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'.