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?'