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Tag: Bassui

The Practice of Solitude

by tendo zenji

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Religious practice in America is essentially, I’d argue primarily,  a social endeavor.  Contemplative practices in contrast is a solitary practice. Even when you are siting shoulder to shoulder in the zendo, you are sitting alone.  This tension between an essentially solitary practice and the American social club model pervades Zen centers.  This emphasis on the group is so pervasive that it is common to encounter those that can only sit in the zendo, who are not able (or willing) to sit on their own. Considering that the essential practices are inherently solitary that orientation severely compromises ones practice. 

Beyond though simply turning inward in our practice, being solitary, there is the practice of Solitude. This is an absolute core practice in my view and one well worth pursuing. In this talk we will contemplate this practice and it’s pursuit.

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Throughout Chinese history, there have always been people who preferred to spend their  lives in the mountains, getting by on less, sleeping under thatch, wearing old clothes,  working the higher slopes, not talking much, writing even less—maybe a few poems,  a recipe or two. Out of touch with the times but not with the seasons, they cultivated  roots of the spirit, trading flatland dust for mountain mist. Distant and insignificant,  they were the most respected men and women in the world’s oldest society.  

No explanation has ever been offered or demanded for the admiration the Chinese have had for hermits. Hermits were simply there: beyond city walls, in the mountains, lone columns of smoke after a snowfall. As far back as records go, there were always hermits in China.
– Bill ‘Red Pine’ Porter , Road to Heaven, p. 12

In Road to Heaven Red Pine encounters more Taoists than Ch’an monks and while their approach and orientation is different they come from the same place. They are rooted in the cosmology that has informed Chinese religious practice for thousands of years. Before Buddhism before Taosim this view of reality led some to look inward, to commit completely to understanding. to isolate themselves in mountains

This cosmology as dwelling-place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China. Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. It can also be seen, for instance, in the way Chinese intellectuals would sip wine as a way of clarifying awareness of the ten thousand things by dissolving the separation between subject and object, or tea as a way of heightening that awareness, practices that ideally took place outdoors or in an architectural space that was a kind of eye-space, its open walls creating an emptiness that contained the world around it. There is a host of other examples, such as the ideal of living as a recluse among the mountains, or the widespread practice of traveling in areas of particular natural beauty, which generated an extensive travel literature. And as we shall see, meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology.

David Hinton in Mountain Home

Solitary practice v. Solitude

Sitting on ones own, individual sitting is an essential practice, one that all followers of the way to cultivate. Ultimately we are always sitting on our own.  But solitude is a practice of letting go, of abandoning the outside world and turning inward to our Original Nature.   Consider this passage from Krishnamurti:

J. Krishnamurti On Loneliness – the issue of escape.

“Have you ever tried to be alone? When you do try, you will feel how extraordinarily difficult it is and how extraordinarily intelligent we must be to be alone, because the mind will not let us be alone. The mind becomes restless, it busies itself with escapes, so what are we doing? We are trying to fill this extraordinary void with the known. We discover how to be active, how to be social; we know how to study, how to turn on the radio. We are filling that thing which we do not know with the things we know. We try to fill that emptiness with various kinds of knowledge, relationship or things. Is that not so? That is our process, that is our existence. Now when you realize what you are doing, do you still think you can fill that void? You have tried every means of filling this void of loneliness. Have you succeeded in filling it? You have tried cinemas and you did not succeed and therefore you go after your gurus and your books or you become very active socially. Have you succeeded in filling it or have you merely covered it up? If you “have merely covered it up, it is still there; therefore it will come back. If you are able to escape altogether then you are locked up in an asylum or you become very, very dull. That is what is happening in the world.

Can this emptiness, this void, be filled? If not, can we run away from it, escape from it? If we have experienced and found one escape to be of no value, are not all other escapes therefore of no value? It does not matter whether you fill the emptiness with this or with that. So-called meditation is also an escape. It does not matter much that you change your way of escape.

How then will you find what to do about this loneliness? You can only find what to do when you have stopped escaping. Is that not so? When you are willing to face what is – which means you must not turn on the radio, which means you must turn your back to civilization – then that loneliness comes to an end, because it is completely transformed. It is no longer loneliness. If you understand what is then what is is the real. Because the “mind is continuously avoiding, escaping, refusing to see what is it creates its own hindrances. Because we have so many hindrances that are preventing us from seeing, we do not understand what is and therefore we are getting away from reality; all these hindrances have been created by the mind in order not to see what is. To see what is not only requires a great deal of capacity and awareness of action but it also means turning your back on everything that you have built up, your bank account, your name and everything that we call civilization. When you see what is, you will find how loneliness is transformed. ”

-Excerpt From On Loneliness by J. Krishnamurti in First and Last Freedom.

