this bright world is yours to discover


The Wisdom of the Heart Sutra - There are Not Two Truths

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

If you have practiced in a Zen center, you may have you been exposed to the Heart Sutra. The Sutra is sometimes very difficult to understand because it appears to be negating so many things that we take for granted as real. However, it has a more subtle meaning than mere negation.

Form itself is emptiness. Emptiness itself form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness.

That is, the absolute reality of all things as lacking permanent, independent existence - which simply means they are conditional, impermanent, inter-connected, lacking eternal substance - is completely manifested in their mundane form. We see them demonstrating these principals day in and day out but, typically, it's easier to resist that daily teaching because ignorance is less threatening to our sense of a separate, autonomous self.

This is not the genius of Zen, but of all of Mahayana Buddhism, to have restated the Buddha's teachings in a way that points toward dropping the dualistic view of absolute and relative. Ironically, however, it is often used as a way of reinforcing the "two truths" view which again creates a dualism.

The beauty of Buddhism is that the teaching is, and has always been, that each one of us needs only a body and mind to realize the most profound, sacred, truths, to realize the nature of a human life, and to realize that our everyday experience can be a tool for creating more suffering and confusion or discovering the highest wisdom and peace.

The Family Way

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

June 15,  2017

After staying at Sojiji, I paid a visit to Rinso-in, a fairly large and busy rural temple by Japanese standards. As karma would have it, I ran into Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi at the Yaizu train station on the way there. Although he is a highly respected teacher, having held one of the key positions at Eiheiji, he eschewed all Japanese customs by giving me a big smile and a bear hug before running to catch his train to Tokyo. This is unusual, especially considering that we have only met a couple of times in rather crowded settings. However, he has such great generosity toward anyone associated with San Francisco Zen Center, the temple that was founded by his father. I felt so grateful to be a part of that family lineage. 

Konin Cardenas and Shungo Suzuki

Konin Cardenas and Shungo Suzuki

Hoitsu Roshi's son Shungo-san and his wife were very warm as well, offering all sorts of help, and including me in family meals and as an observer of the bell ringing class. It's called "baika" and there were some 80 women performing it. I noticed that they had their own chant leaders, women who participated in a ceremony alongside the priests, but then the classes were all led by the men. Though I was fortunate to have experienced a largely egalitarian form of training at Hosshinji with Sekkei Harada Roshi, and with my Preceptor Shosan Vicki Austin at San Francisco Zen Center, I recognize that this is the usual way in Japan. Social norms of gender hierarchy are experienced by women in Zen practice settings as well.

The hydrangea virtually covered the temple grounds, and they were flourishing, in full bloom blue, white, and pink. They were planted by Chitosei-san, Hoitsu Roshi's wife. It was such a lovely gift to the world. I mused about what would make Shunryu Suzuki want to leave this place in favor of the clashing culture in the US, a place he could not possibly have imagined. Still, his open heart and optimism for starting anew enabled him to develop SFZC, a sangha with strong roots. As for my own reasons for coming to practice in Japan 11 years ago, at this moment I can only say that it had something to do with leaving behind that newness of American Zen, and reaching back much further to a Zen that I thought would be free of my identities.

June 17, 2017

Having arrived at Kogestu-an, I was again the grateful beneficiary of generous hospitality. After lunch with his wife Madoka and their 5 year-old Junsei, the Head Priest Kensho Miyamae invited me to come along with them to the onsen (hot baths). This was another first for me. I accepted the invitation, but feared that we might all be expected to bathe together. Thankfully, only the little boy bathed with the women, and the men were in another room. Sitting together in the outdoor tub, we enjoyed a cool evening breeze amidst the bamboo. The temple and this family are so cozy, the antithesis of Sojiji, though that is where Kensho-san trained. 

Kensho, Junsei, and Madoka

Kensho, Junsei, and Madoka

Family temples are unique to Japanese Buddhism, I believe. The system developed over time after the "Nikujiku Saitai" (肉食妻帯)  law was passed during the mid-1800s, allowing Buddhist monks and nuns to marry and have sex. It stands in contrast to most other Buddhist traditions in which monks and nuns are strictly celibate. The change meant that the children of Japanese priests could become the next generation of monks and nuns, and inherit the temples where their parents lived. This has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, the priests might become more appreciative of, and integrated with lay life, and more involved in community at places like schools and playgrounds. On the other hand, it might mean that the people running the temples consider it a vocation, rather than a personal calling. When I asked Kensho-san whether he would ask his son to take over the temple, he said, "Probably not. I want him to be whatever he wants to be."  Only time will tell what Junsei-chan would like to be.

