Friday, 20 December 2019


380. Master Daito Kokushi teaches that doing zazen consists in 'sweeping away thoughts'. He adds: 'When thought is put down, the original face appears'. But what does he mean by 'thoughts'? The Master answers: 'Experiencing heat and cold and so on, or feeling a lack, or having desires -- these are all delusive thoughts'. Sounds as though he would have the Zen practitioner reduce him- or herself to a robot. Hardly an attractive goal.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019


379. Master Mumon says, 'you must completely cut off the way of thinking'. The Sixth Patriarch says, 'think neither good nor evil'. And so, we might ask, what's wrong with thinking? Why this insistence on not thinking?

Saturday, 30 November 2019


378. 'The Sixth Patriarch was pursued by the monk Myo as far as Taiyu Mountain.' Who was the Sixth Patriarch? Who was the monk Myo? Where is Taiyu Mountain? When did this take place? Why was Myo pursuing the Sixth Patriarch? Usually the koan practitioner will be able to answer all these questions. But is this necessary? Does it help?

Sunday, 24 November 2019


377. A persistent question ... The kōan that won't let go ... So which is the real Seijo? The one that bowed to the dictates of the family's patriarchal and caste ridden mentality? Or the Seijo that followed her heart's desire? Seijo's heart's desire seems to have been to marry Ōchū even though this involved going against her father's decision and secretly running after her lover. But there was more to Seijo's heart than this for she eventually returned to her father's house, if only for a visit.
     Who can know their own deepest desire? Can you fathom your own heart? The Hebrew psalmist witnesses to our need for help here when he prays: 'Search me O God and know my heart, test me and know my thoughts'. Zazen opens us to such a searching, such a testing.

Thursday, 14 November 2019


376. 'Which is the real Seijo?' Familiarity with the old Chinese ghost story about Seijo and her cousin Ochu will have a different effect on a Western practitioner of Zen than on someone raised in a culture dominated by a patriarchal and caste ridden mentality. Might be best to forget the story and just focus on the question. Can you do this?

Tuesday, 5 November 2019


375. Koan Zen, in China the kung-an tradition, is the practical expression of the well known saying that Zen is 'a special transmission outside the scriptures'. This saying, however, inasmuch as it appears to jettison doctrinal teachings, would put Zen at odds with conventional understandings of Buddhism. And so the Buddhist character of  Koan Zen has been hotly disputed down through the centuries. Thus many Buddhists would be scandalised by the Zen demand that 'should you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him!' 

Sunday, 3 November 2019


374. When Goso asks 'Which was the real Seijo?' he is questioning not only the real identity of the practitioner engaged with koan practice but also the identity of Zen itself, an identity that has been hotly contested at various times through out its history. Now if Zen depends upon 'a special transmission outside the teaching', as exemplified in the Buddha's silent transmission to Kashyapa (see Mumonkan, Case 6), it seems to follow that the answer to Goso's question is to be sought outside the literary and cultural context of a ghost story about Seijo and her cousin.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019


373. In the realm of the 'not one, not two', there is freedom, freedom from ... and freedom to  ..., a mysterious freedom. And though 'thought after thought arises in the heart-mind', there is no disturbance in the heart-mind. Here 'all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well '. Here there is freedom, mystery, graciousness. Here Seijo is 'not one, not two'.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019


372. 'The moon above the clouds,' writes Mumon in his verse comment on the Seijo koan, 'is ever the same'. Someone might like to add, 'though now full, now half, now quarter'. Mumon's verse goes on: 'valleys and mountains are separate from each other'. Again, someone might add, 'even if one land'. Moon, clouds, mountains, valleys: 'all are blessed, all are blessed' -- whether or not we 'realize what the real is'. So now, with regard to Seijo and her separated soul, 'are they one or are they two?' Someone who has realised the real might respond, 'not one, not two'.

Saturday, 26 October 2019


371. Mumon has a warning for the disciple who cannot resist rushing about wildly. He says: 'When earth, water, fire, and air suddenly separate, you will be like a crab struggling in boiling water with its seven or eight arms and legs '. The warning seems to point to a future event, an event that no one can avoid, the event of one’s own death. But those who lack insight into 'what the real is' fail to see that they are already caught up in the separation of earth, water, fire, and air. Indeed, in their rushing wildly about, they are already the 'crab struggling in boiling water with its seven or eight arms and legs'. Zen Master Mumon would alert his disciples to the perils that beset those who fail to 'realize', here and now, 'what the real is'.

Friday, 25 October 2019


370. Mumon allows for the possibility that we might 'not realize it yet'. And so he gives advice on how we should proceed. He writes: 'I earnestly advise you not to rush about wildly'. That is: don't go racking your brains; don't go running off to scholars and commentators. So what to do? Just 'realize what the real is'. But how? By doing the opposite of running about wildly. That is, sit quietly in zazen. 

