this bright world is yours to discover


Who Baked the Cookies?

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

It seems as though we are living in an era of fierce certainty, an era in which the reasons for one’s certainty are not nearly as important as the ferocity with which they are proclaimed, an era in which the exclamation point must accompany any idea if it is to be taken seriously. Respect goes to those who declare their certainty, and those who lack certainty are dismissed as weak or confused. Particularly with regard to matters of personal spirituality, contemporary American society seems to demand absolute certainty. Even within the Buddhist community there is talk of the “real Buddhists” and the “not real Buddhists” as though one could be certain that their tradition was the only real Path. 

Yet Buddhist practice often asks us to question certainty, even when it appears to be based on solid information. Buddhist practice pokes holes in our certainty, crushes our proverbial soap box, knocks over the proverbial stool on which we would like to stand above the questions that plague a human life. In fact, Buddhism extols the virtue of simply not knowing. Yet how are we then to have strong belief in Buddhism? What is the benefit of questioning certainty? Is there anything truly skillful about not knowing?

If we take an everyday conversation as an example, it might help to illustrate the point. Say that you overheard the following conversation:

A: I don’t know who baked those cookies, but I’m really glad they did. They were delicious.
B: Yeah, that was C.
A: Oh, did you help C bake the cookies?
B: No, but C is always baking cookies. It was C.

At first glance, this conversation may appear innocuous. Person A states that they don’t know who baked the cookies, and person B uses their past experience to state that person C baked them. However, if we are rigorous in examining this conversation, we might take note of the question that person A posed. Was person B actually present in the moment of baking cookies, therefore making their statement based on firsthand information? Another clarifying question would be asking whether person B heard directly from person C that they had baked the cookies. If neither of those things are true, then it seems that person B cannot actually say with certainty that person C baked the cookies.

Maitreya Buddha 16.jpg

Now one might think this is splitting hairs, a small matter really, and not worth even exploring further with person B. Yet this conversation demonstrates how certainty has taken the place of not knowing, and how stating this certainty without any qualification has taken the place of seeing the situation more accurately. For example, person B could have said, “I imagine that person C baked those cookies because they are always baking cookies around here.” Such a statement would be more precise, and would still convey person B’s idea about who had been baking.

Still, it might seem trivial. Such a small difference in meaning doesn’t have much bearing on the real world, one might think, and certainly not on such lofty matters as world peace or personal liberation. Keep investigating, for not knowing stands in contrast to knowing. Like background and foreground, both must be clearly seen if one is to integrate the whole picture.

Suppose that person C did not actually bake the cookies. Maybe C always bakes cookies but, since C always has to bake the cookies, D decided it would be helpful to bake the cookies this time. Then, person B’s statement to person A is misinformation. The mistaken statement is, perhaps accidentally, sowing the seeds of delusion both in person B’s mind and in person A’s mind by stating something that is not accurate. This is the opposite of finding clarity in the mind, the opposite of seeing clearly the reality before us.

And there is an aspect of this exploration that is even more intriguing.  Even if person B was correct in saying that person C had baked the cookies, the statement is still based in wrong view. It is wrong view based in treating an inference as an actual fact. Such an inference would be fine if it were specifically acknowledged, thereby clarifying the statement as a belief, and not a statement of fact. However, stated as a fact, when it is in reality an inference, is sowing the seeds of delusion in the person B’s mind and in person A’s mind because it fails to capture the truth of not having personal experience of the situation. It fails to capture the truth of not knowing. It fails to accurately describe the uncertainty that exists in person B’s relationship to the matter of who baked the cookies. Therefore, the statement is reinforcing wrong view.

the flag of Brazil, where the Pirahã people live in the Amazon forest

the flag of Brazil, where the Pirahã people live in the Amazon forest

Others might say things differently. Take, for example, the Brazilian native peoples known as the Pirahã. British ethnologist Daniel Everett spent a total of seven years with them, studying their language and culture. He was fascinated, because the Pirahã do not seem to have any past tense in their language, and they do not seem to talk about anything that has not been experienced by themselves or someone they have spoken too. Everett, who wrote a book about his travels titled, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” states that the basis of Pirahã culture is, “Live here and now.”* This creates specific limitations on what they can discuss or even think about. So it represents an extreme, not an ideal. However, it demonstrates a certain accuracy about personal speech that can be a useful pointer. Everett reports that the Pirahã are comfortable living without trying to describe what they have not experienced.

The honesty and clarity of not knowing has been expressed as Buddhist teaching for thousands of years. For example, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni gave this teaching in the Numbered Discourses, Book of the Threes, No. 28:

“And what, monks, is the person whose speech is like dung? Here, if he is summoned to a council, to an assembly, to his relatives’ presence… and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So, good man, tell what you know,’ then, not knowing, this person says, ‘I know,’ or knowing, he says, ‘I do not know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I do not see.’ …This is called the person whose speech is like dung.”**

Image from Dreamstime

Image from Dreamstime

Here we find the Buddha making a strong statement about the smelly nature of saying that one knows when one does not know. At first glance, one might suppose that the Buddha is only referring to outright lying, however that would be limiting the scope of what he presents here. Presented in this light, as though one were a witness, it is easy to understand how an inaccurate statement could cause great harm. This is a teaching on the attributes of right speech, an aspect the Noble Eightfold Path, described in much of Buddhism as the path to liberation.

