Monday, July 25, 2016



Much of this talk was inspired by the writings of Wong Kiew Kit, a Chinese martial arts master and author of The Complete Book of Zen. He suggests that most earnest beginners in Zen have at least three questions regarding their progress.

1. They want to know what to look for, to make sure their practice is correct.

2. They want to know how to tell if they have attained enlightenment.

3. They want to know if there is anything beyond enlightenment.

Let’s talk about correct practice by backing into it. If Zen is being practiced incorrectly, there will be several obvious signs:

One indicator is physical pain during meditation. I’m not referring to your leg going to sleep, or your lower back aching. Usually these annoyances can be taken care of by correcting your posture or by using a different cushion. Agonizing, persistent pain while doing zazen is different. It’s an indication that something is inappropriate, or something is being done improperly. Zazen is not an exercise in mind over matter. If you really hurt, you really hurt, and you shouldn’t try to tough it out or be a martyr. Do something about the situation, such as discussing it with a master or a teacher.

Another sign of improper practice is consistent drowsiness during meditation. If you tend to nod off while doing zazen, the simplest answer may be to get more sleep. On the other hand, you may be forcing your meditation, which will tire your mind instead of relaxing it. Instead of trying to concentrate on some thing, let your mind drop. Let it hang loose. Let it unbend. As long as you aren’t physically or mentally fatigued, your zazen shouldn’t be bothered by drowsiness.

Another clue to inappropriate practice is apprehension during meditation. Some people experience actual fear or dread when they do zazen. This is most likely caused by a person having doubts or second thoughts about their practice. Some individuals who come to Zen from an organized religion may be nagged by feelings of guilt when they participate in a non-religious activity. Such people might do well to learn more about Zen and Buddhism by reading some of the better writers: Nancy Wilson Ross, Trevor Leggett, D.T. Suzuki, Robert Aitken, Christmas Humphries, and Thomas Cleary. They might also talk with a master or a teacher.

            There’s another possible reason for mental discomfort. This may sound flaky, but certain locations are not suited for meditation. I don’t mean to be mystical about this, but it’s a fact that some physical places do have what might be termed bad vibrations. I once was photographing Cedarville, a tiny town in Northern California. It was an attractive, clean place, and the local people were pleasant. But all the time I was there I felt apprehensive. I couldn’t understand what was going on until later when I was told that many years earlier a band of Modoc Indian men, women, and children had been massacred on the site. I don’t know about lingering spirits. I do know my feelings that something was not quite right were very real. That place would probably not have been a good place for zazen.

            How about positive indications you are making progress in your Zen practice?

1. You feel fresh and relaxed after sitting zazen.

2. You experience a lasting sense of inner calm.

3. You are able to focus on something—anything—for longer periods of time.

4. You think much more clearly.

5. You make a decision without analyzing the pros and cons of the matter.

6. You feel free of attachments.

7. You experience a great harmony with all existence.

Now let’s look at the second beginner’s question of how one knows if they have attained enlightenment. Are there any clues to that?

            Breaking through dualistic thinking is essential. So once you feel free of concepts of good or bad, right or wrong, this way or that way, you are either there or getting close.

Enlightenment, or satori, or kensho, involves a change of viewpoint to an intuitive, non-intellectual kind of understanding. Be alert to such a change. It may not come about in a flash, like a bolt of lightning, but when it does come—or as it comes—you’ll know. This change represents the opening of a brand new world, a world that isn’t disclosed to a mind that thinks in this-or-that terms.

How can you be sure if or when you’ve attained enlightenment? The question is really immaterial because when it happens, you know it. You don’t talk about it or brag about it. It’s something that you perceive inside yourself, and which others can tell from the outside.

When a person is happy they may not be able to describe the sensation, but they intuitively know. And others know, as well. Oh, the concept of enlightenment may be talked about, like I’m talking about it right now, but narrations are only words and can’t adequately transmit the experience. Furthermore, whatever a person says to another person about enlightenment will probably be incomprehensible unless that other person has had the experience. It’s like trying to describe a sunset to a blind person.

Remember: It takes a Buddha to recognize a Buddha.

Let’s wind this up by looking at the beginner’s question of what may or may not lie beyond enlightenment.               

In Buddhism beyond-enlightenment is referred to as nirvana. It’s a state of supreme happiness. Nirvana is liberation from what the Buddha referred to as suffering resulting from desire, which causes attachment to life and death.

Some people think of nirvana as they might think of the Christian Heaven, as a cushy physical place where everyone hangs out and is having a terrific time. One big, ongoing party with the host supplying all the drinks. Other people think of nirvana as total annihilation, like the snuffing out of a candle flame.

The Buddha said nirvana is extinction. However, he was referring not to a total end but to the extinction of attachments and desire, and the resulting pain and suffering. What comes after enlightenment is release from all that, which is total freedom.

