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Tag: practice

Dwelling in Subtle Forms of Identity

by tendo zenji

What are the barriers to awakening that we as practitioners put in our way. This is to turn around the questions so often raised about why the practice doesn’t seem to “work” for a given practitioner. As noted in previous talks we are typically Standing in our own Way. In this talk from the February 2023 Daylong Retreat at Tahoma Zen Monastery we consider more subtle forms of standing in our own way: dwelling in identity.

Recording of this talk

February 18th, 2023 Daylong Retreat talk: Dwelling in Identity


All things are set on a nonabiding basis. The nonabiding basis is based on nonabiding. If you can. reach a thorough realization of this, then all things are One Suchness, and you cannot find even the slightest sign of abiding. The whole of your present activities and behavior is non-abiding. Once the basis is clear to you, it will be like having eyes: the sun is shining brightly, and you can see all kinds of colors and forms. Isn’t this the mainspring of transcendent wisdom?   

Yuanwu Letters (Cleary Bros)

The nature of reality is non-dwelling and thus must be our practice. This has several meanings, but in essence it is the interconnected nature of reality.  But when we rest in various things, we are resting in identity, that is what we mistaking take as ourselves. This can be very subtle and we are going to examine several instances related especially to practitioners.  At this level abiding can be seen as attachment.  Anytime we are dwelling in something at its root it is the self grasping at something that it identifies with.

The Supreme Way is not difficult 
If only you do not pick and choose. 
Neither love nor hate, 
And you will clearly understand. 
Be off by a hair, 
And you are as far from it as heaven from earth. 
If you want the Way to appear,
Be neither for nor against. 
For and against opposing each other 
—This is the mind’s disease. 
Without recognizing the mysterious principle 
It is useless to practice quietude. 
The Way is perfect like great space, 
Without lack, without excess. 
Because of grasping and rejecting, 
You cannot attain it. 
Do not pursue conditioned existence;
Do not abide in acceptance of emptiness. 
In oneness and equality,
Confusion vanishes of itself. 
Stop activity and return to stillness, 
and that stillness will be even more active. 

Xin Xin Ming, attributed to Chien-chih Seng-ts’an
from Faith in Mind by Sheng Yen.

The Chan Practice of Non-abiding

The Diamond Sutra contains the sentence, “(One) ought not abide anywhere, and there will arise this mind.” Before he became the Sixth Patriarch, the young Huineng became enlightened when he heard this single sentence. In Chan, we often use a briefer phrase, “Non-abiding, mind arising.” This phrase appears within the entrances to Nung Chan Monastery and the Chan Hall of Dharma Drum Mountain in Taiwan, as well as the Chan Hall of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center in the United States. Master Sheng Yen continually brought up this phrase during long retreats, explained the concepts behind it, and asked retreatants to practice accordingly.

 The Chan school places great importance on “non-abiding, mind arising” because the intrinsic nature of the mind is exactly non-abiding. If you wish to be enlightened, your actions must be in accordance with “non-abiding, mind arising.” Not only must you have a clear sense of this idea, but your every action, word, and thought must be in line with it. This idea that all actions of body, speech, and mind should be in accord with the concept of non-abiding is expressed in the saying by the Huineng: “As the mouth speaks, so the mind acts.”

Guo Xing, from The Chan Practice of Non-abiding


Complacency manifests in many ways and reinforces our identity.
Resting in the form institutionally
A place of practice exists to help you let go of self, by keeping you off balance, giving you no place to dwell. But once it becomes too familiar we can rest in it. It becomes part of our identity.
Outsourcing one’s practice outside of oneself
All practices are by their nature have an aspect we can attach to. That is there is an element that we can hold on to, abide in. The benefit of the practice should outweigh this, but when a practice becomes “stale” it is because we are abiding it it in some way.

When we become comfortable in the practice then we are dwelling in it. As all practices have a graspable element it is incumbent upon us to question where we are at. Maintain beginners mind. That is not self-conscious, but fresh. In retreats we are constantly off balance and breakthrough should come early. How early? before retreats become unable to surprise us. That is before they become routine. 

Beginners Mind—How to avoid complacency

A noble one of former times [Baizhang Huaihai] has said clearly: “For example, a fly can alight here and there, but the only place it can’t alight is on top of a flame. Sentient beings are also like that. They are capable of alighting on objective supports, but the only objective support they can’t alight upon is prajñā.”  When from moment to moment [sentient beings] do not retreat from [the resoluteness experienced when they178] first produced the thought of awakening; and they take the consciousness that makes mundane defilements into objective supports and turn [that consciousness] backwards to engage prajñā: even if they don’t make a thorough penetration in the present life, at the very end of life they will most definitely not be led along by bad karma and fall into a bad rebirth path. 

