Tuesday, August 20, 2013



One of the best definitions of Zen I’ve read was printed more than fifty years ago in Volume I of the four-volume set of Haiku by R.H. Blyth:

“Zen is that state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identified with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities.”

In this talk we will get back to the Zen state of mind in one form another, but as a starter I would like to talk about names. Remember the opening of Tao te Ching?

“The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
“The name that can be named is not the eternal name”

Does that warn against the use of names? Not really. It’s a caution that in labeling something we should keep in mind that a name is not the thing itself but a convenient tool.

          This thing at my side is called a singing bowl. You are called Don, or Matt, or Sheila. That’s what you are known as. But Don, or Matt, or Sheila is not the real you. A name is not the entity that is named.

          A seven is not a seven. It’s a handy designation for the sum of three and
four, both of which are not things but concepts. If you care to think about real offbeat designations, some of the most ingenious ones are those tagged on subatomic particles. There are leptons, bosons, baryons, quarks. Interestingly, these are not even things but theories, notions.

To veer into science speak, hadrons made of one quark and one antiquark, such as the pions, are bosons but aren't force-carriers. Helium-3 is a bosonic atom and is not a force-carrier.

If that’s perfectly clear, we’ll move on.

          You and other objects are not the name that has been laid on you.

          For example, God (with a big “G”) is a name. A name for precisely what, I don’t know because I have no concept of it, or him, or her. Still, the Bible has countless names for God. To list a few: Elohim, Adonai, Jehovah, Yahweh, Bread of Life, Chief Shepherd, and so on.

One biblical scholar claims names are precious to us because they reveal who we are. They are a unique part of one’s nature. But who, or what, is God?

The god, or a god is given many names because some people may be offended by one designation or another. Therefore, there must be more than one name even if it’s for only one god.

In the ancient world, particularly in the near-east, names were thought to be extremely powerful and to act as a separate manifestation of a person or deity. This viewpoint is responsible both for the reluctance to use the proper name of God in Hebrew writing or speech, as well as the common understanding in ancient magic that magical rituals had to be carried out in [someone's] name.

Ironically, if a person actually spoke one of God’s names—such as Jehovah—that person could be stoned to death.

To labor this further, by invoking a god or spirit by name, it was thought one was able to summon that spirit's power for some kind of miracle. This understanding passed into later religious tradition.

For example the stipulation in Catholic exorcism that a demon cannot be expelled until an exorcist has forced it to give up its name, at which point the name may be used in a stern command which will drive the demon away.

As an aside, here are a few names given demons that have had to be cast out: Astaroth, Balaam, Mictian, Azazel, Cimeries, and Dagon.

That last one is Dagon, not Dogen.

So, why don't the names of Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, and Dogen offend people? The reason is that these others don’t claim to be God.

It’s all very confusing.

Don‘t take me wrongly. I’m not saying names are bad. Names and labels are needed to help recognize one thing from another. To tell a human from a grilled cheese sandwich.

To paraphrase a Zen master, truth has nothing to do with names. Truth is like the moon in the sky, a name can be likened to a forefinger. The finger can point to the moon. However, the finger is not the moon.

A name is a fixed label. You have a name, but you are not fixed. You are ever changing.

The Japanese do name their children. What is interesting is that many streets in most Japanese towns don’t have names, or else they have several names.

This too can be confusing.

On the Internet there is a site for everything, even names. Spud was the name of one of my favorite cats, so I looked up Spud and was told the name creates a happy and expressive character.

Fair enough so far. Spud the cat was happy and expressive.

Then I was told “Spud” has good business judgment, with the ability to accomplish a great deal in a short time, and could allow expression along musical and artistic lines, and to mix with people of refinement and culture. Also, any Spud should not over-indulge in sweet, rich foods at the risk of experiencing skin or liver problems.

My cat have had peculiarities but, as far as I knew, he never had liver problems.

Gertrude Stein said a rose is a rose is a rose. I say a name is a label is a state of mind.

To wind this down, Muhammad Ali said, “Rivers, ponds, lakes, streams—they all have different names, but they all contain water . . . .”

George Burns said, “First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull your zipper up, and finally you forget to pull it down.”

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I was in Barnes & Noble Booksellers recently, and was browsing through Fast Food Nation, a book by Eric Schlosser, when all of a sudden I thought of Dogen.

What possible connection could there be between an early Japanese Zen master and the dark side of production-line burgers and fries?

Let’s see.

The practice of Zen is chiefly sitting in Zazen.
Being perfectly still.
Quieting your consciousness.
Opening your mind.

