rivers into islands

rivers into islands

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Eternal Life

Lance Kinseth, The Speech Of The Flower, 48x60”

ABBOT ZENKEI SHIBAYAMA [1894-1974] whom I met in late 1960s writes,
Silently a flower blooms,

In silence it falls away;…

The glory of eternal life is fully shining here.

How can the quickly fading flower demonstrate eternal life?

Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,
The world of the flower, the whole of
the world is blooming.

This is the talk of the flower, the truth
 of the blossom;

Flower buds, blossoms, shrivels, and disappears—still, no birth and death, and flower not “there” and you “here.”

Friday, November 13, 2015

Zen Furniture

Lance Kinseth, detail from Self As Landscape II

WHEN YOU READ Zen literature or hear dharma speech, you presume that you are learning about Zen.  At some point you may begin to understand that rather than describe the essence of Zen, helpful Zen words tells you what the primary point of Zen is not about to try to extricate you from concepts to have a direct, personal experience of reality that is wordless.
The one who tastes knows
The one who explains lies.

As Zen practice becomes shared, the literature and discussion and activities become more about creating a house of Zen and stocking it with a particular Zen furniture: gods, hungry ghosts, nirvanas, rebirth, robes, cushions, altars, Buddha image, bells, scriptures, right procedures, vows, classes, gatherings, birth and death days—just like before Siddhartha, something to be overturned. 

There is neither house nor furniture.  This “No” is what Zen is trying to say.

Zen and its No are not answers—only a luminous gate where there had appeared to be a wall.

The landscape of Zen—houses of bodies and rivers and moon and stars and cities—is empty.  All these things, and yet there is no furniture anywhere.  There is no place in any of it for dust to alight. 

Wordless, every day and every night, Siddhartha raises a flower and Kasyapa smiles.

With nothing but “NO,” with nothing to which to cling, “who am I” falls into what?

Unhidden, suddenly, what very specifically is experienced in bodies and rivers and moon and stars and cities? 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Only One Koan Matters

     Ikkyu Sojun

The barriers of "you,"


"This," “That,” “He,” “She,” “It,” “They,” “Those,"

“One,” “All”

Friday, October 9, 2015

Being Everything

HOW IS THIS possible?

Not “becoming” or “relating to…” everything in a sort of eco-holistic way (things in relationship):

In a gathering of sparrows, the fallen leaf, insects in backlight, soft wind, a drink of water,
What does Siddhartha see?

Not six realms, twelve influences, or three barriers or three treasures.

In China, buddha-dharma escaped the grasp of the tentacles of Hinduism and extracted the acultural essence/core,

Now, in Siddhartha’s same-old morning star, or right now in the fall of the sparrow down to the feeder, and in the impermanence of the changing colors of a fallen leaf, in the wind and water and temperature of that moment,

Right now, in this very moment, in some event be it minute or vast, what does Siddhartha-you, very, very specifically experience?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Neither Buddhas Nor Patriarchs

M. C. Escher

There are neither Buddhas not Patriarchs; Bodhidharma was only an old bearded barbarian.  Sakyamundi and Kasyapa, Manjusri and Samantabhadra, are only dungheap coolies….Nirvana and bodhi are dead stumps to tie your donkeys.  The twelve divisions of the sacred teachings are only lists of ghosts, sheets of paper fit only for wiping the pus from your boils.

What does Siddhartha see that makes this truth/dharma?

No buddhas, not even a Siddhartha; how can this be?

 What is Siddhartha’s true nature?

Sounding rash but kind, Hsuan-chien cuts off wrong turns. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Living Design

 Ideas, thoughts, opinions, interpretation, obsessions, doubts that seems to be “mental” and “mind” are not personal.  Buddha is tree, bird, sky, wind, water, you, thoughts; …there is no Buddhism outside mundane things, and after realization, With every thought you are consulting infinite teachers  [Yuanwu]

…Zen is obvious everywhere in the world, with the totality of everything everywhere turning into its great function. [Yuanwu]

…the living meaning of Zen is the design of life itself. [Xuedou]

Awakening suddenly bursts forth when there is nowhere to anchor self and there is perception of the ocean of your own essence [Yangshan] of the “ocean of inherent awareness” [after Huanglong] and the silent knowledge of transcendent wisdom as Zen [Huanglong].


