Wednesday, October 22, 2008


When I lived in northern California, in the fifties and sixties, one of my favorite San Francisco hangouts was a chilly cellar called “the hungry i.” It was a gathering place for the avant-garde, the predecessors of the hippies and the beats. Wine was twenty-five cents a glass, and it generated warmth for many truth-seeking rap sessions.

I don’t think “the hungry i” is in business any more, and that’s regrettable.

* * * *

The term Buddha- nature is not a mere name given to one of the many aspects of Zen. Buddha-nature is the reality of the true Buddha that exists within each being.

It would be interesting if humans agreed on everything. Think of it. There would be no arguments, no differences, and no varying opinions. But if everyone thought the same, discussions would be pointless, and the world would be dull place.

Buddhism is belief in one’s own potential. It’s also concern for all living beings. However, as ideal as Buddhism seems, even it is fragmented. There are countless schools of teachings based on differences as to how Buddhism should be approached and how it should be practiced.

There is the Northern school, the Southern school, the Eastern school, and more recently the Western school. Some of these schools are based on the notion of whether awakening is sudden or is gradual.

There is Theravada (also referred to as Hinayana), which teaches nontheistic self purification as the way to freedom from ignorance and the extinction of all attachment. There is Mahayana, which teaches social concern and universal reformation.

There is Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, Indian Buddhism, Southeast Asian Buddhism, and there is more. Each has its own opinions.

But in Buddhism, differences don’t matter.

If all of these schools have anything in common, it’s the question of the “I.”

What is the “I”?

Where is the “I”?

Who am I?

What is the true self? What is one’s face before one is born?

Is there an answer?

More important, what’s the real question?

Zen master Shunyru Suzuki said that what we call the “I” is a swinging door that moves when we inhale and exhale.

The writer and graphic artist Frederick Franck mentions in his book,The Buddha Eye, that Zen treats the “I” with the methodology of question and answer. That technique is known in Japanese as mondo.

Mondo is a dialogue between a master and a student, or two other spiritually developed persons. Each is expected to present their understanding of an incident in some nonverbal form such as a facial expression, a shout, a physical action.

Mondos are not koans but they may lead to a koan.

Most masters and teachers can detect something real from a bit of theater. If they see you’re trying to pull something off by waving your arms around, you’ll be ousted.

A mondo is a verbal exchange intended to turn the thought process topsy-turvy so the mind loses all preconceptions and becomes clear.

Mondo differs from wine-cellar discussions or Platonic dialogues, which put emphasis on wisdom over intuition.

Chinese Zen master Shih-t’ou, who lived from 700 to 790 A.D., was known for his participation in mondos.

A monk asked Shih-t’ou, “Who has attained understanding of the teaching of Hui-neng?”

Shih-t’ou answered, “The one who understands Buddhism.”

“Have you then attained it?”

“No, I don’t understand Buddhism.”

Another classical mondo involves a questioner asking, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the west?”

“Ask the post over there.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I.”

* * * * *

Some times when I give a Zen talk I feel that what I’m saying is so understandable it really needn’t be said. But I can usually tell from your facial expressions it’s unfathomable.

So I forge on and hope for the best.


Blogger Mark Foote said...

Hi, Kan-za,
I thought you might enjoy Shunryu Suzuki's lecture on form and emptiness, given August 5 1965; it's at:
or you can just go to David's webpage and scroll down the news for the link to the early lectures, and then the index page.
I would email you directly but I seem to have lost your email address; yours truly, Mark Foote

Sunday, October 26, 2008 1:24:00 PM  

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