‘Talking about Zen all the time is like looking for fish tracks in a dry riverbed.’  (Quoted in Zen Essence)

Robert Aitken

When I sit with my friends in zazen
I vow with all beings
to touch and receive and convey
the mind of rivers and stars.

(from The Dragon Who Never Sleeps)

I have enjoyed a couple of Robert Aitken’s gathas before, and it was nice to find a whole book of them. Look out for another one next week!

The Tenth Grave Precept

I vow not to disparage the Three Treasures. (Zen Center)

Experience the intimacy of things. Do not defile the Three Treasures. (Zen Mountain Monastery)

To expound the dharma with this body is foremost. The virtue returns to the ocean of reality. It is unfathomable; we just accept it with respect and gratitude. (Dogen’s commentary)

This precept has never especially resonated with me, although I understand its necessity as part of maintaining harmonious practice, and not allowing anyone claiming to be a buddhist while denigrating the actual cornerstones of Buddhism.

However, Dogen’s commentary has long been one of my favourite formulations, especially the first line, which is clearest. Training in a temple or a monastery, you eventually come to understand that the practice is a physical one more than a mental or philosophical one – through our sitting, our deportment, our bowing and chanting, our working. Since it is impossible to explain this, the best we can do is demonstrate it. I always speak of how Blanche taught me so much when she was abbess, not so much from the dharma seat as how she showed up for daily life in the temple, and how she behaved in many different circumstances, from the most formal to the most mundane. Her husband Lou had that first sentence written on his priest’s rakusu, which he wore all day, as he stepped in to wash dishes, tidy up the newspapers in the residents’ lounge, or take care of an altar. There are others, some who are exalted teachers, others who are less senior practitioners, in whom I can clearly see their embodiment as a clear expression of whole-hearted practice. These are the people who continue to inspire me, and that is how I aspire to practice.

And the following lines make clear what happens when you do this: it does not make you a superior person, because the virtue returns to the ocean of reality. Any good you do ripples out into the world, and we don’t know what effect it will have. I trust that it benefits myself and others, and try not to worry so much about how that manifests.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page, as part of a series on the precepts – and I have posted it before, but as I was meandering around the blog the other day, I thought it might be worth airing again)

Jakusho Kwong

‘In our meditation practice it is very important not to become lost entertaining the thinking mind, because the activity and capacity of the thinking mind is endless. If you give it all your attention, it will take your life.’ (No Beginning, No End)

Buddha Ancestors

After finishing Shinshu’s book, I was moved by some mysterious preference to pick up as my commute read the Denkoroku, Keizan’s assembles stories of the lineage of teachers from Shakyamuni to Koun Ejo, Dogen’s first successor in Japan. I have two versions of it, and this time am reading Francis Cook’s translation. In his introduction he points to reasons why Keizan might have felt it necessary to emphasise in this way the legitimacy of the Soto school as it settled in Japan amid competition and hostility from more established sects.

I was reminded of a comment Shohaku made in a Genzo-e many years ago, about how lineage was such an important concept in Chinese culture that the zen teachers, in order to appear authentic, felt they had to make one up – and indeed it is not something, as Cook observes, that features in any Indian Buddhist literature.

There was another thought that occurred to me as well: the parallels between Keizan and Sekito Kisen. The traditional Chinese lineage has one patriarch for the six generations between Bodhidharma and Hui-neng; with the controversy around Hui-neng’s designation by the Fifth Patriarch (let’s assume that there is at least some basis in reality for all of these stories, even if scholars are sceptical), and since the latter had a number of successors, there arose a kind of jostling for prominence, and flag-waving for the ‘true way’ that different teachers were espousing. This appears to be what prompted Sekito, a few decades later, to write in the Sandokai, “The way has no northern or southern ancestors.”

