Shohaku Okumura

‘Reality unfolds only within this present moment, and yet our mind cannot grasp this present moment.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)

Just think about it – or rather, don’t.

Shundo Aoyama

‘Happiness that depends on what you acquire or become is only conditional happiness, not true happiness. No matter what happens, it is all right. If you become ill, then just be ill; if you are poor, then just be poor. Unless you accept your present circumstances, happiness cannot be attained. To face any situation and accept it with open arms if it cannot be avoided molds the attitude enabling you to see that such a wonderful way of living is possible. That is indeed something of consequence. As soon as this attitude is achieved, you have reached paradise, anytime, anywhere, and in any circumstances.’ (Zen Seeds)

I know people read passages like this and take it to mean quietude, passively accepting whatever, not reaching for anything, but I think it is a little more subtle than that. In my experience, understanding the limits of what you can control, and accepting the reality of what is happening is a way to real freedom. Ultimately, we will all have to do that when we are face to face with death.


‘Fundamentally all people are fully satisfied, each and every one with wholeness fulfilled. Why are the weeds seven feet deep throughout the Dharma hall? Do you want to understand this situation?
After a pause Dogen said: Flowers fall in our attachments, weeds grow following our aversions.’ (Extensive Record, Discourse 51)

Sunday Poem

The true Dharma Body of the Buddha
Is like empty space.
Responding to things, it manifests its form.
It is like the moon in water.

(The Sutra of Golden Radiance)

What I think about when I am riding

It is a commonplace these days that our attention is the most valuable thing we can offer. The internet is driven and monetised by the desire for the attention of an eyeball on an ad for just a moment. We talk about constant distraction, what it does to our brains and to our capacity for empathy and connection; we say we crave the relaxation of an offline experience, but unless we go somewhere where we have no choice, we seem to need to be given permission to actually carry this out.

When I was learning to drive, more than thirty years ago, my father, not known at the best of times for his great empathy towards fellow travellers, told me that the best course of action was that to assume that everyone else on the road is an idiot who is trying to kill you. He raced vintage cars for fun, and took driving very seriously, to the extent that we never listened to the radio when we were on the road as he found it too distracting. I took his advice to the best of my ability as a clueless and somewhat reckless teenager, but it became even more pertinent a few years later when I started riding my bike around London. Three decades later, my main tactic for survival in urban riding is to watch drivers very closely. I listen to cars behind me, have a sixth sense for guessing that someone just ahead of me is about to turn right or pull into a parking space and cut me off, but mostly I watch drivers’ heads. And more and more, what I see is drivers looking down at their laps. When I was riding one time, in one of the outer parts of the city, a driver was actually typing on a laptop as she drove by me, and she seemed surprised that I would be upset by this. I imagine that mostly people are checking maps, but regularly I see them scrolling at stops, and often enough, actually typing while rolling. Whatever they are doing, it means that they are paying less attention to the complex moving parts around them. Mostly I want to say to them, ‘Can’t you just put it down for a moment?’

Within this there is a misguided hierarchy of what deserves our attention. Because so much of driving can be carried out automatically, we can assume it does not need our full ongoing attention. If something new pops up in our feed, or we are getting a test asking us how soon we will be somewhere, we are now attuned to paying attention to that instead. This instinct does not take into account the innumerable variables of moving through a city environment. Whenever I am in a car in the city, with less visibility and restricted sound cues, I find it so much harder to keep track of pedestrians and cyclists than I can do from my position on a bike. So I constantly work to stay focused, and I also make sure I am abiding by the posted speed limit, not just as an awareness practice, but also to work on my kindness and empathy for other more vulnerable people on and around the road.

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This graphic, from the SFMTA, is sobering.


‘Many people today think that the making of statues and the building of pagodas cause Buddhism to prosper. This, too, is not so. No one gained the Way by erecting lofty buildings that have gleaming jewels and gold adornments. This merely is a good action that gives blessings by bringing lay treasures into the Buddhist world. Although small causes can have large effects, Buddhism does not prosper if monks engage in such activities. If you learn one phrase of the Buddha’s teaching or practice zazen even for a moment in a thatched hut or even under a tree, Buddhism will truly flourish.
I am now trying to build a monastery, and am asking people for contributions. While this requires much effort on my part, I cannot believe that it necessarily stimulates Buddhism. It is just that nowadays there is no one who wants to study Buddhism, and I have much time on my hands. Since there is no place now for them to study, I want to provide a place for students to practice zazen, should any deluded followers appear who might wish to establish a connection with Buddhism. If my plans do not work out, I will have no regrets. If I can put up just one pillar, I won’t care if people see it later and think that I had a plan but was unable to carry it out.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

In this collection, Dogen is talking directly to his assembly of monks, and the flavour is quite different to his style in the fascicles of the  Shobogenzo. This talk offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse, showing Dogen wondering if he can establish a viable community, just as he also talked about in the Bendowa.

