Wednesday, September 27, 2017


            Many religious denominations, and even some schools of Buddhism, have developed rituals to such an extent the ceremonies come close to magical practices. By that I mean the rites are often comprehensible only to certain elite individuals, to the high priests. To the average person the meanings are lost because the average person goes along with the hocus-pocus out of habit rather than out of any sort of conviction as to its necessity.

            I’m talking about a mixed bag of practices that includes prostrating, hand-clapping, chanting, rote prayer, and so on and on.

            Human beings are…well, human beings are curious. They not only become caught up in ceremonious performances but they attach themselves to objects that, to them, symbolize a need for something external to their selves. Such objects might be a cross, or a star, or a crescent moon, or a statue, or a so-called sacred book. These things in themselves are harmless. It’s when they become attachments or else objects of veneration that one’s true self becomes confused.

            Zen doesn’t condemn rituals. Zen doesn’t judge anything. However, Zen does consider that most sacraments and liturgy are hindrances to its purpose.

            What is the purpose of Zen? What’s its basis?

            The purpose of Zen is self realization. It’s recognizing one’s true self. It’s seeing one’s face before one was born and perceiving the connection that exists among everything in the universe.

            What is unfortunate about mystical practices is that they can set up false values and habits that distract from self realization.

            Satori, or enlightenment, may be instantaneous or it may be gradual. However, if one’s mind is involved in concentrating on physically fiddling around—with following artificial rules properly—a tension is set up in the inner self. That tension is created that hampers the spontaneity of the enlightenment experience.

            Newcomers to Zen are often baffled by its pure simplicity. I’ve been asked how the hands should be held during zazen. I say, “Hold them palm up just below the navel." "But I’m used to resting them on my knees,” I’ve been told.

            I have no argument with that because whether the hands are on the knees, or against the abdomen, or in the lap doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if one meditates in the lotus position on the floor, or sitting in a folding chair, or hanging by one’s thumbs.

            I teach mostly what I’ve been taught. My practices in Zen are neither better nor worse than anyone else’s practices. Allowing oneself to become caught up in the physical aspects of practice—or in bell ringing, or in chanting—can muddle the experience of enlightenment.

            So don’t worry about our singing bowl. It merely provides a signal to do something, just like your alarm clock provides a signal to get you out of bed in the morning. Your clock, this singing bowl, and what ever position you prefer for sitting aren’t matters of great importance. What is important is you.

            If you let your mind pester you with why we do walking meditation in a clockwise direction, you’re depriving your mind of doing what it’s capable of doing. What it’s capable of doing is hanging loose and letting happen what ever will happen.

            Zen masters contend that enlightenment may be realized on any occasion. The sound of a broom handle knocking against a stone has triggered satori. So has a poke in the ribs by a master’s forefinger. Just remember that the broom or the stone or the finger—even the master—isn’t significant. The result of the occasion is what’s vital.

            Every perception is an occasion for satori. Think about that. I’ll say it again. Every perception is an occasion for satori.

            But the occasion for enlightenment can be numbed if one’s self is wrapped up in ritual.

            So many religions and organized systems teach that reality is outside of us in some physical object or in a practice, and that reality must be approached in a ceremonial manner.

Reality is in us. Rather, we are reality.

            Everything in existence is important, but nothing is sacred including Mother, apple pie, and the Alamo.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


A familiar verse in Zen readings is said to have originated during the Tang dynasty in China. As such, it may have grown out of Taoism. It has often been attributed to Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from India to China. In true Zen fashion nobody really knows who composed it, and in true Zen fashion, it really doesn’t matter.

A special communication outside written words;

No dependence upon words and letters;

Direct pointing to the mind;

Seeing into one’s own nature.

So, what is one’s own nature?

Among many textbook answers are enlightenment, awakening, intuition, actuality, self-knowledge, transcendence, spirituality, and so on and on.

The English word spirit comes from Latin spiritus "breath.” It has many different meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance, or to without presence or form.

        For some Native American groups, such as the Hopi and the Zuni, everything has a natural spirit. There is the spirit of rain, of clouds, of animals, of the earth, of rocks.