Similarly, Keizan, just a couple of generations after Dogen, found himself on one end of a schism in the lineage, and wanted to set his marker down for what he believed to be the true teaching. It seems that he was instrumental in enabling Soto Zen to spread from Dogen’s small community of isolated monks at Eiheiji, to be adopted by greater numbers of people. As an aside, in a small way, there has been a similar branching in the Zen Center lineage, between the ‘Mel’ and ‘Reb’ lines – those ordained by Sojun Mel Weitsman and Tenshin Reb Anderson. I wouldn’t say there was any doctrinal split, but I think the ‘family’ styles are distinct enough to those who hang around the temples long enough…

Perhaps it is an inevitable fate for any religious institution to separate into different groupings dependent on how the teachers want to convey what they believe is the essence of the teaching. And, as is pointed out in many places (when I was searching for Sekito in my archives, this post illuminates the point, as does this one), one of the essential faiths in the zen way is that we can all not just share Shakyamuni’s understanding, but we can meet him face-to-face in zazen: “The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east,” as Sekito started his great poem.

Sylvia Boorstein

‘If I want to build big biceps, I need to use every opportunity to practice lifting weights. If I want to live in a way that is loving and generous and fearless, then I need to practice overcoming any tendency to be angry or greedy or confused. Life is a terrific gym.’ (It’s Easier Than You Think)

Koun Franz

‘Life is the total working of all things, and you’re a part of it, and there’s nothing you can do about that. We could substitute “life” in this sentence with anything. Eating lunch is the total functioning of the present; shoveling snow is totally manifested. Because if not, what is it? What is your life but this moment and what you are doing in this moment? Your life is not a convenient story. It’s not something with an elegant beginning, middle, and end. It’s always the beginning. It’s always the middle. And it’s always the end.’  (Commentary on Shobogenzo Zenki)


‘Even when we have the eyes [to see mountains as] the appearance of grass and trees, earth and stone, fences and walls, this is nothing to doubt, nothing to be moved by; it is not the complete appearance [of the mountains]… Even when they appear to us as the realm of the practice as the way of the buddhas, this is not necessarily something to be desired.’ (Shobogenzo Sansuikyo)

Today I head down to Tassajara to teach in and on the mountains – it is something I have been deeply looking forward to, for the last few weeks especially, and I will try not to make assumptions about what I see or know…

DSCF6639.jpgThe last time I saw the mountains. I do not expect them to be the same.

Nanao Sakaki

Why climb a mountain?
Look! A mountain there.
I don’t climb mountain.
Mountain climbs me.
Mountain is myself.
I climb on myself.
There is no mountain nor myself.
Something moves up and down in the air.

I will be at Tassajara this week, letting the mountains climb on me.

Ruth Fuller Sasaki

‘The Japanese Zen masters of today are trying faithfully to carry on their reaching against tremendous odds. Furthermore, they are bound by a traditional system which, as regards many of its forms, is a relic of the feudal age. All are aware of this, but the great problem facing them is how to adapt to modern life and thought without losing the very essence of Zen itself. The West’s, to them, unanticipated interest in Zen and the slightly reviving interest of Japanese laymen may help to point the way.’ (The Zen Koan)

Ruth Fuller Sasaki’s name is perhaps only known to people who have delved into American Buddhist history, and perhaps she ought to be more widely renowned. These words were written over fifty years ago, in an introduction to a book which was very helpful when I taught a class on koans at Zen Center three years ago, but they still hold good.

As part of the work I am doing with the Zen Center archive – which I sincerely hope makes these treasures completely available to peruse – I have had the chance to listen, with one ear at least while I am working, to a series of tapes made from interviews Gary Snyder conducted with her, in 1966.

In them, she talks, just a year before her death, of her experiences in Japan in the 1930s, when she was introduced to various teachers and slowly fought for access to the sodo while the monks were sitting. There were very few Westerners attempting such a thing at that time, let alone women – Jiyu Kennett is the only other Western woman who comes to mind, and she was fully thirty years later, although the institutional resistance that she encountered was undiminished.

The stories she tells are told in other places; I haven’t read the book about her, but I was prompted to revisit How The Swans Came To The Lake, which follows the various characters who first brought Buddhism, and especially zen, to America. I didn’t have a completely clear idea about the connections between D.T. Suzuki, Soyen Shaku, Nyogen Senzaki, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Sokei-An, Alan Watts and Gary Snyder, but they are fascinating, and provoke immense gratitude for those who laboured for long years, with seemingly very little reward. I feel I should re-read the whole book now; a bookmark in my copy was from a film I went to see in 2003, and I think my perspectives on Buddhism have changed somewhat.

As usual, Wikipedia gives you the basic information on her life, and you can read about her elsewhere, but I hope that some time soon people will be able to hear her telling her stories in her own voice.