drafty mountain hut

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Category: Intensive Reports

Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp

by tendo zenji

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

For the 2020 Autumn Training period we are studying The Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp by Torei zenji. This is primarily be through dharma talks at sesshin and other opportunities but also through a number of planned open discussions. All of these talks and discussion will be held via Zoom due to the pandemic and thus can be recorded. Periodically these will be posted here along with the basic information on each talk and the material covered.


1) August 10th, 2020 
Talk for the monthly Virtual Watermoon Dojo gathering
Read through the Forward by Myokkyo-ni of the London Zen Centre
and the Forward by Master Daibi
Began the Preface by Torei Enji reading the initial comments by Daibi
Discussed the translation, which is basically an amateur production with some questionable choices. This is especially seen in the choice to unformly render  心 (hsin/shin) as Heart. As David Hinton notes while there is no distinction in classical Chinese between Heart and Mind it should almost universally be translated as mind as it refers to the mind empty of all conceptual content, not specially the emotional content that just using heart implies.

“…in Ch’an 心 should almost always be translated as “mind” because the emphasis is on consciousness empty of all contents, rather than emotions.”

David Hinton, China Root, p. 140

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 1


2) Sept 15th, 2020
Reading for the monthly Virtual Watermoon Dojo gathering
Continued Preface by Torei Enji  & Master Daibi, p, 12-18
In the preface Torei somewhat obliquely describes the content of the ten sections of the book, which Daibi much more explicitly lays out at length.  Topics that come back throughout I discussed as embodying realization, bringing our practice off the cushion. Discussed ‘Great faith,  Great determination, Great Doubt’ as how this wasn’t an ideological stance but and actual description of the practice of working with Huatoa (Jp: Wato)

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 2

3) Sept 22nd, 2020
Autumnal Equinox Virtual Sesshin Dharma Talk 1
Reintroduced the text and the plan for reading it this autumn. Reiterated the  Heart/Mind translation issue and read a bio of Torei Enji from Zen Masters of Japan by Richard McDaniel (p. 254-6, 259-60)
Began Preface by Torei Enji  & Master Daibi
Only made it through the first part where Daibi goes over the ten sections.
Bio Notes
Note that Gasan Jito was a Dharma heir of Torei Enji though he began with Hakuin. Torei became abbott of Rutaku-ji – the Japanese monastery of the lineage I ordained in which has life-sized statues of Hakuin and Torei in their ancestor hall. Consider Torei’s dedication to his Great Vow even beyond death.

Preface Notes
The preface briefly summarizes the ten sections of the book and noted its emphasis on embodying our realization. This is the fundamental orientation of Mahayana Buddhism. 

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 3


4) Sept 23rd, 2020
Autumnal Equinox Virtual Sesshin Dharma Talk 2
Preface part 2 to p. 21Continued Preface by Torei Enji  & Master Daibi Discussed zeal, Great faith, Great determination, Great doubt similarly to as before: that is as an actual practice technique.  Torei goes through Koan study, advanced practice and maturity in the text, in the sections that we read about. Some of the fundamentals of Linji and Rinzai practice such as All at once awakening vs. Step by Step practice and how those are used together.
Advanced Practice – Nanto Koans and the final koans one does after completing the regular koan curriculum.

Different teaching lines appear to use it in different ways. Some employ it from the early stages of koan training, combining Kattōshū koans with those from better-known works like the Wumen guan [Gateless barrier], Biyan lu [Blue cliff record], and the Linji lu [Record of Linji]. Others use it at a more advanced stage, subsequent to work with the other koan collections. According to monastic friends who have worked extensively with the Kattōshū as an advanced-level text, the emphasis—even more than in the other collections is on eliminating the last attachments to dualistic thought. The koans are thus often approached in ways quite unexpected even to experienced Zen students. As one monastic friend commented, “If there’s anything you can say about the Kattōshū koans, it’s that your first response is certain to be wrong.”

Entangling Vines by Thomas Yuho Kirchner

On Advanced practice and maturity, note his use of the Prison Barrier which I first read of in Sheng Yen. In Ch’an they saw three stages in practice: the initial barrier, the multiple barriers and finally the prison barrier where the last vestiges of self are let go of. Very few get past the prison barrier.

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 4

5) Sept 24th, 2020
Autumnal Equinox Virtual Sesshin Dharma Talk 3
Finished Preface (p.21-26) and Started Introduction (27-32) by Torei Enji & Master Daibi 

Some Notes
Strength of breakthrough – noted how depth of awakening clears away more conditioning and gives us strength.

Long Maturation — Very few get past the prison barrier, even less engaging in the Long Maturation. This is ‘returning to the Village with helping hands. Traditionally this would be the 30 years after enlightenment. Daito Kokusho in the example is from our opening chant.  There have been many masters who worked with people, became doctors, lived with the homeless, and so forth.  This is where you hone and mature your practice in the real world. You practice responding to all circumstances until this is your natural way of being. Rarely done now anywhere.

Transmission – Benefiting all beings is our great vow.  While we can help people in the relative, the ultimate way that we help all beings is through helping them reach liberation. This is why we vow to liberate all beings, even though as the Diamond Sutra states there are no beings to liberate and nothing to be liberated from. Transmission is this process in action.  A teacher has done everything they possibly can to support a student in reaching this liberation and then certifies them to do the same. This is Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 5


6) Sept 25th, 2020
Autumnal Equinox Virtual Sesshin Dharma Talk 4
Concluded Introduction (pp.27-32) and began Ch. 1 by Torei Enji & Master Daibi 

Introduction
The call to hermitage and polishing our insights. Talked about austerities and renunciation that renunciation is an important practice that it can be taken too far as Torei did causing physical injury

Chapter 1 – Lineage
Discussed words and their potential for hindrance and help. That they never get at reality. That there is always at least two meanings in a masters words.

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 6

7) Sept 26th, 2020
Autumnal Equinox Virtual Sesshin Dharma Talk 5
Chapter 1  p. 36 to p.42. Torei ended partway into section 6 – Four Noble Truths, Chain of dependent origination
Talked about words and their dual nature. That they never can get at it, yet it is all we have.

“Words, words! They’re all we have to go on”

Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.


Chapter one goes through the lineage, began history of the buddha and his teachings. These are the foundations of Buddhism and understanding the original teachings allows you to better understand the Mahayana which gives the proper orientation for Ch’a and Zen.

Download Audio: Discourse Talk Part 7


7) Sept 76th, 2020
Zazenkai / Autumnal Equinox Virtual Sesshin Dharma Talk 6
Chapter 1  p. 42-46. through part 6, Chain of dependent origination and Prajna Paramita
Also read this note from the editors that talked about the practitioners of greater and less abilities. It noted this was the heart of the so called Northern and Southern school splits. This is a way of looking at that that I hadn’t considered.  But it makes sense, for the practitioners of great ability the sudden teachings are efficacious, for those of lesser the gradual.  Read from Hui Neng on people who learn “fast or slow” and how Linji tackled students of different abilities.

