Dharma Talk Text

Dharma talks transcribed

Dharma Talk: April 28, 2013

Welcome, and thank you for taking the time to come and share this afternoon with us.

Zen history tells us that this tradition was founded by the Chinese Zen master by the name of Rinzai – that happens to be the Japanese pronunciation of his name – Rinzai Gigen, who lived sometime in the eighth or ninth century in China. Rinzai’s sayings were collected and written down by his disciples and we know them as the Rinzai Roku, the collected sayings of Master Rinzai. In that collection there is one passage in which Rinzai says that living as a human being is like living in a burning house. The image of living in a burning house is quite powerful. The metaphor of the burning house appears also in earlier Buddhist texts. We started out the afternoon chanting Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra, Myoho renge kyo. Chapter 25 is just one of many chapters of this very large sutra. Within the Lotus Sutra there is a passage in which it describes a rich man, who has many children, who are completely pampered and spoiled; children who are deeply engrossed in playing with their toys, enjoying elaborate comforts. While the children are inside the palace, inside the house, the father notices that the house is on fire. A whole passage deals with how the father lures his offsprings out of the burning house – they rather would have stayed inside, in order to continue playing with their toys, in order to continue enjoying the comforts to which they had been grown accustomed. Going outside and doing something new, and therefore escaping certain death by fire, was not on their mind.

This passage contains probably one of the first descriptions of what is called upaya, skillful means; the father used skillful means to get his children to come out of the house and thus escape the fiery death. More precisely, the Lotus Sutra tells us that the father promised the children even more toys, even more comforts – that was the only thing that got them to come out and be rescued.

Generally Buddhism teaches us that living in the human realm is like living in a burning house, where there is always something on fire. We are born, and like a candle, we ourselves, our lifetime is on fire, and it diminishes with every second, with every millisecond, with every nanosecond that elapses in this activity that we call time. There is no escape, intuitively we all know that our time is limited. How much we awake to what that actually means is a different question. It is a question that Zen practice addresses. Please do not be mistaken and do not read any value judgments into this. There is inherently no difference in value or appreciation for a human being who has awoken to that urgency of the human life and another human being who devotes themselves to living their life in a different fashion – no value judgment. So, when there is something on fire there is always smoke, there is always something smoldering, there is always something happening, even if we look firmly the other way. Here, in Zen practice, we learn to look at that fire, because that fire, that activity of Dharma that moves from one to the next, and further and further, without us being able to stop it, without us being truly able to fixate, to hold on. That energy, that experience is something that can truly help us to be awake to the change, to become awake to what is here, to awake to what it means to be a human being. In many cases Zen practice is being portrayed or painted as having solely this wisdom as the central focus. However, we should never forget that wisdom is only one side of practice. The other side of Buddhist practice, and Zen definitely is the practice of the Buddha, the other side, the complementary and necessary side is compassion. When wisdom and compassion come together, then we can awaken to what it means to truly be “one” and what it means to be human.

When we sit zazen, inevitably we will have the experience of oneness; we will get a glimpse of the truth that everything that exists is not different from what or who we are. We learn to understand and to experience that the unconditional affirmation of the separation between object and subject is what causes the trouble, is what creates fixation, is what creates confusion, and ultimately is not just the basis for our own personal challenges but also for the challenges of society and humanity at large.

We have had some violent events in the past couple of weeks that make people ask “What is that? What a horrible thing to happen! What a horrible person would commit such atrocities, would try to hurt other human beings?” These are valid and important questions. As a Zen practitioner, as somebody who acts and understands in the way that the Buddha approached things cannot allow themselves to just fall into the trap of objectification, of creating the distance between what we believe in, and the “other”. Evil, which is a concept that you find in many religions, is not a concept in Buddhism. Good and evil are objects, they are ideas, and to a certain degree I feel religions meant these concepts to be exactly used the same way that the rich man in the Lotus Sutra used the promise to give his children more goodies, more toys, and more comforts, so that they would come out of the burning house. In the same way human history and culture has created religions that present good and evil, but the ideas are only skillful means. Zen teaches that ultimately there is no such thing as an object: neither evil nor good. My first Zen teacher, Genro Osho, always spoke of one of his most fundamental and moving experiences. He awoke to the fact that there are no evil people, there are only evil actions; that is a very important thing to understand. In the same way there are no good people, there are only good actions. All of that, anything that is based upon such understanding is quite different than living in a world where one unconditionally affirms objectified good and objectified evil. What Joshu Roshi would say here is “Well, you have to understand that everything is yourself.” That is where compassion comes into play. You might have the wisdom to understand and have had the experience that there is no separation; however, once we return to the human realm we live in a burning house, here and now, in a world where apparently there are evildoers and there are people who do good. In this human realm, when we see somebody who has done something horrible, we have to look at that person and see ourselves: “this is myself.” Zen practice asks us not to fall into the trap of leaving out, of rejecting, of pushing aside. No, we have to follow that much more difficult way of embracing. Embracing is not necessarily something that comes easily, because, to truly embrace you have to let go of all those ideas, all those moral thoughts, the moral worldviews that we have; if we cannot let these fixated ideas go, in that very moment when we meet what appears to be bad, to be evil, then we ourselves are unable to compassionately manifest ourselves, without holding back. In the same way, if you find yourself looking with pity at someone or you have a thought like “Oh my, I am so glad I am not that person,” the Zen practitioner in yourself has to remind you: “No! This is your self! This this is you, this is not the other! There is no such thing as the other…” Once we start doing that, practice becomes really interesting. That is where we meet our own limits, that is where we run into our own opinions, into our own fixated construct of what the world is or ought to be; that is where the polishing of a more accomplished human being begins. There is no easy way to get to maturity. We are not a pumpkin that lies in the field and just naturally ripens. Human beings have a mind, human beings have a heart, they have thoughts and the ability to reflect on the own self. Learning to use that ability to ultimately transcend its inherent limitations is what Buddhist practice is about. The koan that you can carry with you in every moment of your life, that should spring up every time you try to leave out, to reject, to distance yourself, is: “This is myself! This is myself!”


