Friday, 30 December 2016


77. The zazen practice of 'following the breath' sounds simple enough. After all, it is just breathing, in and out, we do it all the time and it is not something we have to think about. Yet as a meditation practice it is, in a sense, altogether too simple and there is the rub. When we turn out attention to this familiar, everyday, vital activity, an activity that requires no thought, we suddenly find ourselves confronted by a host of thoughts and feelings. 'What a vacuous exercise!' 'How boring!' 'I could be doing something much more interesting than this!' 'Such a waste of time!' Nevertheless we are instructed to persevere with returning to our focus on just breathing in, on just breathing out. And in just breathing out we find ourselves letting go of that breathing moment and opening to the new incoming breath. No decision, no effort is required to welcome this breath. It seems to be happening of its own accord. It might feel like something altogether new, a totally novel experience. Focusing on this new incoming breath we forget the previous outgoing breath. Experiencing the movement of air slowly invading our body we arrive at the sensation of a momentary pause, immediately followed by a counter movement with the feeling of breathing out. And perhaps for just this one breath moment we have let go of all thought. No thought of what went before, no anticipation of what might come next. Just following the breath without any running commentary. But until our concentration is unbroken, the practice of following the breath for a half hour or so can become a little frightening. We might feel like a skater on very thin ice.

Thursday, 29 December 2016


76. Anti-textual slogans and symbolic acts of sutra burning need to be viewed in the context of the whole Zen tradition and practice. It will be noticed first of all that Zen itself has given rise to a vast body of literature. Then there is the fact that the chanting of sutras is an important part of daily practice in Zen temples and monasteries. Furthermore, the lay-out of a Zen training centre, such as that of Bodhi Zendo in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, features not only a meditation hall but also a well stocked and well used and meticulously cared for library. All this would surely suggest that the extreme character of much Zen rhetoric should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, the rhetoric ought not be dismissed out of hand. Its purpose is to counter ever tendency to neglect the discipline of personal meditational practice.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016


my sutras

my sutras ...
I burnt them all
aeons ago
when first I heard
under a fugitive moon
from bushy banks
of the creek that wanders
through the stillness of my sitting
the croaking of ten thousand frogs

spring sesshin, kodogi, 2009.

Monday, 26 December 2016


74. Scholar monks seem to have been conspicuous among the book burners of Zen. Some, like Tokusan, burnt their sutras after their great Realisation, as if to signify that they had entered a dimension of being that lay beyond words and concepts. Others, such as Kyogen (Hsiang-yen), consigned their notes and sutras to the flames, not as a sign that they had attained Enlightenment but rather out of frustration with what words and letters had to offer. Now it seems that this Kyogen, a noted scholar of great distinction was, in the eyes of his master, too clever by half. It was said that if asked a question he could easily give ten answers. And so Master Isan (Kuei-shan) challenged him with the question about his real self, the self that existed even before he was born. And Isan wasn't interested in getting a bookish answer. Unable to answer there and then, Kyogen set about racking his brains. Still unable to answer, and though Isan had stipulated he was not to do this, he consulted his books and pored over his notes. All to no avail. In despair and believing he had exhausted his study of Buddhism, he burnt his books, his notes, his papers. He vowed that henceforth he would live as a simple rice-gruel monk and stop torturing his mind. To this end he left his master and went off to a cemetery to tend the grave of a long dead national teacher. And there it happened that in the course of sweeping the ground around the old master's grave his broom picked up a stone and sent it flying to strike against some bamboo with a sudden 'pock!' That sudden, unexpected sound had the effect of clarifying Kyogen's mind and bringing him to a great Enlightenment-Realisation. He thereupon wrote a short verse that began:
          One stroke and all is gone,
          No need of stratagem or cure;
          Each and every action manifests
                the ancient Way.

Interestingly enough, this scholar-monk, having burnt his books and notes in despair over words and letters, now found himself after his great Realisation experience driven once again to take up his pen.  

Sunday, 25 December 2016


73. The Zen school of Buddhism tends to get distinguished from other Buddhist traditions by its claim that it is 'a special transmission outside the sutras', a transmission that has 'no dependence upon words and letters'. Emphasis on these principles has merit when it represents a healthy scepticism with regard to an intellectual inquiry that is not supported by an authentic spiritual practice. When a sceptical emphasis changes into an all out anti-intellectualism that would insist that all sutra study is utterly useless, it should give us pause. Historians have named a number of well known masters from the late T'ang era who, they say, adopted an extreme anti-intellectualist stance. However, to include such a figure as Tokusan (Te-shan) among these seems to be unjust. Tokusan was a scripture scholar and a recognised expert on the Diamond Sutra. Hearing of the Zen movement, he judged it to be heretical and decided to do what he could to stamp it out. It was only when he found himself unable to meet the challenge of a tea-lady regarding what the Diamond Sutra says about 'mind' that his determination to attack Zen began to falter. Following this he had an extended interview with Zen Master Ryutan (Lung-t'an) at the conclusion of which he came to a sudden Enlightenment-Realisation. Soon thereafter he burnt his sutras and scholarly notes. His sutra burning was not the act of a fanatic. Rather, it gave expression to his recognition that he had come to the end of an exhaustive intellectual inquiry. He had, as it were, climbed Wittgenstein's ladder and then, in order to climb up and beyond it, he had to kick it away. Only thus could he enter into and come to relish the silence of the Buddha.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016


72. A few thoughts:
                        In the Zen tradition we are careful not to rely solely on our 'internal sensors'. Self-deception is an ever present danger. In other traditions, too, masters of the spiritual life are careful to post red flags around all 'funny interior feelings' (FIFs).

     The injunction to 'stand nowhere and let the True Self come forth' is a koan. How many of us can truly 'stand nowhere'? In the resolution of this koan the True Self does indeed manifest itself. Such a resolution needs to be confirmed in the space that opens up between master and disciple.

     Traditional Japanese Zen has tended to overdo the Samurai approach to practice. Teaching in the lineage of Zen Master AMA Samy our practice is gentler and more compassionate. While our zazen (or sitting) is disciplined, it is never rigid and never prolonged. The problem with champion sitters with their unwavering focus is that they are more likely to be on an ego-trip than on the Way of the Awakened. In our lineage we take to heart the sutra that says, 'The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences'.

     In the faith based school of Pure Land Buddhism great stress is placed on 'other-power' (grace). And though Zen rhetoric puts the stress on 'self-power', one eventually comes to realise how dependent one is on 'the other'. As one master has put it, if our effort is not supported by the universe as a whole than it is not real effort. Indeed, for one who is truly awakened, grace is everywhere and everything is grace.

     What waiting there is in zazen practice is more akin to a patient delving into what we already possess here and now. Let us open ourselves to the mysterious fullness of this empty moment.

