Saturday, 30 December 2017


185. Having trouble accepting that everyday is a good day? Then try this: everyday we can do some good.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017


184. The five-year-old was out of bed early on Christmas morning. First she had to check to see if Santa had eaten and drunk what she had left for him. Next, she needed to decipher the note Santa had written her in his shaky handwriting. Then it was into the Santa Bag: of all the items (toys, trinkets, lollies) she found, it was a kind of view finder gadget that most took her fancy. Looking into the eyepiece she exclaimed: 'Wow! Jupiter! Wow! a meteorite! Wow! the Milky Way!' She kept this up for several minutes. Joshu would have been spellbound, delighted, and greatly enlightened.   

Monday, 25 December 2017


183. Like Joshu, am I prepared to learn from the child that has something to teach me? Can I go further and learn from a baby sleeping in its mother's arms? Practising shikantaza, let my heart have no lofty ambitions. Let my eyes not look too high. Let me not be concerned with great affairs or with marvels beyond my reach. Let me find (like the Hebrew psalmist) that it is enough for me to keep myself tranquil and quiet, the picture of a baby resting in its mother's arms. Here I am content as a child that has been weaned.

Sunday, 24 December 2017


182. When Master Joshu was about sixty years old he spent some time in mourning for his teacher who had just died. Then he set out on pilgrimage to various temples and monasteries throughout China. His wanderings lasted twenty years. His purpose was to deepen and clarify his own understanding. At the start of his traveling he had declared, 'If I meet an elderly man who needs my teaching, I will instruct him. If I meet a child who has something to teach me, I will become his disciple'. What would he have done had he chanced upon a stable in which there was a newborn infant boy asleep in a manger and overhead a star shining bright?

Thursday, 21 December 2017


181. The old Ch'an master Ummon once addressed his disciples thus: 'I do not ask you about the fifteenth of the month. Come, give me a word about after the fifteenth'. None of his disciples could respond and so he answered for them, saying 'everyday is a good day'. No doubt many of us find both question and answer to be equally opaque. It might help if we call to mind those words of a sutra that go something like this: 'Past mind cannot be grasped. Future mind cannot be grasped. Present mind cannot be grasped'.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017


180. The saying 'everyday is a good day' can sound like a piece of cheap optimism. But in Zen practice it functions as a koan, an opening into and an expression of the True Self. Becoming intimate with this koan in the silence (and struggle) of zazen, the practitioner is drawn into the mystery that embraces tears and laughter, success and failure, health and sickness, virtue and vice, wholeness and brokenness. It is one thing to say 'every day is a good day' but something altogether different to genuinely and deeply realise that this is in fact the case.  

Sunday, 17 December 2017


179. Why did Master Ganto laugh out loud? It seems that when he had asked a visiting monk where he had come from, the monk had replied 'from the western capital'. The monk's response suggests that he felt himself to be someone of standing, coming as he did from the city that was the seat of power, (site of the imperial palace, residence of Emperor Kiso). Picking up on this Ganto inquired about a recent rebellion that saw the palace captured and the emperor barely escaping with his life; many of his family were massacred. The rebellion was led by Koso, famed for his possession of a fabled sword. Said to have fallen from heaven, it bore the inscription 'Heaven gives this to Koso'. Within four years Koso had been killed and his followers subjugated. So a hot question following Koso's death concerned the whereabouts of his famous sword. Ganto, noticing how his visitor was full of his own importance, cheekily asked 'did you get the sword?' When the monk replied that he does in fact possess the sword, Ganto stretched out his neck and let out a great cry. With this submissive gesture Ganto was offering the monk an opportunity to demonstrate the great power associated with Koso's sword. But instead of wielding the fabled sword, the monk could only slap Ganto with a wet lettuce leaf with his saying,  'the master's head has fallen'. No wonder Ganto laughed out loud. 

Thursday, 14 December 2017


178. Some words from Zen Master AMA Samy: 'When we look around the world, and look into ourselves, we can easily fall into despair and despondency .... Cynicism and despair can easily become our refuge; it is the cave of illusion and darkness from which it is not easy to come out once you fall into it .... Some pseudo masters will say that this world filled with suffering and evil is only illusion, maya, that to be enlightened is to discard this world as an illusory dream, and that there is nobody who suffers and nobody who inflicts suffering. Be warned against such false prophets. The 'Four Great Vows' are the way to keep us sane and on the right path; they are the forms of faith, trust, hope and love. When ultimate reality is not seen and experienced as goodness, beauty and truth, then might becomes right and despair clouds our hearts and minds.'

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


177. Can anyone, in this day and age, dare to say 'everyday is a good day'? Yet that is exactly what the young Jewish woman Etty Hillesum found herself saying in the transit camp she described as 'hell' and just before she was shipped off to her death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. She wrote:
'I have already died a thousand deaths in a thousand concentration camps - and yet I find life beautiful and meaningful. From minute to minute .... Somewhere there is something inside me that will never desert me again. I cannot find the right words for the radiant feeling inside me, which encompasses but is untouched by all the suffering and violence'.

Friday, 8 December 2017


176. The death of a dharma brother or sister is always sad. But when it is by their own hand it is tragic. Our thoughts fly at once to the grieving spouse and the children suddenly made fatherless. Our hope is that they will find support and solace in the love and care of family and friends. At the same time we cannot help but try to imagine the desperate anguish that drove our brother to perhaps not so much take his life as to bring to an end the suffering that he evidently found so unbearable. We can only surmise that he felt that he could 'not live this tormented mind/ With this tormented mind tormenting yet'. In the face of this much sadness, suffering and tragedy, would our old Zen master of long ago still dare to claim that 'everyday is a good day'?

Wednesday, 6 December 2017


175. Singing, dancing, laughter: can these really be 'the voice of the Law'? How can this be in the face of poverty, injustice, sickness and death? Sad, even tragic, events continue to intrude into our lives on a daily basis. It has been said that after Auschwitz there can be no poetry. But seventy odd years have passed since Auschwitz and, in spite of it, we have somehow managed to pick ourselves up and have found ourselves once more singing and dancing and laughing. Even in the midst of disasters and the experience of horrifying crimes, it seems that the words of a medieval Christian mystic somehow resonate with us still. Her words: 'all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well'. And an old Zen master from the past would insist that 'every day is a good day'. 

Tuesday, 28 November 2017


174. Given the intractable character of many of the problems that bedevil our world, a vow to 'save all beings' must appear as a serious, even daunting, undertaking. And yet Master Hakuin will insist that 'singing and dancing are the voice of the Law'.  

Monday, 27 November 2017


173. Myosho echoed Isan's laughter and brought Sozan to awakening. Isan echoed the laughter of his own master Hyakujo who, many years before, had laughed and said, 'the head monk loses', and so had nominated Isan the founder of the monastery where Sozan in his turn heard that sword-like laughter ringing out. It would seem that Master Hyakujo was a great one for laughing, a laughter that he transmitted not only to Isan but also to his brilliant disciple Obaku. For on the occasion when Obaku had gone up to him and boxed his ears, Hyakujo had simply clapped his hands together, laughed and said, 'I was thinking that the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see before me the red-bearded barbarian himself''. The sword in Hyakujo's laughter cuts away illusion, brings to awakening and transmits the dharma to his legitimate successors. Have you heard this laughter echoing down through the centuries?