…if it is the supreme vehicle, even the sages stand aside, buddhas and Zen masters disappear. [Yangqi]

Correct attention to thought, dust and objects, but We do not teach you to annihilate random thoughts, suppress body and mind, close your eyes, and consider this Zen. [Foyan]

…not annihilation  or detachment or blows and shouts [Ying-an]

Stilling body and awareness as emptiness is not itself the emptiness that Siddhartha calls the dharma or ultimate truth. [after Yuanwu]

No careerist, no religionist, no sect, no lectures, no doctrine to be transmitted, no rank, no art,

Can anyone discern?  If you can, you will recognize the disease of “Buddhism” and the disease of “Zen.” And, If people cannot enter, they not only cannot help themselves, they cannot help others.[Huanglong]

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Source Of Zen


Mindfulness, present moment, mindlessness, talk, release have nothing to do with it.

            If I were to explain the source of Zen, there wouldn’t be a single person
            around, let alone a group of five hundred or seven hundred.  If I talk
            about this and that, however, you race forward to pick it up.  This is like
            fooling a child with an empty fist—there is not reality in it.

            At Zen centers they say there is a Way to be practiced and a religious
truth to be realized.  Tell me, what religious truth is realized, what way
is practiced?  In your present functioning, what is it you lack?  What would
you fix?
            Younger newcomers, not understanding this, immediately believe
These mesmerists and let them talk about things that tie people up.

Who Can Say It?

TODAY’S PUBLISHING ZENKEI’S AND ROSHI’S speak about fear and other feelings, and explore nuances of what Siddhartha admonished us—noting, for example, how one tiny word in translation can alter meaning—to make sure one is not deceived.  Sub-Zenkes and roshis really like “presence” and “compassion/bodhisattva,” and “health benefits of Zen” for the way in which they calm and heal and bring folks together.   And yet, “nuances of words: Siddhartha’s life or very existence is opaque—especially details—with so many, many years oral history without a written account.  By then, who is talking?  Is it Zen, or literati, or …  There is perhaps more clarity centuries later when Zen entered China and brightened existing ontological perspectives already present (and replicated insights from a multitude of cultures both pre-dating and following Siddhartha.

As opposed to everyday chatter, all of this “a-little-more-intuitive-talk” obscures original direct experience of Siddhartha, or someone “Siddhartha-like.”   In contemporary Buddhism, Siddhartha is an image, a God, (often gold-encrusted:: where is the true “buddah,” not unlike…pick your religion—a  religious “motif.”   In Cambodia or Thailand or China or Korea or Japan, for most, “Buddha” is an ultimate God-like spirit who might intervene against everyday dilemmas and more horrific demons.

A Zenkei or “lesser” roshi question for study, such as, for example, In Zen, are experiences of fear OK or not OK might be a red flag shouting… “Off Track!”

Against this, first, Hui-neng’s world “where no dust can alight,” and then the significance of perhaps “Zenkei” or “roshi” as a red flag,

but digging down,

“fear,” into “Zenkei” (super-awakened being) into “roshi (rare awakened one),”

BUT THEN, without title or concept, beyond fear or titular zenkei or roshi,

What is this one thing that is not obscured by fear or nuances or title?

What is dustless yet right in front of you?

Who can say it?

Fear, nuances, rivers, mountains, bird flight, lake:  It might be good, hitting more like a burning ember that indirectly kicks awakening, or not.

            You sit by rivers; you climb mountains, you see birds fly through the
            air; you swim in lakes, and yet, none of these things exist.  How can
            that be?

How can rivers, mountains, birds, lakes not exist in Zen realization and yet the world of mountains, birds, and lakes be real?

And why is this important,
...critical to an end to suffering?

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Lance Kinseth, Radiance, 48”x60

THAT WHICH ZEN POPULARLY references is a sense of calmness to the point of sustained serenity in Zen mastery, a need for little from the everyday world, aesthetic simplicity, naturalness, and, increasingly, improved health from stress reduction and physiological changes brought about by a central activity of meditation.  These become possibilities that aspirants seek to develop into enduring attributes rather than rare occurrences.

These popular referents do not accurately describe Zen essence and can even be distractions.

Again, popularly, Zen begins with the mythical account of Siddhartha Gautama suddenly, and quite astonishingly, experiencing the morning star in a remarkable way.  All of the above experiences could be outcomes of such an experience, but they are, in and of themselves, superficial and not the primary point.

“Zen” references the experience of a primary point.  And this experience began before Siddhartha’s experience.  The Upanishads contains descriptions of a state of being to which Siddhartha was exposed in his dialogue and experimentation with “Upanishadists” who comprised a portion of wandering individuals rebelling against the sacrificial traditions of his time.  This state of being—awakening—appears in the oral and written records of a variety of cultures, some of which pre-date even the Upanishads.

Siddhartha’s contribution was a more authentic experience of a natural dimension of human experience—an awakened knowledge rather than an esoteric religious and/or psychic experience.  And it was far more than just a richer psychological dimension.  Paradoxically, Siddhartha’s contribution became housed in a religious tradition wherein he is envisioned as its founder.  Still, Siddhartha’s original experience became luminous at various rare points rather than obscured as a religious motif as it passed through various societies.  This original experience is the heart of Zen.

