Tuesday, November 21, 2017



Many people assume Zen is like a therapist couch and come to purge their faults. Others want to expose their personal opinions. Still others come to zazen hoping to be given answers to personal problems.

Such motives may be reasonable, but they may indicate a need to control.

        One reason we create problems is because they give us a sense of identity. We replay past mistakes, allowing feelings of regret to shape our actions in the present. We worry about the future, as if the act of fixation somehow gives us power. We hold stress in our minds and bodies and accept tension as the standard.

However, there will never be a time when life is simple.

As Mark Twain said, "I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Every moment is a chance to let go. Pausing the mind allows the self to be here and now rather than some other place or time. To be awake is to be aware.

Some Buddhist schools call living in the moment mindfulness. It’s a state of open attention on the present. When you become mindful, you realize you are not your thoughts, but you are aware of them.

The term "mindfulness" is a translation of a Pali term that is utilized to develop self-knowledge and wisdom. Mindfulness is the process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.

Life goes on in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away because we are busy doing something.

Mindfulness is common to Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, and many Native-American traditions. It's why Thoreau went to Walden Pond; it's what Emerson and Whitman wrote about in their essays and poems.

If we see the world with mindful eyes, we realize almost everything is different each time—the pattern of light on the buildings, the faces of the people, even sensations.

Two monks were meditating side by side. The younger one gave the older one a questioning look.

The older monk said, "Nothing happens next. This is it."

Beside the stairway,

A white chrysanthemum blooms.

There is nothing else.


Monday, November 06, 2017



A paradox is a situation that may be true but seems impossible or difficult to understand because it contains contradictory terms.

To say that another way, a paradox is a self-contradictory proposition that may be well-founded or true. On the other hand it may not be true.

Talk about inconsistency, consider the words of Zen Master Soen Nakakagawa who said, “Plus and minus are one, a world of absolute contradiction.”

        Some scholarly individuals—not Zen practitioners, by the way—spend a great deal of time and effort analyzing and categorizing Zen statements, stories, and especially koans, shoehorning them into systems of symbolic logic using emblems to denote propositions, terms, and relations.

An example of symbolic logic might be, if A is the same as B, then AB is the same as BA.

        Analyzing and categorizing are fine pastimes if you want to prove something or want to establish a belief. And they may work with computer science.

        However, in Zen nothing needs to be verified or supposed.

        In Zen a dialogue or an exchange or a statement is often a source of illogical puzzlement. But such exchanges are intended to do away with logic and encourage awareness.

        As an example:  

        My finger can point to the moon, but my finger is not the moon. You don’t have to become my finger, nor do you have to worship my finger. You have to forget my finger, and look at where it is pointing.”

        Following are a few lines of non-Zen borrowed from a well-intentioned academician who is speaking of paradox in Zen.

“With this we are baffled because apparently bona fide language and discourse are freely used to create a state of mental comprehension and personal transformation which transcend both language and reason.

        For such reasons Zen practice must mislead and mystify those same learned individuals who emphasize such virtues as conceptual clarity, logical consistency, and semantic meaningfulness.”

End of academic discourse. If anyone can say that in plain English, let me know.

Zen language and Zen experience possess a certain ability to trigger insights in a human being. Therefore they can’t be dismissed as nonsense or irrelevant. They have real value.

But the Zen experience continues to puzzle philosophers in general and theorists of religion in particular.

What follows are a few typical Zen statements that might make perfect sense to a Zen person, but might baffle a philosopher or a theologian.

--Show me your original face before you were born.

--What is the clap of one hand?

--Don't call this a stone, but tell me what it is.

--I am him and yet he is not me.

        --Mountains are not mountain, and water is not water.

        --Not one, not two.

        To quote D.T. Suzuki, “There are in Zen no sacred books or dogmatic tenets, nor are there any symbolic formulae through which an access might be gained into the signification of Zen. If I am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer, Zen teaches nothing. Whatever teachings there are in Zen, they come out of one's own mind. We teach ourselves; Zen merely points the way.”

        End quote.

