Tuesday, February 14, 2017



Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin lived in the late 1600s and so is part of the historical record. That is, his writings, and records of others at the time, exist to this day, which means Hakuin was not a myth but a real figure.

Hakuin is remembered for several things.

1. He is considered the founder of the Japanese Rinzai school of Zen.

2. His progress on the Mu koan was so demanding it became a part of Zen history.

3. Because of the severe mental strain and the resulting physical problems Hakuin suffered in working on Mu, he came very close to giving up in his attempts to realize awakening.

Hakuin devoted himself wholeheartedly to gaining awakening, and was so dedicated, he neglected his physical well-being. He pushed himself so hard he came down with tuberculosis, and he suffered spells of severe depression.

Hakuin consulted teachers, medical doctors, acupuncture specialists, and moxa healers, but none of them was able to help him.

Do you know what the moxa cure is? It involves building little bonfires on a person’s skin—on the back, on the chest, even on the forehead—as a form of cautery that supposedly destroys abnormal tissue. As bizarre as this sounds, the moxa treatment is still practiced in Asia.

You know the old saying. If the treatment doesn’t kill you, it may cure you.

Well, nothing cured Hakuin. In what may have been his final effort he dragged himself into the mountains near present-day Kyoto in search of a hermit he had heard about in his wanderings.

The hermit was a renowned character reputed to have miraculous powers. Local people claimed he had lived several lifetimes, but they weren’t sure whether the old fellow was a very wise individual or merely a reclusive dimwit. The locals showed Hakuin a river, which he followed up into the mountains, then climbed a rocky slope, and finally came upon a cave. In the cave Hakuin saw an elderly fellow sitting in meditation. It was Hakuyu the hermit.

Hakuin explained why he had come and described his symptoms, saying that his activities and non-activities were all out of whack. He had thought the discipline of severe fasting and not sleeping would set him straight, but that made things worse. He suffered from heart palpitations, ringing in the ears, and dizzy spells. From one minute to the next he was unable to decide what to do or what not to do. He felt he was becoming mentally unhinged

Judging from descriptions in Hakuin’s autobiographical writings, he also experienced what Zen masters called makyo. These are visions and hallucinations that appear to individuals who go overboard in meditation.

Hakuin complained that from the waist down he was always cold, and from the waist up he was hot. This was in opposition to ancient Chinese wisdom that said the upper body should be cool and the lower body warm.

Hakuyu was able to tell that Hakuin’s physical problems were caused by his extreme self denial and rigid discipline, and were largely psychosomatic. That is, they originated from mental or emotional stress.

Hakuyu said that neither medication, nor moxa, nor acupuncture would be of use in remedying what he termed “the Zen sickness.” The only way a patient could be healed was through introspection, or autosuggestion. He said Hakuin must redirect the original life energy of his body into his center of breathing, his tanden, and down to his legs and feet.

“How do I do that?” Hakuin asked.

Hakuyu answered, “With the butter method.”

Now this may sound really oddball, but I’m only repeating what Hakuin has recorded. According to the hermit, the butter method involves placing an imaginary lump of soft butter, the size of a duck egg, on top of one’s head. The person should earnestly think of the butter, and picture it slowly melting from the heat of the upper body. It will ooze down over the shoulders, the arms, the upper body, the spine, and the buttocks. All of the body pains and maladjustments will flow downward with the butter and out the soles of the feet, leaving only pure energy in the body.

I don’t know if this butter method of self-healing is exercised today in Asia, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were. Anyway, when Hakuin practiced it over a period of three years, he regained his health and eventually went on to gain awakening.

Happy ending.

Hakuin later mentioned that during the practice of looking into oneself, one will—without consciously seeking it—attain the benefit of the awakening experience. He wrote that the great Zen sickness arises from ignorance, illusion, and false distinctions.

So take the butter method for what you will. I’m not recommending you plop a gob of real butter, or even imaginary butter, on your head. Still, for Hakuin it worked. Stranger countermeasures have worked for other people.

I may have already related a personal experience. When I was around six years of age I didn’t like stewed tomatoes. One dinner time when I was balking at eating, my Dad told me stewed tomatoes would make my hair grow. I believed my Dad, so I picked up my dish and poured the tomatoes on my head. Sure enough, my hair has been growing ever since.

Sunday, January 01, 2017


If my records and memory are correct, the first of my Zen talks appeared online in December 2005. Before that I had given live discourses and lectures for at least seventeen years, but none was published.

