Standing in Our Own Way

by tendo zenji

[Download or Listen to this talk: Standing in Our Own Way]

In our study of the lineage from Torei Zenji’s Record of the Transmission of the Lamp we are following a thread of men who have broken through to their original nature and then continued with the practice deepening and maturing. This presents to us the essence of the Buddhism of Zen, that is awakening to our Original Nature. This is continuously emphasized in Rinzai Zen where the talks, interviews and constant exhortations are to see past our small selves and confront reality as it is. Other approaches and sects have come to downplay awakening, to focus on other aspects of the practice. But it is the case that all methods, in fact practice itself, are merely upaya, skillful means, to assist us in this endeavor. To quote Dahui  “ investigating the ultimate principle take awakening as the standard.” (Letters of Dahui, p. 288)

This continual exhortation toward awakening can create its own barrier.  That is it gets entangled in our egos and becomes reified.  “Break through” becomes an object that one must attain, an object to seek after, grasp and hold onto. The self employs many strategies in order to hold on and seeking after this shiny object in order to become an awakened ego is a prime example. Think of all the glory and benefits of being able to casually drop into idle Zen chatter ones attainment.  Then at other times it turns it around and rejects it.  “It ain’t no thing”, “it’s overblown,” “this is all just old talk” and so on. One can become sullen about the whole thing, one can rationalize it claiming that “I’m just here for the samdahi, resting in emptiness is TRUE meditation” and on and on.

Hearing other peoples stories can inspire us or it can be disheartening. It’s one thing to hear about great Chan masters one after the other “crushing samsara,”  but as the years add up knowing that there are those who have had insight or deeper insights or more insights can lead to these negative thoughts.  There is always something more, some reason for our selves to use to desperately hold on.  But the question comes up again and again is why do some practitioners “break through” and others do not? The canonical answer would be that the causes and conditions are not ripe. We can’t of course really know for any given individual what the causes and conditions for awakening are, but there are some features that crop up again and again.

Natural Awakenings

We can look at the stories of those who came to awaken outside of formal practice and see what the commonalities are.

via Absorption

The first of these is through deep absorption during illness. Mumon Roshi has told the story of getting ill and struggling to breathe, doing nothing but breathing for two years.

Yamada Mumon Roshi became a pupil of Kawaguchi Ekai but his intense and austere practice of Zen caused him to fall ill with tuberculosis. He lived for many years in isolation waiting for the end when, one sunny day in June, he saw a Nanten flower, and he had an awakening.

A similar story I’ve heard was of a person injured in a car crash who was in a coma for a long period. During that for a long time they had no sense of self. Coming out of it they focused on just the sensation of being, which became their bodies and eventually a sense of self came back.  Other stories, especially of people having to just concentrate on one sensation—a part of the body, or especially their breath are to be had.

via Questioning

For some people some question becomes absolutely consuming.  Truly needing to understand the nature of things, not accepting canonical truths is way seeking mind.  But there are degrees of how much this motivates one, how all consuming it becomes.

Flora Courtoi  in the 1940s had several glimpse beyond the veil and became consumed with the question “What is Real?” While she was at college for months this was all she concerned herself with until finally she broke through. She didn’t know what to do with it and tried to just live with it until meeting Yasutani Roshi 22 years later.

Experience 2

“Standing at the kitchen window one day, and looking out at where a path wound under some maple trees, I suddenly saw the scene with a freshness and clarity that I’d never seen before. Simultaneously, as though for the first time, I fully realized I was not only on the earth but of it, an intimate part and product of it. I was as if a door had briefly opened. I stood there transfixed. I remember thinking: “Distant places on the map such as Tibet and North Africa are extensions of right here, all interrelated!” (pp. 24 – 25).

Experience 3

“Standing in April, Easter vacation arrived and I went home to Detroit to spend a week with my parents. There, about three days later, alone in my room, sitting quietly on the edge of my bed and gazing at a small desk, not thinking of anything at all, in a moment too short to measure, the universe changed on its axis and my search was over.

The small, pale green desk at which I’d been so thoughtlessly gazing had totally and radically changed. It appeared now with a clarity, a depth of three-dimensionality, a freshness I had never imagined possible. At the same time, in a way that is utterly indescribable, all my questions and doubts were gone as effortlessly as chaff in the wind. I knew everything and all at once, yet not in the sense that I had ever known anything before.

All things were the same in my little bedroom yet totally changed. Still sitting in wonder on the edge of my narrow bed, one of the first things I realized was that the focus of my sight seemed to have changed; it had sharpened to an infinitely small point which moved ceaselessly in paths totally free of the old accustomed ones, as if flowing from a new source.