Monday, 19 December 2016


71. It is said that to practise Zen one needs Great Faith, Great Doubt and Great Determination. None of these is enough on its own. Great Doubt works together with Great Faith and Great Determination, not to bring about Awakening but to set up the conditions for Awakening to happen. Great Doubt's contribution is to keep alive the questioning aspect of the Zen quest for the True Self. As for koans, they can be thought of as the language of Awakening. They can open the Zen practitioner to the dynamism of the questioning that underlies all questions. Here it is best to heed the koan injunction, 'Standing nowhere, let your True Self come forth'.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016


70. More on Zen, sutras, and philosophy:
      The Hua-yen School of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy brought conceptual clarity and precision to the beautiful imagery and daring symbolism found in the Avatamsaka Sutras. Thus Indra's Net, made up of numerous gems and draped over Indra's palace, gets interpreted as representing the inter-relatedness and interpenetration of all things. The philosophy of this school, with its core meta-physical principles, was completely assimilated by the Chinese Zen masters. Indeed, not a few of the Zen koans can be read as concrete enactments of the basic Hua-yen principle that affirms sameness in difference and difference in sameness. Transmitted to Japan, the Hua-yen came to be known as the Kegon School. According to D.T. Suzuki, 'the philosophy of Zen is Kegon and the teaching of Kegon bears its fruit in the life of Zen'. This teaching of Kegon has it that all beings by nature are Buddha, that nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana, and that Bodhisattvas, endowed with prajna and karuna, guide all beings caught in the cycle of rebirths, to Buddhahood.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016


69. Zen practitioners have a special devotion to the Maha prajna paramita hrdaya sutra. This sutra is a response to a question about practice. The question: how should one practise in order to realise the highest wisdom? Practitioners chant this sutra daily and sometimes more often than that. The sutra gives verbal expression to the realisation of emptiness and its manifestation in form. It also expresses the practitioner's commitment to the ongoing practice of the wisdom that flows from this realisation. Furthermore, out of the authentic practice of prajnaparamita there arises karuna, the great compassion of the Awakened One. The dynamism of the practice of prajna and karuna drives the practitioner onward and ever onward in a radically changed perspective regarding what constitutes reality. The changed perspective itself is not static but entails a continuous deconstruction of all essentialist concepts of the self, the world and what makes for human flourishing in the world.

Sunday, 11 December 2016


68. Zen is said to be 'a special transmission outside the sutras'. And yet Nagarjuna, the great second century patriarch and pivotal link between Shakyamuni and Zen, developed his Madhyamika  philosophy out of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The teaching found in these sutras with its emphasis on the negative, the use of paradox, a religious experience flowing from intuitive cognition, and the grasping of things in their thusness, found its way via Nagarjuna's Madhyamika into Zen and embedded itself there. The Chinese Zen masters were able to use paradox and the comprehension of things in their thusness to bring disciples to enlightenment in their ordinary everyday lives. This is what they called 'enlightenment in daily life'. And so the sutras were translated and transformed and realised in that which lay outside them. A simple fact or event in a disciple's ordinary life could be offered as the answer to some deep inquiry, and this frequently led to a sudden insight on the part of the disciple. Thus it is that Zen can and does claim to be 'a special transmission outside the sutras'.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016


67. The claim that one is engaged in a philosophical inquiry into the Zen koan considered both as a meditational device and a concise statement of the philosophy of Zen Buddhism can expect to be met with raised eyebrows. A Zen master might laugh and say that such a project is calculated to defeat one of the principal purposes of koan study, namely, the elimination of discursive thinking. A philosopher might question the wisdom of spending time and energy on nonsensical puzzles evidently designed to frustrate, rather than awaken thought. Given Zen Buddhism's reputation for being anti-philosophical such reactions ought not surprise us. For Zen's aversion to philosophy would seem to be especially exemplified in its use of meditation themes couched in the enigmatic words of the koan. This apparently meaningless language is supposed to help the practitioner to 'cut off the mind road', that is, to eliminate all logical thinking. It would seem then that Zen aims to achieve a mental condition that is characterised by the absence of thought. Philosophy, however, is restless in its devotion to thought, a thought that is logical, discursive, conceptual. The Zen Buddhist project to eliminate thought and the philosophic quest to awaken it would seem to be diametrically opposed. And yet since the arrival of Zen in the West it has aroused the interest of a number of philosophers. Comparative studies have been undertaken in which parallels have been drawn between Heidegger and Dogen, Wittgenstein and Nishida, Postmodernism and Zen. It has been even argued that behind the anti-intellectual stance of Zen 'there is a clearly delineated philosophy' (Toshihiko Izutsu, Towards a Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, p. 151) and that 'each koan can be regarded as an epitome of Zen philosophy' (ibid., p.168). The interest shown by some Western philosophers in Zen and the claims made by Izutsu about its underlying philosophy can serve as both starting point and stimulus to an inquiry into the Zen koan as a philosophical practice. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2016


66. There is a widely held view that Zen is not philosophy. Such a view fails to recognise that Zen can, and indeed should, embrace philosophy. In his exposition of the teaching of Zen Master Dogen Kigen the scholar Hee-Jim Kim has this to say: 'The philosophic enterprise is as much the practice of the bodhisattva way as is zazen'. He then adds, 'this view implies that metaphysical theory itself is a koan realized in life' (Dogen Kigen: Mystical Realist, 1987, p.97).

Sunday, 27 November 2016


65. The philosophy that is exercised in koan Zen does not emerge from reasoning. Nor does it 'go on' by reasoning. Koan Zen is a 'doing', indeed, a 'just doing'. This doing of Zen engages the practitioner in specific practices, practices such as zazen, kinhin, dokusan, and samu. In zazen, or sitting meditation, the body/heart-mind is stilled and silenced, so that the True Self is recognised and manifested in the overcoming of dualism. In kinhin, or walking meditation, this stillness and silence is realised in the freedom of mindful movement. In dokusan, or the encounter with the master, the freedom of the True Self is assessed and tested (and perhaps confirmed) by one who is intimate with this freedom. In samu the True Self is actualised in selfless service of the sangha, the community of Zen practitioners.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016


64. What is your aim in Zen? To liberate the goose from the jar in which it was raised.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016


63. Many who are new to Zen, and some who are not so new, ask how often they should meditate and for how long. Underlying such questions is a query about effort. How much effort must a practitioner be prepared to expend on Zen to gain its promised benefits? Quite a lot, if Master Mumon Ekai, the 13th century Chinese master, is to be believed. Master Mumon urges the Zen novice to arouse his or her entire body so as to employ every ounce of energy on this work. His advice is in keeping with the traditional slogan that has it that progress in Zen requires great faith, great doubt, and great determination. Clearly the practice of Zen has been traditionally seen as a demanding discipline. Yet when the 9th century master Joshu was a young monk he was warned that if he tried to seek after the Way he would be separated from it. Here it would seem that trying, putting in effort, would be counter-productive. So what should be done: practise hard or simply relax and take things easy? A contemporary master, who is clearly of the view that trying is necessary, has suggested that if a practitioner's effort is not supported by the universe as a whole then he or she could not make any real effort at all. On this view, what's at stake is not so much the amount of effort required but rather that the effort be real. Real effort in Zen is an intelligent discipline that works within the unity of the seeker and the sought. That is, one's effort is the work not of the isolated and limited self alone but rather of the Self that is operative at once in the practitioner and the practitioner's world. It is to the 'effort' of the True Self that the practitioner must surrender. In this way the practitioner is supported by 'the ten thousand things', that is, by the universe as a whole. It is a case of the Self that seeks and finds and knows and loves the Self. The Zen practitioner needs to surrender the empirical self to the workings of the True Self.