Now, shortly after I present a teisho, I post it on Zen Reflections. I am humbled to realize that zentalks.blogspot.com is visited frequently by individuals all over the world.

One of the principal messages of Zen—usually attributed to Bodhidharma—is no dependence on words and letters. However, it recently occurred to me that this blog site could possibly be enlivened by a few casual words. Just don’t depend on them.

That is to say, before a posting of a talk, if I offered some introductory lines that might veer off in other but related directions, they could be thought provoking. Maybe an occasional note on how a talk was conceived, presented, and received in the sangha.

The last time the sangha met, I spoke about snow, quoting Layman Pang who once said, “These are good snowflakes. They don’t fall anywhere else.”

Pang was in the world of his time, but not of it. And he treasured nature.

Wallace Stevens was an American poet, who lived from 1879 to 1955. Like Pang, he was interested in an individual’s interaction with the outside world, contrasting the monotony of everyday life with the ever-changing vitality of nature.

I don’t know if Stevens was a Zen Buddhist, but much of his writings exhibit a sense of awakened Zen shown by no other Westerner.

See, especially Stevens’ “The Snowman,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

So this is a posting of a more-personal sort. Comments will be appreciated.

-- Kan-za

Monday, December 12, 2016

The practice of Zen and the literature of Zen are packed with unfathomable stories and inscrutable sayings. This raises a question. If Zen is basically so straightforward, why are so many words published about it? Why does Zen generate such superfluous material?

One reason:

Because most people allow their lives to be complicated, most people believe all of existence is complicated. They believe that to be simple is to be missing something, and they go off on a lifelong search to either find or else create obstacles, thinking that when they solve these impediments they are on their way to a simple existence.

In plain terms, for the most part we humans manufacture our own problems, and then we go loopy trying to make sense of these problems and trying to untangle them.

The more miserable some people are, the happier they are.

Some of you may be familiar with the words of an eighteenth-century Shaker song:

'Tis the gift to be simple,

'tis the gift to be free,

'tis the gift to come down

where we ought to be,

and when we find ourselves in the place just right,

'twill be in the valley of love and delight.

It’s human nature to want to have more. More money, more clothes, more free time, more stuff. If we don’t have such material bits and pieces when we think we should have them, we worry, we become anxious.

We can even become mentally ill.

Modern day Zen teachers and Zen masters lean heavily on the principles of the ancients, such as Dogen, Bodhidharma, Hui-neng. They do that because those old boys knew a thing or two about living intuitively and about living a simple life.

In today’s excess of conveniences there are some individuals who have been able to exist in a material world, and still hold on to their personal integrity, and still live a true life of Zen.

The late Shunryu Suzuki, better known as Suzuki Roshi, head of San Francisco Zen Center, was one. Another was the late Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, of Antaiji Temple, near Kyoto. I’d like to say a few words about Uchiyama because he embodied, to an extreme degree, the simple life.

Basing his life on zazen, and devoted to material minimalism, Uchiyama was a distinguished model to monks and laypersons, to Japanese as well as to foreigners. Although he spent many years in destitution, he never feared or was ashamed of material poverty. He clearly saw how the materialism that energizes so many people is the cause of discontent and frustration.

Uchiyama entered Antaiji in the 1940s. For ten years or so he lived a monk’s life, practicing zazen and takuhatsu.

Takuhatsu is the Japanese term for the daily rounds a monk carries out to support himself and his monastery. It means going out on the streets with a wooden bowl into which laypeople put coins, or else rice or other foods.

Takuhatsu is practiced by Asian monks today.

Loosely translated, the term means ”begging,” But the word “beg” is a misnomer because a monk doesn’t ask for anything, the way a street person might hit you up in New York or Chicago.

“Hey, buddy. Got a couple of dollars for a cup of coffee?”

Instead, a monk silently accepts anything anyone might voluntarily put in his bowl, and he bows in deep gratitude.

Takuhatsu is a sort of donation collection.

It’s an acceptance of charity.

Anyway, Uchiyama eventually became abbot of Antaiji, which kept him off the streets. It also enabled him to lecture and write until his death in 1998. One of his hobbies was origami, the art of folding paper into shapes representing flowers or birds.

In writing about the difficult routine of takuhatsu, Uchiyama said he went around not because he really wanted to, but to supply the temple with food, and to cover the temple’s expenses of sesshin. For himself, he said he was never able to buy any new clothing. His washcloths were so worn they looked like netting, and old newspapers served as toilet paper.

