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)

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.