Friday, 21 October 2016

62. verse for a naming

          mysterious this cloud
          untethered unanchored
          adrift in a sky
          so vast so empty

          wild this wind
          cloud shaping propelling
          its whence and its whither
          who knows who knows

Monday, 17 October 2016


61, A commitment 'to follow the Way of the Dharma' might appear to be no more than a pious nod in the direction of honouring some vague Buddhist ideal. After all it is a little difficult to pin down exactly just what the word 'dharma' means in the context of Buddhist discourse. Clearly it has more than one meaning.
     In some contexts the word is used in a plural sense so that the word 'dharmas' points to all those things that are encountered in the world. These are what the Zen practitioner gestures towards with the formula 'the ten thousand things'. Such things (or dharmas) come into being and pass out of being.
     But in the expression 'the Way of the Dharma' the word is used in the singular sense and its first letter is capitalised. For here it is said to point to the law that is at work in the universe, what has been called 'the cosmic order'. Buddhists find this universal law manifested and articulated in the teachings of Gautama Shakyamuni, the Buddha. So a commitment 'to follow the Way of the Dharma' would seem to be an undertaking to study and put into practice the teachings of the Buddha and thus come into harmony with the law that governs all of reality. But the question then arises as to the most effective way to pursue such a study and practice. That Buddhism has taken diverse forms testifies to the different ways in which this question has been answered.
     The answer found in the Zen tradition is distinctive in that it privileges meditative inquiry over intellectual study and academic research. The Zen approach is encapsulated in an ancient verse that reads as follows:
                     A special transmission outside the scriptures,
                     Not founded upon words and letters;
                     By pointing directly to one's heart-mind
                     It lets one see into one's own true nature
                     And thus realise Buddhahood.

This verse has been attributed to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk and dhyana master who is credited with transmitting the Dharma from India to China in the early part of the sixth century of the Common Era. What the verse expresses is exemplified in the behaviour of Bodhidharma himself at his interview with Emperor Wu of Liang. It seems that the emperor, being on his own account a devout Buddhist, wanted to know what merit he had gained through all his good works. But Bodhidharma bluntly told him 'no merit at all'. Visibly taken aback the emperor then inquired as to what was the first principle of the holy teaching. Again he was in for a shock when the master answered 'vast emptiness, nothing sacred'. Flabbergasted the emperor found himself compelled to question the identity of the one standing before him. Bodhidharma simply replied 'I don't know' and then left the royal presence.
     For the Zen practitioner a commitment 'to follow the Way of the Dharma' entails a readiness to enter into the mysterious vast emptiness of which Bodhidharma spoke, an emptiness that transcends 'words and letters', an emptiness in which 'not knowing is most intimate'. To enter this vast emptiness one must follow the Way that is not a way, the Way in which there is neither coming nor going.

Monday, 10 October 2016


59. 'In the presence of Buddha and Christ.' Some may be troubled at the sight of a Christian being acknowledged as a Zen master. But the Zen master who happens to be a Christian is one who refuses to make an idol of either Buddha or Christ. Rather, like Jesus journeying to his destiny, he would walk the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016


      In the presence of Buddha and Christ,
      I commit myself to follow the Way of the Dharma,
      to serve the Sangha,
      to be true to the vision of Bodhi Sangha    
      and to realise the Four Great Vows for All.
      I promise to be committed to the Sangha and to care for my disciples.
                Zen Master Carl Hooper (Mysterious Cloud Bodhi ken),
                sesshin with Zen Master AMA Samy (Gen Un ken),
                Jamberoo Abbey,
                5 October, 2016.

Monday, 5 September 2016


57. Intellectuals and scholars tend to get a bad press in the Zen tradition. A case in point is that of the ninth century Chinese master Kyogen, a scholar renowned for his erudition. He began his training under Master Hyakujo and then, after Hyakujo died, became a disciple of Master Isan who saw at once that his learned disciple was too clever by half. Telling Kyogen that his great learning stood in the way of him attaining enlightenment, Isan challenged his disciple with the question, 'What is your true self - the self that existed before you came out of your mother's womb, before you knew east from west?' At this Kyogen was at first dumbfounded and didn't know what to say. Then, racking his brains, he came up with all sorts of answers, none of which hit the mark. Isan rejected each of them out of hand. In his desperation Kyogen begged his master to explain the matter to him. Isan, however, insisted that Kyogen should find the answer for himself. True to form, Kyogen turned to his books and the copious notes he had taken over the years. But for all his poring over these learned texts he remained completely baffled. He evidently failed to realise that Isan had not asked him about what he had learned from his reading or from his study of the sutras. Eventually he saw that the books couldn't help him and he gave up on them. Such was his disgust with what they had to offer that he actually burnt them and resolved that henceforth he would live the life of a simple monk or, as he put it, 'a rice-gruel monk'. To this end he left his master and went off to serve as caretaker for the graveyard where a famous master was buried. There he lived in a small hut and busied himself with meditation and the performance of simple everyday tasks. And so it came to pass that one day while he was sweeping the ground around the dead master's tomb his broom picked up a small stone and sent it flying to bang against some bamboo. Tock! The sound of the stone hitting the bamboo brought Kyogen to a sudden realisation of his true self, the self that existed before he came out of his mother's womb, before he knew east from west.  

Tuesday, 23 August 2016


56. Zen Master Wakuan puts a 'why question' to his disciples. Practitioners who take up Wakuan's 'why?' will find themselves being led deeper and deeper into Zen's questioning quest. But there comes a critical moment in this quest and it happens when the practitioner's 'why?' transmutes into 'who?' And this 'who?' leads the practitioner into the mystery of the one who clings to nothing and to whom nothing clings, least of all a beard. 'Why does the Western Barbarian have no beard?'

Saturday, 20 August 2016


55. Ch'an master Wakuan refers to Bodhidharma as 'the Western Barbarian'. In common parlance this is a derogatory expression, saying in effect that someone is uncultured, rude, wild, ignorant. It points to behaviour that is at odds with accepted civilised standards. But in the Zen tradition Bodhidharma cuts a great figure. So why is he referred to as a barbarian? Various explanations are given. All of them fixed on the bearded Indian monk who is credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to China. Yet given that Wakuan's derogatory expression occurs within a koan, it might well be the case that the focus of Wakuan's gaze is not so much on the figure of Bodhidharma as on the practice he represents and teaches. Perhaps Wakuan is alerting his disciples to a feature of Zen practice that many might find disturbing. This is its propensity to take a practitioner very quickly out of his or her comfort zone. For the practice can at times appear foreign, wild, rude and unpredictable. The novice who might look to Zen for an experience that is all sweetness and light is in for a very rude awakening.  

Friday, 19 August 2016


54.          quietly climbing up
               this cloudless blue mountain sky -
               the moon round and full

Monday, 15 August 2016


53. In twelfth century China Zen master Wakuan put the question, 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' In contemporary Australia his question might be, 'Why has the Asylum Seeker no rights?'


52. The Southern Sung Dynasty master Wakuan asked a question that so puzzled his disciples that it soon achieved the status of a koan. That is to say, it was felt that even to understand their master's question, let alone respond to it appropriately, they would need to share in his own Enlightenment Realisation. The question: 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' Now given that the most junior novice in their monastery knew that 'the Western Barbarian' referred to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who was always depicted with a great bushy beard, the question as to why he lacked a beard must have struck the disciples as most perplexing. What could their master be playing at?

Wednesday, 10 August 2016


51. Some of the old Zen masters are remembered and revered for a teaching that, at first glance, does not appear to amount to very much. Take the case of Ch'an master Huo-an, known in the Zen tradition as Wakuan. He died in 1179 aged in his early seventies. His contribution to Zen lore would seem to be limited to a question and a brief death poem. Wakuan's question: 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' On the basis of this question alone the Zen tradition holds him in high esteem as a great teacher. Clearly, the formulation of a question can sometimes be more enlightening than the provision of an answer.

Friday, 29 July 2016


50.          artist statement

               on empty paper
               my pencil dreams -
               of what it dreams
               I do not know
               I do not know

               on empty canvas
               my paintbrush dreams -

               of what it dreams
               I do not know
               I do not know

               but this I know -
               unknowing is
               most intimate
               most intimate

Sunday, 24 July 2016


49.          Our dark cloud
               a clouded moon -
               its mysterious light,

Friday, 15 July 2016


48. Some parallels (perhaps):

Basho Osho said to his disciples, 'If you have a staff, I will give you a staff. If you have no staff, I will take it from you'. Jesus said to his disciples, 'Anyone who has will be given more and will have more than enough; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has'.

Basho would open the eyes of his disciples to the mysterious Tao that supports the heavens and sustains the earth. Jesus would reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.

Basho teaches his disciples with a riddling koan. Jesus talks to the crowds in riddles but not so to his disciples. This is because the crowds have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear. The disciples, however, have their eyes and ears open to the mysteries that their master reveals.

Basho would train his disciples to open their eyes and ears to that which enhances everywhere the doctrine of the mysterious Tao.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016


47. A list of opposites: short/tall, high/low, hot/cold, wet/dry, deep/shallow, pleasure/pain, joy/sorrow. Basho's staff is intimate with each and everyone of these. Master Mumon, in one of his verses, puts it like this:
            The depths and shallows of the world
             Are all in its grasp.

Indeed, nothing escapes it. But what is 'it'? What is this 'it' that embraces all things, comprehends all things? What is this 'it' that gives to those who have and takes from those who have not? There is a documentary film that takes the viewer deep into this question. It is called 'Into Great Silence'.

Sunday, 10 July 2016


46. Concerning Basho's staff, Master Mumon Ekai makes this comment: 'If you call it a staff, you will enter hell like an arrow'. The image is vivid, even shocking, but its message is surely greatly exaggerated. If not exaggerated, then Mumon's notion of hell does not square with Dante's 'abandon hope all ye who enter here'. A Zen practitioner need never abandon hope. (Bear in mind: great faith, great doubt, great determination.) Fidelity to the practice, especially under the guidance of a skillful and enlightened master who teaches within a compassionate sangha, brings one countless opportunities for awakening to one's True Self. Even 'calling it a staff' and being thrown out by the master, can function as turning words. Doubtless Mumon's hyperbole is deliberately designed to effect the disciple's longed for Enlightenment-Realisation.


Wednesday, 6 July 2016


45.           pilgrim and staff

                user and used
                possessor and possessed
                knower and known

                are they one?
                are they two?
                are they the same?
                are they different?

                distinct but not different?

                on four in the morning
                on two at noon
                on three in the evening

If you have a staff, Basho will give you a staff.
If you don't have a staff, Basho will take it from you.

                giving and taking
                winning and losing

In Zen, born to lose. Born to be a loser. (And so to win.)

Tuesday, 5 July 2016


44. Sometime in the 10th century of the common era a Korean monk made his way into China. Once there he wandered about visiting various Ch'an masters until he came to Master Nan-ta, whose disciple he then became. After receiving Dharma Transmission from Nan-ta, he took up residence on Pa-chiao Mountain and trained disciples of his own. And so it came to pass that a Korean monk is remembered as Pa-chiao in Chinese Ch'an and as Basho in Japanese Zen.
     This Basho, settled down at last as master of his mountain temple, his many years of wandering behind him, surely retained a certain fondness for his trusty old pilgrim staff. It had helped him wade across rivers where bridges were either non existent or broken down. It had been effective in warding off aggressive dogs when he had passed through unfriendly villages. Nor could he forget how it had supported him on narrow mountain tracks where steep climbs were followed by steep descents. And there were those rare occasions when, far from any town, he was overtaken by darkness on moonless nights and it had helped to keep him safely on the right path. It is no surprise then that that selfsame staff should have figured prominently in his teaching. He was in the habit of addressing his disciples as follows: 'If you have a staff, I will give you a staff. If you have no staff, I will take it from you'.
     Many words have been wasted, and much ink spilt, in ceaseless discussion of what for many is a puzzling teaching. But Basho's staff swallows up words and images and concepts together with books fat with commentary. For it teaches what is immediately to hand.

Sunday, 3 July 2016


43.          much more than a metre
               my pilgrim staff
               but still I struggle
               when walking up hill

Tuesday, 28 June 2016


42. After ENLIGHTENMENT-REALISATION the Zen practitioner returns to the market-place, the domain of life's ordinary, everyday transactions. Originally experienced as a place of dissatisfaction, frustration, unease, it is now found to be transfigured in the light of the practitioner's transformed self and outlook. And so the newly enlightened one re-enters the place that he or she initially left to search for something that would be, hopefully, satisfying, fulfilling, liberating. Now at ease in an emptiness that is rich in abundance, the enlightened one comes back to ordinary, everyday life with gift bestowing hands, hands cleansed of the smell of Zen. Such hands can freely share the riches of a self transformed. As an old saw has it, good is self diffusive.

Friday, 24 June 2016


41. Stand at the window of a nicely heated room. Suddenly notice a brief flurry of white specks in the air outside. Feel excitement at the prospect that it might soon snow - an infrequent event in this part of the Blue Mountains (altitude one thousand metres). After some time more specks slanting through the air past the window. The sky clears and the sun comes out. So that was that. But then more dark clouds roll in from the south-west. The swirling specks are now proper snowflakes. Feel disappointment when they melt as soon as they hit the ground. Again the air clears and the neighbourhood is once more splashed with weak sunshine. Decide to sit zazen but keep the curtains open. An hour passes and the sky is suddenly alive with the constant swirling and diving and spinning and slanting of snowflakes that come to settle on house roofs, bushes, tree branches, cars, fences, ground. The everyday world is transformed. Venture forth into the cold air. Clear water is running in the gutters beside the road. No one else is out and about except for a couple of kids and their dad. They are busy building a snowman. One or two cars go by, driving more sedately than usual. Time to head for home and the warm comfort of indoors. Wonder how long the magic will last? Old timers say that sixty years ago this was a regular event in these parts. And the snowfalls were much heavier. Not so nowadays.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


40. In the words of Master Dogen, 'to study the Buddha Way is to study the self'. Though such study may begin with a focus on one's own small, empirical, wounded self, this focus must quickly shift. For, again in the words of Dogen, 'to study the self is to forget the self'. With self forgotten, the Zen practitioner becomes open to, is enlightened by, 'the ten thousand things'. And so it happens that bird song, flowers, trees, mountains, advance and fill the emptiness of an unselfconscious zazen practice. In the emptiness that reveals itself as fullness, the practitioner comes in touch with the True Self - the Original, Absolute, Non-dual Self. Now his or her world is no longer centred on the small, finite, separate human self. Reality is discovered in the suchness of things, in things being just as they are, in their interdependent co-arising. In this way the barrier between self and other is removed. With the small self forgotten and the True Self awakened to in this flower, that tree, those mountains, the practitioner can return to the marketplace free of the smell of Zen, all trace of awakening wiped away. Here he or she can say with Zen Master AMA Samy: 'There is no more dualism ... of sacred and secular, holy and profane, marketplace and temple, the unenlightened and the enlightened, Samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara'.

Monday, 20 June 2016


39. Practising zazen, you hear Master Kempo's words, 'here it is'.
      Your eureka moment?
      Or just another moment of bewilderment?
      Do you plunge to the bottom of the sea?
      Or are your eyes filled with dust?

      Master Mumon comments:

                 'before a step is taken, the goal is reached'.

Saturday, 18 June 2016


38. Memorising a few lines from a sutra can be an effective way to focus the mind. Evidently this was the practice of the monk who presented himself to Master Kempo and said: 'It is written, "Bhagavats in the ten directions. One straight road to Nirvana"'. To his credit, not only was he aware that the appropriate insight eluded him but he was honest enough to admit it. Hence his query: 'I still wonder where the road can be'.
     The monk's predicament serves to illustrate both the value of scripture and its limitation. For while the words of scripture serve the teaching of the Dharma, they are powerless to capture or contain it. Therefore Zen would nudge its practitioners towards realising for themselves, in the here and now of their everyday lives, that which lies beyond the reach of conceptualisation and verbal formulation.
     When Master Kempo lifted his staff, drew a line in the air and said 'Here it is', he gave the monk an opportunity to realise for himself that the road he was seeking, the road that his sutra study would not open for him, was right there before his eyes. For just as there are Bhagavats in the ten directions, so in this staff, in this gesture, in this brief comment, is the one straight road to Nirvana.
     This teaching of Kempo's has a direct bearing on the practice of zazen.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016


37. There is a sequel to the story about Master Kempo and the sutra quoting monk in search of the one straight road to Nirvana. It would seem that some monks were less than impressed by Kempo's use of his staff to draw a line in the air. And so, not happy with the not very famous Kempo, they went off to visit the greatly renowned Master Ummon. This Ummon (known in Chinese as Yun-men) has come to be considered by many commentators as a great, if not the greatest, master in the history of Zen. Clearly these monks must have felt that they were taking their case, as it were, to a higher court. And what did Ummon do? Asked about the whereabouts of the one straight road to Nirvana, he did as Kempo did and simply picked up what lay nearest to hand, in his case a fan. But whereas Kempo manifested the emptiness of the one road, Ummon demonstrated its fullness. Where Kempo accompanied his gesture with a laconic 'here it is', Ummon was almost voluble with his declaration: 'this fan jumps up to the thirty-third heaven and hits the nose of the deity Sakra Devanam Indra. When you strike the carp of the eastern sea, the rain comes down in torrents'. Where Kempo points severely to the emptiness of the form of one road, Ummon delights in the rich fullness of that form. This he does with reference to such mythological and mysterious figures as the deity Sakra Devanam Indra and the carp of the eastern sea. Taken together Masters Kempo and Ummon manifest the form that is emptiness and the emptiness that is form. One used his staff, the other a fan. One's speech was severely short, the other's playfully expansive. Each in his own way made manifest the one straight road to Nirvana.

Saturday, 11 June 2016


36. There is something refreshing about coming across one of the so-called 'ancient masters' who is not described as great or famous or celebrated. And so it is with the master the Japanese Zennists know as Kempo, this being their way of pronouncing the name of the Chinese master Kan-feng. About this Kempo, commentators say, not much is known other than that he was a disciple of, and then successor to, Tozan, founder of the Soto School of Zen, and who died in 869. The dates for Kempo's birth and death are not recorded but as a successor to Tozan he must have been active towards the end of the 9th century, and perhaps into the early part of the 10th century, in China. He seems to have been remembered on account of his response to a nameless monk who had come to him with a quotation from a sutra. The quotation went like this: 'Bhagavats in the ten directions. One straight road to Nirvana'. The monk then added this query: 'I still wonder where the road can be'.
     Was the monk hoping for a scholarly discussion about how the verse related to its source text, the Surangama Sutra? Was he looking to start a philosophical argument about the One and the Many, especially in terms of the one road and the many Bhagavats? Was he genuinely concerned as to how he might choose a sure path from among a host of competing philosophies, schools, teachers?
     Kempo's response cuts through all these possibilities. Lifting up his staff, which no doubt lay near at hand, he simply drew a line in the air and said, 'here it is'. A line in the air: something invisible, something intangible, something that consists only in the doing of it, something that leaves no trace, something that is not a 'something', such was Kempo's response to the sutra quoting monk. Notice that he did add some words with his 'here it is'. Even so, if the monk had blinked (and he surely did) he would have missed it. If, on the other hand, he had had his eyes open and his wits about him, he would have seen what can't be seen, touched what can't be touched, heard what can't be heard. He would have, there and then, been plunged into that vast emptiness of which Bodhidharma spoke, that emptiness in which there are neither Bhagavats nor roads, neither masters nor disciples, neither great masters nor lesser masters. Right in front of him he would have encountered 'this', namely, 'one straight road to Nirvana'.
     (Kempo's teaching, like the man himself, brings to mind the flight of a bird - easily missed and it leaves no trace.)

Thursday, 9 June 2016


35. The Zen tradition is replete with stories. The most celebrated of these deal with what Mumon Ekai refers to as 'the spiritual activities of the Buddha and the patriarchs'. Already in Mumon's day, 13th century China, the Buddha and the patriarchs were considered 'ancient masters'. Many of these 'ancient masters' were active in the period between the 6th and the 10th centuries. This period in Chinese history is known as the T'ang Dynasty and has long been referred to as 'the Golden Age of Zen'. Stories from and of this so-called 'Golden Age', stories moreover that purport to tell of  'the spiritual activities' of the patriarchs, might be expected to paint a very rosy picture of the world of Zen. What is surprising is that they do no such thing. For while they celebrate the enlightened words and deeds of great masters of Zen, they do so against a background of the unenlightened behaviour of the members of the sanghas these same masters presided over. Perhaps the most striking of these stories concerns the sangha gathered around Master Gunin, the fifth of the Chinese patriarchs. The monks of this sangha were not above harbouring and expressing strong feelings of jealousy and distrust, feelings that were directed towards the young layman Eno, a stranger from the south of China who at the time was employed in the monastery's harvesting shed. Master Gunin was well aware of the community's hostility towards the stranger from the south. Recognising the young man's deep understanding, and deciding to give him Dharma Transmission, he did so secretly in the dead of night and then had Eno depart quickly from the monastery. Clearly he feared for the safety of his young successor.
     A similar though less threatening situation can be seen in the picture one story paints of Nansen's community. Master Nansen, who lived from 748 to 834, is widely held to have been an outstanding Zen master, a master who numbered among his disciples the great Joshu. The story tells how Nansen came upon his monks as they were in the middle of a heated quarrel. What were they quarrelling about? Of all things, a cat!
     The moral to be drawn from such stories is that even though 'Sangha' is one of the Three Treasures of Zen, it should not be over idealised. The shadow of delusive thoughts and passions has been, and will continue to be, part and parcel of every sangha, as it is of every human community and institution. But in a sangha it should be recognised that all members are making some effort, whether sufficient or not, to get free of these passions and thoughts. Individual members will accept and acknowledge the presence of the delusive shadow, both in themselves and in others. And so they learn compassionate understanding and come to walk on in the Great Way in trustful serenity.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016


1.           day and night
              a ceaseless drumming -
              rain on my roof

2.           a wild surf
              these winter winds -
              my house a hapless boat

Friday, 3 June 2016


34. travelling south
     - bhagavats in the ten directions -
      down from the tablelands
      one straight road to nirvana

      westward across the plains
     - bhagavats in the ten directions -
      heading into rain
      one straight road to nirvana

       among wet rolling hills
      - bhagavats in the ten directions -
       slow for cattle grazing
       one straight road to nirvana

       a roadside shelter
      - bhagavats in the ten directions -
       landscape of damp loneliness
       one straight road to nirvana
       climb slowly up and up
       - bhagavats in the ten directions -
       blue mountains lost in mist
       one straight road to nirvana

Wednesday, 1 June 2016


33. Zazen (sitting meditation) would seem to be the most private and individualistic of spiritual practices. For here the practitioner sits in silence and stillness. And though in a training centre or retreat (sesshin) situation he or she will sit with a group and have the silent support of the group, the practice is nevertheless essentially solitary. What happens in this silent sitting is not a subject for discussion with others, with one exception: the meditator goes alone to the Zen Master for guidance about issues to do with practice. What is said in that private interview (dokusan) is strictly confidential. Still, the apparently individualistic practice of zazen is supported by the Sangha through the rituals that surround it, through the master's Zen talks (teisho), and through the encouragement and watchful care of monitors who serve as leaders in the meditation hall (zendo). Moreover, the positive benefits of zazen to the individual will manifest themselves in the practitioner's selfless service to the Sangha and the the world at large. Zazen breaks down individualism by opening the meditator to the other. As the sutra says: 'In the Awaken'd One I'm one with all'.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016


32. It is easy to wax eloquent about the Sangha from a distance. Such eloquence can give rise to unreal expectations. Hence the importance of a reality check. This is best done by spending time living cheek by jowl with a number of fellow disciples in the company of the master - a sure way of learning to engage in an authentic practice of Sangha. Such practice, of course, will require great faith, great doubt, and great commitment.

Saturday, 28 May 2016


31. The monk Mumon Ekai writes of 'the family treasure' that doesn't 'come through the gate'. What doesn't 'come through the gate' is the family inheritance, that which has been handed down from generation to generation, that which belongs by right to the children of the house. Zen, however, is said to have three great treasures, namely, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. But these treasures ought not to be thought of as three distinct entities. Rather they are three aspects of the one treasure, the family treasure that doesn't 'come through the gate'. As it says in the 'Enj-mei Jikku Kan-non Gyo':
          With the Awaken'd One I'm one in origin.
          In the Awaken'd One I'm one with all.
          With the Awaken'd One, Dharma and Sangha I'm bound.
Taking refuge in the Sangha, immersed in the Sangha, caught up in the practice of Sangha, one is bound to, bonded with, the Buddha and the Dharma. A genuine encounter with the Sangha is at the same time an encounter with the Buddha and the Dharma. The Sangha, with its lineage of enlightened masters and its storehouse of compassionate wisdom, is the great treasure trove of Zen.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016


30.  Look up any glossary in a book on Zen Buddhism and you will read that 'sangha' is a Sanskrit word that is variously translated as 'the Buddhist priesthood' or 'the Buddhist fellowship' or even as 'the kinship of all beings'. As with other Sanskrit (or Chinese or Japanese) words in the Zen lexicon, scholars will argue back and forth about the most accurate rendering of this word 'sangha' into English. However, nowadays in the West what is referred to by the word 'sangha' is perhaps best thought of as that community of practitioners who have gathered around an authentic Zen master for guidance along the path that leads to the realization of one's True Self. Nevertheless, for the Zen practitioner what is important here is not so much the formulation of a definition as the genuine experience of entering and belonging to a sangha.
     A taste of this experience can be had by participation in an extensive period of intense Zen practice, such as can be had in a sesshin. But this is chiefly an experience of communal silence at the end of which people go their separate ways. Sesshin provides little, if any, opportunity for what might be described as sangha relations becoming complete. So it would seem that in order to get a real feel for membership of a sangha it would be necessary to spend extended periods of time at a Zen practice centre.
     For anyone wanting to discover what it is to be part of a sangha, to belong to a community of disciples gathered around an authentic master, Bodhi Zendo in India must be the ideal place to visit. There in a purpose built zendo in the mountains of Tamil Nadu one can participate in a daily programme of zazen, samu, study, communal meals, free time and opportunities for regular dokusan with the resident teacher, Zen Master AMA Samy. Times of silence alternate with times for socialising and getting to know other sangha members. Outings to nearby towns and villages on a rostered free day every week provide further opportunities for deepening friendly sangha relations. These outings also open one's eyes to the needs of people living in rural India and give some insight into the value of the zendo's outreach programmes in the local area. Chief among these is the Montessori pre-school founded by AMA Samy in the village of Perumalmalai. Here one can see how members of the sangha can take their Zen practice out into the marketplace.
     Bodhi Zeno sits at the heart of a worldwide community of Zen practitioners that is known as Bodhi Sangha. Time spent there makes one keenly aware of the international character of the sangha. The drawback, however, is that not all members of the sangha are in a position to travel to India. Even a single visit can come at considerable personal cost. By way of compensation some contact with other sangha members can be had via the internet, though not everyone is comfortable with such a disembodied way of relating.
     Sangha, as experienced at Bodhi Zendo, is not something static, is not something existing out there, either in one's own neighbourhood or spread out around the world. Rather it is a practice, a practice that calls for commitment, energy and imagination. While staying at Bodhi Zendo one is caught up in the dynamism of this practice through one's fidelity to the spirit and daily routine of the place. Away from Bodhi Zendo sangha practice is not so straight forward. However, what Zen Master AMA Samy and his disciples have achieved in India serves as a shining model of what the practice of sangha can realize. Following that model in one's own region let sangha relations become complete.    

Saturday, 21 May 2016


29.  Birthdays are significant markers in the life of a family. Parents rejoice at the birth of a child and continue to celebrate the event year after year. They cannot but marvel at the way their child grows and develops and begins to display unmistakeable signs of becoming a unique little person in its own right. Eventually the child learns that parents, too, have birthdays and that these offer important occasions for reciprocating some of the love and care that has been lavished on it over many years.
     And so it is with the family of disciples that make up Bodhi Sangha as it remembers and celebrates the birthday of its founder and beloved master, born a May child eighty years ago to Tamil parents in Burma. This month of May 2016 has been a time of special celebration for disciples of Zen Master AMA Samy (Gen-un Ken). It has been a time to remember and acknowledge with gratitude his wise and compassionate teaching over so many years. Many marvel at the energy and commitment that he displays as he criss crosses the globe every year to lead sesshin, give teisho, offer dokusan and welcome all who come to him. And this on top of his work at Bodhi Zendo, the Zen training centre he established in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, South India. With his outreach programmes that seek to help the poor, the young and the disadvantaged in the villages neighbouring the zendo, he is truly a bodhisattva who has returned to the marketplace with gift bestowing hands. As he enters upon his eightieth decade and moves ever more deeply into the Mystery-that-is-Graciousness may he look about him and find  a great crowd of awakened disciples moving with him.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


28. Often in Zen prose must make way for verse. Hence the following:

                    (i)  warm sun wet sand
                          the surging surf -
                          they sing their siren song

                   (ii)  on the lake at dawn
                          a rolling mist
                          and a voice calling

Sunday, 3 April 2016


27. The literature of Zen is full of praise for samu, that is, work in the service of the sangha. And samu can take many forms. As for manual work, work that is mindless, repetitive, physically demanding and, very often, boring, the literature doesn't seem to have much to say. Here the worker is alone with the physical effort, bodily fatigue, and the endless whirl of thoughts. And yet there is a special dignity in this work in that it can engage the whole body while leaving the mind free to face the great matter of life, the question of one's True Self.
     Consider the story of Hsiang-yen (Kyogen), a Chan master who died towards the end of the T'ang Dynasty in China. Hsiang-yen was a man of remarkable intelligence and wide learning. Yet one day when his master Kuei-shan (Isan) asked for his view as to his own being before his parents were born, he found that he was unable to respond. Despairing of his intellectual activities and his knowledge of the scriptures, he burnt his notes and went off to serve as caretaker for the tomb of master Nan-yang (Nanyo) which had fallen into neglect. There he spent his days in simple manual work while focusing on the question of his being before his parents were born. And so it happened while sweeping up some fallen leaves that his broom sent a stone flying through the air. The stone hit some bamboo. Tock! At this Hsiang-yen was suddenly awakened to his True Self.

Saturday, 13 February 2016


26. Hogen of Seiryo was an eminent master active in the first half of 10th century China. As a young man he was steeped in the Mind Only school of Buddhist philosophy and was forever studying the Avatamsaka Sutras. Wandering from teacher to teacher he eventually came to Master Jizo. The master asked the travelling monk why he was wandering about like this. Faced with this question Hogen, in spite of all his philosophizing, found that he didn't know. So Jizo remarked, 'Not knowing is most intimate'. The young philosopher monk was intrigued by Jizo's statement but not enough to stay and study with him. Early next morning he prepared to resume his travels. Jizo accompanied him to the front gate of the temple near which was a huge boulder. No doubt aware of Hogen's enthusiasm for the Mind Only philosophy, Jizo pointed to the rock and enquired of Hogen whether it was inside or outside mind. Not surprisingly Hogen answered that it was inside mind. To which Jizo responded that Hogen must find this rock a heavy load to carry about in his mind. Taken aback, Hogen found that he could say nothing. Thereupon he became Jizo's disciple. Nevertheless, in subsequent interviews with his new master, Hogen persisted in quoting lines from the Avatamsaka Sutras. And invariably Jizo would tell him that Buddhism was not that sort of thing. Finally Hogen was reduced to admitting that he could have no thoughts, no reasoning. At which point Jizo told him that, from the Buddhist point of view, things directly presented themselves. Now of a sudden Hogen came to a deep Enlightenment-Realization.

Thursday, 21 January 2016


25. Meditating on koans is one of the major disciplines used in Zen. Mumon Ekai, a master active in 13th century China, spoke of using koans as brickbats to batter the gate that seems to bar entry to the way of Zen. This gate might be thought of as an impulse to say the unsayable, to speak what cannot, must not, be spoken. Mumon would liken the surrender to this impulse to 'striking at the moon with a stick', or 'scratching a shoe, whereas it is the foot that itches'. That is to say, in Zen there is a clear recognition of the incommensurability between the metaphysical impulse and what it seeks to express in the form of the propositions of philosophy or, as Mumon would put it, 'other people's words'. And so Mumon warns his disciples not to confuse their 'own treasures' - their own realisation of the metaphysical - with the 'things coming in through the gate', namely, the speculations of others. That is, he attempted, with the help of the cases of the ancient masters, that is, with koans, to awaken his monks to the fact that nothing, nothing at all, stood in the way of their full possession of the present moment of their daily lives. This nothing-gate-barrier was no more than a picture, a figment of the imagination, a product of conventional habits of thought. He might have pointed out to them that they were held captive by nothing but a picture. As Wittgenstein would say: 'A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably'.
     So might it not be the case that those who have difficulty in seeing that the practice of Zen is a philosophical practice are likewise held captive by a picture? And is this not a somewhat narrow and misleading picture of the nature and practice of philosophy, especially when viewed against the background of the whole history of Western philosophy? Here it would be well to recall the koan that asks: 'Why is it that a man of great strength cannot lift his legs?'

Wednesday, 20 January 2016


24. The philosophical practice of Zen is about waking up to the way things are. As such, it is not concerned with teaching anything new. Rather, it is about showing what is already visible, hearing what is already audible, touching what is already tangible, tasting what is already tasty, and smelling what is already there to be smelt. Zen is about shaking the practitioner out of his or her slumber, whether that slumber be dogmatic, conceptual, linguistic or customary, so that things can be encountered just as they present themselves. If this sounds like a version of phenomenology, then perhaps it is, if phenomenology's primary concern is with what is immediately given in experience. Here, too, Wittgenstein comes to mind, given that throughout his philosophical career his attention was directed to his immediate experience. As he himself remarked, 'We want to understand something that is already in plain view'.
     Practices that are designed to awaken rather than to 'teach', are not about providing information or imparting doctrines. The Zen master puts the emphasis on training the disciple in a practical skill that is to be applied in everyday living, and not on the acquisition of a body of theoretical knowledge. In mastering the practical skills of Zen, the disciple awakens to the knowledge and understanding that underpin and accompany the practice of those skills.

Monday, 18 January 2016


23. The practice of Zen as a philosophical practice is the exercise of a practical philosophy in the everyday life of the practitioner. This view of Zen as a practical philosophy should not be confused with other views of Zen philosophy that see it as the spelling out of a metaphysics that is said to be implicit in Zen practices and discourse, still less with the view that sees it as a body of Buddhist philosophical doctrines. For Zen, as understood here, represents a deliberate and rigorous turning away from the metaphysical speculations of the Mahayana. Attempts to explicate and articulate what is thought to be Zen's hidden philosophical potential only serve to betray Zen by returning it to metaphysics. Zen, if looked at through the lens of Wittgenstein's philosophy, does not have to deck itself out in the disputed doctrines of metaphysics in order to prove its philosophical credentials. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Zen is anti-metaphysical. Rather it is a case of refusing to engage in metaphysical speculations or to argue the merits of a metaphysical position. Instead, the Zen master lets the metaphysical manifest itself in whatever concrete individual act or thing is to hand. Careful attention to the koan and how it works will show that this is so. 'A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?" Ummon replied, "A dried shit-stick!"'

Sunday, 17 January 2016


22. Wittgenstein once suggested the possibility of writing 'a serious philosophical work consisting solely of jokes'. If this was a serious suggestion then why not one consisting solely of koans? Might not such koan collections as the Mumonkan and the Hekiganroku be approached as serious philosophical works? An immediate objection would be that books of koans seldom, if ever, go in for argument or explanation. But neither would a philosophical book that consisted solely of jokes. Yet the appropriate response to both joke and koan serves as a demonstration of insight. The spontaneity of the appropriate response (laughter) to a joke is sufficient evidence that the required insight has occurred. A demand for explanation or argument demonstrates the opposite. In the language-game of the koan, as in the language-game of the joke, any demand for either explanation or argument shows not only that the point has been missed but that the rules of the game have not been learnt. Wittgenstein's suggestion that a serious philosophical work might consist solely of jokes indicates a view of philosophy that would admit the demonstration of insight by means other than argument or explanation. Might koan Zen be such a philosophy?

Friday, 15 January 2016


21. As Wittgenstein's philosopher is to assemble reminders for a particular purpose, so must the Zen master. The reminders do not function in terms of a fully articulated theoretical system. Rather, they come into play in response to particular needs and particular problems in particular situations - such as 'whenever someone ... wanted to say something metaphysical'.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016


20, In reminding the disciple 'to say nothing except what can be said', the Zen master must be able to demonstrate to any disciple 'who wanted to say something metaphysical', following Wittgenstein here, 'that he had failed to give a meaning to certain signs in his propositions'. In Zen such a demonstration might simply take the form of a curt dismissal - 'If you mention Buddha Nature here I will throw you out!' But still the master will demand that the disciple 'say something'. However, the 'saying' that is required is not an ordinary saying but a 'showing'.
      Someone might object here that it is difficult to accept that there is an analogy between Wittgenstein's method and that of the Zen master. For whereas Wittgenstein is at pains to avoid saying what cannot be said - or to point out the nonsensicality of all attempts to say the unsayable - Zen, with its nonsensical koans, insists on saying what cannot be said - that is, insists on speaking nonsense - in order to effect a switch in the disciple to a rejection of what cannot be said. In response, it needs to be stressed that Zen does not reject what cannot be said. What Zen rejects is each and every attempt to say what cannot be said. Moreover, the nonsensical character of koan language is only apparent. Once the grammar of this language-game has been mastered, the nonsensical appearance of its language is seen through.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


19. Perhaps it could be said that the work of the Zen master, like that of Wittgenstein's philosopher, 'consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose'. Just as Wittgenstein does not wish 'to spare other people the trouble of thinking', so the Zen master has no intention of sparing the disciple the trouble of personal inquiry. Yet Zen inquiry is pursued, not through thinking, but through a carefully practised discipline of non-thinking. But is 'thinking' all of a kind? Are there not different types of thinking? Might the 'non-thinking' of Zen be but a different kind of thinking? According to Descartes, for example, 'all the operations of will, intellect, imagination, and of the senses are thoughts'. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the relation between thinking and non-thinking and focusing on the claim that the Zen master's work could be represented as 'assembling reminders for a particular purpose', it is important to say that the Zen master's reminders would not be of doctrine but of a strategic practice. This is the practice that corresponds with Wittgenstein's 'correct method in philosophy', namely, 'to say nothing except what can be said'.

Sunday, 3 January 2016


18. sitting still in zazen
      I move
      not outward and about
      but down
      not slowly sinking
      but suddenly leaping
      into the darkness
      enlightening my day


17. Proverbial wisdom would seem to involve us in a series of contradictions. One proverb advises us to look before we leap while another warns that he who hesitates is lost. Similarly with Zen: on the one hand we are admonished to hold firm, on the other to let go. Zennies seem to delight in holding firm while letting go, taking care while leaping into the dark.