Tuesday, March 15, 2011


In most of our meetings I have talked about Soto Zen, which is more or less the practice this group follows. I was trained in the Soto school, and its no-frills simplicity appeals to me. So I carry it on.

I occasionally talk about the Rinzai school of Zen. I have a limited degree of familiarity with it, having attended Rinzai groups in California, and in Arkansas with Keido Fukashima.

Both Rinzai and Soto emphasize awakening through meditation, zazen. They do differ in their practice. Rinzai, unlike Soto, uses koans, chants, and sutras. Furthermore, it believes in sudden, rather than gradual, awakening.

Please understand there is no better or best between the disciplines. What works for, or appeals to, one person may be a complete turn-off for another person.

I’m reminded of an old bluegrass song, recorded by the Stanley Brothers in the 1950’s. It was called “You Go to Your Church, I’ll Go to Mine.”

I understand anyone with a cell phone can download a ringtone of “You Go to Your Church, I’ll Go to Mine.”

But I’m drifting.

Soto and Rinzai are acknowledged to be the two main sects of Zen. However, in Japan there is a third school of Zen called Obaku-shu.

Compared to Soto and Rinzai, which date back to the 1200’s, Obaku is a relative youngster. But, having been established in Japan in 1661, by Chinese masters, it’s not some bubbly New Age craze.

Obaku’s main temple is located in Uri Japan, halfway between Kyoto and Nara.

Several of those Chinese monks who came to Japan were known not only for their wisdom in living in the Tao, but also for their calligraphy skills. In those days, and even now, writing in many parts of Asia was and is more than a way of recording information; it was and is considered an art form.

Three of the masters—Yinyuan Longqi, Mokuan Shoto, and Sokuhi Nyoitsu—were so skilled they became known as “The Three Brushes of Obaku.”

To quote the contemporary writer, Steven Heine: “. . . Obaku . . . left an imprint on Japanese Buddhism . . . and its impact . . . reached the fields of Japanese cultural techniques, such as printing and painting.”

Some of the old Obaku monks practiced what’s called spirit writing, also called automatic writing. It’s a procedure during which a person writes something in a free-wheeling manner, supposedly without knowing or realizing what they are writing. It’s a notion in spiritism that assumes the spirit of a dead person can dictate messages and even entire books to a living person.

As a curious and skeptical writer I’ve given automatic writing a try. It doesn’t work for me. All that come out is gibberish, much like speaking in tongues.

I have to use my own brain rather than that of Shakespeare or Bodhidharma.

Obaku is not as basic as Soto Zen. Rather, it has some tenuous links with Rinzai, such as sutra chanting, relative conservatism, and intellectualism.

As Heinrich Dumoulin, the widely publish author on Buddhism, wrote: “Insofar as the Obaku belonged to the Rinzai tradition, zazen and koan practice were made part of daily life, but ritual was also . . . of considerable importance.”

Another noted writer on Buddhist tradition and practice, Helen J. Baroni, mentioned that Obaku is more conservative and intellectually inclined than Soto.

Now the most welcome words to those who listen to those who talk: “In conclusion . . .”

In conclusion, the establishment of Soto Zen is attributed to the Japanese master, Dogen Kigen. For Zen itself we acknowledge the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who came from India to China to teach “. . . a special transmission outside of scripture which did not depend on words.”

Using more than a few words, Bodhidharma supposedly said the following:

Buddhas don't save buddhas. If you use your mind to look for a buddha, you won't see the Buddha. As long as you look for a buddha somewhere else, you'll never see that your own mind is the Buddha. Don't use a buddha to worship a buddha. And don't use the mind to invoke a buddha. Buddhas don't recite sutras. Buddhas don't keep precepts. And buddhas don't break precepts. Buddhas don't keep or break anything. Buddhas don't do good or evil. To find a buddha, you have to see your nature.

The question of the day: What’s the difference between Buddha (with a capital letter) and buddha (with a small letter)?


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