Tuesday, December 28, 2010


“Real practice has orientation or direction, but it has no purpose or gaining idea, so it can include everything that comes.” Shunryu Suzuki.

That is to say, if there is no intention or point, real practice can include everything that comes.

That is a fulfilling thought.

The other day I came across an interesting bit of non-news. It had nothing at all to do with such real news as body scans or political leaks.

Also, it had nothing to do with Zen.

It was about a British man who, at age 70, has logged 15 million travel miles and visited 138 countries.

That’s a lot of travel.

His name is Fred Finn, and most of his travels have been financed by corporations that have hired him as a license manufacturer, what ever a license manufacturer is.

Evidently it pays well.

I hope ol’ Fred enjoys his journeys as much as I do mine.

Most of you know I travel a lot.

In my rambles I tend to spend most of my time in places where there is nothing.

No, I’m not referring to some mystical state of mind. I mean earthly places where there are no condominiums, no fast-food joints, no gas stations, no motels, no traffic noise, no exhaust fumes.

In that nothing, there are trees, rivers, mountains, birds, clear air, and blue skies.

In that nothing there is everything.

And yes, there are such places in the world. You just have to have purpose in finding them.

Beaches in New Zealand. Mountain tops in Austria. Jungles in Ecuador.

Many people believe that Zen practice is doing zazen. That is, regularly sitting on the floor and not thinking for a designated period of time. And many people believe that will lead to awakening to one’s own true nature.

Oh, zazen is important for awakening. No question.

Zazen is one thing, awakening is another.

But as Dogen maintained, zazen is awakening.

This is a classical Zen example in which one and one don’t make two, but one and one make one.

Zazen is Zen practice, but real practice goes beyond meditation.

Real practice lies in living one’s Zen. Living it day by day, each instant of every day.

One book I recommend to everyone is The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Zen Living, by McClain and Adamson. It’s a basic sort of book, easy to read and easy to understand. It is predicated on the notion that Zen isn’t just meditation.

Zen is everyday life.

Here are a few Zen stories from antiquity.

A master said, “There is Buddha for those who don’t know what he is. There is no Buddha for those who know what he is.”

During a conference of religions various representatives got up and said their religion was great. When the Zen spokesperson stood, he said: “Zen is Zen. There is nothing great in Zen.”

One day Chuang-tzu and a friend were walking alongside a stream.

Chuang-tzu said, “How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves.”

“You aren’t a fish,” his friend said. “How do you know the fishes are enjoying themselves?”

“You aren’t me,” Chuang-tzu said. “How do you know I don’t know the fishes are enjoying themselves?”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Knowledge is the understanding that is acquired through study or experience. Insight is the innate capacity to comprehend the inner nature of something. We gain understanding.

Buddha-nature is getting-to-know one’s own self.

We are born with insight. We are also born with Buddha-nature. We may not be aware of our Buddha-nature, but if we want to really perceive the whole of existence:

1. We have to avoid immediate judgments.
2. We have to steer clear of treating an object as a mere device.
3. We have to be willing to accept things as they are without letting our intellectual concepts to get in the way.

In Japanese, this non-conceptualization and non-interpretation is the Zen state of mushin, or no mind. It’s the capacity to discern the true nature of something directly, whether it’s a rock, a work of art, or another human being.

Most of the arts in historical China and Japan draw their aesthetic
values from Taoism and from Zen. “If you want to understand Zen,” D.T. Suzuki wrote, in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, “understand it right away without deliberation, without turning your head this way or that.”

So much for the wandering preamble to this talk, which has to do with the Japanese artistic concepts known as shibui, shibumi, wabi, and sabi.

Does anyone like the taste of persimmons? Shibui has a literal translation that carries the indescribable puckering feeling you get when you bite into a green persimmon. It’s a meaning that suggests the idea of something not sweet in nature but almost harsh in its effect.

