Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Some 750 years ago Zen Master Dogen said Zen is meditation, and meditation is Zen.

Think about that.

To add to it, these days Zen is often described as a tradition, which is a waffling way of saying something when nothing needs to be said.

A tradition is a behavior or a pattern that’s passed along from generation.

That sort of goes along with Zen, which is a direct transmission of wisdom called the Dharma.

D. T. Suzuki, who had his own ideas about everything, claimed Zen is much more than a tradition. It’s an experience, he said. To study Zen is to have Zen experience, and without the experience there is no Zen.

Suzuki went on to explain experience means to communicate to others. To communicate you have to be aware. A turnip can’t communicate because a turnip doesn’t have what is called awareness. At least that how it seems to humans.

To experience is to be aware. Zen experience is complete when it’s backed by Zen awareness and expression.

I’d like to tie together these three ideas: (1) Zen awareness, (2) Zen experience, and (3) Zen meditation. Much of my talk is based on a 1939 essay Suzuki wrote on Zen experience.

First off, is there any connection between awareness, experience, and meditation? To say this another way, is there any relationship between being and non-being? If you don’t see these two questions are essentially the same, don’t worry. Things will become clearer.

Once a Zen master named Daian told his monks that being and non-being was like a flowering vine twined around a tree.

Visualize that. A living tree with a living vine curled around it.

In another part of the country a fellow named Sozan heard about this statement, and he thought about it for a long time. He couldn’t get the image of a tree and a twining vine out of his mind. Finally he journeyed to Master Daian.

“Did you really say that being and non-being was like a flowering vine twined around a tree?” Sozan asked.

Daian nodded.

“I can’t sleep, thinking about this,” Sozan said.

Daian smiled.

“So, what happens when the tree dies?” Sozan asked.

Daian burst out laughing and headed for his living quarters.

Sozan said, “Master, I have come a long way to grasp what you said. Why do you make fun of me?”

Daian turned around and said, “Some day you may encounter a master whose nickname is ‘One-eyed Dragon.’ He will help you see into this matter.”

Months passed, then one day Sozan bumped into Master Myosho, who was known as ‘One-eyed Dragon’, and Sozan told of his interview with Daian.

“Tell me, what happens when the tree dies?” Sozan asked Myosho.

Myosho smiled and said, “My friend, when you ask, you make Daian laugh all over again.

At that moment Sozan understood the whole issue, and he bowed in the direction of Daian’s monastery.

Do you suppose Sozan was equating the tree-vine story with human existence?

One of the greatest questions that worries humans is that of the natural process of life and death.

Isn’t life being, and death non-being?

The end of life is as much of a natural process as growing older. Everything grows older. Everyone dies. Yet, most humans are scared to death with the thought of death. Life is so familiar that to some persons the thought of it ending can be fear-provoking.

When the tree dies, it’s only natural that the vine around it withers. Being is possible only with non-being.

Probably every human has the desire to exist after death. This craving is what most religious groups use to victimize people when they declare that the after-life will be better than the present existence, and please drop your money in the box so we can tell you all about the afterlife.

When we die will we go to what is usually called “Heaven,” a place in the sky where angels flap their wings and choirs intone joyous songs around the clock for all of eternity?

Is there really something higher and deeper around the bend?

Or, after life leaves the body is there nothing?

Life and death are direct opposites.

Being and non-being are direct opposites. As long as we worry about such things we will always be uneasy.

Sozan apparently was concerned with the matter of being and non-being, or, in religious terms, with the issue of immortality. When he heard about Daian’s pronouncement comparing being and non-being with a flowering vine that was twined around a tree, and was affected by it, Sosan probably thought the master could settle his spirit once and for all. So he went to Daian for answers.

As social animals, we humans like to communicate with one another, and we do this through a medium.

When I say “medium” I’m not talking about self-styled psychics who claim the ability to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Such characters are also called contacts or channels in that they pose as guides or mouthpieces to a supposed other world.

Painting is a medium. Music is a medium. Language is a medium.

Unfortunately, language is easily diddled. It can be twisted to mean anything. Look at the doublespeak that gushes from governments and politicians.

To quote Suzuki, “The highest and most fundamental experiences are best communicated without words.”

