Kosho Uchiyama

‘In my late twenties, when I read [Dogen’s] Jishozanmai, I decided to leave home and become a monk. I understood that if I lived based only on my thinking, my life would continue to be childish and unenlightened. Since ancient times there have been people who sought the self in its true sense. Unless I wholeheartedly practiced with such a person, one who had truly and completely pursued and clarified the self, I would never be able to understand my true self. When I reached this conclusion, I finally made up my mind to become a monk and practice zen.
In response to my decision, my father said, “You are a critical and argumentative person. It’s no good to follow a mediocre teacher,” and he tried to find a good master for me. Finally he recommended Sawaki Roshi, who was then the officer in charge of instructing monks at Sojiji. He told me to go there, and, if I thought Sawaki Roshi was a good teacher, to ask about being his disciple.
This was the first time I encountered a person who spoke clearly about the self for which I had been searching. Although I had listened to many lectures on Buddhism and Christianity, those talks had nothing to do with the self. Sawaki Roshi talked about the self, starting only from the self. I eagerly took notes. When I went home, I summarized his teachings according to my notes:

1. The Buddhadharma teaches that this life is our true and final refuge.
2. To practice zazen is to become the transparent self.
3. To practice zazen is the self selfing the self by the self.
4. To pratice zazen is to become the self that is connected with the universe.
5. Zazen is good for nothing.

Even though I wrote these before becoming a monk, when I knew nothing about zazen but had only heard Sawaki Roshi’s lectures for the first time, I think they’re a pretty good summary; I surprised myself. Although I had tentatively made up my mind to become a monnk, part of me didn’t really want to. I didn’t know what kind of physical or mental experiences I would have to go through as a monk, so deep in my mind I wanted to avoid it. Yet, after hearing Sawaki Roshi’s teaching, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I’d reached the point where I felt that if I wanted to live based on the truth of the self, I couldn’t escape. So I was ordained.’ (The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo)

As I was leafing through this book to find some suitable passages, my eyes alighted on the five-point list. I was tempted to copy just those five points; it certainly would have been faster to type out. But I thought that the context for the list was fascinating as well, as a great story of how people come to practice: a pull that is somehow greater than ourselves and allows a trust that those who have come before and done the work – the work that a part of us wants to avoid and yet cannot without suffering a loss of integrity.

I read point two as a paraphrase of Dogen’s ‘dropping off body and mind’; certainly in my moments of lucidity, it seems that the self becomes thinner, more transparent, less of a hindrance. The third point also seems to echo Dogen, in this case jijuyu zanmai, and if that feels too much to get your head around, it’s okay just to stay with the fourth and fifth points.



It is kind speech to speak to sentient beings as you would to a baby…. If kind speech is offered, little by little, kind speech expands… Know that kind speech arises from kind heart, and kind heart from the seeds of compassionate heart. Ponder the fact that kind speech is not just praising the merit of others; it has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.’ (Shobogenzo Bodaisatta Shi Shoho)

In my recent dharma talk at Zen Center, I brought in Dogen’s Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance towards the end of the talk, as I felt it is a good example of some concrete ways to help people through the ways you think and act towards them, and seemed to fit in with the themes from Sharon Salzberg’s Real Love that made up the bulk of the talk. As I said in relation to the above quote, how much do we need to hear this as a nation at the moment.

I am giving another talk on Monday 22nd at the Dharma Eye group in San Rafael; I expect to offer a remix of the Zen Center talk, and I think I will bring Dogen front and centre this time and see where that takes me. Sometimes I wonder about offering an apology for the amount of Dogen on this site; mostly I know that his teachings are the crux of our practice, and hopefully the pieces I choose can make some of the denser work more accessible.

Byakuren Judith Ragir

‘What needs to be renounced as we enter a spiritual path? In the West, Buddhist practice is often an odd combination of monastic visits and householder lives. When I was ordained, I was already married and had two children. I did not leave my family, but I learned to practice with my story-filled life by transforming the basis of operation in my mind. I have had to work with my egocentricity; my attachments and clinging; and my greed, anger, and delusion right in the middle of the mess of household life and an urban zendo. After forty years of practice, I am still practicing home-leaving within the confines of a home, as Yasodhara did. I take heart from a the story of a Tibetan teacher’s mother who got enlightened, as she tells it, by “practicing in the gaps” of her everyday life. Or as my root teacher, Katagiri Roshi, would encourage us by saying, “In every moment, merge subject and object into the very activity that is arising.”‘ (The Hidden Lamp)

When I lived at Tassajara, there would almost always be some women there who had waited until their children were grown before committing themselves to intensive monastic training. As Byakuren points out, the conditions of life at home are also deep opportunities for practice: the personal issues that arise at home are no different from those that arise at the monastery, it’s just that when you live at the monastery, there is usually more time to reflect and absorb what is going on.




Sitting in the rain

It say something about the climate in California that it took a little over five months for Zachary and I to need to put a wet weather plan into effect. For sure, on a couple of autumnal Mondays, it had been cloudy or damp enough to have us worried, and once it even started raining right after we had packed away the cushions, but last Monday was the first time the forecast had rain all day. And rain all day it did, which did not make for my having much fun riding to the jail in the afternoon and to meet students in the evening.  I did not ride downtown for the sit – I had taken a friend to the airport very early on Friday morning, kept the car over the weekend, and picked her up on Monday morning, which reminded me afresh that I find freeway driving in heavy rain much more stressful than riding my bike in the same conditions.
In any case, the timing of it all worked out perfectly for me to be downtown, a little damp around the edges, in one of the many POPOSes. I had not actually visited the space before, at 2nd Street and Mission, but it lived up to its billing as a spacious, and most importantly covered, atrium, where people were mostly eating their lunch – either in pairs, conversing, or solo, looking at their phones. A mandolin player busked away by the entrance, which made for a more focused sit than did the general murmur of conversation when he stopped.
Zachary and I both enjoyed the sit, even if no-one else who had hoped to be there actually made it. Today’s forecast looks better, though Zachary is away, and without him I cannot bring cushions for everybody, so we will be sitting on the big concrete blocks by the seawall next to our usual grassy spot, if you are able to come along.


