Shodo Harada

‘Rarely do we reside in no place. We think about what day of the week this is; upon hearign a bird sing, we think about its name; upon seeing a flower, we think about how nice it looks. Instead of residing in no place, we reside in a small self. This is necessary for functioning in the world, but it is not the actual truth. Only when abiding in no place can we experience the direct truth. When we hear the birds chirp from no place, our mind is freshly born in every moment. Because we seek comfort, we feel we have to reside somewhere. Because we are part of society, we feel we have to refer to others by judging them. But that’s not how our mind works when it is functioning at its clearest. If we don’t encounter the sunlight and moonlight and all the ten thousand things exactly as the are, we’ll become lost in our ideas about those things. Only while directly perceiving can we live and work responsibly and creatively.’ (Not One Single Thing)

I was very happy to pick up this book from the Zen Center bookstore a couple of weeks ago. It is a commentary on the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, and this paragraph refers to the phrase ‘Abiding nowhere, let the mind shine through’, from the Diamond Sutra, which caused Hui-neng to awaken when he heard it.

This is one of those paragraphs that pretty much encapsulate everything you need to know about practice. I can sometimes look at something like this and wonder if I have anything to add. And I know that what I can add, in normal times is the ability to bring this particular teaching into a particular moment for particular people, to make it alive in the moment, in a way that reading mostly falls short of. So I will keep going.

Joe Moran

‘The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that looking at other people’s faces was how we learned to be human. Every face we meet, he thought, reminds us that we share the world with people who are fundamentally like us but who are also, like us, irreducibly unique…

I find myself agreeing with the Mexican priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, who believes that when you look hard enough at other people’s faces, at the corners of their eyes and the shape of their mouths, you can’t help feeling tenderly towards them. Hate, he thinks, is “just a failure of the imagination”. Or perhaps just a failure to look.

People younger than me have a phrase they use when conversing online: “I see you.” It can be used for everything from complimenting a friend on a new haircut to comforting them when they feel rejected or wronged. At heart it means “I have noticed your existence.” Now that we are locking eyes with each other again, I realise how much I have missed being “seen”. The other day I saw a friend outside the supermarket and we stopped to talk, maskless and a few feet apart, like we did in the before times. The face in front of me didn’t blur or pixellate like the ones on my laptop, nor was there any disconcerting time lag in the way it responded to mine. It just picked up where it left off a year ago, noticing my nods and smiles and mirroring them with its own – a wordless message I had almost forgotten how to read. Roughly translated it said: “I see you.”’ (from the Guardian)

There was a lot in this timely article that felt resonant to me. The second paragraph reminds me of the practice of eye-gazing, which we would do sometimes at Zen Center, especially in the Young Urban Zen group, and where I would inevitably feel able to see and meet the person I was gazing at as Buddha. And I know that our practice overall offers a greater strength and ability (and perhaps stability) for meeting people, for seeing them, because we can only really see when we get out of our own way first. Even without the practice context, when I go about my day, just nodding or saying hi to people offers the same sense of seeing and being seen, that our existence has been noticed.

Zen Master Seung Sahn

‘Zen is very simple…What are you?

In this whole world everyone searches for happiness outside, but nobody understands their true self inside.

Everybody says, “I” – “I want this, I am like that…” But nobody understands this “I.”

Before you were born, where did your I come from? When you die, where will your I go? If you sincerely ask, “what am I?” sooner or later you will run into a wall where all thinking is cut off. We call this “don’t know.”

Zen is keeping this “don’t know” mind always and everywhere.

Meditation in Zen means keeping don’t-know mind when bowing, chanting and sitting Zen. This is formal Zen practice. And when doing something, just do it. When driving, just drive; when eating, just eat; when working, just work.’ (from the Cambridge Zen Center website)

Jill Lepore

‘The louder the talk about burnout, it appears, the greater the number of people who say they’re burned out: harried, depleted, and disconsolate. What can explain the astonishing rise and spread of this affliction? Declining church membership comes to mind. In 1985, seventy-one per cent of Americans belonged to a house of worship, which is about what that percentage had been since the nineteen-forties; in 2020, only forty-seven per cent of Americans belonged to an institution of faith. Many of the recommended ways to address burnout—wellness, mindfulness, and meditation (“Take time each day, even five minutes, to sit still,” Elle advised)—are secularized versions of prayer, Sabbath-keeping, and worship. If burnout has been around since the Trojan War, prayer, worship, and the Sabbath are what humans invented to alleviate it. But this explanation goes only so far, not least because the emergence of the prosperity gospel made American Christianity a religion of achievement. Much the same appears to apply to other faiths.’ (from the New Yorker)

I enjoyed this train of thought in an article about burnout. Of course there is one faith – if you want to call it that – where the sitting still, ritual, and letting go of notions of achievement are built in…

Jaukusho Kwong

‘OK. The word when. There was a Rinzai roshi who explained the four-letter word when. He said that when the vertical—the absolute—line and the horizontal—the relative or conventional—lines are drawn (this is the dark world and this is the light world)—when they intersect that’s when. It’s sudden.’ (from the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center newsletter)

This reminds me of the way Katagiri Roshi talks about time and the infinite.

