Monday, August 22, 2016



A young friend of mine was seriously interested in Zen. He read everything he could lay his hands on regarding Zen and on Buddhism. He was familiar with the Four Noble Truths, and he did his best to follow the Eightfold Path.

He was sincere about his meditation, and he sat diligently.

One day he said he was thinking about being a Zen monk and felt he needed a strong, masterful leader. He asked if I could provide him with the locations of some monasteries, or serious study centers, in the United States.

Places that were known for their forceful leaders.

He was a college student and couldn’t afford to travel to Burma, or Thailand, or Viet Nam, or China, or Japan.

I gave him information on several centers around the country. San Francisco, Mt. Shasta, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Santa Fe, New York, and others.

He thanked me, quit his classes and job, and set off to look into each of the sites.

Several months later my friend returned from his odyssey.

“How did it go,” I asked. “Did you find a place you could settle in and call home? A leader you could follow?”

He said. “All of them were too rigorous.”

“What do you mean rigorous?”

“The masters were deadly serious. They were stern, painstaking, and austere.”

“How?” I asked.

“Each day started at four in the morning and ended close to midnight,” he said.

“There were at least five interminable zazen sittings every day. My legs were killing me. Everyone had to work hard, in the kitchen, or in the garden, or in the latrine. You got enough to eat, but it was all vegetables, and soups, and rice, and tea.

“You had to keep your mouth shut most of the time. Only the master spoke.

“And in some of the places there was only cold water for bathing.”

I didn’t tell him that sort of training was a piece of cake compared to the intense discipline that’s common in an Asian Zen monastery.

“So have you given up on the idea of becoming a monk?” I asked.

“Yes,” He answered. “I’m going to move to Los Angeles. I’ll be the best ordinary Zen guy I can.”

What a brilliant statement.

“I’ll be the best ordinary Zen guy I can.”

That’s the most one can expect, or ever really want. As an example take the renowned Zen layman, Pang.

Pang Jushi lived in China around the time of the Buddha. He was a merchant, and he had a wife, a son, and a daughter, all of whom lived a non-monastic Buddhist life.

Many stories of this notable Pang have been recorded in straightforward language, and they serve as inspiration to all Zen practitioners.

Layman Pang studied under two Chan masters, but never took monastic vows. One of his experiences is recorded in the koan collection called The Blue Cliff Record. It has to do with snow.

When Pang left Yao Mountain, on a winter’s day, the monastery master had several other students escort him to the gate. Pang pointed to the flying snow and said, “These are good snowflakes. They don’t fall anywhere else.”

One of the travelers said, “Well, where do they fall?”

Pang answered, “You call yourself a Chan traveler, but your eyes are like those of a blind man. And your mouth speaks like a mute.”

Think about it.

When Pang was middle-age, he went to study under a master named Shitou Xiqian. As soon as Pang arrived he asked Shitou, “Who is the one who is not a companion to the ten thousand dharmas?”

Shitou put his hand over Pang’s mouth. It was a wordless action that added to Pang’s awakening.

While Pang was at Shitou’s monastery, the master once asked him what he’d been doing in the last few days. Pang answered with the two lines that have become classic in Zen literature.

“How amazing and marvelous. Hauling water and carrying wood.”

One more story.

Pang once attended a reading of the Diamond Sutra, at which the speaker quoted, “No self. No other.”

Pang interrupted to say, “Speaker, if there is no self and no other, who is lecturing and who is listening?”

The speaker couldn’t answer.

Think about it.

When Pang was almost eighty, and was well known in southern China, he became seriously ill. The governor of Ziangzhou visited him and asked, “How are you, my old friend?”

Pang said, “I ask that you regard everything that is as empty, And do not give substance to that which has none. The world is like reflections and echoes.”

Layman Pang was the best Zen guy he could be.

I’m pretty sure my friend is being the best Zen guy he can be.

Even if he lives in Los Angeles, where there isn’t any snow.

* * * * *

Leaders needs followers.

Followers need leaders.

A person who needs neither is comfortable being a Zen person.

Monday, August 15, 2016


I want to start out with a quotation from the book The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra.

“The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view—one could almost say the essence of it—is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness.”

