‘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.

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.

Nyogen Senzaki

‘This mind is Buddha and no other, but one who clings to words and postulates an idea of it is far away from the Path. If you meditate on emptiness, you can never empty your mind. If you aim to enter samadhi, you will never reach it.’ (Eloquent Silence)

I always find reading Senzaki is like a fresh breeze blowing through the room.