Monday, February 29, 2016



I don’t know if anyone pays much attention to the marquees—or signboards—outside churches. You know the ones that list the hours for services, show the minister’s name, and offer a pithy statement. The messages are intended to be inspirational, but even to a religiously inclined person they’re often puzzling. To a non-religious person they can be absolutely baffling and even hilarious.

            I often wonder if each church minister thinks up these little nuggets of wisdom, or if there is equivalent of what, in the music world, is called a “fake” book. A fake book is a common collection of songs that anyone can use. Probably there isn’t a pastoral fake book, because the same message seldom appears in two different locations.

            What these memos say, or don’t say, and how they say, or don’t say, it reveals a lot about religions. For example, not long ago I read in front of church the following:

            “Give your life to God. He can do more with it than you can.”

            At first you might think, hey, that’s clever. God is all-everything, and so….Then you realize what’s really being expressed.

I’ll repeat the message: “Give your life to God. He can do more with it than you can.” That is to say, “You helpless clod. Don’t even imagine you can be responsible for yourself. Instead look to someone other than you, and dump on that someone. Then whatever you do isn’t really your doing.”

            Then there’s the message, “Give your heart to Jesus, your brain to science.”

            I made that one up, but you get the idea how commonplace and predictable such statements can be.

            Zen is about oneself. It isn’t about clawing outwardly for someone or something else but about peering inwardly to realize who you are. Once you see yourself, there are no promises that you’ll be cured of alcoholism or facial warts. What is important is that you—not some questionable other—will be administering to you.

            To quote or misquote someone or another, “I am the most important (insert your own name) I know.

            Is that egocentric? Is that selfish? I don’t think so. What it means is taking your own self as the starting point in a metaphysical way. If you can’t acknowledge the importance of your being to yourself, and keep your being in your own hands, you sure won’t find self-justification in someone or something else.

            Today I’d like to talk about what I call Kitchen Zen.

Kitchen Zen.

It’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? It makes one wonder what it means. I’d like to think I made up the term, but probably someone else coined it centuries ago. The notion comes from an experience of Zen master Dogen Kigen.

            Dogen was a Japanese who lived from 1200 to 1253. At age twelve he began a dedicated life at Senkobo, a Tendai Buddhist monastery. At that time in Japan many serious “religious” scholars were dissatisfied with the teachings of popular Buddhist schools because most of them read so-called sacred scriptures and practiced mysterious rituals. Zen wasn’t widely known in Japan, so the real thinkers who wanted to dig deeply into Zen traveled to the birthplace of Zen.

Where would that have been?

China. In China the direct transmission of Bodhidharma and Hui-neng continued to be recognized, and in China Zen continued to be a nonexistent clear mirror.

In 1223 Dogen and an associate sailed from Japan and docked in central China. Their landing might have been Tsingtao or Shanghai. For one reason or another Dogen was detained in port aboard the ship for several weeks. During that time an elderly Chinese man came aboard. He was not only a monk, but the head cook at Mount A-yu-wang Monastery. He and Dogen hit it off from the start, and the two of them enjoyed many hours together conversing and sharing intellectual matters. When Dogen asked the fellow to stay longer, the cook thanked him and said he had to return to his kitchen.

            Dogen asked what was so important about that kind work, and the monk explained kitchen labor was his form of Zen practice.

“But at your age why do you slave away in a hot kitchen instead of devoting yourself to meditation?” Dogen asked.

The cook laughed and said, “My friend from a foreign land, you may be a Buddhist, but you don’t know what Zen practice is, nor do you understand words and scriptures.” Then the monk told Dogen goodbye, and left the ship.

Several months later, when Dogen was studying in the Chinese monastery on Mount T’ien-t’ung, the old man showed up again, and the two of them resumed their discussions, Dogen asked the meaning of “practice” and “words and scriptures.” The cook-monk answered, “Words and scriptures are one, two, three, four, five. Practice means nothing in the world is hidden.”

Dogen took this to signify that words and so-called holy writings were—in today’s vernacular—a dime a dozen, whereas Zen practice is enlightenment. In Dogen’s later writing titled The Lesson from the Monk-Cook he indicated how he had been emotionally stirred by the cook’s Zen.

This “man of the Tao,” as Dogen referred to the cook, had shown Dogen that work which flows out of enlightenment is actually Zen practice. Even more, any activity—whether it’s teaching a room-full of noisy kids, or cooking a pot of rice, or building a boat, or planting a garden, or maintaining a data-base, or installing dry wall, or carrying out the trash—can be Zen practice.

Think about it. Anything can be Zen practice.

            To quote Heinrich Dumoulin, author of Zen Buddhism: A History, Japan, “The cook embodied the living tradition of Chinese Zen from the time of the fourth and fifth patriarchs … which taught that Zen is practiced not only by sitting cross-legged in meditation … but just as much in daily service to the community.”

            That is what I call Kitchen Zen.

Monday, February 08, 2016



We’ve talked about intellect, which is wisdom, knowledge, and reason all rolled into one. We’ve said that even though intellect is part of the human condition, it needs to be transcended if we are to realize our true selves, our inherent Buddha-nature.

            Buddha-nature goes beyond intellect in two areas. One area is perception, that is, instant recognition. The other area is intuition, that is, instinctive action.

            Life trains us to think, to analyze, to weigh pros and cons, to intellectualize. This is neither good nor bad. It’s what human life is, and that’s a fact. We have to recognize that fact, and at the same time we have to step back and see it for what it is. We have to see the limitations of life training.