I’d like to carry out a little exercise related to form and nothingness. It’s an exercise aimed at expanding our awareness of the interrelationship of all existence.

We learn early, as children, to speak of “this” and of “that,” as if “this” and “that” were unconnected entities. And we learn early on to discriminate between “this” and “that.”

Certainly a tree is its own distinct self. A stone is its own distinct self. Each tree has its individual tree-ness, which is like no other tree’s tree-ness, and the same goes for a stone. A tree is a tree, a stone is a stone, and a human being is a human being.

Zen recognizes the unique quality of each thing, whether the thing is a tree, a stone, a woman, or a man. At the same time Zen does not limit or restrict. Zen doesn’t set one thing against another.

Zen doesn’t judge.

Zen doesn’t say, “This is a good tree, that’s a bad tree.”

Consider this ringing bowl. It was produced in a factory, probably in Japan, along with thousands of other bowls. All of the bowls from that particular run have the same shape, the same size, the same color.

And probably all of those bowl-brothers would produce the same sound when struck.

If we were in a store contemplating a collection of ten, or a hundred, such bowl-brothers—as I was when I bought this one—they would all seem the same. They would appear to be pretty much indistinguishable. If we were considering buying one bowl from the many, how would we go about it?

A Zen person would first use most of his or her senses. She or he would look, touch, and listen. Maybe even smell and taste until one bowl stood out as the one.

If there was a bystander, the Zen person would certainly be labeled as being eccentric. A weirdo. Possibly deranged and potentially dangerous.

But the bystander would be making a judgment. We know that, of course, all Zen people are perfectly normal.

Let’s consider this bowl.

First, look at it.

Notice its shape.

The shape is more or less semi-spherical. Demonstrative geometry would describe its bulk as V = (
Pr3/3)/2 minus the amount of liquid or sand it might hold, but we don’t need to know that much about it.

Regard the space the bowl encloses.

Sense the relationship between that inner space and the bowl itself.

Note the space outside the bowl. How far does it reach?

Well, if we can take the word of cosmologists, space is boundless, infinite. Being infinite it has no form.

Now consider this. Could the bowl exist without these inner and outer spaces?

That is to say, could the bowl exist without form and without no-form?

Don’t form and emptiness define each other?

And finally, when you get right down to it, isn't emptiness and isn't form impermanent?

The point of all this is to get you to become conscious of form and no-form. Can you see that the bowl and the emptiness in and around it are vital to the bowl’s nature? Its bowl-ness is not its form only, but also its no-form.

To paraphrase psychologist David Fontana, author of the book Discover Zen, apparent opposites are simply aspects of whatever thing we are considering, whether the thing is a bowl, a stone, or a human being. Without opposites a thing couldn’t exist.

As I said earlier, humans are conditioned early on to think in terms of this or that. But Zen understands that things can be both this and that.

What we call light is electromagnetic radiation, which consists of waves of energy. However, light also involves collisions of particles with electrons. So which is light? Is it waves or is it particles?

Paradoxically, it is both.

As Fontana says, categorizing things can lead to conflict, to agreement or disagreement.

“If you agree [with me],” he said, “you are on my side: if you disagree, you are not.”

And he concluded that this is not the way of Zen.

Consider a wave out in the middle of the ocean. Is a wave separate from the sea? Is a human separate from all living things, such as cats, trees, and earthworms? Are living things separate from non-living things, such as stones? Isn’t everything is made up of atoms?

What is real?

Before and after this moment nothing was real, and nothing will be real. The past doesn’t exist except in memory. The future is merely conjecture.

Only this moment is real. All else is what Zen calls appearances. All things—birds, trees, bugs, humans, and grains of sand—have one thing in common.

It is their Buddha-nature.

Buddha-nature is now, and it is real.

Dogen said all things are Buddha-nature.

Note the word “are.”

That means that all things do not have Buddha-nature but all things are Buddha-nature.

I could sit here and, like a holiness preacher, lay a guilt trip on you by bellowing at you to awaken to your Buddha-nature.

But exhorting isn’t Zen.

What I can do is point to the form of that thing up in the sky we call the moon, and to the non-form of infinite space surrounding it, and egg you on to awaken to your Buddha-nature.

And never mind the pointing finger.