To paraphrase Suzuki, no matter well-expressed a medium may be, it will not have the desired effect on someone who has never had a similar experience. That is, we can establish a relationship between apples and apples, but we may have a tough time connecting tangerines and lamb chops.

When Daian laughed at Sozan’s question, did he see something hilarious about it?

Or was he laughing at the futility of worrying about something that has no answer.

Suzuki said there is no such thing as the finish of anything. Things are timeless, everlasting. Things may age, they may break down. But they never come to an end.

What’s important in Zen is not to make guesses, not to make assumptions, but to experience the meaning itself. Leave intellectualizing to the philosophers.

Leave intellectualizing to the philosophers.

When I attend a lecture or listen to a speech, the words I most welcome are, “… and in conclusion.”

And in conclusion, do you recall Hollywood’s Loony Tunes?

Do you remember Bugs Bunny, Wiley Coyote? Tom and Jerry? Porky Pig?

Porky Pig had a speech impediment, but he always concluded with three words that were straight Zen.

“That’s all, folks.”

By the way, if you ask why Myosho was called One-eyed Dragon, you’ll make me laugh.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Tonight’s talk is based on a lecture that was given at the San Francisco Zen Center by Suzuki Roshi. His was titled “Letters from Emptiness” (Not Always So, Shunryu Suzuki). My title is “Things as They Are.”

Most of you are probably familiar with the word “Shikantaza.” Shikantaza represents an important concept in Zen because it’s the pure form of meditation as done by Soto Zen practitioners.

Normally during zazen you might follow your breathing or count your breaths; in Rinzai Zen, individuals focus on a koan. Shikantaza is none of these. It is—like Zen itself—entirely in and of itself.

Shikantaza is a process of doing zazen—that is, meditating—in which the mind is totally involved in the sitting. Nothing more

Suzuki Roshi says shikantaza is the actualization of emptiness.

An understanding of emptiness comes not through thinking about it, or trying to bring up a mind-picture of it, but through experience.

That experience rises from zazen.

Here is a koan:

What is the color of emptiness?

Here is an answer:

The sound of one hand clapping.

The Japanese language is rich in expressing feelings we have no English words for. Suzuki mentions the Japanese term shosoku. It expresses the feeling of receiving a letter from home. That feeling may bring to mind an image of your parents, perhaps good kitchen aromas, maybe the sound of a screen door slamming.

Shosoku is a world of emptiness because it’s a world that does not actually exist.

This world of emptiness is the sound of a stone hitting a stalk of bamboo. It’s the sight of a flag being moved by the wind.

We can convey in words our so-called real world. Up over our heads we can see a ceiling fan. Some time ago we heard the sound of rain pounding on the roof. We detect the faint aroma of incense.

But these are mere words that are vaguely related to the world of emptiness.

Still, we cling to such descriptions and think they represent reality. Such descriptions are not reality because they rise from our own ideas. Our mind manufactures them.

This is a common mistake among many Buddhists who are emotionally involved with the presumed words of the Buddha, or to iconic representations of the Buddha.

There was a monk who, on a cold night, warmed himself at a fire he kindled with a wooden statue of the Buddha.

Was such an act inappropriate?

No. To that monk the statue was a three-dimensional, fancied likeness of the Buddha, nothing more. The monk had no attachment to an image, or even to the Buddha. What was important to him was the message of the Buddha.


Letters from that other world of emptiness.

Never mind words or images. Suzuki mentioned that what the Buddha said in his time, or what he looked like, were shosoku, letters from that other world of emptiness.

Dhammapada is a compilation of the supposed sayings of the Buddha. The academics who collected these sayings, translated them, interpreted them, and published them had their own ideas of what they meant. Every individual who reads them will have his or her own idea of what they mean.

Dhammapada can be interesting reading, but it’s only the finger pointing at the moon. Don’t confuse the finger for the moon.

To paraphrase Suzuki: If you want to read a letter from the Buddha’s world, you must understand Buddha’s world.

Nature may not be perfect because we judge it according to our human standards of perfection, which are based on direct experience. Some people paint or write to express their direct experience. Sometimes painters or writers may give up trying to materialize something because they may not have strong enough experiences.