For now, Kensho-san has made Kogetsu-an into a place that welcomes Western practitioners who seek a taste of the tradition as it is expressed more intimately than at the big training temples. The names of those who have come to sit are displayed about the temple, and they include people I know and with whom I have practiced. One day I went with the family to do a bit of weeding together with the community group on their block. Little Junsei came with us too. Since we finished up early, I invited him to the small garden at the back of the temple to continue, weeding a patch together, marveling at bugs and the lotus in the tiny pond. Now that was a traditional Japanese temple moment. 

Art in the Service of Wisdom

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

A complete expression in this moment, 
one that is spontaneous and unique,  
while fully embracing all things.

The enso is used in Japanese Zen Buddhism to illustrate all things complete and harmonious in each moment. It is also a demonstration of the simplicity and harmony of the teaching of Zen, a tradition that views words and concepts as somewhat inadequate in their ability to express the true nature of reality.

Thus, the art of painting came to be used in the service of wisdom.

Drawing circles in the air and on the ground had long been a form of teaching in Chan Buddhism. We hear of it in the form of koan stories. For example, in "Book of Serenity" case 77 entitled "Yangshan's Enough," we read:

The monk drew a circle [in the air] and held it up with his hands, like a titan holding the sun and the moon, and said ‘What character is this?’ Yangshan then drew a circle around the character for infinity.
— Translation by Thomas Cleary

The monk is demonstrating that all things are embraced in the enso. Carrying it like Atlas, he is also demonstrating that each of us fully encompasses the whole world. This is because we are inseparable from it, through the function of emptiness that pervades our experience of the six senses. Yangshan agrees. In his verse comments, Tiantong, says this about it:

The void of the circle of the Way is never filled. The letters on the seal of emptiness are still unformed.

In great appreciation for the circle of the Way, both literal and figurative, Zenkei Shibayama Roshi published, in 1969, a large-format book containing reproductions of three centuries of enso, and the accompanying calligraphy and art. Some enso are painted in a clockwise direction, others in a counter-clockwise direction. They begin the stroke at various points on the circle. Each one reveals a bit about the individual who painted it. No two enso are identical. It reminds us that an enso blossoms from a particular moment in time, and thus its variation is great. 

And so it is with our lives. No matter in which direction you go, you are still in the midst of the activity of great Buddhadharma. All the while, you are a unique instance of causes and conditions, and thus the variation in what you experience is great. Never forget this and you are assured of great harmony.

Grappling With the Green-eyed Monster

Sitting & Ritual, Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

A long, long time ago there was a monk who had been working in the kitchen and then, overnight, was promoted to Abbot of a prestigious monastery. The retiring Abbot felt sure that this would cause a stir. So he sent the new Abbot on a journey, on a long walk, and told him not to come back for three years, to allow time for people to absorb the news. As expected, many of the other monks in the monastery were upset and actually set out in pursuit of the new Abbot.

Have you ever felt like one of the monks that went after the new Abbot? Have you ever thought, "who is this fool that landed that job?" Perhaps you have had the feeling that someone didn't deserve some special recognition they had received, or that they weren't qualified for some role for which they had been chosen. Maybe you have felt envy that someone you knew received a special gift. These days there is a lot of envy in the public discourse, people who are expressing dismay or upset or anger at the recognition given to others, or the gifts that are given to others. This is sometimes cloaked in "critique," or it is sometimes cloaked in "indignation." Yet, often, this is a form of envy.

Envy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "the painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage." Notice that the smart folks who compile the dictionary mention that pain is involved. Notice that they also acknowledge that envy has to do with what we want for ourselves, regardless of whether we are actually able to obtain it. For this reason, envy has also been called "the green-eyed monster." When we are caught by envy, it can create suffering and states of mind that lead to other harmful thoughts and actions. Again, this seems to be clearly displayed in the public discourse, and occasionally even celebrated.