What on earth had happened? So released from all tension, so ecstatically light did I feel, I seemed to float down the hall to the bathroom to look at my face in the mottled mirror over the sink. The pupils of my eyes were dark, dilated and brimming with mirth. With a wondrous relief, I began to laugh as I’d never laughed before, from the soles of my feet upward.

Within a few days I had returned to Ann Arbor, and there over a period of many months there took place a ripening, a deepening and unfolding of this experience which filled me with wonder and gratitude at every moment. The foundations had fallen from my world. I had plunged into a numinous openness which had obliterated all fixed distinctions including that of within and without. A Presence had absorbed the universe including myself, and to this I surrendered in absolute confidence. Often, without any particular direction in mind, I found myself outside running along the street in joyous abandon. Sometimes when alone I simply danced as freely as I did as a child. The whole world seemed to have reversed itself, to have turned outside in. Activity flowed simply and effortlessly, and to my amazement, seemingly without thought. Instead of following my old sequence of learning, thinking, planning, then acting, action had taken precedence and whatever was learned was surprisingly incidental. Yet nothing ever seemed to go out of bounds; there was no alternation between self-control and letting go but rather a perfect rightness and spontaneity to all this flowing activity.

Flora Courtoi, An Experience of Enlightenment

Spontaneous Awakening

Barbara Ehrenreich

One of these reverberating experiences occurred in her early teens at a horse show in Massachusetts. “Something peeled off the visible world,” Ms. Ehrenreich recalls, “taking with it all meaning, inference, association, labels and words. I was looking at a tree, and if anyone had asked, that’s what I would have said I was doing, but the word ‘tree’ was gone, along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language.”

Another occurred a few years later during a predawn walk in Lone Pine, Calif., when “the world flamed into life.” She writes: “There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me, and I poured out into it.” She admits she was hungry and sleep deprived at the time.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Living with a Wild God

via Physical Exertion

Thoreau attempts to climb Mount Katahdin.

from Ktaadn and the Maine Woods

At length I entered within the skirts of the cloud which seemed forever drifting over the summit, and yet would never be gone, but was generated out of that pure air as fast as it flowed away; and when, a quarter of a mile farther, I reached the summit of the ridge, which those who have seen in clearer weather say is about five miles long, and contains a thousand acres of table-land, I was deep within the hostile ranks of clouds, and all objects were obscured by them. Now the wind would blow me out a yard of clear sunlight, wherein I stood; then a gray, dawning light was all it could accomplish, the cloud-line ever rising and falling with the wind’s intensity. Sometimes it seemed as if the summit would be cleared in a few moments, and smile in sunshine; but what was gained on one side was lost on another. It was like sitting in a chimney and waiting for the smoke to blow away. It was, in fact, a cloud-factory,—these were the cloud-works, and the wind turned them off done from the cool, bare rocks. Occasionally, when the windy columns broke in to me, I caught sight of a dark, damp crag to the right or left; the mist driving ceaselessly between it and me. It reminded me of the creations of the old epic and dramatic poets,[.] … It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more lone than you can imagine. There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him than in the plains where men inhabit. His reason is dispersed and shadowy, more thin and subtile, like the air. Vast, Titanic, inhuman Nature has got him at disadvantage, caught him alone, and pilfers him of some of his divine faculty. She does not smile on him as in the plains. She seems to say sternly, Why came ye here before your time. This ground is not prepared for you. Is it not enough that I smile in the valleys? I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors. I cannot pity nor fondle thee here, but forever relentlessly drive thee hence to where I am kind. Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother? Shouldst thou freeze or starve, or shudder thy life away, here is no shrine, nor altar, nor any access to my ear.

The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains,—their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.


Perhaps I most fully realized that this was primeval, untamed, and forever untamable Nature, or whatever else men call it, while coming down this part of the mountain. We were passing over “Burnt Lands,” burnt by lightning, perchance, though they showed no recent marks of fire, hardly so much as a charred stump, but looked rather like a natural pasture for the moose and deer, exceedingly wild and desolate, with occasional strips of timber crossing them, and low poplars springing up, and patches of blueberries here and there. I found myself traversing them familiarly, like some pasture run to waste, or partially reclaimed by man; but when I reflected what man, what brother or sister or kinsman of our race made it and claimed it, I expected the proprietor to rise up and dispute my passage. It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man. We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere. And yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman, though in the midst of cities. Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land. It was the fresh and natural surface of the planet Earth, as it was made forever and ever,—to be the dwelling of man, we say,—so Nature made it, and man may use it if he can. Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific,—not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in,—no, it were being too familiar even to let his bones lie there,—the home, this, of Necessity and Fate. There was clearly felt the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man. It was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites,—to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we. We walked over it with a certain awe, stopping, from time to time, to pick the blueberries which grew there, and had a smart and spicy taste. Perchance where our wild pines stand, and leaves lie on their forest floor, in Concord, there were once reapers, and husbandmen planted grain; but here not even the surface had been scarred by man, but it was a specimen of what God saw fit to make this world. What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star’s surface, some hard matter in its home! I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,—that my body might,—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