When a student of Zen named Yamaoka Tesshu called on Master Dokuon of Shokoku the novice said,

 “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.”

Dokuon said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the novice quite angry.

“If nothing exists,” said Dokuon, “where did your anger come from?”

A student went to his teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s terrible!”

“It will pass,” the teacher said.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive!

“It will pass,” the teacher replied.

        To wind up this talk:

n  When you can do nothing, what can you do?

n  What is the color of wind?

n  I have lived with several Zen masters—all of them cats.

Monday, October 23, 2017



During the course of several talks over the past few months we have discussed some of the principles of Zen. A few more need to be addressed, and today I would like to reflect on some Zen principles.

          Fair warning: As ever, there will be some duplication, even some contradiction. Life is full of inconsistencies and repetition. That is the way of life, and that is the way of Zen.

All things change.

Security is an invention of the human mind. Freedom from change does not exist in nature.

A year and a half ago I spent many pleasant hours in the spring watching a pair of cardinals build a nest in a dogwood tree close to my house. The two birds carried twigs, bits of fuzz, and cedar shavings to make the nest a comfortable and cozy home. It was sited in a place that was safe from my cat and out of sight of crows and hawks. It seemed a perfect nest for raising a family.

The female laid a clutch of eggs while the male gathered food to bring home. Eventually the eggs hatched. Both parents took turns collecting bugs and worms to feed the babies, and they took turns keeping the chicks warm and protected.

The hatchlings sprouted feathers, and one day they were almost ready to take their first flight.

Then a fierce storm—one of the typical spring gales—tore the branch that held the nest off the dogwood. The nest was destroyed, and the infant birds were crushed.

          A sad story? Yes.

Did the cardinal parents grieve? We don’t know.

We can be sure that Mama and Papa cardinal did not blame anyone or anything for what happened.

What happened was the way of nature, and the way of nature is change.

          The cardinals did not build another nest that spring. It was too late in the season. This year the same cardinals put up another nest and started a family all over again. This household seems to be doing very well.

          We humans feel comfortable fastening ourselves to one thing or another. To another person, to a home, to a computer, to a truck. This is called attachment.

One word does a fair job of describing Buddhism: non-attachment.

          All of the Buddha’s teachings and all of the teachings of the Buddha’s disciples can be summed up in that word, non-attachment.

          We have earlier mentioned the difference between detachment and attachment. To be detached is to get away from a problem, to escape from it. It means that one sees a potential problem and makes an effort to cut oneself off from it. It implies a fight against a prospective problem.

          Life is like a flowing stream. However, instead of allowing life to flow, we too often align ourselves with favorable conditions, or else we fight against unfavorable conditions.

          Non-attachment is altogether different. Non-attachment means to neither fight against nor join with a problem but to be one with a problem.

When humans experience a disaster they continue to torment themselves about it. Humans try to explain happenings—whether happy or unhappy—as the will of god, or as the fault of someone, or as the result of a vindictive Mother Nature.

You know what we do. We rant and rave that someone or something has it in for us. We think we’ve been made a scapegoat, so we try to find a reason.

Reason does not exist in nature. Ornithologists claim that bird’s bones are hollow and lightweight in order to allow birds to fly. Nonsense. Birds fly. Period. Birds have hollow bones. Period. If birds had solid bones they would probably fly anyway. There is no reason, no purpose, at work.

In nature there is no such thing as rationalism—that is, reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action. There is only empiricism—experience of the senses.

In life, things happen, and only human beings feel the need to assign a reason.  When individuals assign a reason they feel better because that shifts responsibility away from them. Humans create the concepts of good and bad. If they can’t find an external reason for a “bad” happening, they are bothered. Of course, if they experience a “good” happening they take credit for it.

Thus they create, and revel in, a world of good and bad. To humans, life and its happening must be either one or the other.

However, what is, is. And change is foremost among what is. As much as humans like to believe they are immune from change, it just is not so.

You know the saying. Two things are certain in life: taxes and death. I’ll add a third certainty: change.

Change is a transformation or transition from one state, condition, or phase to another. Change is inevitable, unavoidable, and inescapable.

