Category Archives: zen

It just keeps on getting better


Well, just in case anyone is wondering, I’ll provide a little update. I’m almost at the end of my first determined study of the Diamond Sutra, which I started in July. Yesterday I spent about two and a half hours on chapters 27, 28, and 29. There are only three chapters to go, but it’s really blowing my mind now — so I wasn’t quite ready to complete it today!

I am still sitting for 30 minutes every morning. I went through a very restless period for about a week or two when I kept quitting early almost every day (only about five minutes early, but I was in some weird agitated state, and my one leg hurt and I just couldn’t get past it). That was followed by about five days that were so excellent, I told someone that my legs had fallen off (I was thinking both of Dogen saying “Shed body and mind,” and of the legend about Bodhidharma’s legs falling off when he sat for nine years). Since then, I’ve had both kinds of days.

I went to another three-day silent retreat recently; I think it was my fourth one. Maybe my fifth. No, probably my fourth. Anyway, I realized that it’s quite likely that I will gain some new wisdom each time I go to a retreat, and so, even if they are damned inconvenient and very difficult, I will continue to go. When I’m able. I was inspired by the Zen master, who said he attends about one retreat per month. Whoa. That’s a whole lot of distance on the bodhisattva path, I’d say.

I came across a reference to a new book, Ten Zen Questions, not long ago. I had an Amazon gift certificate, so I bought it — and it’s inspired me to take a more active approach to questioning reality. I think a lot of Western Zen people put a big emphasis on a kind of psychotherapy style of practice — you’re looking deep within yourself to discover your true self, after all. But the explorations recounted in this book keep bringing me back to that Bodhidharma quotation about the mind and reality:

If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.

Another way it appears:

Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.

Now, the author, Susan Blackmore, is definitely using her mind — maybe too much! But her accounts about her experiences on the cushion (and off, to some extent) have prompted me to watch more of the things my mind does — more than just my feelings and reactions and impulses, that is. For example, lying in bed this morning, I asked myself what I actually know (knew) at that moment, when my eyes were still closed. I knew I was on a bed and under covers. Did I “know” what bed I was in? I remembered getting into my own bed last night. But did I really know that was the bed I was in when I woke up — without opening my eyes?

The book and its questions have challenged me to look at memory, at perceptions, at my six senses (the 18 domains) from some new angles, which is very interesting. I am finding that more and more of what I consider to be reality is in fact just stuff in my head.

Another thing I noticed concerned vision (and memory). I was sitting on my cushion and asked myself what I knew about the room (where I always sit). I realized I could not see the floor lamp, which was about 18 inches to my right, but a little behind me. How did I know there was a lamp there? Of course, I remembered it. I bought it recently, to replace an old one that stood in the same spot. I remembered the old lamp too. In fact, I remembered both lamps equally well. So how did I know which one was there?

I feel as if I am pushing the edge of something. Give way, something says, pushing. The edge yields a little and springs back. I’m going to go on pushing it.



Leonard Cohen, at the Zen monastery


A long 1998 article about Leonard Cohen’s Zen practice appears in Utne Reader:

Apart from Cohen’s 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi, or spiritual teacher, seems to be the one still point in his endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies Sasaki to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico and endures punishing retreats each month in which he does virtually nothing but sit zazen 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

And later:

… Cohen is telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge; his training here, he says, is just a useful response to the “predicament” of his life. At times, as I listen, I can see the coyote trickster who has been working the press for decades. I feel disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he keeps thanking me for “being kind enough to come here” and tends to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the journalist …

And my favorite:

“For me,” he says, his voice soft and beautiful, a trace of Canada still in it, “the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful” …

It’s delicious and it’s horrible. Hallelujah.


Put her down, Ekido


One of the basic teachings of Zen Buddhism is letting go. Sometimes when I am having trouble letting go, I hold my fist in front of me. My thumb points away from me and my four fingernails are visible in a row parallel to the ground. I look at that closed hand, and then I fling open all five fingers, my palm to the sky.

Let go, let go.

Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido, were walking down a muddy street in the city. They came upon a lovely young girl dressed in fine silks, who was afraid to cross the street because of all the mud.

“Come on, girl,” Tanzan said. He picked her up in his arms and carried her across.

The two monks did not speak again till nightfall. Then, when they had returned to the monastery, Ekido couldn’t keep quiet any longer.

“Monks shouldn’t go near girls,” he said, “and certainly not beautiful ones like that one! Why did you do it?”

“My dear fellow,” Tanzan said, “I put that girl down hours ago, back in the city. It’s you who are still carrying her!”

I first found this story here. It is also at Wikipedia in a slightly different form.


The fire-boy, chasing fire


Experience the oneness of all things and all beings:

All the universe is an unceasing process, pursuing things and making them the self, pursuing the self and making it things.