Uchiyama wasn’t overjoyed with performing his tasks, but on the other hand he didn’t allow himself to feel degraded. Humbled, maybe, but not lowered in character. As he made his daily rounds he would try to show a cheerful “Hi, here I am again” look, and the shopkeepers would show an “Oh, oh. Here he comes again” look.

Years later, Uchiyama wrote that it was a fairy tale to think that once you’ve had some great illumination experience your life will be one joyous experience. Instead, there is a settling into your life in which you cope with whatever comes up.

You learn to swim through one wave at a time—waves of laughter or of tears, waves of plenty or of privation.

If we can’t learn, or accept, that whatever happens is all right, we can easily become mentally unhinged. According to Uchiyama, submitting wholly to takuhatsu—and to life itself—is traveling the middle way between becoming neurotic or becoming a simple minded idiot.

Unless you want to be a monk in Asia, you don’t have to roam out on takuhatsu. One key to living the middle way is to keep your life simple. Another key is to temper your desires by your income.

Monday, November 28, 2016

                                        Eight awakenings

As you know, in the context of Buddhism and, particularly in Zen, I try to sidestep the word “enlightenment.” That word has become so trendy—especially in the Western world—that many individuals believe enlightenment is the goal of Zen.

And that misses the whole point of living Zen.

Instead of “enlightenment,” I prefer “awakening,” or even such terms as illumination, or edification, or insight, or awareness, or self-perception. Those concepts are what Zen is about.

In a talk I gave three or four years ago, I mentioned reading a statement to the effect that Zen practice consists in gaining enlightenment. That’s a common thought among people who don’t know Zen, and on the surface it sounds pretty good because it contains that old buzz word, enlightenment.

But on second thought gaining enlightenment sounds too much like a logical, rational process. Remember, Zen balks at logic, and Zen certainly isn’t rational if rationality implies reasoning because Zen goes beyond reasoning. To separate Zen from awakening is to create a “this” versus “that” dualism.

I prefer to say Zen and enlightenment—or awakening—are identical.

In the year 1200 the mislabeled founder of Soto Zen, Master Dogen, spoke about what he termed the eight awakenings of great beings. These awakenings are not stages to run after, and they aren’t benchmarks. They represent underpinnings in the process of realizing awareness.

And they are interrelated.

What Dogen had to say 800 years ago to a group of Japanese monks is relevant today to everyone.

The first awakening is to have few desires.

Having few desires is to avoid the craving for “stuff.” Stuff such as a commanding position among people, wads of money, a five-bedroom house, a Ferrari.

I once knew a fellow who craved a Ferrari and was wealthy enough to buy one. Every day he’d open his garage and sit in the car’s driver seat. Just sit. He never rolled the car out of the garage because there were no highways where he could crank it up over a hundred miles an hour. Also, he was afraid of getting a scratch on the red paint.

What he coveted, he had, but it was of no real use to him.

People who have hardly any desires are free from the never-satisfying hunt for importance, and riches, and stuff.

People who have few desires don’t feel the need to use others to acquire celebrity status or pile up more money.

People who have few desires are comfortable with what they have, and are not constantly agonizing about not having something else or gaining more of something.

The second awakening is to know when enough is enough.

The Buddha is quoted as having said, “Monks, to be free from suffering, mull over knowing how much is enough. If you know how much is enough, you will be satisfied. If you don’t know, you will be discontented.”

Even if you are wealthy you may have a disconcerting feeling of being poor, and will desire to have more.

This is called “knowing when enough is enough.”

The third awakening is to enjoy serenity.

This is the ability to be away from crowds and be happy alone.

The Buddha said to his monks: “If you want to have the joy of calm nondoing, be away from crowds and be alone in a silent place.”

Now, this is a difficult undertaking in today’s world. Between noise-belching cars and motorcycles, and clattering television sets in almost every restaurant—and if a public place doesn’t have television it blares out irritating background noises, euphemistically called music. There are few public places that enjoy quiet.

Such torments are diminished by making one’s home in a quiet place. That’s why I live in the woods. Only squirrels and armadillos bother me.

But if you do enjoy crowds, when you’re in them, you may sweat and stew, and—as Dogen said—you’ll be like a tree that attracts hordes of birds and is eventually killed by the racket.

The fourth awakening is to give what Dogen called diligent effort.

Diligent effort. What is diligent effort?

Dogen said the Buddha said that diligent effort is holding to natural efforts. It’s a sort of constant fine-tuning without being mixed with other actions. It’s a going forward without any sort of turning back.

If you make diligent effort, nothing is too difficult.