Dharma Talk, February 2013

Tonight I would like to tell a little story; it’s an old Zen story that goes back to China, long, long time ago and it is about a famous Zen master. I don’t know this Chinese name but the Japanese pronunciation of the characters of the master’s name is Tanka (丹霞天然, b. 739 , d. 824). Tanka is quite well known for what he did in this story; sometimes Zen uses stories to illustrate, to make some of the principles come to life. With the story of course come many interpretations of the story, some of them more appropriate, some of them less appropriate, however if you get the story, if you get what is behind it, then that will probably answer this question: “How important it is to know about appropriate and inappropriate, right or wrong interpretations of stories, of things that happen?”

It used to be customary for someone who has finished his studies and Zen with one teacher, after being authorized by that teacher, to move on and go on a pilgrimage to find other teaches, to further deepen one’s understanding, to further study, to get even deeper into the matter – the great matter of life and death. It was not the sign of not being done or not having received enough that one went on to study with other teachers, it’s just the accomplishment of “not stopping,” of continuing to study, of continuing one’s practice, because in the end – as we learn to see – there is no time to actually stop the practice, there is no place to arrive. Tanka, after having received inka shomei (the seal of approval) from his master Sekito Kisen (石頭希遷, b. 700, d. 790), he went out to look for other teachers. It was customary to stay over in Zen temples. When one would arrive at a Zen Buddhist temple one could ask at night for admission, so that one would not have to spend the night outside, under the stars. During winter time that’s not such a nice thing to do, and it was winter when Tanka came to a Zen Temple, where there were a couple of monks living, but no real teacher. The monks were very happy to take him in and to offer him food, to offer him a place to stay. Somehow they must have known by his way of manifestation, or by the way he looked or whatever, they picked up on the fact that he was an experienced Zen master. There he was in his room and in the evening the head monk went to check on him, to make sure that everything is okay. The head monk asked for permission to come into the room and Tanka said “Come in?”  The head monk opened the sliding door and – it is warm in the room, how come it is warm? There was no wood anywhere to make a fire, so the head monk entered, he closed the door and was really surprised, positively, that it was so nice and warm. Tanka sat there, next to a fire, warming his hands and the head monk was quite astonished and he said to Tanka “Where did you get the wood?” Tanka turned and he pointed to the altar, and where the Buddha used to sit – there was nothing! The head monk, to put it mildly, he was shocked! He didn’t know what to say; he looked at Tanka. “What did you do? You, you took the holy Lord Buddha, and you hacked him to pieces for your own personal need for heat? I don’t understand how a master like you could commit such a sacrilegious act?”  Of course, Tanka just chuckled. “What are you talking about? All I did was that I took a piece of wood, I hacked it into pieces, I made a fire and now both of us enjoy the warmth. You say it’s the holy Lord Buddha? I’m telling you, it’s nothing but a piece of wood, and I’ve used it to a worthwhile purpose. Come on, come closer, you still look like you are cold…” And so the head monk listened, and he understood: it was just a piece of wood, it was just an image. Of course it is not anything that is holy!

Everybody went to bed, and the next morning, when it was time for Tanka to leave, to move on with his travels, he met with the head monk and asked to be brought to the main hall. The head monk brought him to the main hall, Tanka went in, went in front of the large Buddha statue and started to bow, do prostrations.  Now the head monk really didn’t understand. When Tanka was done the head monk said “Master you just taught me last night that the Buddha statue is just a piece of wood, that it is not anything but a piece of wood – and now, just a few hours later, you, you, you throw yourself on the ground in front of this piece of wood! I really don’t know what to think about this!” Tanka looked at him and said “How can you say that! Don’t you see, it’s not a piece of wood, it’s an image of the Lord Buddha and you ought to throw yourself on the ground and prostrate yourself in front of Buddha! How dare you call it just a piece of wood!”