Thursday, 24 October 2019


369. Mumon, in his comment on Case 35 of the Mumonkan, makes no attempt to dredge up the old ghost story. Mumon writes: 'When you realize what the real is, you will see ....' Pause to note Mumon's use of the word 'see' - perhaps we might here call to mind the role of 'seeing' in Wittgenstein's philosophical practice. What will we see? '... that we pass from one husk to another like travelers stopping for a night's lodging.' We might also recall the Hebrew scripture: 'In this house I am but a passing guest, a pilgrim and a wanderer like all my fathers'.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019


368. The question that Goso asks is not just a question of identity. It is much more in that it is a question that bears on real identity. The Zen practitioner is here being challenged to manifest his or her real identity. The sort of questions the practitioner must face are: 'What is real? Who am I really?'
   Scholarly concerns with the origin of Case 35 of the Mumonkan, the tracing of the koan to a Chinese ghost story, the re-telling of the story, the details of the story - these are so many red herrings.
   Goso asks : 'Which was the real Seijo?' In order to respond appropriately here, the practitioner must ask: 'Which is the real Seijo?'

Tuesday, 22 October 2019


367. The first thing to notice about Case 35 of the Mumonkan is that it is not about Seijo. In terms of the grammar that governs the language of the language-game of koan, the question that Goso asks is a question about the identity of the one who mediates on this koan. Everything necessary for working with, and responding to, Case 35, is contained in Goso's formulation. So: 'Which was the real Seijo? Was it her being, or the soul that separated from her being?' Notice the disjunctive choice: either this or that. 

Monday, 21 October 2019


366. Paradigm cases of how the koan language-game might be played can be found in such koan collections as the Mumonkan and the Hekiganroku. 
   As found in these classical collections, koans are presented without context. Yet knowledge of their context, some might think, would seem to be necessary. Consider the following case: 'Seijo's soul separated from her being. Which was the real Seijo?'
Commentators hasten to inform us that this koan has its origin in a Chinese ghost story and then tell us the story. But do we need to know all this?

Sunday, 20 October 2019


365. Wittgenstein says: 'Language did not emerge from reasoning '.  The same can be said of the koan. Koan language did not - does not - emerge from reasoning. The Zen novice learns, and becomes proficient in, the language of koan by engaging in specific practices. He or she comes to understand and speak this language by joining in, by becoming a participant in, the language-game of koan. The learner learns by becoming a player in the game. This suggests a process of trial and error - like this, not like that. This in turn suggests a readiness to accept the tutelage of a master. 

Saturday, 28 September 2019


364. Coming to rest in a deep interior silence is a beautiful experience. The temptation is to cling to what is so comforting, so restful. But the Way of the Awakened is without end and so we are challenged to step from the top of the hundred foot pole. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019


363. Sengcan, the third Chinese ancestor, concludes his great enlightenment poem Xinxinming with the assertion 'Words! The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today'. This might suggest that words can be dispensed with and that the truly enlightened will always maintain a noble silence. Clearly Sengcan would not agree with such a suggestion as he uses words to point to that which lies beyond their reach. 

Monday, 19 August 2019


362. The real fact of the Buddha's 'just sitting there', in response to the non-Buddhist philosopher's question, transcends the phenomenal world of dualistic opposition. Likewise with your practice of Shikantaza. 

Friday, 16 August 2019


361. 'I do not ask for words. I do not ask for non-words.' What is the non-Buddhist philosopher asking of the Buddha here? 'Words' refer to the things of the phenomenal world, that is, to all that is included in being. 'Non-words' refer to emptiness, to non-being. This philosopher wants to know if there is a way that goes beyond both the way of affirmation and the way of negation. The Buddha's response that consisted in just sitting in silence is a manifestation of that which cannot be captured by either speech or silence. The Buddha embodies and bodies forth the True-Self, the Mystery that is Graciousness. 

Thursday, 15 August 2019


360. When a non-Buddhist philosopher told the Buddha that he did not ask for words or non-words, the Buddha's response was to just sit and say nothing. This sitting in silence is the Zen practice of zazen. It is to point directly to the heart-mind, the true-self, without reliance on words or letters. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2019


359. A nugget of pure gold in Bill Porter's mountain of a book about Zen baggage: Master Seng-ts'an's saying that 'the sacred Way is traveled in mystery'. And this mystery, says Zen Master AMA Samy, is graciousness. 

Sunday, 11 August 2019


358. In Case 32 of the Mumonkan, a non-Buddhist philosopher questions the Buddha. When the Buddha responds to the question that is phrased as a non-question and the philosopher understands, a close disciple of the Buddha is deeply puzzled. So perhaps the most interesting thing about this koan is that the non-Buddhist not only attains understanding but also has his understanding affirmed and praised by the Buddha, while the Buddhist disciple remains in his ignorance. Some important questions must follow from this. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2019


357. Master Seng-ts'an is reported to have said, 'You should realise that the sacred Way is traveled in mystery and not fathomed by explanations'. And so we are reminded, yet again, that 'not knowing is most intimate'. Or, in the words of Saint John of the Cross, 'In order to arrive at what we do not know, we must go by a way that we do not know'. 

Monday, 5 August 2019


356. 'When you realize what the real is,' says Master Mumon Ekai, 'you will see that we pass from one husk to another like travelers stopping for a night's lodging.' In zazen, focusing on the breath, we pass from one breathing moment to the next. How can we abide where there is no abiding? 