Thursday, 23 November 2017


172. The sword can both take life and give life. The sword in Isan's laughter took Sozan's (illusory) life and directed him to Myosho the 'one eyed dragon' who, in echoing Isan's laughter, wielded the sword that gave Sozan the (awakened) life he so eagerly sought. But why did he have to travel a thousand miles to find that which he had always possessed and had never lost? No wonder Isan laughed! 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017


171. Isan's laughing response to Sozan was surely offensive. Indeed, Sozan immediately objected, asking why the master treated him lightly, especially as he had undertaken an arduous and expensive  journey of a thousand miles on foot in search of enlightenment. But even then Isan offers neither apology nor explanation. He does, however, instruct his attendant to give money to Sozan to help with his expenses. Then, as if as an afterthought, he seems to direct Sozan to consult another master (a 'one eyed dragon') who will awaken him. And so it came to pass, at which point Sozan suddenly realized that 'there was a sword in Isan's laughter'.    

Friday, 17 November 2017


170. When the 9th century Chinese monk Sozan learnt that Master Isan had said, 'Words of being and words of non-being are just like wisteria wound around a tree', he was deeply perplexed. He felt he had no option but to visit the master and question him. But this would prove to be no easy task. It involved a thousand mile journey on foot. Moreover, to finance such a journey, Sozan found that he had to sell all his belongings. When at last he reached Master Isan, he immediately questioned him, saying: 'I have heard that you said, "Words of being and words of non-being are just like wisteria wound around a tree". Now, I want to ask, if suddenly the tree falls down and the wisteria withers, where will the words go?' Isan's only reply was to burst out laughing. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017


169. A meditative inquiry into the question 'Who am I?' undercuts any ground on which we might attempt to stand. Here we must face the challenge, 'Standing nowhere, let your mind come forth!'

Monday, 6 November 2017


168. Some might think that the question 'Who am I?' is easily answered. And indeed it usually is, in conventional terms. But when asked in the context of a meditative inquiry, the answer becomes much more elusive. Here questioning carries one deeper and deeper into the mystery of the True Self. And, as the patriarch Eka discovered when he went searching for his mind, it will be found that the answer to the question 'Who am I?' escapes our grasp. 

Saturday, 21 October 2017


167. Neither rain nor birdsong nor traffic noise breaks in on the silence of this predawn darkness. Just sitting with the question, 'Who am I?'

Friday, 20 October 2017


166. Sitting zazen at dawn and listening to the rain beating on the roof of this lonely hermitage. 'Above the earth and below the heavens, I alone am the Holy One.'

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


165. Imagine a tree growing tall and straight and standing alone in a vast and empty plain. Vines wind themselves around its trunk. Is this an image of your zazen with thoughts coming and going? A sutra says: 'Thought after thought arises in the heart-mind. Thought after thought not separate from heart-mind'. 

Saturday, 30 September 2017


164. Other versions of Isan's saying:

'With phrases, without phrases, are just like wisteria leaning against a tree.'

'The sentence of being ["u"] and the sentence of nothing ["mu"] are just like a wisteria vine twining around a tree.'

'Expression and no expression are like vines clinging to a tree.'

Are these different versions saying the same thing?

Wansong comments: 'Those who accept words perish, those who linger over phrases are lost.'

Thursday, 28 September 2017


163. The 9th century Chinese master Kuei-shan (Isan) had this to say about a certain contemporary debate: 'Saying "yes", saying "no", are like vines wound around a tree'. 

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


162.           sitting up alone
                  in this tree tossed night of wind -
                  far-away the stars 

Thursday, 21 September 2017


161. What are your options when you find yourself hanging by the skin of your teeth high up in Kyogen's tree? 

Thursday, 14 September 2017


160. Practising shikantaza, does one sometimes not find oneself in the situation of the man hanging in Kyogen's tree? If so, how does such a one respond to the challenge of the other? What has one to say about why Bodhidharma came from the West?

Friday, 8 September 2017


159. A line from Merton: 'Descartes made a fetish out of the mirror in which the self finds itself. Zen shatters it'. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017


158. Does the man hanging by his teeth in Kyogen's tree respond to the call of the other by hanging on or letting go?

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


157.  There is an old zen story that says 'it' is like a man up in a tree who is hanging from a branch by the skin of his teeth. His hands can't get hold of a bough, his feet can't find a limb to stand on. Then someone standing on the ground below him calls out, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma coming from the West?' It is said that if he does not answer he fails to respond to the question whereas if he does answer he will lose his life. It seems that I'm in that situation. What to do?

Saturday, 26 August 2017


156. When commanded to 'say something', and I have nothing to say, silence is my stern response.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017


155. When the disciple has nothing to say the master will demand, 'Say something!'

Tuesday, 15 August 2017


154. In the watches of the night,
        a wind gets up -
        mu-u-u-u ...

        In the watches of the night,
        a window rattles -
        mu-u-u-u ...

        In the watches of the night,
        a blowing in the trees -
        mu-u-u-u ...

        In the watches of the night,
        a sudden silence -
        mu-u-u-u ...

Saturday, 12 August 2017


153. Years ago I tried to read an old philosophy book written in Latin. I did not get very far but what I did get were two formulations that have stayed with me ever since. They articulate an important distinction with regard to being. They go like this: 'Ens a se' and 'Ens ab alio'. When one is injured and in need of care by others, any illusion that one might entertain about being an independent, self sufficient, and autonomous entity is quickly shattered. 

Friday, 11 August 2017


152. Pressing the 'action replay' button:

                    seized and spun about
                    then flung to a slamming halt -
                    cars stop men approach

Thursday, 10 August 2017


151. Better to give than to receive, they say. But this walking wounded, on the receiving end of so much giving, has come to a clearer appreciation of the kindness and generosity, not only of family and friends, but also of strangers. Someone told me that in the Tamil language the word for 'beggar' has a positive connotation in that the beggar is a rich source of blessing for his or her benefactor. May this wounded one be a source of blessing for the strangers, the professionals (ambos, nurses, doctors, physios), family and friends who have helped me, and continue to help me, deal with my current situation.    

Wednesday, 9 August 2017


150. Car crash - as sudden as unexpected, everything out of control. No time or chance to think. At the mercy of some irresistible power. A blinding blur. Coming to, everything has stopped. Find myself sitting in a wrecked car. Stunned. Looking out I notice other cars stopping and some men approaching. They wrench open the door and help me out. Walk me away from the car. Get me to lie down and cover me with my jacket. Very caring, very gentle, very efficient. Hear talk of grain spilt on the road. Another car nearly lost control. Ring for ambulance and police. Surrender to the care of others.