The Avatamsaka and Lotus Sutras are but my walking, staying, sitting, and lying.
Kyong Ho, from “Song of Enlightenment”

So, no dogma, no tradition, cutting through, what does Siddhartha suddenly experience, now, in this moment?

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gentle Zen

Indra's Net, fractal image

BASSUI WAS THE MOST encouraging of Zen teachers.  Instead of browbeating his students into realization, he coaxed and led them.

While you may apply great effort, the fact is…

The river of Zen is quiet, even in the waves; the water of stability is clear, even in the waves.

You have always had it, and you have it now—there is no need to cultivate the Way and sit in meditation.

…to contemplate emptiness and enter concentration, is all in the province of contrivance.

The Way does not require cultivation—just don’t pollute it.

Everything offers the Way. 

Zen is buoyant and unbridled, like clouds making rain, like the moon in a stream, like an orchid in a recondite spot, like spring in living beings.

Why such force?  Why such cajoling and interpretation?  Why so many devices?  Rather than friction—perhaps some intent to be “frictionless” [Hongzhi].

Shy away from those who teach you to be like themselves, as they were taught to be like someone else.

Pushing obscures, like trying to push a river.  Zen teaching is as muted as a field of grass or river or hillock neither giving nor taking.  A field of grass or river or hillock is a good Zen teacher. A field of grass or a river or a hillock does not try to make you into anything.  When there is another who does not see you or hear you or simply a field of grass or a river or a hillock or a sparrow, calm and tranquil—after a time or instantly, like a field of grass or a river or a hillock or a sparrow, you finally may not see “you” or hear “you.”
            You have always had it… 

Sparrow is cloud floating West is path meandering East is upward-reaching branch.
Trying to push, such a terrain cannot appear.

            ...shedding your skin…

No mirror, no place for dust to alight,
Then, the flow of calmness, tranquility, serenity

Why such force?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Zen Way

AS A WAY, “ZEN” could reference sitting, koan, sutra collections, art/lifestyle aesthetic—many popular things. 

What to do?  Which way/ways/methods?  If a way is akin to Zen Buddhism rather than pop-culture,
Zazen only?
Sutra & Koan & zazen?
No zazen?
Koan or no koan, or one koan, or many koans?

Deliberation & Controversy

A comparison of critiques by selected Zen Buddhist reformists as sketched in Crazy Clouds reveals sharply different directives, often in conflict:

Hakuin maintained that it was not always absolutely necessary to sit in meditation in a quiet place, but that it was essential to carry the koan about in one’s consciousness in all situations—active or static, noisy or quiet.  This state of nonconceptual awareness

Bankei dismissed saddling oneself with a koan to provoke something akin to Hakuin’s greatly encouraged state of “Great Doubt.” Bankei suggested that the koans were ossified teachings of live moments, and that the koans might be abstractive in the contemporary moment and therefore not fit and possibly even misdirect.  Even more than Hakuin’s allowance for not sitting in zazen, Bankei was oriented more toward listening, for example, to birds (e.g., The nightingale is singing: the highest Zen) rather than sitting.

Bassui encouraged looking at koans, but not until one gazed into one own nature, and unlike Hakuin was critical of long-term koan study of various types of koans, with koans being no more than “fingers pointing toward the moon, but not the moon itself.”

Dogen is not included in the Crazy Cloud biographical sketches but is an example of a major reformist who would challenge any consideration of movement beyond zazen as the primary way of Zen with the point of Zen study being the shedding of body and mind.  Still, Dogen’s writings are studied and they are full of references to Chinese k’an-hua or gong-an, and his writings are deep Japanese koans in and of themselves [e.g., Shobogenzo]


Zen is not sitting, koan, sutra, precepts.  Zen is directly related to the sudden awakening experience of Siddhartha Gautama.  Zen is not strictly Buddhist, but has been remarkably “housed” in the Zen Buddhist sect.  The experience of Siddhartha was not the first human experience of awakening to an undivided fundamental reality, wherein “I” and “other” are fundamentally identical though on a phenomenal level distinct.

Koans, zazen, sutra do focus attention away from ruminating thoughts, (observing them appear and disappear that reveals their emptiness), then what?   To venture here, Bassui admonishes, You must advance beyond the stage where your reason is of any avail.

One does Zen for a reason. If the physical reality of a person comes and goes like thought and everything a person experiences, dropping this “you,” then what appears?  This is essentially the essence of the reason.