Tuesday, 30 July 2019


355. In the spiritual life, as Merton once remarked, we are always beginners. A Zen view of such a claim is that to walk the buddha path we should cultivate 'beginner's mind'. And so, after every meal, let us take care to 'wash our bowl'. 

Sunday, 28 July 2019


354. How do we understand anatta? If we take it literally to mean no self whatsoever we get ourselves into all sorts of strife, both philosophically and practically. Why not interpret it to mean no independent, self-sufficient, autonomous self? 

Thursday, 25 July 2019


353. What shift in consciousness might Zen help bring about? An embodied realization of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all things would be a good start. 

Wednesday, 24 July 2019


352. Joanna Macy has said something about our need for a 'shift of consciousness' if we are to face up to our urgent social and environmental problems, problems that our political leaders seem not to see. Perhaps Zen might have a role to play in helping to bring about such a shift. 

Tuesday, 23 July 2019


351. Many people are expressing fear about the future of planet earth and whether future generations will find it livable. Their fears are surely well founded. Accompanying these fears, however, is a sense of hopelessness. Does Zen have anything to offer that might give us some cause for confidence in the future? Is living responsibly and wisely in the present, and encouraging others to do the same, enough? Overcoming 'greed, hatred, and ignorance', even at the personal level, is difficult enough. How do this on a scale that will be effective in dealing with the environmental and social problems that are causing us so much anguish? Here I recall something Heidegger said about only a god can save us. But Zen people seem rather shy about any talk of an all powerful and all caring deity. 

Monday, 22 July 2019


350. A simple lifestyle, lived close to nature, resisting the attractions of consumerism, relying on a vegetarian diet and renewable energy sources -- would seem that Zen practice might be able to help out here. 


349. Sengcan declares that 'the Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences'. He goes on to say that 'if craving and hatred are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised'. So what are my preferences? What do I crave? 

Saturday, 20 July 2019


348. Practising breath awareness and body awareness, we enter into the silence and stillness of zazen. In this stillness, in this silence, we have the ideal opportunity to encounter and become intimate with the mystery in which we live and move and have our being. Becoming more and more intimate with this mystery may we discover for ourselves that it is graciousness.

Thursday, 18 July 2019


347. The Zen practitioner is challenged to step from the top of a hundred foot pole. Some seen to find it even harder to get up from their zafu for either kin-hin or dokusan. Getting stuck in Emptiness can be a problem for the committed student. 

Tuesday, 16 July 2019


346. Students of Zen sometimes avoid going to dokusan because, they claim, they don't know what to say. But just that could be an excellent presentation and it would establish a connection with the teacher. There is more to Zen than simply sitting on one's cushion. 

Saturday, 13 July 2019


345. 'The Nondual is one with the trusting mind.' Sitting in Emptiness, the Emptiness that is Fullness, I become intimate with this Emptiness as the Mystery in which I live and move and have my being. And I experience this Mystery as Graciousness. And so I have learnt not only to trust the Mystery that is Graciousness but also to entrust my whole self to this Mystery. Here I think of the dying words of Jesus: 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit'. 

Friday, 12 July 2019


344. If you would go deep into Zen, you must make a serious commitment by becoming the student of a teacher. But be very careful in your choice of a teacher. He or she should be an authentic master. In making your decision you should pay attention to the call of the Bodhicitta, the deep yearning you find stirring within you for the liberation of yourself and all beings.
   In becoming a disciple you learn to put on the heart-mind of the master, the Dharma as realized in and through your teacher. This you must do in order to go beyond your teacher so that you can embody the Dharma in yourself as your very Self. To do this you must heed the call to a life of renunciation and self-transformation for the sake of the whole world.
   Following the teacher you enter the Sangha, the community of disciples and fellow students. Here you must realise and embody the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha by allowing the Bodhicitta to realize and actualize itself in and through you. 


343. The logic of the Heart Sutra would seem to lead the Zen practitioner to renounce the world and retire into solitude. And yet we lay members of the sangha happily chant it every day as we get on with our busy lives in the world of samsara. So what is going on here? 

Monday, 8 July 2019


342. How free am I? Am I free of all clinging? Do I find myself yearning for this, craving for that? How upset am I when things don't turn out the way I had hoped? The bodhisattva of compassionate wisdom clearly saw that all five skandas are empty. Do I clearly see that the objects of my clinging, craving, yearning are empty? 


341. Bodhizendo:

suddenly a wind
surges through the silent dark --
and my sleepless thoughts. 

Sunday, 7 July 2019


340. Kovalam

cawing crows compete
with the ocean's endless roar --
muzak through the trees. 

Wednesday, 3 July 2019


339. Trivandrum:

listen to the sea,
hear it break upon the shore --
bird calls interweave.

Monday, 1 July 2019


338. Walking free of all labels, one can freely embrace the symbols, doctrines and rituals of the religion that best expresses one's underlying faith commitment. 

Sunday, 23 June 2019


337. Does one need to be a Buddhist in order to practise Zen? Here a distinction can be made between the religion of Zen Buddhism and Zen spirituality. The spirituality of Zen, while it is based in Buddhism, and uses Buddhist symbols and rituals, is not identified with the Buddhist religion. Rather, it uses symbols and rituals freely to practise a spirituality of radical detachment. The Zen practitioner walks free of all labels. 

