Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I would like to talk about what I call zazen mind.
As we know, Zen is living completely and fully in one’s true self. Some masters and some teachers refer to “finding” one’s true self,” as if one’s true self were a pair of socks hidden away in a back corner of a dresser drawer. Such a notion passes wide of the mark.
There is no finding of one’s true self because true self was never lost and is never lost. One does not discover true self, rather one wakes up to it.
Remember the story of The Ten Bulls, and the Oxherding Pictures. One’s inherent Buddha-nature has never gone away, so wandering around, searching for it is pointless.
     As elite as we humans might like to think we are, true self is not something dished out only to Buddhists, or to followers of Zen. Every living being, and every object, possesses true self. Wakening to, or comprehending, true self is the rub. Unfortunately, some people never grasp the hidden nature of things, or perceive in an intuitive manner.
On the other hand, one wonders what the world would be like if all beings realized their true selves. Would the planet be an ideal, perfect place? Would that realization ring in the golden age? Would there be an era of ideal happiness?
I don’t have an answer. Only the questions.
In Zen, the key to awakening, to intuitive perception, is the practice of zazen. Meditation.
Meditation is not unique to Zen. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, and Jews all practice meditation in one form or another. The difference is that in zazen the mind does not concentrate on some other thing and attempt to make sense of that some other thing.
Nor in zazen does the mind dwell on nothing, as it may do in some Yoga forms of meditation.
If there is one word that states what zazen is about, that word is awareness. Zazen is implementation in awareness.
     During any given day we humans are inundated with sounds, sights, choices, decisions, and haphazard thoughts. Our minds try to sort all this input and relate it to our selves. As we work, or read, or converse with other people, we are continually occupied with what someone has referred to as “The Drama of Me.”
We are busy, busy, busy with ourselves.
Zazen—mindful attention—focuses the mind. Not on this or that—especially not on that old obsessive object, “Me”—but opens the mind to complete awareness. On true self, which goes way beyond self-image.
     In working toward quieting the ego, some people who meditate may center on an object, a word, or their breath. In the beginning of one’s practice this helps to keep the mind from drifting aimlessly or from bouncing all over the place. With training—that is, through the cultivation of daily zazen—a wandering mind learns to disregard thought patterns that revolve around the inner self, and mind settles down to identify with true self.
     I am sometimes asked about the benefits of zazen. “What good will it do me?” people want to know. “Will I become a better citizen, or a good parent, or a first-class mate?” “If I join the current craze, can I make money?” “What’s the gain?” “What’s in it for me?”
Meditating for gain is like meeting a new person and wondering how that person can be used to one’s individual benefit. Profits and returns have no part in meditation because thoughts of payback only butt in and mess everything up.
     Some people say meditation helps them feel at ease. Others say it gives them mental focus. Others say it brings a sense of peace and well-being. Others say it calms anger. Such fringe benefits may be fine, but to count on compensation can cause more harm than good.
Rather than expecting positive results from meditation, one would do better being aware of the experience itself, and nothing more. That is what zazen is about: awareness.
     It is of little importance if zazen rewards you with peace of mind or radiant bliss. What is important is consistency in the practice. Regularity in zazen will lead to a heightened sense of awareness not only during meditation sessions but also throughout the entire day.
That is what one’s true self is all about.
     Some people wonder about the difference between zazen and relaxation, or thinking, or concentration. Relaxation is letting go, becoming limp in body and mind. You can relax by kicking back with an enjoyable book or sprawling in a hot tub. Meditation is a process in which you are aware of your awareness. It is not an escape from stress, but recognition of it, and has a more-lasting effect.
     I mentioned thinking. As any student will tell you, thinking can be tiring. Thinking is a brain activity, a mental action. Meditation goes beyond cogitation. Meditation is mindful awareness, and awareness does not involve movement or action as such. Awareness is recognition of the instant without dwelling on the instant or evaluating it.
You are probably familiar with the statement of Rene Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” Someone asked the philosopher if it was going to rain. Descartes said, “I don’t think …,” and he vanished.
     As for concentration, concentration also requires thought activity. Keeping the mind centered on a candle or a mantra means exertion, which may help to dissipate random thoughts, but it detracts from awareness.
Zazen mind is pure awareness.
Awareness is enough.
Awareness is what Zen is all about.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


From time to time I am asked for titles of books that treat the elements of Zen. Of the numerous existing titles, here are a few that do a good job of exploring the basics. Most are relatively easy to read and to comprehend.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, Gary. McClain & Eve Adamson, Alpha Books, Macmillian USA, Indianapolis, Indiana

Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, Vintage Books, New York

The Method of Zen, Eugen Herrigel, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, London