The Master told Chih-ch’eng, “I’ve heard that when your Zen master teaches people, he only gives instruction in morality, meditation, and wisdom. Tell me, what does your master teach people about morality, meditation, and wisdom?”
Chih-ch’eng said, “Concerning morality, meditation, and wisdom, Master Shen-hsiu says not committing evil is morality, doing good is wisdom, and purifying one’s thoughts is meditation. This is what he means by ‘morality, meditation, and wisdom.’ This is his explanation. What is the Master’s view?”
Hui-neng replied, “This explanation is wonderful, but my view is different.”
Chih-ch’eng asked, “How is it different?”
Hui-neng replied, “Understanding can be fast or slow.”
Chih-ch’eng then asked the Master to explain his view of morality, meditation, and wisdom.
The Master said, “Listen to my explanation, and you’ll see how I view them. When the land of your mind is free of error, this is the morality of your own nature. When the land of your mind is free of confusion, this is the meditation of your own nature. When the land of your mind is free of ignorance, this is the wisdom of your own nature.”
The Master continued, “The morality, meditation, and wisdom of your master are intended for small-minded people. My morality, meditation, and wisdom are intended for people of bigger minds. Once people realize their own nature, they don’t differentiate between morality, meditation, and wisdom.”
Chih-ch’eng said, “Could the Master please explain why they aren’t differentiated?” The Master said, “Our nature is free of error, free of confusion, and free of ignorance. Prajna shines in every thought and is forever free of attributes. What is there to differentiate? Our nature is something we cultivate directly. It doesn’t have any intervening stages, so we don’t differentiate any.”
Chih-ch’eng bowed and did not leave Tsaohsi Mountain. He became a disciple and was never far from the Master’s side.

Red Pine. The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-nen

(Note: failed to record this talk)

References

1) 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
Tuttle Publishing (September 15, 1996)
ISBN: 0804830878
Download: here Purchase: here

2) The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng
Hui Neng, translated by Red Pine
Counterpoint (November 28, 2008)
ISBN: 1593761775

3) Zen Masters of Japan: The Second Step East
by Richard McDaniel
Publisher : Tuttle Publishing (November 1, 2016)
ISBN: 0804847975

4) Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans
by Thomas Yuho Kirchner
Wisdom Publications; Annotated Edition (June 11, 2019)
ISBN: 1614296154

5) China Root: Taoism, Ch’an and Original Zen
David Hinton
Publisher : Shambhala (September 29, 2020)
ISBN: 1611807131


Three Crows

by tendo zenji

Unsui

 

Three Crows Dialog on the Paramita of Zeal

Midnight: suddenly forgot moon and finger;
Filing the sky, the solar disk—red!
— Chan Master Jiefeng Yu

The sun sank between the peaks dusk falling like a hood slipped over one’s head. A small, rocky stream flowed down from the north, alongside which there was a trail. It split, one fork running west the other east, a narrow path alongside each.  Where the three roads met there was a shrine to travelers and a small hut for those following the way. In the gloaming the dancing steam, echoed off the valley walls, augmented by the clacking of an occasional crow.  A jingling sound up from the west fork punctuated this soundscape. A moment later it was echoed by a duplicate sound up from the east. For a time there was a jingle from the west, shortly followed by its twin from the west.  When yet another similar jingling began to be heard coming from the north, the pattern was broken.

Around the bend, following the river from the north a conical straw hat bobbed into view, shortly revealing a grey robe on a man carrier a staff with seven rings.  The crows that flew up as he rounded that corner would have seen coming up from the rise to the east a figure that could have been confused for his brother. The hill descends a little sharper to the west, which perhaps accounts for the delay, but shortly thereafter a third monk hove into view again hat first.  The three met at the travelers’ shrine.  They bowed to each other. They bowed to the Bodhisattva of Travelers. They made their way into the small hut, and the soundscape of the valley returned to the chatty creek and the twilight birds.

Inside there was a single room the only feature was a central brazier above which hung a battered kettle. The three men took off their packs and sat cross-legged each in a corner of the tiny space. After some time one of them got up and built a modest fire.  Taking the kettle that hung over the fire pit he exited the hut and made his way to the river. Shortly he reentered the hut and hung the kettle over the fire on a blacked iron hook.  He returned to his seat. When the kettle began to sing he again rose and silently made a pot of tea.  While it steeped he retrieved a bowl from his pack and his companions did likewise.  The three of them placed the bowls in front of them and bowed.  Getting back to his feet the monk picked up the kettle and with a bow filled each bowl with tea. He returned to his seat and with a final bow they picked up their bowls and drank.

Another of the monks rose, retrieved a small pot from his pack and poured water from the kettle and hung it from the hook over the fire.  When it had reached a boil he threw in a handful of rice, raised the hook and covered the pot.  He kneeled by the fire frequently stirring the pot, occasionally adding more water from the kettle. After some time he removed it from the flame and let it stand covered.  When the rice had cooled sufficiently he arose and efficiently distributed it amongst the three bowls in front of each of the monks.  He sat, again the three bowed and deliberately ate every grain of rice in their bowl.  Again the first monk rose and prepared tea. He poured a measure into each bowl which, with a bow, they drank.  They set their bowls down together and made a final bow.

A few minutes later the third monk rose, gathered the bowls and made his way outside to the river.  He washed each bowl, drying it on a cloth he had tucked in his sleeve and returned to the hut placing the bowls and cups behind the monk who had used them.  He returned to his seat.   The monks sat in silence. The fire grew low until it was only a red glow outlining three still forms.

After some time one of the monks stirred and reaching into his sleeve pulled out a small book.  He opened it toward the back and with head bowed over the book read.  Raising his head he began to close the book, paused and read again.  With a slight shake of his head he closed the book and returned it to his sleeve. The monk who had previously cleaned the bowls, stirred and spoke.

“You did not seem to have found much solace in your reading, brother Jisha. What was it that so confounded you?”

With a quick glance at the speaker, the monk sighs and says:

Carry out a detailed investigation of dharma principles, taking awakening as your sole standard.” (1)

“Ahh the Whip. Master Guishan’s words are well worth heeding. What brought you to turn to that specific entry and what difficulty did you encounter?”

“At times during zazen when my mind is assailed by divergent thoughts I will turn to a page by chance. Often the words will give me renewed vigor and allow me to return my mind to a single point. What Master Guishan says is all well and good, but how?”

“Just a few entries beyond the one you stumbled upon, is it not written:

“Redouble the whip to practice zeal. Diligently seek without stopping. This is called the faculty of zeal.” (2)

Brother Monks, these are all the words we truly need. Those who have roused the aspiration for awakening, must hold on to that spark that lit the fire within. Our task is merely to rekindle that fire time and time again until we are entirely consumed. When you find yourselves distracted, unable to concentrate, that is when you bear down, doubling your efforts. This is the water that feeds all of your practices. Recall that

“The first three of the six perfections are contained within morality training. Dhyāna is contained within mind training; and prajñā is contained within wisdom training. Only zeal pervades all six perfections.” (3)

The monk bows, pauses a moment, and then asks, “How is it though that we maintain such zeal? I remember well when my head was first shaved you couldn’t keep me off my cushion. I sat and sat, and sometimes my mind would settle; I’d calm down and seem to merge into my surroundings. But then the thoughts creep in, the distractions slipped past my breath and rarely would I lose myself.”