So how can one practice skillfully with envy? A teaching from Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian Buddhist scholar, comes to mind. He taught:

If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying?
If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?

That is, a skillful practitioner will recognize that envy is a judgement that rejects, or simply ignores the present state of things. A practitioner will recognize that envy is based in a story about how things "should" be, according to one's own point of view. Shantideva's teaching suggests a different approach. Instead of being caught by the story, simply consider the present moment and an appropriate response. Can you do something about it? If so, then there is no need for envy, because you can set about doing something.  Is there nothing you can do about it? If there is nothing that can be done, then there is even less reason to be caught by the story of what "should" be. You can simply see it as a figment of your imagination. Thus, a skillful approach to working with envy is to see that it is a feeling that arises because of inattention to the present reality.

But what happened to the new Abbot and his pursuers?

The dialogue that ensued when Huishun, the leader of the pursuing group, caught up to Huineng is recorded in the "Platform Sutra" and the collection of koans titled "No Barrier." Here is Thomas Cleary's translation:

When the Ancestor saw Huishun coming, he set down the robe and the bowl (that he had been given by the former Abbot as proof of his succession to Abbot of the monastery). He said to Huishun, "This robe symbolizes faith; could it be right to fight over it? You can take it away."

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

This act is itself a profound teaching. The robe symbolizes faith, because it was said to be the very robe that the Buddha gave to Mahakasyapa. Whether or not that is historically accurate is not as important as the fact that, for many people in and outside the monastery, the robe was dear. In fact, one way to think about any Zen robe, monastic or lay, is that it represents deep trust - the trust between the person who gave it and the person who received it, the trust of the person who gave it to the giver, and so on, stretching back for centuries.

However, the pivotal teaching that Huineng demonstrates with this act is that it is neither the robe nor the bowl that make him the Abbot. It is his unique, insightful expression of Dharma, his understanding of his own life as a teaching. So he can truthfully say that it is alright if someone else were to take the robe. The robe doesn't make the man, in this case or ever.  Yet someone who truly understands that, and can live that way, is unusual. We would do well to remember this when encountering Buddhist teachers, and people in every walk of life.

Returning to the story:

Huishun tried to pick up the robe but it was immovable, like a mountain. In fear, he said, "I have come for the teaching, not the robe. Please instruct me."

The pursuer has a sudden change of heart. He realizes that he cannot steal this venerated object from Huineng. He cannot steal the role of Abbot from Huineng. He cannot steal the Dharma from Huineng. So he wisely asks for the Dharma instead, even though he is feeling fearful. Perhaps it is this very recognition of his own fear that turns him toward the teaching. That would be a very skillful response, one that would reflect his years of practice.

The Abbot said, "Not thinking good, not thinking evil, right at this very moment, what is your original face?" 

This is the kernel of the koan. The first part of the question is a pointer that the response is one that is free of dualistic judgments, one that sets aside the mentality of dividing things or people into right and wrong. It points to the mind that recognizes the inherent harmony of all things, which is always present because they are all inter-dependent.

The second part of the question is a pointer to the immediacy of the response. It is not something that requires long years of study, though it may be informed by them, but rather emerges spontaneously in the present. That is to say, we live in the moment now, and the moment now is fully imbued with that which we are seeking. It is not something that awaits far off in the future.

The last part of the question tells us what kind of expression the Abbot is trying to elicit. He asks to see Huishun's "original face," sometimes also known as "your face before your parents were born." That is, Huineng is asking Ming to demonstrate his buddanature, the great activity which perfectly resolves all conditions in every moment. It is a function that is completely neutral, beyond any concept of right and wrong, though not obstructing either right or wrong.

In tears, Huishun bowed and asked, "Is there any meaning beyond the esoteric intent of the esoteric words you have just spoken?" The Abbot replied, "What I have just told you is not esoteric. If you turn your attention around to your own state, the secret is after all in you." 

From Huishun's reply it is clear that he has not fully penetrated the Abbot's question. In this case "esoteric" means "secret" or" hidden." Huishun's question implies that he has just received some special teaching from the Huineng. Huishun believes he has now become an "insider." Immediately correcting this misunderstanding, Huineng tells him that he is the "secret teaching" that he seeks. This is true for all of us.

