Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Ryōkan (17581831) was a Soto Zen monk who lived in Niigata, Japan. He was proclaimed a Zen master, but he avoided temples and monasteries and made his home as a hermit and poet in the forest.

          Here is one of Ryokan’s verses.

“In the silence by the empty window
“I sit in formal meditation wearing my monk’s robe.
“Navel and nose in alignment,
Ears parallel with the shoulders.
Moonlight floods the room;
The rain stops but the eaves drip and drip.
Perfect this moment—
In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.

I’ll repeat that last line.  

In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.

          Once when I was visiting a Buddhist temple in Thailand, I noticed a monk sitting across a courtyard. I smiled at him, and he waved me close. He spoke excellent English, and we fell into a conversation about Buddhism.

          At one point I asked, “In simple terms, how do you define Buddhism?”

“Buddhism is emptiness,” he said,

The monk experienced Buddhism as the nothing beyond being, as the fullness of nothing.

Buddhism is the nothing beyond being. It’s the fullness of nothing.

Let’s go back in history.

Until the 1800s Japan stood apart from the Western world. Japan exchanged goods and ideas with China and Korea, but it retained its own social structure, its own language, and its own convictions. It avoided contact with Westerners, whom it considered barbarians.

          Then in 1853 America’s Commodore Matthew Perry entered Japan’s Edo Bay with four American warships.

          Perry wasn’t making a social call. He offered Emperor Komei two options. One was opening the country to commercial trade with the West. The other was being blown out of the water by the ship’s cannons. Neither choice was appealing, but Japan knuckled under.

          In short order, Western society inundated the country’s rich heritage.

Missionaries poured in to convert the so-called heathens to the Christian way of thinking. One compassionate course involved the destruction of Japanese temples and shrines.

The Japanese people may have been physically intimidated, but they did not swallow religious teachings completely.

          One missionary, the Jesuit, Cosme de Torres, was known for his intellectual wrangling, and he wrote: "Those [Jesuits] who come to these regions must be very learned in order to answer the very deep and difficult questions which the Japanese ask from morning till night.”

          Christian priests spoke about God, while Buddhist and Shinto monks spoke about emptiness.

Some schools of Buddhism—Tibetan, for example—say things have no reality of their own. Stars, trees, and humans are like reflections in a mirror. The ultimate nature of things as they really are is emptiness.

Incidentally, the concept of Buddhist emptiness is known by the Sanskrit term, Sunyata, which is also translated as nothingness.

Remember the old brainteaser of water in a glass?

When you drink an entire glass of water, is the glass then empty, or is there nothing in it?

Are emptiness and nothingness the same thing? The dictionary lists the two as synonyms for each other. It says emptiness is a vacancy, a hole, and nothingness is nonexistence.

Is there a difference?

Is this a semantic word game?

Or is it a Zen koan?

Things change.

Long ago, when I took first-year physics, students were told outer space was a total vacuum, empty of matter.

Now we know different. Outer space is crammed with stars, and planets, and moons, and meteors, and asteroids, and interplanetary dust, as well as lots of human junk.

Back then students were also told that cold was the absence of heat, and dark was the absence of light.

What a way to describe something by using its opposite. Maybe that’s one reason why I never sparkled as an engineer, but instead became a writer.

If a writer isn’t satisfied with an explanation of reality, he can fashion his own interpretation.

*     *     *     *     *

Here is a question.

What’s the difference between Sunyata and Nirvana?

Here is an answer.

Sunyata refers to the impermanence, of things. Cities, cars, trees, human beings. Nothing lasts forever. Here today, gone tomorrow. Things in the phenomenal world appear to be real outside, but they are empty within.

That’s Sunyata.

Nirvana is a human state in which one has attained disinterested wisdom and compassion. It can also be thought of as one’s innermost nature, or Buddhahood.

In some Western minds, Nirvana is assumed to be comparable to the Christian notion of Heaven, but that’s a half-assed assumption. It’s as false as the old notion of empty space.

As Maseo Abe wrote (Zen and Comparative Studies), “. . . the goal of Zen is not Eternal life as the Supreme Good, but that which is neither life nor death, neither good nor evil, namely Emptiness or sunyata.”

Zen is neither life nor death, neither good nor evil.

Zen is emptiness.

