drafty mountain hut

always at home, forever on the way

Month: May, 2020

Virtual Sesshin Day 1 Dharma Talk

by tendo zenji

Virtual Sesshin Day 1  – May 12th, 2020

Practice in the time of physical distancing. 

Whenever we sit, we sit alone. And yet the motivation aspect of gathering together, sitting together, sharing space together, following a set form and schedule can’t be underestimated. There is a different energy in a room filled with people.  But in essence there is no difference sitting on our own and with others. When we open up to our Original Nature the illusory boundaries between self and other diminish. In the ground of being we are all seamless.

Over this week we are going to be looking at how Ch’an was practiced by the Chinese, which has diverged from its roots in Taoism as it migrated to Japan and the West. This will provide context for the body of techniques that we are going to be exploring in this.  My perspective is that of one in training, pointing toward the path for others. The practices and foundations that have born fruit are worth sharing.

These practices are oriented toward solitary practice, though of course can always be used in any context. But they specifically do not depend upon a teacher, though it is always worth taking advantage of a teacher when one can. We project a lot onto the teachers and they can easily become yet another barrier we have to get through. The true value in a teacher is to keep pushing you, to keep saying “not yet”, to keep hubris in check and to verify our understanding.  In leu of a teacher always know there is more to go, always keep pushing. There is no end to the path and thus you can always go deeper.

We are going to be doing practices both inside and outside that are oriented toward Empty Awareness. While one can of course use this time in whatever techniques you are engaged in, I encourage you to try out this program for this retreat. There is value in trying something different, something fresh. It can stimulate and engage your practice and when you return to your previous techniques you may find them more alive again.

Working with different practices

All practices are skillful means and there are a myriad of skillful means. This is so because every mind is different and responds to these different skillful means. It is incumbent upon us to be aware of the different upaya so that they can be employed where they are needed.  Zongmi, a contemporary of Huangbo (Obaku) wrote an extensive text rooting the teachings of the ten primary branches of the Ch’an in his time in the canonical teaching of the sutras.  In this quote he explains the value of such a treatise: 

“First, there are those who have not fully awakened, in spite of the fact that have been studying under a master, and also, those who are conducting an earnest search, but have not yet met a good friend. By enabling them to browse through this compilation, they will have before them the dead behind the words of the masters, and they will use these to penetrate their own minds and cut of any remaining thoughts,  Second there are those who are already awakened, but who desire ti go in and become masters. This compilation will enable them to broaden their learning, and increase their good skill in teaching derives in order to embrace sentient beings and answer questions during instruction .” 

“Each [of the lineages] has a purport; none of them is in conflict with the intention of the Buddha” (Jeffery Broughton, Zongmi on Chan, p. 107-8)

These two purports he puts in are the same as what I am following in these talks: to present practices that may appeal to different minds at different stages on the path. All teachings are provisional and will need to be abandoned. Do not get attached to the false notion of the “one true way.”

Empty Awareness

When we are rooted in our direct experience, our internal monologue falls away and we are just operating as Awareness. This is being in tune with our Original Nature, simply pure awareness expressing itself through our relative forms, our bodies.  When our sense of identity is rooted in our Original Nature this is Empty Awareness.  Normally our identity is rooted in our sense of self, which is an amalgam of memories, feelings, conditioning.  When we let go of our conditioning this sense of the small self is seen as fundamentally empty. Empty Awareness is what remains.

As the commentary falls away there is a sense of an immense silence. There is a great power in stillness and out of it seeps this great silence. Silence is the experience of empty awareness. When you begin to slip into this modality it almost seems like a roaring silence.  All of the practices of this retreat are devoted to silence, to pure, empty awareness.

The foundations of Ch’an practice,
Zongmi writhes that Ch’an is a uniquely Chinese Expression of Buddhism. He saw it’s pithy phrases, use of poetry, direct response to conditions as embodying the Chinese character and culture which is heavily oriented around poetry.  But its whole understanding of how the universe manifests itself and how we live within it underlies that. Without beginning from that perspective Ch’an loses much of its essence. We will examine the foundations of Ch’an primarily through the works of David Hinton and through Ch’an Master Sheng Yen we will see it put into practice.

Absence and Presence

“No-Gate Gateway’s native philosophical context extends back over two millennia prior to its composition. And yet it remains remarkably contemporary to us, for as we will see it is an empirically grounded spirituality that weaves human consciousness into landscape and Cosmos at profound levels. In its radical essence, Ch’an is a formalized philosophical practice cultivating a spiritual ecology that is an extension of Taoism, the empirically based spiritual philosophy that had shaped Chinese intellectual life for over a thousand years before Buddhism arrived in China. Ch’an originated in the fourth century through an amalgamation of these two traditions: Taoism and dhyāna (meaning “meditation,” and rendered in Chinese as Ch’an) Buddhism. It was widely considered by artist-intellectuals as a form of Taoist thought refined and reconfigured by Buddhist meditation practice.