Get used to change. It is here to stay.

Change does not change.

Death is the absolute end.

Human life has a beginning and an end. The beginning is birth, the end is death.

Life has a beginning and an end. Zen does not have a beginning or an end. Zen is a circle. There is no start, no finish to Zen. It is a flowing stream. It goes on and on.

We get one and only one shot at this life, and as far as we know there is no other, so we should make the very best of now.      

Zen Koans, page 253

Iron Flute, #36.

In Zen there is no sorrow about death. No fear of death.

A Zen master was nearly a hundred years old and was dying. All of a sudden he sat up in his bed and started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” The solemn mourners asked.

“Why are you not laughing?” The master answered.

When one is empty of the judgments and assumptions that have been acquired over the years, one comes close to original nature (sometimes called original face) and is capable of conceiving original ideas.

One Zen koan asks, “What was your face before you were born?” Like all koans this is perplexing, even inexplicable. How can one possibly have a face before being born?

          Well, I’m going to cheat and partially interpret this koan. Face-before-being-born refers to one’s true nature before it has been altered by opinions, prejudices, judgments.

          I want to read something about original face.

          Zen Koans, page 34

Zen is a way of life.

Zen is not something that is turned on and turned off, like a water faucet, on a certain day of the week or at a certain time of the day.

          Zen deals with life by living it. Zen points to the essence of life we all live. Zen is understood through one’s experience. Zen is everyday life. To learn Zen is to learn oneself.

Finally, the last principle of Zen.

When we perceive the inconsistencies of life, all we can do is laugh.

Monday, October 09, 2017



Confucius was a Chinese thinker who lived around 500 BC. The ethical system that takes his name has at various times been considered a religion, a method of moral behavior, and a structure of government. It is better described as a family oriented perspective.

Taoism is a Chinese philosophy that also had it start around 500 BC, about the same time Buddhism started.

Confucianism emphasized domestic values. Taoism emphasized living in harmony with nature. Buddhism emphasized the alleviation of acquisitiveness in oneself.

In Taoist thought, existence resulted not from the Big Bang or from Adam and Eve but from the way an individual lived a simple and balanced life in tune with existence. That kind of life was known as the Tao.

Taoism is more than a religion or a philosophy. Taoism is a system of attitudes and practices directed at one’s own nature. It is about self-acceptance. About realizing who one is and living accordingly. About trying to resolve the contradictions in life according to one’s nature.

Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism came together in China because some of their concepts overlapped, and from that blend Zen was developed.

Common to all is the recognition that there is no logic to existence. You are an observer and an unintentional participant of everything outside of your nature. You own nothing, and you owe nothing.

No action is required. Everything and everyone will be itself, as you remain yourself.

These three viewpoints may differ in various ways but they have a few characteristics in common.

n  Knowing others is intelligence, knowing oneself is wisdom.

n  Being aware of when to speak and when not to speak.

n  Being content to be simply oneself without comparing or competing.

n  Realizing that the truth is not always beautiful.

Countless practices and systems of belief exist to help people find answers. The challenge is finding a practice or system that matches one’s nature.

In Taoism everything is relative. This means most answers are not worth chasing.

Taoism takes this a step further to teach that many questions don’t have an answer at all because you yourself are the answer. In other words, a Taoist reaches the point of acceptance where you, “as you are” literally becomes the answer for a majority of the questions you face.

Taoism teaches that the past is long gone and the future is not here yet. So why get all worked up about either one? You are here now, so right now is what matters.

A Taoist outlook doesn’t mean to stop being yourself. It means to not be attached to the past, and to not expect anything from the future. In the words of Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching, knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is wisdom.

Zen was a mishmash of Taoism and Confucianism. It was brought to China from India by the Indian monk Bodhidharma in the mid-600s, but it quickly shed its Indian connections.

Zen practice encourages mediation. That is, silent sitting without thinking.

 Zen also encourages one to ask questions and then ask more questions until the mind literally says enough is enough and just yields. Zen then takes this a step further and one asks a few more questions just to be sure mind has learned to be empty of questions.