It’s like a tiny trickle of water wearing through a large rock by constantly seeping.

The fifth awakening is to uphold mindfulness.

In the Buddhist Eightfold Path mindfulness is also called right thought. But the term “right” may evoke the term, “wrong,” which is a dualism. Let’s stick with one thing at a time, and never mind opposites.

To uphold mindfulness.

The Buddha said, “There is nothing like not neglecting mindfulness. Do not lose mindfulness. Mindfulness is like wearing armor when going into a battlefield.”

Now that is somewhat flowery because it’s couched in metaphor. The point is to be totally aware, whether you’re reading a book, or preparing a meal, or drinking a glass of water, or sitting in zazen.

Uphold mindfulness.

The sixth awakening is to practice meditation.

Practice meditation?

That’s another common term in Zen writings.

To practice something is to do it over and over again in order to acquire skill at it. Like practicing a dance step, or a golf swing.

Meditation isn’t a golf swing. Meditation is not repetition. Meditation is full-time being. Meditation is full-time awareness.

Dogen said meditation is awakening.

Meditation is remaining in dharma—that is, in Buddha knowledge—without flip-flopping from one approach to another.

Dogen said the Buddha said, “If you gather your mind it will abide in stability. Then you will understand the birth and the death of all things. When you have stability your mind will not be scattered.”

This is what’s called the sixth awakening.

To maintain meditation. To constantly be alive, and awake, and aware.

The seventh awaking is to cultivate wisdom.

That means to listen, to contemplate, to meditate, and to realize.

If you have wisdom you’re free from craving, from self-indulgence, from excess desire, from materialism.

No more thoughts of gaining “stuff.”

Doesn’t that sound good?

Finally, the eighth awakening is to steer clear of hollow discussions.

To steer clear of hollow discussions is to be free from prejudiced thinking, and from pointless cocktail-party babble.

Have you ever seen a desert dust devil? They’re miniature tornadoes. They swirl across the landscape, picking up loose trash, carrying it for a while, and then scattering it all over the place. Hollow discussions are like dust devils. They cause the mind to collect pieces of dry weeds, and scraps of paper, and dead cigarette butts, and then spread them.

* * * * *

According to Dogen, by nurturing these eight awakenings, you can arrive at insight, and share your insight with all beings, just as Shakyamuni Buddha shared his awakening with anyone who was interested.

* * * * *

According to Dogen, the last words of the Buddha, before he died, were, “You should always endeavor wholeheartedly to search for the way of liberation. All things in the world are insecure and bound to decay.”

Monday, October 03, 2016



This talk is difficult to give, and it will probably be even more arduous to listen to because it is about nothing. I hope you will listen, absorb, and not form any judgments or opinions. The concept of nothing is very important in Zen.

          When I was in high school I had an English teacher who referred to any word over two syllables long as a fifty-cent word. Nihilism is a fifty-cent word. It first came into use during the Middle Ages when it was used to describe Christian heretics. Back then if you held opinions that differed from accepted dogma, it followed that you believed in nothing, and you were branded a Nihilist. The sort of people who claimed individuals were Nihilists charged those individuals with having no societal values. Furthermore, they punished nihilists for believing nothing could be known or communicated.

            Think of that. Not believing in the God of the times made one a prime candidate for burning at the stake.

I don’t know if Nihilists who escaped being roasted were forced to wear a large letter “N,” the way European Jews had to wear the letter “J” in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It wouldn’t surprise me.

To many people outside of Zen, Zen smacks of nihilism. To many people inside Zen, but not entirely “there” yet, Zen may seem nihilistic. It’s true that Zen abounds with “non” phrases such as no-mind, non-action, non-attachment, non-being, non-ego, and so on. These things tend to mess up one’s mind. But these concepts are not negative notions.

I said not negative.

Remember high school math, where you were taught two negatives make a positive? By my saying these “non” concepts are not negative I don’t mean they are positive. In Zen thinking they are neither positive nor negative. Nor are they nihilistic. Their aim—as well as the aim of all Zen masters and teachers—is to rattle your mental cage—yes, mess up your mind—to get you to grasp intuitively instead of depending on rationalization.

Any student of Zen is aware of the word mu. Mu means nothing.

Let me say that differently. Mu does not mean nothing. Mu means nothing. Do you understand the distinction?

According to legend, Zen master Joshu was asked by a monk if a dog has Buddha nature. Because everything has Buddha nature, the monk probably wanted to engage in a philosophical debate. Joshu would not be suckered into that. He did not say “yes,” nor did he say “no.” His answer was “Mu.”