Tanka said his goodbyes and left. The head monk of course was completely confused. It took him a long time to figure out what the teaching behind this is. Sometimes an object is just an object, sometimes – in this case a Buddha statue made from wood is just a piece of wood. Action and relationship can transform it into something completely different; Non-attachments to the idea what the object stands for, a becoming free from convention, making connection with what is there, what is “suchness.” This is one way to relate to the world; yet at other times an object is not just an object, at other times we can give ourselves fully to the object and become one with it, and give it our reverence, completely disappear into the act of becoming one: eliminating the distinction between subject and object. We fully engage in the process of relationship, where the self disappears. What Zen tries to teach us, and what the story tries to teach us, is that nothing is fixated. Relationship and making relationship with “suchness”, making relationship with things as they are comes in many different ways. None of them is fixated. In the same way that Tanka gave all his attention to hacking that Buddha statue into pieces, so he could turn it into firewood, with the same intensity he put himself into the act of prostrating, into the prostrations, into making relationship- not with an idea, not with an object, but with life, by fully being there. An outside observer may be utterly confused if that observer is attached to ideas, to a fixated self. What really happened with the head monk that evening, when he thought he understood that it was just a piece of wood, is that he merely exchanged his idea of what it ought to be with a different idea. Tanka taught him the next morning that replacing one idea with another idea is not the same as becoming free from having any such preconceived notions and ideas. Developing the capacity and the ability to freshly meet every moment, every object, every person and make appropriate relationship is one of the things that Zen practice and the Zen way teach us: beyond holy, beyond profane, beyond “this” and “that”, just making full relationship. Tanka is not iconoclastic, no, it goes beyond that – and that is the difficult thing to understand, because one cannot understand it in a two-dimensional way, one has to experience and manifest it. Then there remains no question what Tanka was teaching.


Dharma Talk: October 21, 2012 (retreat)

Center at WestwoodsMajushri

Good afternoon. Please feel free to sit comfortably.

Today I would like to briefly speak about our friend who sitting on top of the butsudan (仏壇) here. He looks rather fierce; he has a sword in his hand: it is the image of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, Monju Bosatsu (文殊菩薩), that’s what his name is in Japanese. In many Japanese Zen monasteries inside the Zen Hall, the zendō (禅堂), there often is a statue of Monju Bosatsu as the main image. There is a Japanese version of the statue which is a little different than the one we have here: Monju is standing up, he stands versus being seated, and he holds his sort straight up.
Monju BosatsuSo what is that sword business about? What kind of image is that? You may remember that Monju Bosatsu is the bodhisattva who uses the sword to cut off illusion, to cut through delusion. He personifies the awakening from the dream state into the state of being awake – discriminating wisdom. If you ever heard a little bit about the teachings of Tathagata Zen, the Zen that Jōshū Rōshi teaches, you know about aitairitsu no hataraki (相対立の働き), about the two mutually opposing forces, mutually opposing activities. We can name them plus and minus, we can name them male and female. And what comes into existence from the working of these activities is what we experience as time and what creates past, present, and future. Mañjuśrī is deeply involved in all of this because it is his sword that cuts every “now” off and turns it into past, that cuts each moment of the future off and turns it into now. We are dealing with Mañjuśrī, that means we’re dealing with impermanence (anitya, 無常 mujō), the activity that always changes, that does not fixate, and that does not leave traces: it is just happening at this very moment. Impermanence often makes people feel in a way that is associated with the feelings of loss, but through understanding of the activity of impermanence we realize that loss and gain both are fueled and driven by the activity of impermanence, the activity of change, the activity of time, or even as Rōshi sometimes says “the activity of nature”. Without holding on, without will and desire this activity moves on: clear-cut, no traces. The sword of Mañjuśrī is so thin that it is undetectable, it is so sharp that it constantly cuts the new emerging now.

Today is a wonderful day of the manifestation of impermanence. We all sit here, we experience our activity of breathing, inhalation and exhalation, we experience the activity of thinking “Ah, what am I doing here? I should be somewhere else…”  We experience the activity of future, hoping for being somewhere else than where we are; the activity of past by recollecting a better place where we had been in the past. But what Mañjuśrī tells us is that you have to cut through the illusion of past and future and to become able to be in touch with the very cutting edge of his sword. The moment before future turns to present, the moment before present turns into past: that is the true dynamic of anitya, of impermanence. Without impermanence, without the separation into the three realms of past, present, and future, there would be no experience. Some people try to teach what others hope for: a state where we have the experience of completeness. But the Buddhist teachings and the teachings of Zen, and Tathagata Zen in particular assert that such an experience is not the true state of completeness. As long as there is separation, as long as there is discrimination between past, present, and future, between subject and object, it is only an illusion.

