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?