The artistic sense of shibui relates to the subtle shades of meaning that may be revealed in a work of art. Shibui relates to a sort of holding back in a painting or a sculpture.

Shibui relates also to a refined beauty that isn’t associated with popular fashions or current fads. It is a basic quality that’s unaffected by time or social changes.

Shibui is a word that’s often heard in Japan. But because the Japanese language is so rich in subtle nuances that arise from a Zen-like life style, it’s a difficult word to pin down in English.

“Austere,” “subdued,” “restrained” are terms that come nearest. Going back to persimmons, shibui means sharp and penetrating. But it also implies an insightful, calm feeling.

The word shibumi is as tricky to define as is the word Zen. In the novel, Shibumi, by Trevanian (Rodney Whitaker), a key character claims that shibumi is an indescribable quality, something beyond words. It is understanding rather than knowledge. It is powerful silence. It is simplicity. It is spiritual tranquility. It is being with no thought of becoming.

Shibumi, like Zen awakening, is not something to be sought after or achieved. It comes naturally, or it doesn’t come at all. It’s a matter of soaring through knowledge and touching down at simplicity.

Shibumi has to do with spontaneity. It implies creative restraint.

Originally, wabi meant living alone in nature, detached from society. Originally sabi mean scrawny or thin.

That describes a hermit, doesn’t it?

Wabi and sabi are different words, but their inferences are so entwined that over time they have become combined as wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a description as well as an aesthetic principle.

Wabi-sabi has its roots in Zen. The first Japanese individuals who coined the phrase were tea masters, poets, and painters who practiced Zen. Zen emphasizes direct, intuitive insight into truth. Wabi-sabi transcends—goes far beyond—looking at objects and beyond thinking about existence.

Wabi-sabi does have some physical characteristics. Wabi-sabi objects and actions are:

Suggestive of a natural process

From the standpoint of insight, wabi-sabi considers existence as:


Wabi-sabi refers to the beauty that is inherent in imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness.

According to Meng-hu, a modern day recluse, the original connotation of wabi is based on aloneness, or on the separation from society.

Leonard Koren, author of the book Wabi-sabi for artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, wrote: “The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and the ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. Indeed, wabi is literally poverty, but it came to refer not to the absence of material possessions but to the non-dependence upon material possessions.”

Koren goes on to say that wabi gets rid of the material that exceeds material wealth. Wabi is quietly content with plain things. Wabi is a way of life—even a spiritual path.

In Japan the life of a hermit is called wabizumai. It’s an existence of aloneness and minimalism. A hermit may not be able to tell you why he or she is a loner, but there are plenty of reasons why a person might want to remove himself from society. To name a few: recognizing duality as illusion, clinging to ego and to the material world as leading to suffering, and appreciating the uncertainty of life as a reason for living harmoniously with nature.

Hermits aren’t necessarily antisocial or rebellious. More often than not they are more deeply appreciative of life than, say, a business executive or a politician. Wabizumai—a hermit’s life—has a lot to be said for it.

Wabi-sabi is solitude, aloneness. Its essence is intrinsic in Zen gardens, in bonsai, in haiku, in calligraphy, in sumi-e (brush painting), even in archery and the martial arts.

W.Todd Dominey, a graphics designer, wrote: “The essence of Wabi-sabi is that true beauty, whether it comes from an object, architecture or visual art, doesn't reveal itself until the winds of time have had their say. A cracked pot, for example, has an essence that a perfectly round pot is lacking. Beauty is in the cracks, the worn spots, and the imperfect lines.”

Now I’ll list several characteristics of wabi-sabi objects, works, and activities. These characteristics apply to everything from Japanese brush painting, to Japanese tea ceremony, to the Japanese garden.

Materials of wabi-sabi creations are organic rather than synthetic. Plastic is false, and can’t take the place of wood, stone, or clay. In a Japanese garden you’ll see rocks and living plant materials, but no plastic flamingoes or painted elves.

