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.

Taoist Roots
Taoism already had a thousand year history in China when Buddhism arrived, but essentially Taoism itself codified a cosmology and worldview that was already at the core of Chinese thought. Taoism considers the nature of reality and how we, as simply another aspect of this reality, function within and of it.

Virtually all aspects of Ch’an’s conceptual framework are anticipated in Taoism’s seminal texts: I Ching, Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu. Taoist thought is best described as a spiritual ecology, the central concept of which is Tao, or Way. Tao originally meant “way,” as in “pathway” or “roadway,” a meaning it has kept. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, the seminal Taoist thinkers, redefined it as a generative cosmological process, an ontological pathWay by which things come into existence, evolve through their lives, and then go out of existence, only to be transformed and reemerge in a new form. To understand Tao, we must approach it at its deepest ontological and cosmological level, where the distinction between Absence (無) and Presence (有) arises

Presence is simply the empirical universe, which the ancients described as the ten thousand things in constant transformation, and Absence is the generative void from which this ever-changing realm of Presence perpetually emerges. Absence is the more foundational of the two principles.

(3) David Hinton, No-Gate Gateway (pp. xii-xiii)



Way can be understood as the generative process through which all things arise and pass away as Absence burgeons forth into the great transformation of Presence. This is simply an ontological description of natural process, and it is perhaps most immediately manifest in the seasonal cycle.

(3) David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xv)

There simply is no room in Taoism for the notion of being separate from fundamental reality.  All of the dualities are seen to contain their opposite, to flow from one to the other.  This if of course clearly rendered in the Yin Yang symbol (see above): there is a drop of Yin growing in Yang, a drop of Yang growing in Yin. Yin and Yang are of course Absence and Presence. Critically for the purposes of these practices, being outside, in the landscape, reveals presence flowing into absence in the cycles of life, the movement of the seasons and in the ever-changing sky. We can use landscape to reveal this, to get past the separateness.

Sage wisdom in ancient China meant understanding the deep nature of consciousness and Cosmos, how they are woven together into a single fabric, an understanding that enables us to dwell as an organic part of Tao’s generative cosmological process. The cultivation of this dwelling took many forms, all of which involved a deep engagement with landscape, which was seen as the open door to realization because it is where Tao’s process of transformation was most majestically and immediately visible. Ancient artist-intellectuals lived whenever possible as recluses in the mountains, wandered there where that cosmological process could be experienced in the most immediate possible way. All of the arts were considered ways to cultivate that dwelling. Calligraphy was considered a way of enacting the dynamic energy of the Cosmos. Poetry and painting also embodied that energy, and they took landscape as their deep subject matter. And finally, that dwelling was the central concern of Ch’an practice: both meditation and sangha-case practice. Ch’an’s essential nature as landscape practice will become clear below; but for the moment, it is perhaps sufficient to mention that Ch’an monasteries were typically located in remote mountains, and Ch’an masters leading those monasteries generally took the names of those mountains as their own because they so deeply identified with them. What’s more, the ancient meaning of ch’an, before it was chosen to translate the Sanskrit dhyana (“meditation”), was “sacrifice to rivers and mountains,” rivers and mountains being the term we translate “landscape,” as in “landscape painting” or “landscape poetry.”

(3) David Hinton. No-Gate Gateway (pp. xvi)


“In ancient China, meditation was not limited to monks; it was widely practiced by the artist-intellectual class, for it allows us to watch the process of tzu-jan in the form of thought burgeoning forth from the emptiness and disappearing back into it. In such meditative practice, we see that we are fundamentally separate from the mental processes we normally identify with, that we are most essentially nothing other than wilderness in the most profound ontological sense. And going deeper into meditative practice, one simply dwells in that undifferentiated emptiness, that generative realm of nonbeing. With this meditative dwelling in the emptiness of nonbeing, we are at the heart of China’s wilderness cosmology, inhabiting the primal universe in the most profound way. At this depth, one sees that it is in the ten thousand things that we know ourselves most deeply. As nonbeing, empty mind attends to those ten thousand things with a mirror-like clarity, a spiritual practice that is the very fabric of China’s rivers-and-mountains poetry, manifest in its texture of imagistic clarity.”

(2) David Hinton,  Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China.