*     *     *     *     *

To sum this up in a Japanese tanka:

          All the aches and pains
Of the body and the mind
          Don’t last forever.
And so, this is emptiness.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012


I once attended a wedding in a large Roman Catholic church. It may have been a cathedral. I don’t know. But the spectacle was awesome, and the organ was loud enough to blow the hat off your head.

I was probably the only non-Catholic in the place, but I didn’t feel estranged.

I was simply there.

Word must have gotten around, because later, at the reception, several people came up to me and asked about Buddhism. From this, and from other similar experiences, I’ve concluded that some Catholics may be uninformed in regard to Buddhism, but most are not intolerant.

This is the exact opposite of the outlook of a different sort of church I once attended with a colleague who was a member of that church. Bart and I worked well together, and we enjoyed hiking and bicycling together. Then one day Ben turned to me and announced, “You and I can never be friends because you don’t belong to my church.”

I wasn’t crushed. I wasn’t upset. More than anything I was puzzled, and a little sad that religion could get in the way of companionship.

But organized religion can do odd things to people. Just look at Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, Israel’s Jews and Arabs, certain Muslims and non-Muslims.

Contempt between faiths may be very old and very real, still it’s impossible to comprehend. Unfortunately, many people are held captive by a religion.

Zen is no better, no worse, than anything else. Zen has no buzzwords, no doctrine, no scripture as guidance, no acts of faith. Sounds like a good way to go, doesn’t it? But Zen is not for everyone.

You must come to Zen on your own and find yourself by yourself. You can’t rely on anyone or anything other than yourself.

I can tell stories, quote ancient masters, and give tips and cautions. However, I can’t and won’t chant, dance, or make arcane passes. Nor can I give you Zen.

I can bore you, challenge you, confuse you, and tangle your reason. I don’t do that out of wickedness but to lead you toward realizing your own being. Once you realize your own being, once you realize your own being, you are Zen.

If someone is a follower of Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, they may find Zen unfathomable and confusing. That’s all right. This says nothing against the convictions of others, and it certainly does not blow Zen out of the water. My favorite color is orange. Yours may be blue or green.

So what? That isn’t grounds for us to deprecate each other.

Argumentative individuals, or persons who require seamless logic, or those who love to dissect and analyze may not find Zen to their liking. They have a tough time realizing that Zen shies away from analysis, and doesn’t require any leap of faith. All it asks is a perceptive mind.

Chinese Zen master Dahui said, “Zen is a matter of people experiencing it. That results in their ability to see each other’s vision and communicate tacitly.”

My Japanese Zen master liked to say, “A Buddha recognizes a Buddha.” That is not a statement of exclusion, such as, “You and I could never be friends because you don’t belong to my church.” Rather, it’s an assertion of connecting.

Everyone and everything has Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature is inclusive, not exclusive.

An old Buddhist text mentions that Buddha is not to be seen in one event, in one place, or in one person, but everywhere. Buddha means awareness always and everywhere. Seeing Buddha means perceiving one’s own Buddha-nature, which is present at all times and in all places, and it honors the Buddha-nature of other people.

There are ancient sayings that caution against drawing another’s bow, or riding another’s horse, or minding another’s business. Instead, one should look into oneself.

The study of Zen brings a quiet body, a tranquil mind, an attentive brain. This is mindfulness, and it brings freedom.

You have seen people who can’t sit still, physically or mentally. They drum their fingers, or scratch at themselves. Their mind is somewhere else, busy with plans for a time that is yet to be, and may never come.

As D.T. Suzuki says, Zen is discipline in enlightenment. Enlightenment means emancipation, and emancipation is no less than freedom. We talk about political freedom, economic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and so on. But any of these freedoms may be taken away.

Real freedom can’t be taken away because it is the consequence of awakening. A Zen person knows that in whatever situation he or she finds him or her self, inner life is always free.

The Japanese poet Rykan was speaking of freedom when he wrote the following verse.

“The thief
“Left it behind—
“The moon at the window.”

Real Zen is neither planted nor transplanted. It is a matter of experiencing. Remember what I said earlier: Experiencing results in the ability to see the vision of others and to communicate silently.

Zen isn’t like LSD or marijuana. It’s not a quick and easy fix that raises you to a higher plane. When Zen is realized, you remain with the world but you are not of it. This is freedom.

There are no rituals, no tricks for saving time or effort. To paraphrase Master Dahui again, “When you have even a single thought of finding a shortcut to freedom in Zen, you have already stuck your head in a bowl of glue.”