Suzuki Roshi

‘If you cling to an idea you create, like a self, or an objective reality, you will be lost in the objective world that you create with your mind. You are creating things one after another, so there is no end. There may be various worlds that you are creating, and to create and see many things is very interesting, but you should not be lost in your creations.’ (Not Always So)

Unlike Ta Hui, Suzuki Roshi does not talk of cutting off hands, but the notion is the same.

Katagiri Roshi

‘If I say, “When you do zazen you become buddha,” that is beautiful, but it is still words, still doctrine, still the moon in the water. Put it aside and just do zazen.’ (Returning to Silence)

Mitsu Suzuki

Learning to be “nothing special”
day by day –
autumn deepens

Another book that I had a chance to read while I was in England was A White Tea Bowl, which was in the shelves at the venue used by the Hebden Bridge group. I met Okusan only once, at Tassajara about fifteen years ago, but I remember being impressed by her energy as she did her daily exercises, already in her mid-eighties. While I am sure there is more flavour in her haiku in Japanese, the translations are delicate, and here we have another angle on “nothing special”.

Ta Hui

‘In my place there’s no doctrine to be given to people. I just wrap up the case on the basis of the facts. It’s just as if you bring a crystal pitcher which you cherish like anything, and as soon as I see it, I smash it for you. And if you bring a wish-fulfilling gem, I’ll take it away from you. Seeing you come this way, I’ll cut off your two hands for you.’ (Swampland Flowers)

I think the old Chinese teachers had more scope to sound dramatically brutal, but hopefully the training is still the same: let go of whatever you think it important. Keep letting go. Let go of the letting go. What do you have then? Who are you then? Let that go. And so on…

Something Special

This post first appeared on my Patreon page:

Way-seeking mind talks are a common occurrence at Zen Center these days. I understand that originally only the shuso, or head monk got to give one: it was their first opportunity to sit on the dharma seat, and talking about your own life and how you came to practice makes for a gentle way to begin your zen public speaking career. I have heard many students give way-seeking mind talks over the years at City Center and at Tassajara, and it always offers a chance for connection to see people examining their lives in an open and honest way. My rule of thumb is that I will only ever remember two or three details of a person’s story, but the feeling stays with you.

Many years ago, a young guy came to stay at City Center for a practice period, perhaps two. He was a gentle person, the sort you would instinctively assume to have a good heart. What I remember him saying is that when he was growing up, he had a belief that he would become someone special, like a rock star or someone well-known; now he was an adult, he was still adjusting to the idea that he was not someone special.

I remember listening to him and seeing the disappointment alive in his expression. We all grow up thinking we are special, or that we want to be; perhaps our parents and care-givers made a point of telling us we were, imbuing us with a confidence in the notion, perhaps they completely neglected to do so and we are determined to prove them wrong.

In the typical zen way of looking at the world, we are all completely special, and yet none of us is special. We are all special because each of us is a remarkable unique aggregation of life force, karmic conditions and immanent buddha nature; none of us is special because we all have these characteristics in our lives. If we want special things to happen in our lives, such as becoming ‘successful’ or famous, most likely we are destined to disappointment. Our training would have us question what success looks like anyway. Material gains? Spiritual stability? Freedom from suffering? Which would you sooner feel ‘successful’ at? Just being alive is pretty special to me.

Shodo Harada

‘In Zen  we do not compliment and flatter and build someone up. In Zen we teach the student to do what needs to be done.’  (The Path to Bodhidharma)

Sekkei Harada

‘One must abandon all learning when practicing Zen. Our practice must be such that each breath is everything; there must be liberation in the inhalation of just one breath. Yet this is not something easily noticed. And because it often remains unnoticed, inevitably we seek something “special.”  (Unfathomable Depths)

The Sea, The Sea

I managed to miss Storm Ophelia passing across the British Isles last week when I flew out to Portugal, but I certainly felt the effects of Storm Brian at the end of the week. I returned to London on Friday, and had my third visit with the Wimbledon group on Saturday morning. As with Hebden Bridge, the energy and enthusiasm, particularly of Alan the organiser, but of all the members of the sangha, is inspiring, and we had a great discussion of the Fukanzazengi. Afterwards I was picked up by my friend to go and spend a day down on the south coast at their beach chalet. We drove down into a fierce headwind, and took a walk along a spit comprising one part of Chichester Harbour, where we felt the full force of the wind blowing in off the channel, whipping sand along the beach.

