Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Have you ever stroked a cat in the wrong direction, that is, from its tail to its head? Such strokes mess up a cat’s fur. They may even cause a crackle of static electricity. Cats hate reverse strokes. At best, or at worst, they ruffle a cat’s feelings.
I’m not a cat, so I don’t get many strokes, physically or emotionally. Also, I don’t ruffle easily.
One thing that does bother me is having Zen, or Zen Buddhism, referred to as a religion. As I say time and time again, Zen, or Zen Buddhism, is not a religion.
Zen is often referred to as a tradition, the passing down of a culture through lifetimes. To put it another way, a tradition is a way of thought or behavior that is carried on from generation to generation.
A tradition. Something done because others have done the same thing.
But, as free-thinking human beings, must we do something the same way our predecessors did it? Must we be bound by tradition, or can we practice the Zen tradition in a way that suits our varying culture, and our changing minds and bodies?
Some elements of tradition may have matter-of-fact value in Zen practice. Others may have been established on whim, and don’t need to be adhered to dutifully. Let’s take a look at a few of these formalities, while keeping in mind that Zen has no rules or regulations.

Most people have a mental image of Zen practitioners sitting cross-legged, with the right ankle tucked into the left groin, the left ankle tucked into the right groin. This is known as the full-lotus position, in Japanese, “kekka fuza.” In theory, it provides the most stable bodily attitude because . . . . Well, I honestly don’t remember the theory of physical stability. But no matter. Full-lotus is traditional, so most people doing zazen try to sit full-lotus. And most people suffer.
The Japanese Zen scholar Katsuki Sekida cautions (Zen Training, Methods and Philosophy) that kekka fuza is a tough position for most people to maintain, especially when they start their practice. I say it’s a difficult position for almost anyone who is not slim, supple, or over the age of thirty or so, unless they started kekka fuza as a youth.
But not to worry. If you can’t maintain full-lotus, or even half-lotus, you won’t be drummed out of the Zen community. If sitting kekka fuza causes you pain, or cramps, or charley horse, don’t torture yourself. Zazen is not an exercise in masochism.
As an alternative, fold your legs under your buttocks and sit on your heels. If this stresses your knees, straddle your cushion and let it take most of your weight off your legs.
It’s perfectly all right to do Zazen while sitting on a bench or on a chair. Just don’t slump or lean sideways. Keep your back straight, as if a tight string were attached to the top of your head.

The alleged founder of Zen in China—Bodhidharma—supposedly meditated while facing a wall. Whether that wall was a physical barrier or a metaphor for the obstacle of Bodhidharma’s mind is not recorded, but wall facing during meditation has come down as a Zen tradition.
So, at least in the Soto sect, zazen is done facing a wall.
I suppose if it was recorded that Bodhidharma scratched his behind every quarter hour while meditating, we might, to this day, be scratching our behinds every fifteen minutes of zazen.
Nevertheless, there is some benefit in wall facing. If we were to face the center, or one end, of the room, we would be likely to look at how others were meditating.
We’d allow ourselves to be distracted watching if others were sitting still or fidgeting, alert or dozing off.
I’ve probably told the story of the two Americans who were doing zazen in a Rinzai temple. Shortly after the session began, the Zen master scribbled a note on a piece of paper and passed it to one of the guests.
After the sitting, the other American grabbed his friend, saying, “What did the master say? Did he disclose a special revelation?”
The friend opened the note. It said, “Stop looking around.”

Why do Zen practitioners go shoeless when they sit? Is this another primeval tradition? Probably not.
First, sitting—especially on the floor—is more comfortable if you aren’t wearing shoes.
Second, it’s a mark of respect during zazen not to wear shoes, or not to chew gum, or not to send text messages on your cell phone.
Master Keido Fukashima insisted not only on no-shoes in the meditation room, but on no-socks as well. If the floor was bare tile, your feet felt like ice, but you got used to it.
I prefer keeping my socks on, not so much for warmth, but to avoid acquiring a case of athlete’s foot.
In most Asian countries, totally uncovered feet are a must in a monastery or a temple. After a month of barefoot exploring Buddhist sites in Japan, Burma, and Thailand, my feet looked like ground beef and they itched like crazy.
There have been, and are, superior Zen masters and not-so-good Zen masters. Most likely, the better masters—such as Bodhidharma, Dogen, and Suzuki—seldom laid down rules and regulations other than those relating to the proper care of their temple.
In our times, are we duty bound to imitate the old masters, or should we honor what they stood for and they taught?
As Zen practitioners we aren’t looking for what someone else was, or is. The point of Zen is realizing who we are.
As part of a sangha, we should be aware and respectful. Of others, and of ourselves.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