“Dear Brother Jisha it sounds as if you have not heeded Master Puyan Duan’an instructions to the sangha. Let me refresh your memory:

“Do not do “dead” cross-legged sitting where you fail to keep your eye on the cue (4), where you maintain a “solitary stillness.” And do not do cross-legged sitting where you are minding the cue but have no sensation of indecision-and-apprehension (5). If you have torpor and distraction, no need to give a thought to thrusting them away. Quickly lift the cue to full awareness, shake off the defilements of body and mind—and be ferociously tenacious.” (6)

“Brother monk it is not a matter of “merging with our surroundings” or “settling our minds” or forgetting our feelings in silence and illumination! We are involved in the investigation of this great matter.   In order to see into this matter you must relentlessly pursue this investigation. Great Master Daihui makes quite clear how to undertake this great endeavor:

“Just keep on at all times pulling the cue into full awareness. Even when conceptualization arises, it is not necessary to employ the mind to stop it—just keep your eye on the cue. When walking, pull the cue into full awareness; when sitting, pull the cue into full awareness. Continuously keep pulling the cue into full awareness. When the cue no longer has any tastiness for you at all, you’ve hit the good spot. You must never release the cue.” (7)

“This my brothers is the paramita of zeal: never releasing the cue. When stray thoughts arise, it isn’t a matter of squashing them down, it is a matter of returning to the cue. When you are distracted by pain, feelings, sense objects and so on, you return to the cue. As you become more mindful you will notice these wanderings before they have gone too far afield and without mental commentary return to the cue. This requires a deliberate effort for quite some time and this effort both depends upon and cultivates zeal. I am reminded of Master Guzhuo admonishing his sangha:

Great Worthies! Why is it that you don’t produce the great zeal, and deeply generate the solemn vow before the three treasures? If birth-and-death is not clear to you, and you have not yet passed through the barrier checkpoints of the patriarchs, make a vow not to come down from the mountain. Face your seven-foot sitting portion on the long platform, hang up your bowl and bag, and assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high. For the whole of this single birth, practice the Way until you penetrate. If you do your utmost with this mind-set, you’ll never get taken in.” (8)

Silence descended over the room. The fire burned low suffusing the room with a low red glow. The only sounds are the ever-present babbling of the stream beyond the hut, and occasional pop or hiss from the fire. The monks are just shadows in the room, indistinguishable from sacks abandoned in three corners of the room. With a start one of the monks jerks his head and blinks rapidly.

“Brother Tenzo, what is the matter?”

With a hangdog expression the monk replies, “I have become overwhelmed by drowsiness and am unable to maintain focus. I’ve pushed myself for years, never slacking off, but for all my efforts I still succumb.”

For a spell the monk said nothing. He scratched the back of his head. “Hmmm”, he finally said. “Hmmmmmm.” Looking toward the sky, he continues, “Your statement brings to mind the tale of Master Xueyan Qin and his long struggle for awakening. Like you he spent years and years devoted to his practice, engaging in myriad austerities:

“…for two years I hadn’t slept with my body in a horizontal position, and I was suffering from being dazed and fatigued. Thereupon in one fell swoop I gave up all of these painful practices. Two months later my prior state of health was restored due to this giving up—I was in full vigor.”

There is a lesson here that has come down all the way from the World Honored One to the present day. To penetrate this great matter requires dedication, zeal, forbearance and letting go of many things. But we must always stay on the middle path between austerity and excess. Too far in either direction and you will not see into this great matter. Each monk must find the middle path for himself; some will require greater austerity, some less. After recovering his health Master Qin recounts an encounter with Head Monk Xiu:

“Xiu said, “The true practitioner of the Way doesn’t even bother cutting his fingernails. So why would I find time for a useless conversation with you!” At that I raised an issue: “Right now I’m trying to clear up my torpor and distraction, but with no results.” Xiu said, “It’s because you’re still not fierce enough. Make you sitting cushion high, straighten up your backbone, and merge your whole body into oneness with a single cue—what torpor and distraction will there be to make into a problem?” (9)

“Heed well these words Brother Tenzo! You need to be fierce, you need to not be led astray by externalities. Start with ‘Straighten your backbone’—recall Master Guzhuo instructs us thusly: ‘…assume a cross-legged sitting posture like a wall thousands of feet high’. If you feel yourself nodding off sit even straighter! Sit wide eyed if need be and when torpor fades into the background raise your cue. “

“Is there not also a comment in the Whip that a certain monk stabbed his leg with an awl to keep himself awake?”

“Thus so! Some may need to go to such extremes, yet many have not had to resort to such methods. In our investigation into this great matter we must do what is required. Both of you now take heed: Your struggles are not just your own; Followers of the Way in every land throughout every time have faced the same issues, have faced the very same problems and have surmounted them.   The records of the Masters of old have addressed these issues time and again. Consider well their words. Your efforts fortify your zeal and it should always be increasing. This then is how you practice: fully engaged, entirely immersed in your inquiry. This is how you shake off torpor and distraction: rouse all your zeal, put in all of your effort, be fiercely tenacious. Master Puyan Duan’an describes the fruits of such unrelenting, uncompromised practice:

“If you practice in this tenacious manner, suddenly, where before the cue was not raised without your effort, not it is raised of its own accord; where before the indecision-and-apprehension did not arise without your effort, now indecision-and-apprehension arises of its own accord. When walking, you won’t know you are walking; when sitting, you won’t know you are sitting. There will only be the probing of the sensation of indecision-and-apprehension—solitary and distant, clear and bright. This is called “the locus of cutting off the defilements.” It is also called “the locus of the loss of self.” (10)

He clapped his hands once and with that the three of them bowed and resumed sitting with no further interruptions.

The sky was a slate grey, matching the weathered wood of the travelers’ hut. Slowly the grey lightened and edges became more defined. A beam of light from the sun broke between two hills touching color to the scene. Atop the hut three crows roused themselves, spread their wings and flew off, each following a different path into the mountains.


 Notes

The Chan Whip Anthology: A companion to Zen Practice
Jeffery L. Broughton with Elise Yoko Watanabe
Oxford University Press 2015 New York, NY
ISBN: 0190200723

  1. p. 166, Guishan’s Warning Whip
  2. p. 167, Sequence of the Boundaries of the Dharma [Gates: First Gate]
  3. p. 163, Yogacārabhūmiśāstra

  4. Cue is a translation of huatau, or the critical phrase usually from a gong’an (koan). In Gongfu, or Zen Practice, the dominant form became cue practice. The core of the practice is to relentlessly focus solely on the cue. Daihui first explicated this practice, see note 7 for further explanation.
  5. Indecision-and-Apprehension is the translators rendering of the third of Gaofeng’s Three Essentials of Chan: the “faculty of great confidence,” the “determination of great fury,” and the “sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension” (p. 7). This is often rendered as “Great Doubt” The word in Chinese is yiwhich can be translated as doubt, puzzlement, perplexity, uncertainty and so on.  This word would have these meanings in an overlapping sense.  Gaofeng’s describes it thus: “it is as if you have in secret committed an atrocious act, and it is the very moment when you are about to be exposed but you are not yet exposed.”  That sort of state is far beyond doubt, though doubt would certainly be part of what you are feeling.  One writer on Dahui’s use of yi said that if you consider doubt in the Christian tradition where it lies in opposition of faith, specifically in times of deep existential crisis and anxiety (think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane), would convey a similar meaning.
  6. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha
  7. p. 78 Chan Master Dahui Gao of Jingshan Answers Questions
  8. p. 120, Chan Master Guzhuo Instructs the Sangha
  9. p. 89, General sermon of Chan Master Xueyan Qin of Yuanzhou
  10. p. 118, Preceptor Puyan Duan’an of Mt. Dasheng Instructs the Sangha

 

Encouragement Talk

by tendo zenji

“I could show you my clenched fist and open it—and bid you all good night.But that is not the way things are done in the West—and so I am forced to give as a substitute, dualistic explanations, though that’s not at all the way to express Zen.” (1)

It was the fifth day of this winter retreat when the storm hit.  The last few days had been clear and cold with a persistent, bone chilling wind out of the west. It was early afternoon, time dragging down eyelids forcing one to struggle to remain upright.  Sitting upright, eyes wide, gazing out the window at the tops of the trees at the far end of the lake.  Suddenly, as if in a dream, the trees are obscured by a pale mist.  Visibility rapidly decreases. What seemed to be a fog rolling in was revealed to be a snowstorm that quickly struck the windows as if it was hail.  The only view now, outside any of the windows, was one of a white blur.  Throughout all of this the bell was periodically struck.

