensional space that is always at rest and unchangeable. Newton declared that space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable.

What is referred to as modern or “new” physics got its start shortly after the turn of the last century. It’s based on the theories of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who decided that viewing the functioning of existence from the rigid viewpoint of Newtonian mechanics was not limiting but dead wrong. Bohr, and other intellectuals of his time, such as Einstein, Schrödinger, Dirac, and Pauli, decided quantum mechanics made much more sense of a senseless universe.

I could babble on at great length about particle physics, because it’s a fascinating topic. But I won’t. I will say that many of the discoveries in quantum mechanics are explainable to a select few intellects only through advanced mathematics.

On the other hand, these notions have been grasped intuitively by Taoists, Hindus, and Buddhists since before the sixth century BC. They didn’t need mathematics.

An aside.

Somewhere I read that President Harry Truman once said he wished he had a one-armed statistician in his Cabinet because the fellow wouldn’t be able to say, “On the other hand….”

I read somewhere else—and I can’t remember where—that an atom the size of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica (which is three stories high) would have a nucleus the relative size of a speck of dust. In other words, atoms are not what we think of as solid matter but are mostly empty space.

So, again look at that thing we call a thumb. Your thumb may seem solid, dense enough to poke in your eye, but on a subatomic level, your thumb is mostly empty space.

Your thumb is largely emptiness.

Now step back mentally and consider this. Emptiness itself occupies space, and it helps to determine the boundaries of space. Remember the painting and the sculpture.

So if emptiness is circumscribed, it must have form.

Hui-neng, Zen Buddhism’s sixth patriarch, said, “From the first, not a thing is.” That statement could be meditated on for a long, long time. Remember, Hui-neng wasn’t speaking of time in a chronological sense.

Let’s contemplate that for a moment.

From the first, not a thing is.

Now let’s contemplate these wonderfully paradoxical words from the Diamond Sutra: “There are no things or people, yet there are.”

To wind this up, if your thumb is mostly empty space, is its shadow defined by its darkness, or by the light around it?

Nothing is this or that. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.

Monday, July 03, 2017



          I’d like to attempt a simplified commentary on a complex subject. The subject is the talk by Master Dogen titled Keisei Sanshoku, or “The Contour of a Mountain, the Ripple of a Stream.”

          Dogen’s talk focuses on the experiencing of one’s Buddha-nature. This experiencing—also known as kensho and satori—involves much preparation to bring one to a high spiritual level. To put that in physical terms, preparation that brings one to the brink of a precipitous cliff.

          That word “spiritual,” and its root “spirit,” has nothing to do with any god, or the character of sacredness, or something beyond human comprehension, as is common in Western thought and religions. When a Zen person speaks of spirit it’s a reference to a non-tangible aspect of existence.

          If you can’t describe, weigh, measure, or slice something, that something is spirit. Maybe.

          “Maybe,” because as I just said, spirit can’t be adequately described in universal terms that everyone can understand or even agree on.

          To keep things uncomplicated think of spirit as non-material. Think of it as the essential nature or essence of a human, or a bird, or a stone.

          To speak metaphorically, all humans are born with a spark for experiencing enlightenment, but society hammers that spark mercilessly. In many people the spark is beaten down so severely it’s almost extinguished. Zen is the path to fanning the spark until it bursts into a flame.

          The flame is kensho. Enlightenment.

          When a person is spiritually ready for kensho to occur, it is often activated by an outside happening. It may be a word spoken by a master or a teacher. It may be the sound of a rippling stream. It may be the shape of a mountain.

          The title I’ve given this talk is “Mountains and Streams,” and those words bring back an unrelated memory. When I was in the Navy’s Special Training School, each morning every sailor on the base had to assemble on the parade ground while the orders of the day, as well as a checklist of Navy regulations, were read over a public address system.