It is this perspective that is the practice of solitude. You aren’t lonely in true solitude, because there is no self to be lonely there is only what is. The issue of escape here is also worth noting. In Krishnamurti’s view all activities that we undertake are undertaken by the self and thus are self-defeating. Ch’an of course acknowledges this, notes that all of our practice, even mediation, is upaya, a skillful use of the self to get past the self.  Krishnamurti is far more radical, simply telling us to see what is.

This shows us the way to the practice of solitude: letting go of our distractions, our escapes. Turning our back on civilization. 

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The Practice of Solitude

How then do we practice this? In general there is no guidebook, no practice program..  In general there are more warnings, than guidelines.  There are concerns of escape, issues of arrogance, of not coming down from the mountain, of eschewing our great vow. In essence the practice is simply a letting go of everything. It doesn’t have to be forever, it can be for one day every so often. Spend the day in solitude.  Spend a week in solitude. Spend a lifetime in solitude.

So we turn to examples, which is so often what the practice has to offer. The Buddhas and the patriarchs are examples of those far along the path. The icon of the buddha reminds us that this is possible.  The Chinese hermit-monks are exemplary in showing, not telling us this path.  The great documentary Amongst White Clouds,  is an apt demonstration.

“They turn their backs on comforts and conveniences and entertainment. To return to something more basic. A calm and peace they trust lays at the true heart of human nature.” – narrator

“The key to this is sitting meditation. After sitting then go to bed. Wake in the morning and sit some more. Most of the hermits already understand the practice methods and they don’t make mistakes. If you have this foundation then you can live in the mountains. But you must understand the practice. If you don’t understand, in the mountains, you’l go astray and that’s nothing but torture. Just torture.”

The filmmaker and narrator of this documentary is a practitioner himself who came to the practice through very romantic ideals common in the young. He had genuine questions and was serious as well as being a talented filmmaker.  He could see the orientation of these recluses even if his understanding of what drew them there was limited.

This is followed by an excerpt from a talk that the narrators teacher gives on mountain practice.  He talks of having had a heated bed when he first came to the mountains but that it is unnecessary. In the quoted text he notes that there is preparation one has to have to undertake this practice.  It is arduous and demanding and is not a romantic jaunt into the mountains. It isn’t “glamping”.

Narration:

“What wisdom is there in solitude? What changes in a person living so close to birth and death in nature? Do I feel myself in this?Are we somehow different from this old tree? Dying to be reborn? This life, this struggle, but something in this nature, something in us all. A calm and clarity in the face of change and uncertainty.”

“’Ten thousand things, all in this breath…’ why are people in this world so busy? just for this one breath. They say, “busy, busy, mine mine…”, busy a whole lifetime for “Me”. When this breath is cut off you let go of the whole universe. Why not let go from the start?”

The second quote here has always struck me from when I first watched this documentary over a decade ago.  This really is the essence of the practice in a few sentences.  The documentary is filled with wisdom from this recluses and is well worth spending time with.

Attachment to solitude

Since like some many Ch’an practices, there isn’t so much a detailed description, or a set of guidelines for the practice of solitude, what we mostly find is an orientation and then a discussion of the pitfalls that one can encounter. In the previous section, quote from Amongst White Clouds, the recluses noted the issues of coming to this practice before one is ready.  In the biography of the Japanese monk Bassui we see this underscored.

Bassui

There was a monk from Bassiu’s hometown by the name of Tokukei Jisha who had cut himself off from the world, retiring to the mountains, practicing religious austerities for many years. Hearing of this monk, Bassui decided to pay him a visit.”

– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 4

Tokukei became a mentor, friend and teacher of Bassui and is a classic example of the hermit tradition in Japan. When he first visits him he asks Bassui why his head is shaved (indicating he is a monk) but he doesn’t wear robes. Bassui at this point really eschewed formal practice and all its trappings. Tokukei could see his immaturity and while they practiced together he said he needed to resolve the great matter and to have it sealed by an awakened master.

