Monday, June 20, 2016


One of Master Dogen’s students mentioned that it took a long time for him—the student—to grasp the essence of the Way. The student wasn’t complaining, but he was concerned about his slowness.

“I’ve been practicing zazen for years,” he said. “But I feel I’m getting nowhere. I’ve learned not to depend on logic, and not on book learning, but I’ve become discourage, and I don’t know what to do.”

Does this sound familiar?

Dogen answered that neither great intelligence nor reasoning were necessary. Neither should one depend on intellectual brilliance or quick-wittedness.

Brainpower has nothing to do with the matter. Don’t discount a person who is slow, or, most important, someone who thinks he is snail-like.

“However, “ Dogen continued, and I quote, “You should not be like a totally witless person. The true study of the way should be easy. It should be effortless.

“At the same time you should know that even among the many thousands of students in China those who genuinely attain the Way and are awakened are in the minority.”

End quote.

That does not mean the odds are against you. You shouldn’t be discouraged, because the majorities that fall by the wayside and drop out are mere dilettantes. They are in Zen in a make-believe way. They are not sincere. They are not serious about their practice.

Without passing judgment, I suppose I could say there are those individuals who have the utmost purpose and there are those who don’t. Those who have the paramount aspiration and work at it accordingly will attain the way.

Those who are merely fiddling around for one personal reason or another won’t. It’s as simple as that.

Paraphrasing Dogen, bear in mind that how much you study and how fast you progress are secondary matters. What is primary is the seeking mind.

Dogen gave a homey example. He said that those who intend to rob a bank, or to defeat a powerful enemy, or to score with a person of the opposite gender will follow their intention and keep it in mind whether they are standing, walking, sitting, or lying down.

They may not be successful in their infamy, or their mayhem, or their romantic pursuit, but they have given it their all and will go a long way toward making it happen.

In practical terms, you have to stick with your Zen practice.

Now I’m not giving any life advice here. What I am saying, to paraphrase Dogen, is if you sincerely aspire for the Way, as you practice Zazen, then, you can shoot a bird however high in the sky of catch a fish however deep in the water.

You must have a determined mind. And when you have a determined mind . . . . Note: I said when, not if.

When you have a determined mind you will, according to Dogen, invariably be awakened.

It doesn’t matter if you are quick or slow, smart or dull, well-educated or unlearned.

The Chinese Zen master Hui-neng was considered to be illiterate, yet around the year 700 he set the tone of Zen for all time by composing these words:

There is no Bodhi tree,

Nor is there a clear mirror.

From the beginning not one thing exists,

So where is a speck of dust to cling?

Think of the Zen truth that everything is impermanent. That is, nothing lasts forever.

Again to paraphrase Dogen, impermanence is the truth that is right in front of you. . . . . the impermanence of life is in your eyes and ears. . . . You should realize the fact that attachment in worldly affairs is your enemy, and to do so is the way to a fuller life.

We should realize that there is only right now, only this moment. We should concentrate on practicing the Way.

To speak of or think about the slowness or the speed of learning is foolishness.

Monday, June 06, 2016



          Advance warning: I’m going to do considerable wandering in this talk, which may provoke a lot of questions and offer not many answers.

Ask yourself, what do you do really well? What do you feel comfortable with, in yourself? Happy with? Easy with? Fulfilled by? It might be a skill such as speed-swimming, or a talent such as painting. It could be cooking, or philosophizing, or speaking in public.

What do you feel you have an aptitude for?

          Whatever characteristics you chose about yourself are not holy gifts bestowed on you by a benevolent master of the universe. They are accomplishments you have involved yourself with over time, and in which you have trained yourself because they felt right and good for you.

They aren’t divine favors. They are you.

          Think about this. When you perform your “things” you are practicing your way. Each person has his or her own way, his or her own realization of self. One person’s way is no better, no worse, than any other person’s way.

          We won’t complicate matters by mentioning the polished talents of terrorists or politicians.

As you know, when I teach Zen I usually teach a combination of Zen and Zen Buddhism. I do this for a couple of reasons.