          The reader was a Chief Petty Officer, named Berman. He was semi-literate. The poor guy tripped over almost any word that had more than one syllable. His greatest obstacle was the word “contributions,” as in, “You can have Cancer Society contributions deducted from your paycheck.” He would fumble with the word, then blurt it out as “contribulations.” Everyone tried not to laugh but never succeeded.

          What does that have to do with Zen? Probably nothing, unless you want to read some hidden meaning into the story. What triggered the memory was that the daily announcements were referred to as Rocks and Shoals, things that were to be looked out for.

          Getting back to Dogen, he was known for his use of figures of speech. In his day (around 1250) metaphors and similes were common tools of Zen masters and teachers, and were understandable to most people because they dealt with concepts of those times. However, when they’re read today they can be puzzling. They can also be misleading if you try to fit them to a culture and time different from those in which they were spoken.

          For example, Dogen wrote of a Chinese Zen man named Shisen who was a “veritable dragon in the sea of letters…trained under dragon elephants in the sea of Buddhism.”

          If you spend a lot of time trying to interpret all the allusions you’ll lose yourself needlessly in details. If you grasp the point of “dragons” and “elephants in the sea,” that’s fine. If you don’t grab it clearly, don’t worry. Let the words roll off your back, and go on with your Zen practice. It’s essential.

          One day Shisen was making his way through a forested mountainside, and he heard the rippling sound made by a rushing stream. That sound caused him to awake spiritually. He was enlightened. He was awakened. He had kensho. He saw his face before he was born.

          To mark the event Shisen composed a poem. In it he wrote that the stream’s rippling is the eloquent tongue of the Buddha, and the mountain’s contour is the body of the Buddha.

          Shisen’s awakening was brought about by his heightened awareness, which was brought about his long sessions of meditation. His mind was emptied of all judgements, all opinions, all limitations. He was free and open. His spirituality was ready, and his hearing the sound of the stream was like being whacked alongside the head with a two by four.

          Dogen asks, what do you hear when you listen to the ripple of a stream. Do you hear half a phrase, or do you hear a single phrase?

Or do you hear every atom of your body and of the entire universe?

          Some followers of Zen might think a mountain is a symbol of stability, and a stream represents unsteadiness. They applaud themselves and think they’ve got it.

          So Dogen rattles their cage by adding, “That which flows is the mountain; that which does not flow is the stream.”

          When Zen master Kyogen was in training he studied hard, and he read the sutras, diligently. One day his master, named Daii, asked him to explain the words, “before father and mother were born.”

          Kyogen tried several times, fumbling with words the way Chief Berman did, but Kyogen couldn’t explain. He searched through all of his books and commentaries for help, but was unable to come up with an answer. Finally he burned his entire collection of writings and gave up trying to gain enlightenment. Instead he became a food server in the monastery.

          I doubt whether Chief Berman resigned himself to dishing up mashed potatoes in the mess hall.

          After several frustrating years Kyogen went back to Daii and asked for help in understanding “before father and mother were born.”

          The master refused to elaborate, saying that if he did Kyogen would later resent him.

          Kyogen was disappointed, and went away to become a hermit.

          Some years later Kyogen was vigorously sweeping the path to his hut, and his broom sent a stone flying. The stone hit a bamboo, making a clunk sound.

          That was Kyogen’s ripple of a stream, his contour of a mountain. It was the external happening that triggered his awakening.

          He bowed in the direction of his Daii’s monastery and said, “Master, all those years ago if you had said something to me in explanation I would not had this experience. I would have thought I knew the answer.”

          Like Shisen, who wrote the verse about the stream’s ripple and the mountain’s contour, Kyogen composed a poem to commemorate his enlightenment.

          “At one blow, all I had learned with my head is forgotten.

          “Truly, I myself am no longer the one in control.

          “Breaking out in a smile, I make my way along the old path,

          “Neither looking down in moments of despair

          “Nor leaving behind, here and there, traces of where I have been.

          “Only a dignified manner remains, which lies beyond anything heard or seen.

