Reminders of Impermanence

In my quieter moments I am still spending time keeping Zen Center’s dharma talk offerings up-to-date, as well as trying to fill in some of the gaps from the past few years when people were not doing this so reliably. The other day I decided to look through the website’s listings from previous years – the drop-down menu goes back to 2007, although of course the archive of cassettes and reels goes back to the 1960s (and I am still a part of a project to get all those digitised and available to everybody).
What struck me most forcefully was how many people on the list have died: the first four names on the 2007 list are Jordan Thorn, Steve Stücky, Blanche Hartman and Jana Drakka… there is also Darlene Cohen, Lou Hartman, Daigan Lueck, Lee Lipp, Marvin Mercer.
In a way this is inevitable; in a large community with many senior teachers, some will die over the course of years, though it could be said that most of the above died too soon. I also think of names not represented on that list – Hal Papps who was not a teacher, but a long-time resident when I first arrived, David Coady, and Jerome Petersen, who didn’t give talks in my time, all of whom died in the building while I lived there.
Some of the names on the list are well-known in the zen world; others are not. Marvin was an incredibly unassuming man who completely embodied service without a fuss, David a sweet man who was a pleasure to be around even if he didn’t believe it himself. All of them impacted my practice in some ways, and of course, that means they still do, and in that, they live on.

Gesshin Greenwood

‘Usually in our busy, modern lives there is a list of things we need or want to do to be happy – or that we imagine will make us happy. We need a certain amount of sleep, a breakfast with enough proteins and vitamins, coffee with cream and sugar, the right clothes, a commute that is not too long and full of traffic, good standing at a job that fulfills us; we need love and just the right amount of sex, but not too much .This is what I can the “human fulfillment checklist” – and it is impossible.
It’s impossible because there is always something new and necessary that appears on the horizon. But if we are in a situation where these things are impossible – where the cream and sugar are not there, where the clothes that we feel beautiful in have been replaced by shapeless black robes – then we can begin to act from a place that is beyond our small sense of self, the tiny, bound conceptual cage of who we think we are. When we are stripped of the things we think we need – or, I should say, when we give these things up, gladly and willingly – for long enough, we find, paradoxically, that we have more time and energy for other people, that we have a greater capacity to meet challenging situations with flexibility and grace. But renunciation is a practice that needs to be continuously cultivated; it’s not a one-time affair. This is why we continue to shave our heads when the hair grows back.’  (Bow First, Ask Questions Later)

Another quote from Gesshin that I resonate with very much from my own monastic training.

Kakuan Shion

I normally post poems without much commentary, but I thought I would say more about the next few. The ten ox-herding pictures are a historic sequence in zen practice, and many versions exist in picture and verse form. Kakuan is supposed to be the originator of these (his drawings can be seen here, along with a couple of translations of his verses and commentary). I came across the Paul Reps translation online a while ago, and then when I was at Tassajara earlier in the summer, I read the Mumon Yamada book on the subject. Here, and for the next two weeks, are alternate translations of some of the poems; I thought these ones particularly highlight the difficulties of translating poetry (you can see the original characters here if that would help you at all. My understanding is that there would have been no personal pronouns in the original)

RIDING THE BULL HOME (Number 6 of 10)

Mounting the bull, slowly I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody will join me.

Riding high on your ox, leisurely you head for home.
Trilling on a nomad’s flute, you leave in the evening mist.
In each beat and verse, your boundless feeling,
To a close companion, what need to move your lips?

Reb Anderson

‘It is actually very helpful in our daily life to remember that people are a mystery, to remember that people are always beyond who we think they are. The same is true of all the activities and objects we encounter.’ (The Third Turning of the Wheel)

Uchiyama Roshi

‘When we hear the word buddha, we usually think of the buddha statues in the main hall of a temple, but those are just dolls. The real buddha is nothing but the zazen we practice. The buddha statues enshrined in the temples are no more than models of zazen. When you clearly understand this, you should then think once more about the expression, “all buddha-tathagatas together have simply been transmitting wondrous dharma.”‘ (Commentary on the Bendowa)

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘When fear, anger, frustration, or “why me” arises, ground yourself in the ordinariness of your life and live one day at a time. Suffering teaches us this. When we suffer this much, we can only be still and take each moment as it comes.’ (Sanctuary)

That is, of course, if we are prepared to learn from suffering rather than just pushing it away and zoning out.


Panshan copy(Zen Speaks)

I have been thinking about including some of these cartoons for a while. I am not embarrassed to admit that I first read many well-known zen stories in one of the books in this series by Tsai Chih Chung (I loaned that volume, Wisdom of the Zen Masters, to one of my students, and haven’t seen it for a while) – it was one of the first zen books I bought after I moved to San Francisco, and I found the stories really came to life through the drawings. Still I find the cartoon versions hit the mark better than any written narrative, thanks to the faces and expressions. In these editions (the library at Zen Center had some earlier translations), there is a sidebar containing the original Chinese text, which I have omitted from these scans, and it took me a while to notice that the panels had been flipped to cater to the western sense of progression (okesas are worn on the right shoulder when they are shown).
I have read Panshan’s story elsewhere, but this version gets right to it.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘Perseverance is another name for Buddhist life.’ (Eloquent Silence)

I had this one lined up as a pithy one-oner when I came across this the other day: ‘Labor improbus (Latin) – steady work, as in the phrase “Labor omnia vicit improbus” from Virgil’s Georgics, meaning “Steady work overcame all things.”‘ Which just goes to show that human wisdom tends towards the same notions.


‘King Wen asked Minister Tai, “You made an effort to recommend wise people, but as yet there is no result. The world is even more disturbed. What is the cause of this crisis?”
The minister answered, “If you hire wise ones and do not use them, it is hiring in name only and the fruit is not attained.”
King Wen said,”Where is the fault?”
The minister said, “The fault lies in adopting what worldly people admire and not adopting truth.”
King Wen said, “What is the meaning of adopting what is admired by worldly people?”
The minister said, “If you listen to what ordinary people admire, you regard wisdom as not wisdom, knowledge as not knowledge, trust as not trust. If you regard those who are considered wise by the worldly as wise, and regard those who are criticized by the worldly as incapable, then those who are popular advance and those who are not popular withdraw. Consequently, wicked people form groups and overwhelm the wise ones; loyal and innocent retainers are killed, and wicked retainers fill the ranks with false honor. This is how the world has become even more confused and why the world cannot avoid a crisis.”

Thus, a secular person grieves over the crisis on society. The Buddha’s children should grieve over the crisis in buddha dharma and the buddha way. The cause of the crisis lies in mistakenly paying attention to the words of worldly people. If you listen to what worldly people admire, you cannot attain true wisdom. If you wish to attain true wisdom, you should have resources to reflect on the past and see to the future.
Those who are admired by worldly people are not necessarily wise ones or sages. Those who are criticized by worldly people are not necessarily wise ones or sages. However, consider, and do not confuse those who are wise and criticized with those who are false and honored. Not to use the wise ones is the loss of the nation. To promote incapable ones is the regret of the nation.’ (Shobogenzo Butsudo)

Written in 1243, drawing on an earlier story. With a sigh I reflect, plus ça change…

Mumon Yamada

For the liberation of all beings
There is finally nothing to be said
No words, no form
Only abandoning everything throughout heaven and earth.