The form or shape of an object—whether it’s a bowl or a small-space garden—is natural, and it expresses its own nature. Form is not forced or artificially contorted to make a point.

Once when I was backpacking with a couple of fellows in the Wind River Wilderness I picked up a dried, twisted piece of tree branch.

“Hey,” that looks like a snake,” one of my partners said.

The other fellow, who was a graphics designer said, “Don’t say that. It doesn’t look like anything other than what it is.”

Rough, coarse, irregular surfaces are preferable to smooth or slick textures. Surfaces should imply natural processes rather than exteriors devised by humans.

A hermit named Meng-hu said that the Western notion of beauty does not exist in wabi-sabi. Instead, “beauty” is a holistic concept that can’t be singled out or even described. Beauty is derived from the emotion conveyed, not from any particular detail of the work.

Another characteristic of wabi-sabi is the avoidance of garish colors. In China and even in Japan, many brush paintings are done in slick reds, greens, and yellows. Such paintings are unsettling to the eye and to the mind, compared with the simple black and white brushwork of sumi-e.

I remember the interior walls of California’s Los Altos zendo. They were painted a soft, flat beige. They weren’t distracting, but were visually and spiritually soothing.

Light—illumination—is another wabi-sabi chacteristic. Light reflected from a wabi-sabi object is diffused, it is soft, not glaring. If the light has a color, it’s a natural tone.

A 12th century poet wrote a verse on color, which I’ve abbreviated in haiku form:

To be by oneself—
An unnamable color
In the autumn dusk.

Wabi-sabi objects and actions are straightforward. Nothing is wasted on ornate embellishments—as in calligraphy—or excessive movements—as in the tea ceremony.

To wind down this talk, it’s interesting that wabi-sabi usually doesn’t have much to do with function. Some objects do have a practical purpose aside from their aesthetic significance. For example, a teapot, or a sake cup, is designed to hold liquids. But in the world of Zen, purpose is secondary to the sense of wabi-sabi.

I’m sure you have known people who will point to a piece of sculpture or a pottery object and ask, “But what’s it for?” Or else, “What does it do?”

“It”—whatever “it” is—doesn’t always have to be for anything and it doesn’t always have to do anything.

It is, and that’s enough.

If someone asks, “What is it for?” A good response would be, “What are you for?”

Now you know all there is to know about wabi-sabi. Keep in mind the three pointers to seeing and to Buddha-nature we started with.

1. No judging.
2. No thinking of an object as a mere “thing.”
3. No intellectualizing.

* * * * *

If you’re interested in reading what others have to say about wabi-sabi, I can recommend four books:

--Koren, Leonard, Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California.

-- Juniper, Andrew, Wabi-sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, Tuttle, Boston, Massachusetts.

-- Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Kodansha International, New York, New York.

-- Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


I’m reluctant to give this talk because it deals with winning the Zen lottery. It has to do with the question: What’s in it for me?

Better to ask your self: What’s in me for it?

Newcomers inevitably want to know what all this Zen stuff is for. What’s the purpose? What can meditation do for them? What can they gain from sitting still and not thinking?

How about fringe benefits? What’s the payback?

Zen people generally avoid talking about fringe benefits because naming them makes them seem like rewards.

Zen doesn’t offer rewards.

Zen is about living fully, and living fully doesn’t promise door prizes.

An aside: Is anyone familiar with an early-1970 New Age therapy called “Primal Scream”?

It was a technique in which adult men and women rolled around on the floor and shrieked about the pain of childhood traumas that were supposedly inflicted on them by their birth and, later, by their parents. The therapy was claimed to cure participants of alcoholism, paranoia, depression, high blood pressure, cancer, sex difficulties, and other disorders.

Zen is not a form of physical or mental therapy. It won’t alleviate athlete’s foot, fallen arches, colitis, asthma, or arthritis.

However, against my better judgment, I will mention a few possible benefits of meditation.

Just remember, there are no guarantees.