That gave the monk something to consider.

Mu is usually the first koan given a Rinzai novice by a master. Think of it. What is mu? What is nothing?

Working on mu can shatter a person. When he or she is certain what mu is, the master will challenge the person to describe the color of mu, or the taste of mu, or the smell of mu. As a koan, mu is not intended to be thought through, analyzed, or reasoned. It must be grasped intuitively.

Believe me, when one grasps mu, the entirety of existence opens like the petals of a flower.

I may be sorry for bringing up mushin, but I will mention it because it relates to mu and to nothing. The  Japanese word, mushin translates literally as "without mind." In Zen, mushin refers to the complete cutting off of thought. To Western eyes absence of thought can be threatening because that is synonymous with unconsciousness. Picture it. The only time a person doesn’t think is when that person is stone-cold cataleptic.

That is not mushin. Mushin is freedom from unnecessary thinking.

And here we have another of those wonderfully puzzling Zen paradoxes. If mushin, without mind, is a beneficial feature of Zen, who or what is it that is enlightened?

That is, if there is nothing, what is there to realize true self?

Stay with me.

Mushin refers to the spirit or heart that is empty of foolish notions. It does not mean without heart altogether. When a person is empty of judgements and of distinctions of good or bad, that person is a person of mushin.

So, what do I mean by unnecessary thinking? Currently we are in the midst of a fierce heat wave. Being social animals we might comment on the heat to one another. But to think to yourself, “Wow! It’s really hot,” is unnecessary thinking. Certainly the days and the nights are hot. The heat is here and you are here. Still, there’s no  need or benefit to remind yourself about it.

Mushin—freedom from unnecessary thinking—applies to everyday life. It means action without analysis. If you sneeze, you don’t think, “I’m sneezing.” You sneeze. You perceive that you sneeze, but you don’t labor the perception by thinking about it.

To re-enter that earlier paradox, in one respect mushin is like satori, enlightenment. To strive for mushin is a contradiction because to strive for something is to think about gaining it. I’m giving you a great gap here. Can you bridge it?

I have a good friend who has a speech impediment. She needs to occasionally inhale. Ethel—which is not her real name—babbles constantly about anything and everything. She chatters whether or not anyone else is listening or whether or not she has anything real to say. Apparently she is able to speak without thinking, but I don’t think she experiences mushin.

To return to nihilism, which is the denial of all existence, recall the verse composed by Hui-neng, Sixth Patriarch of Zen in China:

“The Bodhi (that is, true wisdom) is not like the tree,

“There is no bright mirror.

“There is nothing from the first,

“So where can the dust collect?”

This was in response to a verse that read:

“This body is the Bodhi tree,

“The spirit is like a bright mirror;

“Be sure to keep it clean,

“And do not let dust collect on it.”

Hui-neng’s response is a classic verse in Zen, and people who do not understand Zen point it out as a prime example of Zen’s belief in nothingness. But consider. Hui-neng was not illustrating the denial of all existence. He was attempting to portray the delusion of attachment.

The delusion of attachment.

D.T. Suzuki mentions a monk who asked a master to show him the truth of Buddhism.

The master answered, “There is nothing, absolutely nothing.”

To the same question another master might say, “Do not expect to get something out of nothing.”

Another master might answer, “There is nothing to explain in words.”

The point of Zen is to seize the center of life, which cannot be done through reasoning. Therefore, Zen presents one negation after another, a succession that is intended to strip away our normal way of thinking and force us to be instinctive.

This is not a cop-out on the part of Zen. It is the basis of being.

As Suzuki states, we must not be carried away by anything outward or conventional. This is a world of negations, but to understand it leads to absolute affirmation. Zen is nihilism only to those who do not comprehend that.

Roshi Nansen was asked by a monk if there was anything he could not talk about.

“Yes,” said the master. It is neither mind, nor matter, not Buddha.”

The monk said, “You have already talked about it.”

Nansen answered, “I have already said too much.” And he walked away.

One more story from the early Zen writings.

When a monk asked a master about the frame of mind a person should discipline himself in the truth, the reply was, “There is no mind to frame. There is no truth in which to be disciplined.”

The monk said, “Well, then why do we monks gather to study Zen and discipline ourselves?”

Nansen answered, “This monastery does not have a bit of space, so where could there be a gathering of monks?”

The monk shook his head in despair. “I don’t understand you.”

Nansen said, “I don’t understand myself.”

And I don’t know if I have given you something, or nothing.