Thursday, 31 December 2015


16. Someone, critiquing the claim that the 'Prajna Paramita' is the supreme mantra that completely removes all anguish, comments 'but it doesn't, once and for all'. The comment is made in the context of a discussion of global warming and climate change. Indeed, it is difficult, on this eve of a new year, given our ongoing exploitation of the planet and its resources, not to face the coming of 2016 without some measure of anguish. But is this not, as the critic boldly states, at odds with the teaching of the 'Prajna Paramita Sutra'? However, what needs to be kept in mind here is that the feeling of anguish in the face of dire circumstances is not the same as being overwhelmed and paralysed by what is a perfectly natural response, at the emotional level, to those circumstances. The 'Prajna Paramita Sutra' teaches that a fully enlightened one, even while experiencing intense negative emotions, is nevertheless free to act in a committed and creative way in the service of the many beings. He or she feels anguish as much as the next person but is not dominated by it. Hence the sutra's claim that the 'Prajna Paramita' is the supreme mantra that completely removes all anguish.

Saturday, 26 December 2015


15. the fullness that empties itself
      makes itself manifest
      in emptiness

      the unbeginning that begins
      shows the unmade being made
      the unborn being born

      and a new star appears in the sky

      leading wise men from the east
      across mountains and rivers
      to pay homage to a king

      already ruined and homeless

Thursday, 17 December 2015


14. What is Master Nansen's 'ordinary mind'? A philosopher will provide definitions for 'ordinary', 'mind', and the compound 'ordinary mind'. These will be placed within a discourse that is discursive, logical, rational. A scholar will expand the philosopher's framework and investigate and discuss a range of issues, including problems to do with translation, from one language to another, from one culture to another, from one historical period to another, and so on. Useful as all this is, Zen tends to cut to the chase. Master Mumon Ekai presents a verse. It goes like this:

          spring flowers, summer breezes,
          autumn moon, winter snow -
          the uncluttered mind
          your best season.


Tuesday, 8 December 2015


13. Ordinary mind. Just this. A young monk, when asked what he had learnt in his first year in a Zen monastery, answered that he had learnt to open and close doors. In like vein is Gautama Shakyamuni's reply to the philosopher who wanted to know about the method Buddhists used to attain or manifest enlightenment. When Gautama began to tell him that Buddhists talk, wash, sit down, the philosopher interrupted him to point out everyone talks, eats, bathes, sits down. To which Gautama replied that there is a difference in that when Buddhists walk, sit, stand, and so on, they are aware of what they are doing. As for non-Buddhists, they do these things without being aware of what they are doing. Here we might feel that Gautama was being less than fair to non-Buddhists. After all, some of us will be familiar with the Latin maxim, 'agere quod agis'. Nevertheless, we can acknowledge Gautama's point in that mindfulness is a basic practice in Buddhism. And this practice invests everyday activities with a liberating significance. So whether opening or closing doors, sitting or standing, we can manifest the Buddha's enlightenment just as surely as when reciting sutras, offering incense or doing prostrations. As Master Nansen remarked over a thousand years ago, 'Ordinary mind is the Way'.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


12. What price enlightenment? A young monk asked his master 'What is the Way?' If he was expecting something exciting and dramatic, the master's response must have come as a shock. His master's answer? 'Ordinary mind is the Way'. No need then to go cutting off fingers like Master Gutei. Rather it is a matter of 'just this'.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

AMA Samy with Aussie disciples

Zen Master AMA Samy, Carl Hooper sensei and some Australian members of Bodhi Sangha get together at the end of the November sesshin held at the Benedictine Abbey Jamberoo. There were twenty four participants at the sesshin, some of whom were new to Zen. Philip Long, a veteran practitioner with a lengthy association with AMA Samy became a formal member of the sangha on the last day of the sesshin when he was accepted as a disciple by Hooper sensei. Sesshin participants donated over $6,000 to support the 'Little Flower' charitable projects in India. These projects include pre-school care and education for village children, outreach and financial support for the elderly in rural districts around Bodhi Zendo, and servicing a clinic for local people. Zen Master AMA Samy has agreed to return to Australia in 2016 to lead a sesshin at Jamberoo (30 Sept - 6 Oct). Our heart felt thanks to AMA Samy for his care for the Australian members of Bodhi Sangha, to Peter Ofner for all his organizing work on behalf of the local sangha, to David Ingram for tending to the financial matters, and to Aileen McAuliffe for ensuring the survival of the group over a number of years. We also owe a debt of gratitude to Doug Hume and his partner Nadine for their generous hospitality to AMA Samy at their property near Armidale in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Thursday, 19 November 2015


