Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Gudo Wafu Nishijima is the Zen master most notably associated with the four-volume English translation of Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. In a sesshin Nishijima gave in Switzerland a few years ago, he courageously opened himself to a barrage of questions asked by an audience of Zen practitioners.

This talk is a review of some of the questions that were asked. Not all the answers are Nishijima’s.

Question: What is gained in Buddhism?
This is a reasonable query because human nature tends to think in terms of compensation. If I do this or that, what do I get in return?

However, to answer the question, Nishijima went into a convoluted description of the Japanese words JijuyoZanmai, and of the autonomic nervous system. His explanation was tortuous enough to make your head throb, so I won’t repeat it.

To keep things simple, which is what Zen is all about, the straightforward answer to what is gained in Buddhism is inward balance.

That word “balance” pops up again in this talk. See if you can catch it.

Question: What is the meaning of Dharma Transmission?
Dharma Transmission is the sharing of Buddhist truth and Buddhist wisdom. Traditionally this marked a formal ceremony in which a master physically handed over his robe and eating bowl to a disciple. It was an action that symbolized the disciple’s comprehension of the master’s teaching.

Some Buddhist groups today observe Dharma transmission by having the disciple acknowledge what are known as the Five Precepts. These are vows such as “I will be mindful of all life;” “I will respect the property of others,” and so on. In this formal approach, a certificate is sometimes awarded, and there is chanting and ritual.

My transmission was pretty basic. After I had studied for several years with Master Hiromu Oda, he said, “You have understood everything I have to say to you. Now go out and tell others.”

Which is what I try to do.

Question: What is a Zen master?
Nishijima replied that “Zen Master” may be the translation of the Japanese words “Zen Ji,” which means a teacher of zazen. And, as we know, zazen is no more than, or no less than, meditation.

I teach zazen. Does that qualify me to declare I’m a master? I prefer to use the term “teacher.”

Zazen can be taught, Nishijima said. But it is necessary for each person to practice zazen himself or herself.

Nishijima cautions that we should be careful with the word “Zen,” since to some misguided people the word has a mystical meaning.

Dogen raved against such terms as “Zen sect,” “Zen school,” and “Zen patriarch,” saying that they were all twigs and leaves rooted in a distorted view.

In other words, we shouldn’t get hung up on the term “Zen.” Or on the word “master,” either. A master is a person who has mastered himself or herself and lives in balance.

Question: What is our true original nature?
This is Nishijima’s answer: “Generally speaking, it is usually impossible for us to know our true original nature, because it is just a simple fact at the present moment, and so it is usually impossible for us to grasp it at the present moment.”

Question: What is life and Death?
Again, Nishijima’s answer is worth quoting: “When our heart has stopped and if it doesn’t move again, the state is called death, and when our heart is moving without stopping, that state is called life.”

Question: What is Buddha-nature?
The expression “Buddha-nature” turns up frequently in Buddhist writings. Like most terms, Buddha-nature has more than a few definitions, and boiling them down to a clear-cut explanation is nearly impossible. But most of them imply that Buddha-nature is an inherent potential for awakening, and it exists in every living being.

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

I’ll say it again another way. Buddha-nature is an inherent potential for reaching awakening. That potential exists in every living being, and you can either use it or lose it.

Master Dogen said Buddha-nature is not something of the past or of the future, but a state of body and mind at a precise moment.

If you want more details on Dogen’s thinking, read his talk titled Bussho, The Buddha-nature, in Shobogenzo Book 2.

Question: What are Heaven and Hell?
To quote Nishijima, “Heaven is a human supposition and Hell is also a human supposition.” End of quote.

Although ancient Buddhist writings mention heaven and hell, they are used as metaphors, as figures of speech.

The Western World says Heaven, often called Paradise, is up there, and that’s where you go after death if you’ve been good while you were alive. Hell, also called The Inferno, is down there, and that is where you go if you’ve been bad.

Master Oda said heaven and hell are not something humans experience after death because no one has died and lived to tell what being dead was like. Therefore, it is foolish to worry about heave, hell, or even death. Instead, Oda said, when we live fully in every moment, we create our own heaven or hell.

To quote myself, when we are awakened and fully aware, that is heaven; when we are out of balance, that is hell.

Fred Astaire said heaven was dancing cheek-to-cheek.
Mark Twain said, Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.

Did anyone catch at least two mentions of the word “balance”?


Blogger Nadbugs said...

Jack, Therese Fitzgerald asked me to make sure you know about her visit and public talk. Below find details. Her father lives @ Butterfield Trail. We would love to see you at Therese's event. Would you please e-mail me to confirm you got this message? anitafay(at)gmail(dot)com

Now here's the info:

An Evening of Meditation & Reflection

Please join Dharmacharya Therese Fitzgerald for an evening of contemplation and discourse on how we can support the Threefold Trainings in Buddhism – training in discipline or moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom. How can a community contribute favorable conditions for non-harming and upright conduct? Does our community give enough support for the training in concentration? How can we encourage insight and wisdom to arise in our individual and communal lives?

7:00 - 9:00
Tuesday November 1
Nature’s Water
275 Huntsville Rd.

~*~ Dharma talk
~*~ Sitting and walking meditation practice
~*~ Question and response sessions
~*~ Contribution by voluntary donation (dana – the practice of generosity), to sustain the teacher and our friends at Nature’s Water

Therese Fitzgerald brings decades of Dharma practice at the San Francisco and Tassajara Zen Centers and then with Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, who ordained her as a Dharma teacher. Therese serves as meditation retreat leader,
Dharma mentor, and assistant chaplain at the Maui Community Correctional Center. She was Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and co-founder of the Community of Mindful Living with Thich Nhat Hanh, which developed programs for social service in
Vietnam. With Maxine Hong Kingston, she has offered mindfulness-and-writing workshops for veterans of war. Therese is presently director and teacher of Dharma Friends, based on Maui, Hawai’i.

Saturday, October 22, 2011 5:32:00 PM  

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