Dahui, Letters of Dahui p. 84-85

Keep your mind fresh. Each moment is fresh; new. This is the lesson of impermanence, not that nothing lasts, but that everything is constantly being born. When we first encounter a new situation we are often self-consciousness, worried about doing things right, how we are perceived etc. Once we are past that but things are still unexpected, delightful, this is beginners mind. We can stay in this beginners mind in various ways. Increasing the intensity, keeping ourselves on the razors edge, works for a while.  But engaging in fundamentally non-abiding practices is what is truly required. See Non-Dwelling practices

Identity as a Practitioner

We very easily become stuck in beliefs about ourselves as a practitioner, particular in how we perceive the practice is going for us. We thinking that we are no-good, that we can’t awaken, that certain practices “never work for us,” that we are selfish, we can’t arouse bodhicitta and so on. What are these beliefs rooted in? It is essential that we practice self-questioning and look at the roots of our beliefs. Most of our issues resolve themselves in fear of death and desire to be loved. Once again the self rejecting (fear of death) and grasping (after love). If we look at a particular belief we have we can identify what it is and let the feelings run their course through us. Repeatedly doing this we can untangle these root beliefs. The danger is creating much more difficult identities, the “I’m the type of person who can’t do x, or who always does y” kind of identity. These are identities. I am like this, we say. But who you really are is unbounded.

 We establish views on how practice should be done and this again becomes entangled with who we are.

When members of the scholar-official class study the Way, most don’t really comprehend. Unless there is oral discussion and mental reflection, they are blank, with “nowhere to put their hands and feet.” They don’t believe that the state of not having anywhere to put your hands and feet is precisely the good state.  —

Dahui, Letters of Dahui, p. 167

The value of a Good Friend, is that they can point to where we re doing something for our self and not for the purpose of seeing past the self. But anytime we think things are done in a particular way, or that this resonates with us, or hold tightly to specific views, we again need to engage in reflection on that. Look for the root assumption. Is there identity here?

However, you must not abide in the state of calmness. If you abide in the state of calmness, then you will be possessed by “measuring with the dharmadhātu” [i.e., using ultimate reality as a measuring stick]. In the teachings, this is called “dharma-defilement” [i.e., producing all sorts of views about the buddhadharma]. Once you have extinguished “measuring with the dharmadhātu” and all-at-once washed away any sort of idea of “remarkable and outstanding,” then, for the first time, keep an eye on [a huatou

Dahui, Letters of Dahui, p. 168

Attachments to experience (glimpses; the awakened self) –
When we have glimpses into reality as it is, even major breakthroughs while we still have a lot of conditioning to work through these can become an identity for us. These events lead to lasting changes, but when we turn it into an experience, we reify it; it becomes a thing. Then we are just dwelling in the past (memory). At its worst this becomes an “awakened ego” that is someone fully dwelling in self who thinks they are awakened and acts accordingly. This is the root of many of the problematic teachers we have seen. But even someone acknowledging that they still have a long ways to go can still hold onto experience, to dwell in it. Then it becomes a barrier and stagnation occurs.

Working through the identity as a practitioner

Look for these tendencies and put them down. Examine the core beliefs: trace back where feelings come from, where negative thoughts come from. Why are we practicing? How are we practicing. Question of the self is essential. Non-abiding practices can help shake loose these tendencies.

Attachments to Self

Not really wanting to wake up

This manifests in myriad ways.  Attachments to self is the main issue—it of course doesn’t want to cease.  It likes the idea of the awakened self, that is, itself plus being recognized as have attained something. This is the ego.  But along with this of course is all the other identities we have.  We are fine with the path as an identity, a lifestyle, “what we do” and the aspects that surround practice.  Often those who say they can’t sit alone are in this camp.  This primarily manifest as a lack of commitment. 

Lack of commitment

This is the true Way of training of all the Buddhas, and is true Zazen. Speaking or silent, moving or still walking, standing, sitting and lying down are our everyday actions. In this our everyday life we must keep working (on the Koan) resourcefully, from moment to moment, constantly and continuously. 

Forgetting it for most of the time and only occasionally recalling it and then just giving it a try at Zazen only invites a host of wild fancies. And to go to Sanzen only when one feels like it is just not on! And even though you have forgotten to work on the Koan, you must never lose the power of the vow and the strength of faith. It is like learning archery. Shooting the arrow, you cannot possibly expect to hit the target right away but you must practice and practice. 

The training calls for great energy and great perseverance, neither being put off by a bit of pain, nor getting easily bored. Even after devoting themselves to the Way for twenty and thirty years, the old masters found it far from easy. 

Zen Master Daibi, commentary to Torei zenji’s Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamps of the Zen School

We make our excuses, too busy or whatever, we just occasionally practice, but the commitment to what it takes to actually wake up just isn’t there.