          “Those everywhere who have realized the Way,

          “All in one, say it is the moment supreme.”

          D.T. Suzuki mentions (in Sengai, the Zen of Ink and Water) there are three forms of knowledge. They are illusory knowledge, relative knowledge, and absolute knowledge.

          Illusory knowledge refers to what you think you know. For an example, teenagers think they know more than their parents.

          Relative knowledge is what you pick up from studying, from reading, and from teachers.

          Absolute knowledge comes only when you put to rest the other two. Oh, they aren’t worthless. Illusory knowledge and relative knowledge are like paths to the transcendental wisdom that can’t be gained from a teacher.

          Absolute knowledge comes from the sound of a stream, the shape of a mountain.

Monday, June 19, 2017



Most writers scribble notes, where ever they may be at any given time, notes that may come in handy at a later date. They fill notebooks with jottings—colors, smells, sounds, quirky happenings. Notes are a rough guide to a writer’s observations and his identification with an emotion.

However, more often than not, a note that may have seemed a brilliant commentary when it was jotted down becomes totally baffling when read later. Here’ is an example from my own note pad, written hastily a couple of years ago:

“Felk the sorkins.”

Felk the sorkins? What does that mean? What is a sorkin? How do you felk one? Why?

Here’s another of my notes:

“Nature is natural; Religions are not.”

Now that seems rather sensible. It’s something I can wrap my mind around.

With that drawn-out preamble, I’d like to talk about nature and Zen.

When I say “Nature,” I mean the world of things not formed by human beings.

Flowers, trees, birds, stones, clouds.

Nature with a capital “N.”

Mother Nature.

An aside. The American Heritage Dictionary gives a curious definition for nature: “Humankind’s natural state as distinguished from the state of grace.”

There is a song titled State of Grace. There is also a TV series by that name, as well as a punk rock band.

What the state of grace is, I have no idea. It makes as much sense as Felk the sorkins.

Getting back to Nature, humans want to conquer Nature, to bend Nature. Humans bulldoze primeval forests to make way for factories. They wipe out animal habitats in order to feel safe. They level mountains so they don’t have to drive around them. Humans pollute rivers, lakes, the atmosphere, and outer space.

You get the idea.

Yeah, yeah, we know all this. What does it have to do with Zen?

D.T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhism) suggested that Western people sometimes treat Nature as something “there” into which Man comes.

Sumie—black ink brush painting—is a favorite art form in Japan is. A Sumi picture seldom includes skyscrapers or trains or Hummers. Instead, most images are of the natural world. Birds, flowers, waterfalls, misty mountains. If any humans are painted, they are small, and subservient to Nature. In a sumi painting a human is not presented as master of all, but as a related part of the whole.

Poetry. One of the principles of classical haiku is that it be based on nature and include a hint of the season of the year.

Western haiku are far removed from Eastern haiku, but we won’t go into that.

Here’s a haiku by Buson:

That snail—
One long horn,
What’s on his mind?

The poet Basho said one should learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Granted that the ancient Japanese poets and painters lived in a more Natural world without cars or even central heating, they appreciated nature for what it was.

Nancy Wilson Ross, author of The World of Zen, wrote that brush painting focused on the Tao, the Way, the Order of Nature. To quote her:

“To the Westerner in search of the reintegration of man and nature there is an appeal far beyond the merely sentimental in the naturalism of Zen.”

An aside: One ancient teacher said Zen was like a mountain veiled in mist, and once the mist is penetrated, Zen is all solid rock.

The Christian Bible presents some gloomy words regarding Nature. Genesis 1: 28 says the following words were given to Adam and Eve:
“Fill the earth and subdue it; bear rule over the fishes of the sea; over the birds of the air and over every living, moving creature on earth.”

The Bible notwithstanding, mankind does not have to be in opposition to Nature.

D.T. Suzuki asks if this is the right way of thinking, this idea of domination. He says it’s a Western idea to treat nature as something unreasonable.