That is a big difference from grubbing in a McDonalds.

It may sound idyllic, but sit sitting silently while facing a wall isn’t an excuse for dodging life’s responsibilities. It’s not goofing off. Many people think Zen is an escape from reality.

“Hey, man, this doing-nothing is really cool. No worries, no cares. All you have to do is stare at the wall.”

No, that’s not zazen.

Zazen is based on the life experiences of the Buddha, and those experiences relate to your own life experiences.

Dogen Zenji said that to study Buddhism is to study one’s self, and to learn Buddhism is to learn one’s self.

For some individuals learning one’s self is a lifetime job.

Some individuals never make it.

It’s a wisdom that usually develops little by little, over days or weeks or months, not in one glorious eruption.

Even in the Rinzai sudden-enlightenment school it’s rare for someone to leap up from a cross-legged position to his or her feet and yell, “I got it! Now I really know me!”

I’ve talked about Master Dogen, who was born in 1200 and who died in 1253, several times before, and I’ll probably talk about him several times more. He’s best known for his discourse on Shikantaza, which is absolute meditation without an object in mind.

But Dogen is also celebrated for his lecture titled, in Japanese, Tenzo Kyökun, or Instructions for the Zen Cook.

In old-time Zen monasteries in Japan there were several offices to manage the community affairs. In this talk we’re interested in only one function, that of tenzo, the person in charge of meals for the monks.

As an aside, I’d like to mention a couple of other foodie books, The Tassajara Recipe Book and The Tassajara Bread Book, both compiled by Edward Brown, former tenzo at California Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. They contain first-rate vegetarian recipes that have been prepared over the years in the kitchen of that Soto establishment.
Dogen’s Instructions for the Zen Cook is no how-to handbook, and it’s not an assortment of recipes. It’s a guide to the Zen way of functioning in the kitchen. It emphasizes maintaining harmony in one’s personal actions as well as in the flavors and qualities of the food itself in order to make a meal come together naturally.

For example, great care must be taken in washing the rice and removing any bits of sand without tossing away even one grain of rice.

Dogen tells a story about a tenzo who was washing the rice for the day’s meal. The master happened by and asked, “Do you wash the sand and pick out the rice, or do you wash the rice and pick out the sand?”

The tenzo said, “I wash and throw away both the sand and the rice together.”

“If you do that, what do the monks eat?” the master asked.

The cook responded by upending the rice bucket and chasing the master out of the kitchen.

In the master’s initial question he thought to challenge the cook’s understanding of Zen by posing a this-or-that question. The cook was probably annoyed with the master poking his nose into the kitchen, plus he knew Zen doesn’t deal in this or that, so he thought he would end the matter by saying he discarded both sand and rice.

But in asking what the monks would eat, the master pushed the game too far. The cook gave a wonderful, wordless Zen response by turning over the rice bucket. Maybe on the master’s head.

At one time my grandparents owned a restaurant in Peoria, Illinois. Cooks came and went. Some were good, others would have been better off working as ditch diggers. I remember one excitable fellow, named Tony, who considered the kitchen his private domain. If anyone entered the food preparation area and happened to upset Tony (which was easy to do), he would brandish a cleaver and yell, “Stay outta da kitch!”

Tony was a dedicated chef, even though he probably never read Instructions for the Zen Cook.

What’s the point of all this?

In the book Refining Your Life, Kosho Uchiyama says “When you sit in zazen, just sit, and when you work as a tenzo, just do that.

Whether you’re reading a book, or preparing a meal, or sitting in zazen, focus your mind and dedicate all of your being to the matter.

If you can do this over a container of fast food, you’re to be commended.

Monday, August 05, 2013



I like to believe I don’t have many attachments. I do have several favorite things. My favorite mammal is the cat. My favorite bird is the parrot. My favorite fish is the Pacific Salmon . . . broiled with dill butter. My favorite plant is the bamboo.


The Far East may be jam-packed with people and developments, but in most countries there are large bamboo forests. Perhaps that is why, in Asia, the bamboo plant is an age-old symbol for everyday living. Perhaps that’s why Asian people cultivate bamboo in their gardens and in their homes and consider the plant almost sacred. Let’s consider some of the characteristics of bamboo.

1. It is strong but flexible.
2. It bends without breaking.
3. It is able to spring back.
4. It is comfortable by itself.
5. It is committed to continuous growth.

Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth. A typical growth rate may average nearly four inches a day. In favorable climates some species may grow almost forty inches in 24 hours. Certain types may reach more than a hundred feet in height, and have a culm diameter twelve inches or more. As exuberant as this may seem, bamboo is basically a grass related to turfs and lawns.

