‘Students cannot gain enlightenment simply because they retain their preconceptions. Without knowing who taught them these things, they consider the mind to be thought and perceptions, and do not believe it when they are told that the mind is plants and trees. They think of the Buddha as having marvelous distinguishing marks, with radiance shining from his body, and are shocked when they are told he is tile and pebble. Such preconceptions were not taught to them by their parents, but students come to believe them for no other reason than that they have heard about them from others over a long period of time. Therefore, when the Buddhas and the Patriarchs categorically state that the mind is plants and trees, revise your preconceptions and understand plants and trees as mind. If the Buddha is said to be tile and pebble, consider tile and pebble as the Buddha. If you change your basic preconceptions, you will be able to gain the Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

The Language of Ritual

Now that I am no longer at Zen Center, I start to miss some of the ceremonies I have participated in over the years. I think it is natural for human beings to crave and respond to rituals marking particular stages of life – and death – and there was always something comforting for me about being immersed in so many different ritual events.

If you are reading the blog regularly, you may have noticed that I have been starting the week with a story from Transmitting the Light, and, without wishing to suggest that there are no more good stories to use from the book, I thought of beginning a different Monday series, with phrases from various ceremonies, some of which pop up in my head on occasion.

People often ask me about having my head shaved, the main question being whether it a requirement for a priest. I had a buzz cut for several years before I started practising, but shaving it completely is a different thing altogether. Mine has been shaved for almost seven years now, and I expect to keep it that way, though I wouldn’t make any promises around that. When people ask why it is done, I think of a line from the shukke tokudo (home-leaving ordination):

Cutting off the hair is cutting the root of clinging.
As soon as the root of clinging is cut, your original body appears.

There is another verse that stuck with me when I was first ordained, the one we were asked to contemplate while an older dharma brother shaved our heads – all except the patch that was left for the ceremonial shaving – the evening before the ordination. It was the ‘all’ in the second line that underlined the deep purpose of our practice as priests:

Shaving off the hair,
Dedicated to all beings,
Dropping off all worldly desires,
Completely entering Nirvana.

The Practice of Patience

Some weeks ago, my best friend from my radio days in London put me in touch with a colleague of his who was coming over to San Francisco to do some filming. Initially she was just after location advice and local knowledge, but then she asked if I knew anyone who had a van and could drive the crew around while they were here; I offered my services, as my schedule was basically open for those days. When she asked if I had any particular expertise or skills for dealing with film crews, I replied that as a zen priest, I have an abundance of patience.
Anyone who has spent any time around filming will know how time-consuming it is to get everything to be to the crew’s satisfaction, and this was no different, even with just two camera operators and one subject (one reason I was happy to stick to radio in my previous career was the comparative simplicity of execution, both in and out of the studio). I got to spend many hours sitting in the rented truck while re-takes were done, different cameras set up and footage reviewed. None of that was especially challenging, and since the people were all delightful to hang out with, and the locations picturesque (I had my camera with me at all times), the long days were not a problem.
For me, the main practice element was being in charge of a large pick-up truck. When I picked them up at the airport, the English crew were astonished at the size of the vehicle, though by American standards it did not stand out – living at Tassajara I had driven trucks of that size on many occasions, so was quite used to them, though I remain wary about parallel parking.
Driving the visitors up from the airport, they got to experience not only the beauty of the city – the sun was going down as we crossed over to the East Bay, but the subsequent longueurs as we sat in typical rush hour traffic for the next hour. It was suggested that we institute a little forfeit game, whereby anyone who complained about the state of the traffic had to tell the team a joke, and I quickly exhausted my limited repertoire.
The hardest part of the day for me was driving back after dropping the crew off at their hotel, some way off in the East Bay, starting to feel tired after the hours of driving and waiting. I felt challenged not just by the fast-paced heavy freeway traffic (though I was very glad that almost everyone reduced speed when we were hit by those heavy rains) but also by negotiating the frequently stagnant lines coming over the Bay Bridge and into the city, and then finally by looping around my neighbourhood trying to find an easy spot to park the behemoth. In the end, it was never as bad as I feared, though I noticed how much more relaxed I felt leaving early in the morning over the weekend when there was nobody on the roads, and when I came back to quickly find an overnight parking place just where I needed one to be.
The crew managed to wrap the shooting right on schedule, which allowed me, through some miracle of the traffic, to get to my small group on time on Monday evening. After I had left the truck back at the airport on Tuesday morning, I was aware not only of a nice sense of completion, but also of relief that I was not responsible for a vehicle any more; it did seem to be such an unwieldy thing to be taking around the city, for all its convenience.
One downside for me was that, apart from a small amount of walking, I did not get any meaningful exercise for the duration, so since then I have been keen to get out and about on my bike and on foot, weather notwithstanding; coming after a less-than-active December as well, I feel I am almost starting from scratch, and have to keep my patience to the fore for that process.

