‘Dongshan asked Yunyan, “When I want to see it face to face, what should I do?”
Yunyan said, “Ask someone who’s done it.”
Dongshan said, “That’s what I’m doing.”
Yunyan said, “What can I say to you?”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

I don’t remember ever seeing this dialogue before, though I have been reading about Dongshan recently, thanks to Taigen’s book Just This Is It. Taigen spells out that even though Dongshan (Tozan in Japanese) became one of the founders of the Soto school, and wrote the incomparable Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, it took him a while to get there. Many stories are handed down of him questioning his teachers and not getting it. This is a classic exchange; Dongshan plays it straight, falling right into Yunyan’s trap. Probably Yunyan knew that Dongshan would figure it out for himself eventually.


Shodo Harada

‘We sit and become clear, free of obstructive thoughts and fear. This is the very important essence of Zen, but it does not mean that we should become like a rock or a tree. We must not make this mistake. “Never abiding in any place, yet manifesting continually.” When the sixth patriarch heard these words from the Diamond Sutra, he became deeply enlightened. We cannot say that the mind is empty and then try to guard that state of conceptualized emptiness. True emptiness does not arise from a preconceived notion of nothing at all. It is what comes forth when the mind holds on to nothing, when in each moment and in each situation we can function freely. Yet we do not move and change independently and individually; we do not act pointlessly and without meaning.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

Shohaku Okumura

‘If we did something good yesterday, we should forget it and face what confronts us today. What we did yesterday is no longer real. We cannot be proud of what we did in the past or think we are a great person because we did such and such. Nor should we be caught up in our mistakes. We let go of them and start again. We start right from this posture in silence, from the ever-fresh life force that is free from any defilement. Moment by moment, we start again and again.’ (Living by Vow)

A New Shuso Crop

I have written about shuso ceremonies at Zen Center before, and we are in the spring season for them right now. I intend to make the journeys to Tassajara and Green Gulch in the next couple of weeks; on Saturday, having gone to the center in the morning to offer the zazen instruction, I returned in the afternoon to see one of my best Zen Center friends, Siobhan, take her place on the dharma seat, and flourish in the role.
It was a day of community, on one side for the many people who had been sitting sesshin together, and on the other, a gathering of people who have known Siobhan over the years. There were a number of people I was very happy to see, who I spent time with at Tassajara and City Center more than a dozen years ago, and it was a testimony to Siobhan’s great capacity for friendship that she was able to draw such a crowd.

As I mentioned in the congratulations, apart from being a very loyal and honest friend, she has been like my older sister through all the years I have lived in the US; the first time I visited Tassajara, back in the summer of 2000, a couple of months after arriving, was driving her old Honda Civic down from Berkeley to the monastery, where she was staying. Some vivid memories of that trip have stayed with me: although I had driven in the US before, particularly eighteen months earlier when I had driven from Miami to DC and back visiting my two best friends from the BBC who were working in those cities (and marveling at the distance involved), driving a manual car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was still a novelty to me, and, having eased myself onto the slow-moving freeway in Berkeley, I had a moment of panic when the traffic suddenly freed up as we passed the junction to the Bay Bridge; in a moment the speed went from about twenty to sixty-five, people were crossing lanes seemingly at random, and I had selected third gear rather than fifth, leaving the engine racing as I tried to cope.
That trip was also my first time on the Tassajara Road; after a mile or so I articulated that it was not as bad as I had heard, and was told, just wait… I also remember crowding into one of the small rooms in the upper barn with a bunch of people and being a little taken aback at how rudimentary the accommodation was; when I lived there subsequently, the same simplicity became normal and charming. Certainly, twenty-four hours there on that first visit planted the seed for my wanting to return.

With both of us being English, Siobhan and I have cultural affinities that have helped cement our friendship, and I also recall the great pleasure of spending time with her in London one lovely summer’s day when we were both visiting at the same time, enjoying a city we both loved, even if neither of us ever intend to live there again, since our lives had taken similarly different turns.

As so often at Zen Center gatherings, I took a lot of pictures, to document the coming together of so many practitioners, though most of them are never going to end up online. Here is one of Siobhan after the ceremony, on the right, with her benji Terri.

The redbud in the courtyard, planted to commemorate Blanche’s abbacy, was in full bloom.


Ta Hui

‘By keeping mindful of the matter of birth and death, your mental technique is already correct. Once the mental technique is correct, then you won’t need to use effort to clear your mind as you respond to circumstances in your daily activities. When you don’t actively try to clear out your mind, then you won’t go wrong; since you don’t go wrong, correct mindfulness stands out alone. When correct mindfulness stands out alone, inner truth adapts to phenomena; when inner truth adapts to events and things, events and things come to fuse with their inner truth. When phenomena fuse with their inner truth, you save power; when you feel the saving, this is the empowerment of studying the Path. In gaining power you save unlimited power; in saving power you gain unlimited power.’ (Swampland Flowers)

It was interesting to follow up my reading of Hongzhi with this book, as they both come from the place of simple understanding. Ta Hui’s explanations are a little more prosaic than the evocative poetry of Hongzhi, but I love the image of saving power, especially as it translates to this day and age. When a student recently asked me how the Genjo Koan could help him in his everyday life, one of the images that came up was that it makes us more energy efficient: when you focus on what is, rather than what was, what should be, what might be, and what we are afraid of happening, you don’t need to expend so much mental energy; this can be a virtuous circle, just as Ta Hui lays out here.


‘We all have the clear, wondrously bright field from the beginning. Many lifetimes of misunderstanding come only from distrust, hindrance, and screens of confusion that we create in a scenario of isolation. With boundless wisdom journey beyond this, forgetting accomplishments. Straightforwardly abandon stratagems and take on responsibility. Having turned yourself around, accepting your situation, if you set foot on the path, spiritual energy will marvelously transport you.’ (Cultivating the Empty Field)