Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Presenting Zen to Westerners is not easy. Zen stories are often loaded with metaphor, allegory, figures of speech, and references to ancient Asian cultural traditions.

You might think such embellishments would appeal to Westerners, who feel at home with complexity and sophistication. However, a simple way of explaining Zen does not appeal to most Westerners. They look at simplicity with suspicion.

Perhaps if Zen teachers fogged up the basics, and made them convoluted, Westerners might take notice.

After all, Westerners are used to the elaborate ideas of the Judeo-Christian traditions.

Life—that is, living Zen—is simple and direct. But only if you let it be simple and direct.

Only if you flow with the stream instead of thrashing around, and kicking against the flow.

There, I’ve used a simile. Does it make the message more understandable?

Japanese Zen Master Gudo Nishijima stated that to study Buddhism is not so easy. Yes, even to an Asian it can seem contradictory, paradoxical, and incongruous.

Japanese Zen Master Dogen realized this early on.

As brilliant and discerning as Dogen was, he wrestled with a dilemma regarding Buddha-nature.

In plain language, Buddha-nature is existence. That is, Buddha-nature is life as it is.

That’s fairly straightforward.

Life as it is.

Dogen puzzled over this. If Buddha-nature is life as it is. Dogen wondered if Buddha-nature existed in beings from birth. If so, why was it necessary to seek it? Why do we need to work for enlightenment—awakening—if we are already awakened?

According to some records, Dogen went to Master Eisai at Kennin-ji in Kyoto, and asked the key question.

“Are all beings endowed with Buddha-nature from birth, or must it be sought?” Dogen inquired.

Eisai probably chuckled, and he said, “I don’t know anything about Buddhas of the past, present, or future. I do know that black cats and white oxen exist.”

In other words, don’t trouble your mind over nebulous stuff. Experience what is right now.

Consider the Christian notion of predestination. That’s the doctrine that a supernatural being has laid out a blueprint for all time and for all things. Existence is predetermined.

Earthquakes, wars, sunny days, human behavior, when one dies, how one dies, what happens then.

For humans, there’s no choice, no matter how good one lives their life, or how vicious a person they are.

It’s a sort of a spiritual DNA. You’ve long been chosen to either go to heaven or to hell when you die.

Wait a minute. Maybe God had a second thought. Maybe he thought, gee, that’s not really fair. Hey, I have a better idea. I’ll make predestination and free will co-exist, and let humans figure it out.

I’ll give them a choice.

But then maybe God thought, whoa, wait a minute, if I declare predestination, then that rules out free thought. So humans really have no option in the matter. The poor sods are all doomed from the start, so to hell with them.

And people think Zen is complicated.

According to Dhammapada, which is a supposed record of the supposed words of the Buddha: All that we are is the result of what we have thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

Buddha-nature is existence. Buddha-nature is life as it is.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


In past meetings I have talked about Buddha-nature. Since the term appears often in the Buddhist vocabulary, I’d like to say more about it.

Don’t groan. It’s pretty basic, and it’s easy to understand.

Like most terms, Buddha-nature has several definitions. But most of them boil down to this: an inherent potential for reaching awakening that exists in every living being.

By inherent potential is meant that you have the capacity for enlightenment—that is, awakening—whether you know it or not.

I’ll say it again another way. Buddha-nature is an inherent potential for reaching awakening. That potential exists in every living being.

You can use it, or lose it.

Sutras are collections of the supposed talks and dialogues of Shakyamuni Buddha who lived some 2500 years ago. Most Buddhist schools have adopted certain sutras as their own authority, but Zen isn’t associated with any sutra.

Zen is a special hand down outside of sutras. It doesn’t depend on words or letters.

In Zen, truth is grasped directly or else it isn’t grasped at all.

The Christian Bible, The Jewish Talmud, and the Muslim Koran are books that contain what are reputed to be the revelations of God as well as the actual words of prophets and religious individuals. These books are known as holy or sacred volumes that are associated with divine power. People venerate them and often make solemn declarations on them as confirmation of the honesty or truth of their declarations.

For example, in most courts of law a person lays a right hand on the Bible and swears to tell the truth, “. . . , the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.”

Consider. For the Christian Bible alone there are dozens upon dozens of versions. There are the King James, the Berkely, the English Revised, the New American, the American Standard, the New Revised Standard, and many more.

Each version has been interpreted and edited at different times by diverse scholars and translators, which means each version differs in some way, large or small, from all the others. And that means anything original has been fiddled around with so many times it has lost any meaning of its original intent.

Take with a pound of salt words that have been interpreted time after time and recorded time after time by committee after committee, each member of which has his own selfish reason to make a mark in history. Any originality in the meaning of those words has long since been obscured in time, and in the tinkering the words have undergone.

Neither Buddhism nor Zen has a so-called holy book.

I do own a small volume I found in a nightstand of a hotel in Thailand. It’s somewhat similar to the Gideon Bible placed in most hotels in Christian countries, but it’s not called a bible. It’s titled simply The Teachings of Buddha.

It’s not considered scripture or holy writing. In Buddhist courts no one is required to swear on it to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Shakyamuni.