This comes from the chapter titled Ikka Myoju in Dogen’s Shobogenzo (The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, tr. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, p. 33). Dogen said the only way to experience this truth is through zazen, or sitting meditation. We can read and study and chant and listen to Dharma talks for 1,000 years, but without zazen, we realize nothing.

He was, in fact, rather insistent on this point. Not only did he compose the Fukanzazengi to praise the benefits of sitting meditation; he also spent the first chapter of Shobogenzo doing the same.

I keep working on the teaching of no-self.

“Pursuing things and making them the self”: This begins when we are babies. I think it might start when we grab our toes and perceive them as our own, as part of the body, connected to us. We construct a self with I, me, mine — my toes, my hunger, my contentment, my toys. We add things to the heap as we grow older — my accomplishments, my pain, my money, my car. All of this adding is done with the mind only.

“Pursuing the self and making it things”: What am I? Am I this house, this son or daughter, this husband or wife? Am I this gun or computer or cash register or mixing bowl? Am I this set of beliefs I have adopted? Am I these clothes I wear? Am I these shoes?

The story of the fire-boy is retold here.


Walking the path of compassion


The longer I practice, the more I realize about the connections that link all of us. My ability to experience compassion increases bit by bit.

One thing that has struck me repeatedly in recent months is that the more we are able to see and feel the suffering that others have experienced, or are experiencing, the less patience we might have with people whose lives are (or have been) relatively easy and secure. This feeling of impatience makes me want to shout: “Oh, just get over it!” That, of course, would not be very compassionate! Also, it shows my tendency to create dualism. My mind separates people into “those who have really suffered” and “those who have not suffered much.” That’s a mistake. Buddhism teaches that one is not different from the other.

So, I need to find a balance — or keep a middle position — so that I can recognize that someone’s little minor problems really are large and insurmountable to him or her.

For some people, every little thing is the biggest tragedy to them, and the only thing they can see in front of them. Meanwhile, there are people all around us who have lost everything, or who never had much of anything to begin with. It seems as if those who are privileged cannot see that.

But in fact it’s not an inability to see — it’s a lack of compassion. This is not at all unusual, so there’s nothing there to condemn or judge. This lack is the usual state for most beings.

It’s strange to realize that compassion has to be built up like muscles. But as my weak and flaccid “muscles” start to gain a little tone and strength, I appreciate just how weak they were to begin with.

As this process goes on, it becomes more difficult, in some ways, to stay in the middle. I catch myself making new judgments and comparisons. (Thankfully I do catch myself doing it, at least some of the time.) The changes in one’s own self keep shifting the center of balance. That is part of this path that I never expected.


Buddhist ideas, American TV: Avatar


Sometimes you keep hearing about something again and again, forgetting and remembering, until finally, at long last, you go and check it out. That’s how it was for me and the animated TV series called “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” from Nickelodeon (you can read all about it at Wikipedia). Nick has an excellent Web site devoted to the series. At, you’ll find a compact episode guide and viewer reviews.

Many different people had asked me whether I had seen this TV series. When I said no, they would always tell me a little bit about it, such as “One of the characters is this boy Buddhist monk.” I would think, yeah, yeah, I’ll look into it. And then, I would forget.

So finally someone mentioned that he had downloaded all 60 episodes of the animated series with BitTorrent, and that led me to watch the first season (20 episodes, about 25 minutes each). Whoa. These are really good!

So first, you need to know I do like animation. The original Disney “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) is a lifelong favorite of mine. Recently I discovered the work of the Japanese animation great Hayao Miyazaki, and now I’m on a leisurely mission to see all his films. But I have not seen much of the zillions of anime series from Japan, and I do not run out and watch every Pixar or Disney feature film. So, yes — I like animation, but I’m not a freak for it.

Second, I have a very low tolerance for stupid stories. A lot of U.S. animation (especially on the Cartoon Network) is just junk. It is unwatchable, in my opinion.

So with those two facts in mind, you are about to hear how much I love, love, LOVE “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” I’m up to episode 7 in the second season, and it just keeps getting better and better!

Now, it is true that Aang, the young hero of the series (he is the Avatar, whose task it is to save the world — of course!), is a monk. No one in the series says “Buddhist,” and I have not seen any Buddha images so far. But in episode 4 (season 2), a man with prodigious martial arts skills tells Aang that the whole world is one big living organism, just like the giant banyan tree above them.

“You think you’re any different from me, or your friends, or this tree?” he asks Aang. “If you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together. You can feel everything growing. … We all have the same roots, and we are all branches of the same tree.”

Later in that episode, the same man tells Aang and his friends: “Time is an illusion, and so is death.”