This effort to quiet and calm and use methods such as koan and zazen and sutra study is driven by a question, “What appears?  Hakuin says a question is unavoidably there and one should keep it day and night, and it is also true as Bankei suggests that saddling oneself with one or many questions can be potentially misdirecting.  Perhaps most effective, whenever the question appears, there is a movement toward answering—doing—rather than just keeping the question.  And so, sitting into zazen, for example, can be an answer of sorts, a response to a question.  By stilling, the impermanent coming and going of thoughts leads to an “answer” of less attachment to them as fundamental reality.

So lots of zazen, sutra, koan? Or one or the other? 

The ongoing reformation of Zen practice is full of controversy and deliberation.  Much of the voluminous written record of Zen consists of critiques of Zen “exercise,” generation after generation, rather than clarification of the core essence.

In the Sandhinirmocana-sutra, Siddhartha reportedly stated,
The ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words….has no representation
….transcends all thought and deliberation.  The ultimate truth of which I 
speak puts an end to all controversy,whereas thought and deliberation only 
operate in the realm of controversy. [Zen Essence, bold mine]

Foyan suggests, “There is not much to Buddhism—it just requires getting to the essential.”

to contemplate emptiness and enter concentration, is all in
 the province of contrivance—and if you go on seeking externals,
you get further and further estranged. [Mazu]

You are busy every day claiming to study Zen, learn the Way, and interpret 
Buddhism, but this alienates you even further.  It is just chasing sound and 
form.  When will you ever stop? [Dazhu]

And the essential?

In Buddhism, the question goes back to where it all begins, suddenly:

What Does Siddhartha See? 

Siddhartha sees something profound, and it is not just suffering as attachment to thoughts and experiences that leads to psychological relief and physiological calmness.  His sudden experience resolves the suffering of not realizing fundamental nature that transcends psychological self and even culture, including “Zen.” Foyan suggests that there is no objective world and Yuanwu suggests that there are no parameters.

Siddhartha brings a question and experiences something that is NOT what anyone expects to discover.  Siddhartha was always making “I,” but unexpectedly experienced “what you see when you are not making you”—The all-embracing mind that does not come into existence with the body or die with the body’s destruction, yet suffuses every act of seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, moving.” [Crazy Clouds, in discussing Bassui]

How much zazen or koan study or none of this or precepts or no precepts is really not the heart-place to dwell:

It is essentially direct experience from a basic query—perhaps a phrase from a Buddhist sutra such as Dwelling nowhere, bring forth that mind or a non-Buddhist one like Bassui first asked, “What is my own mind?” or later and less of a “you-oriented” query, Who is the master of hearing?

Dwelling nowhere, mind can’t come from you,

Then perhaps the clack of a stone, a chirp, spilled water, the flash of a sparrow’s wing, a black crow on winter ice, or a small phrase of sutra,

Like Hui-neng, or numerous people even before Siddhartha and outside of Buddhism, suddenly awake, nothing special, inherent.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

No Gap Between

Considering the Wild Fox koan where a Zen master falls into the body
 of a fox for five hundred years, Dogen questions, “…Just what is the
 subject that falls and just what is the object fallen into?”
In response, Dogen turns the question and brings it back home:
“What form and color does the universe that has continued from the past
have in the present?”
Dosho Port, Keep me In Your Heart A While [from Dogen,
“Great Practices” (Daishugyo), in Gudo Nishijima and Chodo
Cross trans., Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 4]

“Before you think who you are, you are you,’ means you are exactly
 the universe, exactly, harmoniously intimate, no gap between.”
Dainin Katagiri, in Dosho Port, Keep me In Your Heart A While

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Despite The Buddha's Warnings

Despite the Buddha’s warnings, his insistence on the individual experience of these truths by means of meditation, and despite his advocacy of a “middle way” that shunned asceticism as much as it did hedonism, Buddha’s practice became a widely doctrinal system, caught up in rituals and scholasticism.  After his death, his disciples split up into sects, many advocating the very means and ends against which their teacher had warned.

….The tendency of students, however, to revert to dependence on gods, the Buddha, and the “holy” scriptures persisted.
            Perle Besserman & Manfred Steger, Crazy Clouds


A]            Taking care of the psychosocial realm: for example:

 Fire, Tenderness and Awakening (Race, Sexuality and Gender)
Transforming Depression and Anxiety Through Mindfulness and Compassion
Meeting Trauma and Finding Balance
Zen Approaches to Sickness& Dying
Queer Dharma Group
Four Perspectives on Dharma: Therapy, Spirituality, Science and Religion
Buddhist Psychology
Zen Therapy
The Awakened Writer
                         San Francisco Zen Center 5/13/15

Another characteristic of contemporary Buddhist practice, encouraged by Dharma centers, is to combine meditation with other practices--community circles, twelve-step programs, psychotherapy, martial arts, shakuhachi, drawing, pilgrimages to holy sites, clowning, writing, yoga, cooking, and/or precepts as Moses' commandments.  Whatever the teacher or influential community members happen to be interested in is combined with Buddhadharma and some as the true way, perhaps augmenting the center's membership with people who aren't really interested in traditional dharma practice.  Dosho Port, Keep Me In Your Heart A While

or meditation as mindfulness training that emphasizes awareness, compassion and well-being

B]            The centrality of rules, etiquette and hierarchy.