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Virtual Sesshin May 2020: Overview and Sources

by tendo zenji

From May 12th-16th, 2020, we held a Virtual Sesshin, broadcast from Tahoma Zen Monastery. The theme of this retreat was Empty Awareness and presented a variety of Ch’an Theory and Technique around this theme. The retreat was oriented around practice and was primarily rounds of zazen. There was an emphasis on outdoor practice, with both outdoor zazen as well as specific outdoor Empty Awareness practices. These approaches complimented the seated meditation that made up the bulk of most days. Each day featured a Dharma Talk which will be posted over the forthcoming days.


In this first post documenting this retreat we will examine the source material that was used throughout the retreat. The grounding of the retreat was in David Hinton’s Taoist understanding of Ch’an.

No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
Translated by David Hinton
Shambhala, 2018
ISBN-10: 161180437X

David Hinton’s essential new translation of the Wu-men Kuan (Japanese: Mumonkan) was the core text for the grounding of this retreat into Ch’an thought. The introduction of this bought sketches out Chinese Ontology and its grounding in Taosism. This introduction illuminates how Chan practitioners approached the practice, integrated Buddhism and Taoism and worked with the Gong’an (Japanese: Koan) in this text. The translation of each case maintains the poetry, ontology grounding and elegance of the initial Chinese text.

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

Translated by David Hinton
New Directions, 2005
ASIN: B00O2R6G64

David Hinton’s selection and translations of poems from throughout the entire history of the Mountains and Rivers tradition. This again features an essential introduction that grounds the poetry and the movement in its Taoist and Ch’an roots. Absolutely essential text for understanding the degree to which the natural world is considered a part of the practice and filled with wonderful poems that capture our true nature in the wild.

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
David Hinton
Shambhala, 2019
ASIN: B07V8C265M

This absolutely unique book is part biography, part discourse on translation and part examination of the awakened life. A companion piece to Hinton’s newly revised and expanded Selected Poems of Tu Fu this book provides deep insight into translating Chinese poems. But most essentially it displays how a person who moves through the world without obstruction operates in this troubled world.

The Method of No-Method: The Chan Practice of Silent Illumination
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2008

This was the core practice book that we used for this retreat. Ch’an Master Sheng Yen is unparalleled in presenting Just Sitting at both a practical level as well as its context within the Ch’an tradition. Featuring both a set of teisho from retreat directly on Silent Illumination it also includes several essays and translations from Chan Master Hongzhi the innovator of the technique. Absolutely essential reading for those who wish to continue on with this practice.

Shattering the Great Doubt: the Chan Practice of Huatou
Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala, 2009
ASIN: B00C5KK738

This volume from Ch’an Master Sheng Yen is on the practice of Huatoa, a form of incessant inquiry. As an open and still mind is a prerequisite for this work (and any inquiry work) it presents the core method of Silent Illumination and related practices. Since both this book and the Method of No-Method are taking from teisho’s in retreat, this gives a somewhat different angle on those approaches. This also was the core text for the Rohatsu Observance that we held here at Tahoma in January of this year.

Zongmi on Chan
Translation and commentary by Jeffery L. Broughton
Columbia University Press, 2009
ASIN: B0092WV78Q

This academic translation of Zongmi’s surviving original works provides deep insight into how to look at all of the various streams of Ch’an. While not heavily used during this retreat, it has influenced my thinking on working with skillful means and understanding the different schools of Ch’an and Zen.

The Hongzhou School: Baizhang

by tendo zenji


Dajian Huineng (Sixth Patriarch)
Nanyue Huairang
Mazu Daoyi
Baizhang Huaihai

Baizhang had numerous dharma heirs including Hunangbo, teacher of Linchi from when the dominate Linchi school formed.

Baizhang in the Record of the Transmission of the Lamp


Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 85)

A FOREMOST DISCIPLE of Mazu, Baizhang Huaihai (720–814) was originally from the city of Changle in Fuzhou. He took his vows as a monk under the Vinaya master Fachao on Mt. Heng. Brilliant and learned as a young man, he traveled to study under the great teacher Mazu Daoyi. The Wudeng Huiyuan ranks him, along with Xitang Zhizang and Nanquan Puyuan, as one of the three most illustrious disciples of Mazu.

Baizhang represents how Bodhidharma’s Zen tradition put down roots and matured in China. From the perspective of spiritual practice, Baizhang’s teachings hewed to the tradition attributed to Bodhidharma of not relying on scripture but instead on “turning the light inward.” While this approach naturally led to a de-emphasis or outright rejection of religious symbolism and to iconoclastic tendencies, Baizhang kept Zen firmly grounded with his emphasis on ethical behavior and his “pure rules” for the monastery. This also reinforced the centrality of the home-leaving tradition. Here was a Zen teacher of clarity, who recognized that understanding the nature of the mind and observing the wheel of birth and death is not the final goal of Zen practice, but its source. He demonstrated that while the nature of consciousness is that it is not in the domain of the individual, the physical body is its vehicle—and he taught that overemphasis on “mind” while degrading the role of body leads to unethical behavior and nihilism. Here, Buddhism’s emphasis on the “middle way” takes complete form in a tradition too susceptible to philosophical idealism and metaphysics.