The long road … this is the practice


In the Zen tradition, our practice has few rituals. Meditation techniques that are taught in Vipassana or the Tibetan schools of Buddhism seem exotic and detailed to us. When people who are used to Tibetan practices ask me what we do, I find it a little bit difficult to explain. (I hope I’m getting better at it, because I’ve found myself in that situation a few times!) I try to practice skillful means in choosing my words and my examples.

Sometimes when I have read about the techniques that are taught in other traditions, I felt kind of envious. Look, they have a plan, I thought. They have a road map. They know what they’re supposed to do.

I would feel dissatisfied for a little while — maybe a few weeks. I would read some Zen texts, talk to a teacher, grumble in my own head about how slow my progress is. But after some time, I’d ask myself what I was grumbling about. If I wanted to switch to some other school of Buddhism, I was free to do so. If I wanted to try some other techniques, who was stopping me? No one.

As soon as I realize that I have that freedom, I begin to settle down. I let go. I relax.

I accept and respect others’ practices. If they prefer to chant or to repeat a mantra, it is their practice. My practice is simply to sit. From time to time, this leads me into feelings of frustration and impatience. I’m not doing anything! Or, I’m not getting any better at it!

This is just human nature. People go through periods of deep frustration with their marriages, their jobs, their children. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been in the same job too long now. I want to go out and find a new job, a different kind of job. I want to move to a new city. I want to travel somewhere I’ve never been before.

If I sit with these frustrations and urges, I eventually come to see that they are only the result of desires. My mind has made these desires, and they have made me grumpy and dissatisfied. Desires are impermanent, just like everything else in this world.

This understanding has come to me through the action of practice.

It has not come because I read about it in books. It has not come because I went to the dharma talks and listened with great attention. It certainly has not come because I used logic or reasoning. It has not come because I wanted it (how can you want what you have never imagined?).


What is becoming ‘Buddhist’?


Years ago (maybe four or five years ago), I asked a Dharma teacher something about taking precepts, or becoming a Buddhist “officially.” I wasn’t aiming to do so myself; I was only curious. But he had an unexpected reply.

At first, he seemed like he didn’t even want to discuss it. So I persisted. He explained taking five precepts (this is what we do in the Kwan Um School of Zen; we don’t take refuge as an official ceremony). He explained what comes before that. The rules, as it were. But then he went on a bit of a tangent about “being Buddhist” not having any real meaning. It’s your practice that matters, that counts.

If you have a practice — if you try, try, try for ten thousand years, as Seung Sahn used to say — then you’ve got something. A ceremony or a piece of paper with your Dharma name written on it? Not important.

At the time, this struck me as odd. Why wouldn’t he want me to pursue taking precepts? Why didn’t he encourage me? I felt almost as if he were pushing me away. Almost.

What he said stuck with me, though. I’ve been thinking a lot about it as I work on my research paper for the graduate class I’m taking. My topic is Buddhism in North America, and one of the recurrent themes in the literature is that when we try to count Buddhists in the West, it’s damn hard to say who is a Buddhist. Is it correct to count people who simply say they are Buddhists, when maybe they have never practiced any form of Buddhism?

There’s a phrase, “night-stand Buddhists,” that refers to people who read Buddhist books (our Dharma teacher calls them “bookstore Buddhists”). I’m sure I’ve met many Americans who are “night-stand Christians,” who don’t attend church and don’t practice anything particularly Christian — yet if they are asked their religion on a survey form, I’m sure they would choose “Christian” instead of “none” or “don’t know.”

Now I think I understand that conversation I had with the teacher, and I’m grateful that he didn’t encourage me to follow the steps required for taking precepts. In fact, it reminds me of something else, at another time in another place, when a Zen master asked me what it means when we say the Buddha gave transmission to Mahakashyapa. The Buddha made a long speech, blah blah blah, about the wonderfulness of this “thing” he was “giving” to Mahakashyapa. “What was that all about?” the Zen master asked me.

Well, you might know the answer.


Leonard Cohen offers some insights


“You can visit that world; you can’t live there.” — Leonard Cohen, interviewed in 1997 about his time in a Zen monastery; CBC television (7 min. 6 sec. Well worth it. You’ll see.)

… in 1994, following a tour to promote his latest album The Future, he [Cohen] sought sanctuary in the Mount Baldy Zen Buddhist monastery in the rattlesnake-infested San Gabriel mountains behind Los Angeles.

Cohen had been a regular visitor at the monastery for more than a decade, sometimes spending three months at a time there. But this time it looked as though the world had lost him for good. He shaved his head, donned black robes and devoted himself to the study of Zen Buddhism.

“I wasn’t looking for a religion,” he says. “I already had a perfectly good one [his Jewish faith]. And I certainly wasn’t looking for a new series of rituals. But I had a great sense of disorder in my life, of chaos and depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. The prevailing psychoanalytic explanations of the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt. Then I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself and at ease with others …”

That someone was Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the monastery’s founder.

Source: The Independent (a British newspaper), 15 June 2008