Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Do you remember the movie, “Being There”?

It’s about a gardener, named Chance, who is totally illiterate. He can’t read, he can’t write, he can’t even discuss anything unless it relates to horticulture.

He likes to watch television.

Chance is so basic that everyone takes him to be very wise. When he pronounces something such as, “If the roots are cut back in the fall, the flowers will bloom in the spring,” everyone interprets his words as profound metaphors. Chance is thought of as being so astute he is considered as a nominee for president of the United States.

I try not to speak in metaphors. In Zen it’s difficult enough to be understood using simple language. So this evening, instead of talking about being there, I want to discuss being here.

In Zen, being here concerns mindfulness, and mindfulness is the essence of Zen.

In Buddhist literature there is a text known as the Satipatthana, or, to give its full name, The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness. This text is claimed to be the record of an original talk the Buddha gave, but more likely it’s something that was cobbled together by scholars long after his death.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the Satipatthana.

There is one way to the purification of beings, for overcoming sorrow and distress, for banishing pain and sadness, for gaining the right path, for realizing Nirvana. That way is the four foundations of mindfulness.

1. Contemplating body as body.

2. Contemplating feelings as feelings.

3. Contemplating mind as mind.

4. Contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects.

How does a monk abide contemplating the body as body, feelings as feelings, mind as mind, mind-objects as mind-objects? He sits down, keeps his body erect, and establishes mindfulness before him.

According to legend, the Buddha said that whoever practiced these foundations for seven years would gain freedom. Then he said that anyone who practiced them for seven months would be free. Then he said that anyone who practiced them for seven days would be free.

The last part of the Satipatthana says that to realize mindfulness, one establishes mindfulness. Isn’t that like describing a cloud as a cloud? Isn’t it like answering a question with the same question?

Perhaps. But remember, once you know what the question is, you’ll know what the answer means.

When you truly observe your body you are conscious of breathing in and breathing out. You know you are sitting, or you are standing, or you are walking. You know you are eating or you are drinking. You are aware of your body, but that awareness doesn’t cause you to direct your body’s actions.

Someone once said of a Zen master, “He walks as if he weren’t walking.”

When you contemplate feelings as feelings, you are conscious of being happy, or sad, or upset, or detached. If you feel uncomfortable because you hit your finger with a hammer, you are aware of the pain. But you don’t let the pain take over your life.

You see pain for what it is.

There are feelings that may be of you, but they are not you.

When you contemplate mind as mind you’re aware of what your mind is doing. It can be doing something or nothing. If you are thinking, you don’t dwell on whether you like or don’t like those thoughts. If you think about thinking, or about non-thinking, instead of simply being aware of either, you will create thoughts that get in the way of awareness.

If I tell you to not think of a green elephant, you will inevitably think of a green elephant.

The trick is to neither think nor not think.

I could tell you to think about that, but I won’t.

As for being aware of mind-objects as mind-objects, this has to do with not separating what Krishnamurti refers to as the observer and the observed.

When you make a snap judgment about something or someone, you invent a mind-object. That is, you establish a preconceived preference. For example, you unconsciously say to yourself, “That woman’s red dress is hideous,” or “I like that guy’s shoes.”

There is you, and there is the “thing,” the mind-object. They become separate entities. After a time there is you, plus a huge collection of your likes and dislikes.

Think of it. Your prejudices are not you, they are mind-objects.

Unfortunately, you can’t cleanse yourself of likes and dislikes. They reach way back into your culture, your inherited characteristics, your life training. What you can do is become aware of mind-objects and see them for what they really are.

To wind this up, let’s go back to the four foundations of mindfulness,

1. Contemplating body as body.

2. Contemplating feelings as feelings.

3. Contemplating mind as mind.

4. Contemplating mind-objects as mind-objects.

This business of contemplating—that is, being completely aware and mindful—does not occur only when you meditate. Direct seeing goes on continuously in your everyday life.

That is being here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Long ago when a Zen master and a novice monk had a conversation, the monk stood with body erect, eyes to the front, hands folded on his chest.

A monk asked master Joshu, “What is the origin of the ten thousand dharmas?”

Joshu answered, “Ridgepole, rafters, joists, pillars.”

“I don’t understand,” the monk said.

Joshu said, “You don’t understand standing at attention with folded hands either.”

So what’s the difference between a Zen novice and a Zen master? And what’s the difference between a Zen master and a Zen teacher?

In a nutshell, a novice is seeking awakening, whether that novice is a he or a she, a monk or a nun. A master is acknowledged as an awakened being, and he or she challenges novices to discontinue their analytical thinking and find their own way to awakening.

A master challenges; a monk learns; a teacher teaches.

Traditionally only a master can name a teacher. However, in many Western countries there are many so-called masters, and there are teachers who have received no authority to teach Zen Buddhism.

Western countries like shortcuts.

I have been called a master, but I consider myself a roshi, a teacher. After training under Master Hiromu Oda for several years, “Hi” Oda said simply that there was nothing further he could tell me, and that I should go out and teach others.

I was not given inka. That is, the traditional robe and bowl I were not handed down. I was not sworn to any of the precepts, nor was I formally ordained. There was no official hocus-pocus or ritual.

The lineage of Dharma transmission isn’t personally essential to me, so I discuss it only in historical terms.

“Go out and teach Zen,” Oda said.

So that’s what I try to do.

Teach Zen.