Here are three Zen stories.

n  A monk went to a Zen master and said, “If I work very hard, how soon can I be enlightened?”

The Zen master said, “Ten years.”

The monk said, “I mean if I really stick at it, how long . . . .”

The master said, “Twenty years.”

”Wait,“ the monk said, “You don’t understand.”

“Thirty years,” the master said.

n  An ancient king said to a Zen master, "I am going to pose a question. Can you answer?"

The master said, "Please ask your question."

The king said, "I have already asked."

The master said, "I have already answered."

The king said, "What did you answer?"

The master said, "What did you ask?"

The king said, "I asked nothing."

The master said, "I answered nothing."

Someone queried Shunryu Suzuki, “What do you think of all of us crazy Zen students?”

Suzuki replied, “I think you're all deeply enlightened until you open your mouths.”

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


            Many religious denominations, and even some schools of Buddhism, have developed rituals to such an extent the ceremonies come close to magical practices. By that I mean the rites are often comprehensible only to certain elite individuals, to the high priests. To the average person the meanings are lost because the average person goes along with the hocus-pocus out of habit rather than out of any sort of conviction as to its necessity.

            I’m talking about a mixed bag of practices that includes prostrating, hand-clapping, chanting, rote prayer, and so on and on.

            Human beings are…well, human beings are curious. They not only become caught up in ceremonious performances but they attach themselves to objects that, to them, symbolize a need for something external to their selves. Such objects might be a cross, or a star, or a crescent moon, or a statue, or a so-called sacred book. These things in themselves are harmless. It’s when they become attachments or else objects of veneration that one’s true self becomes confused.

            Zen doesn’t condemn rituals. Zen doesn’t judge anything. However, Zen does consider that most sacraments and liturgy are hindrances to its purpose.

            What is the purpose of Zen? What’s its basis?

            The purpose of Zen is self realization. It’s recognizing one’s true self. It’s seeing one’s face before one was born and perceiving the connection that exists among everything in the universe.

            What is unfortunate about mystical practices is that they can set up false values and habits that distract from self realization.

            Satori, or enlightenment, may be instantaneous or it may be gradual. However, if one’s mind is involved in concentrating on physically fiddling around—with following artificial rules properly—a tension is set up in the inner self. That tension is created that hampers the spontaneity of the enlightenment experience.

            Newcomers to Zen are often baffled by its pure simplicity. I’ve been asked how the hands should be held during zazen. I say, “Hold them palm up just below the navel." "But I’m used to resting them on my knees,” I’ve been told.

            I have no argument with that because whether the hands are on the knees, or against the abdomen, or in the lap doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if one meditates in the lotus position on the floor, or sitting in a folding chair, or hanging by one’s thumbs.

            I teach mostly what I’ve been taught. My practices in Zen are neither better nor worse than anyone else’s practices. Allowing oneself to become caught up in the physical aspects of practice—or in bell ringing, or in chanting—can muddle the experience of enlightenment.

            So don’t worry about our singing bowl. It merely provides a signal to do something, just like your alarm clock provides a signal to get you out of bed in the morning. Your clock, this singing bowl, and what ever position you prefer for sitting aren’t matters of great importance. What is important is you.

            If you let your mind pester you with why we do walking meditation in a clockwise direction, you’re depriving your mind of doing what it’s capable of doing. What it’s capable of doing is hanging loose and letting happen what ever will happen.

            Zen masters contend that enlightenment may be realized on any occasion. The sound of a broom handle knocking against a stone has triggered satori. So has a poke in the ribs by a master’s forefinger. Just remember that the broom or the stone or the finger—even the master—isn’t significant. The result of the occasion is what’s vital.

            Every perception is an occasion for satori. Think about that. I’ll say it again. Every perception is an occasion for satori.

            But the occasion for enlightenment can be numbed if one’s self is wrapped up in ritual.

            So many religions and organized systems teach that reality is outside of us in some physical object or in a practice, and that reality must be approached in a ceremonial manner.

Reality is in us. Rather, we are reality.

            Everything in existence is important, but nothing is sacred including Mother, apple pie, and the Alamo.