Zen practice tries to teach us how to break through that delusion, that is where all the wonderful Zen actions come from. [loudly:]“Hello! Where are you?” Where are you, that is the question. When you hear this sound, the Rōshi always says, and then he makes some kind of sound, “where are you?”  That is the tame version – the really fierce version is Mañjuśrī, swinging his sword; you will find it nowhere else than in your own life, every day. Every day you will encounter the sword [makes cutting sound through the air], cutting through your ideas, slashing your hopes, turning the present into the past. The more you attach to the ideas of the future and the past, the more you will actually miss the sword and not be at the cutting edge. “Cutting” sounds so fierce, it sounds very cold, but truly as a bodhisattva Mañjuśrī is the bodhisattva of wisdom. If we want to be a bodhisattva just like Majushri, it is our calling to gain that understanding. To be able to share it with others, to be able to go out to those who are suffering and to help them, not by telling them that it’s all an illusion, but by helping to facilitate that they are able to cut through the delusion themselves. Introduce them to the sword of Mañjuśrī, introduce them through your being, through your being able to go from moment to moment without leaving any trace. When there is no delusion to cut off, when there are no illusions left, the sword of Mañjuśrī rests and he sleeps. But in the next moment he wakes up again.

This is the activity of our consciousness, the activity of nature, of time, the activity of Dharma, without discrimination. On the han (板), the wooden board, which we don’t have here unfortunately, it says “time does not wait for humans” (時人不待). The sword will move; illusions, delusions will be cut. With each breath, in every moment of our lives as a Zen practitioner we are called to not get stuck, to stay here and now, at the very edge of Mañjuśrī sword.


Dharma Talk, June 23, 2012

Center at Westwoods

Good afternoon.

There are many different motivations that people have when they come and take up what usually is referred to as a spiritual practice. There are different motivations, different expectations, all different kinds of drivers, all different kinds of energies that bring us into the circumstance where we encounter a practice like this one. It is very interesting to sometimes reflect upon that. Being involved in doing a practice like this is a very interesting part of our development. It is part of the development of how we understand what we are as a human being, of how we understand what our relationship is to other human beings, what our relationship is to what we call ourselves, what our relationship is to “the other”. And when you read a little bit about Rinzai Zen, when you hear about Hakuin or even when reading about Rinzai himself in the Rinzai-roku (臨済錄, The recoded sayings of Master Rinzai), you will often find that it is said “do not seek”. “There is no need to seek. People run here and there, from East to West, from North of South, from the bottom of the mountain they climb to the top, from the top of the mountain they run down, just seeking, seeking, seeking…”

Hakuin has written a very famous song, so it’s a poem really, but the translation into English is usually “The Song of Zazen” (坐禅和讃, Zazen wasan). First of all, it starts out with the sentence “Shujo honrai hotoke nari ” (衆生本来仏なり), all sentient beings are from their origin Buddha. He could have stopped right here, but he goes on to speak about water and ice, bringing up the image that like water and ice are different manifestations of the same element, so it is what it means to be in the world of separation versus having the world of distinction and separation disappear.

Why are you doing this? What it is that you seeking, what are you after? Take the time to examine that, take the time to honestly and openly ask that question. What are the expectations? Ultimately, whatever those motivations, whatever the expectations are, they all are just gradually different. I know a Zen practitioner in Rōshi’s organization who took up Zen practice because he wanted to improve his Bridge game. Even starting out with such a mundane, or apparently mundane intention, has opened up a path for that person that has led him very far along, and he continues to walk this path. This is where it becomes interesting: ultimately the seeking, the looking for something is what we have to see through, is what we have to fully experience, clarify, and let go. At first we seek, probably without mind, without thinking, but through the seeking we find out that there are other aspects of our being, that there is the aspect of feeling, that there is the world of feeling, and then there is the world of intuition. We gradually learn and understand that our thinking, our mind is not what solely makes up our consciousness. It is us who give this very heavy emphasis to cognition, and we experience that when we sit down in a place like this one here; it becomes difficult not to engage in “thinking about”, in the thinking of the past, the thinking of the future. The thinking of whatever it may be makes it appear, creates it, and we become inundated solely by the activity of cognition. Connecting with the breath, connecting in unexpected ways with your body: your legs that are hurting. You feel your legs, but it is your thinking mind that tells you that your legs are “killing” you. “I can’t stand that any longer, I have to move” – thinking takes over and tries to pull the other parts along. The sensation of your legs, through thinking, turns into pain, and the more you think about it, the more you think about not wanting to be there, the more excruciating the pain becomes. Connecting with the breath is backed by our very deep feeling and intuition that thinking is not all there is.