“The teacher [Seppo] said: “Don’t stop until your axe cuts the very center of the trees.” He was an expert woodsman as well as a Zen master. Many Americans are currently seeking truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching halfheartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them. Zen wants nothing to do with such mollycoddles!” (2)

When one has committed oneself to monastic practice the options narrow. You can abide on the surface, coasting along sit after sit.  Yet sit continues to follow sit and retreat follows retreat relentlessly. Struggle as you might that is inescapable. Choosing to do retreat after retreat, being fully present for sit after sit presents a different set of circumstances. Checking out is an option; not attending the next retreat is an option. Equivalently delving ever deeper, pushing ever harder, balancing on the edge of the knife; this too is a choice.  In whatever manner you are able it is this latter choice that should be supported.  Things can never be made easy enough for those who have checked out, but those testing their limits can always be pushed harder.

“Zen masters used to hide themselves in remote parts of the world, meditating in the deep mountains among trees and rocks, with monkeys and rabbits for companions. They did so not because they were misanthropic, but because they wanted to guard their Dharma against the dust of glory and fame. Modern students of religion are altogether too impatient. Without waiting for the fruit to ripen, they open up their stores and begin to sell their wares. Such unripened fruit is unhealthy, and may cause injury to those who do not know the difference.” (3)

It took three days hard cycling to reach the lake. It was late in the season and there were few people about.  The mountains had yet to reclaim their white beards, the rings around the lake attested to the months without rain. The salmon, bright red in the clear water, struggled ever further inland to reach the place of their birth. The cold nights bring out the endless stars like handfuls of diamonds cast upon a blackboard. The cold drives the few people to retreat into their dwelling places and bedclothes. A few strange bird calls. When asked why I’m here, I have nothing to say, but futilely gesture toward the stream, the lake, the mountains.

“Yes, it is the taste that matters— the flavor of the moment, of people and places. When I make a cup of tea for a guest, I become a servant; when my guest receives the cup with naturalness and ease, he becomes the host. This is the taste of tea and the essence of ceremony.” (4)

Saying nothing is often the most appropriate response. It is tempting sometimes to think that explaining something— our perspective, our point of view, an experience, our feelings— is always worth doing.  Being able to sit with someone and not have to say anything is genuine intimacy.  This late in the history, in the west, could one just sit there silently? hold up a finger? a flower? When giving words is there a dwelling on the speaker? or the listener? or the words? If so, who is the host and who is the guest? “Have a cup of tea.”

“Now while I certainly don’t want any of you to die before you are very old, I do want you all to die like buddhas—peacefully and calmly. We are performing birth-and-death every minute, every hour, every day and every year. Whether you make yourself a three-minute Buddha or a ten-year Buddha is up to you. Only two more days remain of this seclusion week. Make yourselves at least two-day buddhas!” (5)

The rain had been coming down steadily for the last few days; the snow was fast retreating from the onslaught. The rain would slam into the building, filling the space with a bright wash of sound. Then it would just as suddenly cease, leaving only the dripping and the creaking of the old building. At night we would raise our voices in a single syllable, layer upon layer, rising and falling, extolling our connection to all things.  A raindrop is born in the clouds, exists as a separate entity while it falls, then mergers with the absolute when it reaches the earth. The rains start and stop and each time countless raindrops fall. Two days left.

“To live in Zen, you must watch your steps minute after minute, closely. As I have always told you, you should be mindful of your feet, not of your head or chest, in your meditation as well as in your everyday life. Keep your head cool but your feet warm! Do not let sentiments sweep you off your feet!” (6)

There I was center orchestra, just a few dozen rows back from the stage.  The symphony poured their hearts into this rich, romantic drama and my thoughts began to drift. What was I going to do that evening after the symphony? Would it be too late, or could I perhaps get in some reading?  How crowded would the train be do you think?  Suddenly it came to me, these are just distracting thoughts! In the same way you bring your attention back to the breath, I need to bring it back to the symphony.  And so I did. Again and again.  Fully present, for much more of the time, the rich music evoked so much more to me. For a piece that I had heard probably hundreds of times, it became fresh once again. Do this for all things.

“As Buddha himself was cremated, my corpse should be treated the same way. The funeral must be performed in the simplest way. A few friends who live nearby may attend it quietly. Those who know how to recite sūtras, may murmur the shortest one. That will be enough. Do not ask a priest or anyone to make a long service and speech and have others yawn. Silence is the best offering to me!” (8)

All the rituals surrounding impermanence are for the living. Who is to say that what will bring comfort to one, will bring comfort to others?  The dead give nothing but silence.  The lesson of impermanence is straightforward, but we make it so much more complex.  Is it because we cannot let go? So much we do let go of without a thought: the raindrop hitting the earth, the breath leaving the body, sweat evaporating on backs, hoar frost fading in the sun, the yellowing leaves, an exclamation on entering cold water, the mosquito under the hand, each evenings setting sun. These connections are like all of our relationships and while they are a part of us we shouldn’t cling to them.

“Everything appears as if it exists, but we only recognize things in relative terms. The world is formless—simply a phenomenon of flux, consisting of various relations, conceivable only in relation to subjectivity and objectivity. Without this close relation, there is no thing, there is no world. Non dwelling means non attachment. Non attachment discourages our clinging ideas of loss and gain.” (7)

The long day is drawing to a close, only a few of us now seated under the glowing tree.  Sounds become more clearly delineated. Distantly there are some sensations of form, reminders of shape. Outlines become indistinct, slow down. Sounds merge into white noise. Who is it that is listening right now?  A serene light washes everything out. Silence. The sensations of form become increasingly acute. Nagging thoughts arise. The night ends before the morning star rises. Soon now there must be observances made, ritual observed, form followed.

