Monday, June 19, 2017



Most writers scribble notes, where ever they may be at any given time, notes that may come in handy at a later date. They fill notebooks with jottings—colors, smells, sounds, quirky happenings. Notes are a rough guide to a writer’s observations and his identification with an emotion.

However, more often than not, a note that may have seemed a brilliant commentary when it was jotted down becomes totally baffling when read later. Here’ is an example from my own note pad, written hastily a couple of years ago:

“Felk the sorkins.”

Felk the sorkins? What does that mean? What is a sorkin? How do you felk one? Why?

Here’s another of my notes:

“Nature is natural; Religions are not.”

Now that seems rather sensible. It’s something I can wrap my mind around.

With that drawn-out preamble, I’d like to talk about nature and Zen.

When I say “Nature,” I mean the world of things not formed by human beings.

Flowers, trees, birds, stones, clouds.

Nature with a capital “N.”

Mother Nature.

An aside. The American Heritage Dictionary gives a curious definition for nature: “Humankind’s natural state as distinguished from the state of grace.”

There is a song titled State of Grace. There is also a TV series by that name, as well as a punk rock band.

What the state of grace is, I have no idea. It makes as much sense as Felk the sorkins.

Getting back to Nature, humans want to conquer Nature, to bend Nature. Humans bulldoze primeval forests to make way for factories. They wipe out animal habitats in order to feel safe. They level mountains so they don’t have to drive around them. Humans pollute rivers, lakes, the atmosphere, and outer space.

You get the idea.

Yeah, yeah, we know all this. What does it have to do with Zen?

D.T. Suzuki (Zen Buddhism) suggested that Western people sometimes treat Nature as something “there” into which Man comes.

Sumie—black ink brush painting—is a favorite art form in Japan is. A Sumi picture seldom includes skyscrapers or trains or Hummers. Instead, most images are of the natural world. Birds, flowers, waterfalls, misty mountains. If any humans are painted, they are small, and subservient to Nature. In a sumi painting a human is not presented as master of all, but as a related part of the whole.

Poetry. One of the principles of classical haiku is that it be based on nature and include a hint of the season of the year.

Western haiku are far removed from Eastern haiku, but we won’t go into that.

Here’s a haiku by Buson:

That snail—
One long horn,
What’s on his mind?

The poet Basho said one should learn about pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.

Granted that the ancient Japanese poets and painters lived in a more Natural world without cars or even central heating, they appreciated nature for what it was.

Nancy Wilson Ross, author of The World of Zen, wrote that brush painting focused on the Tao, the Way, the Order of Nature. To quote her:

“To the Westerner in search of the reintegration of man and nature there is an appeal far beyond the merely sentimental in the naturalism of Zen.”

An aside: One ancient teacher said Zen was like a mountain veiled in mist, and once the mist is penetrated, Zen is all solid rock.

The Christian Bible presents some gloomy words regarding Nature. Genesis 1: 28 says the following words were given to Adam and Eve:
“Fill the earth and subdue it; bear rule over the fishes of the sea; over the birds of the air and over every living, moving creature on earth.”

The Bible notwithstanding, mankind does not have to be in opposition to Nature.

D.T. Suzuki asks if this is the right way of thinking, this idea of domination. He says it’s a Western idea to treat nature as something unreasonable.

And Suzuki goes on to say that when man is in agreement with Nature, Nature will help man to understand himself.

As I hinted earlier, mountains are a recurring natural theme in Zen painting and in poetry. One ancient master said:

When I began to study Zen, mountains were mountains. When I thought I understood Zen, mountains were not mountains. When I really comprehended Zen, mountains were again mountains.

What does that mean?

It means when mountains, and Nature, are integrated into my being, and I am immersed in them, they are what they are and I am what I am.

I am a part of all that I have met.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Remember my saying that Zen dialogues are often intended to be puzzling, even cryptic. This is because such talks are aimed at bringing about intuitive awakening.

          Most of the stories I’ll be relating in this talk are not my invention. Most of them come from China, and they date back to the so-called golden age of Zen during the T’ang dynasty (620-900 A.D.) and the Sung dynasty (930-1278 A.D.).  A few tales come from Japan and are younger in age.

          The first story is known as Opening Speech.

          A prosperous lord built a monastery for a noted Zen master and asked the master to give the first talk in the monastery’s lecture hall.

          An audience gathered and settled itself.

          The master entered the hall, put on his robe, and sat down.

          All the people leaned forward, anticipating what they were sure would be a fine, learned speech.

          The master sat silently for several minutes. Then he removed his robe, stood up, said “Goodbye,” and left the hall.

          Most of the people were startled, and a few of them muttered their disappointment.

          The monastery’s patron approached the master and said, “The Buddha’s teaching must have been the same as yours.”

          The master said, “I thought you were a stranger to the teaching. However, you know something of Zen.”

          What’s going on here? How vague can a story be? Is there any sort of meaning to grab hold of?

          Well, to flog a dead horse, the meaning lies in the Zen master refusing to play a ritualistic role of a master or teacher. That would have been like setting up a statue of the Buddha in a room and thus establishing a so-called ivory tower.

An ivory tower is defined as a preoccupation with intellectual considerations rather than with practical everyday life.

          The master—being a true Zen person—did away with such a non-realistic attitude even before it could be established.

          Zen is Zen. It is in and of the person. It is not an icon or a robe or place of honor or a ritual

          The essence of Zen lies not only in saying “Goodbye” to synthetic trappings, but also in saying “Farewell” to you.

          Think about it.

          This story is similar in its significance to an apocryphal tale of the Buddha himself, The Flower.

          One day the Buddha sat on the ground to give a talk to a group of his disciples. They clustered around and waited silently so they wouldn’t miss a word.

          The Buddha said nothing, but simply held up a small flower. Most of the people stared at one another, wondering what that was all about. But one of them looked at the Buddha and smiled.

Now I’ll talk about Stone Buddha.

A lay person said to a Zen master, “I have a stone in my garden that I intend to carve in the likeness of the Buddha. Can I do it?”

The master said, “Yes, you can.”

The lay person then asked, “Can I not do it?”

The master answered, “No, you can not do it.”

Before you go batty trying to work out the double and triple negatives, think for a moment without trying to analyze.

The citizen assumed the teacher would praise the good intention of sculpting a statue of the Buddha. But all the teacher said was “Yes, you can.”

When the citizen asked, “Can I not do it?” he wanted to be sure, and he expected the master to affirm him.

When the master answered “No, you can not do it,” the fellow was probably confused all to hell and gone.

The point is if one wants to carve a statue of the Buddha, they should do it whether or not others approve. If there the slightest doubt enters in, the act will never take place.

The fellow probably had a good, solid stone, but his resolve was brittle.