Zen 101

Monday, November 30, 2015


Leaving Thanksgiving/Arriving Rohatsu Sesshin: Are they the same or different?

Rohatsu, our celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment occurs on December 8th.  Most Zen centers and temples offer an extended retreat time in honor of this and participants are encouraged to let mind and body fall away.  In one sense sesshin might sound selfish as it seems to focus on replicating the personal enlightenment of the Buddha, but, as with the Buddha himself,  awakening does not get us food, nor does it wash our clothes, nor allow us to walk on water.  And so, in another sense sesshin may be seen as an invitation to offer one’s self to others in order to free them from their suffering, how so?  From the Buddha’s point of view, as his eye opened so did the universe. 

In the United States, we celebrate a wonderful holiday on the last Thursday of November.  On this day, we often consider what we may be grateful for and we share our gratitude with those around us.  So, within a few days we will move from a family and society focused sharing of gratitude, to a personal, inward, spiritual experience allowing us to prepare for being in-service to others.  Both events are deeply seated in, and derived from, our need to develop compassion for each other and our world.  We cannot be selfish while at the same time live for others.  Or can we?

Zen Master Seung Sahn carried with him a bag of sayings he could quickly access for the purpose of retort. He would ask a simple straightforward sort of question such as, “are they the same or different?” With an answer of thirty blows regardless, ready made and to the point, just as any koan master might do.  The point was everything is one in the same, both same and different.  At this stage of my life as a Zen teacher all things seem to be flowing from and to this “same and different” place.

My sense? This is as it should be. Yet, I wonder.  When we are young and making our mark in the world, it is of little help (or so we think)  to be focused on anything but the brass ring and how to capture it.   We have little time to step away from the ride, or don’t we?  Often stepping away from the ride offers us a unique and (in my opinion) necessary perspective.  Makes me wonder (again) just how important time in reflection is versus the “just do it” mentality of our “don’t wobble” Zensters.  In any event, as we approach our practice intensive, know this: the two truths of the Buddha Way can, in fact, be held together as one.  Its just our penchant for the naming of things that creates a separation. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Prayer

With respect,

This afternoon I was honored to offer a prayer at the opening of our monthly Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association meeting here in Las Cruces. I would like to share a few thoughts about my offering. I said, to paraphrase, 'my faith tradition has a slogan: "May all beings be free from suffering." I noted that all of us suffer and as veterans of combat we have a pretty damned good idea as to what real suffering is. God knows we are a suffering world. We suffer and live, we suffer and are wounded. I asked each of us to pray for those who were killed in Paris in violence that was...and is...meaningless. I asked us to pray that the Lord keep warm the hearts and souls of the families involved. 

My thoughts are also with those beings who suffer so much that they feel the only way to free themselves from their hate is to harm others. All of us feel the need to retaliate injury, but not all of us do harm as a result of that feeling. Our desire to seek retribution comes from the dark side of our nature, it is both normal and toxic, a result of millennia of natural selection. Yet so is our desire and need to care for one another a result of that same evolutionary principle. 

I believe the most difficult thing a person of spirit must do is love those who wish us harm. Few get there and many who do are assassinated for it. Peace is not easy. And working for peace in a climate of hate is dangerous. 

Personally, I must work hard every day not to give in to the inclination to harm those who threaten us. I often fail in this. I am human after all which is, then, a contradiction as the Latin, homo sapien (our biological classification), means wise man. Ironic, isn't it? 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Authentic Zen

With palms together,
Good Afternoon All,

From Rev. Senzaki’s correspondence in “Eloquent Silence,” (p 386) a few noteworthy notes: 

“… present day Japanese Buddhists do not understand true Buddhism, but are clinging to sectarian ideas instead.”  

And of Priest emissaries here to teach Zen:

“With few exceptions they are not accomplishing anything here but propaganda and the advertisement of their titles and cathedrals, like sandwich men peddling their wares.”

…”They may think they can do things here in America just as they do in Japan, but they are badly mistaken.”

Yet, today, years later, some of us cling to the Japanese as final arbiters of what is and is not Zen.  Authenticity from mind-to-mind transmission, practice, and up-right living are not as important, it would seem, as what lineage we are from and whether that lineage is officially recognized by Soto Shu in Japan.  

Senzaki-roshi, like Matsuoka-roshi, wished to build an authentic Zen practice here in the United States, a practice not dependent on Cathedrals, titles, and brocade robes. Theirs was a simple practice, one Rinzai, the other Soto, but each engaged in a simple, straightforward practice of Zen.  As we so often say, it was “nothing special.” 