“Remember me as a monk, and nothing else. I do not belong to any sect or cathedral. None of them should send me a promoted priest’s rank or anything of the sort. I wish to be free from such trash and die happily.” (8)

All citations are from the following collection:

Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy
The Zen Teachings and Translations of Nyogen Sensaki

Edited and Introduced by Eido Shimano
Wisdom Publications Somerville MA, 2005
ISBN-10: 0861712803

1) In This Lifetime, p. 144
2) In This Lifetime, p. 145
3) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 138
4) Have a Cup of Tea, p. 164
5) Ripe, Unriped Fruit, p. 139
6) My Last Words, p. 167
7) The Diamond Sutra, p. 134
8) My Last Words, p. 168

How to Stand, Walk and Sit

by tendo zenji

How to Stand, Walk and Sit

The Diamond Sutra on the Way of the Bodhisattva

“One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.” (p. 39)

It is a common misperception that Ch’an (Zen) eschews the sutras, but one finds in the earliest historical documents that it has always been aligned with one or another sutra. The legends have it that the Fifth Chinese Patriarch, Daman Hongren, replaced the much more esoteric and metaphysical Lankavatara Sutra with the Diamond Sutra as the primary sutra used in his monastery. Legend also has it that an uneducated laborer on hearing a section of The Diamond Sutra had a sudden insight and coming to study with Hongren later became the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. To this day The Diamond Sutra is one of a handful of sutras regularly chanted, studied and taught in Ch’an training.

“In the first chapter, we see what a buddha does, which is not so different from our own daily round of existence, if we could only do what we do unhindered by attachments and see what we do unobstructed by delusions.” (Red Pine, p. 39)

The Diamond Sutra begins with the historical Buddha doing what he did every day: begging for food, taking care of his needs, eating a meal, sitting zazen and interacting with his students. The very first lines of the sutra in essence demonstrate the theme of the sutra as stated in the next section and explained over the subsequent thirty sections. The sutra is structured as a dialog between Subhuti and the Buddha and it is Subhuti who asks the question that is this theme of the sutra:

“Even so, Bhagavan, if a noble son or daughter should set forth on the bodhisattva path, how should they stand, how should they walk, and how should they control their thoughts?”   (p. 57).

The Diamond Sutra being a Mahayana text is concerned with the way of the bodhisattva,.“The Maha Prajnaparamita Sutra says a bodhisattva is “anyone who ceaselessly seeks unexcelled, perfect enlightenment as well as the happiness and welfare of all beings.” (p. 63). The sutra walks us through what being a bodhisattva entails via Subhuti who was considered the Buddha’s foremost disciple on the doctrine of emptiness (and in fact his name means “born of emptiness”). Subhuti is not yet a bodhisattva and for the purposes of this teaching represents a follower of the Hinayana (lesser path). Taking it from this perspective allows the sutra to also serve in explaining how the Mahayana differs from the Hinayana.

Hsu-fa says, “Essentially Subhuti is saying, ‘We have set out to attain the bodhisattva mind, but we do not know how to travel the bodhisattva path.’” (p. 65).

From the perspective of the Hinayana the instruction that one would expect would be one of how to be morally upright and of how to use meditation to control our thoughts. But instead of teachings on controlling our thoughts the Buddha informs Subhuti that in the bodhisattva must arise a thought.

The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’   (p. 71).

Here we set the roots of the Great Vow, the vow that defines the bodhisattva and distinguishes the Mahayana from the Hinayana. For it is in arousing this thought, this aspiration to liberate all beings, that sets these two paths apart. The bodhisattva in their impossible quest to liberate all beings, animate and inanimate, works toward their own liberation and as it will develop this aspiration is in fact a necessary condition for liberation.

“The bodhisattva path is the path of active, rather than passive, practice. Rather than advising us to suppress our thoughts, the Buddha preempts them. He advises bodhisattvas not to wait for thoughts to arise but to give birth to a thought that puts all other thoughts to flight, a thought like the morning sun that chases the myriad stars from the sky. The language used here suggests that this thought has been gestating within us for many lifetimes and it is now time to bring it forth, to give it life. Thus, this is the most important event in a bodhisattva’s career and what makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva.” (Red Pine, p.72).

If it is arousing the Great Vow that makes a bodhisattva a bodhisattva, it is the last line of the above quote from The Diamond Sutra that points toward how a bodhisattva is to undertake this: And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated. Attachments are the primary hindrance in the path and the The Diamond Sutra dismantles this fundamental attachment from which all other attachments arise, namely the notion of a separated self.

Te-ch’ing says, “The primary method taught by the Buddha to liberate beings is to realize that there is no self. Once there is a self, the other concepts follow. In liberating beings, a bodhisattva should realize that there is no self. Once there is no self, there are no beings. And if there are no beings, then all beings are naturally liberated. And once all beings are liberated, the fruit of buddhahood is not far off.”   (p. 81).

 The Bodhisattva arouses the thought to free all beings without attachment to a self, a being, a life, and a soul (the Four Perceptions) with the understanding that there are no separated beings and thus no attachment to beings. But it is also necessary that the bodhisattva not be attached to the act of liberation itself. The act of charity, which striving to liberate beings certainly is, is one of the Six Perfections and is considered to be the only one to generate merit on its own. The Diamond Sutra in the fourth section turns to this notion of the generation of merit in a construction that is repeated throughout the sutra. Usually in dialog with Subhuti the Buddha asks him to imagine an increasingly great quantity and then to consider the accumulated merit one would gain by a corresponding amount of charitable giving. But each time he then notes that a bodhisattva who is unattached to giving, gains far more (infinite in fact) merit. It is in this way that ultimately the notion of the accumulation of merit, which one can certainly become attached to, is let go.

“In practicing charity, or any of the perfections, the Buddha warns against attachment to three things: the practitioner (in this case, the person who gives); the beneficiary (the recipient); and the practice (the giving of the gift). In his “Outline of Practice,” Bodhidharma says, “Since what is real includes nothing worth begrudging, we give our bodies, our lives, and our property in charity, without regret, without the vanity of giver, gift, or recipient, and without bias or attachment. To get rid of obstructions, we teach others, but without becoming attached to appearances.“ (Red Pine, p. 87)

Another central metaphor used throughout the Diamond Sutra is that of the Three Bodies: the incarnation body, the reward body and the dharma body. The incarnation body, is our physical body, the reward body is the body of merit that we have accumulated and the dharma body is the only actual real body: ultimate reality itself. The metaphor of the body has to do with the fruits of practice in form, merit and in realization. In the fifth section of the sutra the Buddha inquires as whether he can be seen via attributes of his physical bodies. This question is as asked four other times throughout the sutra, each time furthering our understanding of the nature of a buddha’s attainment.

Seng-chao says, “Bodhisattvas have three goals in mind: to liberate all beings, to cultivate all practices, and to realize enlightenment. Liberating others has already been explained as the way to practice. This section explains how to approach enlightenment. The bodily attributes of the Tathagata make up the body that comes with enlightenment. To recognize this dharma body is to realize enlightenment. But to think that its nature is real is to miss the mark. Thus, he points to the dharma body to explain the emptiness of enlightenment.” (p. 102).

The primary notions being presented in The Diamond Sutra are all present in the first five sections of the sutra. The remainder of the sutra, elucidates these points, taking them further and further to their ultimate ramifications. Again and again the question of merit arises, weighing greater and greater charitable gifts against the teaching of this sutra. But since the teachings of The Diamond Sutra can lead to liberation, no act of charity can compare.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if instead of filling the billion worlds of this universe with the seven jewels and giving them as a gift to the tathagatas, the arhans, the fully-enlightened ones, this noble son or daughter grasped but one four-line gatha of this dharma teaching and made it known and explained it in detail to others, the body of merit produced as a result would be immeasurably, infinitely greater.”

