Wednesday, February 21, 2007


In the light there is darkness.
But don’t take it as darkness.
In the dark there is light,
But don’t see it as light.

These thirteenth and fourteenth stanzas of the classic poem, Sandokai, are pretty opaque. Shunryu Suzuki’s interpretation of them is equally dense. My understanding of Suzuki’s perception of Sandokai is also fuzzy. I can only be optimistic that this chain of thickness may flare up a spark of clarity in you.

Suzuki asserts “light” in Sandokai refers to the perceptible world in which we live, and “darkness” refers to the absolute, which is the world our mind can’t possibly reach.

We humans can grasp the visible world. However, most humans may think of the absolute as a deity, as God.

But Buddhists—and Zennists—have no concept of a supreme entity and because of this, some people say Buddhism, or Zen, is atheism.

However, we Zennists neither disbelieve nor believe in the idea of a god. A supreme being or masterful intelligence is something that’s neither verifiable nor provable, and therefore it’s beyond comprehension.

It’s nothing to worry about.

Consequently, we don’t say much about God, with a big letter ”GOD,” or even a small-letter “god.”

There’s enough to deal with in the observable world in which we live. Politics. Warfare. Weather. Wages. Religion. Making a living. Love.

Now I’m going to veer off on a wild tangent. The digression may get back to Suzuki and Sandokai. It may not. But it all has to do with why we—as individuals, and collectively as a group—are sitting here.

I must admit I have a tiny bit of difficulty identifying with ritual, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. The prostrations, the bells, the gongs, the chants. I’m neither against them nor for them. I just can’t grasp such physical expressions in the same way that I’m unable to grasp the notion of an almighty supernatural being.

That doesn’t matter to me.

It shouldn’t matter to anyone else.

Remember, Zen and Buddhism are not doctrines, or tenets, or laws. They are not threats to any beliefs. Whether you are a Jew, a Moslem, an Orthodox, a Baptist, a Catholic, an agnostic, or an atheist, you need not take umbrage with the basics of Buddhism or Zen.

Many people ask me about, or fret about, the meaning of life. Worrying about the meaning of life makes as much sense as worrying about how the universe began, or where we go when we die. There are plenty of theories, plenty of guesses. But there are no sure answers.

Such questions are pointless because there are no certain solutions. So why waste time and energy trying to find black and white answers, or to debate postulated explanations?

Better to concern ourselves with what we know for sure.

So what do we know for sure? Does anyone have an answer?

What we know for sure is this very moment.

That’s it. There is no more.

So be in this moment. Not in some other moment or place.

If the darkness or the light of Sandokai has meaning for you, be it. If not, just be.

As Shunryu Suzuki says, “Our way is to go step by step, appreciating our everyday life. Then we can see what we’re doing, where we are.”

Sunday, February 04, 2007


In my talks I often draw on—and I often quote—Dogen Kigen, the Zen master who lived from 1200 to 1253. Here’s a question. What possible relevancy is there for us—for modern Westerners—modern Westerners in the words and thoughts of this Japanese guy who lived more than 750 years ago?
     Dogen was a monastic. We are social animals. His Eastern society then was completely different from our modern-day Western culture. His way of life was totally alien to ours. His language, and that of other early Zen masters, was laced with images that were understood in their Asian context, but in our Occidental society they are usually incomprehensible.
     So, what does Dogen have to offer us?
     The answer lies in the universal nature of what Dogen had to say.
     Based on modern Western thinking, Kamakura-period Japan was primitive, archaic. There were no airplanes, no mobile telephones, no credit cards. There were fast food businesses, but they served soups, noodles, and pickled vegetables, not deep fried potatoes and the fatty flesh of dead animals.
     Over time, technology changes. Clothing styles change. Life styles change.
     Another question.
Does human nature change?
     Not much.
     Human concerns were pretty much the same then as they are now.
     The same with human behavior.
     Seven hundred and fifty years ago in Asia, humans slaughtered one another in Asia as humans slaughter one another today in the Middle East.
     A thousand years ago—two thousand years ago, and more—humans slaughtered one another.
Over the ages, what have humans learned about compassion for others, about common sense in ourselves?
     Not much.
     Today we can make fatty hamburgers. We can kill more efficiently and more expensively. We can swindle on a grander scale.
     Does all this doom and gloom mean we should give in to it? That we should accept the inevitability of wars and greaseburgers?
     Not at all.
If we give in we shorten our lives, we lose self respect, and we abandon compassion.
Dogen taught patience.
Patience is the ability to let things happen as they happen without approving them of condemning them.
     As you know, Dogen and most other Zen masters of his time dealt with the complexities and realities of life, but they did not speak in a linear, logical manner.
     Nor did they offer answers to the twists and turns of life, as do most modern day ministers and preachers.
     Other people’s answers usually do not apply to other people. Or to you. You have to think for yourself.
     Metaphors and analogies have their place in attempts to simplify an idea for us. However, they should not be taken as literal truth or they may lead us astray.
     For example, don’t mistake the finger pointing to the moon as the moon.
     In the Western world there are plenty of serious Zen enthusiasts and plenty of Zen dabblers that claim Zazen will yield universal peace, personal happiness, even greater sexual power, and other rewards. But if Zen is practiced to gain something, that sort of Zen is bogus.
     One Japanese master was known for saying, “No matter how many years you do zazen, you’ll never become anything special.”
     I say, maybe so, maybe no.
     Another master said, “Just sit.”
     The point is, just sitting in shikantaza goes beyond facing the wall and emptying the mind.
     Dogen said:
“To study Buddhism is to study the self.”
     I say:
To understand Zen is to understand the self.