The quotes above remind me of Dogen Zenji’s travels to China and his desire to bring “True Buddhism” to Japan.  His True Buddhism was in the daily practice of Zazen.  As Dogen Zenji attempted to find an authentic teacher, he went through a lot of “advertisements” and those closely affiliated with governing bodies first.  His true teacher, like another Zen radical, Uchiyama-roshi, simply practiced Zazen.     

Many have written and spoken about Zen in America.  There have been retreats dedicated to discovering, or perhaps creating and directing, what Zen in America is or will become. I fear these are essentially a wasted effort, as Zen cannot be directed, especially from the top down, or by groups of well meaning priests.

My Dharma grandfather was a pioneer in Zen here in the United States. He had a fresh vision developed Zen from its true roots, practice.  When he initially taught, Zen Centers were rare.  He did what Senzaki did, he practiced living room Zen.  His centers often, if not always, began from establishing sitting groups in living rooms. Nothing fancy and no trained assistants. He made do, training an Ino when necessary.  Training a Tenzo when meals were needed. As was pointed out as if a criticism of Matsuoka, he often ordained people before they were ready and trained them into their positions. Today we call that OJT.  It is not a bad way to teach.  On the Job Training (OJT) is hands on. In fact, we might say, “it's the American way.”

In truth, living room Zen is good, practice in parks and on the streets is good, and practice in our offices or on our motorcycles is good.  Each of these require nothing but the willingness to sit down and shut up.  Pandering to benefactors, holding out one’s lineage as something special, or making idols of dead teachers: these are our jailers, dear friends, not our advocates.

So?  Ahh, here is no so.  Zen is in the practice and the authentic relationships of teachers and students and these to the everyday.

My books for You

With respect,

I have two books on Zen, Living Zen and Zen in Your Pocket. "Living Zen" has been revised and now includes a foreword by Rev. Jundo Cohen.  "Zen in Your Pocket" is a small book addressing Zen practice from the everyday to the catastrophic.

Amazon.com is selling both books as trade paperbacks and on Kindle.  Take a look here

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Zen in Your Pocket

Dear Readers,

Two things: first, the revised edition of Living Zen with a foreword by Rev. Jundo Cohen is now

available through Amazon.com and a downloadable version on Kindle. I have reduced the price to

$7.95.  Second, my new book, Zen in Your Pocket, is available also through Amazon.com and will

soon be available through Kindle. It is priced at $6.95.

Please consider taking a peek.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Art Practice

With palms together,

In his book, “The Eight Gates of Zen”  Daido Loori-roshi devotes a chapter to Art as practice seeing it as one of the “Eight Gates.”  We might ask ourselves just what happens when someone picks up a brush or camera, a chisel or a handful of clay? Is there something magical or mystical about what happens next?  Maybe so, but then, the same could be said about any of the other seven gates, maybe so, maybe not.

Art is such a fickle friend and occasional foe.  Art can be creative or destructive, but no one wants to think of it in the latter sense.  We want art to be art, somehow for its name sake, above reason or intuition, and not necessarily subject to good taste. We want this so much so that nearly every sophomoric attempt at putting media together is considered “art.”  

I don’t think so.

Art, like the other gates, requires discipline.  It requires restraint in some cases and explosive, powerful thrusts in others, but in either case they are not without the discipline of practice.  Anyone can throw paint on a canvas and call it “art.”  But is it so?

To simply throw paint on a canvas and have it be “art” the artist must first be an artist, which is to say, one disciplined in the skills necessary to have the emerging image take form in ways that are meaningful to both the artist and the viewer of the work.  As in reading, the reader is as much a part of the work of the writing as is the writer herself. Worlds are created through the interaction of the reader and the writer and each reader creates his or her own world rendering the writing infinite in scope. So too, every image created in the visual arts sustains worlds of meaning too numerous to perceive, let alone count.  And therein lay the problem: the eye of the beholder, when each eye is to be objectively understood as being on the same level, everything can be “art.”   Yet,iIn truth, we are not created equal: all eyes are not the same. We each bring our unique perceptual constellation to the art itself. 

My issue isn’t with this inequality, rather it is with the notion that an undisciplined approach, even if inspired, should be considered art.  Just as undisciplined Zazen cannot be a useful gate, so too, undisciplined art is simply a show. And as we say in any case, “nothing special.’

Be well