            So there is life training and there is Buddha-nature. This is one manifestation of what is called duality. Duality also shows up in thinking in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, this or that. Obviously we can’t do away with life-training or with Buddha-nature, so we must reconcile them. We must transcend duality.

            Japan is a group of four major islands. Being surrounded by water, Japan’s temperatures swing widely from season to season. In winter Japan is really cold. In summer it is really hot. A monk asked a Zen master how one could escape cold and heat.

            The master said, “Go where there is no cold or heat.”

            The monk, thinking in terms of geography, wondered if there was such a place.

            The master said, “When you are hot, be hot. When you are cold, be cold.”

            Think about it.

            If we could escape cold and heat, good and bad, right or wrong, that would be fine. But there is no place to run, no tree to hide behind. Life seems to come in such pairs. You probably even know jokes that are built around the words, “First the good part, then the bad part.”

            So where is a place of no-duality? Where is the fabled land flowing with milk and honey? Is there an escape from trouble?

            Zen says to become one with trouble. If the day is hot, don’t moan about how uncomfortable you are. Don’t feel put upon. Experience the heat instead of fighting it. Be one with it. When you become totally one with anything you become your master instead of its slave.

            As hot as Japan may get, there are few places in the world that are hotter than Thailand in the summer. When I first went to Thailand I could hardly breathe in the 100-degree-plus heat. I was constantly drenched with perspiration. I physically drooped and mentally sagged.

            It didn’t take long for me to decide that as good as air conditioning felt, I didn’t want to spend all of my time sitting in luxury hotels, quaffing iced Singha beer. I wanted to experience Thailand. Besides, in the most fascinating parts of Thailand—the back country—there are few fancy hotels and not much air conditioning.

            I didn’t want to hide from the heat, and I couldn’t fight it, so I learned to join it. That didn’t take long—maybe a single day—because most of the torment was in my head, not in my body.

            I became one with the heat, and I accepted it for what it was. I never looked at a thermometer because I knew the mercury would be way up at the top. It was hot during the day, it was hot during the night. It was hot, hot, hot.

            So instead of hiding out, I walked miles and miles every day. Of course, I sweated and I itched, but that no longer mattered. I had a terrific time climbing in ruins, playing ball with children, exploring open-air markets.

            At noon the heat was intense, yet I was so entirely with it that I occasionally experienced a cold chill of pure delight.

            I did not master the heat. I mastered myself. I perceived what heat is, and I acted intuitively. No longer was heat bad and cool good. No longer was there a duality of the temperature versus me. We were one.

Hot is hot. Cold is cold. Each is what it is.

You are what you are.

So enjoy.

Monday, February 01, 2016


The Way of Chuang Tzu

After Lao-Tzu's Tao-te Ching, the second most well-known Taoist text is the       

Chuang-Tzu, written by a man named—you guessed it—Chuang Tzu. He was a Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC. Scholars think his text was derived from Lao Tzu because it too emphasizes the nature of life as ever changing.

          D.C. Lau, a contemporary Asian scholar, suggests there are two developments that separate Chuang Tzu’s approach from Lao-Tzu's. The first is a tendency toward moral relativism. The second is a Descartean struggle with sensory perception.

          Whatever that means is up to your understanding.

          To put it simply, it suggests that all natural life and all experiences are essentially interchangeable. A butterfly's existence is just as valuable and meaningful as a human one, and a dream is just as valuable and meaningful as an experience one has while awake.

          Chuang Tzu hinted at that when he wrote, “Once I dreamt I was a butterfly and was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly. When I awoke I was myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.”

          By all accounts Chuang Tzu was a person at peace with himself as well as with the world. His writings combine parables and conversations that point to deeper issues. He believed that life is fleeting, and the pursuit of wealth and fame were foolish endeavors that distracted from a true understanding of self and existence.

"The universe is the unity of all things,” he said. “If one recognizes his identity with this unity, the parts of his body mean no more to him than so much dirt, and death and life, and end and beginning disturb his tranquility no more than the succession of day and night."

He wondered: "Do the clouds make rain? Or is it the rain that makes the clouds? Who is it that has the leisure to devote himself, with such abandoned glee, to making these things happen?"

Chuang Tzu's notion of the Tao was similar to that of Lao Tzu. "The Tao has reality and evidence,” he wrote, “but no action or physical form. It may be transmitted but cannot be received. It may be obtained but cannot be seen.”

In either Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu there is no hint of a religious inclination of the kind which later adherents plagued Taoism with. Taoism evolved as a philosophy without the religious trappings that some followers felt they had to add to the movement.

Taoism is free of any trace of prophecy, pseudoscience, searches for an elixir of life, and all the other frills that later attached themselves.

Following are a few points about what Taoism is and is not, as excerpted from Responsible Non-action in a Natural World, by the contemporary scholar Russell Kirkland.


Immortality doesn't mean living for ever in the present physical body. As the Taoist draws closer and closer to nature throughout life, death is the final step in achieving complete unity with the universe.


Because the universe is always changing, so knowledge is always changing. Like the Tao, true knowledge cannot be known, but perhaps it can be understood or lived.


Taoist ethics are concerned less with doing good acts than becoming a person who lives in harmony with all things and people.


 Taoists tend not to initiate action but wait for events to make action necessary.


Taoism was adopted by the Hippy movement of the 1960s as teaching an alternative way of life that promoted the freedom and autonomy of the individual over the constraints of society and government.

Taoism does not teach this.

And a few words from Chuang Tzu himself:

We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it. Yet our opinions have no permanence. Like autumn and winter, they gradually pass away.

If you have grasped the purpose of life there is no point in trying to make life into something it is not or cannot be.

Flow with whatever is happening and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing.