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'.