Even though the chalet was very snug, it was getting buffeted all night by the gales, which did not make for a great sleep, and the idea of another beach run in the morning did not seem very sensible. It was still nice to be out in the elements, getting a big dose of fresh air, and some sunshine; we started the return journey with a decent waterside pub lunch, and a walk around Bosham, which is, as so many old English villages are, comfortingly pretty and nourishingly historic for me.

I had at least managed three beach runs in Sagres. The first had been rather curtailed by the rain, the second took in both of the town beaches at low tide, and the last on Friday took in the beach closer to the harbour and the cliffs beyond, just as the sky flashed pink with the sunrise.

There were few people out at that time, and up on the cliffs I only had the company of the sea birds, which were large, and the ‘land’ birds, which were all tiny. It brought to mind cliff running in Cornwall, though these paths were very rocky, and at one moment when I tried to look further ahead to determine which way I needed to point myself, I brought to life the line from the Fukanzazengi I had been chewing over (for its echoes of the Harmony of Difference and Equality): ‘If you make one misstep, you stumble past what is directly in front of you.’ And that is why I love running out in nature like that, the fact that speed is less an issue than effort and concentration.

Coming back along the beach, mine were still the only footprints across the hard sand; I resisted the temptation to try to outpace myself and take longer strides, though it can happen that I am more measured on the way out and pushing harder on the way back. This time I was content just to be out on a warm morning in such beautiful surroundings. Ahead of all the traveling to get back to San Francisco, it was a wonderful respite, several days when I was not tracking the passing of time, and had no need to.

I am writing this from the departure lounge at Heathrow, where I am tracking the time before my flight. I was about to write ‘ I have a lot of time to kill’, but I do take pleasure in this transitional space, sometimes people watching, sometimes doing a little meditation (as I often offer as a possibility when I am doing zazen instruction), and this time, seeing if I can wrestle pictures and links into a blog post on my iPad, which can be a real practice of patience…

I also had time on Friday morning for a final walk along an almost empty Tonel beach.

Late afternoon sunshine over Chichester Harbour on Saturday.

Not as warm as Portugal, and much windier, but equally dramatic.

It might not show, but there was a fierce wind whipping off the sea.

Bosham church, posing nicely.


‘Each person naturally receives his allotted share in his life. He need not think of it, he need not search for it; the allotted portion is there. Even if you rush about in search of riches, what happens when death suddenly comes? Students should clear their minds of these non-essential things and concentrate on studying the Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

I may have posted this quote before; certainly I often think about what he says here, and several other times in the talks collected in the Zuimonki. Generally, it is worth bearing in mind that he is addressing his young – and perhaps inexperienced – monks, who might still be coveting more than a bare minimum of food and clothing (the items Dogen is referring to).

A recent article in the New Yorker (the kind of  joined-up thinking that encourages me to maintain my subscription) brought these phrases to mind again. Particularly, in discussing the life of our hunter-gatherer forebears, this paragraph stood out:

‘It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took a Ju/’hoansi only about seventeen hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another nineteen hours were spent on domestic activities and chores. The average caloric intake of the hunter-gatherers was twenty-three hundred a day, close to the recommended amount. At the time these figures were first established, a comparable week in the United States involved forty hours of work and thirty-six of domestic labor. Ju/’hoansi do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, and then stop. They exhibit what Suzman calls “an unyielding confidence” that their environment will provide for their needs.’