The act of seeking, and that this what Rinzai, Hakuin, Jōshū Rōshi, and all of the teachers and patriarchs always stress: the seeking itself is an attachment to the seeking self, and it has to be let go, to disappear. Often one hears practitioners speak about “Oh, I had this wonderful experience”, experience, experience, experience…  The Rōshi once expressed it this way, he said “The true original sin of the human being, of the human condition is that one has and one only can exist with consciousness in the world of separation”. The very fact that unification breaks open and creates space and consciousness is the conundrum of the human existence. Once you start exploring that a little bit, you can come to the understanding that seeking an experience or longing for an experience is only possible in the limited confines of a state that allows for experience. Experience is only limited to that world of separation, of distinction. Rōshi says that if you meet a person who says “I have seen God”, you can be sure that person is a liar. They may have seen something, but not the real God; in unification there is nobody to be seen, nobody to see, nothing to experience, and nobody to experience anything. That might sound pretty bleak, because we love experiences, but that is one of the reasons why Zen practice points us to the experience we have every moment. That is what we have to learn and we have to get to that point, because it is an innate, it is an inborn longing for experience that we all have as human beings, but we tend to mistake those special experiences is different than the experience of every moment. What our practice asks us to do is, while we live here, in the world of separation, while we have consciousness, while we can see and smell and touch and hear and speak and chant, to make every moment of that life the same quality of these experiences that we so desperately look for.

It is not that we are suddenly changing something that wasn’t there before, it is just we awaken, we awaken to suchness, to the true meeting of the moment, (claps). And ultimately, as far as experience goes, that is all there is, that is all that can be achieved. It is your life, moment by moment. Don’t hope for the great experience that will take all of that away, and that the state of eternal bliss will be manifest. Waking up to what happens right here and right now, without having to think about it, without having to cut it into past, present, and future, into I and Thou, into self and other: that is the great experience. Where would you seek? Where would you look? Under the bed, in the closet? I can hear the Rōshi laugh. Let the thinking go while you do Zazen, let it come back when you need it. Let the world of intuition, 直感の世界 (chokkan no sekai), open up to you, and connect to suchness. No more seeking, no seeker, no prize to be found: just living.


Dharma Talk, Zazen-kai, March 11, 2012

Welcome to Westwoods, what a nice spot we have here. The outdoors, sunlight we have today, it’s really nice and a little breezy. It’s a place that took us all in, here, we all share the same space, we all share the same time, the same activity in what we call a zazen-kai, “meeting to do zazen”, meeting as a group to investigate and to learn how to let the self, that “I am self”, that ego, how to let it fall away, dissolve, disappear. That is the activity that we follow while we are in this formal practice. The activity of becoming less and less, and the more we do this, the easier and the more naturally the self arises, which it does inevitably anyway. Sometimes when people read about Zen practice they get stuck on ideas that are written down in books and say something like “you have to kill you ego – you have to eradicate any thought of self”. This is not even half of it, this is only one side of the medal, it is only one dimension of many because it never mentions that that ego, that “I am self” and the self, they are natural phenomena. Without self there is no no-self.

Whenever you practice, whenever you do zazen, whenever you go into that direction of becoming less and less and less, don’t forget that this is not a one-sided activity and never think of it in a two-dimensional way. The teacher who came up with these basic teachings, we all know him as Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha. From the point of view of somebody who is in the Zen tradition that person Siddhartha, he was like we are – nothing divine, just a very ordinary inquisitive human being who took the time to go through all kinds of teachings, all kinds of practices during his lifetime. What it came down to in the end was that he sat himself down under that tree and did not get up until he had penetrated to the point where everything fell away and all became clear to him. We all know the story about the eight day, in the morning when he saw the morning star suddenly he realized: all sentient beings are Buddha – this is myself, everything is not only connected, but everything is myself. That is a very powerful message, but we should not look at it in merely a two-dimensional way. There are places and times where there has to be distinction, where things are distinct, where there is subject and object – and there are places and times when no-place in no-time appears, and where there is no distinction between the subject and the surroundings. Zen practice is not a method that helps you with anything but learn how to balance, learn how to equally engage both in the activity of self-affirmation and the activity of letting the self completely go. There is no magic to it, there is no secret, and all we have to do to find out is to sit down, open our inner ear, experience that there is – no inside, no outside – and take that into our everyday lives and manifest it with everything we do.