It can be easy to confuse techniques and teachings as meditation. It is often the case that one becomes attached to a technique like breath counting, deep breathing, thought following and other mindfulness practices, inquiry practices such as koan study or huatoa. Thus it is valuable to reorient oneself back to the essence of meditation. “…going deeper into meditative practice, one simply dwells in that undifferentiated emptiness, that generative realm of nonbeing.” Meditation gives one the space to get past conceptual thinking, past conditioned response, beyond language, and to simply be in original nature.   There we can engage in practices to push us deeply past our small selves, but it is worth remembering that these are not our original nature, they exist to erode the fiction that we are separate from reality.

Sangha-cases (ed.: koans) are a primary means of resolving what is the most fundamental question for Ch’an practice, and perhaps for human consciousness in general: how to pass through that seemingly closed gateway between us and the nonverbal depths of the loom, which is the gateway between thought and silence, subjective and objective, mind and landscape, self and Cosmos. 

Sangha-case study reinforces meditation, which is the heart of Ch’an practice, its primary means of understanding the true nature of consciousness. And fundamental to that understanding is moving past the illusory separation between consciousness and Cosmos. In its essence, meditation means sitting quietly and watching thoughts come and go in a field of silent emptiness. From this attention to thought’s movement comes meditation’s first revelation: that we are not, as a matter of observable fact, our thoughts and memories. That is, we are not that center of identity we assume ourselves to be in our day-to-day lives, that center of identity defining us as fundamentally separate from the empirical Cosmos. Instead, we are the empty awareness that watches identity rehearsing itself in thoughts and memories relentlessly coming and going. 

(3) David Hinton,  No-Gate Gateway (pp. xix-xxi)


Beginning in the Body

The practices always begin with the body. We go through much of life as if we are disembodied consciousness, grumbling at the “meat” the gives us so many aches and pains.  We must first lose that sense of separateness from the body, ground ourselves in our body. It is only then that we can let go of our sense of separateness from all things.  We will work with the Ch’an understanding of this as explained by Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, beginning with aligning with our bodies.

To Know Yourself 

To practice Chan is to know oneself, and knowing oneself, one will be able to ultimately liberate oneself. But knowing the self is difficult, having control of the self is more difficult, and liberating the self even more difficult. Yet, it must be done because all ignorance and afflictions arise from not knowing who we are. Lacking control of ourselves, we have vexations, we have self-grasping, and we are thus in bondage to the self. The purpose of practice is to liberate ourselves from this bondage. To do this, we need concepts as our guide and we need a method of practice.

The basic understanding of Chan is that our sense of self arises from the interactions of the body, mind, and external environment. In terms of methods, the first principle is to detach from the sense of self that arises from the external environment, then to detach from the sense of self that arises from our body, and lastly, to detach from the sense of self that arises from the activities of our mind. The latter includes sensations, feelings, ideas, and thoughts, which are essentially all attachments. So, step-by-step, you separate, isolate, and narrow down the sense of self. […]

(4) Sheng Yen. Shattering the Great Doubt (pp. 6)

All of us who have been practicing for sometime have a body of techniques and evictees that we use.  Some taught by teachers or books, others we found our way into them. All of them we have adapted to our needs and circumstances, stumbling toward what works for us.  Working with alternate devices, can open new windows for us and refresh our old practices when we return to them.

The primary technique that we are going to engage with is Relaxing into Awareness.  When we are tight and tense we stay in the mind or at the surface level of the body. We aren’t awareness of the body, we are focused on it, or on a thought. Sheng Yen walks us through the technique of relaxing and using the breath in this modality.

To relax your body, first, relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However, if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down. 

So, relax the body and be aware of your sense of self from one moment to the next. You do this by paying attention to the breath. If you catch your mind wandering, come back to your breath. Detach from the environment; pay no attention to it. If you get involved in things heard and seen, you will be overwhelmed by wandering thoughts. Just stay with your experience of this very moment, moment to moment, one instant to the next. And what is this present experience? It is your sense of self grounded in awareness of the body or the mind.

(4) Sheng Yen. Shattering the Great Doubt (pp. 8)

Seated Practice

Relaxing into Awareness

Place your attention on the breath, on your abdomen for a few breaths, to settle a bit and to orient yourself into practice.

Relax the whole body. Place your attention on each body part and relax it. Move beyond words. That is do not label body parts as you relax them. Simply place your attention upon them and let your breath naturally expel. Do not force anything, do not shift attention on breath, keep on the various parts of your body. Do this thoroughly, for at least ten or more regions of the body.