Saturday, 15 June 2019


336. A Zen master's lineage is 'a special transmission outside the Scriptures'. For that which is transmitted passes from heart-mind to heart-mind, in the mutual recognition of master and disciple. And what passes from heart-mind to heart-mind is 'not dependent on words and letters'. Rather, it 'points directly to the heart-mind' that is transmitted. In this pointing, one 'sees into one's true nature', a 'nature that is no nature', and thus 'one's Buddhahood is realized'.

Friday, 14 June 2019


335. How accurate is a master's lineage chart? Everything depends on our meaning of accuracy here. Perhaps it is historically accurate for only four or five generations. After that it might be more a matter of which masters in the past the present generation most identifies with. Who would vouch for the historicity of the twenty eight Indian patriarchs?

Wednesday, 12 June 2019


334. Lineage is important in Zen. A Zen master teaches within a line of enlightened masters that is said to go back to the historical Buddha. In the Mumonkan there is a koan that tells how Shakyamuni Buddha started the Zen lineage when he held up a flower before the assembled monks and no one responded except for Kashyapa who gave a delighted smile. There upon the Buddha announced that he was entrusting his Dharma to Kashyapa. This heart-mind to heart-mind transmission of the Buddha's Dharma has passed from master to disciple down through the ages until the present day. Needless to say, this is a myth, but a myth that is the bearer of an important truth that each Zen practitioner must realise for him or herself.


333. Words are used to tell us that 'the Way is beyond language '. It's important then not to dismiss them just because they can be abused. Words used with skill and care can constitute a powerful reality. So while the Zen Buddhist will practise a 'noble silence', he or she will often enter that silence via the passage way of words. 

Sunday, 9 June 2019


332. 'Words! The Way is beyond language.' While realizing the limitations of words we yet use them to point to the Way. The danger, of course, is our stubborn tendency to mistake 'the pointing finger for the moon '.

Sunday, 2 June 2019


331. Traveling:

1. alone with my thoughts --
     nothing special going on
      in this floating world.

2.  alone in the night --
      surrender to the embrace
      of the silent dark. 

Sunday, 26 May 2019


330. Before a step is taken the goal is reached? Practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice? Nirvana is right here before your eyes? This very place is the lotus land? This very body the Buddha? Many of us may have trouble accepting that the job, as it were, is done. Perhaps the difficulty has to do with the focus of our attention. If we are preoccupied with our self, then, naturally we will be overwhelmed with a sense of imperfection and so miss our inherent Buddhahood. But if we forget the self our Buddha nature is confirmed by the ten thousand things. No need to take refuge in a spirituality of imperfection.

Saturday, 25 May 2019


329. The assembled monks look to the Buddha for a sermon. But he just holds up a flower. They are dumbfounded. Only Mahakashyapa smiles broadly and the Buddha acknowledges his smile. The practice of shikantaza is like this. For here practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice.  

Thursday, 23 May 2019


328. Following the breath and body awareness are basic practices at Bodhi Zendo. They are similar to but not exactly the same as shikantaza which entails the further step of faith in one's inherent Buddha Nature. Breath and body awareness can open the practitioner to the realization that 'practice is enlightenment and enlightenment is practice', as Master Dogen would say. The practice of shikantaza, then, is the manifestation of one's True Self, one's Buddha Nature. In this 'just sitting' one can rest in the realization that 'the Nondual is one with the trusting mind'.


327. Following the breath in zazen you may be surprised to notice that your familiar pain, from the tension in your legs, has disappeared. Now you are aware of your whole body engaged in the act of sitting. But in the absence of the struggle with pain that has always accompanied your zazen you are suddenly at a loss. Your body is at rest and there is just you sitting quietly in this place and starting to wonder if there isn't something else. No unexpected insights, no world shattering experiences. It's just this.  

Wednesday, 22 May 2019


326. The practice of following the breath requires one to slow down and become attentive to the different phases of the breathing process. Notice how the in-breath starts of its own accord. Follow its passage from the tip of the nose down into the hara. Take careful note of how the in-breath comes to an end. Pay close attention to the transition from the in-breath's ending to the out-breath's beginning. Feel the outward movement and how it too comes to an end. Feel how the cycle begins again and experience the sheer wonder of it. 

Thursday, 16 May 2019


325. Sitting alone, far from the hustle and bustle of politics, just following my breath, attending to body awareness, and all the while one's country is at a crossroad, and the planet itself is in crisis. The sense of helplessness can be overwhelming. Can taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha save one from despair? 

Monday, 13 May 2019


324. When on the road bear in mind these words of Zen Master AMA Samy: 'Your self is an openness to the All, which can be realized only in the journeying. The journey begins with the first step Here and Now. And every step is the first step. Where do you begin?'

Friday, 10 May 2019


323. On the road  (yet again). Trains, buses, walking. Rubbing shoulders with strangers. So many faces, so many bodies, so many stories. What's so special about yours? And where are you going? And why? The uncertainties of travel. The boredom of waiting. The happy surprises. 