One of the first things that Sasaki Roshi always stressed, and he put it in a metaphor; he said – and he liked to talk about Hitler and Roosevelt at that time, so you can imagine this is way back – “even Hitler and Roosevelt shook hands”. What it means is that you have to embrace both, even the good and the evil shake hands, even the opposites come together and neither side has the claim to perfection nor the possibility of being complete without each other. Completeness means that there is nothing that is left out; there is not a single moment in your lives that you should leave out. We all have that tendency, just because that is how self-consciousness works. We have the tendency to come to a point where we don’t want to be there – “no, I want to be somewhere else” – and we start thinking ourselves into those places, we start feeling ourselves back into places that we remember to have experienced having been more soothing, or sometimes just the opposite, disturbing – anywhere but where we are at the very moment. We have those feelings and those thoughts. Not leaving anything out means to bring together past, present, and future – in the very moment. When we chant here, all together, even though we have some 20 different people, we chant with one voice, we chant with the same air, the same breath, to the same beat, and that allows us to let go of that “I am”, “I am chanting”. The “I am” disappears and just the activity of chanting takes over, without the need to think we inhale just when it’s time to inhale. As soon as we start thinking, because we can’t follow the chant, off we go – we fall off, we leave the group, and we have to catch up, come back into the activity, the one action that happens at the same time.

It is an interesting approach, it is an interesting thought that many of us come here to work on our own lives, to work on ourselves, and in order to do that we have to learn to just let that go. We have to learn to let go of that habitual identification with a specific name, specific properties, opinions, the past, the hopes for the future. All of that, all of it is restrictive, it keeps us from being truly in the moment, letting happen and being fully with what is happening.

It is only a few hours we spend together here, but as I said before: don’t let even a single billionth of a second of your lives slip away – unlived, unattended, neglected. Not 80, 90 or 95 percent – give yourselves 100 percent to the tiniest fraction of your life that you can imagine. We all are very lucky, we have the time to come here, we have the means of transportation, we have this wonderful place for which we are grateful, the sun, nature. One year ago, on this day, I don’t if you remember, there was a big earthquake off the coast of Japan near Miyagi prefecture. Miyagi prefecture and the capital city of Sendai is somewhat close to us because our teacher Sasaki Roshi, he was born in Sendai, he grew up near Sendai in a farmhouse and the temple where he started his studies as a Buddhist monk at the age of 14, Zuigan-ji, is right there. 28,000 people died as the fallout of the earthquake. It is an interesting inquiry: how do we as individuals not feel for those who have died? How can we sit here and not be over in Japan and help? They are still digging out of the mud and there are still all kinds of big projects to remove the mud that was swept miles and miles over what used to be fertile farm land. How do we reconcile that?

This is what in our tradition one would probably call a koan, a koan that has no right or no wrong answer. Give it a little introspection, look at that, observe if you feel guilty, observe if you feel uninvolved, observe if your thoughts come up “Oh well, the universe works without will and desire, it just happens…, we all have to die”. Listen to yourself and once you go and you start exploring a problem like that, then you are entering into that activity of being with the moment, because there is no right answer, there is no magic answer: “this is the right thing to do”. The moment you reach out with your hand and you shake somebody’s hand completely – how in that very moment is it that all of this comes together – earthquakes, tsunamis, power plants – but also beauty, a sunny day like today, the privileges we all share.

I am telling you this because I wanted us to not be fooled into thinking that Zen practice is something that happens just here on the cushion. This is the safe lab, this is the lab section of life, where you have your protective gear on, where you can experiment without having too much to fear. Whatever we find out in the lab, we have to take out into the world, into that world that has suffering, suffering in all kinds of shapes and forms, and learn how to deal with it, how to act, how to not turn away. How do we not turn away? I remember old friends who gave me a book by the title of “Not turning away” and my friend’s inscription on the first page reads “as if we had a choice”.

So, fellow Zen people, fellow humans, friends, thank you for taking time out of your lives to come here and to share it with us. What we have been reminded of all the time, and what Joshu Roshi always stresses: no matter where you are, no matter what you do, even the slightest, smallest possible amount of time of your lives – don’t let it pass by without having been lived 100 percent. Roshi is 105 years old on April 8, and he has shown us how to do that, but nobody can do it for us, nobody can do it for you but yourself. Let us live that, let’s live the plus, let’s live the minus, let’s not leave anything, anybody, any time, any place out – learn to embrace everything without discrimination.


Dharma Talk, January 2012

Good evening. I would like to give tonight’s talk in relationship to the my last talk which I have given recently, regarding rules, regarding corrections, regarding all the restrictions that appear to be present in formal Zen practice.

Here are the questions that come to mind:
What is this all about? Why? Why do we need all these restrictions and why is discipline necessary in this kind of practice, in this kind of endeavor?

These are all very good questions, especially taking into consideration that we are looking for freedom. Everyone who arrives at this practice comes from their own personal circumstances and background, comes with certain experiences in their past and in the present. In many cases some of these experiences could be described as burdens. For each of us there is something that brings us to this practice – certain hopes, certain expectations, certain intentions that we bring – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Many of us are looking for something that helps us to alleviate, that helps us to get over the pain and unsatisfactoriness, something that helps us not to remain stuck in it. It is very important that we do not approach the pain and suffering in the way that Western medicine does, merely as symptoms and treat it symptomatically. We need to get to the root of this pain and suffering, not just cover up the symptoms or the experience of it.

