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.