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.”


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