11. The report that a certain Zen Master brought his disciple to great awakening by cutting off one of the disciple's fingers is not the sort of story calculated to give Zen Buddhism a good press in the modern Western world. Taking the story to be literally true, we might attempt to defend the master's action by describing it in terms of tough love, of being cruel to be kind, where the end justifies the means. Or we might see it as a cruel and violent act that only serves to discredit the whole practice of Zen. Either way, we have missed the point. We have failed to take account of the literary form in which this story has come down to us. The story, as we have it, is meant to function as a koan, a meditation device in Zen that is not meant to be taken literally. So in the case of Gutei, who practised One Finger Zen, the story about him cutting off the boy's finger should be read as metaphor. Here we see a disciple who, when questioned about his master's teaching, demonstrated that he had not penetrated beyond its outward form. Hearing of this, the master quickly and decisively negated that form. In Gutei's act of negation, the disciple came to deep understanding.

Thursday, 12 November 2015


10. The history of Zen Buddhism is not lacking in the names of masters whose actions have sent shockwaves through the tradition. Foremost among these is Gutei, or Jushi if you prefer, the revered exponent of One Finger Zen. The story goes that a visitor to Gutei's temple asked the boy attendant what his master taught. The boy immediately raised one finger. When Gutei learnt of the boy's action, he summoned him, got him to hold up a finger and then promptly cut it off. As the boy ran off screaming, Gutei called his name. Stopping and looking back, the boy saw Gutei raise one finger. Thereupon, we are told, the boy attendant had great realization.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


9. The Zen Master's concern is to help the disciple to uncover his or her True Face. Given that each disciple has particular needs and talents, the master needs to be sensitive to these and adapt the teaching accordingly. With this in mind Zen Masters utilize what have come to be called upaya, a technical term meaning 'skilful means'. But even here Zen Masters won't be tied down. Take, for example, the case of the ninth century master Gutei, also known by his Chinese name Jushi. He is chiefly remembered not only because his teaching was so simple but also because it was always the same. It is said that whenever he was asked about Zen he simply raised his finger. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015


8. Guidance in the practice of Zen is ideally found in the master/disciple relationship, and this in the context of a community of practitioners. Down through the centuries this has been the pattern. Examples abound in the literature of Zen. We read, for instance, of a monk in ninth century China going to the pre-eminent master Zhaozhou and saying, 'I have just entered this monastery. Please teach me'. The practice of individual instruction is evident in the case of the thirteenth century master Wumen Huikai. He tells us that when he was in charge of a certain temple he worked with the monks and attempted to lead them along the Way of the Buddha according to their respective needs and capacities. Recognition and respect for the individual's particular needs and capacities is a feature of Zen training. Here it is never a matter of supposing that one size fits all. Anyone serious about practising Zen will seek out the personal guidance of an authentic master.

Sunday, 18 October 2015


7. There is something expedient about what a Zen Master says or does by way of guiding a disciple to the realization of his or her True Self. Much depends on the particular needs and abilities of the disciple who stands before the master. The tailoring of the teaching to a particular disciple at a particular time in a particular place is clearly exemplified in a story that has come down to us about the way old Master Zhaozhou responded to what is perhaps the most famous question in Zen. To one monk's question as to whether a dog has Buddha-nature or not, Zhaozhou answered 'Yes'. To the same question put to him by another monk he replied 'No'.

Thursday, 15 October 2015


6. The story of the monk doomed to five hundred re-births as a fox was first told by the T'ang Dynasty Chinese master Hyakujo Ekai. This is how he is known in the world of Japanese Zen. Nowadays we are getting used to meeting him as Pai-chang Huai-hai or even Baizhang Huaihai. And we are told that both these spellings of his Chinese name are to be pronounced 'Bye-jong'. The case is similar with his distinguished disciple Obaku, who went on to become a master in his own right and was to declare that 'in all the land of T'ang there is no Zen teacher'. Obaku's Chinese name is variously written as Huang-po Hsi-jun or Huangbo Xijun. Both versions are pronounced 'Hwong-bwaw'. All very confusing for the non-scholars among us. As for the diacritical marks that I have omitted (limitations of my keyboard), let us not go there. But one thing is clear: in the discourse of Zen, names as designators are far from rigid. Luckily for us, Zen as a 'special transmission outside the scriptures' is 'not dependent on words and letters'.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015


5. Inasmuch as a Zen Master can be said to give teachings, they are nevertheless teachings that can't be taught. Strictly speaking, a Zen Master should not be referred to as a Zen teacher. An old Chinese master, with a clear understanding of the matter, rightly declared that 'in all the land of T'ang there is no Zen teacher'.

