Monday, December 22, 2014


                                       ONLY THIS, THIS


Nakagawa Soen, was born in 1907 in Taiwan, the son of a Japanese army physician. Though he was educated in Confucianism and Zen, he was attracted to what he heard about the individualism of America, especially since Japanese society at the time was traditional and conformist. Soen was opposed to rules and was interested in a looser sort of lifestyle that included philosophy, literature, and poetry.

          After graduating from Tokyo University in 1931, Soen impulsively decided to be ordained as a Rinzai monk. But before committing himself to any temple he began traveling to Dai Bosatsu Mountain near Mount Fuji where he practiced solitary retreats as a hermit. Living off the land he bathed in streams, sat zazen alone, and wrote haiku.

          It was in 1932 while he was meditating at Dai Bosatu Mountain that Soen first dreamed up the idea of an international sort of zendo. He envisioned a place where anyone could take part in a sort of universalism of common understanding.

The following year he traveled to Sakhalin Island, a Russian/Japanese landmass north of Hokkaido, in a search for gold to fund such a project. He came away as poor as when he had left, but he did not lose sight of his vision of a universal learning center.

          In 1950 Soen was grudgingly appointed abbot of Ryutaku-ji, a temple located in Mishima that had been founded in 1761 by Hakuin. Not wanting to feel tied down, Soen was indifferent about the whole business, and instead of outfitting himself in the traditional regalia for the ceremony he wore the black robes of a monk. Shortly after the official formalities he disappeared from the temple and retreated to his mountain hermitage.

          Abbot or not, Soen continued to study with various masters, some of which he was in agreement with, others not. Like a few of his predecessors—such as Bankei Yotaku—Soen thought Japanese Zen had grown musty. In time he developed his own brand of Zen practice which combined Soto, Rinzai, and other systems. He continued to write haiku, using it as a teaching tool, and in his talks he recited Shakespeare as well as Schopenhauer.

          The later scholar D.T. Suzuki considered Soen “a rather peculiar fellow.” Soen knew, in his time, Hakuin also been thought of as odd by the Japanese Zen establishment.

          To paraphrase one writer, Soen’s teaching style emphasized communicating the immediate moment. One of his favorite expressions was ”Only this, this.” He would shout that, whacking his cushion for emphasis.

          He once put a pumpkin on his sitting pad in the dokusan room and laughed as each monk entered and bowed respectfully to it.

          In October 1959 Soen approved the founding of a sitting group in Hawaii, to be led by Robert Aitken, an American who had been a Japanese prisoner of war.

In 1968 the restless Soen made a trip to the USA to open New York Zendo Shobo-ji. The following year he led sesshins with local sanghas in Israel, England, Egypt, New York, California, and Hawaii.

Bursting with ideas, he was unable to sit still for long.

In 1971 Soen made his ninth visit to the USA, helping The Zen Studies Society purchase land in the Catskill Mountains for his dream, International Dai Bosatsu Zendo. In 1972 he made his tenth visit to the United States, and upon returning to Japan he retired as abbot of Ryutaku-ji. In 1974 and 1975 he made two more visits to the USA staying first at the still unopened International Dai Bosatsu Zendo, and then going into solitary retreat at New York Zendo Shobo-ji.

In 1976 Soen’s International Dai Bosatsu Zendo was officially opened as Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.

In 1982 Soen made his last visit to the USA. Upon returning to Ryutaku-ji he became a recluse. Two years later, on March 11, he died at the temple. He was 77 years old. A portion of his cremated ashes are in the cemetery of the Catskill retreat center.

Nakagawa Soen was known for his enigmatic behavior derived from his dedication to ascetic and solitary Zen practice, and his rejection of the Japanese Zen hierarchy.

Within conventional Zen circles of his day Soen may have been viewed as an unorthodox, eccentric, and controversial teacher. Today he might have been called a weirdo. However, he is respected for bringing Zen to the West, and his talks that included such phrases as:

 “All you do is argue, why don’t you try sitting?”

“If you die once, you’ll never have to die again.”

“Only this, this!”

Monday, December 15, 2014




Recently we have talked about certain individuals who were neither monks nor masters but were ordinary folks who practiced Zen . . . .

Wait, wait. I mean ordinary folks who not merely practiced Zen but taught and lived Zen on their own terms.

Such people were not followers but freethinking nonconformists.

          Today we will consider Bankei Yotaku.

          Bankei Yotaku was born in the year 1622 in the southwestern Japanese province of Harima. The family was a big one, and it was well educated. His father was a former samurai who had become a medical doctor. Of his eight siblings, his eldest brother was a physician, and his second eldest brother was a practitioner of the Pure Land school of Buddhism.

          According to the record, Bankei was a mischievous youngster, always rebellious and always getting into scrapes. In other words, he was a perfectly normal kid who queried everything.

          When Bankei was eleven he entered school where he was drilled on Confucian texts. Many of those classics confused him, so he questioned them.

          One day, his teacher read a passage from Great Learning, one of the four books of Confucianism. One line claimed, "The way of great learning lies in clarifying bright virtue."