If, as The Diamond Sutra states over and over again, spreading the teaching contained herein is of such great value then this is can become another avenue for attachment. Furthermore since we are fundamentally inseparable from ultimate reality there isn’t really anything to realize. “Hui-neng puts it thus, “The realization of no realization is called true realization. The teaching of no teaching is called true teaching.” (p. 130). Since this is the essence of the teaching what is there to teach? Hui-neng comments “If we realize nothing and teach nothing, might we not vanish into emptiness? All buddhas, however, appear from this sutra“.

The purpose of bringing up this meeting [with Dipankara Buddha] is to contrast the bodhisattva’s attainment with that of the arhan’s. For it was during this encounter that the Buddha realized the forbearance of birthlessness, which is the final attainment of the bodhisattva, the ability to know and to bear the knowledge that nothing arose in the past, nothing now arises, and nothing will arise in the future. There is no greater traumatic experience or knowledge for someone on the spiritual path. Hence, such forbearance or acceptance requires kalpas of preparation. (p. 176).

Over the course of the sutra more and more is taken away. This has already been alluded to in the first five sections, which contain all of the sutras teachings. The most difficult barrier for the bodhisattva to cross, is the notion of birthlessness. This is emptiness taken to the limit that there is nothing, that ultimate reality as we have been talking about is fundamentally empty. And of course this emptiness is empty. This was considered such a shock that a bodhisattva would require multiple lifetimes to cultivate the forbearance necessary to realize this. In the earliest form of the Bodhisattva Precepts (the Brahma Net Precepts) to reveal birthlessness to someone not prepared for it was a grave violation of the precepts.

“The Buddha outlined the attainments of the bodhisattva, all of which turned out to be no attainments: no truth realized, no world transformed, no colossal spiritual self offered up to others. But the Buddha is concerned that his disciples might now conclude that since nothing is attained, there is no need to cultivate the merit upon which such non-attainment is based.” (Red Pine, p. 188).

At no point in the sutra is the Buddha so lacking in compassion that he would allow a student to fall into nihilism.   As each section takes away more and more attachments he occasionally pauses and notes that you still have to do the work. As long as there are beings caught in delusion all of the traditional notions of merit and the many teachings surrounding them are of value. These skillful means are rafts we use to get to the other shore, which should then be abandoned. There is no tool that the bodhisattva can’t put to use in the appropriate situation. Much of the latter half of the sutra is concerned with these skillful means

The Buddha told the venerable Subhuti, “The name of this dharma teaching, Subhuti, is the Perfection of Wisdom. Thus should you remember it. And how so? Subhuti, what the Tathagata says is the perfection of wisdom, the Tathagata says is no perfection. Thus is it called the ‘perfection of wisdom.’ (p. 203).

Prajna is commonly translated as wisdom, which it certainly does mean, but it also has the connotation of emptiness in a similar way as shunyata. The body of teaching that The Diamond Sutra belongs to is known as the Prajna Paramitas which means ‘the perfection of wisdom’. But in the view of prajna as emptiness it has to do with the logic of emptiness, which is a tool for cutting through delusion. Red Pine explains it thusly: “For emptiness means absence or negation, while the perfection of wisdom means the absence or negation of what is false, not the absence or negation of what is real.”  (p. 207). You can see the formation ‘logic of emptiness’ in the selection from section thirteen quoted above. It is dialectical in that you take a notion and negate it, but instead of unifying the two (ala Hegel) he instead affirms the original notion. This is because if we can understand something as not separate from fundamental reality, which is what is being negated, then indeed they exist.   “Thus, the arhan’s denial of reality becomes the bodhisattva’s affirmation. “(Red Pine p. 108).

The Buddha asks us simply to see things as they are and to share this vision with others. Buddhas do not arise from emptiness but from this teaching, which liberates us from both delusions and emptiness as well as from the renunciation of delusions and emptiness. (Red Pine, p. 205).

In Ch’an, the logic of emptiness is often removed completely from the realm of the verbal. When in a dynamic situation the Zen Master expresses the seamlessness with fundamental reality. “Meanwhile, Zen masters often shortened this logical technique even further by holding up one finger, by refusing to speak, by striking their disciples, or by offering them a cup of tea”. (Red Pine, p. 108).  The central teachings of The Diamond Sutra is the central teachings of Mahanyana Buddhism and Ch’an in the end is yet another skillful means for presenting it. In the final section of the sutra the Buddha, utilizing the logic of emptiness, elucidates the essence of the Ch’an style:

And how should they explain it? By not explaining. Thus is it called ‘explaining.’ (p. 429).

Bibliography

The Diamond Sutra
Translation and commentary by Red Pine
Counterpoint Press, 2002
ISBN: 1582432562

About the text

diamond-sutra-red-pine-coverThe Red Pine translation of The Diamond Sutra is of immeasurable value particular to the Zen practioner. Red Pine’s deep understanding of the sutra is made clear in his own commentary, which goes nearly line by line through the text. This sutra being the most compressed of the Prajna Paramita literature clearly assumes an audience that is completely versed in early, as well as Mahayana, Buddhist teachings and metaphysics. It never adds an explanation where a term that is freighted with decades of interpretation will serve. Without this kind of commentary it is unlikely that even a well-versed Buddhist will truly grasp what is being conveyed. Beyond that Red Pine always translates a healthy selection of historical commentary, ranging from other entries in the Prajna Paramita literature, to early Indian commentaries, to selections from a book of commentary by fifty odd Zen masters, to contemporary figures like Thich Nhat Hanh. The value of these additional comments, particularly in adding the Zen perspective, is immense. His choice of utilizing an early Sanskrit source as his basis of the translations avoids the errors that have come down from early Chinese translations which previous English translation have arrived. His scholarship is such that he compares (and explains in translation notes) a number of the major sources in Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit. There simply isn’t a more comprehensive, yet completely readable, translation and study of this fundamental text.

Mountain Practice

by tendo

Tour 2014 day 54 Sequoia NP

“Deeply realizing ourselves and the true nature of these mountains and rivers is perhaps the most important and profound thing each of us will ever do with our lives. We should not take it lightly. Our lives and the life of this planet depend on it.  —John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

Mountain Practice

A Pilgrimage with Dōgen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra

I went to the mountains to find my way into the heart of things; to drink deeply from glacier fed waters; to walk with the trees; to gaze out into that wilderness where the mountains march endlessly into the distance fading into blue layers. All routes into the mountains follow rivers and as I made my way into the North Cascades I followed the Skagit River. In the flat, rich loam of the Skagit Valley the river cuts a wide, muddy green, slow path. Right on the edge of the Puget Sound the winds blow constantly off the water and one easily frays into just existing in the midst of the wind working one’s way east.

“Because green mountains walk, they are permanent. Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not notice or understand it. “In the mountains” means the blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not notice or understand the mountains’ walking. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot notice, understand, see, or hear this reality.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

As the flatlands transition into forestland and begin their inevitable rise into the mountains, the river too transforms becoming increasingly blue-green, shallower, rockier and more lively. The hills in the distance resolve themselves from watercolor diffused blue shapes into spiky tree green mounds that poke out above the valleys the rivers have carved through them. Vast patches of desolation, gouged out of these mountain forests reflect humanities needs, needs seemingly without limits. When you are in the midst of the foothills and mountains, following the river path, these scars feel like wounds on your very body. You feel as if humanities appetite knows no limits and must be fed regardless of cost. It is much harder to feel oneness with those who have caused these scars, as it is to feel a connection with the landscape that you are part of. Deeply question our how our actions, directly or indirectly, have led to these wounds.

