drafty mountain hut

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Tag: Nyogen Sensaki

Nyogen Senzaki Day

by tendo zenji


Nyogen Senzaki (千崎 如幻, 1876–1958)

“Why were we secluded in this mountain temple? Nothing but realization was the reason. Some of us were sitting under old trees, others on moss-covered rocks as night spread its darkness around us without hesitation, dew falling heavily on our black robes.” (p. 101)

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

Polishing the Mind Mirror

by tendo zenji

Polishing the Mind Mirror

(originally published in Plum Mountain News Autumn 2016)

Zen is not a religion based on faith; nor is it some sort of speculative philosophy. It is the actualization of the unselfish life. (1, p. 85)

This past summer a podcast was released from Roshi Bodhin as part the fiftieth anniversary of the Rochester Zen Center (2) in which he discussed their founder, Roshi Philip Kapleau. He covered Roshi Kapleau’s training in Japan and he noted that as he prepared to return to the United States his primary concern was how to translate his experiences into an American context (2.1).  This, Bodhin noted, is the great issue for every teacher of Zen in America.  He backed this up with an anecdote that at every American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA) meeting this is always the primary topic (2.2).  Whenever an American Zen teacher is interviewed this issue always comes up, whether implicitly or explicitly and it is one that everyone on that path has to address.  So it was of interest to me that Nyogen Sensaki wrote an essay entitled American Buddhism in 1932 that shows this has been the primary concern since year zero.

Modern religions must keep pace with science and human reasoning generally; otherwise, they lose their authority and perish. The true value of a religion should be judged by the brightness of its mirror of reasons; it should satisfy the intellect of whoever studies it. It should be judged by its ability to harmonize with actual life. (1, p. 77)

This quote from Nyogen has quite a bit to unpack.  I wonder how many religious teachers would say that their religion must “keep pace with science and human reasoning generally”? I do think that the evidence supports this statement; religions that do not evolve along with the changes in peoples understanding and culture do not last.  There seems to be generally three responses to this fact among the various religions. In the fundamentalist churches that I was raised in they tended to reject mainstream science and reason but instead created their own alternate universe of “science” to support their beliefs. These had the veneer of reason to them and satisfied at a surface level.  But it is a Red Queens Race where they have to run faster and faster to try to just keep pace with science and never quite succeed. Building their faith upon these foundations means that as they are disproved by mainstream science their beliefs are thus disproved.

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” ― Dalai Lama XIV (4)

Another common response is to deny this truth. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Fundamentalist Islam, Evangelical Christians and many others take this approach.  They become increasingly alienated from society, withdrawing into their own increasingly medieval enclaves as science and humanity pass them by. Finally there are those like the Dalai Lama who fully embraced this and strive to keep pace with developments in science and acknowledge shifts in cultural and societal thinking. He has stated that core beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism such as karma and reincarnation can and have been rethought based on changes of scientific understanding.

Zen is based on self-evident fact, and so can convince anyone at any time. Because it is based on fact, Zen can pass freely through the gates of the innumerable teachings of the world; it offers no resistance and posed no threat, since its foundation is completely nondogmatic. The brighter one polishes one’s mind-mirror of reason, the more this true value of Zen can be appreciated. Because Zen is fact and not “religion” in the conventional sense of the term, the American mind, with its scientific cast, takes to it very readily, whereas other religions of an emotional nature do not have a lasting influence. (1, p. 78)

This dense quotation contains numerous ideas as well as some rather interesting assumptions about Zen, religion and Americans.  The notion that Zen in based on “fact” goes back to the original teachings of the Buddha.  In these early teachings he’d often encourage experimentation.  He’d explain something like the Eightfold Path and urge people to just try it out.  Just try Right Speech for a couple of weeks, he’d suggest, and see if it doesn’t make your life easier, reduce your suffering a little bit.  These basic rules, like the Golden Rule, are self-evident – you can just read them and understand that if you followed them things would go easier for you.  They aren’t tied to any particular belief either, unlike say the Ten Commandments, and are thus non-dogmatic.

The brighter one polishes one’s mind-mirror of reason, the more this true value of Zen can be appreciated”. This statement is a little more difficult to unpack considering that human reason is a tool we use in daily life that in Zen practice can be of limited value. In koan practice for instance you have to exhaust reason and eventually express your deep nature.  But here Nyogen is saying that through reason we can see that Zen is experimental, experiential and essentially human. It’s nondogmatic nature means that it poses no threat to established belief systems and norms. It is essentially a practice and the clearer we can see that the more its value can be appreciated.

Lastly this idea that the American Mind has a “scientific cast” is perhaps a bit outdated. Later in the essay he says “The American Mind is more inclined to practical activity than to philosophical speculation.” (1, p. 79) which I think is demonstrably true.  The thirties, when this was written, was a golden age of science, which was seen as a pure and guiding light. At this time in particular the Civic Religion of the US as well as many of the standard religions adopted a scientific cast, as this was generally accepted as the way forward. It was an Age of Reason, where science felt it only had a few ’t’s’ to cross and ‘i’s’ to dot before everything was understood.  But in the intervening years there has been an increasing skepticism toward science, a turning away from fact-based actions, an increase in fundamentalism, and conspiracy minded thinking.  “Scientism”, a superficial adoption of science into a system of belief, and dogmatic non-belief has eroded its authority.  When surveyed contemporary Americans are much more likely to have a non- or even anti- science bent and there is greater belief in conspiracy, the fantastical and outright false ideologies here then anywhere else in the Western World. (5)

