Monday, March 31, 2014


----- April 1, 2014 -----

Let’s face it, most individuals like to question what they do and how they think. They also want answers. Eastern thought can be bewildering to some people because it has no definite answers, and because whys and wherefores are relatively unimportant.
Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen may have different names, but they are related. They are Asian ways of life that deal with the human condition. Because they differ from Western religions, beliefs, faiths, or convictions, their practice raises countless questions in the Western mind.
This talk, and several that follow, presents a number of typical questions and answers regarding Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen. Most them have come up in Zen sessions.

Question: Can a Zen person also be a Christian?
Answer: Yes. Just because Zen does not subscribe to the concept of a divine being does not mean Zen is anti-religious. Religions serve important social needs that some people require or are comfortable with. There is nothing wrong or bad about that, and it does not nullify the benefits of Zen living.

Question: Are Buddhists, or Zen people, vegetarians?
Answer: Not necessarily. What one eats or doesn’t eat is a personal choice that has nothing to do with either Zen or Buddhism. The Buddha never cautioned anyone against consuming meat. In fact, legend has it the Buddha himself died after consuming contaminated meat, but legends are not truths.

Question: Zen practice is rudimentary and simple. Is Taoism as basic, as straightforward, as Zen?
Answer: It depends on the individual group. There are large Taoist congregations in Asia and elsewhere that meet in richly adorned temples. They observe rituals that involve bowing, chanting, and handclapping. Their priests wear ornate robes and headpieces. Other Taoist groups consist of a handful of individuals who come together in a simple room. They sit in silent meditation, and their leader wears ordinary street clothing.

Question: I have heard that Buddhism and Zen are not the same. What makes them different?
Answer: Buddhism is an organization or an association, whereas Zen is a way of life. Therefore, using the term Zen-Buddhism is ambiguous. It would be like saying, “I ate an apple-grapefruit.”
Question: I understand there are basically two schools of Zen: Rinzai and Soto. What is the difference between them?
Answer: Rinzai Zen strives for the attainment of enlightenment; that is, awakening, or seeing one's true nature. Training focuses on zazen (seated meditation) and the use of kōans (stories, dialogues, questions, or statements, used to test a student's progress). The Rinzai School is known for the severity of its training methods.
Sōtō Zen has been called more gentle. It emphasizes shikantaza (meditation with no objects, anchors, or content). The meditator strives to be aware of his or her stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. Soto says that meditation is awakening, and awakening is meditation.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


Principles of Zen II
In an earlier talk we considered several so-called principles of Zen. Rather than overwhelm anyone with a full load of these concepts in one talk, I’m presenting them a few at a time. Whatever name I give them, I’m sure you can recognize each through your own Zen practice.

Zen is seeing into one’s true self.
What is true self? I suppose that could qualify as a koan.
I can’t tell you what your true self is. True self is for you to know or else for you to find out. No one can tell you what you are. Your true self may have something in common with other humans, yet each human is unique. You are you and only you.
Nor can any guru or priest or minister pinpoint your true self. If any such people say they can, write them off, and keep your money in your pocket.
          Seeing into your true self is recognizing your inborn Buddha-nature. According to the Dalai Lama, a human being is capable—through training and through practice—of gaining the highest enlightened mental state. That is to say, through meditation, a human being can become enlightened.
          By now we know that meditation refers to contemplation of both the body and the mind to the point where you recognize who and what you really are. In Zen jargon, this is known as total awareness. Such mental attending to the body calms it. As for the mind, meditation allows the brain to stop clinging to thoughts and emotions, and to be open to ever-new impressions.

Zen is freedom from illusion.
          Once you discover your own Buddha-nature the misconceptions that have been planted in your life become evident. They don’t go away. Zen is not a form of hocus-pocus that makes things vanish with the wave of a wand. What happens is that the delusions become apparent. You see them for what they are, and in really seeing them you are able to deal with them.
As an example, in doing your meditation, once you realize that your thoughts may be galloping off in all directions, the very fact of that realization puts those thoughts out of mind, and you don’t have to deal with them.
Illusion. Delusion. Two different words that sound similar and whose meanings cross over but which are quite different in meaning. An illusion is a mistaken perception of reality. It’s a misguided concept or belief. A delusion is a deception of the mind, or a judgment. Delusions can lead to illusions.
Buddha-mind cuts through both. Upon awakening, there are no illusions, no delusions. There is only clarity.
It’s interesting—no, it’s a pity—that for some people a glimpse at clarity can be scary. They say take it away, I can’t deal with reality.
To a Zen person, clarity—freedom from illusion—is not a dream. It is life itself.

Everything exists according to its own nature.
Labels such as worth, beauty, and value are human tags. They were created by humans in their own heads to categorize, to qualify, to quantify.
Who can pass judgment on another human being, saying they are bad or they are good? You may not care for someone’s behavior, and for that reason choose to dislike who they are and what they represent.
I have never cared much for most of what Richard Nixon did. To be frank, I have always disliked the guy for almost everything he did. But the way I feel about him doesn’t allow me to say he was bad. He was what he was, and I accept that, even though his actions go totally against my grain.
You may question the motives of Newt Gingrich, or Jerry Falwell, or even Mother Teresa. Yet, those individuals are what they are, and what they are is what they choose to be. It is their nature.
To label someone as bad or good is pointless. Not only pointless, but frustrating to the one who is doing the labeling. What is, is, and you can’t do much about that except look after your own nature and be the best possible you.
Other people are going to go on being what they are regardless of how you feel about them. If you don’t like someone for one reason or another, you can simply disregard them.
The ginkgo tree, or maidenhair tree, is a fascinating plant. It is much the same today as it was in the Mesozoic era, sixty million years ago. It bears edible fruit and nuts. Its leaves are fan shaped, and in the fall they turn a brilliant gold or yellow color. Since ancient times it has been considered a sacred tree in Chinese temple gardens because of its longevity and its beauty.
As a side note, extreme examples of the ginkgo's tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees that were growing a couple of kilometers from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. While almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgoes survived and were soon healthy again. Those trees are alive to this day.
Someone might say that is good.
Ginkgo trees are either female or male. The two genders are indistinguishable except to a botanist, yet the male of the species gives off a revolting smell.
Someone might say that is bad.
Does a ginkgo tree’s tenacity or its color make it good? Does its smell make it bad? No. The ginkgo is what it is, and if some people don’t like ginkgoes, they have the option to disregard them.
Just as ginkgoes disregard people.
People will go on in their own way, and ginkgoes will go on in their own way because each exists according to its own nature.

Monday, March 10, 2014



Most of the points in this talk are based on material published in the four-volume series on Haiku, written by R.H. Blyth.


Zen has no doctrine, dogma, or sacred writings, so we can’t dissect articles of faith, as is done in many religions. We can’t produce new articles of belief, or interpret articles of conviction, to our own satisfaction.

          We have our own being, and we have our being’s relationship to all beings, and this is enough to deal with in one lifetime.

 However, we can speak of some principles of Zen that characterize its basic nature. I will talk about these features over several sessions, presenting them in no special sequence because life itself is not ordered in 1-2-3, or beginning-middle-end fashion.

          In discussing these Zen features there will be some overlap, some repetition, and some contradiction. But there won’t be any miracles or visions or revelations.


To start at the beginning with the first Zen principle: There is no beginning, no end.

          True life is not something that starts at birth and ends at death. That may be correct of an animal or a plant, but life is being, and being is. There is life in sunshine, in a breeze, in total silence.

          It goes on.

Life is like running water. Where is the beginning or the end of running water?

          According to popular religions, there was a beginning. That’s when God created heaven and earth, and all living things. Also, there will be an end. It God’s promise that he will terminate everything and bring a finish to life.

Well, the biblical end will not really be an end. It’s a hedge because, according to holy promises, certain dead folks will be whisked off to a better place for special treatment. That’s a speculative stunt known as the Rapture. To quote the bible: "we will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

In my wildest dreams I can’t conceive a place in the sky that is populated with a bunch of once-dead humans drifting around forever chanting hosannas.

But a place without birds, trees, or stones. How could that be better than what we have right here, right now?

It’s terribly confusing.

Do any of you want to plan your present, or your future, on promises?

We see the results of promises in the stock market and the political arena. And you know how iffy those areas are.


Which leads to another Zen principle: Yesterday is gone; tomorrow does not exist; only today is real.

Life is like running water. You can dip your toe into it once.  After that the toe may be the same toe but the water is different.

Life is not a promise. Life is not a different place in a different time. Life is right here, and it is right now. That is all, and that is enough.

Overall, life is an extraordinarily wonderful adventure, so it should be experienced wisely.


And here is another Zen principle: The realities of life are present in every day actions, objects, and emotions.

          We walk across a street; we talk with someone; we see a leaf lying on the ground; we drink a glass of water; we agree with someone and disagree with someone else; we feel happy or we feel melancholy; we are light-hearted on a sunny day, glum on a dismal day. These are normal actions and objects and feelings that we experience regularly.

          They are part of being alive.

          We don’t have to go to a church or a temple or to any other special place to have such experiences. We don’t have to set aside a certain day or a time of day and dress up to have such experiences. They are part of our normal, everyday life, and they come and go unavoidably, just like dawn and dusk come and go.

          We can’t permanently remove ourselves from such experiences through prayer, with drugs, or by hiding in a cave. Besides, to try to escape them would be to deprive ourselves of the fullness of living.

          These experiences are the realities of life, and individuals who attempt to dodge them by withdrawal or other artificial means become oddballs.

          To recognize the realities of life, and to perceive them for what they are, is part of true mind. True mind is that state in which all things—including you—are included.

As Popeye used to say, “I yam what I yam.” As Tennyson wrote in his poem Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met.”

You are what you are, and you are a part of everything else.

So how do we deal with such realities as illness, aging, or death? These are the most extreme certainties, but they are no more important than a leaf lying on the ground. How do we deal with them?

This is the same question the Buddha examined more than 2000 years ago.

The Buddha learned to recognize life’s truths, whether other humans had labeled them good or bad. He perceived life’s realities for what they are, and he grasped how to act upon them instantly.

The Buddha was not a god or a present-day saint. He was a guy who realized in one lifetime what much of humanity cannot grasp in generations.

When we learn to perceive, we are Buddhas.


If the Buddha is not a god, then why do people worship him? There are different types of worship. When someone worships a god, they praise him or her, making offerings and asking for favors, believing that the god will hear their praise, receive their offerings, and answer their prayers.

Buddhists do not indulge in this kind of worship.

The other kind of worship is when we show respect to someone or something we admire. When a teacher walks into a room we stand up, when we meet a dignitary we shake hands, when the national anthem is played we salute. These are all gestures of respect and indicate our admiration for persons and things.

A statue of the Buddha with its hands rested gently in its lap and its smile reminds us to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. The flowers which fade and die, remind us of impermanence. When we bow, we express our gratitude to the Buddha for his teachings.

This is the nature of Buddhist worship.