And Suzuki goes on to say that when man is in agreement with Nature, Nature will help man to understand himself.

As I hinted earlier, mountains are a recurring natural theme in Zen painting and in poetry. One ancient master said:

When I began to study Zen, mountains were mountains. When I thought I understood Zen, mountains were not mountains. When I really comprehended Zen, mountains were again mountains.

What does that mean?

It means when mountains, and Nature, are integrated into my being, and I am immersed in them, they are what they are and I am what I am.

I am a part of all that I have met.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Remember my saying that Zen dialogues are often intended to be puzzling, even cryptic. This is because such talks are aimed at bringing about intuitive awakening.

          Most of the stories I’ll be relating in this talk are not my invention. Most of them come from China, and they date back to the so-called golden age of Zen during the T’ang dynasty (620-900 A.D.) and the Sung dynasty (930-1278 A.D.).  A few tales come from Japan and are younger in age.

          The first story is known as Opening Speech.

          A prosperous lord built a monastery for a noted Zen master and asked the master to give the first talk in the monastery’s lecture hall.

          An audience gathered and settled itself.

          The master entered the hall, put on his robe, and sat down.

          All the people leaned forward, anticipating what they were sure would be a fine, learned speech.

          The master sat silently for several minutes. Then he removed his robe, stood up, said “Goodbye,” and left the hall.

          Most of the people were startled, and a few of them muttered their disappointment.

          The monastery’s patron approached the master and said, “The Buddha’s teaching must have been the same as yours.”

          The master said, “I thought you were a stranger to the teaching. However, you know something of Zen.”

          What’s going on here? How vague can a story be? Is there any sort of meaning to grab hold of?

          Well, to flog a dead horse, the meaning lies in the Zen master refusing to play a ritualistic role of a master or teacher. That would have been like setting up a statue of the Buddha in a room and thus establishing a so-called ivory tower.

An ivory tower is defined as a preoccupation with intellectual considerations rather than with practical everyday life.

          The master—being a true Zen person—did away with such a non-realistic attitude even before it could be established.

          Zen is Zen. It is in and of the person. It is not an icon or a robe or place of honor or a ritual

          The essence of Zen lies not only in saying “Goodbye” to synthetic trappings, but also in saying “Farewell” to you.

          Think about it.

          This story is similar in its significance to an apocryphal tale of the Buddha himself, The Flower.

          One day the Buddha sat on the ground to give a talk to a group of his disciples. They clustered around and waited silently so they wouldn’t miss a word.

          The Buddha said nothing, but simply held up a small flower. Most of the people stared at one another, wondering what that was all about. But one of them looked at the Buddha and smiled.

Now I’ll talk about Stone Buddha.

A lay person said to a Zen master, “I have a stone in my garden that I intend to carve in the likeness of the Buddha. Can I do it?”

The master said, “Yes, you can.”

The lay person then asked, “Can I not do it?”

The master answered, “No, you can not do it.”

Before you go batty trying to work out the double and triple negatives, think for a moment without trying to analyze.

The citizen assumed the teacher would praise the good intention of sculpting a statue of the Buddha. But all the teacher said was “Yes, you can.”

When the citizen asked, “Can I not do it?” he wanted to be sure, and he expected the master to affirm him.

When the master answered “No, you can not do it,” the fellow was probably confused all to hell and gone.

The point is if one wants to carve a statue of the Buddha, they should do it whether or not others approve. If there the slightest doubt enters in, the act will never take place.

The fellow probably had a good, solid stone, but his resolve was brittle.

Monday, May 29, 2017


A warning.

This talk starts nowhere, and goes nowhere.

Welcome to Zen.

In several of my travels, particularly in Asia, I’ve been asked why most Americans are dabblers. We are often perceived as a nation of faddists. We tend to pick up on short-term things that come and go. In many foreign eyes, Americans are thought of as liking to be thought of as cool, hip, mellow, groovy, awesome.