When you look at culture, modern electronic culture especially, the culture of entertainment, a lot of it is geared towards distraction from that what irks every living being. Every being that has a mind of its own, which has self-consciousness, has the question about death, life, about change, about loss. Many of us here arrive in this situation joining this practice because we have such a question to answer, because we have such a burden to attend to or we have the intuition that there is more to it to answer these questions. Just to distract oneself from the questions appearing will not do. Compartmentalizing and hiding the questions in a closet, trying to sweep them under the carpet will only keep them hidden for so long. Some people take the initiative to look deeper, to explore and refine their inquiry.

One way to do that it is Zen practice. It is important to always keep in mind that Zen practice (and Zen practice in the way we conduct it) is just one of many ways to approach these deep questions. However, when we find our home in this practice and decide to follow it through, there are certain developmental steps and stages that we go through. The formal practice aspect is very important, especially in the beginning, in the first – maybe let’s say the first 75 years – of practice it is very important that there is some kind of discipline. After 75 years one can relax a little bit more.

Let us return to the question why discipline is necessary when we are looking to free ourselves, when we are looking to alleviate pain and suffering. Being exposed to these rules, instead of being able to just let go, we find ourselves more tied down: more restrictions, more rules, more corrections than ever before. “Don’t move!” and all kinds of sharp, incisive, abrasive corrections are made. We have to learn to discipline this at first undisciplined self, we need to learn not to give in to every whish, not to give in to every little desire or the hope that things will change and get better.

When I first came to practice at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California, the first seichu I bought myself a bag of potato chips, because I am very fond of potato chips. I deliberately restricted myself to having one chip a day, at night before going to bed. Minutes before there was to be absolute silence (except the snoring) and before the lights would be turned off, exhausted or not, I opened the bag and ate a single chip. It was a feast, it was a feast and it was an even greater lesson to learn not to give in to just taking one more. This restriction and discipline is essential to the stripping of all the layers of self-centeredness. It helps us correct and realign our point of view, it helps us to get to the point where we truly can let go of all the restrictions of which we are not aware. Until then we don’t realize the restrictions, our self-made rules and all the burdens that come with the “I am this”, “I am that” kind of self. Relinquishing this “I am self”, becoming free of that kind of fixated self allows us let a new self arise and opens up the possibility for a new and completely fresh experience of what it means to be in the moment, what it means to have a “self”, what it means to be able to give birth to a new self in the moment when you stick that chip in your mouth.

And even though it is the self that tastes, even though it is the self that benefits from the nutrition, that experiences it, it is a different self that arises spontaneously. A self that arises spontaneously is at the same time a self that has just awakened. Arising and awakening, disappearing and dying – all of that is very important in this practice, and it can also give you a hint what awakened means. In order to be awake there needs to be a self, but it needs to be a self that has freshly arisen and that freely exists and without any resistance disappears.

Comings and comings, goings and goings: kiwame kitari, kiwame sarubeshi. Even Kozen Daito says that in his last admonition: look at the comings, look at the goings. Then the key is that even the one who looks disappears and comings are just comings, goings are just goings. It is counter intuitive, against our logical sense that restriction would lead to freedom, but as I have said many times before: true freedom is the freedom to be even free from one’s own little self, to be free from any kind of judgment, any kind of burden, any kind of expectation. It is okay to be strict with yourself, but only if we are not attached to strictness. Being strict is the preparation for truly letting go; however, as soon as that strictness, as soon as that discipline solidifies and becomes like a congealed hardened behavior, then it is not of its own dynamic nature anymore, then it is just another type of fixation.

So – I suppose we have a few more years to go before we reach 75 years of practice when we can relax a little bit. Every period of zazen, every period of kinhin, every chanting, every sarei, every morning getting up, brushing your teeth, washing your face, having your coffee, relieving yourself, going to work,  meeting strangers, getting tired after that, all of these activities are the opportunities for that letting go and for that letting arise, letting awaken a self that is not tied to any of these moments.


Dharma Talk, December 2011

Good evening.

Tonight I would like to speak briefly about a few aspects of formal Zen practice. Most of this talk has evolved from a discussion that followed the last Dai-sesshin, which the vice-abbess Shuko and I attended. The aspect of formal Zen practice I would like to speak about tonight is the form and the rules.

Well, here we go, there is the word “rules”. It often seems that in Dai-sesshin or when we come here in the evening, that there are certain rules that we are expected to follow. In the very strict formal set up of a Dai-sesshin these rules are enforced by the Jikijitsu staff in the Zendo, they are enforced by the Densu in the dining hall, directing the Handaikan, the servers, telling them what to do when they are not following the preset protocol. In the same way the Joko from the Jikijitsu staff corrects participants even during the meals. The word “rule” and correction seem to go hand-in-hand, and I remember that early in my training senior monks sometimes complained that “you don’t make enough corrections”.