Bassui went to see Fukuan Sōki, of Hōunji Temple in Hitachi province, a noted Zen master who had studied in China. Fukuan had a following that numbered about two thousand. Bassui, unimpressed with Fukuan, returned to his hometown and went to see his friend Tokukei. He told Tokukei that he had not got on well with Fukuan and was planning to practice by himself in some isolated mountain retreat. Tokukei, having spent over twenty years practicing austerities in seclusion, had developed a great deal of pride in his practice. This pride became the cause of much of his pain and suffering. He warned Bassui of the dangers of this kind of seclusion before fully understanding “the great matter” or receiving the transmission from a true teacher. Though Bassui had received verification from Kōzan, he gave up the idea of secluding himself in the mountains in accord with his friend’s advice and instead spent that year in a summer and winter training sesshin with Tokukei.

– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 5 and 6

Here we can see Tokukei outline these pitfalls of these practices.  Just like the recluse from Amongst White Clouds who said that being in the mountains before one is ready is “torture,” Tokukei is warning that if one does make it as a recluse this can lead to pride and arrogance. This he said leads to pain and suffering.  Solitude as a practice can be explored and be very fruitful in short stints but to undertake it long term, you need to be prepared.

It was around this time that Bassui built his first hermitage in Nanasawa in his home province, Sagami. Tokukei came to visit him there, and this time he seemed pleased with Bassui’s decision to retire to a hermitage to continue his practice. He seemed to be telling Bassui that since he now had met both requirements—having clarified the Way and having received verification from a true teacher—he was ready to undertake this kind of practice.

– Bassui Tokusho, Mud and Water p. 7

Bassui now is ready for this practice and it is appropriate to do so. In fact one often feels drawn to seclusion, to focusing purely on deepening ones insight after one has awakened. Hakuin talks of this and of course it comes up in the Chinese hermit tradition.  This is not a romantic notion of seclusion at this point, but the next logical step in ones practice.

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The Practice of Questioning

by tendo zenji

Dharma Talk from the April 25th, 2020 Day of Practice at Tahoma Zen Monastery

Meditative Self-Inquiry

The last few weeks in our talks we have been investigating the triune intertwined approach of : Being in the body, Being Outside and Being in Silence each with its many attendant practices. These practices are ones that we can do on our own with positive results.  We should always check any insights with a genuine teacher, but in these times when we have no choice but to practice more on our own, this approach has an even greater vitality.  

Once one is able to truly Be in Silence than this is the ground from which one can do inquiry, whether it be huatoa (wato), Koan Study, or Self-Inquiry.  Of these practices only Self-Inquiry can be pursued on one’s own.  The core part of this sort of self-directed practice is to never be satisfied, always look again, always go deeper.

A Natural Practice

In an essay entitled The Seven Tongues of God Timothy Leary postulated that there are seven essential questions that define the religious experience: what is reality, what is life, who is man, what is awareness, who am I, what do our emotions mean and is there life after death .

“Religion is a social system which has evolved its roles, rules, rituals, values, language, space-time locations to further the pursuit for the same goals, to answer these questions subjectively through the revelatory experience. […] A religion which fails to provide direct experiential answers to these spiritual questions becomes secular, political, and tends to oppose the individual revelatory confrontation.”
– Timothy Leary, from The Seven Tongues of God in Politics of Ecstasy p. 13

Religions seem to always begin with the direct revelatory exploration of these questions and then over time codify into a set of prepackaged answers and intermediaries to that direct experience. The history of many religions seems to be one of constant schisms based on eliminating the intermediaries only to over time build them up again.  Leary on the other hand stated that not only could you discover the answer to these questions yourself but that it was our fundamental purpose do so.

Find out for yourself. Seeking. I codified this as looking into ‘What is really going on’. That is what is happening at an absolutely fundamental level.  In essence I was exploring one of the essential Self-Inqurey questions: What is this?

Many people develop these burning questions on their own and pursue them to awakening, even without any practice framework or understanding at all. But combined with a genuine practice it can be a lot more powerful.