The other students nodded in acceptance, but Bankei balked.

“So what is the meaning of this bright virtue” he demanded of the teacher.

The teacher wasn’t used to such queries from his pupils and mumbled a stock answer. Bankei was miffed, feeling he was being given a run around by someone who was reputed to know everything.

For Bankei it was only the beginning of his doubts. He questioned many Confucians and Buddhists on their knowledge, but he was unable to get any straightforward replies.

He became so distraught in his need to find answers that school became a nuisance. So he quit school and left home. A friend allowed him to stay in a small hut to think things over. Between solitary meditation sessions Bankei carved into a slat of wood the words "Practice hermitage" and placed the board outside his shelter.

Always searching for answers, Bankei spent the greater part of his life traveling around Japan, asking questions and passing on what he understood. He did not accept the then-formal methods of teaching but imparted his own simplified version of Zen. Koan study was fine and good but it was unnecessary.

“If your mind is right you can grasp your Buddha-nature right where you sit,” he said. “That does not require long, painstaking practice.”

Over the years Bankei conducted retreats that centered on his lectures rather than on koan study. He bent the monastic rules by saying that if people have something to do while they are sitting they should forget the rulebook. Get up and do what needs to be done rather than feeling obligated to sit still. He did not shout at people or swat them. He said, “This is what I have to tell you. Listen and take your own path.”

Bankei’s retreats became so popular they attracted not just Soto and Rinzai practitioners but people from the Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren, and Pure Land sects. His teachings were a fresh breeze in Zen instruction.

To paraphrase Peter Haskel, in the book Bankei Zen, Bankei was “. . . a heretical figure who didn’t believe in rules . . . who tried to simplify the serious business of enlightenment.”

One of the stories told of Bankei concerns a priest who was angered when many of his own sect went to hear about Zen. So he attended a meeting himself with the intention of debating with Bankei.

"A man like myself does not respect you," the priest told Bankei. "Can you make me obey you?" Bankei asked the man to come to the front and the priest pushed through the crowd. Bankei asked him to sit by him, which the priest did, then to change places, and the priest stepped over. "You see," observed Bankei, "you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now just sit down and listen".

          According to writer Colin Oliver, Bankei spoke to the people directly rather than from the sutras. He adhered to no particular school and his teaching was of the essence of Zen. His concern was with the truth as an immediate experience, not with a systematic approach to a distant goal.

          Another day Bankei was approached by a priest who boasted that his master possessed miraculous powers. According to the cleric, his master could take a brush and write Amida—another name for the Buddha—in the air and the word would appear on a sheet of paper in the distance.

Wow! Such a wondrous feat.

Wait a minute. What did such hocus-pocus have to do with daily life, or the human condition?

Bankei replied, "My miracle is that when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink."


When Bankei stated, “Don’t side with yourself,” he meant don’t give your own wants and desires such importance; don’t reinforce your own sense of being a separate, unchanging self; don’t be selfish; don’t take sides.

The Buddhist universe doesn’t have sides or edges.   It doesn’t have an inside or an outside. It doesn’t favor the east wind; it doesn’t favor the west wind.  It doesn’t prefer sunny days to thunderstorms. 

Bankei emphasized that everything is just as it is.

This might raise the question, what does it mean to be socially and politically involved if one doesn’t lean in one direction or another?  Politics demands to know “Which side are you on? Are you this or are you that?”  The Abrahamic religions believe in good against evil, Christianity pits God against Satan. 

Our Western culture reflects this everywhere.  We find ourselves in the midst of multiple wars both here and abroad, whether the war against terrorism, or the culture wars between fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives.

Buddhists do not see the world as a conflict of absolutes.  Buddhists understand that everyone has his or her own limited interests, points of view, and desires, and that these clash with each other. The universe does not favor the east wind or the west wind. Everything just happens and just is.

Bankei’s Zen teachings were numerous, but he didn’t leave behind any written record, and he gave strict orders that no one else was to reduce his words in writing.

But his followers were unable to bear the thought that their master’s words and deeds should go unrecorded, and they chronicled them. So we should be grateful for the record that has been preserved. It is our sole means of learning about the man’s Zen.

While Bankei’s teaching sounds almost too simple, it is a very deep teaching and a true direct approach. He doesn’t give the students a practice or a set of precepts to follow. There are no sutras to read or other Zen writings; neither does he push for meditation.

He said, "My part in this is simply to tell you about it and to try to get you to confirm the Buddha-minds you were all given when you were born."

In other words, learn to think for yourself.


To wind down this talk, getting back to the notion of “bright virtue,” which triggered Bankei’s initial dissatisfaction, it’s a key concept in Chinese philosophy meaning "inherent character; inner power; integrity" or "moral character; virtue; morality."

That is what “bright virtue” means, but apparently Bankei never really bought into it.

Monday, December 08, 2014


                                DRAWING WATER, CHOPPING WOOD

                                                        P’ang Yun                                                       

P’ang Yun was a Chinese Confucian Buddhist, born in the year 740. Because he was not affiliated with any temple or organizations, but was dedicated to his family and his personal beliefs, he was commonly referred to as “Layman P’ang.”