Meditation, enlightenment, teacher-student relationship, celibacy, lay practice, gender, nature, social convention, leadership hierarchy/administrative roles, sexuality, the play of family/children, socio-political involvement [activism, environmentalism, racism, homelessness, militarism, mental health, illness, nationalism, warrior, anarchism, eccentricity, indigenous/alien], ritual [sutra recitation, chanting, prostration, eating, walking, clothing, sitting form, degree of asceticism in practice—endurance, striking, fasting], public education, retreats, community activities, ecumenism, funding/financial issues

This is quite different from:
            The body is not the bodhi tree, mind is not a mirror stand, nothing to polish
with no place for dust to alight.

Peopling Of The Earth

ALIVENESS AS A PERSON is not finally as a person—which is to say in a popular sense as a body or as a “brain-mind” or as a modern Casper-like soul-ghost. There is an oceanus, a cosmos, of aliveness, intelligence that is visible in a person, tree, wind, water. 

In Returning to Silence, Dainen Katagiri suggests that in looking at a tree, “From moment to moment, the tree explains itself.  If we look casually, we likely see our sense of what we have learned to define as a tree rather than the essence of a tree.  But if we exclude our presumptions, Katagiri suggests that “There is something more beautiful and much more worthy than what we usually see.”  He suggests that the universe is the content—“the whole personality”—of the tree or of anything that we look at.  In this sense, instead of an object or force we are looking through a gateless gate.  The event in the moment is the expression of the universe in that place and time.  And if we see what Siddartha saw, we do not simply imagine the universe before us.  We directly experience ourselves, and the discriminators of “I” and “we” drop away—no longer a perception of looking outward or looking at.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Flower = Mind = World = Person

MINDFULNESS, what is this:
Not just presence in a deep stream of things, process, thought, you, I, rooms, colors, body, emotion, heart pulse;

Not just the sense of ceasing to overlook events and to devalue events;

Not just “being there 100%”;

Not healing, rest, peace, recovery;

Not just the flow and impermanence of events;

These are typically psychological objectives: self/other, reaction to situations, awareness of events.  And this popular sense of mindfulness that can be positive in expanding awareness and letting go that have positive psychological, physiological and social effects.

It is clear that everyday awareness can be mind-FULL of sensory chatter that fails to observe most stimuli, to reinforce some experience and to priortize some experiences and to devalue others rather than simply open awareness.  Efforts to be less mind-FULL and more mindful or aware can challenge this sense of everyday consciousness as “routine” or “trancelike” and limiting.   By observing both introspection [especially processes such as restlessness and agitation and evasion and attachment] and external awareness—detachment and opening—can reduce a sense of suffering.

And yet, while this attentionality can expand awareness, psychological self can be reinforced rather than transcended.  We may continue to see quite conceptually, sensing inside and outside, here and there, sameness and difference, birth and death, and coming and going.

Thus, the koans—“elephant and house, same or different?”

What kind of mindfulness are koans referencing?
Mindful of what?

The popular sense of mindfulness can continue suffering and be quite different from the mindfulness of Siddartha in that approaches “the sleep of existential confusion” [Stephen Batchelor, Buddha Without Beliefs].  Without this, the essence of a flower, a tree, or a human goes unseen.  And so, a deep suffering remains that asks questions such as those Paul Gauguin asked in a masterwork—from where do I come, who am I, and where am I going?

            What the poet [Shinkichi Takahashi] says to us is that man, unlike the
            sparrow, has created forms which confine and frustrate, and until he
            sees they have no reality, are paltry, “so much secretion,” he will
            continue to tremble before them, their prisoner.
                        Lucien Stryk, Triumph of the Sparrow

What is the nature of you, I, body, thought, things, mind, flower?

What is each event at its essence? [and not just an esoteric sense, but at its most realistic, most practical aspect]:

Each experience is a gateless gate more than a wall or even a “melding;”

More “Thus” than “this and that;”

Not just inseparability, but a profound shift in identity beyond self.


Where is this “mindful” mind?

Seeing blossom sees mind, sees universe.