Zen Flesh Zen Bones, A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps, Charles E. Tuttle, Co., Rutland, Vermont

The Roaring Stream, A New Zen Reader, edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, The Ecco Press, Hopewell, New Jersey

Zen Buddhism, Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, edited by William Barrett, Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, New York.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


     The Ten Oxherding Pictures—sometimes called “Ten Bulls”—and their accompanying text are a very old teaching tool in Zen. The images are a series of graphic illustrations that stand for potential stages in Zen development, on the path to realizing one's true nature. They explain a lesson in gaining knowledge or achieving insight. They focus on an ox and a young oxherd.
     The ten oxherding pictures have been rendered in various styles including watercolors, black-brush painting, ceramics, and woodblock prints. As popular as the pictures are, the original author of the series is uncertain. Most of the credit goes to Kaku-an Shi-en, a Chinese Zen master who lived and taught during the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279. But during his time Kaku-an mentioned another Zen master called Seikyo who also used this method to portray Zen development. Seikyo depicted the ox as visually fading away until it disappeared entirely. In Kaku-an's version—which I present—all participants remain to the end because Kaku-an felt that awareness, not emptiness, was the goal of Zen.
     Rather than my including the pictures in this blog, which would make it inordinately long, I refer you to the following Web sites where you can view the images.
     We won't quibble about whose rendition of the oxherding pictures is good, better, or best. Nor does it matter in what medium the pictures are executed. As we study the ten pictures let your mind absorb the illustrations and their message, with no pre-set notions or judgments.
     Without giving away the plot I’ll tell you up front the ox represents enlightenment, and the oxherd represents you.
     A contemporary Zen scholar named Urs App mentions that Zen sees the “I” as the very problem. Thus the herder, who has an “I” just as all of us have, searches for what he truly is. The object of the search is represented by an ox. The quest extends from seeing faint traces to the complete overcoming of the problematic “I” to the emergence of nature as it truly is.
     The pictures I usually use in my talks are copies of paintings by Sensei Gyokusei Jikihara (available from Mount Tremper Zen Center). The opening words for each image are my adaptation of a 1966 English translation from the Japanese, mixed in with thoughts of D.T. Suzuki. First I’ll read the relevant excerpt of Kaku-an’s poetic text for each picture, then I’ll give the simplified explanation.
     I suppose that if today the same sort of teaching were used, instead of an ox the vehicle might be a stretch limousine, and instead of an oxherd the seeker might be a female bank president.
     The pictures, in order, are titled:
     — Searching for the ox.
     — Discovering traces of the ox.
     — Seeing the ox.
     — Catching the ox.
     — Taming the ox.
     — Coming home on the ox's back.
     — The ox forgotten, leaving the herder alone.
     — Ox and herder gone.
     — Returning to the source.
  • Entering the marketplace.
As we go on this journey, remember that the oxherd is a metaphor for you. Don’t evaluate the pictures. Don’t analyze the story. Just look and listen.

     Picture Number 1. Searching for the Ox.
     Kaku-an writes:
     “Pushing aside the weeds of illusion he looks for the ox in the wild. Through swollen rovers and distant mountains his path leads farther and farther. His strength exhausted, he’s in despair. There’s no more place to search. Yet hear that lonely autumn song of a cicada in a maple tree.”
     The animal—signifying one’s inherent Buddha-nature—has never gone away, so why search for it? The herder doesn’t have a close relationship with the ox because he has always been led by societal delusions. In such a life his true home fades, and the various paths that he stumbles along are ever more confusing and confining. Owing to society’s pressures, his mind is fixed on thoughts of achieving gain and he looks at everything in terms of right and wrong. Still, there is something bright and clear that calls to him.

     Picture Number 2. Discovering traces of the ox.
     Kaku-an writes:
     “By a river among the trees footprints here and there! Wild thickets, weeds…. Did he now just catch a glimpse of it? Deep into the mountains his path leads far astray. Its nose may reach the heavens, yet would it leave no trace?”
     By earnestly looking into the basic concepts of Zen the herder has received a glimmering of insight. He has come upon some evidence, some clues. He sees that the objective world is a reflection of the self. Yet, his mind is confused about truth and is misled by false notions that have been instilled in him since birth.

     Picture Number 3. Seeing the ox.
     Kaku-an writes:
     “The song of a nightingale, listen! It’s perching on a branch. Warm sunrays and a soothing breeze. Green willows on the bank. Ah, there! No way to overlook its majestic horns and stately head. A challenge for a painter.”
     The herder finds the course of action by what he begins to perceive with his senses. Thus he sees into the origin of all things, and his perceptions are harmonious with all of existence. The course is not only present in some of his activities, it is an integral part of all activities. It’s like oxygen in the air though it isn’t distinguishable as something separate or individual. When his eye is properly directed the herder realizes the Way is nothing other than himself.