Friday, 4 August 2017


149. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said , 'The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose'. Taking our cue from Wittgenstein we might say that the work of the Zen master, like that of the philosopher, 'consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose'. We might even say that this work of 'assembling reminders for a particular purpose' is a fairly accurate description of the sort of practice that we, as Zen practitioners, are engaged in. Recall our basic practice of 'just this breath' and how we come back again and again to 'just this breath' and to the treasure that is to be found in 'just this breath'. 

Sunday, 30 July 2017


148. In the final chapter of his book Philosophical Meditations on Zen Buddhism, Dale S. Wright recounts a mondo from The Recorded Sayings of Ma-tsu. It goes like this: 'When Hui-hai Ta-chu, the "great pearl," came to the master Ma-tsu to study Zen, Ma-tsu shocked him with the question, "Why are you here searching when you already possess the treasure you're looking for?" "What treasure?" In response Ma-tsu replied: "The one who is right now questioning me" '(Wright, 1998:215). This exchange might remind us of Hakuin Zenji's Song of Zazen, especially the lines that say, 'How sad that people ignore the near/ And search for truth afar;/ Like someone in the midst of water crying out in thirst;/ Like a child of a wealthy home lost among the poor'.


147. Nothing to do .... Facing the question 'Why Zazen?' we need to rid ourselves of, empty ourselves of, the expectations of getting something out of Zen. Consider an old story that goes like this: 'Someone asked, "What was Bodhidharma's purpose in coming from the West?" The Master said, "If he had a purpose, he wouldn't have been able to save even himself!" The questioner said, "If he had no purpose, then how did the Second Patriarch manage to get the Dharma?" The Master said, "Getting means not getting". "If it means not getting", said the questioner, "then what do you mean by not getting?" The Master said, "You can't seem to stop your mind from racing around everywhere seeking something. That's why the patriarch said, 'Hopeless fellows - using their heads to look for their heads!' You must right now turn your light around and shine it on yourselves, not go seeking somewhere else. Then you will understand that in body and mind you are no different from the patriarchs and Buddhas, and that there is nothing to do. Do that and you may speak of getting the Dharma".'  

Friday, 28 July 2017


146. A lovely image of groundedness: a village woman in Tamil Nadu carrying a water pot on her head. Zen Master AMA Samy describes the scene like this: 'The water pot sits on the head on a small cushion, while the women walk with hands free, talking, even laughing'. He then adds: 'That is what you have to learn! Centredness, recollectedness. Concentration without effort. Silence and stillness at the centre of your being [so that] the free, random movements of thoughts at the periphery of consciousness do not matter'. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017


145. The authentic Zen awakening that gives us lasting peace is 'awakening to your own true self and it is not some passive momentary happening. Awakening becomes actualized when one pays attention to reality, when one is open, aware and gives total attention to the reality other than the self. This is ... above all a realization of Emptiness. It is coming home' (AMA Samy). Having come home to this Emptiness, we find ourselves abiding in the peace of the mind that is no-mind. And here we find that we can act from a deeper level of our being, a level in which we are grounded in body and breath awareness. This groundedness empowers us to be selflessly open to the world and to others.     Grounded in this groundless ground, we find ourselves enveloped and embraced by the mystery that is graciousness. Even in a world beset by tragedy, suffering and death, we enjoy a calm security and peace of mind that we can communicate, even without being aware of it, to those we meet and to the world at large.  

Tuesday, 25 July 2017


144. The contemplative practices of body awareness and breath awareness may bring us to a state of stillness, calm, silence. From within such a peaceful state we can watch the surface movements that beset our everyday mind yet remain undisturbed by them. However, a word of caution: such stillness, calmness, peacefulness may not be the authentic Zen awakening which brings liberation not only for oneself but also for all beings. There is a fairly well known experience called 'unitive consciousness' (Gerald May) and, delightful as it is, it does not equate with Zen awakening. 

Monday, 24 July 2017


143. By maintaining a questioning attitude in and through our breath-awareness, body-awareness, inner-awareness, we come to face the mind or self that underlies the mind that moves, argues, hopes, fears, desires. We come face to face with the very mind that Eka told Bodhidharma he could not take hold of, and that we cannot take hold of. This is the very mind that Master Rinzai speaks of when he says, 'Mind has no form and penetrates every corner of the universe. In the eye it sees, in the ear it hears, in the nose it smells, in the mouth it talks, in the hand it seizes, in the leg it runs'. And he adds, 'Let all interfering thoughts depart from Mind, and you experience emancipation wherever you go'. That is to say, in whatever situation you find yourself, you will enjoy the freedom of the pacified Mind (that was never in need of pacification).

Sunday, 23 July 2017


142. Continually returning to mindfulness of the breath and body will open a space for questions to arise: 'What is the source or origin of this mindfulness, of this awareness?' 'Who is aware of this awareness?' Going deeper we might uncover in ourself an unformulated question, a questioning attitude, a questioning stance, towards the who and the what of our awareness. Aware of being aware, our questioning stance directs us deeper still. Our awareness of awareness itself directs us towards a dimension of consciousness that is deeper, more primordial, than our inner contending voices, than our forever moving, restless mind. It opens us to a sense of mystery, a sense of that mystery in which we live and move and have our being.  

Saturday, 22 July 2017


141. Whether our mind is agitated and disturbed by the serious issues of life, or by trivial things of no consequence, the Zen strategy is the same. Develop and practise the one-pointed concentration of samadhi that enables us to recollect, to re-collect, ourselves and come to mindfulness. And this means that we must learn how to contain and hold within ourselves the various tensions and polarities (whether these be great and meaningful or trivial and everyday) that plague our zazen practice. Again we come back to our basic practice, the practice of breath awareness, body awareness. In the words of AMA Samy: 'Mindfulness of breath and body is the ambience, the field, the matrix of our recollection and samadhi'.

Friday, 21 July 2017


140. 'To arrive at what you do not know you must go by a way that you do not know' - a saying of the Spanish mystic and saint, John of the Cross. This is good advice for anyone who would respond to Bodhidharma's demand 'bring me your mind'. For the mind that is to be presented to the master is an embodied mind. Hence the Zen insistence on posture and breath awareness and body awareness.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017


139. Imagine the scene: a temple courtyard, a wind blowing, a flag on a pole flapping, and two monks standing at the foot of the pole. One monk says that the flag moved. The other insists that the wind moved. Is it the wind or the flag that is doing the moving? The two monks argue back and forth about this but cannot reach a conclusion. Then a stranger happens along, overhears their argument and intervenes, saying: 'It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves'. Suitably impressed, the two monks go on to discover the stranger's identity - he is Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. 

Monday, 17 July 2017


138. In directing Eka to 'bring your mind here', Bodhidharma exemplifies the Zen master's use of upaya (skillful means) in teaching a disciple. Not only does he divert the desperate energy of Eka's search for peace of mind but he also undercuts Eka's motivating image of what he imagines peace of mind to be. If, like Eka, we are purposely looking for something we call 'peace of mind', we are in all likelihood looking for the wrong thing. So if it is peace of mind we really want we will need to let go of our preconceptions about what it is. Just pause for a moment and reflect on what the insurance industry and the financial institutions market as peace of mind. How immune are we to the images with which the market bombards us? We would do well to heed the advice of T.S. Eliot and search 'without hope,/ For hope would be hope for the wrong thing'. 

