Wednesday, July 28, 2010


A warning.

This talk starts nowhere, and goes nowhere.

Welcome to Zen.

In several of my travels, particularly in Asia, I’ve been asked why most Americans are dabblers. We are often perceived as a nation of faddists. We tend to pick up on short-term things that come and go. In many foreign eyes, Americans are thought of as liking to be thought of as cool, hip, mellow, groovy, awesome.

We latch on to spiritualism, to exotic forms of Yoga, to various types of meditation, to Sufi, to Wicca. All may be reasonable disciplines, at the time, but we seldom stick with any one before heading off to try another.

An example is electronic evangelism. You might be amazed at the numbers of people who subscribe to the claims of some radio and televangelist preachers.

Recently I saw a video of a television sermonizer who beseeched God to grow new legs on a dual-amputee. The preacher also asked God to let the same fellow see through his glass eyeball.

The preacher guffawed and giggled constantly at his on-stage doings, as if he were amused at the credulity of the live audience. However, the audience, to a T, appeared to swallow everything whole.

Honestly, I’m not poking fun at such people. I’m merely mentioning them as examples of the flip-flopping of so many Americans.

Getting back to Zen,

Zen first appeared in the United States in 1893, when Soyen Shaku introduced it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. That’s a good while, so maybe Zen is here to stay.

In the 1940s and 1950s the output of such writers as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth helped to raise the awareness of Zen in America. It’s interesting that all of these fellows were Californians of the so-called Beat Generation. And to this day California is known for its spiritual and consciousness-raising movements, as well as its dabblers.

So, after more than a hundred years in America, is Zen a passing fancy or is it something that is stabilized? Who knows? Who can even make a wild guess? Maybe Zen in America is merely one hand clapping. Or the flapping of the mind, like a wind-blown banner.

Is anyone familiar with the name Tenzin Gyatso? I’m sure everyone is familiar with the person: the exiled political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. He is widely known not for working so-called miracles, or preaching salvation, but for his emphasis on compassion.

Compassion is awareness of the suffering of others. It is the hallmark of Buddhism, including Zen.

Life is suffering, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.

Once we understand that, we can help others to understand.

This is compassion.

One interesting thing about Zen—I should say one of the many interesting things about Zen: You can put it into practice, no matter if you are a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem. You don’t have to betray or change your fundamental beliefs.

Furthermore, you don’t have to profess or broadcast you are a Zen person.

Just live Zen. Be Zen.

In Zen you don’t pray. You don’t need someone or something to forgive you or grant you mercy . . . whatever that means. You don’t need anything more than yourself, and an open mind.

Zen is basically meditation and letting go. Flushing your mind and letting it open up.

Traditionally in Asia, Zen has been the calling of monks and nuns, who have dedicated themselves to a monastic life. In America Zen is for anyone who wants to clear his or her mind and seeing themselves for what they are.

Look at us, right here. We are a motley crew comprising artists, educators, scholars, students, musicians, and other fascinating types. We aren’t dues-paying members of any organization. We aren’t bound by vows to a religious life. We don’t live in a monastery. Some of us—or maybe none of us—attend a place of worship.

Most of us get together on a regular basis—Monday evenings—and we sit in silent meditation. No fanfare. No ceremony. No hallowed music. We just sit.

Now, to some people that would sound terribly dull. Most people might think that an hour or so of just sitting with no television to entertain us would be mind numbing.

Instead, it is mind opening. Refreshing.

To non-practioners, Zen may seem irrational. To them it may seem foolish and crazy. But craziness is one of the joys of Zen.

Life itself doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t follow a rational path. Unforeseen things happen. There are tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. People become ill. They die at an early age. Humans may think they control their destinies, but shit happens.

Humans fight against fate because fate isn’t logical. It doesn’t always work to human advantage.

Zen confronts.

In the Japanese No play a Zen priest is asked about zazen. He answers (From A Commentary by Amakuki Sessan, on Hakuin’s Song of Meditation, in A first Zen Reader) as follows:

“Not to lament, . . . ;
“Not to choose whether the law be kept or broken;
“Not to fall into either being or not being—
“This is the sign by which all become Buddhas.”

A monk asked Master Baso, “What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is Buddha.”
Some time later, another monk asked Baso, “What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is not Buddha.”

I ask: Do you understand?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


A few weeks back I gave a talk that was based on a paper presented by D.T. Suzuki in 1957. I contrasted Eastern ways of thinking with Western ways of thinking.

