Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Judging from the beneficial influences of Buddhism and Taoism in Asia—where it all began—those early days must have been peaceful and serene. Birds warbling in the trees, milk and honey flowing, brotherly love and flower child harmony.

However, no period or no place, then or now, is peaceful for very long. History is callous.

          In contemporary times our own country has been involved in numerous major conflicts: World War II, the Korean War, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Plus lethal brush fires in Cuba, Panama, Grenada, Africa, and South America.

          Quoting from the jacket flap of the book Zen under the Gun, a translation by J.C. Cleary, “Sometimes history is cruel. A civilization starts to fall apart and a stable social order starts to unravel; upheaval and uncertainty abound. . . . .
          “This is what happened to the Chinese world in the thirteenth century when the Mongol conquers mangled China and left the Chinese social order in chaos.”

          From the last generation of China’s Song dynasty, around 1279, to the first generation of the Ming dynasty, around 1368 measures some 90 years.

That’s almost a century that Asia was in constant turmoil. During that period nomads from Mongolia overran the greater part of what we now call China. The tribes were under the rule of a hothead named Genghis Khan, his grandson Kublai Khan, and others. 

          Genghis Kahn was thought to have been a Buddhist or else a shaman. Whatever else he was, he was a natural leader whose aim was to unite the hundreds of clans in Northeast Asia under his rule. He hoped to accomplish this not through diplomacy or through honeyed words but by pounding people into submission.

          During the Mongol conflict four Chan teachers became known for what is known today as “engaged Buddhism.”

          1. Hengchuan (1222-1259) was almost sixty when the Mongols took power in southeast China.
          2. Gulin (1262-1329, was his immediate disciple.
          3. Zhuxian (1292-1348) was a teacher in China who spent the last twenty years of his life lecturing in Japan. He was a student of Gulin.
          4. Daian (1347-1403) grew up during the Chinese uprising against the Mongols and lived to experience the New Ming dynasty’s rule over the country.

          An aside: The term engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who strive to apply the insights from their meditation practice to situations of social, political, and economic suffering and injustice. It’s a term coined by the modern day Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

Though those early Chan masters lived in a period of constant war, they didn’t run from the violence. They remained actively involved, and used Buddhist principles to do what they could for people around them.

          To backtrack, early in the Mongol conquest, Chinese Zen was flourishing in terms of its social prestige. That is to say, it was socially acceptable to be Zen. Temples were officially sanctioned by the government and supported by private individuals. Many places boasted wealthy patrons. It seemed a rosy time for Buddhist beliefs.

          But, according to Thomas Cleary, Zen as a vehicle for the teaching of enlightenment was hanging by a thread.

          The old Confucian notions of formalism, ritual, and routine were once again all the rage. And as in modern times in the Western World, Zen was dipped into haphazardly with little thought given to its insights.

          In other words, Zen was trendy, hip. And its hawkers were early snake oil salesmen.

According to the record, Hengchuan, Gulin, Zhuxian, and Daian were not hucksters. They were not selling, they were giving.

Awakened teachers of Zen speak of a potential that is inherent in everyone for recognizing their true being.

True being: What one really is aside from the crap that society showers on one. True being has also been called the Buddha-mind, the Tao, and other terms.

The words may change, but one’s true being is constant. It needs only to be recognized.

          Most of us live in a phony world. It’s a world of selfish desires that are brought on by the social mores and scatterbrained notions that have been drilled into us from birth. Because we are also taught that we cannot live up to such weird conventions by living a so-called normal social life, we are discouraged.

Such frustrations lead to desire, otherwise known as dukkha. Dukkha is the Sanskrit word that translates as anxiety, stress, discontent, and that ageless Buddhist term: suffering.

          Unlike some philosophies or religious convictions, Buddhism doesn’t advocate escape from life’s trials into some higher realm. In Buddhism there is no pie in the sky. As John Cleary wrote, “The Buddhist effort is to undo our false ideas, and thus liberate our true selves.”