Loading up the truck
Looming morning skies in the East Bay hills
Turned out nice again
DSCF0895Catching the last of the light.

Suzuki Roshi

‘To exist in big mind is an act of faith, which is different from the usual faith of believing in a particular idea or being. It is to believe that something is supporting us and supporting all our activities including thinking mind and emotional feelings. All these things are supported by something big that has no form or colour. It is impossible to know what it is, but something exists there, something that is neither material nor spiritual. Something like that always exists, and we exist in that space. That is the feeling of pure being.’ (Not Always So)

Enkyo O’Hara

‘Each moment of your life holds the richest treasure, and at that instant, you can decide your response. You can make the decision clearly because you’ve trained yourself with the intimate practice of moment-to-moment awareness.’ (Most Intimate)


‘Seventeen monks, traveling in search of enlightenment, came to visit the famous teacher Master Yangshan Huiji. Before climbing the mountain to see him, they stayed night in the temple guesthouse, and that evening they discussed the Sixth Patriarch’s koan: “What moves is not the wind nor the banner, but your mind.”
The nun Miaoxin was director of the guesthouse, a responsibility that had been given to her by Yangshan. She overheard the monks’ conversation, and said to her attendants, “What a shame that these seventeen blind donkeys have worn out so many pairs of straw sandals on their pilgrimages without even getting close to the Dharma.”
One of the nuns told the monks what Miaoxin had said. The monks were humbled. They were sincere in their search for enlightenment, and so they did not dismiss Miaoxin’s criticism as the impertinence of a woman. Instead they bowed respectfully and approached her.
Miaoxin said, “What moves is not the wind, nor the banner, nor your mind.”
All seventeen monks immediately awakened. They became Miaoxin’s disciples and returned home without climbing the mountain to meet Yangshan.’ (The Hidden Lamp)

From Grace Schireson’s commentary: ‘She was unimpressed by their rehash of someone else’s insight, just as we might be bored by the Monday morning quarterbacking from spectators with no skin in the game. Why were these monks rehashing a centuries-old game? The real game is alive; it is not a discussion from the sidelines. Miaoxin had her own moves. She didn’t need to rehash the Sixth Ancestor’s, and she had the courage to enter the field.’

Years ago at Tassajara, one of Grace’s students recounted a teaching she had just received from Grace – it also contained a football analogy, and was ferociously alive; it became a great learning for me also.


‘I went to the Temple of the Nature of Reality in Kuang Province. There I found the doctrinal master Yin-tsung lecturing on the Nirvana Sutra.
At the time there was a wind blowing and the pennants were flapping. One monk said, “The wind is moving.” Another said, “The pennants are moving.” They argued on and on, so I came forward and said, “It is not the wind moving, it is not the pennants moving; it is your minds moving.”
Everyone was startled. Yin-tsung invited me to the front seat and questioned me closely about the inner meaning. He saw that my speech was simple and my reasoning was accurate; and that this did not come from writings.
Yin-tsung said, “Workman, you are certainly not an ordinary man. For a long time I have heard that the robe and teaching of Huang-mei came south. Might that not be you, workman?”
I said, “I dare not presume.”
Now Yin-tsung bowed and asked me to show the community the robe and bowl that had been handed down to me. Yin-tsung also asked, “How is the legacy of Huang-mei demonstrated and transmitted?”
I said, “There is no demonstration or transmission; it is only a matter of seeing nature, not a matter of meditation or liberation.”
Yin-tsung asked, “Why is it not a matter of meditation and liberation?”
I said, “Because these two things are not Buddhism; Buddhism is a non-dualistic teaching.”