The most beautiful part of a religion is its practical faith, not its philosophical argumentation. The American thinker requires that faith walk hand in hand with reason; only in this way can it be harmonized with the practical world.  The mere postulation of dogmas and creeds will never be approved of by the majority of Americans. … America Buddhism must be built upon a practical foundation. (1, p. 79)

This statement is one that I fully agree with, except that I question that this is the case for the “majority of Americans”.  As noted in the previous paragraph contemporary evidence shows that a majority of Americans do not exist in the “reality based community”.  Dogma and creeds – those of American Exceptionalism, White Supremacy, Male Privilege, and so – dominate over acting in rational ways.  There is a large subset of people who “require that faith walk hand in hand with reason” – I would number myself as one of them – but American Zen has poorly served them. Zen, as practiced in America, is often “soft”, descending from the Sixties fascination with the east and does not demand reason and criticality.  Ideas that bare no relation to the practical world are tolerated, even entertained.  Where is the demand for a practical foundation?  Nyogen recognizes this problem and cites this historical example:

Some sixty years ago H.P. Blavatsky established her Theosophical Society for the practice of the kind of esoteric Buddhism she had learned from Trans-Himalayan masters. After her death, strange elements from different cults began to creep in and corrupt the practice, until eventually the movement ceased keeping pace with modern science and philosophy, thereby disqualifying itself as a possible foundation for American Buddhism. (1, p. 80)

Nyogen, working alone at this point, laid the foundations of Zen to avoid these issues.  His Zen was based on reason, eschewed these “strange elements” and emphasized practicality, engagement with science and being in the world. But his faith that this being inherent to Zen is I think misplaced when brought to Zen Practice. Anything can be corrupted, people will always bring in “strange elements” and it is the rare person who will shift their beliefs to keep “pace with modern science and philosophy”.  While Zen itself eschews this kind of thinking, the mere toleration of this kind of wooly thinking erodes its fidelity. What would Nyogen think on seeing “New Age” elements tolerated, or even encouraged in various zendos?

In keeping with their reaction against sacerdotalism, the young thinkers of America are dreaming of a religion of practicality, which is precisely what Zen is. (1, p. 80)

Before I ever came to practice at Chobo-Ji this describes me exactly.  I have a file of notes for what I was calling “practical Zen” which married the practical self-reliance of Transcendentalism with Zen Practice (along with the devoted naturalism of both beliefs). Coming to practice in a Zen Center has taught me that self-reliance, while essential, can be overdone, can be another barrier.  No-one comes to realization on their own.  I have also come to understand that a sense of the scared is essential.  Form and ritual are things that people crave which feeds their sense of connection to all things.  But I’ve also seen a lot of compromises, many of which belie Nyogens conjecture of the inherent practically of Americans.  Some of the people attracted to Zen are as he describes.  But many are not and as noted they can bring many a corrupting influence.

Thus this question of American Zen continues to bedevil us fifty years after Roshi Kapleau tried to work out how to bring his experiences to America and almost a hundred years after Nyogen Sensaki began teaching a small group in San Francisco. We stand at an inflection point right now, where American Zen is in a particularly vulnerable state. Scandals have rocked sanghas across the country, but more damaging in my mind is the soft corruption of low standards. The rigor of Zen practice, if not corrupted by woolly thinking, is a natural preservative. But if that rigor is allowed to be diluted then it is a structure built on sand.  I’ll close with a quote from Jeff Shore that emphasizes this point.

Rinzai condemned – and in no uncertain terms! – what he called blind idiots, old shavepates, wild fox-spirits who can’t tell right from wrong. After all, Rinzai Zen only comes to life when one is dependent on nothing, within or without – deceived by no one, deceiving no one. Let us take this opportunity today to truly “know [our own] shame” so that the present quagmire can be cleaned up and the Way made clear.

Then, with the 1,200th memorial fifty years from now, a real and vital Zen will have taken root in the West. Let us open our eyes to what has happened. We cannot afford to hide our heads in the sand. Humbly aware of our own shortcomings, let us dedicate our lives to planting genuine Zen in the modern world and work together to ensure that it takes root. (3)

(1) Nyogen Sensaki, Like a Dream, Like a Fantasy: The Zen Teachings of Nyogen Sensaki
Edited and introduced by Eido Shimano
Wisdom Publications, 2005, Boston, MA
ISBN: 0-86171-280-3

(2) Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede,  Fifty Years of Change and Adaptations June 26, 2016 Rochester NY
Available online: http://rzc.org/sites/default/files/media/2016-8-21.mp3

(2.1) ibid. “One of the great distinctions of Roshi Kapleau, as compared to at least most other first generation Zen teachers – both Japanese and American – is his instance, from the beginning, that we have to find western forms for this historically Asian tradition.”

(2.2) ibid. “In our annual meetings of American Zen Teachers Association (AZTA), this is the central mission, we all agree is ours, which is to find ways to adapt an Asian Tradition to the West.”

(3) Jeff ShoreRinzai Zen in the Modern World, paper from the symposium on “Rinzai Zen in the Modern World”, May 13 & 14, 2016, Tokyo, Japan.
Available online: https://beingwithoutself.org/inspirations/rzitmw/

(4) Dalai Lama XIV The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
Morgan Road Books, 2005
ISBN: 076792066X

(5) For one study on American’s beliefs in conspiracy see: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/04/conspiracy-theory-poll-results-.html