The special gift, the special recognition that we seek is already ours. Practice is to give it to ourselves. It is simply a matter of turning our attention to align with inherent awareness. Then there is no longer any need to feel envious of someone else things or their role. You yourself have the most precious thing, the highest, most perfect Dharma. Though there are secret ceremonies and teachings you have not yet heard, those things will not, in and of themselves, enlighten you. There is no secret handshake or password that will make you a Buddha. You are already of the nature of Buddha, but when you look for it to come from somewhere else, you won't find it. If you try to steal it from someone, you rob yourself of the chance to express it. 

Does this mean that there aren't people who are unqualified for their jobs, or who have received a gift that you might like to have? No, it may actually be the case. However, even when that is true, you cannot take anything that is truly valuable from someone else. That is, the most valuable thing in the world is the Dharma, and only you can find your own Dharma, with the support and trust of those who devote their lives to pointing it out to you. Having found the Dharma and living from that place, you can find a skillful, pain-free response to a world that is subjectively imperfect. 

In the end, Huishun told Huineng, "You are my teacher."

May we all find our teachers, inward and outward and everywhere, so that we might vanquish the green-eyed monster within.


The Clearest Cut

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

One of the ways, though certainly not the only way, that Buddhist monastics are identified is by their shaved heads. It is a common sight in many Asian countries, and increasingly in the West as well. Some find it beautiful, others find it disturbing, and still others don't even notice it as they go about their busy day. No matter how one feels about it, though, a shaved head is a statement. What kind of statement is it, and what does it have to do with Buddhism?

From the left: Bangladeshi bhikkhuni, Jayanta Johannesen, Rev. Konin Cardenas, Ranjani De Silva

From the left: Bangladeshi bhikkhuni, Jayanta Johannesen, Rev. Konin Cardenas, Ranjani De Silva

Investigating the meaning of the act of shaving the head, I turned to the life story of Prince Siddhartha, the man who later became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. According to some of the earliest accounts of the Buddha's life, the then Prince cut his hair at the start of his journey in search of the resolution to the difficulties of life.

Siddhartha left the palace. It was midnight, and the prince was on his white horse Kanthaka with Channa, his faithful servant, holding on to its tail. He was going away to try to understand old age, sickness and death. He rode to the bank of a river and dismounted from his horse. He removed his jewelry and princely clothes and gave them to Channa to return to (his father) the King. Then the prince took his sword and cut his long hair, put on a monk's robes, took a begging bowl and told Channa to go back with Kanthaka to the palace. 
Source: Buddhanet.net

From this story it seems that Siddhartha saw his long hair as a symbol of his high social status, and he chose to cut it and change his clothes in order to make clear that he was renouncing that life. Then he went on to practice asceticism for six years, living on very little food and spending all of his time meditating. During that time, Siddhartha's hair must have grown long and matted, as is common for ascetic practitioners. Thus, there are also later stories of the Buddha's haircut by Upali, of his "giving the tonsure" to his disciples, and of many women, men and children shaving their heads prior to and as part of becoming ordained sangha. In this way, the Buddhist sangha was visibly different from the ascetics, Brahmins, lay folk, and royalty of that time. By shaving their heads, they became more identifiable as "Buddhists," though to be sure that term had not yet been used. 

It is traditional, even today, that shaving of the head is a key element in the ordination of Buddhist monks in most traditions. That said, due to the Meiji Restoration that took place in Japan in 1868, laws were passed enabling Buddhist monks to grow their hair and make other changes to their lifestyle and appearance. Thus, while the shaving of the head continues to be a traditional part of the ordination ceremony of Zen monks, they may grow their hair longer at some point afterward.

Still, it was an important question in the Buddha's time and in 19th Century Japan, and the question of religious identity is certainly one that was and is also of concern to Americans. In fact, this concern was important enough to be inscribed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. There in the First Amendment, each person's right to practice their religious beliefs is expressly affirmed. So we are fortunate, even in this country where the practice of Buddhism is a relatively new phenomenon, to be able to wear the robes and the shaved head of the sangha. 