IMG_3781 copyWe still got to sit under a tree.

Shohaku Okumura

‘Each being is unique and yet is interconnected with all beings, from the beginningless beginning to the endless end. When we take one being, we take all beings and all times. Nothing is substantial. Everything is empty. When we try to grasp with our intellect, using concepts, we become neurotic. When we grasp one aspect, we miss another. When we try to understand the difference between beings we differentiate and miss the connections between them. When we focus on the relationships between all beings, we miss the uniqueness of this being. These two basically contradictory aspects of the true reality are expressed in the Heart Sutra as “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” In the Sandokai same same reality is expressed as merging of difference (ji) and unity (ri).’ (Living By Vow)

Shohaku was making the same point in this year’s Genzo-e; on one level at least, there is nothing else we can talk about, though, as I get to be reminded, it’s good to be able to use this clarity to help us in our lives.

Setting Intentions

One of the students I work with comes up with some really great questions. When I was sharing the Genjo Koan with a study group, riffing about the interplay of relative and absolute, he said something along the lines of, “Shundo, this is really great, but how is it going to help me in my life?” which of course gave me pause. Three answers came into my head in the moment: we can become fearless, like the Heart Sutra suggests, when we can find an ease around the true nature of reality and human existence, which I believe a study of Buddhism can imbue us with. We can be like a mirror, reflecting that reality, and simply letting go. And we can be more energy efficient when we have this understanding in our bodies, because reflecting and letting go is a lot less exhausting than holding the amount of stress and anxiety around the past and future that we are used to dealing with.

Recently he asked me to discuss how to deal with ‘life strategy’ issues if our practice is telling us just to be present. I did some reading and some thinking over the holiday period, and here are a couple of passages I thought might illustrate an approach:

‘When we feel conflicted about a particular decision or action, our bodies often hold the answer – if we take the time to stop and tune in. Our minds tend to race ahead into the future or replay the past, but our bodies are always in the present moment. A tightness in the chest or a squeamish sensation in the gut may signal harm, even when reason may suggest that a given choice is perfectly ethical. A feeling of calm or a sense of expansiveness throughout the body sends us a very different message.’ (Sharon Salzberg, Real Love)

‘You may think that if there is no purpose or no goal in our practice, we will not know what to do. But there is a way. The way to practice without having any goal is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in this moment. Instead of having some particular object in mind, you should limit your activity. When your mind is wandering about elsewhere you have no chance to express yourself. But if you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can fully express your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature. This is our way.’ (Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)

When we met to discuss the topic, I asked the other participants in the group for their thoughts around life planning before bringing in the passages, it was gratifying that what they shared was pointing to the same perspectives.

Tidying Up

I left a gap in my schedule of posts, thinking I might say something about how Wednesday’s talk went. One thing I mentioned in the course of giving it was how I had managed to spend the week between Christmas and New Year doing just about everything on my to-do list except writing the talk. Many of those things involved end-of-year organising, sorting out papers, putting some clothes aside to go to goodwill, backing up all my drives.
I also looked through the various folders of photos I have saved this year and pulled out around a hundred as a ‘best-of’ selection, which I have on rotation on my laptop screen. There was a little nagging feeling, looking at them, of ‘is this really the best I’ve got?’ That usually happens when I put a talk together, looking at a draft and wondering if that is all I can offer.
In this case, I had established the theme some time ago, while I was reading Real Love in England, and had been amassing supporting quotes. What I failed to do until the night before the talk was put them into a decent sequence, and then, as I often struggle to do with my talks, flesh the quotes out with what I want to say about them in a coherent way. It took making a lot of notes as I read through the draft on my BART commute on Wednesday morning and evening to get it up to what I thought might be a reasonable length.
In the end, not long into the talk, I realised I had more than enough material. I usually don’t like to talk for more than thirty minutes, to give people a chance to ask questions, and also because people’s concentration inevitably flags, especially in the evening, when a lot of residents are already thinking about bed. I ended up talking for a full forty having dropped some of the quotes, but keeping, and managing to expand on, the more personal parts, since they are usually what engages people most; in previous talks I have sometimes found it hard to extemporise like that, so I was happy with how that went. Plus I felt the beginning and the end were both strong, and I walked out feeling pretty satisfied.
One of the residents gave me good feedback, not just saying she liked it, which most people tend to out of politeness, but why she liked it, which is much more helpful. There was also a touching moment where a young woman I didn’t know, but who had been near the front, nodding to points I made in a way that had felt very encouraging, came to introduce herself as the girlfriend of one of the men in the county jail who has come to a few of my recent sessions there, and with whom I have had some good involved conversations about practice.

In the realm of tidying, I enjoyed seeing this article in The Guardian on the practice benefits of cleaning, which any Zen Center resident would smile at. It brought to mind two of my articles , one I have shared before, and one that I just put up on my Patreon page, which incorporated a Shodo Harada quote I have posted before.