The Teachings of Buddha presents writings on the insights of the Buddha, such as The Fourfold Noble Truths, The Middle Way, and Human Nature. It makes no promises. It offers no guarantees. It deals with common sense.

Here are three quotes from The Teaching of Buddha:

1. “Learn that everything is non-substantial and transitory.”
2. “Rely upon yourself: do not depend upon anyone else.”
3. “Be the master of your own mind.”

I’m not saying written words are bad. I’m saying don’t take sutras, or other collections, for a corpus of rules or principles.

With that rambling introduction in mind, let’s consider one of the most significant personalities in Zen, and some of the concepts from his most momentous piece of teaching. I’m referring to Hui-Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch, and his Platform Sutra.

The word “platform” refers to the raised area where Hui-Neng sat when he delivered his talk to the people surrounding him.

To paraphrase Hui-Neng, if one realizes his or her original mind, one has awakened. Awakening is known as no-thought. What is no-thought? It means even though you are totally aware you are not fixed to anything.

This is being free and unattached.

According to Hui-Neng, once you awaken to the notion of no-thought you have reached the status of the Buddha.

Reaching the status of the Buddha doesn’t mean becoming the spitting image of Siddhartha. There are no cookie cutters in Buddhism.

The Platform Sutra often uses the word “nature.” This isn’t Mother Nature, with its trees and bees, but self-nature, original nature, Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature means that everyone—and I say every thing—has the potential, the intrinsic spark, to be awakened. Awakening means realizing one’s own true self.

Buddha-nature is mindfulness.

Zen deals with Buddha-nature.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


My series of talks on Sandokai, the epic poem written by a seventeenth century Zen master on sudden versus gradual awakening, has rambled on long enough. So far I’ve covered 15 of the 21 stanzas. Here are the last six stanzas:

Each of the myriad things has its merit, expressed according to function and place.
Existing phenomenally like box and cover joining; according with principle like arrow points meeting.
Hearing the words, understand the meaning; don’t establish standards of your own.
Not understanding the Way before your eyes, how do you know the path you walk?
Walking forward is not a matter of far or near, but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, don’t pass your days and nights in vain.

Think of a human being, a bird, a tree a flower, a stone. Think of them individually and collectively. All are related as part of existence. Yet, each is an individual thing, with its own exceptional worth.

You are you. I am I. This singing bowl is this singing bowl. Each is each, and at the same time all are all. All are linked.

Suzuki Roshi mentioned that humans, in their self-absorption, suppose the universe is only for humans. That’s why many people think in self-centered terms and don’t understand birds, trees, flowers, stones.

Buddhism, or Zen, doesn’t treat humans as special entities but only as things in relationship to other things.

Tennyson said: “I am a part of all I have met.”

Byron said: “I live not in myself, but I become portion of that around me.”

Humans can’t—or shouldn’t—try to live like birds, but humans shouldn’t belittle entities that are not human. We all exist together.

Stanza 18 of Sandokai starts by saying, “Hearing the words, understand the meaning; don’t establish standards of your own.”

“Hearing the words, understand the meaning” doesn’t refer to spoken language. It doesn’t mean only audible sounds. It refers to each and all of those “myriad things” we have talked about earlier. Birds, rocks, trees, mountains, rivers.

In other words, everything in existence.

What’s the meaning of a mountain? Must a big mountain, or even a little pebble, have a purpose?

We humans like to assign purpose, meaning, to everything. For many individuals, a mountain is a potential source of gold or some other so-called precious mineral. A desert is a place to rummage around for oil.

Human beings are self-absorbed. They believe nature should serve them instead of the other way around. Mark Twain said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

My old Climatology professor said, “The weather is going to do what it wants to do, not what we want it to do.”

One of the weirdest attitudes toward natural processes is exhibited by Stephen Unwin, a risk management consultant, who claims in his book, The Probability of God, that nature does evil things, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes.

Evil things? When the wind blows hard enough to topple trees, is that evil? Isn’t nature being natural?

Can’t a mountain be a mountain in its own right? A big hunk of earth with forests on its flanks, snow on its peak, clouds above it. Does it have to be for something? Does it have to be exploited for human consumption rather than exist for human appreciation?

A high mountain is a feeling.

Can’t things just be?

Can’t we humans be, fully and completely? Without laying our own beliefs and opinions and likes and dislikes on anyone or anything else?

Do we have to want to make changes and modifications on our surroundings and on other humans?

The answer, in a word, is no.

Here is the final stanza of Sandokai.

“Walking forward is not a matter of far or near, but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.”

Suzuki Roshi interprets or translates “Walking forward” as “Practice,” meaning the practice of Zen. The living of Zen. Not simply sitting in shikantaza once a week or once a day, but the living out of one’s own Zen.

It means being Zen, with no desire for enlightenment, whether sudden or gradual.

As Dogen said, zazen is enlightenment. Suzuki Roshi said that practice and enlightenment have equal value.

I say enlightenment—rather, awakening—is living one’s daily life. Mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers. If you can’t go around them or go through them without changing them, then comprehend mountains and rivers for what they are and don’t mess with them.

Sandokai ends with the words “Don’t pass your days and nights in vain.”

That means persist in your practice. Live your practice. Be your practice.

In other words, don’t goof off.