In the Soto Zen ordination ceremony as I have experienced it, the candidate's head is usually fully shaved the day before, except for a small patch near the crown of the head, called the "shura." During the ceremony, as it's performed at San Francisco Zen Center, the important and significance of shaving the head is described by the Preceptor, who also cuts off the shura:

Cutting off the hair is cutting the root of clinging. As soon as the root of clinging is cut, your original body appears. Changing into monastic robes now, and leaving worldly passions, you are free. Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of Nirvana. This virtue cannot be defined.

Therefore, one should not view shaving the head as merely a choice of appearance. There is a deeper meaning that is being expressed, the Dharma of cutting the hair which is explicitly linked to the Dharma of renunciation. What is renounced is clinging to outward appearances, thus enabling the appearance of the original self, which is free. This Dharma was taught very explicitly by the Buddha himself, and it has been transmitted to us in these words from the Dhammapada, as translated by Gil Fronsdal:

Fool! What use is matted hair?
What use a deerskin robe?
The tangled jungle is within you
and you groom the outside!

In this verse I hear the Buddha suggesting that even the matted hair of an ascetic could be as much a status symbol as the long locks of a prince. So the Buddha exhorts the practitioner to turn inward and study the nature of self, rather than concern oneself with outward appearances. 

So shaving the head is renouncing both attention to, and inattention to the hair. It is simply a way of taking care of the hair without getting caught by it. Shaving the head, then, is a practice of neither aversion to, nor attachment to hair. One simply removes it so that it doesn't require any other care or become a mess. In this way, hair cannot become a focus of attention or divert energy from the practice. Shaving is acknowledging the body for what it is: a vehicle for our practice of renouncing the view of self in this very life. This is a lesson for everyone, not just those who are ordained. 

In speaking about the meaning of shaving the head, a good friend and fellow Zen monk quoted the Abbess of Mount Equity Zendo, a woman by the name of Dai-En Bennage. My friend said that Dai-En Roshi had mentioned that having our heads shaved makes it easier for people to find us. I would agree. As monastics, we vow to be visibly available to support all beings on the path of awakening. And I would add that having our heads shaved might make it easier for us to find our selves too. 



Why So Many Bows?

Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

For a tradition that claims to be directly pointing to the True Nature of things, Zen does an awful lot of bowing and other ritualized activity. So one might wonder, how is all this ritual showing us our True Nature?

The meaning of Zen ritual has been debated for centuries and yet, you need to be involved in it to recognize the effect it has. One way to describe this effect is to view it from the perspective of the experience of body/mind. What is the meaning that arises out of these movements, these sounds, sights, and smells?

Most Buddhist rituals involve the six senses. There is light for the eye consciousness, smell for the nose and mouth consciousnesses, sounds for the ear, movement for the consciousness of touch, and chanting, recitation or visualization for the mind consciousness. Ritual can be understood by the way we experience it physically and mentally. Studying how contact with sense objects leads to the arising of consciousnesses is one form of the study of the self.

Kannon - the Bodhisattva of Compassion

Kannon - the Bodhisattva of Compassion


However, Zen ritual could perhaps be better described in terms of the paramitas, the practices of the Bodhisattva. Seen from these six lenses of intention and skillful action, it appears this way:

Dana - Giving

Zen ritual always includes the practice of making offerings to our awakened nature and to those who practiced before us and with us. In turn, those offerings then nourish people and animals and places too.  Thus it is, at its heart, the practice of generosity. For example, at Empty Hand Zen Center, after we make petal offerings (instead of burning incense), they are added to the dirt pile in the garden and become nourishment for more flowers. At Hosshinji we fed the rice offerings to the fish in the pond. In these ways we demonstrate our interconnectedness with our environment.

Sila - Ethics

The activity of performing a ritual is understood to be a wholesome one. It has a positive karmic effect because it is a way of making the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist teachings manifest in the world. Consider also the positive karma associated with the intention to benefit all beings, the guiding principal of the Bodhisattva path, and the content of most dedications in the traditional Zen ritual. In this way you can see that Zen ritual is in harmony with an ethical life, and is itself an ethical activity.

