Tuesday, September 19, 2017


A familiar verse in Zen readings is said to have originated during the Tang dynasty in China. As such, it may have grown out of Taoism. It has often been attributed to Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from India to China. In true Zen fashion nobody really knows who composed it, and in true Zen fashion, it really doesn’t matter.

A special communication outside written words;

No dependence upon words and letters;

Direct pointing to the mind;

Seeing into one’s own nature.

So, what is one’s own nature?

Among many textbook answers are enlightenment, awakening, intuition, actuality, self-knowledge, transcendence, spirituality, and so on and on.

The English word spirit comes from Latin spiritus "breath.” It has many different meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance, or to without presence or form.

        For some Native American groups, such as the Hopi and the Zuni, everything has a natural spirit. There is the spirit of rain, of clouds, of animals, of the earth, of rocks.

Kami are Japanese spirits that are honored in Shinto. They can be forces of nature, elements of the landscape, and beings as well as the qualities that these beings express.

Kami are not separate from nature but are of nature. They are manifestations of the interconnectedness of the universe, and are considered to be typical of what humanity should strive toward. To be in harmony with the aspects of nature is to be conscious of the way of the kami.

Though the word kami is translated multiple ways into English, no one English word expresses its full meaning. The ambiguity of the meaning conveys the ambiguous nature of kami themselves.

In Bali I once watched an Indonesian woman set out a bowl of fresh flowers and cooked rice.

She spoke better English than I spoke Indonesian, and when I asked her about what I assumed was her bird feeder she told me the offering was not for the wellbeing of the birds, but for the spirits of the birds.

She went on to explain that all creatures, places, and objects possessed a spiritual nature.

        Granted that the word spirit is an okay term, in respect to Zen it is limited.

           Essence is the basic, real, and consistent nature of a thing. It is the property that makes something what it fundamentally is. Essence is not soul, not ego, not supernatural, not a ghost. It is the characteristic of a living thing, or a place, or an inanimate object.

One time a friend and I were camping in the New Mexico desert, and our fireside talk drifted to matters cosmological. I casually mentioned something about the essence of all things, particularly stones.

Then I mentioned the living essence of stones.

My friend, who was a Christian minister, scoffed, and said, “I suppose you talk to them.”

I said, “Of course.”

And he accused me of animism.

For years afterward he would ask me if I was still talking to any stones.

Essence is the nonphysical part of something. In Japanese the word kokoro has three basic meanings: the heart and its functions; the mind and its functions; and the center, or essence of something.

Most of us are familiar with the word gassho. It’s the Asian custom of placing the palms close to the chest and bowing. Gassho is given not only to a person, but to a place or to a thing. Gassho symbolizes the unity of being, the truth about life. It represents you and me, light and dark, ignorance and wisdom, life and death.

Most important, gassho represents the inter-connectedness with everything.

The essence of existence.

          Now for a koan to take with you. You won’t be tested or graded on your response. In fact I don’t want to know your answer because it is uniquely your answer.

          The koan is this.

          What is the essence of existence?

          Not the meaning of life, because as mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

          What is the essence of existence?

Monday, September 11, 2017



A pundit is a person who offers his or her opinion on a particular subject area on which he or she appears to be knowledgeable.

The news media is loaded with pundits.

Such a person once visited a Zen master, and proceeded to spout commentaries on one topic and another. The master listened, then poured tea into the visitor’s cup.

He continued to pour until the cup ran over, slopping tea onto the table and the floor.

        “But my cup is overflowing,” the man pointed out.

        “Exactly,” the master said.

        How often is enough more than enough?

        Everyone is familiar with food buffets. These are the places that advertise “Eat all you want,” when they should say, “Stuff your gut.”

        More often than not, most food taken is only partially consumed, and the remainder is discarded.

        Here is a Japanese sake cup. It holds little more than a thimbleful of rice wine. One or two sips of sake are usually enough for anyone. However, some individuals will knock back a dozen or more cups, or else guzzle directly from the bottle, because to them there is no such thing as enough.