Kami are Japanese spirits that are honored in Shinto. They can be forces of nature, elements of the landscape, and beings as well as the qualities that these beings express.

Kami are not separate from nature but are of nature. They are manifestations of the interconnectedness of the universe, and are considered to be typical of what humanity should strive toward. To be in harmony with the aspects of nature is to be conscious of the way of the kami.

Though the word kami is translated multiple ways into English, no one English word expresses its full meaning. The ambiguity of the meaning conveys the ambiguous nature of kami themselves.

In Bali I once watched an Indonesian woman set out a bowl of fresh flowers and cooked rice.

She spoke better English than I spoke Indonesian, and when I asked her about what I assumed was her bird feeder she told me the offering was not for the wellbeing of the birds, but for the spirits of the birds.

She went on to explain that all creatures, places, and objects possessed a spiritual nature.

        Granted that the word spirit is an okay term, in respect to Zen it is limited.

           Essence is the basic, real, and consistent nature of a thing. It is the property that makes something what it fundamentally is. Essence is not soul, not ego, not supernatural, not a ghost. It is the characteristic of a living thing, or a place, or an inanimate object.

One time a friend and I were camping in the New Mexico desert, and our fireside talk drifted to matters cosmological. I casually mentioned something about the essence of all things, particularly stones.

Then I mentioned the living essence of stones.

My friend, who was a Christian minister, scoffed, and said, “I suppose you talk to them.”

I said, “Of course.”

And he accused me of animism.

For years afterward he would ask me if I was still talking to any stones.

Essence is the nonphysical part of something. In Japanese the word kokoro has three basic meanings: the heart and its functions; the mind and its functions; and the center, or essence of something.

Most of us are familiar with the word gassho. It’s the Asian custom of placing the palms close to the chest and bowing. Gassho is given not only to a person, but to a place or to a thing. Gassho symbolizes the unity of being, the truth about life. It represents you and me, light and dark, ignorance and wisdom, life and death.

Most important, gassho represents the inter-connectedness with everything.

The essence of existence.

          Now for a koan to take with you. You won’t be tested or graded on your response. In fact I don’t want to know your answer because it is uniquely your answer.

          The koan is this.

          What is the essence of existence?

          Not the meaning of life, because as mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”

          What is the essence of existence?

Monday, September 11, 2017



A pundit is a person who offers his or her opinion on a particular subject area on which he or she appears to be knowledgeable.

The news media is loaded with pundits.

Such a person once visited a Zen master, and proceeded to spout commentaries on one topic and another. The master listened, then poured tea into the visitor’s cup.

He continued to pour until the cup ran over, slopping tea onto the table and the floor.

        “But my cup is overflowing,” the man pointed out.

        “Exactly,” the master said.

        How often is enough more than enough?

        Everyone is familiar with food buffets. These are the places that advertise “Eat all you want,” when they should say, “Stuff your gut.”

        More often than not, most food taken is only partially consumed, and the remainder is discarded.

        Here is a Japanese sake cup. It holds little more than a thimbleful of rice wine. One or two sips of sake are usually enough for anyone. However, some individuals will knock back a dozen or more cups, or else guzzle directly from the bottle, because to them there is no such thing as enough.

        Of course, such excesses apply to other things and to other peoples.

        Remember Imelda Marcos, the wife of the former President of the Philippines. Owing to self-indulgence, Mrs. Marcos owned more than a twelve-hundred pairs of shoes.

Imagine. Twelve hundred pairs of shoes for one person.

If you think that was an excess, consider Jay Leno, who owns 169 automobiles and 117 motorcycles.

        How much is enough?

But I am straying off the subject, which is more or less.

And what does that have to do with Zen living?

More or less has to do with knowing yourself. It has to do with putting things in their proper perspective.

Remember the Buddhist middle way of moderation between extreme indulgence and self-mortification. It is the path to seeing things in the proper perspective.

You don't have to look like somebody else, or possess as much as somebody else. Also, you can’t know others until you know yourself.