But a true painter or a true writer doesn’t think, “Oh, if that sunset were a little more brilliant, it would be easier to portray in oils or in words. It would be complete for me.”

Artists who think that way are known as hacks and dabblers.

When you are in shikantaza, your working mind is shut down. You see things as they are, and you are open to receiving the letter from the world of emptiness.

* * * * *

I’ll close my talk by quoting a few lines of Shunryu Suzuki.

“Sometimes it may be all right to practice zazen as a kind of exercise or training, to make your practice stronger or to make your breathing smooth and natural. . . . but when we say shikantaza, that is not what we mean. When we receive a letter from the world of emptiness, then the practice of shikantaza is working.”

Thursday, February 14, 2008


Zen has a lot of non’s and no’s. I’m not talking about constraints, or things that should not be done. Zen doesn’t follow sets of rules. I’m talking about such concepts as non-being, non-duality, no-mind, no-self, and others.

These are familiar terms in Zen, and, like Zen, non-things are illogical but significant. That’s their beauty.

When one has gained insight one is totally mindful, totally aware, and totally self without that self becoming egocentric.

One is being and at the same time non-being.

There’s a big difference in being and non-being.

What sets humans apart from other animals, according to the experts, is the notion that humans are able to reason, whereas cats and horses and eagles don’t reason. They supposedly don’t think.

The French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes based his philosophy on the rationalistic premise “I think, therefore I am.”

According to Descartes, thinking is the measure of a human being. If there is no thought, there is no being.

But if only humans think, does that make birds and bugs non-existent? I’m not so sure. The armadillos that root around in my garden every night may not think, but I sure know they are real.

When Zen speaks of no-mind, does it mean no-thinking? In a small way it does, but having no-mind does not mean humans are armadillos. No-mind means we have recovered the untouched mind we had before it became formed and deformed by all the prejudices, and biases, and fixed notions that have been crammed into it over the years.

Zen is a reaction to the restraints of our social order. We may not agree with all the policies of civilization, the sometimes senseless actions, yet we can’t hide from society altogether unless we decide to become total recluses. Shakespeare recognized this quandary when he gave Hamlet the words, “To be, or not to be.”

Zen is a way in which we learn to recognize the limitations of the world’s controls, to remove ourselves from them without becoming revolutionaries, and to live in the world without being of the world.

It’s a process of moving from being to non-being to complete being. That is, it’s a process of noncompliance, acknowledgment, and reassertion.

Recall Zen’s Ten Oxherding Pictures. The allegory describes a boy who leaves his village to go on an extended chase for an elusive farm animal. After a series of trials and errors, and having gained perceptiveness, he re-enters village life.

You may have read the book The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. The hero embarks on a long physical as well as spiritual pilgrimage with several other people. The group eventually breaks up, and the hero returns to conventional life. Only at home does he comprehend the significance of the journey.

Lao-tzu said, “Knowing others is understanding; knowing oneself is wisdom.”

Suzuki Roshi said the best way to understand everything is to understand yourself.

When you understand yourself you are being. When you can realize your being without inflexibly defining it, which imposes limits, and without carrying around a sense of smugness, you are non-being.

To paraphrase Lao-tzu, one attains fulfillment through selfless action. Selflessness is non-being.

With non-being comes the capacity to discern the true nature of a situation. It’s a sort of sixth sense. You see things not the way you’d like them to be but the way they are.

In the book The Tao of Zen Ray Grigg mentions that nothingness is not conceptually approachable because it’s a condition of mind that engenders insight. In other words, nothingness defines awareness.

I have to repeat my favorite words of Chuang-tzu, who perceived non-being clearly and expressed it well:

“There is a beginning. There is no beginning of that beginning. There is no beginning of that no beginning of beginning. There is something before the beginning of something and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing. But between something and nothing, I still don’t really know which is something and which is nothing.”

When those words are rattled off they sound almost like a mantra. They seem foolish and pointless. But if you don’t think about them they start to fall into place.

Being involves time, and space, and thought.

Zen goes beyond thought by going beyond the fundamental idea of being. This is non-being.

In the seventeen hundreds Zen master Hakuin wrote the following:

“Our form now being no-form, in going and returning we never leave home.”

Think about it.