Inquire into your motivations

So what to do? First one really needs to understand what motivates your practice. Be honest and don’t worry about ones motivations. These change just like everything else. Inquiry into motivations

Abiding in Groups

Sometimes the distortions that can come out of being part of a group have little to do with the group or its members and a lot to do with you. Some good questions to ask yourself are: “What do I really want to get out of being part of a group?” or “What am I really expecting or hoping for by being part of this group?” It’s important when asking these questions that you remind yourself there are no wrong answers. For instance, if the answer is, “I want to belong,” or “I want to be liked,” or “I want to find a romantic partner who is spiritual,” then you have to acknowledge that motivation and be honest with yourself. If you tell yourself and others that you’re there for spiritual awakening, but your real motivations are hidden even to you, then you will have cognitive dissonance. You will be frustrated on both accounts. Authenticity is the key here.

Angelo Dilullo,  Awake: It’s Your Turn (p. 168)

Clarify Your Aspiration 

To clarify your aspiration means knowing exactly what it is that your spiritual life aspires to, not as a future goal but in each mo- ment. In other words, what do you value most in your life—not in the sense of moral values, but in the sense of what is most important to you. Contemplate this question. Do not assume that you know what your highest aspiration is, or even what is most important to you. Dig deep within, contemplate, and meditate on what the spiritual quest is about for you; don’t let anyone else define your aspiration for you. Look within until you find, with complete clarity, what you aspire to.   

The importance of this first Foundation cannot be overemphasized, because life unfolds along the lines of what you value most. Very few people have Truth or Reality as deep values. They may think that they value Truth, but their actions do not bear this out. Generally, most people have competing and conflicting values, which manifest as both internal and external conflict. So just because you think something is your deepest value does not mean that it actually is. By deeply contemplating and clarifying what you value and aspire to, you become more unified, clear, and certain of your direction. 

As your realization and spiritual maturity deepen, you will find that some aspects of your aspiration remain steadfast while others evolve to reflect what is relevant to your current level of insight. By reflecting on and clarifying the issues relevant to your current level of understanding, you stay focused on the cutting edge of your own unfolding. 

Adyashanti, The Way of Liberation 

Ultimately Non-Dwelling

There are many places in the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch that refer to how one should practice non-abiding. For example, the chapter “Samadhi and Wisdom Are One” says that those who practice non-abiding will see the emptiness inherent in virtue and evil, beauty and ugliness, enemy and friend, demeaning and argumentative language. Such a person does not engage in or think about reward or injury. Thought after thought, he or she doesn’t engage in or think about the previous condition. If the previous thought, present thought and future thought continue without stopping, this is called “bondage.” If, in regard to all dharmas, thought after thought continues with non-abiding, this is called “unbinding.(emphasis mine) 

Ven. Guo Xing from The Chan Practice of Non-abiding

Engage in Self-Questioning. Examine your beliefs. Stay in the present, do not dwell in past experiences. Do not let things become routine. Engaging in Non-Dwelling practices can keep things fresh as they don’t give you anything to hold onto. Work with good friend who will point out where you are fooling yourself.


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

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

Faith in Mind
Chan Master Sheng Yen
Shambhala (October 10, 2006)
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1590303970

The Way of Liberation
Open Gate Sangha; 1st edition (January 1, 2013)
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1937195171

Awake: It’s Your Turn
Angelo Dilullo
SimplyAlwaysAwake.com (May 25, 2021)
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1737212323

Online articles

Chan Practice of Non-abiding, Ven. Guo Xing

Inscriptions on Trust in Mind (Xin Xin Ming)

Winter Retreat 2022 Instructional Talks

by tendo zenji

During the February 2022 Winter Retreat held at Tahoma Zen Monastery there was a series of morning instructional talks, primarily on the Dream Mountain practices. Links to the video of these talks are made available here in order that this instruction be accessible throughout the retreat. The links take you to a page where you can watch the video.

The 2022 edition of the Outside Practices text can be found here: Outside Practices

Day 1: February 14th, 2022

Topics Covered
Introduction to the Winter Retreat
Purpose of the Instructional Talks
Cultivating the Still Pool
Zoom Video Recording

Day 2: February 15th, 2022

Topics Covered
Ten Breath Relaxation Method
Zoom Video Recording

Day 3: February 16th, 2022

Topics Covered
Sesshin practices: Chanting/Samu/Meals
Physical Practice
Outside Practices
Zoom Video Recording

Day 4: February 17th, 2022

Topics Covered
Letting Go
Zoom Video Recording

Day 5: February 18th, 2022

Topics Covered
(Online text of the Mahā Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta)
Zoom Video Recording

Day 6: February 19th, 2022

Topics Covered
Immediacy Followup
Zoom Video Recording

Day 7: February 20th, 2022

Topics Covered
Continuous Practice
Closing Remarks
Zoom Video Recording

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:

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