Soyen Shaku

‘Dhyana then is a discipline in tranquillization. It aims at giving to a mind the time for deliberation and saving it from running wild; it directs the vain and vulgar to the path of earnestness and reality; it makes us feel interest in higher things which are above the senses; it discovers the presence in us of a spiritual faculty which bridges the chasm between the finite and the infinite; and it finally delivers us from the bondage and torture of ignorance, safely leading us to the other side of Nirvana.’ (Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot)

I have quoted a few of these pieces before. As I was typing this out, I thought that it is only a few years before Kodo Sawaki was instilling in his listeners the idea of zazen being good for nothing. Both descriptions are, of course, medicine appropriate for the condition of the listener at hand.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Zazen is scripture itself. To do zazen for weeks or hours is to bring scripture into being. No scripture is left out of zazen, Buddha’s whole life teaching is there. In zazen Buddha (we) creates scripture, Buddha (we) creates Buddha. In zazen we are Buddha.’ (From the Suzuki Roshi archives)

Layman Fu

Where the East Mountains float on the river
And the West Mountains wander on and on,
In the realm of this world beneath the Great Dipper:
Just there is the place of genuine emancipation.


‘The master questioned two new arrivals.
The master asked the first one, “Have you been here before?”
The monk said, “No, I haven’t.”
The master said, “Go have some tea.”
The master then asked the other monk, “Have you been here before?”
The monk said, “Yes I have.”
The master said, “Go have some tea.”
The head monk asked, “Setting aside the fact that you told the one who’d never been here before to go have some tea, why did you tell the one who had been here before to go have some tea?”
The master said, “Head monk!”
The head monk said, “Yes?”
The master said, “Go have some tea.”‘

‘Meal time. The fourth hour of the day.
Aimlessly working to kindle a fire and gazing at it from all sides.
Cake and cookies ran out last year,
Thinking of them today and vacantly swallowing my saliva.
Seldom having things together, incessantly sighing,
Among the many people there are no good men.
Those who come here just ask to have a cup of tea,
Not getting any, they go off spluttering in anger.’

(The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu)

The first of these stories is quite well known, and the rhythm of the exchange has that certain quality of the master upending expectation, teaching by encouraging the head monk to stop attempting to analyse the situation and just go and do the next thing. For some reason, recently I remembered this section of a longer poem, which goes through all hours of the day and night, seemingly a lament for the barrenness of the monastic experience, which turns into a celebration of clear seeing in spite of this paucity. I first heard this from Shohaku when we were studying on of Joshu’s koans; perhaps the trick is not to ask for the tea – then you get some.

Robert Aitken

‘There are some people who fall into the pit of emptiness and keep repeating, “It doesn’t matter,” or “It’s all one.” During the drug revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I met many young men and women who were caught in this trap. Sometimes a religious experience will lead you into such a state. A “sick soul” condition, it can be very persuasive. I agree that everything is empty, but at the same time it is also full. It is sometimes high and sometimes low, sometimes strong and sometimes weak, sometimes light and sometimes dark. Don’t let yourself get stuck in simplistic views.’ (Taking the Path of Zen)

Charlotte Joko Beck

‘A Zen student called me recently to complain about my emphasis on the difficulty of practice. She said, “I think you  make a mistake in urging your students to take their practice so seriously. Life should be about enjoying ourselves and having a good time.” I asked her, “Has that approach ever worked for you?” She said, “Well, not really… yet. But I have hope.”‘ (Nothing Special)

Joan Halifax

‘On reaching the mountain’s summit, we can ask, What has been attained? The top of the mountain? Big view? But the mountain has already disappeared. Going down the mountain, we can ask, What has been attained? Going down the mountain? The closer we are to the mountain, the more the mountain disappears. The closer we are to the mountain, the more the mountain is realized.’ (The Fruitful Darkness)

Koun Franz

‘When you sit, just sit, but sit with all of your energy. Imagine trying to touch your toes—if you bend over to touch your toes and maybe they’re a little bit out of reach, there’s a great clarity in what you’re doing. You’re just trying to touch your toes. It’s not complicated. It doesn’t mean anything. You don’t carry with you an image of someone 2500 years ago who could touch his toes very, very well, nor do you carry an image of yourself in the future bathed in light, touching your toes in the way you always dreamt of. You just reach. In the same way, when you do zazen, you literally just sit. You concentrate every cell in your body on the action of sitting. You let it be a complete activity, the most important activity. That’s not some lofty philosophical construct, because in the moment that you’re sitting, it’s the only thing that you’re doing. There can be no more important activity than that, and so we say, “Don’t sit like a buddha. Sit as a buddha.” A buddha is one who comes and goes. A Buddha is one who does just this, whatever this is. Don’t worry about breathing in a particular way. Don’t worry that you can’t cross your legs the way that you wish you could. Don’t imagine that you’re imitating zazen. Simply sit still with all the force of the universe.’  (Commentary on Shobogenzo Zenki)

Mokufu Sonin

‘Master Keizan Jokin asked the nun Mokufu Sonin, “The winter is coming to an end and the springtime is arriving. There is an order to this. What is your understanding?”
Sonin replied, “In the branches of a tree without shade, how could there be any seasons?”
Keizan asked her, “What about right now?”
Sonin bowed.’

That is what you call not getting caught.

Li Bai

From whose house are the flute notes floating?
They blend into the spring breeze all over Luoyang.
In the tune I heard expectant hands break willow twigs.
Who wouldn’t think of home at such a moment?


(Listening to the Flute in Luoyang City on a Spring Night)