Wednesday, April 29, 2009


One of Master Dogen’s students mentioned that it took a long time for him—the student—to grasp the essence of the Way. The student wasn’t complaining, but he was concerned about his slowness.

“I’ve been practicing zazen for years,” he said. “But I feel I’m getting nowhere. I’ve learned not to depend on logic, and not on book learning, but I’ve become discourage, and I don’t know what to do.”

Does this sound familiar?

Dogen answered that neither great intelligence nor reasoning were necessary. Neither should one depend on intellectual brilliance or quick-wittedness.

Brainpower has nothing to do with the matter. Don’t discount a person who is slow, or, most important, someone who thinks he is snail-like.

“However, “ Dogen continued, and I quote, “You should not be like a totally witless person. The true study of the way should be easy. It should be effortless.

“At the same time you should know that even among the many thousands of students in China those who genuinely attain the Way and are awakened are in the minority.”

End quote.

That does not mean the odds are against you. You shouldn’t be discouraged, because the majorities that fall by the wayside and drop out are mere dilettantes. They are in Zen in a make-believe way. They are not sincere. They are not serious about their practice.

Without passing judgment, I suppose I could say there are those individuals who have the utmost purpose and there are those who don’t. Those who have the paramount aspiration and work at it accordingly will attain the way.

Those who are merely fiddling around for one personal reason or another won’t. It’s as simple as that.

Paraphrasing Dogen, bear in mind that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. What is primary is the seeking mind.

Dogen gave a homey example. He said that those who intend to rob a bank, or to defeat a powerful enemy, or to score with a person of the opposite gender will follow their intention and keep it in mind whether they are standing, walking, sitting, or lying down.

They may not be successful in their infamy, or their mayhem, or their romantic pursuit, but they have given it their all and will go a long way toward making it happen.

In practical terms, you have to stick with your Zen practice.

Now I’m not giving any life advice here. What I am saying, to paraphrase Dogen, is if you sincerely aspire for the Way, as you practice Zazen, then, you can shoot a bird however high in the sky of catch a fish however deep in the water.

You must have a determined mind. And when you have a determined mind . . . . Note: I said when, not if.

When you have a determined mind you will, according to Dogen, invariably be awakened.

It doesn’t matter if you are quick or slow, smart or dull, well-educated or unlearned.

The Chinese Zen master Hui-neng was considered to be illiterate, yet around the year 700 he set the tone of Zen for all time by composing these words:

There is no Bodhi tree,

Nor is there a clear mirror.

From the beginning not one thing exists,

So where is a speck of dust to cling?

Think of the Zen truth that everything is impermanent. That is, nothing lasts forever.

Again to paraphrase Dogen, impermanence is the truth that is right in front of you. . . . . the impermanence of life is in your eyes and ears. . . . You should realize the fact that attachment in worldly affairs is your enemy, and to do so is the way to a fuller life.

We should realize that there is only right now, only this moment. We should concentrate on practicing the Way.

To speak of or think about the slowness or the speed of learning is foolishness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


To study the Way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.

To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

Zen Master Dogen wrote those words. If you understand them comprehensively and wholly there is little else that needs to be added to them. They are simple and profound.

So I could quit babbling right now, but I won’t. You may remember the account of Bodhidharma responding to statements of his disciples by saying, “You have my skin; you have my flesh; you have my bones; you have my marrow.”

In a few words I would like to add some flesh to Dogen’s bones, in the hope it might help you to realize your own marrow.

Let’s resurrect that time-worn phrase “enlightenment,” which I prefer to call awakening, or awareness, or self-realization. The synonyms enlightenment, or awakening, or awareness, or self-realization all refer to one’s state of mind before it was conditioned by society. To have spiritual insight. To understand things as they are rather than to want them to be how we would like them to be.

Interestingly, a couple of antonyms of any of these words are perplexed, or bewildered.

That is to say, most individuals go through life inwardly confused and unable to make sense of a world that is basically senseless. That’s what is meant by the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths that states all life is suffering.

“Suffering” meaning essentially screwed up.

In any sort of writing or verbal communication, lists can be a useful tool in breaking down a large subject and treating it in small bits. Buddhism is known for its lists. There are the four truths, the eightfold path, the four elements, the ten oxherding pictures.

In one of his talks Dogen mentioned eight characteristics of Zen awakening that, according to tradition, were formulated by the Buddha. These eight characteristics are:

1. Unselfishness.

2. Satisfaction.

3. Quiet.

4. Conscientiousness.

5. Remembrance.

6. Meditation.

7. Wisdom.

8. Avoidance of hearsay.

This talk touches briefly on each of these eight qualities of Zen awakening.

Dogen lists unselfishness as freedom from greed. A person who isn’t greedy doesn’t strive to be wealthy. A person who isn’t greedy doesn’t cater to others to gain their approval or patronage, nor does that person give in to self-centered urges and whims.

The second characteristic—satisfaction—means to be content with what one has. The Buddha reportedly said that a satisfied person is happy, even though he has to sleep on the ground. On the other hand, an unsatisfied person may live in a multi-million dollar house, with servants running all over the place, and be discontented.

The moral is, the more a person possesses, the more a person desires.

The third quality of Zen awakening is quiet.

Dogen says quiet means leading a solitary life. But that does not necessarily mean to lead a solitary life, to become a hermit and withdraw from society. Quiet implies being untouched by worldly conflict and turmoil. That, in turn, does not mean shutting one’s eyes to the common inhumanities of humans. It doesn’t mean steeling oneself to cruel and barbarous actions.