Monday, 6 May 2019


322. Midmorning walk early May. Autumn in the antipodes. Trees changing colour, losing leaves. Underfoot a colorful, crunchy carpet. Poetic images flood the mind. A question from Hopkins: 'Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?' Can't recall any more lines but these persist. Ah, yes! Anicca!

Saturday, 4 May 2019


321. Formal sitting meditation, or zazen, is central to the Way of Zen. In this practice we learn to let go of our attachments and particular expectations and to surrender our self to the great Mystery that surrounds, undergirds, permeates, and embraces all of our living. Becoming intimate with this Mystery in the realization that Emptiness is Fullness we can enter with a trusting mind into the market place of our everyday life.  

Friday, 3 May 2019


320. Sit in the dark. Wait for the break of day. Marvel at the sky sometime before sunrise. Then see how it grows pale at the approach of the sun. The neighborhood is silent save for a distant murmur of traffic on the by-pass. Suddenly the shrill call of a bird cuts through the early morning air. Unfold your legs, stand up, bow.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019


319. What, if anything, does following a spiritual path have to do with politics? If one lives in a country where voting in elections is compulsory for all citizens aged 18 years and over, the question is inescapable. For even when there is a strict separation between church and state, the view that religion is a private matter is surely unsustainable. Take the case of the Zen practitioner who vows each day to abandon greed, hatred and ignorance. This vow must have an impact on the way he or she approaches the ballot box. 

Tuesday, 30 April 2019


318. Politicians are busy trying  (it would seem) to buy our vote. They present as great talkers yet would have us believe that they are good listeners. But to whom or to what are they listening? Unlike the politician the Zen practitioner can't afford to dismiss fundamental questions with some such quip as 'it's the economy stupid'. In zazen there is room for self-doubt, self-inquiry and the recognition that we don't live by bread alone. 

Thursday, 25 April 2019


317. tears for the fallen,
         tissues for bewildered eyes -
         now the bugle sounds. 

Tuesday, 23 April 2019


316. Florists urge us to 'say it with flowers'. This is exactly what the Buddha did two and a half thousand years ago. But of all the disciples listening to him only one got the message. Should we stop listening to florists? 

Monday, 22 April 2019


315. The Buddha's sermon: he held up a flower. His disciples were unresponsive, not knowing what to say or do. Only Mahakashyapa's beautiful smile showed that he alone of all the disciples understood that the Buddha, the flower, and Mahakashyapa himself were one. In the Zen tradition the flower here symbolises the world and how we are one with the world. In the emptiness of the True Self we are boundlessly open and so at one with the flower, the other, the world.  

Sunday, 21 April 2019


314. Four people join me for zazenkai, with two apologies - our small local sangha. Meanwhile, in India at Bodhi Zendo, the Easter sesshin has just ended - our much larger sangha. But who is counting? Bodhidharma, after his long and hazardous journey to China, and his nine years facing the wall of his cave at Shōrin Temple, is said to have gained but one disciple and he a cripple. And so we sit, each of us facing our own wall with the question, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?'

Wednesday, 17 April 2019


313. When we sit perfectly still in the lotus posture and attend to our breathing, the whole process of breathing in and breathing out seems so slight a thing. The in-breath is almost nothing at all. Likewise with the out-breath. More noticeable is the beating of our heart and the tension (or discomfort or pain) in our legs. But breathe into the beating heart and the complaining legs and we find that our body begins to feel less solid. Following the breath into and out of the hara the kōan with its image of the man hanging by his teeth from a branch high in a tree might float into consciousness and we begin to feel the contrast between the man's frantic clinging, his hanging on for dear life, and the ease and almost nothingness of our breathing. Entering into the experience of this contrast we face the question, 'What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West?' In almost no time our period of zazen is ended.   

Tuesday, 16 April 2019


312. Master Mumon says of Kyōgen that 'his vice and poison are endless'. What is this vice, this poison? It has something to do with Kyōgen's power to 'stop up the mouths of the monks', that is, to bring them into silence. Bear in mind that Kyōgen was a scholar who in his early years as a Zen practitioner was noted for his ability to expound the Buddhist scriptures. For a long time he made little progress in his study of Zen. One day his teacher Master Isan pointed out to him that his vast learning was holding him back from realizing his enlightenment. Isan wasn't interested in what Kyōgen had learnt from his close study of the sutras. And so he put to him this question: 'What is your real self - the self that existed before you came out of your mother's womb, before you knew east from west?' Suddenly Kyōgen found himself in the position of 'a man up in a tree hanging from a branch with his mouth'. All his book learning was of no avail. And so he gave up his sutra study and devoted himself to menial tasks. One day when he was sweeping the ground around the grave of a national teacher, a stone struck some bamboo. At that sudden, unexpected sound he came to enlightenment and realized that enlightenment is beyond speech. He entered into the silence of the Mystery of Emptiness. Thus he acquired the endless poison of the teaching with which he would stop up the mouths of monks.

Sunday, 14 April 2019


311. A kōan cautions us: 'Even if you have realized the Way and attained kenshō, you have just put your head through the gate'. A timely reminder that on the spiritual path, no matter how long we have been at it, we will always be a beginner. But this is no reason to be discouraged. With each step a new start, our practice is always fresh and open to being surprised. 