In teaching, I have been asked directly if I am enlightened. That’s a question that cannot, may not, or will not be answered. That’s like being asked in modern terms if I’m cool. If I say “No,” then I’m assumed to be not cool. If I say “Yes,” then I’m really not cool.”

So if I’m asked if I’m enlightened, I might answer, “Oak tree in the field.”

Incidentally, in a formal ordination ceremony, masters-to-be pledge to a series of moral convictions whose number vary from five to ten, according to the sect. The most common precepts include:

1. To abstain from taking life.

2. To abstain from taking what is not given.

3. To abstain from sexual misconduct.

4. To abstain from false speech.

5. To abstain from drinks and drugs that cause rash behavior.

All good stuff, but is the recitation of these precepts essential?

That depends on the individual.

The Czech writer Franz Kafka said the right thing when he wrote:

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.

In Japanese, a Zen master is called roshi, and a teacher is called sensei.

I referred to “Hi” as Oda roshi. I referred to my brush painting instructor as Mikami sensei.

You can call me Jack.

A monk asked Master Joshu, “What is Buddha?”

Joshu said, “Aren’t you Buddha?”

A monk asked, “What is my teacher?’

The master said, “Clouds rising out of the mountains, streams entering the valley.”

“I didn’t ask about them,” said the monk.

The master said, “They are your teacher, but you don’t recognize them.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


In the koan collection Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate), Case 37 is titled Oak Tree in the Garden. It goes like this.

A monk asked Zen Master Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?”

Joshu answered, “The oak tree in the garden.”

Oak-tree-in-the-garden reminds me a little of a British movie that came out several years ago. It was called Blowup, and it was about a photographer who takes pictures in a park, then realizes he has filmed a murder. Later his film disappears, as well as his prints. Other strange happenings make him wonder if what he saw really occurred. At the end of the movie the fellow joins a mime troupe in an imaginary ball game that questions reality.

Most people don’t “get it.” But the story is eminently clear.

This is a magnificent koan because it makes perfect sense. I know, I know, for most people it makes no sense whatsoever. For most people it’s cryptic, obscure, and enigmatic.

Depending on the translator of the Chinese or the Japanese text, Joshu’s tree is sometimes an oak, sometimes a cypress, sometimes a peach. It’s in the garden, or it’s in the courtyard, or it’s in the field.

The words of what and where are not important. Many people take the language literally, and they think there is something symbolic about oak or cypress, or garden or field.

The words themselves don’t matter.

Oak tree in the garden.

Who was Bodhidharma?

He was an Indian Buddhist who presumably introduced Zen to China in A.D. 520. D.T. Suzuki states that Bodhidharma was the forefather of Zen because Zen’s history began with Bodhidharma coming from India to China.

Bodhidharma was a monk who became unhappy with the way Buddhism had developed in India. He felt it had strayed far from the simple pronouncements of the Buddha and was slipping back into pantheism. So one day he set off for China.

Bodhidharma wasn’t interested in joining any of the several schools of Buddhism that flourished in China at that time. Instead, he hoped to find, or teach, the fundamentals of Buddhism that had been established long before.

He believed in the direct method of Zen, which involved seeing undeviatingly into enlightenment and not pussyfooting around with the levels of edification and the rituals that were then popular.

The Buddha had broken from the complex practices of Hinduism. His idea was based on what became known as the Four Noble Truths.

Remember those?

1. Human existence involves suffering and dissatisfaction.

2. Suffering and dissatisfaction are the human condition because humans are possessive, greedy, and self-centered.

3. Possessiveness, greed, and egotism can be understood and overcome.

4. The overcoming is brought about by following a pattern of behavior that will create a change in viewpoint.

So, what was, and is, the point of Buddhism?

The point of Buddhism is seeing into one’s true nature.

Getting back to Bodhidharma’s motives, we can only speculate but there’s a good chance that the message of seeing into one’s true nature comprised a major part of his undertaking.

I guess we could call Bodhidharma a missionary. He wasn’t what is commonly thought of as a religious proselytizer who was out to convert others to his way of thinking, but he certainly was a person with a dedicated undertaking.

Robert Aitken, in his interpretation of Case 37, notes that Bodhidharma’s message must be differentiated from his essence of mind, and this is where things fall into place.

When the Chinese master Lin-chi was asked about Bodhidharma’s meaning he stated that if Bodhidharma had had any meaning he could not have saved himself.

What is often presented as Case 37 is usually an abbreviated version of the koan. In its full form, after Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden,” the monk responded by saying, “Please don’t teach me with reference to outside things.”

Joshu responded, “I don’t teach you with reference to outside things.”

“So, tell me then,” the monk said. “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?”

Joshu answered, “The oak tree in the garden.”

The monk must have felt like gnawing a slab of oak wood. He must have felt there was nowhere to turn, nothing to hold onto.

A later Japanese master, named Kanzan, who founded the temple called Myoshinji, added a thoughtful statement to Case 37 when he said, “The koan of the oak tree has the function of a bandit. It steals everything from you.”

So, when there is nothing left, what remains?

Joshu suggests that it is only where there is void that everything is now.

To say again, it is only where there is void that everything is now.

Radical Zen, The sayings of Joshu is a book that, unfortunately, is out of print. It imagines a further conversation in which the monk asks Joshu if the oak tree has Buddha nature.

Joshu answers, “Yes, it has.”

The monk asks, “When does the oak tree attain Buddhahood?”

Joshu says, “Wait until the great universe collapses.”

The monk persists, “When does the universe collapse?”

Joshu says, “When the oak tree attains Buddhahood.”

Do you get it?