That is, he was an ordinary guy who thought for himself.

          At an early age P’ang became disillusioned with China’s politics, the military comings and goings of the T’ang dynasty, and the routine teachings of so-called holy places. Though he was the privileged son of a minor official, he had no desire to pursue an organizational career. Instead of joining a temple, he, his wife, daughter, and son practiced Buddhism on their own terms in a thatched hut they added to their home.

          One day P’ang casually mentioned that living was difficult and that his studies were boring. His wife responded by saying living was merely touching one’s feet to the ground when getting out of bed, and that she found the teaching in the blossoms of flowering plants. His daughter said, “When I am hungry I eat. When I am tired I rest.”

Those views caused P’ang to reexamine himself

          P’ang’s son was content with life as a farmer He had nothing to say about life.

          As an experiment, P’ang spent a year at a Chán monastery where he meditated not as a monk but as a common student. One day the master asked him what he did at the monastery. P’ang wrote the following:

          “My daily activities are not unusual,

          “I’m just in harmony with them.

          “Grasping nothing, discarding nothing.

          “In every place there is no hindrance, no conflict.

          “My supernatural power and marvelous activity are

          “Drawing water and chopping wood.”


          The master was impressed by such a candid answer, and he suggested that P’ang become a monk. P’ang shook his head and said, “Thanks but no thanks. I prefer doing what I like.”

          One day P’ang was stretched out on a couch amusing himself by reading sutras. A monk passing by stopped and said, “Good sir, you must maintain dignity when reading the words of the Buddha.”

          Without removing his gaze from the printed words, Layman raised one leg.

          The monk was puzzled, and he shut up.

          One day Mrs. P’ang went to a local temple to present some food as a donation. The temple priest thanked her and asked the purpose of her offering so he could assign the merit and complete the transfer. Mrs. P’ang thought such a suggestion was complete nonsense and had nothing to do with anything. Sticking her comb in her hair she said, “The transfer is done,” And she left the temple.

          The priest was baffled.

          When P’ang was around fifty years old he loaded a boat with all of his material possessions and sunk everything in a river. Then he and his daughter, Ling-chao, left home to look for individuals who were reputed to be learned in the ways of Buddhism and Chán. Their journey turned out to be frustrating rather than satisfying.

          To support themselves they made and sold bamboo utensils in villages and market places.

          One writer mentions that the biographical record about the P’ang family is limited. With no other information to go on, the best guess is that the father and the daughter continued their travels and discourses while the mother and the son continued as farmers. Even with their separation, the family continued to practice Confucian Buddhism on their own terms. 

          The P’angs may have been Confucians, and they respected the Confucian ideals, but they identified themselves as Buddhists. Still, they refused to “take the cloth.” That is, they avoided becoming monks or priests and they sidestepped any particular temple. One writer says Layman did not carry the jingling-bell staff of the Buddhist pilgrim but preferred the unadorned bamboo stick of the ordinary traveler. Instead of a black monk’s robe, he wore a plain white wrap that he called his robe of emptiness.

          In one of his poems, Layman wrote:

           “I have a boy who has no bride,

          “I have a girl who has no groom,

          “It’s a happy family circle,

          “We speak about the unborn.”


          A Korean history titled The Chodang Chip (which translates as Patriarch’s Hall Collection) is the first existing collection of texts that portrays Chán as a distinct tradition of Buddhism. Created about 950, the history is mostly biographic in nature, though it also contains "encounter dialogues" and other typical Chán texts. It portrays Layman P’ang as “Confucian in appearance, his feelings unrestrained, and his behavior as easy everywhere.”

          There are many stories about P’ang.

          One day the Layman saw a young boy herding oxen and asked him, “Where does this path we are following lead?”

          The boy said, “I don't know where it goes.”

          The Layman said, “Aren’t you herding the oxen?”

          The boy said, “They live in these fields.”

          The Layman said, “What time of day is it anyway?”

          The boy said, “It’s time for the oxen to pasture.”

          The Layman laughed because he knew that the oxen knew what time it was and where they were going. And the boy’s answer was better than any that came out of a so-called master.

          Another story tells of the time the Layman visited the Yueh-shan monastery. When the Layman departed, the master sent a group of monks to see him off at the gate. It happened to be snowing. The Layman pointed at the falling snow and exclaimed, “What wondrous snow, each flake falls in the right place.”

          Think about that.    

          P’ang may have been free from prejudice or bigotry, but he did not belittle anyone who practiced Buddhism or taught Buddhism in the standard manner. Instead he liked to engage one educated individual after another with interchanges that more often than not flabbergasted masters and caused them to reconsider their teachings.

          Much like Vimalakīrti, a historic figure who is thought of as a contemporary of Guatama Buddha, P’ang is considered a model of the non-monastic Buddhist follower who lives an exemplary Buddhist life.

          As the Layman wrote:

          “My daily activities are not unusual,

          “I’m just in harmony with them.