Sunday, 16 July 2017


137. Eka tells Bodhidharma that he has no peace of mind. Then he begs Bodhidharma to pacify his mind. In responding to Eka, Bodhidharma directs him to do something himself. He says, 'Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you'. In this way he diverts Eka's attention from his concern with peace of mind to the issue of mind itself. All the energy that Eka had been expending so desperately in trying to find this thing called 'peace of mind' is now channelled by Bodhidharma into a search for mind itself. In this way Eka is directed to look deeper into himself. Bodhidharma here anticipates the teaching of Rinzai, a much later Chinese Zen master. Rinzai would tell his disciples not to waste time in compulsively looking around their neighbourhood for help. He would tell them, 'There is just one parenthood for you, and outside of it what do you wish to acquire? Just look within yourselves'.


136. The koan story that tells of Eka cutting off his arm presents us with images of great distress, great commitment, and great determination. As with so much koan literature, it goes in for deliberate shock effects. It is not meant to be taken literally. It presents us with a set of exaggerated metaphors for the sort of commitment and determination required if we are to follow the way of Zen. As the 'Evening Call' reminds us: 'Life and death is a grave matter, all things pass quickly away, so that each of us must remain completely alert. Never neglectful, never indulgent'. So how committed are we? What have we given up? What price have we paid to undertake the practice of Zen?  

Friday, 14 July 2017


135. The story goes that in China in the old days a certain young man named Eka was greatly distressed. So he went to see a wise monk who had arrived in China from India. This was Bodhidharma who at the time was sitting in a cave practising zazen. At first Bodhidharma ignored the young man's request for help. He just went on practising zazen. Yet such was Eka's distress that he refused to be rebuffed like this. And so he stood himself outside Bodhidharma's cave and just went on standing there. It grew dark and started to snow. Still Eka went on standing there, even into the night. Bodhidharma, for his part, persisted with his zazen practice. And Eka persisted with his standing there, even though the snow piled up around him. As Bodhidharma remained unimpressed, Eka felt driven to cut off his arm as evidence of both his distress and determination. This he presented to the old monk while crying out, 'My mind has not peace! Please, Master, pacify my mind!' At this point Bodhidharma relented and, turning to Eka, demanded, 'Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you'. Eka realised immediately the impossibility of such a task and found himself saying, 'I have searched for my mind and I cannot take hold of it'. 'There,' said Bodhidharma, 'your mind is pacified.'
Eka went on to become Bodhidharma's successor and is known as the Second Patriarch of Zen.   

Thursday, 13 July 2017


134. For some people the search for peace of mind is a powerful motivating force for taking up and persevering in the practice of Zen. But what constitutes peace of mind? Is it a case of not being unduly upset or disturbed by whatever happens to us or around us? Does Zen help in the attainment of such a state of mind? And if it does, is this a realistic or reasonable way of being in a word marked by so much conflict, tragedy and suffering? Here we might recall that Gautama Shakyamuni was impelled to leave home and embark on the life of an ascetic by his encounter with various forms of suffering. The encounters robbed him of his peace of mind and gave rise to some deep questioning on his part. 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017


133. In the practice of zazen we become attentive, moment by breathing moment, to a process of transformation in the Dharma as we strive (without striving) to realise it in full. But in moving from one moment to the next, we find that we have to let go of the preceding moment in order to enter fully into the new and as yet unknown moment. At times, this practice of letting-go can be painful, even frightening. Trust and courage are called for.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017


132. The practices of concentration, letting-be, mindfulness and self-inquiry in zazen are not undertaken out of an individualist desire for self-improvement but rather for the transformation of oneself and the world. Thus we chant in the first of the Four Great Vows: 'Though the many beings are numberless, I vow to save them all'. And as Master Dogen writes: 'To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualised by the ten thousand things'. And so in zazen we do not sit for ourselves alone but for our families, friends, companions, strangers, enemies, the whole wide world. Our zazen practice is directed towards the transformation of ourselves and the world. There is no end to this process of transformation. In the words of Robert Sardello, our intent is 'to live a transforming life without ever seeking an imagined end to the transformation'.

Sunday, 9 July 2017


131. Whether our zazen practice consists in following the breath, sitting in shikantaza, or working with koans, we all must face, sooner or later, what has been called our own life koan, namely, that which makes us a puzzle to ourselves, especially that dimension of the self that is sometimes referred to as 'the shadow'. Here we have the opportunity to examine our life. This is the self-inquiry aspect of zazen. It cuts across our tendency to hide from the hard questions by taking refuge in busyness, in work, or in endless distractions. But hard and searching questions are brought up particularly in koan practice. Consider the following story about a monk who is cut off from the reality of his life situation, from being in touch with his ordinary mind, through his attachment to a doctrinal formula. The story goes like this: A renowned Zen master said that his greatest teaching was this: Buddha is your own mind. One monk, so impressed by how profound this idea was, decided to leave the monastery and retreat to the wilderness to meditate on the insight. There he spent twenty years as a hermit probing the great teaching. One day he met another monk who was travelling through the forest. Quickly the hermit learned that the traveller had also studied under the same master as he himself. 'Please tell me,' the hermit said, 'what you know of the master's greatest teaching.' The traveller's eyes lit up and he said, 'Ah, the master has been very clear about this. He says that his greatest teaching is, No mind, no Buddha'.

Do we avoid our deepest questions by having recourse to formulaic answers? Do we escape into theories, ideologies and doctrinal statements and so avoid attending to our ordinary mind and what it has to teach us?

Friday, 7 July 2017


130. In the Eightfold Path of the Buddha we hear not only of right concentration but also of right mindfulness. Where concentration is a closing in, mindfulness is an opening out. This mindfulness is an important aspect of zazen, an aspect that has been developed through breath awareness and body awareness. The 'letting-be'. the 'letting-go' and the 'being-with' of shikantaza opens our awareness to all that arises in the present moment of our ordinary heart-mind. So we find that sitting is Zen, standing is Zen, walking is Zen, eating is Zen, washing the dishes is Zen. The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton has a story that nicely illustrates the centrality of mindfulness to the practice of Zen. He tells how he once met a young man who had just spent twelve months in a Zen monastery. Merton asked him what he had learnt in the course of that year of Zen training. Merton was half expecting to hear of unusual experiences such as altered states of consciousness, discoveries of the spirit, transforming enlightenments. To his surprise the Zen novice replied that he had learnt to open and close doors.  

Thursday, 6 July 2017


129. As legs and backs get sore from long sitting in zazen, we might start to question Dogen's claim that shikantaza is 'the dharma gate of great ease and joy'. Yet in spite of our doubts on this score we will hopefully find that in the practice of shikantaza we can and do learn to 'just-be' with whatever arises in the present moment of our ordinary heart-mind, whether it is a case of pain or bliss. In this practice of 'just-being' with whatever arises in the present moment we will find a special intimacy with the koan that says:
     In the well that has not been dug,
     Water is rippling from a spring that does not flow;
     There someone with no shadow or form
     Is drawing the water.