Kshanti - Patience

Despite our efforts to be clear about our plans and expectations, things don't turn out the way we think they should. This is as true of ritual as of anything else. So we have the opportunity to practice patience with not knowing how things will turn out, patience with our own mistakes and judgments about ceremonies, and patience with others' mistakes and judgments.

Virya - Effort

Zen ritual requires great effort. There is the effort of getting everything and everyone in place to perform the ritual. There is the effort of performing the ritual itself, chanting and bowing, walking, sitting down, and standing up. This is "throwing ourselves into the house of Buddha," giving the whole of our life force to the Way during these precious moments of ceremony. Engaging the whole body and mind is itself the manifestation of the Way.

Dhyana - Concentration

One of the most important parts of performing any Zen ritual is having the presence of mind to respond. When the priest bows, you are able to hit the bell only if you are paying attention. This kind of presence is not as easy as it sounds. It requires a certain kind of openness, an availability to the moment. It requires concentration that is flexible enough to respond to the present and not one's idea of how the present should be. Thus Zen ritual requires and develops engaged, active concentration.

Prajña - Wisdom

Certainly the presence of wisdom can be discerned in the chanting of the sutras and poetry of Zen. This is speaking aloud the teachings as they have been handed across generations of practitioners. More importantly, however, there is the wisdom of expounding the Dharma with this body and mind. The wisdom of drawing the mandala with our own movements, demonstrating the teaching of interconnectedness and embodying our intention to turn toward the teaching, turn toward the path, turn toward the awakening inherent in this moment. 

In his usual poetic language Dogen, in Hotsu Mujoshin [Bringing Forth the Mind of Awakening]  sums it up for us this way:

Taking it up like this...“making a buddha” [is] called “bringing forth the mind.”  It is to provide one ball of food to living beings, to offer five flowers to a tathāgata. It is to make one bow to the three treasures [of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha]. 

So today I invite you to consider whether ritual can have a place in your heart/mind, as a way to make manifest your awakening life. In a world that often leaves us hungry for meaning, it's timely and it's timeless.

Each One Liberated

Sitting & Ritual, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment
The Way is fundamentally complete and perfect, all pervasive; how could it be dependent upon cultivation and realization? The vehicle of the source is free; why expend effort? ...The great whole is not apart from here; why go someplace to practice?
— Fukanzazengi - Translation by Thomas Cleary

These words were written by Zen Master Eihei Dogen shortly after his return from four years of study in China, in a piece entitled "Universally Recommended Way of Zazen."  Yet I imagine that, for most of us, life does not feel "complete and perfect." This may be especially true when you think about yourself - your tendency to anger or anxiety, or the way you may feel overwhelmed by the suffering of the planet or the people around you, or simply your confusion about life. So, when encountering this teaching, you might wonder whether this is really relevant to your life. You might think that it's all well and good for Dogen to have said this, living in the 13th century when things were surely simpler. Or you might think, "It could be that way for Dogen and his students, but it certainly can't be that way for me."

   Photo from the movie "Zen," about Zen Master Eihei Dogen's life.


Photo from the movie "Zen," about Zen Master Eihei Dogen's life.

In fact, Dogen acknowledges this tendency we might have in the next line he wrote. 

Nevertheless the slightest discrepancy is as the distance between sky and earth; as soon as aversion and attraction arise, you lose your mind in confusion.

That is, as soon as you forget that all things are expressing the Way, then confusion sets in. Your mind is included in this Way. And even if you can accept this, even if you can take it in, even if you understand this deeply, Dogen has more to teach you.

Though you may boast of comprehension and wallow in understanding, having gotten a glimpse of insight, and though you find the Way and understand the mind, though you may roam freely within the bounds of initial entry, you are still lacking in the living road of emancipation.

Thus even an insight into your own mind isn't "realization of the Way." Even having a deep, wise understanding isn't liberation.

Lantau Island Buddha.jpg

So what is this "living road" or this vital path of liberation? Clearly it is a path that Dogen believed everyone could walk, everyone could fulfill. Shakyamuni Buddha, too, believed in the individual's innate capacity for liberation. It is a path that is informed by zazen. This we know from the title of the piece and from Dogen's example in his own life and in his guidance for his students. And yet there is an aspect of the vitality of life off the cushion as well. It is this latter aspect that I want to explore with you today. 