        Of course, such excesses apply to other things and to other peoples.

        Remember Imelda Marcos, the wife of the former President of the Philippines. Owing to self-indulgence, Mrs. Marcos owned more than a twelve-hundred pairs of shoes.

Imagine. Twelve hundred pairs of shoes for one person.

If you think that was an excess, consider Jay Leno, who owns 169 automobiles and 117 motorcycles.

        How much is enough?

But I am straying off the subject, which is more or less.

And what does that have to do with Zen living?

More or less has to do with knowing yourself. It has to do with putting things in their proper perspective.

Remember the Buddhist middle way of moderation between extreme indulgence and self-mortification. It is the path to seeing things in the proper perspective.

You don't have to look like somebody else, or possess as much as somebody else. Also, you can’t know others until you know yourself.

Monday, August 28, 2017


I would like to talk about something that has become an overused platitude, even a cliché.

That is, the word karma.

        There is a rock band called Karma. Celebrities and other less illustrious people baptize their newborn Karma. Household pets are named Karma. There is even a comic strip called Karma.

        Aside from the uses of pop culture, karma is an important term in Asian cultures.

        The literal meaning of the word is action, or effect, or fate. Karma is often spoken of as a law. But the word “law” sounds like a ruling or a decree.

        Some sources even break down karma into a dozen or more parts, such as responsibility, patience, focus, humility, and so on and on.

        But that kind of adjustment is so overblown that it can be ignored.

        In Hinduism and Buddhism karma is not a law but a concept that the sum of a person's actions affect their fate. In three words, it is cause and effect.

        Under karma, every action has consequences.

        The Upanishads are a collection of ancient Sanskrit texts that contain some of the central ideas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. They are nothing new, dating back to the seventh century BC, and they talk about the idea of karma.

“Now a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves.

“A person of good acts will become good, a person of bad acts, will become bad.

“A person consists of desires, and as is the desire, so is the will, and so is the deed, and whatever deed the person does, that is what the person realizes.”

        In fewer words, every action has a consequence, just as every thought has a result.

        Instead of behaving impetuously and without thought, humans are capable of using their own brains. An awakened person should think. An awakened person should consider what personal action may be, and how it may affect themselves or someone else.

        An awakened person should realize that all things in the universe are interconnected.

        Zen has no rules, no laws, no directives. There are no mediators to interpret what you should or should not do.

You are totally on your own to carry out your destiny, your karma.

        That is called free will, and free will is what worries many people who like to be told how to live their lives, and who feel the need to follow directions instead of thinking for themselves.

        End of sermon.

        A final thought.

        Meditation could be said to be the art of simplicity: simply sitting, simply breathing, and simply being.

Monday, August 07, 2017



Whenever I mention the words “Self,” or “I,” or “Ego,”—especially in my Zen blog—I receive several comments that either disagree with my usage, or else offer other views. I look forward to such interaction.

For example, one person said: “If ‘self’ is the answer, or solution to our ills, then why all the ills? The ‘Self’ needs help; it doesn't offer it!”

Someone else commented: “The self is more like a universal soul. To find the self within you is to find something beyond the ‘self’ of the ego.”

I can’t argue with either view. First, because argument is pointless. Second, because I don’t want to argue. Everyone is entitled to his or her own view.

I’m sure tonight’s talk will bring on a firestorm of diverse voices.

* * * * *

Imagine for a minute you are enclosed in a transparent sphere. From inside your bubble you can observe everything. You are cozy because you are shielded from anything that does not agree with you. You are protected from disturbing noises, disagreeable odors, and difficult people. You are isolated from the world.

Everyone learns from childhood on to create and live in an insulated space.

Such a shell is built around a person’s “me,” a person’s “I.” It’s a protective defense. It’s designed to repel, or else filter, anything that is not harmonious with the one it protects.

Shells enclose a very small world.

Too often one’s shell is so tight it becomes stifling, which leads to deceptive thinking. That is, if anything that manages to insinuate its way into such a small world is not in agreement with the center—the “I” or “me”—the center suffers.