Monday, July 18, 2016



          Youngsters never own up that they learn things from their parents. I learned a lot from mine, but I didn’t realize it—or was willing to admit to it—until I many years later

From my mother I gained an appreciation of nature and a feeling for self-sufficiency. From my father I gained a sense of humor and an appreciation for paradox.

My dad never sat me down and said “Now think this, or figure that out.” Instead he made up brainteasers that often seemed nonsense, but they had the effect of delighting, challenging, and more often than not enlightening my juvenile mind.

          For example, there’s the conundrum that asks: How do you get down off an elephant?

The response: You don’t get down off an elephant, you get down off a duck.

          With my then-short memory I bit on that one more than once. It was often followed by another poser that could have made a perfect koan because it had no answer.

          Why is a bicycle?

          The response, or a response: Too hot to carry your lunch.

          Move that enigma over to Zen and you have the subject of tonight’s talk.

          Why is a koan?

          I owe the inspiration for what follows to Dad, who was a refrigeration engineer, a welder, and a bartender, and to Thomas Cleary, who is a master translator of Taoist and Buddhist texts.

          First off, what is a koan? A koan has been defined variously as:

1.                  A baffling formulation that points to ultimate truth (Philip Kapleau).

2.                 A story or question given to monks by their masters to discipline them and to test their understanding of Zen (Gyomay Kubose),

3.                 A means of opening a student’s intuitive mind (Nancy Wilson Ross).

4.                 A paradoxical question of existence (Deshimaru Roshi).

5.                 A problem to be solved (D. T. Suzuki).

          The koan was developed in China more than a thousand years ago as a sort of sharpening tool used to put a finely honed edge on awareness.

          Cleary mentions that Zen teachers used koans to test the insight of Zen seekers, and Zen seekers used koans to evaluate Zen teachers. Koans thus became a sort of doorway that looks in opposite directions.

          Koans are sometimes thought of as puzzles, but a puzzle implies a solution or a defining answer. A koan doesn’t have a specific answer, and because of this most people’s minds find koans frustrating.

You can’t pick a koan apart. A koan will not yield to logic or reason.

Rather than thinking of the koan as a riddle, or an exercise in logic, think of it as a means for revealing the inborn potential of the human intellect. Think of it as an awakening experience. Once a person is able to cut through rational thought and do away with a diagnostic approach a koan becomes perfectly clear.

          To quote Cleary (in Unlocking the Zen Koan): “Zen awakening liberates the mind from the limitations and burdens of narrow views, dogmatic assumptions, and circular thinking habits.”

          Koans are commonly used in Rinzai Zen, less frequently in Soto Zen though Soto doesn’t put down the use of koans.

Rinzai uses koans in conjunction with meditation to open the mental barriers, whereas Soto throws the burden entirely onto the individual in his or her zazen practice.

          Which is better, Soto or Rinzai? Koan or shikantaza?

          That’s a koan in itself.

          Which is better, to walk five miles or to bicycle five miles?

          It all depends on the individual who is doing the traveling.

          When most people come across their first koan they are baffled. Confused. Even frustrated. This happens even to Rinzai practitioners.

          Most people can’t make any sense out of a question such as ”What is Buddha?”

          Even less comprehensible is one response. “The very mind is Buddha.”

          And if an individual does gain some insight into that query and reply, the next one blows his or her mind altogether:

          “What is Buddha?”

          “Not mind, not Buddha.”

          How can that possibly be construed?

          It can’t, so don’t worry about it.

                   Koans can be useful in practicing zazen as well as in practicing mindfulness. Since zazen and mindfulness are one and the same this is like saying the length of a piece of string is twice the distance from one end to the middle.

                   Koan inquiry is a fascinating, and enlightening, discipline. But before we get into some suggestions for koan study I want to point out that koans are not like detective novels or short stories. You don’t read them for entertainment, then toss them aside. You need to look at koans three or four times. Or more

        We Westerners are a pragmatic lot. We want to  be led. We like things presented in orderly fashion. So as a Westerner speaking to Westerners, here is a no-nonsense way to deal with koans.

1.     Read a koan, or a couple of koans, without assigning any explanations or interpretations, and without looking at any commentaries. Avoid analyzing or deciphering. Just read carefully and attentively. Don’t worry if you don’t understand. Just read, and let the words sink into your mind.

2.    A few hours, or a day, later read the koan or koans again. Again, only the koans themselves. This time if you find yourself trying to decipher, bring your mind to the immediate present.

3.    Again read the koan or koans. But now also read the commentaries. If your mind starts to wander, bring it back to the present.

4.    Go back to the first step and read only the koan. Now let your mind grasp the concept.

Thomas Cleary recommends calling a koan to mind whenever you realize you’ve forgotten about it, and whenever you find your mind wandering. This is excellent advice. It helps train the mind to be calm and free, and to focus on one thing at a time.

All this may help to clarify a koan. Still, there are no guarantees, no thirty-day warranties with a money-back pledge.

Why is a koan?

You’re on your own.