I’d like to continue on that theme of East and West, which really has to do with objectivity and subjectivity. In other words, observation that is based on impartial observation in contrast to that which is based on individual experience.

The Western method is to view something, say a flower or an earthworm, from the objective point of view—surveying its size, its color, its weight, its chemical analysis, and so on, comparing it with some chosen standard—and then pigeonholing that thing.

That is, shoehorning it into a pattern or a mold.

Traditionally, categorizing has been the Western approach to reality. This is bigger than that. That is more colorful than this. It’s a placing next to another to establish differences.

To paraphrase Suzuki: The Zen approach is to enter into the object—a flower—and see it from the inside.

To know a flower.

To know a flower is to be the flower.

When you learn to know a flower, a tree, a pebble, you come to know yourself.

You don’t need to exploit differences.

There is a shortcut here, but I’m not going to point to it. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with a short story by Carson McCullers titled “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud.” In the story, a man declares that love should not begin with another human being, but with a tree, a rock, a cloud.

I say, awakening may begin with a flower.

To experience a flower, or a tree, or a rock, is to experience one’s self. Science attempts to find reality in analyzing and objectifying. Zen experiences reality in joining with an object by perceiving what an object truly is.

Never mind if it’s bigger, or brighter than something else.

In doing that, a Zen person realizes what he or she truly is.

Long ago a Zen abbot commissioned a painter to decorate the ceiling of his monastery with the image of a dragon. The artist said he would give it a try, even though he had never seen a dragon. Furthermore, he doubted that dragons really existed.

“Never mind that you’ve never seen a dragon,” the abbot said. “Don’t accept what anyone tells you about dragons, or what they look like, or what size they are. Meditate. Clear your mind. Sooner or later you’ll feel you must paint a dragon.”

After several months of meditation, the artist took his brushes and set to work painting a dragon.

A nice little story, yes?

Today that dragon can be seen on the ceiling of the Dharma hall at Myoshinji, Kyoto.

Here’s another legend.

A young Zen novice went to his master and said, “I have been with you for several years, but you have not given me any instructions. Why is that?”

The master smiled and said, “I have instructed you from day one.”

The student looked puzzled.

“When you see me in the morning, you greet me, and I greet you. What else is there?”

The student thought the reply was some sort of koan and tried to analyze it.

The master said, “If you start thinking about it, it is gone, and you’ll never get it. You have to see it instantly, with no reasoning or revaluing.”

That applies to a flower, and to one’s own self.

It’s the truth of Zen.

Again, to paraphrase Suzuki: The truth of Zen is what turns one’s everyday life into one of art and inner creativity.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I’d like to attempt a simplified commentary on a complex subject. The subject is the talk by Master Dogen titled Keisei Sanshoku, or “The Contour of a Mountain, the Ripple of a Stream.”

Dogen’s talk focuses on the experiencing of one’s Buddha-nature. This experiencing—also known as kensho and satori—involves much preparation to bring one to a high spiritual level. To put that metaphorically, preparation that brings one to the brink of a precipitous cliff.

That word “spiritual,” and its root “spirit,” has nothing to do with any god, or the character of sacredness, or something beyond human comprehension, as is common in Western thought and religions. When a Zen person speaks of spirit it’s a reference to a non-tangible aspect of existence.

If you can’t describe, weigh, measure, or slice something, that something is spirit.


“Maybe,” because as I just said, spirit can’t be adequately described in universal terms that everyone can understand or even agree on.

To keep things uncomplicated think of spirit as non-material. Think of it as the essential nature or essence of a human, or a bird, or a stone.

To speak figuratively, all humans are born with a spark for experiencing enlightenment, but society hammers that spark mercilessly. In many people the spark is beaten down so severely it’s almost extinguished. Zen is the path to fanning the spark until it bursts into a flame.

The flame is kensho. Enlightenment.

When a person is spiritually ready for kensho to occur, it is often activated by an outside happening. It may be a word spoken by a master or a teacher. It may be the sound of a rippling stream. It may be the shape of a mountain.

The title I’ve given this talk is “Mountains and Streams,” and those words bring back an unrelated memory. When I was in the Navy’s Special Training School, each morning every sailor on the base had to assemble on the parade ground while the orders of the day, as well as a checklist of Navy regulations, were read over a public address system.

The reader was a Chief Petty Officer, named Berman. He was semi-literate. The poor guy tripped over almost any word that had more than one syllable. His greatest obstacle was the word “contributions,” as in, “You can have Cancer Society contributions deducted from your paycheck.” He would fumble with the word, then blurt it out as “contribulations.” Everyone tried not to laugh but never succeeded.

What does that have to do with Zen? Probably nothing, unless you want to read some hidden meaning into the story. What triggered the memory was that the daily announcements were referred to as Rocks and Shoals, things that were to be looked out for.

Getting back to Dogen, he was known for his use of figures of speech. In his day (around 1250) metaphors and similes were common tools of Zen masters and teachers, and were understandable to most people because they dealt with concepts of those times. However, when they’re read today they can be puzzling. They can also be misleading if you try to fit them to a culture and time different from those in which they were spoken.

For example, Dogen wrote of a Chinese Zen man named Shisen who was a “veritable dragon in the sea of letters…trained under dragon elephants in the sea of Buddhism.”

If you spend a lot of time trying to interpret all the allusions you’ll lose yourself needlessly in details. If you grasp the point of “dragons” and “elephants in the sea,” that’s fine. If you don’t grab it clearly, don’t worry. Let the words roll off your back, and go on with your Zen practice. It’s essential.

One day Shisen was making his way through a forested mountainside, and he heard the rippling sound made by a rushing stream. That sound caused him to awake spiritually. He was enlightened. He was awakened. He had kensho. He saw his face before he was born.

To mark the event Shisen composed a poem. In it he wrote that the stream’s rippling is the eloquent tongue of the Buddha, and the mountain’s contour is the body of the Buddha.

Shisen’s awakening was brought about by his heightened awareness, which was brought about his long sessions of meditation. His mind was emptied of all judgements, all opinions, all limitations. He was free and open. His spirituality was ready, and his hearing the sound of the stream was like being whacked alongside the head with a two by four.

Dogen asks, what do you hear when you listen to the ripple of a stream. Do you hear half a phrase, or do you hear a single phrase?

Or do you hear every atom of your body and of the entire universe?

Some followers of Zen might think a mountain is a symbol of stability, and a stream represents unsteadiness. They applaud themselves and think they’ve got it.

So Dogen rattles their cage by adding, “That which flows is the mountain; that which does not flow is the stream.”

When Zen master Kyogen was in training he studied hard, and he read the sutras, diligently. One day his master, named Daii, asked him to explain the words, “before father and mother were born.”

Kyogen tried several times, fumbling with words the way Navy Chief Berman did, but Kyogen couldn’t explain. He searched through all of his books and commentaries for help, but was unable to come up with an answer. Finally he burned his entire collection of writings and gave up trying to gain enlightenment. Instead he became a food server in the monastery.

I doubt whether Chief Berman resigned himself to dishing up mashed potatoes in the mess hall.

After several frustrating years Kyogen went back to Daii and asked for help in understanding “before father and mother were born.”

The master refused to elaborate, saying that if he did Kyogen would later resent him.

Kyogen was disappointed, and went away to become a hermit.

Some years later Kyogen was vigorously sweeping the path to his hut, and his broom sent a stone flying. The stone hit a bamboo, making a clunk sound.

That was Kyogen’s ripple of a stream, his contour of a mountain. It was the external happening that triggered his awakening.

He bowed in the direction of his Daii’s monastery and said, “Master, all those years ago if you had said something to me in explanation I would not had this experience. I would have thought I knew the answer.”

Like Shisen, who wrote the verse about the stream’s ripple and the mountain’s contour, Kyogen composed a poem to commemorate his enlightenment.

“At one blow, all I had learned with my head is forgotten.
“Truly, I myself am no longer the one in control.
“Breaking out in a smile, I make my way along the old path,
“Neither looking down in moments of despair
“Nor leaving behind, here and there, traces of where I have been.
“Only a dignified manner remains, which lies beyond anything heard or seen.
“Those everywhere who have realized the Way,
“All in one, say it is the moment supreme.”

D.T. Suzuki mentions (in Sengai, the Zen of Ink and Water) there are three forms of knowledge. They are illusory knowledge, relative knowledge, and absolute knowledge.

Illusory knowledge refers to what you think you know. For an example, teenagers think they know more than their parents.

Relative knowledge is what you pick up from studying, from reading, and from teachers.

Absolute knowledge comes only when you put to rest the other two. Oh, they aren’t worthless. Illusory knowledge and relative knowledge are like paths to the transcendental wisdom that can’t be gained from a teacher.

Absolute knowledge comes from the sound of a stream, the shape of a mountain.