As long as one is bound by one’s small world, one behaves like a bird in a room that has no open windows or doors. A trapped bird flutters against walls, not sure of what it is doing but struggling to escape confinement. In its struggle it usually distresses itself.

Some humans allow themselves to be trapped birds. They ask “What am I?” Or, “Who am I?” Or, “Do I like this or that?” They struggle endlessly within their shell.

Paradoxically, their concept of “I” is what, in the first place, creates their small world and limits its boundaries. Ironically, this “I” is self-created. It is delusion.

In Zen there is no “I.”

Some religions teach that every human being is a worthless worm, born into sin and living in sin unless he or she accepts certain precepts.

Making threats of recrimination, or else dangling carrots of reprieve, is no way to treat a human spirit. Such practices reinforce people’s shells and strengthen their notion of “I.” People become fearful and guilt-ridden. A life based on the “I” concept is abstraction, not existence. Zen realizes existence directly.

Think about it: Zen realizes existence directly.

According to human-development researchers, consciousness develops largely in one’s teenage years. By consciousness I mean a sense of being-in-the-world. Consciousness is a background against which one’s existence is defined and measured. Consciousness means being coexistent with others.

However, the necessity of coexisting with others often encourages the development of the egocentric “I,” and one looks at all externals as so many tools, so much equipment. Friends and associates become equipment. Parents or children become equipment. Mates become equipment. They exist in small world terms, only as things to validate the “me,” the “I.” Of course, this equipmentizing reaches in two directions. One’s items of equipment, in return, also treat everyone else as equipment.

Think about it.

With everyone thinking “I,” “me,” and “them,” is it any wonder there is so much alienation in the world? Political systems clash. Christians and non-Christians wrangle. Arabs and Jews disagree.

When one lives in a closed shell everything outside becomes equipment designed to serve the needs of the inner “me.” Everything is depersonalized.

As an example, consider this singing bowl. At face value this bowl is an object designed to produce a sound. But no more than a tree is an object meant for lumber to build a shelter for me is this cup a mere thing designed for my need or my pleasure.

Perceive this bowl. Discover it. Don’t judge it, thinking that you don’t care for the shape, or that the color is not agreeable to your personal taste. Take the time to experience this bowl for the unique thing it is. It has shape. It has form. It has texture. It has a character of its own.

Furthermore, this bowl may seem identical to a matching bowl that was made at the same time, but each of the two bowls is its own self.

Experience a tree. Experience this bowl or that bowl. These are not mere things. Each is significant. Each is as important as any one of us.

These items are not pieces of equipment intended to fulfill our ego.

Other human beings are not pieces of equipment designed to validate our self.

Everything is unique. Every thing is what it is. Every thing, and every one, is.

* * * * *

What do you think?

Monday, July 31, 2017



When you see something—a pine tree, a white horse, a metal chair—do you really perceive the thing? Or do you see something the way you would like it to be? An oak tree, a brown horse, a wooden rocker?

Do you accept something for what it is, or do you re-shape it in the image that suits you? Do you re-constitute life itself based on your personal likes and dislikes?

        A Zen saying declares, “To see what is here, without the need to alter our view of things.”

        Are you able to stop fiddling around mentally, and take notice, to stop spending time doing small things that are not important or necessary?

        Is that pillow green, or would you rather it be some other color?

To quote a haiku composed by Teijo Nakamura:

        Ah, in the corner

        Look again,

        Winter chrysanthemum, red.                     

        The key to haiku—and to life—is attending to what is there. Nothing more, nothing less.

        That means dropping the self-absorption of thought, of analysis, of trying to make sense of something, when all that something requires is seeing.

        Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century English and American poetry that sought clarity of expression through the use of precise images. The movement derived in part from the aesthetic philosophy of T. E. Hulme and involved Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Amy Lowell, and others.

I will close with another verse—not a haiku—by William Carlos Williams titled “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

So much depends upon

a red wheelbarrow

glazed with rainwater

beside the white