Monday, October 22, 2012


Many times I have said the aim of Zen practice is awakening, also known as enlightenment. In simple terms, awakening is becoming aware of one’s true self.

Awakening has been reported as an instant flash of lightening. Or it may occur gradually. Or it may take place several times over. But awakening is not merely a passing phenomenon. It is the realization of freedom in all senses of the word. It is a physical release, a spiritual release, an intellectual release.

          In such freedom, one’s mind is clear and one no longer was or will be. One is.

Right now.

          When one lives in the immediate present, free of the whims of the intellect, one discovers all sorts of meanings and values that have always been within one but have never blossomed. This unfolding is central in one’s everyday life.

It is even more significant if one’s daily life involves the creative arts.

          I’m speaking of such individuals as writers, painters, sculptors, potters, musicians, and photographers. Even individuals in the performing arts such as dance, music, and theater.

          D.T. Suzuki wrote: “The artist’s world is one of free creation, and this can come only from intuitions directly and immediately rising from the isness of things, unhampered by senses and intellect.”

          There’s that word isness. It isn’t in any dictionary, so what is isness?

          Isness is the way something is, right now.

          An artist works in isness. Because an artist actualizes forms and sounds out of no-form and no-sound, his or her world is isness.

And Zen is isness. Awakening.

          Artists—whatever their practice, whether it’s music or painting or writing—depend on some mechanical intermediate to fulfill themselves. It might be a flute, it might be a brush, it might be a word processor. Zen needs nothing external except—as Suzuki implied—the body that personifies the Zen person.

          One’s Zen-nature expresses itself in the world without one having any idea of doing so, and the world mirrors one’s Zen-nature just as unwittingly.

          A haiku expresses this concept:

                    Shadows of the geese
          On the pond. They know it not,
                   Nor does the water.
          An artist brings forth the potential essence of a jumble of words or a block of stone. The life of a Zen person is the ongoing work of such conception.

          I think it was Michelangelo who was once asked how he could start out with a shapeless chunk of stone and end up with a real-looking elephant.

           “All I do is get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant,”
he answered.

          It is interesting that most schools of Buddhism—Jodo, Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren, Tibetan—concern themselves with a person’s spiritual life.

          They speak of behavior, of one’s duty to other people, of morality, of a higher authority in the cosmos. Some even speak of worship, or paying homage to a person, place, or thing.

          Zen goes beyond duties and worshipful attitudes. Zen—especially in Japan—figures into virtually every aspect of life. Especially cultural life:
          Painting: Sumi-e

          Poetry: Haiku
          Drama: No theater
          Landscaping: Small-space garden
          Bonsai: Dwarf trees
          Ikebana: Flower arranging
          Chanoyu: Tea ceremony
          Music: Shakuhachi flute
          Kyudo: The way of the bow
          Shodo: Calligraphy
          Budo: Martial arts

          The art historian, Georges Duthuit wrote, “He who deliberates and moves his brush intent on making a picture, misses to a still greater extent the art of painting. . . . Draw bamboos for ten years, become a bamboo, then forget all about bamboos when you are drawing. . . .”

          D.T. Suzuki, in Zen and Japanese Culture, page 31, followed these lines by writing:

          “To become a bamboo and to forget that you are one with it while drawing it—this is the Zen of the bamboo . . . Zen . . . has given expression to it in the following phrase: One in All and All in One.”

Monday, October 15, 2012


Meditation is basic to the Zen life, but it is not exclusive to Zen. Any person can meditate, no matter what their background or beliefs may be. Sorry to say, there are many misconceptions and harebrained notions regarding meditation. Perhaps a few fundamental questions and answers may lighten some of the misconceptions.

          Question: What is meditation?
          Answer: Meditation is a human practice in which an individual gains a type of insight or self focus. I say “human” because it isn’t known if other animals meditate.

          Is meditation the same as contemplation?
          Meditation is not the same as contemplation, which has to do with thinking. To contemplate is to select an object or a belief and concentrate on it. Supposedly, thoughts arise that reveal the object’s nature.
          Meditation has no object. Instead of focusing the mind, the mind is totally blank, open, and relaxed. Any thoughts that pop up are ignored.
          It’s a fact that the mind is used to being in control, and it wants to
picture, analyze, qualify, and quantify. That is called thinking, and it’s what
the mind has been trained to do since birth. But through meditation you can
learn to still your mind and not think.

So, meditation is not thinking?
That is correct. Meditation is not thinking.
          Through meditation is anything accomplished or achieved?
Meditation can reveal one’s own nature.

Well, if I’ve been trained since birth to think, how do I not think?
The flip answer, as one ancient Zen master said, is not to think about not thinking. The practical answer is not to worry about not thinking because then you are thinking about something.
Just let go, and let your mind do whatever it wants to do. But don’t becoming attached to a random thought about your work, or your relationships, or your job, or what you are going to have for lunch. If a thought pops up, don’t fight it. Just let it go.

To unlearn sounds like it takes a lot of practice.
You are right. Not thinking does take a lot of practice. For some people it may take years of meditation.