Tour 2014 day 27

“All of us can appreciate that we must be responsible for our actions — whether it’s in the context of our work, our family, or our relationships. What is harder to understand is that the simplest of events also affects the environment. To realize “you and I are the same thing” points to our identity with the whole universe. It also underlines the great responsibility that comes with being human.”  — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

The foothills give way to towering edifices with increasing amounts of snow crowning their rocky peaks. Clouds seem to hover above them like silent, ephemeral alien beings. The river now is exuberant, moving vibrantly over rocks, sometimes pooling under shady trees, other times falling in swift rapids. The glacier melt has transformed it into pure blue with flecks of white from its path through the stones of the mountains. The rivers continuous activity is withheld by dams; this landscape has been transformed to power the city and the needs of humans throughout this region. We marvel at the heroic efforts of those who have built these gigantic cement structures out here in the wooded wilderness, while shaking our heads at the imposition inflicted upon the landscape. It is always this dichotomy: what is that imposition in the dead of winter as we heat our homes and read our books in the light they have made possible?

“You may not notice that you study the green mountains, using numerous worlds of phenomena as your standards. Clearly examine the green mountains’ walking and your own walking. Examine walking backward and backward walking, and investigate the fact that walking forward and backward has never stopped since the very moment before form arose, since the time of the King of the Empty Eon.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

Sitting breath after breath in the cool mountain air the sounds of myriad birds, insects, woodland creatures, chuckling brooks, wind shaking the trees blur into undifferentiated aural vibrations. It was hot this summer, even at four thousand feet amongst the trees on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. Having scrambled over rocks beyond a narrow rocky trail below Sourdough Mountain I sat and watched the continuous fall of Sourdough Creek from the rocks above. It seems to slow down and become this wavering white streamer undulating in the wind and then snaps into the deep focus of countless drops of water spraying out from the rocks above. Put yourself in the place of a fish in its water home suddenly shooting over that edge and into freefall still fully enveloped in water. Put yourself into all possible views of Sourdough Creek falling down that rocky mountainside.

Tour 2014 day 8 waterfall

“The nature of the mountains is completely different when we separate ourselves from them as observers, and when we are the mountains with the whole body and mind.” — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

Moving along the forest roads where for mile after mile you seldom see another person any sense of separateness begins to fade away. The need is just no longer as necessary and simply absorbing all of the sensory stimulation is becomes sufficient. The butterflies and dragonflies that float alongside or perhaps hitch a ride on your handlebars are your fellow travelers. The sky in its multitude of conditions is better than any painting and it is always there and it is always your world. The closer you get to the bare essentials the less there is that stands in the way. There is no silence in the woods but there can be a deficit of the sounds of humanity and the distractions of perceived distinctions. Is that the knocking of a woodpecker or a raven clacking its beak? Sitting here in these woods it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.

“Thus, the views of all beings are not the same. Question this matter now. Are there many ways to see one thing, or is it a mistake to see many forms as one thing? Pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit. Accordingly, endeavors in practice-realization of the way are not limited to one or two kinds. The thoroughly actualized realm has one thousand kinds and ten thousand ways.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

How is that we came to this place where nature is this place that we have to travel into to rejuvenate ourselves as if “nature” is this thing “out there” that is pure and completely distinct from us. If we can come to see that there are myriad views of everything and that all of them do not ‘add up’ to reality but merely point towards it, can we not also come to see that our cities and suburbs are not separate from nature. And yet, and yet… Why is it so much easier to forget yourself amidst the sounds of the roaring river, the calling birds, the tapping of rain on your tent, the quaking aspens that, in a light breeze, sound so much like a gentle spring rain? John Daido Loori reminds us: “Because so many of us nowadays are city dwellers, it is easy to romanticize nature at a distance. Sitting in an apartment somewhere in Midtown as we plan a summer adventure to Yellowstone Park, it is important to remember that wild nature is also in our backyard.”

Pursue this beyond the limit of pursuit.

Tour 2014 day 51 DrainedLake

 “It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not merely in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the world of phenomena. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in one staff.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

As I made my way south it became increasingly dry, the effects of years of drought draining the lakes, burning the landscape. Is it hubris to question whether our actions have had an impact here? There is no doubt that our activities have raised the temperature on average and even that small change has driven animals into new territories, alpine flowers further up the mountains, glaciers to retreat, oceans to warm and become more acidic. Deep in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains you find many lakes used as reservoirs for the endless cities below. Year upon year these reservoirs have given more water than they have received and like the ring in a bathtub, they are marked by rings descending down into the mudflats that surround the bare amounts of remaining water. Looking at these bodies of waters, each a universe of universes there can be no doubt of the impact of our needs. Our needs drained these lakes.

Tour 2014 day 8 water

“On the other hand, from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived on water. When they live on water, they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. These were all ancient ways of being on water, following wind and streams. Furthermore, there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way.” – Dōgen zenji, Mountains and Waters Sutra

I was on the edge of one of these lake reservoirs near the end of my journey in the mountains filling up my water bottles when a recreation company employee asked me about my trip. We got to talking about Yosemite and he told me about his time working there and of his encounters with the bear population. He continued to talk to me about an injury he sustained and how that changed his prospects and what he was working towards now and his hopes and dreams. I just stood there listening, marveling that here I am, a complete stranger, a traveler from thousands of miles away and he was telling me these intimate, personal details of his life. This wasn’t the first time this happened on this trip and while I’m sure it’s not the entirety of the matter, I feel confidant that encountering anyone who will listen, really listen is so rare that people will genuinely open up. Spending this kind of time in the mountains demands presence opens your ears to the sounds all around and you spend a lot more time listening than talking. Practice.

“Descending the mountain is by far the most demanding aspect of our practice — much more difficult than realizing the emptiness of phenomena.”  — John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

It was Labor Day Weekend when I reached Lake Isabella the furthest south I would travel in the mountains. The landscape was all dusty browns and tans, dry with hearty twisted shrubs poking up from the barren terrain.   Lake Isabella was a dusty, jewel of blue amidst theses tans, but like so many of the lakes I’d encountered in California it was shockingly low. The first night I was in this campground there was very few other people, but on Friday families began to stream in for the holiday weekend. That evening the barest sliver of a moon rose between two scrub-like trees as I washed my dishes from dinner. The next day I rode down from the Sierra-Nevada Mountains into the scorching San Joaquin valley to Bakersfield where I’d catch a train back north. The road out of the mountains followed a river that drained out of Lake Isabella, a line of green life cutting an increasingly deep valley in this arid, sunburnt landscape. I was on the valley walls for a spell but eventually was on the main road. Cars streamed up the other side as people headed to the various campgrounds away from the cities. I came into Bakersfield via suburbs that seemed just dropped onto the desert and then into clearly depressed parts of town that were all check cashing shops and fast food. I had to wander miles to find a grocery store where I could purchase food for the long train trip. While I was waiting in the train station police entered the woman’s restroom and forcibly dragged a person out in handcuffs. Twenty-four hours later I was back in the Pacific Northwest, the train just rounding Chambers Bay, the sun descending toward the water, lighting the fluffy clouds from below and suffusing the sky with a magical glow.