The practice of shikantaza is a matter of 'letting-be' whatever comes up in the present moment of our ordinary heart-mind, of 'letting-go' whatever obstructs our Zen practice in this moment, and 'being-with' our very ordinary selves and the ordinary selves of others, and with the ten thousand things, without attachment, as we come home to our own Buddha-nature, our ordinary heart-mind, where we have always been.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017


128. Some words from Zen Master AMA Samy: 'In zazen, be in touch with all the negative feelings and emotions and at the same time let there be peace and compassion. Do not try to repress or deny your fears, anxieties, jealousies, angers and the seeming meaninglessness, arbitrary blindness and insignificance of life and of yourself; in the midst of all of them and embracing them, abide in Bodhicitta, abide in faith, courage, peace and compassion. See the goodness dwelling in your heart and in the heart of your neighbour as well'.
     Here let us recall yet again those words of Master Nansen: 'Ordinary mind is the Way'.


127. Many of us might be puzzled by Dogen's talk of non-thinking, especially as we find that 'thought after thought' continues to 'arise in the heart-mind'. However, as we enter deeper into our practice of zazen we will begin to sense that 'thought after thought is not separate from heart-mind'. In other words, as we settle into the 'just sitting' of shikantaza we come to accept ourselves just as we are with our thought filled minds, our many desires, fears, aversions, hopes and joys. 'Just sitting' opens us up to a  knowledge and acceptance of who and what and where we are.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017


126. The development of samadhi power is only one aspect of our practice of zazen. Another, and equally important aspect, is that of 'letting-be'. This practice of 'letting-be' is facilitated by the related practices of 'letting-go' and 'being-with' in the act of 'just-sitting'. The technical term for 'just-sitting' is shikantaza. The 13th century Japanese master Dogen was the great champion and exponent of  shikantaza.  He wrote: 'Sit solidly in Samadhi and think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This is the art of zazen .... It is the dharma gate of great ease and joy. It is undefiled practice-enlightenment'. 

Sunday, 25 June 2017


125. The development of samadhi, as Zen Master AMA Samy assures us, 'is essential in the way of Zen'. The practice and development of concentration or samadhi however, is not something that we achieve once and for all. Rather it is a practice that we must keep working at. Again in the words of AMA Samy, it is 'the practice of again and again re-collecting oneself, coming steadily, repeatedly, constantly, patiently, gently, to the centre and to centering in the one thing necessary'. But this samadhi practice, necessary though it is, is not enough on its own if we are to walk the way of Zen. It does not equate with Zen awakening or satori. In the language of Anglo-American analytic philosophy, we might say that samadhi is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the happening of satori.

Saturday, 24 June 2017


124. One effective way to quieten and concentrate the heart-mind that is often recommended when we start the practice of meditation is called 'counting the breath'. No doubt many of us are familiar with this practice but, to refresh our minds, here is a brief description. Focusing on our breath, we are instructed to breathe in to the count of 'one', breathe out to the count of 'two', and so on up to 'ten'. At which point we return to 'one' and repeat the cycle. There are a number of variations on this practice which we needn't go into here other than to note that when we become proficient at this counting, when we can go from 'one' to 'ten' without losing our place, we can drop the counting and start practising what is called 'following the breath'. Yet even here, with this level of concentration, we will find that 'thought after thought arises in the hear-mind', though now with a subtle difference. For the practice of counting and following the breath enables us more easily to disengage from the stream of thoughts. With this disengagement we find that we tend to get less and less caught up in these thoughts, images, hopes, fears, fantasies, plans, etc., etc. We find that we can more easily watch the thoughts come and go, and not identify with them. Focus on the breath acts as our anchor against our tendency to drift away on the ever flowing stream of thoughts. Moreover, in counting and focusing on the breath we forget about seeking after the Way of Ordinary Mind. Thus we might suddenly find ourselves at home in our ordinary mind, and free of expectations of attaining to something extraordinary. 

Thursday, 22 June 2017


123. Anyone who tries zazen soon comes to experience the problem of intrusive thoughts. And so we quickly learn the importance of developing our powers of concentration, that is, our samadhi power. There is nothing strange or esoteric about this concentration. It is something we all employ in carrying out our daily tasks. It is part and parcel of Nansen's 'Ordinary Mind'. There is nothing extraordinary here. Learning to develop our powers of concentration represents a first movement towards touching or unifying or realizing the heart-mind of our practice. We move towards re-collecting the heart-mind by directing our attention to what we are doing right now. Zazen, as a ritualised practice, is designed to help us concentrate the heart-mind.Bowing as we enter the meditation hall, bowing to our cushion and then to the sangha, adopting the formal meditation posture -  all these actions require concentration on what we are doing. Already we are practising, and so developing, concentration. 


122. Zazen is the pre-eminent practice for the realization of Nansen's 'Ordinary Mind'. For this practice we adopt a stable upright sitting posture. However, in the stillness and silence of this posture we soon become aware of the mind's activity, the activity of what we tend to think of  as our ordinary mind. Many of us will find it to be unruly and learn to appreciate why it is sometimes referred to as 'monkey mind'. It seems to be up to all sorts of tricks and won't be silenced or stilled. We will feel a certain kinship with Eka (Hui-k'o), the Second Patriarch, who went to Bodhidharma and begged him to pacify his mind. Or we might recall the story of Eno (Hui-neng) who, on encountering two monks arguing about whether it was the wind or the flag that moved, remarked 'It is neither the wind nor the flag but only your mind that is moving'. We might also remember the line from the Kanseon which says 'thought after thought arises in the heart-mind'. And so we come to feel that we cannot concentrate. Our mind, it seems, is all over the place.
     What can we do? Deliberately trying to stop the thoughts, to turn off the radio in our head, just doesn't work and simply leads to feelings of frustration. As Nansen warns us: 'If you try for it, you will become separated from it'.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017


121. The heart-mind that Nansen describes as 'ordinary', the heart-mind that Eka could not take hold of, this is the heart-mind that we must touch, must awaken to, in our practice of zazen. Like Joshu we will find ourselves asking, 'Shall I try to seek after it?' Taking note of Nansen's response 'If you try for it, you will become separated from it', we might find ourselves suddenly confused and doubting. If trying for it only separates us from it, why are we devoting ourselves to such a demanding practice as zazen? With Joshu we will ask, 'How can I know the Way unless I try for it?' Nansen answers that it is 'not a matter of knowing or not knowing'. In other words, it is not a matter of conceptual knowledge, a knowledge that can be expressed in the language of logical discourse. He adds: 'When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it vast and boundless as outer space'. The True Way of Nansen's Ordinary Mind cannot be 'talked about on the level of right and wrong', cannot be discussed in a language that is underpinned by dualistic assumptions. Joshu, we are told, came to understand this with 'a sudden realization'.
     Encouraged by the claim that Joshu 'came to a sudden realization' while listening to Nansen's words, let us see if there is any way we can seek after the Way of  Nansen's Ordinary Mind without separating ourselves from it. Let us see if we can try without trying for it.