          When we can do that, we are able to truly experience life and to deal with life’s oddities, not by appealing to some imaginary thing but through recognition of our own true self.

          When we see us as we are, we are ready to become engaged Buddhists.

          An apology. I have drifted into what some religious schools would call a homily, a sermon. Overlook the oration.

          I started this talk mentioning four ancient Chinese Chan masters. I promise to get back to these guys in future talks, so please bear with me.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Anyone who is familiar with the practice of Zen knows something about koans. I say “something” because if you think you know all about koans you probably think you know too much.

          So, for a few moments erase your mind about the concept of the koan and listen up. Maybe you’ll pick up something new.

          One definition of the word “koan” tags it as a word, story, dialogue, question, or statement that is used in Zen practice to test a student’s practice. Here are three examples.

          A word: Mu.
          A question: What is the sound of one hand?
          A statement: Make that fencepost one with everything.

          For most individuals any or all of the above may sound nutty. For most individuals they would evoke a “Huh?” or a “What the hell?” And, sorry to say, for many Zen students they would evoke the same response.

That may be because most individuals believe a koan is some sort of trick question, or it has deeply hidden meanings, or it has a blueprint answer.

          Many books claim to interpret koans. You know the kinds that say “This is what Mu really means.” Such books are best avoided. They are for lazy individuals who want quick and dirty answers to life.

Some other books inventory classical Zen koans and give wild guesses about their meanings.

One book is different:The Blue Cliff Record . It’s a translation of a collection of a hundred koans from the teachings of twelfth century Chinese masters. It contains biographical information about the masters as well as remarks and observations.

It does not give answers.

          Perhaps the best edition of The Blue Cliff Record is the thick volume of almost 650 pages translated by Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary.

          In another Cleary book—Unlocking the Zen Koan—the author suggests a five-step way to reading a koan.

Note, I said reading, not understanding. The book isn’t a magic how-to. It is a nudge in a good direction.

          To quote Cleary, “. . .  Zen texts need to be read several times, in different states of mind, to achieve the degrees of absorption and penetration required to produce the optimum effect.”
          He goes on to note that koans do not open up to a logical approach, or to analytical methods of understanding.

           Here, in a condensed form, are Cleary’s five steps in reading a Zen koan.

1.       Read no more than one or two koans at a time. Include any accompanying verses, but do not read any explanations. Read quickly, avoiding the tendency to examine between the lines. No matter how tempting, do not predict, or anticipate, or criticize.
2.     Read the same koans again, staying focused on the present. Let your mind mirror what comes to you, without drawing any conclusions or making any judgments.
3.     Read the koans again. This time read the interpretations. However, avoid agreeing or disagreeing with what ever is written. Keep an open mind, and let everything sink into it.
4.     Repeat Step 3. Yes, read the koans again without puzzling over them or second-guessing.
5.     Now read the koans and their interpretations once more, this time more slowly. Without trying to make sense of any thoughts, try to intuitively grasp the essence of the koans. Do not force anything. Relax, mentally and physically.

This process may work for you. If it doesn’t, don’t worry. It’s worth a try.

*     *     *     *

You may ask, “What’s the point of working with a koan?”

That’s a reasonable question. But why not ask what the meaning of existing is.

Does there need to be a reason, a rationale, or a motive?

My answer is that—if nothing else—the five-step exercise might help train one to avoid bending logic and making snap judgments in order to reach an answer.

Maybe there is no answer to working with a koan. Maybe there is no point. Maybe the “doing” is reason enough.

A contemporary koan was presented by Keido Fukushima, Abbot of Kyoto’s Tofukuji Monastery.

“Two men are walking together when rain starts falling. One man is wet, the other isn’t. Why not?”

Once when I gave this koan everyone smiled and thought for a moment.

Finally I was asked, “Are you going to give us the answer?”

“No,” I said. “My answer is my answer. You must find your own answer.”

And that is the point of Zen.