“It is becoming more and more evident that this earth will not tolerate our apathy much longer. But even if we succeed in wiping ourselves off the face of the earth, the planet will eventually renew itself. Given enough time, it will heal. The question is whether we will be part of that healing.” —John Daido Loori, The Way of Mountains and Rivers

Tour 2014 day 60

 


Sources

  1. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Shobo Genzo
    Zen Master Dōgen and Kazuaki Tanahashi
    2013 Shambhala, Publications, Boston
    ISBN: 9781590309353
  2. The Way of Mountains and Rivers
    Teachings on Zen and the Environment with commentary on Zen Master Dōgen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutra
    John Daido Loori
    2009, Dharma Communications, New York
    ISBN: 9781882795215
  3. Plum Mountain News vol. 22.3 Summer 2015
    the Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji newsletter
    Seattle, 2015

Endless Vow

by tendo

Endless Vow Cover

“In the United States and also in China, all we can do is conduct this great sesshin [Rohatsu]. This, I believe, is the essential of essentials. Zazen, kinhin, zazen, kinhin. .” (1, p.87)

It snowed the night before Rohatsu but, as seems to so often happen here in Seattle, that weather system moved right through and it became clear and cold for most of next week. The traces of snow that remained by nightfall froze and persisted throughout that week which had the byproduct of causing one to be extra mindful when walking out of doors. Rohatsu was held at a retreat center right on the Puget Sound which this week was calm with only barely audible gentle swells disturbing it’s surface. Across the water and a fair piece of the mainland the Cascade Mountains, pure with fresh snow, provided a broken horizon for the cold rays of the late autumn sun to illuminate. A few days into sesshin, during outdoor kinhin under the icy blue sky, I recalled the following haiku by Sōen Nakagawa:

Clearness!
sky and water
reflecting my heart(1, p.52)

I had brought Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa, with me to Rohatsu to read during spare moments. There weren’t too many of these, but every so often something would strike me and I’d flip through the book for a corresponding passage or poem almost like a capping phrase to that event. The book was fresh in my mind as it was my text for the Autumn Kessei which I had begun reading during Autumn Sesshin. It seemed fitting to return to it during Rohatsu and just as in the previous sesshin moments in my practice and in the life and poems of Sōen Nakagawa would momentarily align.

Endless Vow is a collection of excerpts from Sōen Nakagawa’s journals, letters and published poems and there are quite a few long gaps when either he wasn’t writing or the material had been published elsewhere. The picture it gives is fragmentary and very personal: clearly not something he’d written with publication in mind. The loose strands are threaded together by a long biographical introduction from Eido Shimano, who was a dharma heir of Sōen Roshi. Shimano paints a picture of an introverted loner driven to practice who chaffed against the rigidity of the Japanese monastery system. In his biographical sketch Eido Shimano writes:

Sōen Roshi’s independent spirit, creativity, and aesthetic sensitivity were extremely attractive to me as a young monk, and I fell in love with him, as did his American students. (1, p.21)

In America, we delighted in calling him untamed; in Japan, they called him untrained, and some turned away from him.” (1, p.24)

I connected strongly with Sōen Roshi’s reverence for the poet-monks of Japan, his many solitary retreats, his penchant for travel and his devotion to Bassui. I had just this summer past spent two months bicycling in the mountains of the Cascades and Sierra’s sitting zazen at sunrise and sunset and contemplating the sayings of Bassui presented in Mud & Water(2). Like Sōen Roshi the wandering poet-monks are a profound influence on myself and while we travel in different worlds the nature of my travelling has brought me closer to them and reading them has influenced my travels. I write my own minimal poems on my wanderings, because I find in a few words a way to express things that I can’t otherwise say.

Endless is my vow
under the azure sky
boundless autumn (1, p.70)

But if there really is one aspect of Sōen Roshi’s character that defined his life it was his dedication as manifested through his many vows. In contrast to his unconventional, rebellious and wild nature that seems to reinforce that, if not exclusively American, particularly American emphasis on individuality, vows instead constrain ones actions. “On October 3rd [1931] I made a vow to live on one meal a day, following the Buddhist scripture. This has resulted in a new-day clarity and expansiveness in my life.(1, p.52) This was an additional restriction to an earlier vow he had made to only eat nuts, seeds and raw vegetables. Placing these sort of constraints upon his life, along with other such vows as walking barefoot around a mountain, chanting a text some large number of times and actively encouraging and praising others in such dramatic life-modifying ways, stands in contrast to romantic notions of the rebellious wanderer. As I took Jukai during Autumn Sesshin, which is a public vow that we Western followers of the way make, I spent much time contemplating vows and how serious of a matter are they. How many of us take these vows in the spirit that Sōen Roshi did?

Vow fulfilled
I enter the disk of the sun
this autumn day (1, p.128)

Another of Sōen Roshi’s great vows was to spread the Dharma around the world and especially to establish an International Zendo, a “place where true Dharma friends can gather from all over the world, a place not limited to just Buddhism or Zen” (1, p.63). By the late 1960s, with related Zendo’s in Hawai’i, Jerusalem, New York City, London, Cairo and International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo- ji in upstate New York he had fulfilled this vow. Much of his later years had been spent in this effort. This great vow of Sōen Roshi’s which he worked so hard planting seeds is truly an endless vow. The seeds must be spread but then they must be nurtured. Sit after sit I pondered this koan, coming to the understanding that while I may not have the missionary zeal of Sōen Roshi, I am compelled to nurture it lest it grow fallow. And at this moment of Zen in the West nurturing is perhaps what is truly needed. In January 1973 one month before I was born he wrote:

Great bodhisattvas
small bodhisattvas
together begin the Ox Year (1, p.137)

Sōen Roshi’s later days were marked by a head injury and increasing isolation. His journals became equally terse with some years only containing an entry regarding the years poetic theme and his attempt to realize it. “Sōen Roshi always said he admired “plain, natural and direct behavior,” but he was such as complicated, indirect, and convoluted person.” (1, p.45) This comment from Eido Shimano is perhaps the most vital lesson to be found herein. Sōen Nakagawa was a Zen Master in the contemporary era and his complicated nature was right here for everyone to see; the rough edges hadn’t been smoothed away by time as with the ancient masters. This renders him approachable, his experiences attainable. Their flaws is one of the gifts of the contemporary masters, allowing us to see ourselves, as imperfect, complicated, and multifaceted as we are, in them.

Autumn light
fills the room
vacancy(1, p.111)

On the sixth day of Autumn sesshin I felt strangely joyous and filled with light during the later morning sits.  There was a beam of sunlight coming in behind the alter that caught the incense smoke which was swirling in these absolutely mystical eddies.  I was completely transfixed by this until the complex edges (where the fascinating bits always are) drifted away and it was just smoke particles dancing in the light.

Death Poem

Mustard Blossoms!
There is nothing left
to hurl away(1, p.137)

Originally published in Plum Mountain News volume 21.4


  1. Endless Vow: The Zen Path of Sōen Nakagawa
    Presented, with an introduction by Eido T. Shimano
    Compiled and translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Roko Sherry Chayat
    Shambhala, Boston and London, 1996
  2.  Mud and Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
    Translated by Arthur Braverman
    Wisdom Publications, 2013
  3. Plum Mountain News vol. 21.4 Winter 2014-15
    the Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji newsletter
    Seattle, 2014