120. When Joshu was a young monk he asked his master Nansen, 'What is the Way?' Nansen simply replied, 'Ordinary mind is the Way'. Then Joshu had another question, asking, 'Shall I try to seek after it?' This might leave us wondering why he didn't inquire about the nature of ordinary mind. Anyway, Nansen's response to Joshu's second question is to tell him that trying for it would separate him from it. But still Joshu's questions kept coming: 'How can I know the Way unless I try for it?' At this point Nansen gives a final, if somewhat wordy, response. He says: 'The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it is vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about at the level of right and wrong?'
     There is a lot to unpack in this koan story. However, our interest here has to do with the question that Joshu did not ask, namely, 'What is ordinary mind?' Perhaps what Joshu is pointing to with the expression 'ordinary mind' is something so ordinary, so familiar, that the very fact that one might feel the need to start looking for it simply serves to demonstrate that one has already missed it by a thousand miles. This is the very heart-mind of which Eka, the Second Chinese Patriarch, said, 'I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it'.

Sunday, 11 June 2017


119. Sesshin is the word that refers to the period of intensive meditative practice undertaken by Zen practitioners at certain times during the year. This word can be translated as 'touching the mind' or 'collecting the mind'. Sesshin, then, provides us with the opportunity to engage in a range of exercises that facilitate the practice of collecting or unifying the self in such a way that we can touch, in the sense of awaken to, our Buddha Mind, our True Self. But while this might be a helpful way initially to approach sesshin, we need to take care about what it is that we are attempting to collect, unify, awaken to. We need to ask ourselves about what it is that we are referring to with this word 'mind'. Like numberless Zen practitioners throughout the centuries we must face, at some point, the question 'What is mind?' And there's the rub. For in the context of Western thought the word 'mind' usually connotes something cerebral, something to do with the brain, something that has to do with our mental activities. But the 'shin' in 'sesshin', usually translated into English as 'mind', should rather be rendered as 'heart-mind' in that it is the seat not only of mental and intellectual activities but also of intuitive, emotional and spiritual acts.Touching, awakening to, the heart-mind, this is what we are about in sesshin.

Sunday, 4 June 2017


118. The story of man's inhumanity to man seems to  be unending. And the story of the violence perpetrated by men against women and children seems also to go on and on. Wise heads down through the years have looked for causes and offered solutions. Philosophers talk of 'the problem of evil' and are misled by their terminology. For a problem is something that in principle can be solved. But the horrors of war and the exploitation of the weak by the uncaring strong are as with us today as they have ever been. This suggests that we here face something that is more than a problem. Recognition of this led the philosopher Martin Heidegger to exclaim that 'only a god can save us'. But the Zen practitioner has no 'god'. Still, he or she must come to realise something of the mysterious fullness of emptiness. That is, the Zen practitioner must enter into the experience of mystery. This mystery must be acknowledged and accepted. Only in surrendering to the mystery that envelops all our living can one catch a glimmer of light at what hopefully is the end of this endless tunnel of human misery.    

Thursday, 1 June 2017


117. Kanseon is the bodhisattva with the many hands and eyes. She listens to the cries of the world. Not only does she listen but she responds to those cries. In our global village the cries of the world can seem to be overwhelming. What to do? Someone asked 'How does Kanseon use those many hands?' A master answered that it is like a man using his hand to adjust his pillow in the middle of the night. We might ask, 'Who is this Kanseon?' and "Where is she?' How we respond to these questions will have a bearing on our understanding of the hand adjusting our pillow in the dead of night. 

Thursday, 25 May 2017


116. There is a koan that features a stone on which a name is inscribed. It is the practitioner's task to read that name. This done, he or she must then respond to the claim that whereas on one side of the stone it cannot get wet, on the other it cannot get dry. This koan comes to mind as I hear daily of the suffering and violence in the world. 

Wednesday, 24 May 2017


115. The daily news is full of reminders of the destructive power of greed, hatred and ignorance. The daily response of the Zen practitioner is to keep on working at countering these forces, in one's own self, and in others. This is in keeping with the Bodhisattva vow to 'save all beings'. The vow aims to be inclusive: 'all beings', even those called 'enemies'. Here there can be no room for thinking in terms of 'us' and 'them'.  And it is in keeping with the Christian imperative to 'love one's enemies'. This might seem to be impossibly idealistic. Yet to aim at anything less is certain to keep us trapped in a never ending cycle of violence.   

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


114. Master Joshu, born in 778, entered Nansen's monastery when he was eighteen years old. Not long afterwards he had a great Enlightenment-Realisation. Yet he continued to train with his master for the best part of the next forty years. Then, following Master Nansen's death, Joshu took to the road in order to visit various masters and temples. He wandered thus for about twenty years. While travelling hither and thither he worked at deepening his original realisation. Eventually, at the ripe old age of eighty, he settled down in a small temple and began to teach. If we would follow Joshu on the Way of Zen we must learn to hasten slowly.

Monday, 22 May 2017


113. The Chinese master Ungan began his Zen training under Hyakujo in 794 C.E. He was twelve years old at the time. But though he practised with his master Hyakujo for the next twenty years he failed to achieve any deep realisation. After Hyakujo's death Ungan became a disciple of Yakusan. Eventually, guided by Yakusan, he came to a deep, transforming Enlightenment-Realisation. Commentators say that he 'ripened slowly'. However, it would seem that his case is not atypical. The Way of Zen does not offer quick and easy results. And yet 'before a step is taken the goal is reached'.  

Wednesday, 17 May 2017


112. In order to practise zazen we are advised, among other things, to drop all attachments. But what about practising Zen in everyday life? Here it is a case of dropping our attachment to attachments.

Thursday, 11 May 2017


111. Who is/was Vimalakirti? A koan answer will require a searching inquiry into the Self and be given in the present tense. A discursive answer can only be arrived at through a literary and historical study that looks to the past. But remember what the sutra says: 'to seek Mind with the discriminating mind is the greatest of all mistakes'.

Thursday, 4 May 2017


110. Vimalakirti's silence thunders down through the centuries. But who, you must ask, is Vimalakirti?

Thursday, 27 April 2017


109. Given the great emphasis placed on 'sitting meditation' in Zen we might tend to forget that a solitary walk in the forest can be an excellent practice.

Friday, 21 April 2017


108. With the world facing so many problems we might wonder about Zen's capacity to help. By way of an initial response let us note that a discipline that works to lessen the grip of greed, hatred and ignorance on individuals and communities is no small contribution.

Monday, 17 April 2017


107. The personal realization that is confirmed and authenticated in the relationship of master and disciple may bear fruit in a variety of ways. In the case of Mahakashyapa, he was entrusted with a formal teaching role and was commissioned to continue the Buddha's work in that capacity. Teaching, then, was the special service that he was called to perform for the Buddha's sangha. But there are other important ways of rendering service to the sangha. For example, organizing and running a sesshin requires the co-operation of a number of sangha members. We bring our individual gifts and talents to the sangha. None of these gifts are to be looked down on just because they are exercised behind the scenes. Moreover, in the history of Zen there are those who, once they have been confirmed and authenticated by their master, disappear into the mountains, never to be heard of again.

