‘A monk asked, “How can one gain accordance with the Way?”

Master Mazu said, “I’ve never gained accordance with it.”

The monk asked,  “What is the essential meaning of Zen?”

Mazu struck him and said, “If I didn’t hit you, I’d be laughed at from every direction.”‘ (Zen’s Chinese Heritage)

I mean Mazu has a point – the monk is almost pulling his leg asking a question like that – but even in those days, resorting to violence was getting pretty old. Perhaps the monk would have been better off spending some time contemplating Mazu’s first answer.

Dale S. Wright

‘Every choice we face provides us with an opportunity either to embrace or to break the hold that the past has had on us. No matter how often we have chosen a certain way in the past, so long as we are human, we retain the freedom (to always varying degrees) to disown earlier patterns and to break out onto a new path. But all of our previous decisions are weighing heavily in the direction of the character we have formed for ourselves through previous actions, thus making decisive change difficult. Decisions made do weigh on us, and their presence is lasting. That is why human freedom is so profound in its significance, awesome in its magnitude. All of us, to the extent that we are human and free, remember with terror and regret bad decisions that we have made in the past. These memories sensitize us to the responsibilities that accompany our freedom and help us to grasp just what is at stake each time we choose.’ (The Six Perfections)

Shodo Harada

‘That which has to be realized is not something outside of ourselves or something that we can understand from someone else’s words. It is the experience itself that is valid; that someone else’s words have been used to describe the experience is not the point. In face, this level of awareness is beyond any form, beyond any words, and beyond calling it the teaching of the Buddha. At this point even that form or that personality or that historical Buddha is no longer necessary.’ (The Path to Bodhidharma)

Robin Wall Kimmerer

‘”It’s our way,” (Lena) says, ” to take only what we need. I’ve always been told that you never take more than half.” Sometimes she doesn’t take any (sweetgrass) at all, but just comes here to check on the meadow, to see how the plants are doing. “Our teachings,” she says, “are very strong. They wouldn’t get handed on if they weren’t useful. The most important thing to remember is what my grandmother always said: ‘If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away. If you don’t give it respect, it will leave us.'” The plants themselves have shown us this.’ (Braiding Sweetgrass)

‘If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery — before you enter the monastery you will see the small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo. “Hanshaku-kyo” means “Half-dipper Bridge.” Whenever Dogen Zenji used (dipped) water from the river, after he used half of it he returned the water to the river again without throwing it away. That is why we call that bridge Hanshaku-kyo — Half-dipper Bridge. In Eiheiji monastery when we wash our face we do not fill the basin. We just use 70% of the basin and after we wash it we do not throw the water away from the body. We empty the basin this way — toward the body. It means to respect the water. This kind of practice is not based on just economy. It may be pretty hard to understand why Dogen Zenji returned the water after he used half of it. This kind of practice is beyond our thinking. When we feel the beauty of the river, or water, we intuitively we do it in this way. That is our nature. But when our nature is covered by some economic idea you may think it doesn’t make any sense to return the water back to the river.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

Kodo Sawaki

‘Zazen becomes our daily life. It’s certainly not a matter of remaining frozen indefinitely in zazen. Even Bodhidharma didn’t do that. In his case, the legend has outstripped the historical truth. It’s truly stupid to imagine, as certain literary or mystical types do, that he stank because he remained nine years without budging. If he ate, he drank, and also went to the toilet. He probably read. He got dressed and he washed his clothing. Moreover, no organism could have endured nine years of immobility without atrophying or decaying. It’s obvious that he had other ways to spend his time. Zazen was the backbone of his life and his activities. He slept at night, did kinhin, prepared his food, and commenced again every day. He realized the zen of the Buddha in each of his acts.’ (Commentary on The Song Of Awakening)

Of course, according to some literary or mystical types, Bodhidharma also invented martial arts during his nine years at Shaolin by having the monks practise between sitting, and introduced tea to China by ripping off his eyelids (“Won’t be needing those while I sit constantly!”) and throwing them on the ground, whereupon they sprouted into tea bushes… Kodo Sawaki is never shy of puncturing that kind of thing.


Before the birth of mother and father,
One solid circle;
Even Shakyamuni didn’t understand it –
How could Kasyapa transmit it? 

Suzuki Roshi

‘People may think Zen is a wonderful teaching, you know. “If you study Zen, you will acquire complete freedom (laughs). Whatever you do, if you are in the Zen Buddhist robe, it is alright (laughs). If you wear a black robe like this, whatever you do will be alright. We have that much freedom in our teaching.” This kind of understanding looks like observing the teaching that form is emptiness, but what I mean by “form is emptiness” is quite different. Back and forth we practice, we train our mind and our emotions and our body. And after those processes, you will acquire the perfect freedom. And perfect freedom should be only — will be acquired only under some limitation.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

I’ve been reading more of the talks from the first sesshin at Tassajara in the summer of 1967, to see what Suzuki Roshi wanted to transmit to those students who were inspired to jump into monastic training. There is a lot of subtle stuff about the different permutations of form and emptiness, and also some insights into the Genjo Koan. Look out for more posts soon.


Longshan met Dongshan and Shenshan when they were traveling together. Seeing a vegetable leaf floating down a valley stream, Dongshan said, “There must be a Zen practitioner deep in this mountain.” They followed the stream up and met a hermit.

The hermit Longshan said, “There is no path in this mountain. How did you two get here?”

Dongshan said, “Let’s put aside the matter of no path. Venerable, from where did you enter?”

Longshan said, “I did not come following clouds or water.”

Dongshan said, “How long have you lived in this mountain?”

Longshan said, “I am not concerned about the passing of spring or autumn.”

Dongshan said, “Did you live here first, or did the mountain live here first?”

Longshan said, “I don’t know.”

Dongshan said, “How come you don’t know?”

Longshan said, ” I did not come here for humans or devas.”

Dongshan asked further, “Why have you been living in this mountain?”

Longshan said, “I saw two clay oxen struggling with each other until they fell into the ocean. Ever since then, all fluctuations have ceased.”‘ (Shinji Shobogenzo)

To borrow from another story (or perhaps another version of this story) a hermit who lets a vegetable leaf get away from him is not going to be good for much.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘I understand the precepts not as rules to follow, but more as, “Be very careful in this area of human life because there’s a lot of suffering there, so pay attention to what you’re doing.” Like a sign on a frozen pond that says, “Danger, thin ice,” rather than, “Shame on you!” Our vow is to help people end suffering, not to add to their suffering.’ (The Hidden Lamp)

Shohaku Okumura

‘I think Buddhist and Zen teachings too often put emphasis on no-self and universal-self and forget about the self that is not others. And the actual self that is in a community is one that is not others. How can we manifest “no-self” and “universal self” through the self that is not others? We need to realize that I am responsible for doing what I should do. No one else can practice for me. This is the most important point when we practice as a member of the community. Through studying Buddhist teachings, we study “no-self”; when we practice zazen, we study the “universal self” that is beyond separation of self and others. And within our day-to-day lives, we must study how this individual person that is not others can manifest the reality of “no-self” and “universal self”. This is the most important and difficult koan in our day-to-day practice.’ (from an article on Dogen’s Eihei Shingi)