Henry David Thoreau, Ktaadn and the Maine Woods

So what do these “natural awakenings” have to teach us? Primarily that what seems to be at the root of most of these experiences is a complete abandonment to one of these modalities. Stuck in ones failing body intensely concentrating on each breath, on one’s big toe, on living another minute.  Deeply wondering about the nature of reality, to the point where it is the most important thing, the exclusive thing in ones life. Pushing oneself beyond limits, driven by some ephemeral goal.  All of these examples and there are countless more of these are all marked by single-mindedness.

Now Consider the “devices” that Chan and Zen employ:

Stillness-Sitting, Asceticism, Samadhi, koans, huatoa.  All of these are methods to try to artificially induce the conditions that naturally drive some people to awaken. Not driven to wonder what reality is?  Relentlessly question whether a dog has Buddha Nature. Not driven to scale distant peaks?  Sit here without moving for seven days. Not focusing on your breath to live? Focus on your breath to the exclusion of anything else.  All of these methods are processes that people have stumbled upon over the millennia and made formal and systematized.  One my not have single-mindedness but one can practice as if one does.

Barriers to Awakening

Attachment to awakening

Most members of the scholar-official class these days take mental reflection and calculation as their lair. When they hear in-that-way talk [such as this], they immediately say: “Doesn’t that fall
into emptiness?” This is like jumping into the water to preempt the boat’s capsizing! It’s quite pathetic. Recently I went to Jiangxi and met Lü Juren. Juren has been interested in this matter for a very long time, but he also has a bad case of this illness [of fearing a fall into emptiness]. There can be no mistaking that he is bright. I have asked him: “You are ‘fearful of falling into emptiness’; but the subject who notices this fear— is he empty or non-empty? Speak!” He stood still, lost in thought, calculating what to reply. Instantly I gave a shout. To this day he’s stumped and doesn’t have a clue.This is because he takes the mind of seeking awakeningand puts it right in front of him, creating his own obstacle— there’s no other reason. You, sir, should make an attempt to “do gongfu in this way” [i.e., do huatou practice].After many, many days and months spontaneously it will “click.”

Letters of Dahui, p. 64-65

Passive Practice

If you have your mind assume a posture of waiting for awakening, if you have your mind assume a posture of waiting for stopping-to-rest, even if you practice from right now until the future buddha Maitreya appears, you won’t be able to attain awakening, you won’t be able to attain stopping-to-rest. You will just add on more and more delusive worrying. Preceptor Pingtian said: “The fact that the spirit light [of prajñā] never goes dark is the wonderful Way of ten-thousand ages. In entering this gate one does not preserve intellectual understanding.” 

Also, an ancient worthy (Renyong ) said: “This matter cannot be sought via having- mind, cannot be gotten via no-mind; cannot be reached via language, and cannot be comprehended via stillness or silence.” This is top-of-the-line, bogged-down-in-mud-and-water, “old-grandma [upāya or skill-in-means] talk.” Often those who practice Chan just memorize such talk—little do they imagine that the reason for it is upāya. If it’s a person who has grit, when he hears even a little bit of this sort of talk, he immediately takes the precious sword of the Vajra King and with a single blow severs the kudzu-verbiage of these four roads: then the road of samsara is cut off; the road of the common person/noble one is cut off; calculation and mental reflection are cut off; and gain/loss and right/wrong are cut off. The person on duty right now is naked, neat and tidy—there is nothing for him to grasp at. How could he not be elated? How could he not be unimpeded? 