Saturday, 13 April 2019


310. Breathing in what I cannot see. Being nourished and energised by what I cannot see. Breathing out what I cannot see. Breathing in emptiness. Being nourished and energised by emptiness. Breathing out emptiness. Who breathes in, breathes out? Who decides to breathe in, breathe out?

Wednesday, 10 April 2019


309. Hanging by the skin of your teeth from a branch high above the ground - perhaps not a bad image of the situation of someone suffering from clinical depression. Someone comes along and asks you about the essential teachings of Buddhism, how would you respond? It would seem that no matter how erudite you are, or how eloquent, you would have great difficulty in mustering the energy to say anything at all (let alone get out of bed/let go of the branch). Yet the Zen practitioner has vowed to walk the Way of the Buddha, whatever the weather. The 13th. century Japanese master Dogen underwent severe training in China. He noticed how other monks, when they became ill, would rest from their practice. But he was so determined to realize his True Self that he vowed to maintain his practice even if it killed him. Great faith. Great doubt. Great commitment. 

Tuesday, 9 April 2019


308. Someone appears under the tree in which the Zen practitioner is hanging from a branch by his mouth. Instead of offering to help the desperate man in the tree, this nameless someone presumes to ask him about the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West. Master Kyōgen seems to suggest that by not answering the question the man of Zen would fail in his duty to the Dharma. But he acknowledges that if he does answer he will fall to his death. Kyōgen then demands to know how any one of us would act in such a situation. Would we cling to life and so fail in our Zen duty? Or would we let go of our most basic attachment by surrendering to the mysterious call of the Dharma? What does it cost to walk the Way of the Buddha?

Monday, 8 April 2019


307. Counting the breath is an excellent way to develop samadhi power in doing zazen. But if we drop the counting and focus on just following the breath, we find ourselves engaged in a much more subtle practice. Now the breath is experienced as an inhalation that begins of its own accord, has a duration that comes to an end without any decision on our part, then turns into an exhalation that likewise has a life of its own. In just paying close attention to this breathing-in and breathing-out, we notice that it doesn't ask anything of us. It just goes on whether we pay attention to it or not. At the same time we notice how our heart beats so many times during the in-breath and so many times during the out-breath. And this beating of the heart seems to be making itself felt in the lower abdomen which rises with each in-breath and falls with each out-breath. Following the breath we become aware of how it seems to enter into the various places of tension experienced in our body, arms, legs. Here we might ask, 'What is my relationship to this body that lives and breathes without needing permission from me? Who am I in this living, breathing body?'    

Sunday, 7 April 2019


306. 'To study the Buddha Way,' says Dogen, 'is to study the self.' Does this mean that Zen has no interest in anything beyond the self? Helpfully, if we follow Dogen, we soon learn that 'to study the self is to forget the self ' and in this self-forgetting, we are open to 'the ten thousand things'. But how can focusing on the self, attending to the self, possibly lead us to forget the self? The Zen response to our question is to invite us to practise zazen. Once we adopt the prescribed meditation posture on our cushions and start to focus on our breath and body awareness, we soon notice that we are not self-sufficient entities. For starters, we realize how dependent we are on our environment, especially on the air that embraces us. Moreover, in practising zazen with our eyes half open, we find that we are but one aspect of a very large picture. Sights and sounds break in upon us. And so the self is both lost and confirmed within a vast web of interconnections. Zen talks of mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars, thus putting the stress on the natural world and our position within this world. But we can go further and realize that we also belong and function within a human society with its various institutions. Now, how do we stand, as Zen practitioners, in relation to these institutions?  

Friday, 5 April 2019


305. Sitting in the dark, waiting for the new day to dawn, there is at first nothing to see. Then slowly, ever so slowly, objects begin to appear in the room. Gradually, ever so gradually, these objects take on recognizable shapes. As the coming day seeps into the room nothing can be done to hurry its dawning. Here one can only sit and watch and wait. And perhaps be surprised and delighted to see the 'shepherd's warning' that starts to colour the sky above the eastern horizon. Sit and watch and wait and breathe in the wonder of it all. 

Wednesday, 3 April 2019


304. The instruction is 'hold firm while letting go'. How can this be done? It might be helpful to distinguish between 'holding firm' and 'clinging', on the one hand,  and between 'letting go' and 'being undisciplined', on the other. Be steadfast in the practice of mindfulness without getting uptight about it. And remember that 'the nondual is one with the trusting mind'. The trusting mind is able to freely let go while being diligent in practice. 

Monday, 1 April 2019


303. In zazen you might find that you can't grasp anything, can't get a foothold. You are just hanging in there, as it were, by the skin of your teeth. Time to ask that most serious question: who is struggling? who is hanging in here? 

Sunday, 31 March 2019


302. The ninth century master Kyōgen Oshō draws a graphic picture of someone doing Zen on Struggle Street. He says that such a one is like a man up in a tree hanging from a branch by the skin of his teeth. His hands can't grab unto anything and his feet can find no support. (Not a bad image of what doing zazen can seem like at times.) Master Kyōgen then puts the hard word on the man in the tree and would have him reply to someone who wants to know the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West. And so the Zen practitioner, hanging by his teeth in the tree, finds himself in an impossible situation. If he doesn't answer he fails to teach the dharma. If he does answer he falls to his death. Now see how this applies to doing Zen when the going gets tough. Standing nowhere, with nothing to rely on, give the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the West.      