          If I were to teach Zen I wouldn’t be sitting here talking in circles. I can’t say for sure what I might be doing, but it would probably be something much more spontaneous. That might be easier on me, or more natural for me, but it could be difficult for those with whom I want to share the teaching.

Remember that Zen is a name for the ultimate basis of all thought and being, for something that is independent of and unrelated to anything else. Because Zen is beyond the grasp of the relative mind, it can’t be simply defined or easily explained.

Zen is Zen and must be experienced.

So in teaching it’s helpful for all concerned for me to combine Zen with Zen Buddhism, and make occasional reference to Zen Buddhism, which is more traditional, if only to keep things more comprehensible.

In Zen Buddhism you may come across the word Tathagata in reference to the Buddha. Thathagata sounds like something holy or sacred. However, it means one who has come and gone this way. Never mind what the point of that is. Just remember that if space really is curved, as some cosmologists claim, all these seemingly irrelevant asides will eventually bounce back, combine, and make sense.

Another term that pops up in Zen Buddhism is compassion, and that’s what I’d like to spend some time with.

Compassion has to do with empathy, or perceiving the feelings of others. Of course, it’s impossible for one person to understand totally how another person feels. But one can have a sympathetic insight into others’ feelings. That’s what compassion is about.

I have three good friends who are suffering from cancer. I can’t possibly feel what they feel, physically or emotionally. But I can be aware of their trouble, and I can be sensitive to it even though I can’t do much about it.

That’s compassion.

Back to Buddhism. In Buddhism a Bodhisattva is a person who is not seeking enlightenment for only self. A Bodhisattva wants to help all other beings achieve Buddhahood. He is dedicated to compassion, to the effort of relieving the suffering of all beings.

I don’t want to rattle anyone’s cart, but think about this a moment. Isn’t someone who is wholly devoted to something attached to that devotion?

And if a person is obsessed with the idea of compassion, won’t that person want to be good to someone who might not want or need such help? If an individual who is happy living frugally and close to nature is presented with a bundle of money, that person’s happy life is likely to be destroyed.

The point is, you should watch where your compassion might lead you.

Another aside: When you read or hear that a Bodhisattva is dedicated to saving all forms of life, that word “saving” shouldn’t be taken in the Christian sense. In the Christian sense, when a person is saved it means he or she comes to believe the man Jesus Christ is the son of God, and traditionally in most such churches, when one is saved they are spared an endless vacation in Hell.

In Christianity, the savior of humankind is Jesus.

The Buddha is not a savior of anything. In Buddhism, “saving” refers to personal enlightenment. So if, in Buddhism, you hear of saving all living beings, it means helping them to gain awakening, helping them to achieve self-realization.

That is compassion.

When we are aware of compassion as a human act of kindness, it isn’t compassion but self-serving. It is self-praise in a conscious effort to do good. There’s nothing bad about wanting to do good. But when we can practice compassion intuitively—when we can live compassion—then we are sharing our awakening with all forms of life.

The British Buddhist scholar Christmas Humphries mentions, in A Western Approach to Zen, one student’s view of compassion.

“The deepening understanding of the oneness of life produces an equally growing compassion for all forms of life. Then the stone is my brother . . . . But I must have experienced it myself.”

When Roshi Philip Kapleau (author of The Three Pillars of Zen, and of Zen Dawn in the West) was asked where compassion fitted into Zen, he answered, “Where doesn’t it fit into Zen? Then he added that compassion, like love, isn’t something one talks about.

He told a story about an ancient Chinese governor who spent several days with a Zen master. When the official was ready to return to the capital the master asked, “How will you supervise the people?”

The governor answered, “With compassion and wisdom.”

“Then,” the master answered, “every last one of them will be the worse off.”

According to Kapleau, a truly benevolent person doesn’t trumpet his or her benevolence. Such a quality should be so deeply engrained as to be second nature. It is a manifestation of one’s true self.

          And one’s true self is not second nature. It is first nature.