Monday, May 26, 2014


The Japanese word kankin has two parts. Kan means to read, and kin means sutras.
Sutras are records of the supposed talks of Shakyamuni Buddha who lived some 2500 years ago. Some Buddhist schools have adopted particular sutras, theorizing Buddhism can better be understood through written words. Other schools say Buddhism is not a theoretical system, and that truth does not reside in words.
          The Buddha himself took what is known as the middle way. It was a path of moderation, of self-control, of understanding that opened knowledge, and led to insight and awakening.
Master Dogen also favored the middle way. He said reading sutras was possibly one method of learning what Buddhism is. However, he added that wisdom was not in sutras, and that sutras did not have some supernatural element that led to awakening.
          Dogen looked beyond sutras as collections of words and pithy sayings. Just as he believed meditation was awakening, he believed all of existence was a sutra. Grass, trees, mountains, rivers, and self were all Buddhist sutras, and they did not have to be numbered, named, and recited.
          Dogen cautioned that what we call self is not restricted by “me and you.” Self is not ego. Self is eyes and ears and all of the five physical senses.
Sutras are something to be read, to be recited, to be copied, to be received, and to be retained instinctively. But Dogen said sutras—like awakening—are to be experienced intuitively.
Instinct is a natural, built-in behavior, such as sharks attacking anything that seems to be food. Intuition is a gut feeling, an inner understanding that does not depend on logical thinking.
Dogen tells the story of Zen Master Kodo who one day was told that his monks were anticipating his instruction.
“Strike the bell,” Kodo said.
The monks gathered.
Kodo sat in front of the monks for a few minutes, saying nothing. Then he got up and went back to his quarters.
The temple chief was puzzled. He asked the master why he hadn’t said a word.
Kodo answered, “There are sutra teachers, and there are commentary teachers. I can speak at great length on such subjects. However, I teach neither. Instead, I encourage intuition, and there is little to speak of on that matter.”
          Another story tells of a master who was conversing with a king. The king said, “Everyone else recites sutras. Why is it that you do not?”
          The master said memorizing sutras and bringing sutras here and there was a state of bustling and jostling. The true state of mind was not measured by a perfect memory or faultless understanding. It was beyond wisdom, in the living of the moment.
          One more story tells of a government official who requested that a master read and recite all of the sutras. The master and the official bowed to each other.
          Then they bowed again.
Then they bowed some more.
Finally the master said, “Do you understand?”
          The official said, “I do not understand.”
          The master said, “You have two eyes, two ears, and one tongue. We have read and recited and experienced all of the sutras. How could you not understand?”
          And now I have a question for you, and you don’t have to shake your head or nod your head.
          Do you understand?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Principles of Zen IV

Principles of Zen IV
In several previous talks we discussed the various principles of Zen as outlined in the four-volume series on Haiku, written by R.H. Blyth. This talk winds up the series.

Each of us is a unique individual who enjoys a unique relationship with life.
Each of us is a unique individual who enjoys a unique relationship with life.

Someone once said human beings are interchangeable, that they are like a pair of socks, one sock the same as the other.
          To a degree that is true. As human beings we all have two legs, two arms, two eyes, all pretty much in the same place from one person to another. We have black hair, or brown hair, or blond hair, or no hair. Our eyes are brown, blue, gray, or black.
          When we characterize ourselves that way we sound pretty dull, don’t we? Well, some humans are dull. Humans as a collective are not all that exciting.
          For one thing, humans as a bunch do not seem to learn much from experience. Since long before recorded history people have been slaughtering one another in wars that get bigger and better. Oh, they have gotten more efficient from the standpoint of more efficient ways to kill one another.
I think I have just contradicted myself: we do learn better ways of destruction. Anyway, you get what I mean by not learning much through experience.
          Consider Southern California. Ever since it was owned by Mexico, people out there have been building big, expensive homes on cliff tops facing the sea, and in deep inland canyons. Every few years heavy rains cause the cliffs to drop away, and down come those deluxe houses. Every few years the canyons become so dry that fires ignite suddenly, and those houses go up in smoke.
          You would think people in Southern California might realize they are doing something that doesn’t work. But, no. No sooner is one batch of classy homes destroyed than a new batch is built in the very same place.
          As a collective entity, humans may be unwise, but they aren’t simple minded. You would think they might learn from experience. But they don’t.
          Most humans have in common the ability to learn, but they are too stubborn or too short sighted or too disinterested to learn. Most humans are the collective beings, the ones who are indistinguishable, interchangeable.
Yet, each human has Buddha nature. Each has inborn ability and promise.
          What about the likes of Gustav Mahler, Pablo Picasso, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Pablo Neruda, Michael Angelo, or the Dalai Lama? They too are humans and they too have Buddha nature.
          The difference is that these individuals—note I do not say “people” but individuals—have perceived their state of life. It’s their Buddha nature, whether they call it that or something else.
These individuals have awakened to their Buddha nature. They have paid attention to their Buddha nature.

Humans arise from nature and get along most effectively by working with nature rather than trying to master it.
Humans arise from nature and get along most effectively by working with nature rather than trying to master it.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts owns a superb collection of early art from China, Japan, and Korea. The ink-wash scrolls are some of the best to be seen outside of Tokyo or Beijing, and they lend themselves to serious contemplation and meditation. They have a spirit. It’s the spirit of the person who created them.
          Look here at the scroll on this wall. It has no name, and its creator is anonymous. But it is a good example of simplicity in nature.
          There is one human being, perhaps a simple peasant. He has a pole on his shoulder and is carrying a pack. He is going from some place, maybe a garden field. He is going to some place, probably the dwelling shown farther up the mountainside. His day seems to be done.
I was told by one of my teachers that in a Japanese sumi painting, humans are never shown working. Never tilling a field, never harvesting rice. They are always shown before or after work. I don’t know if this is a fact. It’s what I was told.
It was almost a rule in classical Japanese brush painting not to show work efforts because such paintings were intended to inspire viewers not to strive but to meditate.
          So here is a man walking. He’s not working to earn a few cents, or to amass a fortune. He’s not pursuing a commercial fishing operation, or plowing a field, or cutting wood. He is being.
It’s obvious the man’s mind is as free of progress as the landscape is free of buildings, roads, or vehicles. The man is content to simply be in a natural surrounding that does not need any sort of enhancement except whatever nature itself brings.
          Why should that individual be consumed with thoughts of progress? He is happy with the mountains as they are, the lake as it is, and himself as he is. He is not trying to dominate nature, and nature isn’t dominating him. All fit together, and all are co-existing harmoniously.
          On the other hand, in many Western paintings battles are fought, bridges are built, nature is ravaged, and any hint of the natural world serves only as a backdrop for human striving.
          Most Zen paintings emphasize nature, whether the picture is a vista or a close-up of a bird perched on a branch. Any human presence is of secondary importance. Zen paintings speak of a sense of respect for nature, a feeling of live-and-let-live. A sense of complete harmony, outwardly and inwardly.
          In today’s world, even though humans are doing their best to change nature, to reshape it to their desires, such harmony is ours to enjoy. Have you ever sat perfectly still in a forest or at a seashore and been in touch with all of your senses and in tune with the natural world around you?
Have you ever placed your hand on a sun-warmed rock and felt at one with it? Have you ever felt deeply stirred by a gentle breeze that forms ripples on a grassy hillside?
When I used to go scuba diving other divers would chase after fish, or accumulate colorful rocks and shells. Most of the time I liked to sit perfectly still on the bottom, conserving my air, and enjoy the marine life as it came close to me.
It was a form of meditation.
It was being totally alive and totally aware. It was being.  And that’s what Zen is about.

1.     There is no beginning, no end.
2.    Yesterday is gone; tomorrow does not exist; only today is real.
3.    The realities of life are present in every day actions, objects, and emotions.
4.    Zen is seeing into one’s true self.
5.    Zen is freedom from all illusion.
6.    Everything exists according to its own nature.
7.    A Buddha makes his or her own way.
8.    The self and the rest of the universe are not separate but are one functioning whole.
9.    Each of us is a unique individual who enjoys a unique relationship with life.
10. Humans arise from nature and get along most effectively by working with nature rather than trying to master it.

Monday, May 05, 2014


----- May 5, 2014 -----
Question: I am familiar with the story about the Chinese Zen master’s answer to the question whether a dog has Buddha-nature. It was “Mu.” What is the English equivalent of the word “Mu”?
Answer: That is an excellent question. English is difficult to equate with Chinese or Japanese because of their lingual cultural associations. Perhaps the nearest we in the West could come to “Mu” would be ”not” or “no-thing.” However, those are merely words, with little or no traditional relevance.
In Rinzai Zen The word “Mu” is used as a koan. It is assigned to a student by a master as an object of meditation. Its meaning to the student is considered a measure of the student’s realization. The writer Mumon said:
Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature.

Question: Is there any harm in reading about Zen?
Answer: No, there is no more harm in reading about Zen than there is in reading about Islam, Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism, as long as pop-culture, promotional writings are discounted. In reading the literature of any
philosophy, or belief, keep an open mind. Make no judgments. Do not qualify or quantify. At the same time learn to distinguish fact from fable, allegory, or propaganda.

Question: Can I attain awakening, that is, can I see into my true nature, by studying about it?
Answer: Can you learn to swim by sitting at a desk and reading about swimming? Of course not. To learn swimming you have to get wet; you have to immerse yourself. To learn Zen you have to immerse yourself in meditation.

Question: What is the best way, physically, to meditate?
Answer: Zen meditation is customarily done while sitting on the floor, with legs crossed, facing a wall. However, there are many variations, and no one way is best. If you are unable to cross your legs, don’t try to cross your legs. If you can’t sit on the floor, sit on a chair.

Question: If Zen has no rules or doctrines or deity, what can I believe in?
Answer: Believe in you.

Question: What if I have to sneeze when I’m sitting in zazen?
Answer: There may be all manner of distractions to interrupt meditation. There are traffic noises, sirens, airplanes, thunder. There are room-temperature changes, making you feel hot or cold. You may have dry eyes, or gas bubbles, or a dripping nose. A fly or mosquito may land on your ear.
Do your best to ignore such annoyances. Be aware of them, recognize them, but do not let them interfere with your meditation. Keep yourself focused.
If you have to sneeze, go ahead and sneeze.
Question: How long should I meditate?
Answer: Beginners should meditate no longer than ten minutes. That period can gradually increase—five minutes at a time—to a maximum of forty to forty-five minutes. In a Zen monastery monks may do zazen a greater part of a day. But their day is broken into sessions that are seldom longer than forty-five minutes unless the head monk loses track of the time. Any longer than that can be physically and mentally tiring.
Walking meditation (kinhin) is usually done for five minutes to ten minutes.

Question: Does zazen ever use mantras?
Answer: A mantra is a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself again and again. Some individuals believe mantras have psychological and spiritual power. Mantras are common in Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu meditation. Some Rinzai groups may chant. But those chants are usually sutras, that is, texts considered to be discourses of the Buddha. Soto Zen usually does not use either mantras or sutras. I say “usually,” because there are always exceptions.