·      Hui-neng said one should not look at, but as things.” [p.171]
Lucien Stryk, in Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi

·      ...the mind that has always been,…

                                    It fills the great void.
Fujiwara-Fujifusa, [in response to Kanzan’s koan “Original Perfection”
·      …we participate with the whole universe as it practices through our individual bodies and minds.
Shohaku Okumura, in Realizing Genjokoan

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The No-Zen Center

REALITY IS NONDUALISTIC.  Intellectually, it is possible to imagine non-dualism as either the essence of reality or not.  It is another thing to experience it directly.  “Difference” + “Sameness/Oneness” = “Thusness.”


At its best, that which is termed Zen offers the possibility of this experience.  And yet, “Zen” can be derivative and conceptual and even degenerative rather than direct.

Monasteries and temples and Zen centers [typically more lay than monastic] become “parishes” of sorts.  “Newbie spiritual explorers” come and go.  “Intros” are offered. In Asia, orphans are taken into monasteries [with the condition that they become monks] and the descendents of parish temples come for their intensive “basic training” exposure before returning to gradually assume directorships of the home temple.  The larger the group, the larger becomes the demand for a management infrastructure.  The need for attention to management, recruitment, schedules of rituals and work, economic stability, confrontation of soft politics of inter-group issues and the elevation of some members into leadership, and group compliance to a programmed approach [given a variety of reasons for membership] become factors that are quite different from whole-hearted attention to realization of that which Siddartha experienced.   

In Zen Centers, classes replace day-filling monastic routines as a way to nourish the “eight-fold path” [the larger the Center’s group, the more the classes or activities that are likely to be offered]: zazen in Spanish, the way of tea, calligraphy, bread baking, healing rituals for the home, the path of parenting, transforming depression and anxiety, techniques for samadhi.  Typically, Buddhist studies are added, such as “the five hindrances,” “Dongshan and the practice of suchness” or group book reviews.

Talks and potlucks and Siddartha’s birthday celebrations and seasonal markers such as Spring Equinox ceremonies bring the group together and offers group support.  Affiliation with rural centers allows for short-term retreats.

Memorial services and funerary rites become a practice.  In Japan, parish “Zen” temples may appeal to folk deities and aspire to address physical, psychological and relational issues that members bring, as well as perform rituals such as exorcism that local persons request and for which offer payment.

Sangha tends to reference members and prospective members, with secondary attention to the trees and mountains and waters.

Center and monastic leaders—priests and abbots—literally become administrators in the religious tradition of the vocation of priests or pastors that sustain rituals and practices.  Monastic and center practices become highly ritualized and comprehensive to touch all aspects of life—vows, stages of membership and acknowledgement of stages of involvement, sitting style, zazen practice, formal eating, walking, clothing, very conceptual imagery, etc.  Such practices are taken for granted as valuable for overcoming a freedom of alternatives through a freedom of discipline.  Theoretically, high conceptualization becomes envisioned as a gateway for de-conceptualization and dis-identification.

In retreats for pastoral leaders of any spiritual or religious practice that has a center base, the conflict of maintaining the deep experience that provoked the vocation of the leaders becomes obvious and often a focus topic of the retreat.  Administration, economic demands and politics within the group, the needs of members, recruitment and education erode time available for attention to the leader’s original purpose for his or her vocation/avocation.  Popularity, charisma, and public speaking become assets for growth.


The original drive—the core element that provoked exploration, to realize authentic nature and be actualized by it—remains. However, “straight-forward” stands to be diluted. 

The No-Zen Center’s buddha, dharma, and sangha is the inconceivable, inseparable, unhidden rivers, mountains, winds, Earth, stars, cosmos and beings.       

While this is acknowledged, coming together as a specific sub-group or community to attain this realization tends to easily override the ineffable and overlay an additional set of concepts and practice based on those concepts.  None of it is essential to realization, not human community, not sitting, etc.  More than anything else Zen practice across the centuries has revealed the sense of “Great Doubt,” that there is something authentic to be experienced. 

And because of the intrusion of the conceptual, reformation, often radical, is essentially the historical record of Zen practices across the centuries and the real essence that sustains a triggering of realization of authentic home/nature.

And yet, the expressions of reformation soon become the grist for interpretive commentaries almost as infinitum.

Still, a deep, deep bow to this assault on arrogance.