Develop a sense of ‘putting your attention’ as an action that you are doing.  Now try not placing attention. If your attention isn’t focused anywhere than you are in awareness.

Alternatively hold a sense of your entire body, attention not focused on any one part. This will lead to a light awareness of the whole.

As thoughts arise, watch them arise and fade away. If you begin to chase then, notice this then return to the body relaxation. It is important to not add a another layer of thoughts in the form of self-judgment, criticism, commentary. When you follow a thought you will find that you have almost always tensed up somewhere. Place your attention there and let out a breath. Then return to the whole body awareness.

Return to being aware of your sense of self, then letting go of attention.

Outside practice

Direct Contemplation 

In Silent Illumination the silence is in not chasing after momentary experiences; the illumination is being clearly aware of what is actually happening. Similarly, direct contemplation is contemplating the immediacy of whatever you sense. Directly experience and accept whatever confronts you without conceptualizing, naming, or judging. A painter develops ideas about the scene she is about to paint and how she wants to portray it. Hence, what she paints reveals how she feels about the subject. By contrast, direct contemplation is more like taking a photograph. The camera takes in everything with precision but without judgment, labeling, or emotion. In this sense direct contemplation is like a camera accepting things just as they are. When we do our walking meditation outdoors, we incorporate this practice of direct contemplation. If you can do it well, it can help your practice of Silent Illumination, and vice versa. Walk with your eyes open as in regular walking. Do not add any ideas or emotions to your perceptions. Walk slowly or at a normal pace. Unlike regular walking meditation, do not focus on the movements or sensations of your feet. Open up all your senses without constraint and absorb everything that happens around you, without adding anything. Like the camera, just let everything in and experience it. This is how to practice direct contemplation.

-Chan Master Sheng Yen. The Method of No-Method (pp. 48-49). Shambhala.

Orientation to Outdoor practices

When we are seated outside, or where we can see the out doors, this is not an opportunity to ‘watch’ or to provide additional stimulus.  The views that is in front of us is not different from gazing at the floor in front of us.  We are engaging in outdoor zazen in order to use it to facilitate empty awareness.  Sit as you normally you, eyes mostly closed gaze downward. Let the increased sounds of the outdoors flow through you. Let go of the environment and go through our seated practice, relaxing into awareness. When thoughts have subsided open your eyes. There should be no distinction between them open and closed.

Alternatively you can sit with eyes open but not focused on anything. Use the Direct Contemplation method.  In this manner you are using the complexity of the environment to move past the self.  Things should appear as a blur, or almost like static. If you are able sit somewhere where in your immediate, direct view is something complex like trees, or a mass of shrubs.  Simply relax your whole body, especially the eyes and keep them open. All of the outside practices we are going to work with this week are root in this. So work with it in these outside periods of zazen. The practices feed into each other.

Empty Gazing Practices – Foundations

Walk along from the tanden, practicing the Direct Contemplation method, of simply letting sights and sounds flow through us.  Periodically stop and let out a breath. Pause for a moment.  Look at the sky, a tree, distant things such as mountain ranges, treelines, buildings. Resume walking after a moment and try to maintain just a bodily sense of awareness, walking from the tanden. Shift awareness to the tanden as thoughts arise, but then open it up, shifting to direct contemplation of something external if you lose the thread.

When gazing at things, look for complexity, something that you are unable to direct your attention toward.  Avoid naming things, providing commentary. Avoid criticizing yourself. If you find yourself slipping into a narrative noticed then and return to walking attention on the breath.

As you work with this practice and note that all of these practice require time, you will find yourself increasingly in just awareness, few thoughts bubbling up. Those thoughts that do arise simply fall away.  Over the next few days we will refine this technique with specific examples but this is the root of the Gazing techniques. 


  1. Zongmi on Chan
    Translation and commentary by Jeffery L. Broughton
    Columbia University Press, 2009
    ASIN: B0092WV78Q
  2. Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China
    Translated by David Hinton
    New Directions, 2005
    ASIN: B00O2R6G64
  3. No-Gate Gateway: The Original Wu-men Kuan
    Translated by David Hinton
    Shambhala, 2018
    ISBN-10: 161180437X
  4. Shattering the Great Doubt: the Chan Practice of Huatou
    Ch’an Master Sheng Yen
    Shambhala, 2009
    ASIN: B00C5KK738