And this was not all that the Buddha said about speaking with certainty. He also gave discourse after discourse exhorting people to investigate the nature of their firsthand experience. The Buddha taught that, by accurately investigating firsthand experience, one might have an encounter with the Dharma, the law. In this context, Dharma can be understood as the nature of reality which the Buddha described as, “apparent here and now, encouraging investigation, to be experienced individually by the wise.”

Many centuries later Chan monastics also gave teachings about not knowing. In particular, they recorded a koan about not knowing, said to have taken place in Tang Dynasty China. The Japanese word "koan” means “a public case or proclamation,” and it is an abbreviation of the Chinese phrase, “kofu no antoku,” which referred to publicly declared legal decisions in ancient China. The word, thus, has the implication of information that applies to everyone. In contemporary practice, one might consider koans to be similar to legal precedents. They are describing situations from the past whose details are not exactly the same as in our own case, but they are nonetheless situations able to demonstrate something about practicing with our own case. They point to principles that are universally applicable because the principles are revealed in everyone’s daily life.

Image by Andy Serrano

Image by Andy Serrano

In “The Book of Serenity,” a collection of ancient Zen koans, the following conversation is recorded as Case 20:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang replied, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know,” said Fayan.
“Not knowing is nearest,” said Dizang.
Fayan was suddenly awakened.

Without analyzing the specifics of this dialogue, it appears that Dizang is teaching his student something about honesty and clarity. Apparently, even greater clarity was the result for Fayan. How could that be? Consider how opening to a limitless potential is an acknowledgment of what is always true.

Yet how do we begin to practice with our sense of certainty? When we’re certain, we’re certain, even if we know that we need to be clear about not knowing. How can we get a foothold here? One place to start is to reflect on a time when your certainty is proven wrong. Returning to the cookie example, person B might find a great opportunity for practice if they were to find out that D had baked the cookies and not C. First, B could observe their own reaction to being proven wrong, either privately or in public. Are they angry and defensive, lashing out verbally or even physically at messenger of the bad news? Are they depressed and self-critical, taking out their frustrations on themselves? Do they shrug it off, making it out to be a small matter, or even refusing to acknowledge the validity of the facts? Or do they laugh at themselves a bit and muse on the unpredictability of life? Often the type of reaction or response we offer to having been mistaken has more to do with the ways that we feel identified with a view than with the accuracy of the view itself. That is, the more we believe that certainty about an inferred view defines who we are or defines our value as a person, the more likely we are to have a strong negative reaction to the inaccuracy of that view. 

bodhidharma scowl.png

One way to practice skillfully with the news of having been wrong is to reflect on how that state of mind appeared. What was it that made us feel so certain about something incorrect? Where did we step in to fill in a gap in knowledge with our own view? Was it that we knew that we did not know, but did not feel comfortable appearing uncertain? Do we feel that we must know in order to be a certain kind of person, or to simply be a person of value? Again, there seems to be a lot of societal pressure these days to appear to be certain about one’s views. Starting with inquiry can help to open our minds and hearts to another perspective.

The twist is that, in the context of a society that rewards speaking with certainty, we have to muster some clarity and confidence of our own if we are going to speak about not knowing. We cannot depend on receiving rewards from others for expressing not knowing. Can we can feel inwardly confident about not knowing, rather than feeling anxious with a general sense of uncertainty or of certainty? We will have to discover our own rewards for the kind of speech that does not obscure not knowing.

Perhaps one reward is allowing for many possibilities in one’s experience of life, a kind of mental flexibility. Another reward might be feeling fewer instances of anger or depression due to making mistakes. Another might be sustaining a general sense of wonder and curiosity about our lives. Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot of Hosshinji, a Zen training monastery in Japan put it this way, “There is something mysterious. Leave it mysterious.” Or to quote Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, former Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Each of us discovers our own rewards for not knowing. 

*Source-> http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/brazil-s-piraha-tribe-living-without-numbers-or-time-a-414291.htmle:

**Source: https://suttacentral.net/an3.28/en/bodhi translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Three Flavors of Awakening

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

A dialogue with Master Changcha, as recorded in the Essentials of the United Lamps of our  [Zen] School and featured in the "Unfathomable Depths," a contemporary Zen text on an ancient Chinese poem.

Snail with raspberry.jpg

Konin’s Introduction:

The Master speaks of the monk’s sword, but it is his own that cuts thoroughly. The monk reveals his inquiring mind, but ends with a thump. All the fog in the world couldn’t soak his robes, so it’s best that he follow the path. How about you? Can you taste all the flavors at once?