1. Mental management. You learn to use your brain power effectively so your thoughts aren’t hopping around like kangaroos.
2. Stress reduction. By letting go of unruly thoughts, and by sitting still for regular periods, anxiety and worry diminish.
3. Exclusion of judgments. Preconceptions and misleading opinions go away. You perceive life as it really is.
4. Awareness. You live in the present, experiencing each moment for what it is.
5. Compassion. Compassion is a key word in Buddhism and in Zen. It means you understand and are empathetic toward all things, not just human beings.
6. Intuitive behavior. You act in response to whatever occurs, whether it’s a flat tire on your car or a tornado.
7. Recognition. You realize that all existence is interrelated.
8. Relaxation. By not clinging to things, you loosen up and lighten up, mentally as well as physically.
9. Appreciation. You comprehend seemingly insignificant things. A stone, a flower blossom, a human smile.
10. Self-reliance. You learn to trust yourself. Doubts about your capabilities go away.

Will self-realization make you a more prosperous individual? Will it make you a good student, or a first-rate spouse, or a better expert at what you are already good at?




Again, there are no promises, no guarantees.

Nirvana opens the way. The rest is up to you.

Question: I don’t want this to sound like a testimonial meeting, but does anyone want to offer a confirmation, or a denial, of any meditation benefits?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010


I’ve said many times that awakening—also called enlightenment—is Zen. I’ve also said that awakening—also called satori—is not some sort of goal. Awakening is not an end product.

Zen doesn’t have goals. Sometimes when I say that, listener’s jaws drop. People are crestfallen. They wonder why they should become involved in something that doesn’t lead them to an objective.

If we direct our lives toward a goal we shift from living right now to living in the future. We spend a lot of time thinking about what might be—such as retirement, or graduation, or a long vacation lolling on a tropical beach.

That sort of thinking is human, and it’s natural. But to reach too far ahead into a nebulous future can lead to attachments, and attachments can diminish the present.

To make this sound like a syllogism:

Zen is the present.
Zen is meditation.
Meditation leads to awakening.
Awakening results in Nirvana.

Nirvana. That’s a word used occasionally in Zen Buddhism but rarely in Zen. Still, it’s a word worth looking at. And I’m not talking about the rock band.

Nirvana is a state in which there are no attachments, no cravings for things to be different from the way they are. It’s not death. It’s a total experience of life.

Nirvana is the state of one’s mind when that mind is liberated from conditionings, attachments, and ambitions.

You might ask if Nirvana and Buddhahood are the same, and the answer is “more or less.” The word Nirvana is often used in Buddhism, but it seldom appears in Zen because of its connection, in many people’s minds, with a better place and a better time.

It has a similar connotation as paradise, or Heaven, or the Garden of Eden.

That sort of thinking is way off base because Nirvana is now and it’s here, and things don’t get any better than this.

Nirvana is sometimes referred to as extinction, or a blotting out of the ego. The Belgian Zen scholar, Robert Linssen, refers to Nirvana (Living Zen, page 139) as that point where our mind is stripped of all its false accumulations.

The annihilation of a person doesn’t mean he or she is reduced to nothingness. It means the absolute realization of the life force that is around one and is part of one. There is no longer the observer and the observed. Both have become one.

Rather, all has become one.

A couple of dictionary definitions are worth repeating. In the literary sense, Nirvana is an ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability, or joy. In Hinduism it relates to freedom from ignorance and the wiping out of attachments. In Buddhism it is the ultimate in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion.

As good as the concept seems Zen cautions against being attached to the notion of Nirvana. If individuals are fixed on Nirvana, they are tied to the notion.

To attain Nirvana is to go beyond awakening.

Attaining Nirvana isn’t an ending. It’s the beginning of a complete life in which you involve yourself completely. You are altogether perceptive and compassionate.

Nirvana has been called full consciousness without self-consciousness.

You probably won’t go around looking zonked out. But you will be different, and you will be aware.