There’s a fine line between being so furious over human indignities that you suffer mental paralysis, and being compassionate enough to do something about the situation.

In Dogen’s talk on quiet as one of the aspects of enlightenment he uses a metaphor to the effect that an old elephant is unable to free himself once he is stuck in the mud. That’s a good image, but for the life of me I don’t grasp how it pertains to being quiet.

The fourth aspect of awakening is conscientiousness, or diligence. That means to stick with your practice. Don’t dip in to it and dip out of it.

Dogen’s metaphor here is easier to understand. He said one should be like running water because no matter how little the action is, it will eventually wear away a rock.

The fifth aspect is termed remembrance.


To be honest, no matter how many times I read Dogen’s take on this aspect, I cannot get a handle on it. I’ll read his words. If they are clear to you, let me know. I quote (from the book Zen Master Dogen, An Introduction with Selected Writings):

“Monks! If you wish to find a true master who can give you good advice, you should preserve correct remembrance, for those who do so remain free from various delusions.”

Does any one have any clues to offer? Any hints? Hunches?

If not, we’ll proceed to the sixth aspect, meditation.

Number six. Meditation.

Now we are on solid ground.

Meditation implies an undisturbed mind, and an undisturbed mind not only leads to awareness, it is awareness. Don’t leave yet. There is more to be said about meditation.

But first let’s hit number seven: wisdom.

In short, wisdom allows us to make proper choices. It enables us to appreciate all of life. It is the result of awakening, which is the result of meditation, which leads to number eight, hearsay.

That’s not heresy, but hearsay.

In legal terms, hearsay is evidenced based on the reports of others rather than the personal knowledge of a witness and therefore not admissible as testimony.

The nature of wisdom is the power to see the truth, and this is enabled through meditation.


We are back where we started. All this time we have been on an

enso. A closed circle. No beginning, no end.

Existence is a sort of enso. But, you say we beings start at birth, don’t we? And we end at death, don’t we?

But do we begin at birth?

Do we end at death?

At birth—and even before birth—we are a product of the form and the essence (the spirit, if you prefer) of our parents, and of their parents, and so on and so on. And at our death doesn‘t our essence, our spirit, a part of our being, pass along to someone or something else that has grown with us?

A human, a tree, a flower?

I’m not talking about reincarnation here. That is a subject for another talk.

Shortly before the Buddha died he told his followers that all things are subject to destruction and decay, so they should seek earnestly for the Way.

He said, “Stop talking for a while for time is slipping away.”

So I will stop talking for a while.

Just remember:

To study the Way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.

To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Intellect is the ability to learn and reason. It is the capacity for knowledge and understanding. We don’t know much about the intellect of creatures other than human beings, but we do know human intellect is not boundless. It can go only so far in its reasoning ability.

If the intellect had no limits, the politicians of the world probably would have worked out their differences long ago, and we would not be frequently teetering on the edge of war.

There is something beyond intellect that is not dependent on learning and reason. This was late to be realized in the Western world, though it has been known in the East for some 2500 years. This something is Buddha-nature.

Now, I am not blowing smoke. I am not claiming Buddhism is a panacea that can end all wars and cure all ills. Buddhism is not magic.

If every human realized his or her own Buddha-nature, would all of humanity become peace mongers? Would everyone love everyone else? Would there be an end to antipathy? Probably not. The only things we can count on are our fingers.

An important characteristic of existence, and of the entire universe, is randomness. Unpredictability. Chaos.

Think of it.

Some learned minds claim existence is an ordered universe. But the order is what those same learned minds have allocated to the universe. If some new, chaotic phenomenon shows up, it is given a name, which makes it no longer out of order. And humans are once again comfortable.

As good as modern technology is in predicting natural events, it is a long way from being flawless. Science can say smugly that some time in the next fifty years a major earthquake will hit California. This is a great prediction, isn’t it? No one can give the precise time or date or place. That is because nature—and by “nature” I mean everything, including humans—is not ordered but acts by chance.

We humans like to believe we are routine in our habits. We get out of bed in the morning at a certain time and go to bed at a certain time. We enjoy reading certain kinds of books. We follow a certain eating pattern. We meditate in a certain place at a certain time. Such established patterns feel comfortable to us.

However, such patterns can lead to apathy and indifference. They can, without our realizing it, stifle intuition.

In the corporate world, management periodically shuffles the location of employees’ work places. Desks are rearranged, office spaces are reorganized. This is not done to provide employees with better lighting or cleaner air. It is done to keep people from feathering cozy nests and settling into them too deeply. Cozy nests can lead to complacency.

When people become too self-contented they become anesthetized. They lose their inherent ability to live intuitively and instinctively. They obscure their Buddha-nature.

Beyond all description, beyond all thought, beyond intellect, there is knowing. Knowing is awareness. Awareness is instinctive because we are born with this faculty. Awareness is Buddha-nature.

Contrary to all that is natural, everything has Buddha-nature but life forces humans to subdue it. To realize our Buddha-nature we have to get around everything we have learned intellectually that tends to hold down our inborn Buddha-nature.

Think of that.

It’s crazy that we first use our intellect to learn to live, and then we have to unlearn intellectual matters in order to really live.

We have to go beyond intellect. We have to realize our Buddha-nature.