...no human conception can grasp absolute reality as it is in itself.
Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.xii]

In reality nothing cloisters the mind but attachment to thoughts and projections.  The meaning of Zen is to realize this fact in experience, in the experience of genuine freedom on mind. […arriving at direct witness of reality.]
            Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.xii]

transforming ordinary experience into extraordinary enlightenment.
            Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.ix]

            …the experience of Zen is so inconceivable to the ordinary mind and cannot even be imagined until it happens.
            Thomas Cleary, No Barrier [p.xxii, bold, mine]

A core practice involved the dogged acknowledgement that every image and ritual is arrogant no matter how benign and helpful it appears to be.   The barrier is conceptualization.  And conceptualization is rampant in Zen practice. This is exactly why Zen emerges.  Both ultimately and practically, there is “nothing upon which dust can alight.”

Monday, March 23, 2015

Fundamental Point: Not Zen, Not Even Siddhartha’s

THE JAPANESE TERM “Zen” is an abbreviation of the term, zenna, that is a transliteration of Chinese Mandarin ch’anna, that is a transliteration of Sanskrit dhyanna and/or Pali jhana, and all terms describe a consistent form of meditation.  But meditation is not really the “essence” or primary point.  The essence is the core direct experience of true home/true nature, and this is not exclusive to Siddhartha, and can be experienced outside Buddhism and is accessible to anyone. It is a dimension of human experience.  As Siddhartha reportedly said, this is a direct experience of nature/essence that cannot be taught.  Zen Buddhism has provided strong advocacy for this directive, but with up and down cycles of stagnation and misdirection and reformation aspiring to return to this primary

In Zen sects of Buddhism, there was a deepening shift toward Mahayana doctrine that kept turning “Zen Buddhism” toward either remaining or returning [reforming] practice to the core direct experience.  Zen was/is “the study of self” rather than being sitting [za, J.] per se, with meditation being useful but not essential for awakening to “true nature/true self/true home.”  Sixth Chinese Ch’an patriarch Hui-neng represents this sense well in accounts that describe and value Hui-neng as an illiterate woodcutter and experiencing sudden awakening upon hearing a phrase from the Diamond Sutra being recited by a monk in a local marketplace, and with transmission of the core essence or primary point be acknowledged by the Fifth patriarch without ordination (that would likely not have even allowed presence in the meditation hall and had kept him a cook).  

Zen or whatever term is applied aspires to address the human dilemma as caused by the ignorance of true nature.  It aspires to cut through the conceptualization.  And it likely appears more in Zen and sustains because of a Zen orientation than it might in more spontaneous experience.  However, Zen practice and related meditation practices both monastic and lay can become blindly arrogant as well as intentionally arrogant and get caught up in practice rather than essence.


We do not really know the historical Siddhartha.  We do not explicitly know when or where he was born or when and how he died.  While the continuation of his teaching by his followers is described, we have no written words from him, and his “sayings” only appearing in written form after being passed down by zealots centuries later.  And those documents have mythical and magical qualities that do not fit well with Siddhartha’s core realization. As with most derivative practices, those retellings may or may not imagine, for example, supernatural events such as possible virgin birth [i.e., his mother having a dream of being pierced by an elephant tusk and then birthing a child with myriad markings suggesting greatness].

We imagine Siddhartha leaving home and creating something exclusive that would come to be termed “Buddhism.”  There is no acknowledgement of many spiritual and philosophical practices under a broad canopy of Hinduism and other practices such as Jainism, and many strong personalities to which Siddhartha would have been exposed and a religious practice he had been indoctrinated in and against which he was reacting.  There was also a cultural context of widespread illiteracy (even Siddhartha may have been illiterate), and an absence of cultural comfort that requires nearly full-time effort to exist and a broad spiritual climate that favored magical beliefs.  This is important because core elements of meditation and ideas such as the ineffable and phenomenon being “one” and attachment to either and the inability to experience integration of these two dimensions of being as root suffering were not new. 

In his lifetime, Siddhartha was actualizing aspects of existence and transcendence that were clearly described in the Upanishads that predate Buddhism and that were being discussed broadly. There are philosophical aspects of, for example, Hinduism (as expressed in some of the Upanishads) that mirror ontological aspects found in Buddhism (as expressed in Mahayana documents such as the Diamond Sutra).  Further, beliefs that contradict what Siddhartha had intuitively experienced such as reincarnation were either transposed onto his “Buddhism” OR he continued to describe his experience in such terms as recounted in an eventual written record [e.g., in his process of awakening, first perceiving 100,000 previous births and eventually leading to the cessation of his suffering due to his rebirth being destroyed and “no more re-becoming” [Majjhima Nikaya 26.2, in H.W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha, 2004 Ed., p.54].

Because of our distance from a historical Siddhartha, it is possible that Siddhartha might have described an ontology that did carry forward pre-existing religious concepts such as karma and reincarnation that carry the individual soul forward after death.  Such an orientation is clearly expressed in volume after volume.  For example, there are statements by respected contemporary Buddhist teachers such as (1) nirvana will be automatically attained in your eighth reincarnation as a monk if not before, and (2) the reason for so many people in the modern world is the result of killing and eating so many animals (causing so much suffering) that the animals were “elevated” and reincarnated as humans.