Monday, 10 April 2017


106. The Dharma transmitted by the Buddha is vast and fathomless. It is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, lovely in the ending. Entering this lovely Dharma we enter the realm of mystery, and becoming intimate with this mystery we find that it is graciousness. 

Sunday, 9 April 2017


105. Abiding beyond words, one is able to embrace words, use words, and not be caught by words.Hence the power of the Buddha's every word and gesture.

Friday, 7 April 2017


104. Our attachment to words, concepts and doctrines is tenacious. We seize upon the Buddha's words and phrases and demand definitions and explanations. We demand rational accounts of what is meant by such terms as 'Dharma', 'Dharma Eye', Dharma Gate', etc. We assume that we can grasp the Dharma in the logical formulations of doctrine. We want it all spelt out in doctrinal statements. We want to get our heads around what the Buddha says while we remain puzzled by what he shows and his disciple Mahakashyapa sees. We cling to words like Dharma and Nirvana but avert our eyes from such expressions as 'independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine'. We become fascinated by the possibilities that a commentator like Mumon Ekai raises when he says: 'If, however, everyone in the audience had laughed, how could he have transmitted his True Eye? And again, if Mahakashyapa had not smiled, how could the Buddha have transmitted it?' And so we run off at a tangent to the Buddha's teaching and lose ourselves in a labyrinth of 'what ifs'. Here we would do well to call to mind Wittgenstein's remark (a scandalous remark in that it was made in the context of a philosophy class): 'Don't think, look!' 

Thursday, 6 April 2017


103. The contrast between the Buddha's silent and spoken teaching is stark. It might put us in mind of the philosopher Wittgenstein's distinction between 'showing' and 'saying'. He remarks: 'What can be shown, cannot be said'. In spelling out for the assembly what had just transpired between himself and Mahakashyapa, the Buddha utilises words that conjure up concepts, concepts that cry out for formulation in doctrinal statements. But having spoken of the True Dharma Eye, the Subtle Dharma Gate, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, and the True Form of the Formless, the Buddha suddenly kicks away this ladder of abstract terms with his declaration that the Dharma is 'independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine'. Thus he points us back to what was shown in the silent presentation of the flower and Mahakashyapa's responsive smile. 

Wednesday, 5 April 2017


102. The koan story of the Buddha's transmission of his Dharma to Mahakashyapa has two parts. The first part presents us with the picture of a silent heart-mind to heart-mind transmission. In the second part the Buddha speaks to the assembled monks and tells them what has just transpired. In doing this he reminds them that as the Buddha he possesses 'the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate'. He then adds that what he has as the Buddha is 'independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine'. And just so that they don't miss the point of what took place in the in-between of the held-up-flower and Mahakashyapa's broad smile, he says explicitly that 'this [my Dharma] I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa'.
     The Buddha's words are for the benefit of all those who remained (and remain) in dumb, uncomprehending silence at his presentation of the flower. The Buddha's grandmotherly approach here has earned for him a sarcastic comment from the 13th century master Mumon Ekai, who writes: 'Golden-faced Gautama really disregarded his listeners. He made the good look bad and sold dog's meat labeled as mutton'. 

Tuesday, 4 April 2017


101. It is said that for the wise, one word is enough. For Mahakashyapa, the Buddha's silent presentation of a flower was enough. For the rest of us, however, we demand lengthy explanations of what constitutes the True Dharma Eye, not to mention doctrinal formulations concerning the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana. We also engage in endless philosophical investigations into the True Form of the Formless and the Subtle Dharma Gate. Yet sooner or later we must come to the recognition that what the Buddha has to transmit is independent of words and way beyond doctrine. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017


100. The account of the Buddha's transmission to Mahakashyapa may have no basis in history. From the Zen point of view this is not important. For the koan presents us with a contemporary event. As we enter into the koan and become intimate with it we find ourselves getting caught up in a Dharma transmission happening right here, right now, in our very own assembly. Here and now we are present with the Buddha on Mount Grdhrakuta and together with those other disciples of long ago we await with attentive ears the teaching he will give. But if we listen only with our ears we will remain, like those others, in dumb and unresponsive silence. For the Buddha in holding up a flower makes a visual presentation and we, fixed in our ways, fail to hear with our eyes or see with our ears. Only Mahakashyapa is not caught by hearing alone but has his eyes wide open to what is being offered in the here and now, in this moment's privileged encounter with the Thusness of the True Self. His response, a broad smile, is as sudden as it is spontaneous. It is also silent, as with the rest of the disciples, but his silence is not a dumb, stunned silence. Rather, it is full of meaning and understanding. His beaming, smiling, silent response is seen by the Buddha, recognised and acknowledged in a heart-mind to heart-mind transmission that has no need of words.

Friday, 31 March 2017


99. In the 13th century collection of koans known as the Mumonkan, there is an account of how the Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciple Kashyapa. The story has it that at one time when Shakyamuni Buddha was on a mountain called Grdhrakuta, someone presented him with a flower. The Buddha immediately held it up before the gaze of his assembled disciples. They were all dumbstruck. All, that is, except for Mahakashyapa who couldn't help breaking into a broad smile. Noticing this, the Buddha is reported to have said, 'I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words, and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa'.
     This story appears to have all the hallmarks of an historical account of the occasion on which Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciple Mahakashyapa. We are told the time and the place of the transmission: when Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta. This Mount Grdhrakuta is a peak in what is today North India. Both Gautama Shakyamuni and Kashyapa are real historical figures. In the Zen tradition this story is taken at face value and considered to be factual.
     All, however, is not as it seems. Scholars point out that no account of this transmission event can be found before this story appeared in a sutra of Chinese origin in the year 1036 CE, some fourteen hundred years after the event would have taken place. In addition to the chronological issue is that of language. For here the Buddha does not speak the language of ancient India but rather that of a Sung dynasty Chan master. The general consensus among contemporary scholars and historians is that this story that figures as Case 6 of the Mumonkan is an invention, a fabrication, a piece of historical fiction.
     Granted the truth of what the scholars tell us, how are we to take the Mumonkan's account of the time and manner of Mahakashyapa's reception of the Buddha's Dharma? The first thing we should note is the literary form of our story. namely, that of the koan. And koans, like poems, are not meant to be taken literally. They do not give us factual information about the world or its history. What they do give us are expressions and patterns of how our deep yearning for liberation for ourselves and all beings, the yearning known as bodhicitta, awakens within us, and is tested, acknowledged and affirmed by the Zen master and Sangha.

Monday, 27 March 2017


98. Entering the silence of zazen can be such a beautiful experience that some practitioners want to stay there forever. Hence the challenge of the koan that would have us step from the top of a hundred foot pole.