Is meditation the same as prayer?
Meditation is not the same as prayer. There is a big difference.
Prayer is a form of appeal in which an individual seeks to communicate with a being other than oneself.
          There are several forms of prayer. Petition prayers ask for favors. Supplication prayers plead. Worship prayers show love or devotion. Guidance prayers ask for direction or assistance. Other prayers are confessions of wrongdoings.
          Prayer takes many ceremonial forms.
          Some Christians bow their heads and fold their hands. Dancing is a form of prayer for some Native Americans. Hindus chant verbal formulas. Muslims kneel or bow. Some Sufis repeat divine names or perform a whirling dance. Jewish prayer may involve swaying back and forth.

           All this sounds pretty ritualistic. Is meditation a formal ceremony? Are there certain rules to follow?
          Meditation has no rules or policies. Zen meditation is especially informal and hassle-free. It may offer certain suggestions, which are only bits of advice aimed at encouraging physical and mental renewal.

          Will meditation make my life better?
          Meditation will not heal broken bones or broken hearts. It will not cure diseases or enable you to levitate. It will not make you wealthy or assure a glorious afterlife.
          Meditation may help you to unwind, to let everything slow down. It may enable you to rely more on the real you rather than on miracles or hopes for pie in the sky.
          Meditation won’t make you a better partner or a better parent, or a better anything. Meditation is a state of mind, and it’s your own state of mind that may enhance your life.

          How should I meditate?
          There is no one single way to meditate. As I said earlier, there aren’t any rules, only common sense. I can give some suggestions for the Zen way to meditation. Try them out to see if you feel comfortable, physically and emotionally. If not, feel free to change.

1.       Choose a place that is fairly quite, and free of such distractions as insistent children, or ringing telephones, or blaring televisions.
2.     Sit on the floor with your legs crossed in front of you, or else tucked under your buttocks. Use a cushion if you like.
3.     Close your eyes halfway, but not completely or you may doze off.
4.     Take several deep breaths, and then let your breathing fall into a natural rhythm.
5.     Calm your body and your mind.
6.     Sit without moving for fifteen minutes. In subsequent sessions sit for five minutes more, building up over days or weeks to at least a half-hour.
7.     When you get up from your position, rise gradually. Stretch your legs and arms, and take several deep breaths.
8.     Sit once a day, every day, at the same time. Make meditation a part of your life rather than an entertainment.

Monday, October 08, 2012

          Today’s talk has to do with the human senses of sights and sounds. It also touches on darkness and brightness.

Sights vary in quality and form;
Sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.
Darkness merges refined and common words;
Brightness distinguishes clear and murky phrases.

These are the seventh and eighth stanzas of Sandokai, “Harmony of Difference and Equality.” Sandokai is the ancient Chinese poem that deals with the separation of the once-unified school of Zen into northern and southern orders. These orders grew out of the differences individuals made between sudden awakening and gradual awakening.

My talks on Sandokai are based on the series given by Shunryu Suzuki, late head of San Francisco Zen Center.

          A tree, a butterfly, a blade of grass, a person, each has its own form and its own character. Every thing is different, yet all things are related by being part of existence, and by being made up of the same basic physical elements.

          You know the elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so on.

          Humans—especially humans of the western world—tend to label things as good or bad, agreeable or disagreeable.

As Suzuki notes, such tagging and labeling, and clinging to good or bad, creates anxieties and personal distress.

          If your senses experience something you have been led to believe is good, you’ll be pleased. If that something is regarded as bad, you’ll be disturbed.

          Your ideas may not be mine, and that may make one or both of us pissed.

          I like kimchi, the traditional Korean dish made from fermented chili peppers and cabbage. A fellow I know thinks kimchi tastes rotten and stinks to high heaven.

I like kimchi. It offends my friend.

          Is kimchi good, or is it bad?

          It’s neither. Kimchi is kimchi.

          Things in themselves may differ, but things in themselves are neither good nor bad. We make them that way by hanging labels on them and pigeonholing them in our minds.

          Sandokai says, “Darkness merges refined and common words.”

          As Suzuki notes, things in themselves have no good or bad nature.

          If we can understand this, we can understand what is meant by Sandokai’s darkness. Better yet, if we can understand this we are free of subjective limits and mental boundaries.

          Every human feels angry at one time or another. Anger is a natural emotion as much as joy or sorrow.

But being angry or annoyed by something a person does or says is no reason to dislike that person.

I have a friend I’ve known for many years. Certain things he does or says can get under my skin. I know he feels the same about some things I do. But that doesn’t mean we dislike each other, or that we should end our friendship. We acknowledge each other as individuals, warts and all.

          A monk asked his master how to escape from the heat and from the cold. The master answered that when it is hot, one should be hot, and when it is cold, one should be cold.

          Go along with life instead of fighting it.

          An awakened person is not bothered by something most people would consider bad. An awakened person is not elated about something considered good. Suzuki said, “The basic tone of life remains the same, and in it there are some happy melodies and some sad melodies.”

          Things change.

That’s a fact of existence.

You may not have any control over the state of affairs, but you don’t need to be a slave to circumstances.

A final word:

In your practice of Zen, don’t be on the lookout for awakening, either sudden or gradual.

If you do that, you are truly awakened.