Another old master invented a story to articulate how, after many years as a 'teacher', he came to understand that he had been on the wrong track. He told of how, in the course of giving a series of talks to his monks, he became aware of an alien presence in the lecture hall. The disturbing presence presented itself as an old-man-who-was-not-now-a-man though in the distant past it had been human. Indeed, it had been the master of the current master's very own monastery. It confessed that something had gone wrong way back then. The former master, when asked a question about causation, had failed to respond from the perspective of someone mastered by Zen. Rather he had answered as a teacher who believed himself to have mastered Zen. He had declared that an enlightened one does not fall under the yoke of causation. Consequently he found himself doomed to undergo five hundred re-births as a fox and was now seeking release from that cycle. For the current master the story that he was now telling represented his own career as a professional Zen teacher, that is, a career in which he had come to see himself as a fraud, a trickster, a giver of Zen teachings. Now, half way through his latest lecture series, it had become imperative for him to confront and own the trickster dimension of himself. The antinomian implications of the view that a fully enlightened person is not subject to causation were suddenly and forcibly borne in upon him, implications that he now realized were intolerable. By confronting and acknowledging his shadow self the current master found himself freed from the secret dominance of that shadow self. His presentation of the Dharma was no longer dependent on words and letters. This brought about a change in his presence that was immediately noticed by his leading disciple. This led the disciple to acknowledge the master by slapping him in the face. The master responded with uproarious laughter. The disciple in question went on to become a master in his own right, a master who one day would declare that 'in all the land of T'ang there is no Zen teacher'.

Thursday, 1 October 2015


4. Over a thousand years ago, in the dying years of the T'ang Dynasty, a monk came to Ch'an Master Chao-chou and said, 'I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me'. In response, Chao-chou asked the monk if he had eaten his breakfast. The monk replied that he had. At which point the Master gave his teaching with the words, 'Wash your bowl'. With this, we are told, the monk gained insight.
Less than fifty years ago a young American spent twelve months in a Zen Buddhist monastery. At the end of that time he was asked about what he had learnt. He replied, 'I learnt to open and close doors'.

During this past week someone asked, 'Does a Zen Master give teachings?'

Tuesday, 29 September 2015


3. Someone has asked, 'Does a Zen Master give teachings?' As to what the questioner meant by 'teachings' is not clear. Assuming that he or she was thinking of something like 'a body of doctrine', and allowing that with regard to Zen doctrine 'both speech and silence are faulty', the short answer would have to be 'no'. What the Zen Master does is introduce the beginner to a practice under the Master's personal guidance and in the context of a 'sangha' or community. Central to this practice is a very formal type of sitting meditation called 'zazen'. Extended periods of sitting meditation are relieved by shorter periods of walking meditation called 'kinhin'. These disciplines of sitting and walking meditation are supported by a set of rituals that foster an atmosphere of mindfulness conducive to the practice of meditative inquiry. The silence of this inquiry is offset and in a sense reinforced by sessions of chanting and the recitation of Zen Buddhist sacred texts. The Zen Master's 'teachings' are to be found in the way the Master guides the 'sangha' as a whole and its members individually. This guidance finds formal expression in the Master's talks to the 'sangha' called 'teisho' and in his or her private interviews called 'dokusan'.

Monday, 21 September 2015


(2) Zen talk can be dangerous. An ancient master made a mistake in speaking and was re-born five hundred times as a fox. Another master, after writing up his insights regarding the Heart-Mind of Zen, found himself exclaiming, 'Words! The Way is beyond language'. Faced with what is 'beyond language' we might best listen to the philosopher Wittgenstein who said, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent'. Indeed silence was the Buddha's response to the non-Buddhist philosopher who put this request, 'I do not ask for words. I do not ask for non-words'. Nevertheless, a Zen Master will demand of us, 'Say something! Say something!' And here we find ourselves in a double bind. For even to say true things about the Great Matter of Zen is somehow to get it wrong. As one nameless monk put it a long time ago,'Both speech and silence are faulty. Speech spoils the transcendence, and silence spoils its manifestation'. And still the Master demands of us, 'Say something! Say something!'

Wednesday, 16 September 2015


1. In Zen we are attempting to uncover our original mind. A master might say, 'Show me your face before your parents met !' Novice, or seasoned practitioner, we must bring to our daily practice the qualities of a beginner's mind. Here, 'not knowing is most intimate'. Each morning we set out for the very first time on the path that has no end. And this continually renewed setting out is our attempt to begin that which has no beginning. Each moment, each breathing moment, is our introduction to the path (the way of the Awakened One), the path that has neither beginning nor end. And yet, as Master Mumon writes, 'Before a step is taken, the goal is reached'.