Suzuki Roshi

‘To understand reality as a direct experience is the reason we practice zazen, and the reason we study Buddhism. Through the study of Buddhism, you will understand your human nature, your intellectual faculty, and the truth present in your human activity. And you can take this human nature of yours into consideration when you seek to understand reality. But only by the actual practice of Zen can you experience reality directly and understand in their true sense the various statements made by your teacher or by Buddha. In a strict sense, it is not possible to speak about reality. Nevertheless, if you are a Zen student, you have to understand it directly through your master’s words.
Your master’s direct statement may not be only in words; his behavior is likewise his way of expressing himself. In Zen we put emphasis on demeanor, or behavior. By behavior we do not mean a particular way that you ought to behave, but rather the natural expression of yourself. We emphasize straightforwardness. You should be true to your feelings, and to your mind, expressing yourself without any reservations. This helps the listener to understand more easily.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

In my last visit to Wilbur, I had plenty of quiet time to read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Often I stick to the first fifty pages or so, but this time I was reading the second half of the book, and came across many fresh-to-me statements. This passage seemed perfect to bring to the koan class, so I included it last week, and it helped bring about a pretty lively conversation. Of course it could be argued that just about any paragraph of zen writing could illuminate a study of koans; looking again at this passage from Shohaku, which I had selected before the class started, I thought about bringing it to the final class tonight.

Blanche Hartman

‘A monk shaving the head is symbolic of renunciation. But really what is to be renounced is self-clinging, so shaving the head is just to remind us to renounce whatever it is that we cling to, whatever it is that we attach to. We need to let it go, let our life flow through our hands like a river and not try to grab some piece of it and hold on to it. Just to be present with it and find out how to express our vow in this moment, in this circumstance, right where we are right now, instead of trying to figure out how to make it the way we want so it’ll be just what we always dreamed of. It won’t be. There will be too many surprises.
If we’re open to embracing the surprises as they arise, then there will be inconceivable joy. If we fuss and fume and say, “This isn’t what I expected, ” then there will be inconceivable misery. Just to welcome our life as it arrives moment after moment, to meet it as fully as we can, being as open to it as we can, being as ready for whatever arises as we can, and meeting it wholeheartedly, this is renunciation – this is leaving behind all of our preferences, all of our ideas and notions and schemes. Just meeting life as it is.’ (Seeds for a Boundless Life)

Just to note that ‘inconceivable joy’ was Blanche’s dharma name – Zenkei – and that I cannot help but hear her cadences and her exhortation when I read the words in the book.

Toni Packer

‘Sitting quietly, doing nothing, not knowing what is next and not concerned with what was or what may be next, a new mind is operating that is not connected with the conditioned past and yet perceives it and understands the whole mechanism of conditioning. It is the unmasking of the self that is nothing but masks – images, memories of past experiences, fears, hopes, and the ceaseless demand to be something or to become somebody. This no mind that is no-mind is free from duality – there is no doer in it and nothing to be done.
The moment duality ceases, energy that has been tied up in conflict and division begins to function wholly, intelligently, caringly. The moment self-centeredness takes over the mind, energy is blocked and diverted in fearing and wanting; one is isolated in one’s pleasures, pain, and sorrow. The moment this process is revealed in the light of impartial awareness, energy gathers and flows freely, undividedly, all-embracingly.
Awareness, insight, enlightenment, wholeness – whatever words one may pick to label what cannot be caught in words – is not the effect of a cause. Activity does not destroy it and sitting does not create it. It isn’t a product of anything – no technique, method, environment, tradition, posture, activity or nonactivity can create it. It is there, uncreated, freely functioning in wisdom and love, when self-centered conditioning is clearly revealed in all its grossness and subtleness and defused in the light of understanding.’ (The Work of this Moment)

Shohaku Okumura

‘In the reality of Buddha’s life, we are connected with and supported by all things. The self is not the subject of reality and other things are not its objects; we are in fact one with all things in the entire universe, and this reality is itself enlightenment. Enlightenment is not something that we can possess or experience. We cannot, because of a certain experience that happened under certain circumstances, say, “I am an enlightened person.” If we judge an experience and say “I had an enlightenment experience,” we have already separated “I” from the reality of all things, when in fact there is no “enlightenment” that is separate from this reality. Rather than striving for a particular experience or goal, we should simply keep practicing without judgment or evaluation. This means approaching all that we do without selfish desire, without even the desire for enlightenment; to practise in this way is to manifest universal reality. This is difficult, of course, because even when we are helping others or making sacrifices for them, we can usually find, if we search our hearts and minds deeply enough, an ego-centered motivation for our activity. This is true even in our zazen practice.
What complicated beings we are! It is impossible to make simple judgments about the egocentricity of our actions. Yet as the Buddha’s children practicing with our bodhisattva vows, we must keep trying to help others and free ourselves of selfishness. Try as we may, however, we will never be able to declare, “Now I am completely free from selfish desires.” All we can do is to try in each moment, to practice the Buddha Way; we just keep opening the hand of thought and continuing to practice. There is no time when one can say, “I’m finished – now I have finally reached the level of an enlightened person.” As Dogen Zenji says, our practice is endless.’ (Realizing Genjokoan)

I feel this should be handed out to everyone who starts a zazen practice, though of course our minds are always going to forget how true this is, and keep grasping for things that are beyond the reach of the mind.