          Owing to bamboo’s endurance it is a symbol of longevity in China, and owing to its tranquility it is a symbol of friendship in India. In China the bamboo, plum blossom, orchid, and chrysanthemum are honored as “The Four Gentlemen.” Also in China the bamboo, the pine, and the plum blossom are esteemed for their year-round perseverance and are known as “The Three Friends of Winter.”

          That term “The Three Friends of Winter” is also a badge of honor in Japan. Bamboo is used in sushi sets and tea ceremony sets. At a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, the pine (matsu) is considered the first rank, the bamboo (také) is the second rank, and the plum (ume) the third rank. All three plants are unvaryingly present in a ryokan garden.

Bamboo has countless practical applications. To name all of its uses would be tough. Bamboo is used in medicines for treating infections and healing. It is used in martial arts training as well as in Zen meditation. It is used in construction for scaffoldings, floors, and countertops. It is used for food bowls, plates, and utensils. It is used for textiles, paper, musical instruments, furniture, fishing poles, bicycles, skateboards, rafts, weapons, and writing instruments.

          Bamboo is a food for giant pandas, lemurs, chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants, and humans.

My teacher Hiromu Oda cultivated bamboo in his garden as well as in his bonsai plantings, and he did countless paintings of bamboo. He liked to say, “Bamboo is gentle. Bamboo is your friend.”

          As one writer has noted, in Japan the symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and wide and offers practical lessons for everyday life and for work.

In this talk I’ll try to stay close to the virtues of bamboo and leave the morals to you.

          No matter how thick a bamboo forest may be, its members sway in the slightest breeze, and the stems make a peaceful clacking sound. Bamboo plants bend in the slightest puff of air, yet they stay rooted firmly in the ground. Bamboo never fights the wind. As one writer said, this bend-but-don't-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets of living whether we're talking about bamboo trees, or answering tough questions, or just dealing with the everyday moods of life.

          The stem of a single bamboo may appear modest in size compared to the trunk of an oak. But bamboos are able to endure cold winters and hot summers. They can withstand great strains without breaking, and sometimes they are the only plants left standing after a hurricane or typhoon. Even a very young bamboo may look fragile, but it is strong and robust.

          Time for a proverbial parallel. You may not be from the biggest company or the very best school, but if you trust in your own strength and ability you will be as strong as you need to be.

          In winter a heavy snow can bend bamboo almost to the ground. But when the snow falls off the leaves the culms spring upright. The Japanese consider bamboo a symbol of resiliency and good luck.

          Zen says that in order to learn we have to first empty ourselves of what we may have been taught by society. We have to get rid of preconceived notions that block us. A cup that is full can’t hold anything more.

          Bamboo is hollow. It can remind us that we humans are too often full of . . . . well, of ourselves and there is no room for anything more.

          As I mentioned earlier, bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world. The bamboo in your garden or in your bonsai container may propagate rapidly but you usually aren’t aware of its activity. In human terms, how fast or how slow we may progress is not an important issue. What is important is that we are growing and moving forward, no matter what our age.

          Bamboo pops up fastest during the rainy season. Humans too have “seasons” of fast growth as well as no apparent growth at all. But individuals shouldn’t surrender or feel discouraged. Something in the human, or in the bamboo, is always happening, always changing.

          Kensho Furuya was one of the world’s greatest masters of kensho. He said, “The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same.”

          And now a bamboo story. A Zen master was walking through the forest with one of his students. The student lost his footing and slipped down a steep incline. Just as he began falling he reached out and grabbed a small bamboo. The bamboo bent nearly all the way over as the student continued to hold on tightly, but it wasn’t uprooted. The student pulled himself up and brushed himself off.

The Zen master asked, “Did you notice that when you fell, you grabbed the bamboo and it supported you?”

“Yes,” the student replied.

 “Be like the bamboo,” the master said. “It is pushed around by the wind and yet it always bounces back and grows upward. Have you ever felt as though you were going to snap? Have you ever felt as though you were at your breaking point, emotionally?”

“Yes, I have,” the student replied.

“Then bend, do not break. Such is the way with bamboo. It endures the stress and finds a way to rebound. This is called resilience.”

          To close, here is a haiku by Basho, and another haiku by Issa.

The winter storm
         hid in the bamboo grove
And quieted away.   -- Basho

Scratching the face
of a bamboo shoot...
cat's shadow.  -- Issa