‘A monk asked Caoshan, “How can one be in charge all the time?”
Caoshan said, “Like passing through a village with poisoned well – don’t touch even a drop of water.”‘ (quoted in The Book of Serenity)

This is an intriguing little exchange, which I don’t remember hearing before. My first thought was, ‘why would you want to be in charge all the time?’, and my mind brought up the case with Kueishan (not for the first time). But then I thought of all the introductory verses in the koan collections where the suggestion is that mastery of the teachings mean you experience, as Suzuki Roshi put it ‘being the boss.’ And then I thought about Caoshan’s analogy, and that the way to be the boss is to be aware of the dangers of taking in things that we might think are beneficial but fundamentally do us no good. Or to put it another way, as Linda Ruth always used to say to us at Tassajara, remember that there is no fundamental to rely on.


Sharon Salzberg

‘In reality,  love is fluid; it’s a verb, not a noun. Love is a living capacity within us that is always present, even when we don’t sense it. And there are many kinds of love. Sanskrit has different words to describe love for a brother or sister, love for a teacher, love for a partner, love for one’s friends, love of nature, and so on. English only has one word, which leads to never-ending confusion.’ (Real Love)

I noticed, when I typed out the title, that I thought of what might be a typical zen rejoinder to the point she is making: which of these many kinds of love is real love? And of course the answer is: all of them. The working of my mind there was part of an inner voice asking, well, what has this to do with zen practice? It is true that you can scour a lot of zen texts looking for words about love and find them thin on the ground, but I think it is also true that an experienced practitioner (I am not going to say an enlightened practitioner because I think that would add a sense for people that they are excluded from that category) loves everybody, because they see exactly who they are. Suzuki Roshi might not have mentioned love, but people who talk about him felt loved by him because he saw them fully.
I was also remembering, as I typed, one of the few sermons that I sat through in my early life that has stayed with me. One of my headmasters spoke of the Greek words philia, eros and agape, and spoke eloquently of what each of them meant to us as humans; it inspired me to explore more, not God’s love, necessarily, but the idea of a bigger, selfless love.

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.

Suzuki Roshi

‘I think most of us study Buddhism like something already given to us. We think what we should do is preserve the Buddha’s teaching, like putting food in the refrigerator. We think that to study Buddhism is to take the food out of the refrigerator. Whenever you want it, it is already there. Instead, Zen students should be interested in how to produce food from the field, from the garden, should put the emphasis on the ground. If you look at the empty garden you won’t see anything, but if you take care of the seed it will come up. The joy of Buddhism is the joy of taking care of the garden.’ (Not Always So)

This is a subtle point to grasp, and I certainly did not get it when I started practising. As I was wondering what to say about it, Dogen’s words from the Bendowa came to mind: ‘Although this inconceivable dharma is abundant in each person, it is not actualized without practice.’ It is our own practice that makes the dharma come alive, not whatever we happen to read about it.

Suzuki Roshi

‘The secret of Soto Zen is just two words: “Not always so.” Oops – three words in English. In Japanese, two words. “Not always so.” This is the secret of the teaching. It may be so, but it is not always so. Without being caught by words or rules, without too many preconceived ideas, we actually do something, and doing something, we apply our teaching.
To stick to something rigidly is laziness. Before you do something difficult, you want to understand it, so you are caught by words. When you are brave enough to accept your surroundings without saying what is right and what is wrong, then the teaching that was told to you will help. If you are caught by the teaching, you will have a double problem – whether you should follow the teaching or go your own way. This problem is created by grasping the teaching. So practice first, and then apply the teaching.
We practice zazen like someone close to dying. There is nothing to rely on, nothing to depend on. Because you are dying, you don’t want anything, so you cannot be fooled by anything.’ (Not Always So)

The fact that this collection of Suzuki Roshi’s talk was given the title it was shows how that phrase often cropped up in discussions, usually accompanied by a little chuckle at the ‘just two words’ introduction. Reading on through the talk, though, gives us a deeper look at how to practise, to the powerful idea this quote ends with. As elsewhere, I hear echoes of Dogen in the way Suzuki Roshi presented the teachings, especially in this phrase, ‘doing something, we apply our teaching’. There is no point just reading about it; we have to live it – pretty much always.

Suzuki Roshi

‘If you think zazen is some particular thing you are doing right here, you are quite mistaken. Practice is each moment every day all year long; over and over we repeat our activity. Our practice is like 10,000 miles of iron road. We run on iron tracks in a straight line, never stopping. The tracks are iron, not gold or silver. There is no special way for sages and another for fools; both are the same train. There is no special person for Buddhism, Buddhism is for everyone; there is no special activity of sitting for Buddhists–everything you do should be practice.’

This passage is not from one of Suzuki Roshi’s published books, but from the collected transcripts of his talks, in this case, a summary of what he had spoken of during a sesshin in 1964.

Kathryn Schulz

I continue to derive much intellectual stimulation from reading the New Yorker. Often there are articles I might struggle to begin, but which pull me in through the quality of writing as much as for the subject matter. This was one recent such example; by the line ‘unicorns, aside from some healing properties in their horns, akin to the antibiotics in frog skin, only attract virgins—which, power-wise, puts them at the same level as boy bands’, I was quite hooked.

The ending struck me as a longer version of Suzuki Roshi’s thought the other day (as well as many other posts scattered through the blog):

‘In the end, what’s most remarkable is not that our fantasies contain so much reality; it is that our reality contains so much fantasy. Most of us understand that our perceptual systems, far from passively reflecting the world around us, actively sort, select, distort, ignore, and alter a huge amount of information in order to construct reality as we experience it. But reality as we experience it also departs from actual reality in deeper ways. In actual reality, space and time are inseparable, and neither one behaves anything like the way we perceive it; nor does light, and nor does gravity, and, in all likelihood, nor does consciousness.’