What the vice-abbess and I discussed was, of course, that formal Zen practice is not about “rules”. It became evident to us that there is a very apparent lack of understanding in a good portion of the ordained Sangha as well as in many Zen students in general, a lack of insight why these rules were put in place and with what intention. What I would like you to begin to see is not the rule itself but the intent that stands behind it. Much of this goes back to a teaching that I have spoken about in the past that I received from my first Zen teacher Genro Seiun in Austria. Genro taught his students three principles that he always stressed:

Number one: “don’t leave traces”; number two: “don’t waste anything,” and number three “create harmony where harmony is lacking, maintain harmony where harmony is manifest.” Even these three principles can be further reduced – to a fundamental intention of formal Zen practice.

We have to ask ourselves “Why?” What is the intention that we wear the same robes when we go to retreat? Why is it that we all get up at the same time? Why is it that we all go to the same meal, at the same time, eat the same food, get up from the sitting platform when there is a clap, sit down when there is the strike of the bell, and why we don’t move during Zazen – we try to be very, very quiet during the meditation period. We also chant together the same words – why all of that?

The first thought that comes to mind may be that this is what spiritual boot camp is like, and to a certain degree there is some truth to that. It is a boot camp in the sense that your ego is sent to boot camp. Many of these rules and setups are there to make your ego brush against them, to create friction, so that we can actually identify this I-am-self and begin learn about it. Of course the ultimate goal is to transcend this I-am-self, that we no longer give in to every desire that this I-am-self tells us. Not moving is to not unconditionally affirm the urge to move which the I-am-self creates over time. When there is an itch, we learn to not unconditionally raise our hand and scratch: this is a manifestation of not unconditionally affirming.

There are other aspects in the formal practice which do not have to do with giving up one’s perceived free will, one’s own being different, one’s own constant self-affirmation. There are actions that actively bring together subject and object, that bring together the group and allow individuality to dissolve in a different way. For example Gassho, hands palm-to-palm, the bringing together of the left and the right hand, and completely becoming one with that action. At that moment, not just as the individual who becomes one with the action, but as a group – we all act at the same time, share the same moment and activity. We bow together, simultaneously, at the same time, during Kinhin we walk in step. All of these activities are there to broaden, to widen the understanding of what the self is, to experience that through the group practice. In the end, when you go and you see the Zen master in Sanzen, and you manage to manifest zero, after the manifestation of no-self, the Koan that you might be given is “How do you recognize everything? How do you recognize flower? How do you recognize mountain?” Of course the intellectual, the wordy answer would be “This is myself .” Letting that I-am-self fall away is the intention and formal practice and rules offer the opportunities for us to be exposed to the working of that I-am-self, to notice it and to really, truly experience what its limits are. By actively pursuing that in the formal practice we get closer and closer to the point where we actually transcend those limits and manifest true self: True self that does not leave anything out, that embraces everything. The formal practice with its “rules” is meant to promote just that.

During the meals we don’t scrape our bowl with the spoon, not just because there is a rule that says “Don’t scrape your bowl with your spoon.” Well, if you can scrape quietly so that nobody can hear it, it’s perfectly okay. The intention behind that rule, or a correction made to that effect would be something like “Don’t draw any unnecessary attention to that I-am-self, let it fall away.” And of course meals – meals are a place where we go and we fulfill the needs of a self, of an individual organism: we sustain the existence of a separate entity that requires nutrition, requires food. This inherently self-centered activity and need makes it even more important at a formal meal to fully understand the intention and to try to manifest that “not being unconditionally attached to the I-am-self.” Corrections in the formal context are meant to remind us of that, however, when the one making the correction doesn’t have the right understanding, when the one hearing the correction doesn’t have the right understanding, then it merely turns into a two-dimensional, flat process that is to no benefit to either party.

Therefore let’s always keep in mind that when we practice here together, that formal practice is meant to manifest the activity of shrinking, of becoming less. In sitting we try to manifest smaller, smaller, smaller, smallest possible; less I-am, less I-am, less I-am, until the I-am completely disappears. Ultimately this will enable us, when it is time to get up, to follow the activity of bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, until the ultimate expansion has been reached. While we sit, when this I-am-self disappears, we can experience that very activity in our breathing: going from the ultimately large to the ultimately small, back to the ultimately large, back and forth – without will and desire, without the need of the manifestation of that limited I-am-self.

Let’s keep this always in mind as the true intention for any rule, for any formality that we have when we practice together. Once we mature in our practice enough to do that, there will be no doubt, no fear, no hesitation, and we’ll be able to give ourselves fully to the manifestation of the present moment.