Depending on one’s Buddhist lineage, there were perhaps thirty or so primary transmitters after Siddhartha in Indian, followed by perhaps nearly thirty primary transmitters in China, and then splaying out into twenty generations each or so in Japan and Korea and SE Asia.  And in this process, there were the cultural influences of, for example, Taoism in China and shamanic practices and folk religions and varying conditions of existence.

The core element that distinguished Siddhartha from many other spiritual practices of that historical moment was the idea of the necessity of a sudden primary, direct experience of true self or true home that contradicts the nearly universal spiritual idea of an eternal individual soul or spirit.  Meditation had long existed, but the primary effort of previous practices had been an effort to link self with a theological being or absolute reality rather than stepping beyond a psychological self.  With an orientation in China that would become Ch’an Buddhism, one early name translated as “Buddha Soul Sect” which implied a sense of all as buddha soul [somewhat like the Upanishad idea of atman—a “seed” that dissolves back into Brahman or absolute reality at death, with Brahman actualizing atman more as an inseparable expression like a wave in the ocean].  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Zen Cord

THERE IS AN unending cord that has come through the ages that had come to be termed “zen.”  It has no origin and has presence before the appearance of Siddartha.  It has been both strengthened and frayed by human endeavors.

For Siddartha, it was exposed in time spent with the reformist Apanasadists sense of Brahman, and ascetics and Paribbajakas, [H. W. Schumann, The Historical Buddha], and then refined by him as direct knowledge.  Centuries later, it was expressed perhaps most lucid in written record of Ch’an where it was also colored by Taoism.  The lucidity comes from the written record being closer to the practitioners’ lifespan whereas the written record of Siddartha appeared only through the filter of a multi-path, oral tradition after centuries that had to have expressed various author’s preferences). 

Both before and after Siddartha and Ch’an, zen essence was/is frayed by reflecting cultural preferences.  Zen can reference many things, even in its longstanding house as a sect of Buddhism, and clearly in myriad associations beyond Buddhism.  In Zen Buddhism, Zen can reference practices other than monastic practices such as a “parish temple” Soto Zen system that proliferated to perhaps 17,500 temples in Japan in the 1700’s [Duncan Williams, The Other Side Of Zen].  In this system at that time, Soto Zen was very culturally-accommodating, offering funerary rites, exorcistic rites, faith-healing, inclusion of local folk deities, talismans for longevity and to prevent ailments such as smallpox as well as protect women from the dilemmas of menstruation [leading to their fall after death into Blood Pool Hell].  Gender and class discrimination and military aggression have also been reinforced in modern life [Steven Heine, Zen Skin, Zen Marrow]. The presence of “Gothic” folk deities and lay services continue in contemporary times in Asia and likely appear as more vague motifs in global “universal” practices [to some extent, first, in the presence of Buddhist statuary and secondarily, in their very stylized—almost “Gothic”—appearance rather than a “ Renaissance” likeness to Siddartha, for whom there were no images for centuries].

As with most longstanding religious practices, even in monastic temples in China and Japan, there is the sway across time of becoming culturally derivative and even degenerative and then reformist in an effort to “return” to the original source.  In the written record, events may be absent [e.g., Dogen’s possible secondary status in his monastic experience in China] or de-emphasized by later generations [e.g., Dogen’s shift toward suggesting salvation in his later outreach to lay audiences] [Steven Heine, Did Dogen Go To China?]. Dogen is an example because of his extensive written record.  As Steven Heine suggests in Zen Skin, Zen Marrow, there is always this tendency to ignore the historical in this literature.  In fact, there is an effort to create pseudo-historical myth as fact, as well as carry forward archaic religious aspects such as magical powers and to elevate and venerate historical figures as reality and to find healing powers in their relics, which conflicts with core non-duality.

Still, there is a core experience that sustains and emerges in direct experience.  There in an inherent wisdom that senses incompleteness in everyday life, and that senses an ineffable absolute that is vast and yet undistanced and inseparable.  And there is a record in the Zen literature (but not exclusive to this literature) that unequivocally points to a direct experience that cannot ultimately be taught.  This core experience survives all of the fraying of the cord.  Zen practice is not housed in a conformist setting of ritual, scripture and commentary.  The hunger to end suffering is to get to reality-as-it-is.  As such, it is an inherent or natural process rather than a special process.  It comes without agendas such as karma, rebirth and conceptualization.  If there is a helpful process, it is that of letting go, nothing to teach.