Practice in the Present.

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 86-7)

Baizhang’s “practice in the present” is how Zen follows Bodhidharma’s instruction about “observing” mind. It is the observation that the present is the only context for life and practice, yet not imbuing that observation with ideas of existence, nonexistence, etc. The “nature” of which Bodhidharma taught and Baizhang spoke is not a metaphysical substrata of the observable world, but an undefinable quality of consciousness that, as Shitou said, lies outside the perspectives of “temporary” or “everlasting.” To Baizhang, all such views fall short of what can be directly observed.

The idea of “overcoming spurious doctrines” again reveals the contrast between Zen and the Buddhism of Emperor Wu. It draws a clear line between Zen and the parts of Mahayana Buddhism that idealized the faith and expounded it in grand metaphysical terms. This grounding of Zen in the present and in ordinary life characterized Bodhidharma’s Zen tradition from its early times to the present.

House Wind

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 89)

Baizhang taught and resided as abbot and taught on Daxiong (“Great Hero”) Mountain, which was also known as Mt. Bai Zhang in what is now Fengxin County in Jiangxi Province. Besides being a Zen master of the first order, Baizhang established the monastic rules of Zen monasteries, partly on the model of the Fourth Ancestor, Dayi Daoxin. Prior to Baizhang’s times, many Zen monks lived in temples constructed by other branches of Buddhism. Influenced by Baizhang’s instructions, Zen temples evolved to be more self-supporting and independent

Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings(p. 91)

In the everyday work of the monastery, Baizhang always was foremost among the assembly at undertaking the tasks of the day. The monks in charge of the work were concerned about the master. They hid his tools and asked him to rest. Baizhang said, “I’m unworthy. How can I allow others to work in my behalf?” He looked everywhere for his tools but was unable to find them. He even forgot to eat [while looking for his tools], and thus the phrase “a day without working is a day without eating” has become known everywhere.



Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and Their Teachings
Andy Ferguson.
Wisdom Publications. Expanded edition (February 22, 2011)
ISBN-10: 9780861716173

Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume 1: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary
Thomas Cleary
Shambhala (April 12, 2005)
ISBN-10: 1590302184

The Hongzhou School of Chan Buddhism in Eighth Through Tenth Century China
by Jinhua Jia
SUNY Press; Annotated edition edition (June 1, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0791468240

Ordinary Mind as the Way: The Hongzhou School and the Growth of Chan Buddhism
by Mario Poceski
Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 13, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0195319966

Working with Contradiction

by tendo zenji

Pei Xiu asked, “What is Buddha?”

The master replied, “The mind is buddha. No-mind is the Way. If you neither arouse your mind nor allow yourself to think in terms of such mental conceptions as existence and nonexistence, long and short, self and others, and subject and object, then the mind is originally buddha and buddha is originally the mind.”
-Ch’an Master Huangbo, from A Bird in Flight Leaves No Trace, p. 127

Because all things arise from the generative emptiness that is fundamental reality, our experience is rife with contradictions. This and That are simultaneously Not-This and Not-That and bear no fundamental separation. ‘Mind is Buddha‘ and ‘No Mind, No Buddha‘ can both be a reflection of reality depending on circumstance.  We can be asked to examine something from one view as absolute reality and then examine its opposite as also simply another aspect of this reality.  For where can anything arise but from the generative ground of fundamental reality? All of the dualities, contradictory thoughts, paradoxical views, all are contained within true nature.

Working with contradiction is a way to get past our discriminating, conceptual mind. Deeply engaging with something, a word, a view, a fundamental question and following it down to its essential emptiness can lead to insight.  Then contemplating its opposite to the same place can open to a deeper insight. Working with contradictory statements can efficiently reveal this inherent emptiness, that ultimately there is no there, there.

Koan’s try to “cut off the mind road.” They try to tease mind outside of thought and explanation, and so, to return consciousness to silence and the more immediate experience possible to empty-mind. That empty-mind precludes the distancing of things as object. Like meditation, Koan’s establish mind in a relation of mirror-like immediacy, allowing an immediate experience of landscape’s ten thousand things in and of themselves, an elemental mystery. And that mirrorlike immediacy reveals that we are ourselves wholly a part of that elemental mystery.”
-David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-Men Kuan,, p. xxi

Working with Gong’an (Jp. Koan) or Huatou (Jp. Wato) is a formalized practice of this type of work. But we can work with the contradiction of our lives, of the deep questions of ‘who am I, really?’ or ‘what is this?’  When dualities arise we push deeper into them, see both views as empty and ultimately seamless. For more on this topic please see the Dharma Talk below the fold.

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