     Picture Number 4. Catching the ox.
Kaku-an writes:
“Everything and all he gives, and finally is able to catch the ox. What strength of will, what power. All too tough to shed at once. At times it suddenly struts up, up to higher plains to hide in mist and clouds, and rest in deep ravines.”
The herder has been wandering, lost in the back country, but finally he takes hold of the animal. Still, because the herder feels pressures from the outside world the ox is hard to control. Its wild nature causes it to balk at being subdued. It wants to return to the fields of fresh grasses.

Picture Number 5. Taming the Ox.
Kaku-an writes:
“Not letting go of tether and whip, not even for a moment, he’s careful to not lose his way in the dirt and dust of the world. Well tended and domesticated, the ox grows pure and gentle. Without a chain and bridle it trails its master just so.”
When a human thought occurs, another thought follows, and then another, forming a jumbled sequence of ideas, notions, and opinions. Through enlightenment all judgments and conclusions are clear and become truth. Only when there is confusion is there distortion. We are troubled and encumbered not so much by an objective world as by a self-deceiving mind. The oxherd—who is us—must not let go of the ox’s nose-rope but hold it tightly, not allowing any wavering or irresolution.

Picture Number 6. Coming home on the ox's back.
Kaku-an writes:
“Riding high on the ox, he leisurely turns toward home. The singsong of his flute vanishing in the evening glow. Each beat, each note full of infinite meaning. When one is in tune with the other, no need for chat and blabber.”
The contest is over. Having caught the ox the herder has lost all thoughts of gain and loss. He has no delusions. He hums a tune and sings simple songs. Seated on the animal his eyes are not fixed on the earth. He doesn’t turn his head, and will not be distracted.

Picture Number 7. The ox forgotten, leaving the herder alone.
Kaku-an writes:
“Once astride his ox the herder reaches the mountains and hills of home. No more ox! The herder is serene. Yet, though the sun stands high above, he is still dreaming the dream while whip and tether lie idle in that thatch-roofed hut of his.”
The ox is symbolic. When you realize you don’t need a trap to catch a rabbit or a net to catch a fish but the rabbit or the fish itself, you are awakened. This awakening has always existed. It is you, and you are it.

Picture Number 8. Ox and herder gone.
Kaku-an writes:
“Whip, tether, person, ox: All is empty! Blue sky, all and all around: What is there to convey? How to keep a flake of snow atop a red-hot oven? Get there and you do accord with the founders of our school.”
No longer is there any confusion, only peace and calm. There is not even any notion of holiness. The herder does not speculate on the whereabouts of the Buddha. There is no dualism. There is no “I.”
This illustration is usually regarded as the most significant of the entire series, and some Zen scholars think it should be the final picture. Recall what I said earlier about Kaku-an disagreeing with that notion.
The circle is a popular and powerful symbol in Zen. It signifies no beginning, no ending. When drawn with a brush the circle is the calligraphy for “heart.”
As an interesting aside, the German theologian Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), who was considered to be the founder of mysticism in Germany, said “A man shall become truly poor and as free from his creature-will as he was when he was born. . . . He alone has true spiritual poverty who wills nothing, knows nothing, desires nothing.” (From Eckhart as quoted by Inge in Light, Life, and Love.)

Picture Number 9. Returning to the source.
Kaku-an writes:
“Returning to the root and source is such a waste of effort. Much better to turn blind and deaf right at this very moment. Inside his hut he does not see any object, nothing outside. Rivers flow onward by themselves, and blossoms turn crimson like that.”
From the beginning a person has never been truly lost. A person watches the growth of nature while neither agreeing nor disagreeing with it. A person simply doesn’t identify with the changes that go on all around, and at the same time he or she doesn’t feel self-important and superior. Lakes are blue, mountains are gray. Sitting alone, the herder observes changes.

Picture Number 10. Entering the marketplace.
Kaku-an writes:
“Bare-chested and with naked feet he bursts into the market, full of dirt and ashes. His face is one big, wide grin. No need for magic potions from adepts and immortals. He simply lets a withered tree erupt in blazing bloom.”
The herder’s hut is closed, and even the most insightful persons don’t know him. No one is able to see his inner being because he goes his own way without following anyone else. He re-enters the world to join the common people, and they understand there is something different, something special about him.
In the words of Urs App, “Your true self—what you really are without realizing it—is nothing other than that ox and that flower, or your neighbor. Thus the true person isn’t aloof from the world but is right here in the bustle of the marketplace.”