To illustrate, I want to turn for a moment to a dialogue that happened about 250 years or so before Dogen's writing. Perhaps we can see for ourselves what Dogen may have encountered on his trip, and see for ourselves whether this teaching can tell you about your own practice.

This is a koan about Zen Master Tong'an Changcha who is best know for a poem called the "Ten Verses of Unfathomable Depth." He lived in China during the 10th Century and is said to have had this conversation with one of his students.

The monk asked ‘Returning to the source, returning to the origin, how is it?’
The Master replied, ‘Even if the cicada has broken out of its shell, it cannot help clinging to the cold branch.’
The monk asked, ‘What about a very strong willed, and powerful person?’
The Master answered, ‘The stone ox step by step goes into the deep pool. The paper horse, shout by shout, cries out in the fire.’
— From "Unfathomable Depths" - Translated by Daigaku Rumme and Heiko Narrog

There are many historical and poetic references in this dialogue, so let's have a look at their meaning.

The phrase "returning to the source" is one that is often used in Zen tradition. It is part of our dedication at a memorial service, and it is also mentioned in other teaching dialogues like this one. It is a reference to the "Sutra in 42 Sections" which was taken from India to China and translated in about 69 CE. In that section of the Sutra, the Buddha says "When you guard the mind and revere the Way, the Way is profound and vast." Guarding the mind usually implies two aspects of practice. One is guarding the mind by not overwhelming it with intoxicants, food, sex, overwork and so on. The other is guarding against a dualistic view, a view that creates a sense of separation. Both of these aspects can help to point us toward the vital path of liberation.

 Master Changcha's reply is fairly straightforward. He says that even the practitioner who has broken out of fixed views cannot help but cling to that state of coolness, cannot help but cling to their hard won insight. Having glimpsed a bit of the Way, one might want to cling to an idea of a fixed source. 

Hearing this the student is wise enough to see that one cannot stop there. He then asks about the one who persists even beyond that point, one with determination.

And here the Master's reply is much more poetic and subtle. To break it down a bit, oxen and cows usually have the meaning of a being that is free, not pushed and pulled about by circumstances. This is a carry over from the long standing East Indian tradition of allowing cows to roam. The stone ox is not only free to roam but cool, unmoved. In the Master's words, then, a practitioner who has gained some freedom and equanimity, but persists, moves step by step into the depths of insight, the deep pool.

The horse is a symbol for a fairly sophisticated person, as horses are usually compared to the more mundane donkeys. In this case, the paper horse is likely an allusion to a learned person, as paper relates to books and study. Thus, the sophisticated, learned practitioner who persists burns up their delusion in the fires of their effort. This path is not without its difficulties, described by the Master as "shouts" and "cries." We should know that practice will not be comfortable if it is going to be liberative.

Therefore, what Master Changcha is teaching his student is that each practitioner is liberated by the very things that make them what they are. Each being, if they persist in practice, will find that their very attributes are the ones that lead to liberation. The ox sinks of its own weight; the horse burns because it is made of paper. This is not a matter of how you relate to yourself. Rather it is a matter of studying those attributes of mind and body until you completely see through them, until you completely eliminate any sense of separation of self.

   Hosshinji begging bags, Obama, Japan


Hosshinji begging bags, Obama, Japan

To illustrate with a slightly more recent example, standing at Tassajara creek,  I once encountered a small fish that had jumped up on the rocks next to me. Seeing that it needed help, I tried to pick it up, but it squirmed and wiggled and wouldn't allow me to get a hold of it. In that moment I realized that I could only help it by allowing it to swim away. Scooping up a bit of water and splashing it in the right direction allowed the fish to slip easily back into the creek. That is, the fish could only be saved by enabling it to completely be fish. There was no other way to save the fish. The same is true for you and I and all other beings. We are freed not by receiving something that we don't already have, but only by being absolutely, completely what we are. And what we are is not the same as our idea of it, or someone else's idea of it. It is just that which we truly are.

So it is my hope that these stories and these ancient teachings can inspire you to be the practitioner who persists, to be the one who asks "How can this very mind and body be Buddha?" Because it is.