Friday, 24 March 2017


97. When the disciple has gone beyond words and entered into silence, the demand will be made, 'Say something!'

Saturday, 18 March 2017


96. Going beyond words, images, concepts, we enter into silence through the practices of breath awareness and body awareness. By following the breath and paying attention to our body we develop both concentration and mindfulness. Thus a space opens for a wordless inquiry into the self. Before long we begin to sense that there is more to the self than the finite, separate, empirical self that we and others ordinarily observe. And so begins our search for the mysterious, elusive Self, the self that we spell with an upper case 'S' to distinguish it from the objectified self of our everyday experience. In our search, however, there is great scope for self-deception. The Zen practitioner can easily become attached to particular rituals and symbols, not to mention ideas and opinions. Hence the importance of finding an authentic Master to guide us and a supportive sangha to safeguard us. On the Zen path of self-inquiry we will at every turn find ourselves challenged by the words of Eno, the Sixth Patriarch: 'At this very moment, what is your original self?' 

Sunday, 12 March 2017


95. There is nothing wrong with words as such. Problems arise with our misuse of words. In the understanding of Zen, the most dangerous misuse of words has to do with the expectation that words can be used to say what only can be shown. This, of course, is not to deny that there are many things that words can say. 

Friday, 10 March 2017


94. The sutra says 'Words! The Way is beyond language'. So why all these wordy remarks?

Thursday, 9 March 2017


93. The practice of Zen is very much a practice of letting-go. Thus Master AMA Samy would have us let go of our 'attachment to attachments'. In a similar vein Master Dogen Kigen insists on the importance of forgetting 'all attachments steadfastly'. This practice of letting-go can best be thought of as a process of self-emptying, self-forgetting. Consequently, our first step in the practice of Zen is not towards getting something. Rather, it is directed towards losing something. This something that must be lost is none other than ourself, ourself with its attachments, self-images, fantasies. Only through this process of self-emptying can we uncover in ourselves a 'radical openness to the other ... in a leaf, a flower, a sound, a gesture' that, says AMA Samy, 'brings us to awakening'. 

Monday, 6 March 2017


92. Zazen in the darkness before dawn. No cars pass in the street. No plane flies overhead. No man mows his lawn. No dog barks in anyone's backyard. No bird sings. There is only this ringing in my ears. And the koan challenge: stop the sound of the distant temple bell.

Friday, 3 March 2017


91. In such a basic Zen practice as counting the breath we learn to let go of all entangling questions and arguments. We do not concern ourselves with distinctions between theist and atheist, Christian and Buddhist, right and wrong. There is just this breathing one-e-e-e ... just this breathing two-o-o-o ... Letting go of all naming, all distinguishing, all differentiating, we let go of all clinging. Immersing ourselves in the very process of breath counting, we relax and become that process. Thus we enter what Zen master Dogen calls the Dharma gate of great joy and repose. 

Sunday, 26 February 2017


90. The practice of zazen can carry me into a silence beyond words and images and concepts. In this silence there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today. Here each and every preference falls away, for there is neither two nor one. There only 'is', an 'is' that mysteriously 'is not'. This mysterious 'is' does not belong to me, nor can I tie it down with a name. Lost in 'is-ness' I cease to be and yet am somehow strangely sustained. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017


89. A listening practice can help you cultivate and nurture an inner silence. This is the silence that, as someone has said, 'adds nothing but changes everything'. Just sit and listen and learn the language of silent love. 

Monday, 20 February 2017


88. The Zen practitioner is urged to 'listen with the eye, see with the ear'. That is to say, Zen recognises that in order to listen effectively it is not enough to rely on the ear alone or, to see what is right in front of you, to rely solely on the eye. Zen listening is a whole person activity. In the words of the great thirteenth century Chinese monk Mumon Ekai: 'Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin; summon up a spirit of great doubt and concentrate ...' Listen with this degree of total concentration and discover that suddenly 'internal and external are spontaneously united'. Listen like this and you will not only 'stop the tolling of the distant temple bell' but will also become most intimate with 'the sound of one hand'.  

Friday, 17 February 2017


87. A Zen story has it that a monk visited a mountain hermit and asked him, 'Oh venerable master, how can I enter the Way?' The hermit replied with a question of his own, 'Do you hear the sound of that mountain stream?' The monk answered, 'Yes, I do'. Then the hermit said, 'Enter there! Enter there!'
When practising zazen you might ask yourself, 'What do I hear?' Pay careful attention to the sounds that accompany your practice of zazen. Then let the question arise, 'Who is hearing this sound?'

Monday, 13 February 2017


86. Kanseon is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. She is the one who listens to the cries of the world. As such, she can serve as the inspiration for a good zazen practice, namely, to just sit and listen, to just sit and listen without any running commentary. Against a background of breath awareness and body awareness just sit and attend to the sounds that happen about you. Some of these sounds will be obvious and will simply break in upon you. Others will be more subtle and will barely register even when you are paying the most careful attention. Now this practice of listening will change imperceptibly into a form of body awareness, an awareness of body that is inclusive of the body's environment. And so it is that as a zazen practitioner you become one with Kanseon, attentive to sounds that include the cries of the world, the cries of the earth, the earth under stress. Sitting zazen you sit for the well being, even the salvation, of this stressed out earth, now realized as your very own body.

Monday, 6 February 2017


85. In emptiness there is no coming and going. And yet we do in fact travel from place to place. One day in India, the next in Australia. Does the Zen teaching about emptiness deny the evident fact of movement? A denial of the facts of everyday experience would fly in the face of reality and be at odds with what Zen is on about. Or does Zen take a dualistic view that contrasts an absolute dimension, in which there is neither movement nor plurality, with a relative world of phenomena, plurality, movement? But dualism, according to Zen, is a delusion. Now while it is true that Zen does talk in terms of the absolute and the relative, it does not see these as two different realities. In the words of the 'Heart Sutra' Zen is rooted in the realization that 'emptiness is form and form is emptiness'. Zen acknowledges that there is coming and going while keenly realizing that all coming and going is essentially empty.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017


84. Should you still ask 'What is Zen?' see the following:

              We ate upmarket,
               then a night of throwing up -
               now weak and laid low.


83. With neither road nor dust
nor emperor 's word to avoid
the non poet offers these words
with no thought for eloquence.

Sunday, 29 January 2017


82. With day breaking all about her
       this old woman forgets being old, being woman
       and sees in the ten thousand things her own true face
       - no need for makeup now.

Saturday, 28 January 2017


81. What  are you doing there in India?  I lie down. I sit up. I stand. I walk.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017


80. Fuketsu's speck of dust:
       pick it up
       and you marvel at the temples
       of Emperor Wu;
       leave it be
       and you hum a lonely tune
       with an old barbarian;
       the tune Setcho plays
       on the stringless lute
       of his fearsome staff.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017


79.     meeting the other
           faceless shapeless
           in the pitchblack of a moonless night -
           no wonder there is no recognition
           and yet ... and yet ...

Sunday, 22 January 2017


78. On the road. Walking the path. Following the way. Car bus plane taxi autorickshaw. Crossing mountains, rivers, a vast continent, the wine dark sea. Sights and sounds. No where to lay one's head. Visiting temples and masters. Polishing one's understanding. Which way now? Straight ahead with neither purse nor haversack. Onward, ever onward. The horizon is always beyond. The rolling stone ...
Though the Way of the Awakened is without end, I vow to walk all along the way.