Saturday, 30 March 2019


301. Facing even a short period of zazen can at times be a daunting undertaking. The prospect of sitting still in the prescribed posture and doing nothing but following the breath for a whole half -hour can give rise to a range of negative feelings, from mild disgust to panic. So much for the view that meditation is a relaxing exercise leading to peace of mind. Rather, it is sometimes a strenuous practice that calls to mind Jacob's night of wrestling with the angel. And as with Jacob it might leave a wound. Doing zazen is a daily discipline that sometimes calls for courage, patience, and endurance. At such times it can be helpful to remember that 'the non-dual is one with the trusting mind'.  

Friday, 29 March 2019


300. 'Why does the Barbarian from the West have no beard?' Even after 'passing' this koan in dokusan, it is worthwhile returning to it again and again. How important is questioning in one's practice of Zen? (The significance of Wakuan's 'why?'). Why is Bodhidharma referred to as 'the Barbarian'? And why from 'the West'? What is to be understood by 'having no beard'? One can dig deeper into this koan if one asks: 'Why does this Barbarian from the West have no beard?' Important to see how this koan, and the questions it gives rise to, have a bearing on one's own practice not only of zazen but also of one's living Zen in everyday life. Indeed, what is it that is lacking in one's own practice? (In my practice?!). 

Wednesday, 27 March 2019


299. Does living fully in the present moment leave no room for eagerly anticipating the arrival of some future event? Does the grateful enjoyment of what is given here and now rule out the experience of missing a dear friend who happens to be far away? The practice of shikantaza, of just being fully present and involved in the act of zazen, just doing sitting Zen, must not be thought of as a closed off activity. For being present to just this breathing moment entails being open to all that it has to offer. And an  important feature of what is being offered in the now is its openness to the future. The present moment in itself is finite and so cannot satisfy one who would walk the endless path of the Awakened One. Focusing on the step that is being taken, the Zen practitioner takes that step in the direction of a longed for horizon that forever recedes. As for possibilities that might materialise on the path that lies ahead, between now and the receding horizon, the practitioner will relish what is attractive and fear what is threatening, but without clinging to the emotions and ideas that these give rise to.     

Tuesday, 26 March 2019


298. Master Wakuan's reference to Bodhidharma as 'the Barbarian from the West' suggests something of the threatening and unruly character of Zen. For what is at stake in the practice of Zen is the disturbance and overthrow of our habitual patterns of egocentric thinking and acting. Long established attachments and certainties need to be relinquished if we are to open ourselves to the emergence of the True Self. Our practice can feel like an encounter with a barbarous other that would break in upon the comforting certainties of our 'civilised' lifestyle. And so we can be greatly puzzled, even disturbed, at the claim that the True Self doesn't have a 'beard', that is, doesn't conform to our preconceptions of what constitutes Enlightenment-Realization. We find ourselves clinging with an extraordinary tenacity to our 'beard' even as we persist in 'doing Zen', that is, 'doing Zen our way'.       

Sunday, 24 March 2019


297. Master Wakuan asks a question about 'the Barbarian from the West'. Anyone familiar with the Zen literary tradition will know that Wakuan is here referring to Bodhidharma, the semi-legendary twenty-eighth Indian patriarch who is credited with introducing Zen to China in the first half of the sixth century of the Common Era. The puzzling aspect of the master's question has to do with its belief that the heavily bearded Bodhidharma has no beard. But perhaps equally puzzling is why does Wakuan refer to Bodhidharma as 'the Barbarian from the West'. Given that Wakuan is a Chinese Ch'an master of the twelfth-century and Bodhidharma an Indian of the sixth-century, it is worthwhile spending some time reflecting on his use of the word 'barbarian' here. Clearly, he means something more than foreign. But what is even more worthwhile is to examine how we feel about the Indian patriarch. Has familiarity with the koan made us insensitive to the shock of hearing the revered patriarch referred to in such a derogatory way?   

Friday, 22 March 2019


296. The twelfth-century Chinese Ch'an master Wakuan asked his disciples a very strange question that soon acquired the character of a koan. His question: 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?' Faced with this question we might immediately reply with an answer that begins with 'but' as, looking at any picture of Bodhidharma, we point out what in Australia we call 'the bleeding obvious'. Or, perhaps digging a little deeper into Wakuan's question, we might begin our answer with 'because' and then proceed to expound something of the Zen philosophy of Emptiness. However, both responses miss the point of Wakuan's koan. For while it is true that this koan must be approached in terms of both form and emptiness, our approach must nevertheless cut through our tendency to wordiness, to theorising, to conceptual thinking, to literal interpretation. So, tell me, 'Why has the Western Barbarian no beard?'

Tuesday, 19 March 2019


295. Having what we call 'beginner's mind', according to Richard Rohr, 'is always a head-start, spiritually speaking'. But, we might add, it is never just a start but a life long companion on the journey.