These days everyone talks about, reads about, and practically drips about Zen. There are books and magazines and newspaper articles devoted to Zen. There are advertisements with phony Zen themes. There are Zen takeoffs on travel destinations, on diets, even on dog foods.
Is Zen really some sort of a New-Age fad that detonated over the horizon in the eighties?
Incidentally the dictionary definition of New-Age mentions (I take a deep breath) a complex of spiritual and consciousness-raising movements covering a range of themes from a belief in spiritualism and reincarnation to advocacy of holistic approaches to health and ecology.
Is this Zen?
In a word: NO.
Zen has been around a while. It isn’t new.
According to indistinct records, Zen probably had its start in China in the sixth century when the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma touched down in a Cantonese monastery. There, he taught silent meditation, and his practice became known as Ch’an Buddhism.
Back then the world had no airplanes or trains. There was no Internet. And because China was physically, linguistically, and philosophically a long Way from Japan, Ch’an took some five hundred years to reach Japan.
Ch’an’s introduction to Japan, where it became known as Zen, is attributable to several teachers. But the Japanese master who opened the first continuing monastery, and is best known for his outstanding contributions to Zen literature, is Dogen Kigen.
Early on, Dogen wrote a meditation manual that presented straightforward zazen instructions. He followed this with another piece in question-and-answer format. Best known today was his manual titled The Record of Things Heard, a collection informal talks on various Zen subjects. In these and all of his writings, Dogen emphasized one’s dedication to realizing the Way.
Dogen said no matter what one’s intelligence or education, zazen was the universal practice. He claimed that everything other than zazen was a digression from true Zen.
Dogen was not dead-set against koans, which were all the rage in most Ch’an and Zen schools of his time. He did say that koans could be an obstacle to Zen practice and awakening. Rather, he focused on shikantaza.
Literally, in Japanese shikan means “only”; ta means “hit”; za means “sit”.
So, shikantaza is absolute meditation without an object or an aim in mind.
No koans, no chants, no rituals.
Pure meditation.
The true study of the Way doesn’t depend on book learning, or on brainpower, or on intelligence. The true study of the Way relies on perseverance in the practice of zazen.
No more, no less.
To quote Dogen: “In the first place, there must be a keen and sincere desire to seek the Way. . . . . Anything sought for with . . . intensity will surely be gained. . . . Those who have this drive . . . even if they are
stupid . . . will without fail gain enlightenment.”
In other words, you have to stick with it.
Then Dogen said that to awaken such a mind one has to be aware of the impermanence of the world. Impermanence is not some arcane conjecture or theory; impermanence is a reality, a fact, a truth.
We humans may try to get around death with religious routines, but nothing lasts forever. Not trees, not birds, not humans, not even the mountains or the rivers or the oceans. We come we go.
Every year you read about the death of someone who has lived to be a hundred-and-some years old. The longest-lived human, to date, is Jeanne Calment, a French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years. The other day I read about the death of the oldest living dog in the world. It was a dachshund, named Chanel. It was 27 in human years, 147 in dog years.
My point is that nothing lasts forever.
Dogen’s third point in the study of the Way is really first, in order of importance.
It is zazen.
Dogen was asked by a follower named Ejo that when zazen and the reading of texts are practiced together, we maybe understand one point in a thousand. But in zazen alone, there isn’t even this much. So why so much emphasis to zazen?
Dogen answered that koans and readings may lead to a slight comprehension, but they can—if one becomes attached to them—actually get in the way of the Way.
The value is not in words or mental games, but in zazen.
To summarize Dogen, in the study of the Way you have to shed attachments. If you follow a good teacher and practice together with the others, and shuck off all notions of how important self is, you will be a person of the Way.
The Buddha way is never-ending. If you become awakened, keep right on practicing zazen.
A final word: Don’t become a smart-ass about enlightenment.
Especially yours.