Monday, October 01, 2012


This evening I would like to say a few things about Mo.

That isn’t the middleman of Manny, Moe, and Jack, the Pep Boys of automotive fame. I’m talking about the Chinese philosopher, Mo Tsu, or Master Mo, or Mozi. His insights were brilliant, but for various reasons they didn’t last long after his death around 390 BC. However, Mohism eventually combined with the thoughts of Chuang Tsu and Lao Tsu and emerged as Taoist principles.

          That is to say, Chuang Tsu and Lao Tsu may be thought of as so-called founders of Taoism, but many of Taoism’s concepts grew out of Mohism.

          Nothing is truly new or original.

          About the name: My researches mention that the actual ancestral name and clan name of Mozi is unknown, perhaps because the man was born into the lower classes of Chinese society. In the days of Chinese antiquity the vast majority of people who weren’t related to aristocratic families didn’t possess ancestral and clan names.

          Another tidbit out of the past says that one source of Mozi’s name may have had to do the philosopher’s complexion, which was dark. It’s a good story, and I quote: “Mozi was going north and met a fortune teller on the way. The fortune teller told him: ‘God kills the black dragon in the north today. Your complexion is dark. So you must not go north.’”

          So Moe did not go north.

          Rather than stir this murky name pot, we will use the name Mozi, or Mo.

          There is some evidence that Mozi was a carpenter. Apparently he was accomplished in designing mechanical birds and other amusing contrivances. Who knows, he might have been the forerunner of the Swiss cuckoo clock. Mo also created what were called cloud ladders used to besiege city walls. Though he was a self-effacing individual, various rulers considered him an expert on defensive military construction.

          Like others of his time, Mozi was initially educated in Confucianism principles. But he considered Confucian beliefs as too fatalistic, and he disagreed on its ritual celebrations and funerals. He thought such ceremonies were beyond the means of common people.

          Craftspeople were attracted to Mozi probably because of his practical skills, and they tended to organize themselves as a school devoted to the man’s philosophical and technical writings. Everything needs a name, even way back then, so Mozi’s followers became known s Mohists.

          One disciple of Confucius, named Mencius, wrote that Mozi believed in love not just within the family but for all of humanity. To quote Mencius, “As long as something benefits mankind, Mozi will pursue it even if it means hurting his head or his feet.”

          Mozi’s notion of universal love may have been resurrected for the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970 that shucked marriage as a form of social bondage. Remember San Francisco’s Flower Children? However, I doubt that contemporary view of free love was what the old Chinese fellow had in mind.

          He did encourage early marriage in order to offset the individuals lost in wars.

          Nepotism was popular In ancient China, and the handing out of political appointments to one’s relatives rankled Mozi. He insisted such posts should be given to worthy individuals who were best equipped to handle them. As long as a person was qualified for a task, that position should be his regardless of blood relations. If someone of high rank was not up to the job, even if he was a close relative of the ruler, he should be canned.

Mozi respected talented people and urged they should be in government instead of mere political appointees. To use a metaphor, he said a good bow is difficult to pull, but it shoots high. A good horse is difficult to ride, but it can carry weight and can travel far. Talented people may difficult to manage, but they can bring respect to their rulers.

Accordingly, a ruler should treasure skilled people and seek their counsel.

That sounds like good advice for modern individuals that are in power.

          Mozi’s moral teachings emphasized self-reflection and authenticity rather than blind obedience to ritual. According to him, when one reflects on one’s own successes and failures, one achieves true self-nature. This involves living a simple life in which material and spiritual extravagance were renounced.

          Mozi believed people were capable of changing their circumstances and directing their own lives. They could do this by applying their senses to observing the world, and by seeing the worth of objects and events through their causes, their functions, and their historical bases.

          Picture the multi-million dollar homes individuals build today. The places with six or eight bedrooms and as many bathrooms.

          “What is the purpose of houses?” Mo wrote.” It is to protect us from the wind and cold of winter, the heat and rain of summer, and to keep out robbers and thieves. Once these ends have been secured, that is all. Whatever does not contribute to these ends should be eliminated.”

          Great shades of Buddhist thought. 

          Mozi compared the carpenter who uses standard tools with the head of state, who might not have any standards or qualifications to do his job. In the long run the skilled worker is better off when depending on his standard tools rather than on his emotions.

          In the book One Hundred Philosophers: A Guide to the world’s Greatest Thinkers, by Peter J. King, the author wrote “Mohism promotes a philosophy of impartial caring. A person should care equally for other individuals, regardless of their actual relationship to him or her. “
          Isn’t this close to what, in Buddhism, is called compassion?

          As I mentioned earlier, Mohism’s popularity faded, but his ideas were revived again two thousand years after his death. Both the Chinese Republican revolutionaries of 1911, now based in Taiwan, and the Chinese Communist Party considered Mozi a surprisingly modernist thinker.

          For those who want to pursue the story of Mozi, there is a book available through Amazon titled The Mozi: A Complete Translation, by Ian Johnston. It costs around $80.00.

In conclusion, here are the philosophical words of another Moe, the Moe of the three stooges: “What will the world do without me? What will I do without me?”