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'.