Bassui

After I began formal Zen Practice I was listening to Dharma talks from numerous sources and from Roshi Bodhin of the Rochester Zen Center I heard a teisho from Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. Bassui felt one had to see into ones true nature before one could engage in Koan Study or other practices. From his youth he was driven question ‘Who is the Master” and strove hard until he answered this and had it verified by a genuine Master. From Braverman’s Introduction to Mud and Water:

When Bassui asks, “Who is the master?” as he did of himself during his own training, and demands that his students pursue this enquiry to its core, not stopping even at realization, but rather, “…throwing out [realization], returning to the one who realizes…” (Kana hōgo), Bassui is pointing to the nature of the Self, which can be understood when one truly learns the nature of “he” who makes decisions, he who moves the arms and legs…. In the words of Rinzai, “…you must recognize the one who manipulates these reflections. He is the primal source of all the Buddhas and every place is home to which the follower of the Way returns.”

In bringing people back to the “master who hears, sees…” Bassui, like Rinzai, is steering students away from the feeling, “I know.”
– Arthur Braverman, from Mud and Water, (pp. 18-19).

In the below talk we delve deep into the core of Bassui’s inquiry based teaching and his rigor and fidelity to the practice.   Lin-Chi (Rinzai) throughout his talks would persistently ask of the assembly of ‘Who is listening to the dharma right now?  This question, ‘Who is listening, right now’, Bassui asked himself incessantly until he truly knew. Thought his teaching career he would bring students constantly back to seeing into their own minds, to answering for themselves “who is listening?”

The Practice of Self-Inquiry

 “To relax your body, first relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down.”
– Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt:, p. 8

Settle into the body, placing ones attention on anything tense and exhale, until totally relaxed. From here turn your attention upon itself, or upon the totality of the body, or simply stop placing your attention anywhere. Abide in awareness. If thoughts arise, let them arise and fall. If sensations arise, let them rise and fall. If you follow them, notice then and then return simply being in awareness. If you get too distracted, return to the body scan and relax where is tense. Conclude this with resting your attention in the tanden for a few breaths.  Then place your awareness upon itself.  From here you can begin inquiry.

In Ch’an practices are three core forms of inquiry:

Huatoa (wato) is an unceasing questioning of the mind leading to ‘Apprehension and Anxiety’ the “Great Ball of Doubt” which one shatters, revealing our true nature.

Koan study looks at things through numerous angles to get to a root question. While there are koans oriented around breakthrough there are numerous other aspects of practice that is being investigated.

Self-Inquiry is asking the question into the calm tranquility of the mind and listening for the response.  It can be more thought of setting the ground, the orientation for abiding in awareness.  

There are numerous question one can inquiry into What is This? Who Am I? are the most fundamental and virtually all others resolve into this.  They are of course two sides of the same coin. But other inquiries can be useful for cutting though our own specific conditioning for getting past attachments.  What is real? What is True? Who is listening? What am I? What is most essential? and so on.

Question the self to see what comes up. Then this must be questioned. Questioning must continue until there is only our true nature remains. This process is why this is such a fruitful practice to engage in in self-directed practice. There is no endpoint, we always can keep question, going deeper. When available, like Bassui, we verify any deep insight with a genuine teacher. But otherwise we continue the questioning, always finding more.

In the talk from this day all of this and more is explored in greater depth.

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some reading material

by tendo zenji

This is a short list – five in total – of books that that have been essential to my education and practice, that I find myself recommending over and over again.


In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha)
Bhikku Bodhi
Wisdom Publications;  2005
ISBN: 0861714911

Bhikku Bodhi is doing yeoman’s work in his translation of the Pali Canon and this selection from that epic task is both approachable and immensely valuable. Organized by topic, as opposed to the Pali Canon’s organization by category and length, and using the earliest suttas this really allows one to gain an understanding and appreciation of the early Buddhist Thoughts.  Too often practitioners are disconnected from the original teachings thinking that because zen is “beyond words and letters” they can forgo study of the source material.  As Dōgen reminds us

“However, those who talk about transmission outside the teaching do not understand this meaning. So, do not believe the wrong view of transmission outside the teaching and thereby misunderstand buddhas’ teaching.”- Shōbōgenzō, p. 278


The Sayings of Layman P’ang: A Zen Classic of China
translated by James Green
Shambhala, 2009
ISBN: 1590306309

The first book I recommend to anyone who wants to begin to explore zen literature.  As most practitioners are laity there are few more inspiring figures than Layman P’ang. He demonstrates ably how a layman can engage in Right Livelihood and be fully engaged in the path.  It’s also down to earth, entertaining reading with wisdom for all practitioners, lay and ordained alike.