Zenkei Blanche Hartman

‘The first three years I was doing zazen, I didn’t sit through a single period for forty minutes without changing my posture. I hated myself every time I did it because there were always macho guys sitting, guys and women, and I felt like a wimp over here that kept changing my posture until I got to the point after three years where I didn’t have to change my posture. It was during my first sesshin I did at Tassajara, during the middle of the night of the seventh night, that I discovered that, even though I was in pain, I didn’t have to move, and there was something else to do with it. In fact, it began to change when I was able to stay with it. It didn’t necessarily always go away, but it did begin to change, and then some of the precise location of the persistent pain seemed to be related to particular attitudes of mind that I was holding. Sometimes I would discover what attitude of mind that point of tension was expressing. It was sort of like that point of tension was going to stay there until I got the information about the attitude of mind that was causing it. Then it could also relax, and, in the opening of it, the attitude of mind that I had been holding revealed itself. Actually I don’t know exactly how it worked. I just know that there were a number of situations in which particular points of very intense physical discomfort were connected to particular attitudes of mind.

One attitude in particular that I was carrying when I came to Tassajara was spiritual pride. I had quit my good job and I had come down the mountains to be a monk and save the world. I thought I was doing something special. As long as I was holding the attitude that I was doing something special, I had this particular pain. When I saw that I had that attitude, the pain become more and more intense. It was in a particular point in my back. It was kind of pressing me down to the floor, and, at a certain point, I was having a conversation with it. I had a notion that it had to do with pride, and then I suggested something trivial and it just got really immense and I heard this voice that said, “You had better pay attention to me or I’m going to break your back.” I thought I was really losing it, and then I realized that I had this spiritual pride because I thought I was doing something wonderful for the world by quitting my job and coming to the mountains and sitting zazen and being a Bodhisattva, or whatever I thought I was doing. When I realized that that was the thought I was holding, this particular point of pain just sort of dissolved. “I got it.”…

The phrase “Waiting it out” came up. In many periods of zazen during sesshin, I get into the mind set of waiting for the period to end. It brings up the question, “At what point, or points, does pain, and what comes up with it, pass its usefulness factor?” So, it is an ongoing question I’ve had throughout practice.

I think that “waiting it out” has an element of aversion and aggression in it, as if you’re not ready to give it your kind attention. You just want to grit your teeth and wait for the bell to ring, not giving as much kindness to your body as you are capable of.’ (from the Chapel Hill Zen Center archives)

Blanche gave this talk during a sesshin at Tassajara when she was abbess, and I can certainly relate to some parts of it. In my first sesshin at Zen Center, right about 21 years ago now, Adrian, who was on my left, sat solid as a rock throughout the five days, while David on my right did wiggle about on occasion. I felt drawn to sit as well as Adrian, because I imagined that’s what the longer-term practitioners did, but I also understood that there was permission to move. Because I wanted to be seen as a good student, I didn’t move as much as I could have, but then, because I was used to endurance sports (cross-country, long-distance cycling, running marathons), I knew about pushing my body. I experienced a lot of pain.

When I went to Tassajara, and the amount of sitting increased substantially, I had a fair amount of pain for the first couple of years, and I made every effort not to move, as I was still concerned with being perceived as a serious student. When I returned for my second stint of two years, I did find that place of understanding the emotional component of some of the stuckness, and experienced that stuckness releasing on many different occasions. And the pain that remained seemed more bearable. Nevertheless, there were many hours of ‘waiting it out,’ which can be its own kind of practice too.

Dogen

‘The purpose of awakening to the old stories of the Patriarchs of Zen is to modify gradually what you have understood and thought up to now, under the guidance of a Zen Master. Evenif the Buddha you have known up to now is endowed with the distinguishing marks, radiate light, and has, like Sakyamuni and Amita Buddha, the virtue of preaching sermons and bringing benefits to the people, you must believe it if the Zen Master tells you that the Buddha is a toad or an earthworm. You will have to give up the beliefs you have held up to now. But if you seek the Buddha’s marks, his radiance, and the various virtues associated with him on the earthworm, you still have not modified your arbitrary views of the Buddha. Just recognize as the Buddha what you see now before your eyes. If you follow the words of the Zen Master and turn from deluded views and attachments, you will naturally accord with the Buddha Way.’ (Shobogenzo Zuimonki)

I don’t recall any teacher I have worked with telling me that the Buddha was a toad or an earthworm, but as usual, Dogen makes a very concrete analogy do his work for him. The key line is the penultimate sentence.

Soko Morinaga

‘There is no way that you can exert yourself in this world without that exertion being of value. Each and every thing is the form that the heart is presently taking, the revelation of Buddha, the manifestation of Dharma.’ (From Novice To Master)

This seems an inocuous kind of thing to say, but I think you can savour this one deeply as well.

Gary Snyder

There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.

—Dōgen, November, 1242.

On a back wall down the hall

lit by a side glass door

is the scroll of Mu Ch’i’s great
sumi painting, “Persimmons”

The wind-weights hanging from the
axles hold it still.

The best in the world, I say,
of persimmons.

Perfect statement of emptiness
no other than form

the twig and the stalk still on,
the way they sell them in the
market even now.

The original’s in Kyoto at a
lovely Rinzai temple where they
show it once a year

this one’s a perfect copy from Benrido
I chose the mounting elements myself
with the advice of the mounter

I hang it every fall.

And now, to these overripe persimmons
from Mike and Barbara’s orchard.
Napkin in hand,
I bend over the sink
suck the sweet orange goop
that’s how I like it
gripping a little twig

those painted persimmons

sure cure hunger