Letters of Dahui, p. 65-67

Delusions of the Intellect

Habitual calculation and logical arrangement are delusion. Getting swept up in the flow of samsara also is delusion. Getting “fearful and anxious” [about these things] also is delusion. Today’s practitioners, not noticing that these are an illness, simply bob up and down in [delusion]. As is said in the teachings: “Following after consciousness, not following after wisdom.” By doing this one darkens the original ground or original face

Letters of Dahui, p. 64-65

Lack of Commitment and Confidence

in Awakening itself

Having no confidence in the existence of an entrance to awakening, they [i.e., the perverse teachers] consider awakening a deception; they consider awakening “starting second” at a game of chess; they consider awakening as upāya-speech; they consider awakening a term to lure beings along. People like this cheat others and cheat themselves, mislead others and mislead themselves. You must be careful!

Letters of Dahui, p. 17

in oneself

Letter #31.2: The buddhas and patriarchs have not a single teaching to give to people. All that is necessary is for the person on duty to have confidence on his own, give assent on his own, see on his own, awaken on his own. If you just latch onto what other people [like the buddhas and patriarchs] have to say [and don’t bother to see on your own], I fear [it will be taken that the buddhas and patriarchs] have deceived people. 

Letter #14.5: The hilt of this sword lies only in the hand of the per- son on duty. You can’t have someone else do it for you. You must do it yourself. If you stake your life on it, you’ll be ready to set about doing it. If you’re not yet capable of staking your life on it, just keep pressing hard at the point where the uncertainty is not yet smashed [i.e., go on rallying the huatou to awareness]. Suddenly you’ll be ready to stake your life on one throw—done!

Letters of Dahui, p. 29


Your letter informs me of the whole story in detail. [Your letter quotes what] the Buddha said: “All that has mind can become a buddha.”422 This mind is not the mind of mundane worries and phantasmal thought. It refers to the mind of producing the unexcelled, great awakening [i.e., the bodhicitta or aspiration to awakening]. If there is this [aspiration-to-awaken- ing] mind, then there is no being that will not become a buddha. Of members of the scholar-official class studying the Way, most create obstacles for themselves, the reason being that they do not have resolute confidence [in the aspiration for awakening]. The Buddha also said: “Confidence is the source of the Way, the mother of karmic merit. It nourishes all good dhar-mas and cuts off the snare of doubt, allowing one to exit the ‘desire-flood’ and showing one the unexcelled path to nirvana.” Also: “Confidence can increase the quality of wisdom; confidence can assure that one arrives at the tathāgata stage.”

Letters of Dahui, p. 131

Wayseeking Mind

In the end this comes down to Wayseeking Mind. Of the natural awakening examples it is the example of the intense questioning shows us the way.  The other examples are circumstances that we can find ourselves in, or drive ourselves to.  But it is that need to know what is this, what is true, what is real, who am I? that is Wayseeking Mind.  Coming to the practice for any other reason is perfectly reasonable and a wondrous thing. Encountering the Dharma is a rare thing and always of value. During the course of practice our self-oriented goals can fall away, Wayseeking Mind can be aroused.  Most people have these tastes of Original Nature like a memory of a taste, or perhaps scenting faint traces of perfume that someone had been wearing still lingering in a space.  Even just the receding of the self a bit, or sinking into samadhi or coming out of a period of zazen with more energy than with which one started is like a thread into our Original Nature.  As we sense this thread and pull on it, those self-oriented motivations fall away.  Escaping suffering, finding peace, self-improvement, being more balanced, improving our health and so on. We pull on that thread and wonder, what is this? What is it? Finding out becomes what is the most important thing to us. 

 Even those of us with responsibilities that have to take precedence, have to have a time where this matter is the most important thing. Sesshin is a great resource in this way. Everything else has been taken away and if we approach it sincerely we put away our phones, disengage in frivolous talk and devote ourselves complete to this matter. What is it? I have to know.  Without this, if one can’t get past the small concerns, if one can’t devote themselves completely to knowing then even glimpses into Original Nature will be elusive.  Sometimes the pushing ourselves beyond our physical limits will do this. But where does that pushing come from? Again it is one’s own aspirations. You won’t make yourself sit beyond enduring if you are just doing this to be a better employee.  

This aspiration can come from any glimpse: physical exertions, sickness, psychedelics, dreams, ecstatic experiences and so on. That can become the impetus for developing Bodhicitta. [

[Listen to the recording of this talk: Standing in Our Own Way]


The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue 
Jeffery Broughton and Elsie Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (August 1, 2017)
ISBN: 0190664169

The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp of the Zen School
by Zen Master Torei Enji  with Commentary by Master Daibi of Unman
Translated by Yoko Okuda
Download pdf: here 
Purchase: here

Ktaadn and the Maine Woods
Henry David Thoreau

An Experience of Enlightenment
Flora Courtoi

Living with a Wild God
Barbara Ehrenreich
NY Times, April 2014