When the mind is at peace,
the world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.
Not holding on to reality,
not getting stuck in the void,
you are neither holy nor wise, just
an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.

-Layman P’ang, translated by Stephen Mitchell


The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind
Translated by John Blofeld
Grove Press, 1994
ISBN: 0802150926

Huang Po (Obaku in Japan) was the teacher of Linji which became the dominant school in China and one of the two main schools in Japan (as Rinzai). Reading Huang Po gives you the roots of Linji’s teaching and his style, which was if anything even more dynamic and more direct. Reading  Huang Po you can see where much of that came from and with his elucidation on various topics you can get a glimpse at the depths involved.  In my mind this is one of the clearest most direct expositions on the core of the path of zen and is as solid a foundation as you can find anywhere for practice and further study.

“Therefore, if you students of the Way seek to progress through seeing, hearing, feeling and knowing, when you are deprived of your perceptions, your way to Mind will be cut off and you will find nowhere to enter. Only realize that, though real Mind is expressed in these perceptions, it neither forms part of them nor is separate from them. You should not start REASONING from these perceptions, nor allow them to give rise to conceptual thought; yet nor should you seek the One Mind apart from them or abandon them in your pursuit of the Dharma. Do not keep them nor abandon them nor dwell in them nor cleave to them. Above, below and around you, all is spontaneously existing, for there is nowhere which is outside the Buddha-Mind.” – The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, p. 36-37


Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui
Bassui Tokusho, translated by Arthur Braverman
Wisdom Publications;  2002
ISBN: 0861713206

There has been no more important teachings for me than Bassui.  He was a fourteenth century Japanese monk who demonstrated total commitment to the way.  He eschewed much of the dogma of his day concentrating purely on the practice. But contravening that concept of a radical or a rebel that seems to be so attractive to the western mind, once he began teaching to returned to the form and it’s myriad practices.  Those seemingly rebellious practices, to me, just demonstrate how when one has aroused great aspiration you do what is necessary.  What I love about Bassui is how it cuts it all to the quick, always bringing it back to the core: seeing directly into your own nature. Whenever he is asked about minutia of Buddhism or Zen he always brings it back to this.

“Fasting does not mean refraining from the formal eating of food. It means refraining from feeding on the roots of delusion. Fasting means looking into your own nature and illuminating your consciousness, cutting off deluded feelings arising from analytical thinking, remaining apart from external phenomena and unattached to the internal void, completely purifying yourself so that things with no more than a thread of meaning become nonexistent in your life. A good teacher of true rank relates to people as a farmer trains his ox, as though he were depriving a starving man of food. If you were mistakenly to take this fasting literally, it would be a case of heresy.” –Mud and Water p. 48


Hakuin on Kensho: The Four Ways of Knowing
Hakuin, translation and commentary by Albert Low
Shambhala; 2006
ISBN: 1590303776

Kensho (awakening) is the essential experience of a practitioner and yet there often is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding this topic. The great 17th Century Japanese Zen master Hakuin addressed numerous questions on this topic which was put together as the short text The Four Ways of Knowing. This book by Albert Low is drawn from his many teisho’s on this text and apart from presenting a translation of the text the bulk of the book is his line by line discussion of the text.  Aimed directly at practitioners this is an incredibly valuable book for those on the path.

The four ways of knowing can be looked upon as four ways of working on the question, “Who am I?”

The first of these ways is to use the question as a hua t’ou. Hua t’ou is a Chinese word that literally means the “head of a sentence.” For example, instead of asking, “Who am I?” one simply asks the question, “Who?” The rest of the question is understood. By breathing “Who?” in and out, the question is held steadily, and one can continue to practice for very long periods. A variation of this same question is, “How do I know that I am?” The only worthwhile response to both of these questions is awakening. This awakening, as we shall see, is the first way of knowing.

Another way of working on “Who am I?” is to ask, “When a bird sings, where am I?” Or, “When it snows, where am I?” The resolution of these questions is to awaken into the second way of knowing.

The third way of working on “Who am I” is to take all experience, no matter what, good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, and ask, “Who is experiencing this?” This will lead to the third way of knowing.

The fourth way of working on “Who am I” is to inquire, “Who walks?” “Who talks?” “Who eats?” “Who sits in zazen?” This leads to awakening to the fourth way of knowing. –Hakuin on Kensho, p. 24

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