Zen 101

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Don't Waste Time

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Last night our Study Group finished our study of “Living by Vow,” an excellent commentary on the key chants used in our Zen tradition. Next week we will begin our study of “Moku-Rai” a text of writings by Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi.

In our group last night we closed out the Sandokai’s last verse, the first section reads:

Hearing the words, you should understand the source:

Don’t make up standards of your own.

If you don’t understand the path as it meets your eyes,

How can you know the way as you walk? (p.246)

As in a segment of the Heart Sutra, we should begin in the vast emptiness of Samadhi. This emptiness is the Buddha Nature from which all things manifest, including standards for life. To make up standards of our own separates us from our True Nature and creates duality. Meeting the path as it meets your eyes is an admonition to only go straight, doing what is in front of you to do.

Duality has no ground. It is relative. Discussion of philosophy and logic cannot lead us to non-duality, only practice does that. As Okumura points out, “Any theoretical system of concepts or thoughts is a distorted copy of reality. We can only practice it, experience it, and nod our head.” (p. 247)

This is very important and often ignored by students and teachers alike. We human beings love to think about things, talk about things, and sit for hours with coffee contemplating things. True Zen demands we put a stop to this wasted effort. If we want to get to the source, we must practice letting go of our ego-self so that the source may be seen. The source then manifests through our actions.

“I humbly say to those who study the mystery,

Don’t waste time.”

In this last line, we may see Dogen’s source for his first lines in the Shushogi, ”The most important issue for all Buddhists is the thorough clarification of the meaning of birth and death.”

Be well

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Silent Illumination

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

It is late in the evening, approaching early morning, and my mind is at rest. I just read a short section in “The Kyosaku” by Rev. Dr. Soyu Matsuoka-roshi, my Dharma grandfather. In it he speaks of Zen as quietness and action. He says, “Soto Zen is an intuitive way, with little attachment placed on the knowledge of the mind in finding the truth about life and about its deeper meaning. Education is respected, but it is felt that the experience of the deep meaning of life will not be found in philosophical arguments or illogical questions and answers like the koan.” (p. 274)

Where might we find this “deep meaning” of life then? And what exactly does “deep meaning” mean? Frankly, I am of the experience that it has no meaning at all save that which we assign through our thoughts and feelings. Which is to say, it is highly subjective and therefore relative. Master Dogen (refining what a predecessor (Hongzhi [see "Cultivating the Empty Field"]) called “Silent Illumination” ), put forth the notion that “just sitting” was enlightenment itself, or what he referred to as practice realization. No steps or rungs, no higher or lower, intelligent or stupid: just the practice of the Great Way, a way of deep respect for all beings whether high school drop-out or holder of a fancy PhD.

My personal sense is this: the brighter we are, the more inclined we are toward mistaking concept for reality. The brighter we are the more inclined to have great faith in thought and logic, and the empirical way…and, as a result, the further away from the phenomenal truth. Knowing what something is is not knowing it at all. For in “knowing” we reside in the world of thought, which is to say, the world of fingers pointing to the moon.

Be well

Thursday, October 17, 2013


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

Wake Up!

If a teacher only tickles our ears, offering up what we want to hear, they aren't much of a teacher. The potential of a seed is only realized through much struggle, as it pushes through the ground and into the vastness under the clear blue sky (from a Facebook friend)

There is a koan about escaping hot and cold weather. A young monk is cold in the Zendo and asks his Master how to escape it. The Master asks him to find a place where there is neither heat no cold. The young monk struggles with this. In Matsuoka-roshi’s commentary on this koan, he says heat and cold are symbolic of our suffering in life. He acknowledges that we each suffer and want to find a way to live in happiness. Matsuoka-roshi says the way to do this is thru the practice of non-attachment.

“Non-attachment means rising above life and death, and happiness and suffering. This is how we can avoid extreme suffering in life, and how we can have happiness. It is important to forget about finding a place where suffering will not exist and happiness will abound. Zen teaches us that we must not remain attached to the joys of happiness or they will disappear. …he (the Master) told the young priest to die to the cold and to die to the heat. This means to die to suffering and happiness.” (The Kyosaku, p. 109)

Matsuoka-roshi goes on to add, “Many people do not like to hear these words…” I suggest this is an understatement and at the same time a reflection of our current societal mindset. We live in a world where immediate gratification is often thought of as the highest good. We do not like suffering of any sort (understandably so), but seem to try to find happiness in gadgets, media, sex, drugs, or alcohol. We seek happiness and avoid suffering. Yet, the truth is, the true nature of suffering and happiness is itself a great teacher.

Non-attachment to these twin horns does not mean giving up happiness or accepting suffering. What it means is that we practice to recognize their truth in our lives, embrace this truth, and move in the direction of alleviating the causes of suffering and manifesting happiness. To “die” to these is to release ourselves from them by changing our relationship to them. When we are cold, we know we are cold and just wrap ourselves in more clothing or blankets. When we are hot, we reverse this. But we do these with a serene heart/mind. Our desire to be free from their grip closes the “hand of thought” and causes us to suffer. Conversely, opening our grip on our thoughts and feelings frees us just as relaxing our fingers allows us to escape the old Chinese Finger Puzzles we may have played with as children.

Be well

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Written Thursday morning:

With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

It is wonderfully cool this morning in the desert southwest. I woke at 4:30 to a clear starlit sky and sat outside to practice both Zazen and canework. Of late I have, once again, taken an interest in the Martial Arts, but this time with my slowly worsening physical disabilities, I decided to select a cane for practice. I had spent a good ten years involved in a Korean form of karate called Moo Duk Kwan, eventually teaching in a small house-based dojo in South Carolina. I gave up karate in 1975 when my son was born, feeling the practice led to a sort of low-grade paranoia

Recently I was told by my doctors that I should not run or walk for exercise. As I kickstart my exercise regimen this leaves a vacuum on the aerobic side. I suppose I will take up biking at this point, and have prepared my bike to that end. It occurred to me that Martial Arts with Cane might be another alternative. When I was a long distance runner I had t-shirts made that said, “Stillness in Motion” on the back with our Order’s logo on front. Studying videos of cane katas, I am learning this phrase equally applies.

I guess the lesson for me is that regardless of our place in this life, regardless of our physical limitations, there are always alternatives and every choice can become a Zen practice, which is to say, a practice that involves dropping away ego identity.

Sunday morning Zazen will be led by Rev. Shukke Shin. Please consider joining her.


Monday, October 07, 2013


With palms together,

Good Morning Everyone,

My apologies to those who attended this recent Zazenkai for my lack of presence both in body and mind. I had an unexpected physician’s appointment that morning and had just come off of a very late night doing an Honor Flight escort. I want to apologize as well to those students who sought dokusan only to be confronted by a sleepy teacher!

Self awareness is an essential part of a student’s life and, as a teacher, I continue to be a student. We teachers are also students and sometimes forget that we are fallible human beings with our own issues that need desperately to be addressed. There are those of us who are so full of ourselves that we cannot hear our students as they are. There are those of us who seem to think we no longer need to practice self awareness, convinced we know the Dharma. To the extent this is so, is the extent to which we are far away from the Dharma and, concomitantly, both ourselves and our students.

I cannot speak for other teachers in Zen or even in my own lineage, but as for me, my practice is a 24/7 process of failure. Weekends like this past one are great teachers. I am humbled by them and desire very much to learn from them. My hope is that other teachers, as well as students, are equally committed to self examination.

Please practice with this.