We latch on to spiritualism, to exotic forms of Yoga, to various types of meditation, to Sufi, to Wicca. All may be reasonable disciplines, at the time, but we seldom stick with any one before heading off to try another.

An example is electronic evangelism. You might be amazed at the numbers of people who subscribe to the claims of some radio and televangelist preachers.

Recently I saw a video of a television sermonizer who beseeched God to grow new legs on a dual-amputee. The preacher also asked God to let the same fellow see through his glass eyeball.

The preacher guffawed and giggled constantly at his on-stage doings, as if he were amused at the credulity of the live audience. However, the audience, to a T, appeared to swallow everything whole.

Honestly, I’m not poking fun at such people. I’m merely mentioning them as examples of the flip-flopping of so many Americans.

Getting back to Zen,

Zen first appeared in the United States in 1893, when Soyen Shaku introduced it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. That’s a good while, so maybe Zen is here to stay.

In the 1940s and 1950s the output of such writers as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth helped to raise the awareness of Zen in America. It’s interesting that all of these fellows were Californians of the so-called Beat Generation. And to this day California is known for its spiritual and consciousness-raising movements, as well as its dabblers.

So, after more than a hundred years in America, is Zen a passing fancy or is it something that is stabilized? Who knows? Who can even make a wild guess? Maybe Zen in America is merely one hand clapping. Or the flapping of the mind, like a wind-blown banner.

Is anyone familiar with the name Tenzin Gyatso? I’m sure everyone is familiar with the person: the exiled political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. He is widely known not for working so-called miracles, or preaching salvation, but for his emphasis on compassion.

Compassion is awareness of the suffering of others. It is the hallmark of Buddhism, including Zen.

Life is suffering, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.

Once we understand that, we can help others to understand.

This is compassion.

One interesting thing about Zen—I should say one of the many interesting things about Zen: You can put it into practice, no matter if you are a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem. You don’t have to betray or change your fundamental beliefs.

Furthermore, you don’t have to profess or broadcast you are a Zen person.

Just live Zen. Be Zen.

In Zen you don’t pray. You don’t need someone or something to forgive you or grant you mercy . . . whatever that means. You don’t need anything more than yourself, and an open mind.

Zen is basically meditation and letting go. Flushing your mind and letting it open up.

Traditionally in Asia, Zen has been the calling of monks and nuns, who have dedicated themselves to a monastic life. In America Zen is for anyone who wants to clear his or her mind and seeing themselves for what they are.

Look at us, right here. We are a motley crew comprising artists, educators, scholars, students, musicians, and other fascinating types. We aren’t dues-paying members of any organization. We aren’t bound by vows to a religious life. We don’t live in a monastery. Some of us—or maybe none of us—attend a place of worship.

Most of us get together on a regular basis—Monday evenings—and we sit in silent meditation. No fanfare. No ceremony. No hallowed music. We just sit.

Now, to some people that would sound terribly dull. Most people might think that an hour or so of just sitting with no television to entertain us would be mind numbing.

Instead, it is mind opening. Refreshing.

To non-practioners, Zen may seem irrational. To them it may seem foolish and crazy. But craziness is one of the joys of Zen.

Life itself doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t follow a rational path. Unforeseen things happen. There are tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. People become ill. They die at an early age. Humans may think they control their destinies, but shit happens.

Humans fight against fate because fate isn’t logical. It doesn’t always work to human advantage.

Zen confronts.

In the Japanese No play a Zen priest is asked about zazen. He answers (From A Commentary by Amakuki Sessan, on Hakuin’s Song of Meditation, in A first Zen Reader) as follows:

“Not to lament, . . . ;

“Not to choose whether the law be kept or broken;

“Not to fall into either being or not being—

“This is the sign by which all become Buddhas.”

A monk asked Master Baso, “What is Buddha?”

Baso answered, “This mind is Buddha.”

Some time later, another monk asked Baso, “What is Buddha?”

Baso answered, “This mind is not Buddha.”