Friday, 15 March 2019


294. Just walk straight on the narrow mountain path of the Awakened One, even though you might find that it has ninety-nine bends. Don't worry about the bends but walk mindfully each step, with each step your first step. And so you cultivate 'beginner's mind'. Progressing along this path you will discover that you are always a beginner.  

Thursday, 14 March 2019


293. Zen Master AMA Samy says that the True Self is 'an openness to the All' and that this can be realized 'only in the journeying'. This journeying, he tells us, 'begins with the first step Here and Now'. He then adds, 'every step is the first step'.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019


292. When I vow to walk the Way of the Awakened One, I expect to walk and not to stumble. And yet, in spite of my best intentions, I sometimes stumble and even fall down. What to do? Must keep in mind my own limitations and not pretend to an unrealistic perfection. So while Zen talks of jiriki, I must not confuse the 'I' of self-power with that of my small ego self. 

Sunday, 10 March 2019


291. The Zen practitioner, vividly aware of being somewhat less than perfect, nevertheless vows on a daily basis to do the seemingly impossible. For how can someone who is weak, fallible, and burdened with a history of bad choices, sincerely vow 'to save the many beings', or 'to abandon delusive passions and thoughts', or 'to fully realize the vast and fathomless Dharma', or 'to walk to the very end the endless Way of the Awakened One'? Here such a one must meet the challenge of the koan: 'walk straight on a narrow mountain path with ninety nine bends'.

Thursday, 28 February 2019


290. Walking the path but getting nowhere while never standing still. The paradox of the wayless way. 

Wednesday, 27 February 2019


289. Homo viator: on the road again I travel straight on a narrow mountain road with ninety-nine bends. Finding that this 'Way of the Awakened' is without end, I vow to walk it to the very end. Treading this path I learn that I am a pilgrim and a wanderer like all my ancestors, and have nowhere to lay my head.    

Wednesday, 13 February 2019


288. Doing zazen we are advised to focus on just this breathing moment. But to focus on this moment we need to be open to the reality that presents itself here and now. What is this reality? Our answer here will depend on whether we view moments as discrete points on an invisible line or as ripples on a living stream of consciousness. 

Monday, 11 February 2019


287. Feeling broken? Helpless? Vulnerable? Stuck? Just sit with the question 'Who is feeling ... broken, helpless, vulnerable, stuck?'
Feeling happy? Energised? Capable? Loving? Just sit with the question 'Who is feeling ... happy, energised, capable, loving?'
Whatever the situation and whatever the conditions, let your True Self come forth. 

Thursday, 31 January 2019


286. In Zen we hear a lot about living in the moment. But what exactly does this mean? No doubt it has something to do with focusing on doing whatever is to be done here and now. Yet every moment opens onto an unknown next moment. And to do properly the task of the present we need to see how it relates to what is to come. The present moment is both closed and open. 

Wednesday, 30 January 2019


285. The poet bids his soul 'be still, and wait without hope'. In zazen this is sometimes the best we can do. Overwhelmed by our own 'not knowing', and a sense of utter helplessness, we just sit. Hopeless, helpless, we yet continue to trust that 'all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well'.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019


284.      awake in the night -
              darkness loud with the croaking
              of ten thousand frogs 

Monday, 28 January 2019


283.      leaning on my staff
              I gaze into mountain mist -
              dogs bark, roosters crow.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019


282. Master Gutei responded to every question by raising a finger. What did he mean by this? Was he answering from what in Zen is called 'beginner's mind '? 

Monday, 21 January 2019


281. Heidegger writes: 'Philosophizing ultimately means nothing other than being a beginner'. Merton remarks that in the spiritual life we are all always beginners. Zen would have us cultivate beginner's mind. So, how do we begin? 

Saturday, 19 January 2019


280. Breathing in, I count one, breathing out, I count two,  and so on up to ten. Then I come back to one and repeat the process. The in-breath is on an odd number, the out-breath on an even number. Using odd and even numbers like this is an aid to developing concentration and so learning to discipline one's thoughts. Many people starting out in meditation express surprise at finding out how unruly is their mind. Counting the breath can help quieten the mind. 

Friday, 18 January 2019


279. The practice of counting the breath is usually assigned to beginners in meditation. It would be a mistake, however, to think that this 'beginner's practice' is only for beginners. Counting the breath is a powerful practice. Even longterm practitioners can take it up, particularly in times of great stress. Should you find yourself having to deal with a smoldering anger or a deep seated resentment, don't be too proud to just sit and count your breath. 

Thursday, 17 January 2019


278. Master Mumon Ekai insists that in order to enter upon the Way of Zen we must cut off the way of thinking. This must be balanced, however, by the recognition that 'thought after thought arises in the heart-mind, thought after thought is not separate from heart-mind'.

Thursday, 10 January 2019


277. There was a man who suddenly woke up to find himself in the Garden of Eden. To his amazement he had access to every delight save one. And so he fretted.

Friday, 4 January 2019


276. It is said that Fa Yen cried out to Ti Tsang, saying, 'O Master, I am now in a situation in which language is reduced to silence'. How many of us can relate to Fa Yen's predicament? If so we might call to mind some words of the philosopher Wittgenstein, namely,  'whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent'.