This is one of the most famous stories in zen; demonstrating how understanding is available to anyone – Hui-neng was a woodcutter’s son – and that authentic transmission from teacher to student was an essential part of establishing zen in China.
Be careful not to assume that when he says that meditation and liberation are not Buddhism, he is advising against them. He is cautioning, as Dogen does in many places, against assuming that those are the sole methods to understand or ‘acquire’ Buddhism.
Typing out the story this time, the phrase that stuck for me was, ‘They argued on and on.’ Never a good idea.

Transmitting the Light

‘The eighteenth patriarch was the Venerable Gayashata. He served the Venerable Sanghanandi. One time, he heard the sound of the wind blowing the bronze bells in the temple. Sanghanandi asked Gayashata, “Are the bells ringing or is the wind ringing?” Gayashata replied, “It is neither the bells nor the wind; it is my Mind that is ringing.” The Venerable Sanghanandi asked, “And who is the Mind?” Gayashata replied, “Because both are silent.” Sanghanandi said, “Excellent, excellent! Who but you will succeed to my Way?”

From Keizan’s commentary: ‘People hearing this story all get it wrong, saying, “It is certainly not the wind ringing, it is only the Mind ringing, and this is why Gayashata answered the way he did.” When the universe was still in its primordial, undivided state, can you say it is not the ringing of bells? Therefore Gayashata said, “It is my Mind that is ringing.”…
If you want to understand what this Mind is, you must understand, “It is my Mind ringing.” The form of this ringing is as lofty as soaring mountains and as deep as the ocean. The luxuriant flourishing of grass and trees, and the clarity of your eyes are all forms of the Mind’s ringing.’

Perhaps we will have some of the subsequent versions of this story to follow. In the meantime, I wonder why Sanghanandi thought he could call it ‘my’ Way?

Katagiri Roshi

‘The past has already gone, so it does not exist. The future has not yet come, so it also does not exist. So the past and the future are nothing, no-time. Then is the present all that exists? No, even though there is a present moment, strictly speaking the present is nothing., because in a moment it is gone. So the present is also nothing, zero, no-time, no-present, no form of the present. But that nothingness is very important.
Nothingness means total functioning, just functioning energy. When the present is no-time, it is interconnected with all sentient beings in the peace and harmony of timelessness. But when nothingness functions, there is a pivot, and it becomes the present. At that precise point – the intersection of time and space, which is called right now, right here – all sentient beings come together into the moment and a vast world comes up: past, present, future, earth, trees, planets, moons and suns. In one moment, every possible aspect of human life, everything we can be, spreads out, unfolds, and a huge world comes up That is called interdependent co-origination. Life is always at the pivot of nothingness; it is always right now, right here. Right now, right here is the eternal moment of the real present.’ (Each Moment is the Universe)

In this book, Katagiri takes Dogen’s understanding of time and puts his own spin on it. I re-read this over the summer, having struggled to get anything out of it a few years ago, and I think I follow what he is saying. I do know, however, that it is pure understanding of how things are.


‘All buddha-tathagatas together have been simply transmitting wondrous dharma and actualizing anuttara samyak sambodhi for which there is an unsurpassable, unfabricated, wondrous method. This wondrous dharma, which has been transmitted only from buddha to buddha without deviation, has as its criterion jijuyu zanmai.
For disporting oneself freely in this samadhi, practicing zazen in an upright posture is the true gate. Although this dharma is abundantly inherent in each person, it is not manifested without practice, it is not attained without realization. When you let go, it fills your hands; it is not within the boundary of one or many. When you try to speak, it fills your mouth; it is not limited to vertical or horizontal. Buddhas continuously dwell in and maintain this dharma, yet no trace of conceptualization remains. Living beings constantly function in and use this dharma, yet it does not appear in their perception.
The wholehearted practice of the Way that I am talking about allows all things to exist in enlightenment and enables us to live out oneness in the path of emancipation. When we break through the barrier and drop off all limitations, we are no longer concerned with conceptual distinctions. (The Wholehearted Way)

If you are thinking this sounds somewhat familiar, you would be right. This is the Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Leighton translation, which I have known for longer. I did, then, find this and the Shobogenzo Zuimonki while unpacking boxes of books, and was glad of it. Besides, I could read these words every morning and not get tired of them.