A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.”

The monk asked, “What do you mean?”

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.”

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.”

Konin’s Brief Commentary:

A monk asked, “I am not yet clear about the right opportunity for enlightenment. Please give me instruction.”

– Is there ever a wrong opportunity? Get off your duff!

The master replied, “In the uneven pine and bamboo grove, the fog is thin; because of the many layers of mountains, the moon comes out late.”

– When caught by differences, you will find yourself up to your hips in mud.

The monk intended to say something else, but the master said, “Before using your sword and armor, your body has already been exposed.”

– What’s the use of a sharp tongue when you’ve already bared your backside?

The monk asked, “What do you mean?”

– At least he hopes his breath isn’t wasted.

The master replied, “The good knife does not cut the bamboo before the frost comes. The ink painting can only praise the dragon on the sea.”

– A hot hand won’t help you now. Another kind of rice cake isn’t any more tasty.

The monk circled the master’s seat and then left.

– He’d better pack a spare pair of sandals.

The master said, “If you close your eyes and eat a snail, it will at once be sour, tart, and bitter.”

– There are not two sides to this coin; this delicacy is lost on many.

Konin’s Prose Commentary:

Master Changcha’s student reveals his particular form of delusion in the opening question. It seems this fellow feels there is some magic moment that will arise from his practice. So he’s waiting around for something special, and in the meantime, he happens to encounter the teacher. At least he’s found a clear one. Changcha tries to tell him not to get caught up in differences. That is, though there are people of varying colors and practices, the magic moment is every moment, since all things are expressions of the original function. Experiencing things in this way, just drinking tea is an awakening moment.

The awakened way doesn’t wait for an opportunity that seems right. Still, if it doesn’t feel right, you will always make faces when eating snails.

Even so, it seems the monk is stuck and before he can continue Changcha does him a favor, telling him that he can see the monk’s confusion. In good faith the monk persists, asking about the Master’s teaching, but ends up walking out. It seems his magic moment hasn’t arrived when, in fact, it’s already here. That could be a long road for him. Yet Changcha goes the extra mile, leaving him with one last, skillful word. Three flavors in one, all discernable yet the eyes are closed. This is the flavor of enlightenment in the midst of the bland world, all the while infusing our delusions. with the freshest of scents. At the time of this dialogue I doubt that snails were a delicacy, but Changcha has now made it so.


Your Venerable State

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

In recent days I’ve had quite a few encounters with the inescapable sufferings of illness, aging and death. While there are many Buddhist teachings about these experiences, one in particular stands out to me lately. It is the koan of Master Ma. The case goes likes this:

Master Ma was unwell. The Head Monk came to him and asked, “How is your venerable state these days?” Master Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”

The student’s question can also be understood as, “What is your condition?” or “How are you?” It may be an inquiry into the Master’s health, into his awakening, or into his enlightened nature. The Master’s response incorporates a reference to the Sutra of Buddha Names in which it is said that the Sun-face Buddha lives for 1800 years, and the Moon-face Buddha lives for one day and one night. So it’s easy to interpret this dialogue to mean that the Student is inquiring about whether the Master’s awakening is intact, and the Master responds with a phrase that means that whether he lives for a long time or a short time, he will always be a Buddha.
However, that view might not reflect the teaching of this dialogue. First, it’s helpful to investigate the practice of a Buddha. What is the practice of a Buddha? Whether long-lived or short-lived, a Buddha’s practice is to point all beings toward their true nature, and to embody true nature. This means that a Buddha is practicing all the time, demonstrating an awakening life by living an awakening life.

Moon over Mount Diablo

Moon over Mount Diablo

Next, it’s helpful to investigate sickness and death. What is the practice that is appropriate to sickness and death? Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to study sickness, aging, and death as a means of developing insight. Specifically, he encouraged them to study corpses and places where cremations took place. To what end? According to the Buddha, studying the inevitable decay of the body would offer insight into impermanence and, therefore, into the teaching of no self. It would also lessen the practitioner's concern with the appearance of the body.

So, putting all that together, I believe that Master Ma’s reply actually means something like, “Whether for a short time or a long time, illness is simply something else to practice with when you are a Buddha, which is right now.” That is to say, any kind of suffering is simply something else to practice with because you are already with the capacity to realize Buddhahood.

This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. And the joys of your life are equally material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.

It brings to mind a time many years ago when my daughter taught me a lesson. She was about seven years old, and had taken to giving her best friend her belongings. Shoes, toys, books, clothes – all ended up at Alicia’s house. And I, as the purchaser of those items, was a bit distressed about it. I wondered why my daughter didn’t have enough shoes, when I’d gone to the trouble of buying her plenty of them.


So, one day, I sat her down and asked her why she was giving away her things. Without saying so, I wondered whether she didn’t like the things I was buying her, or whether perhaps Alicia’s family didn’t have enough money to buy her shoes. My daughter’s reply was astonishing. She said, “Mommy, to me, those are just my old shoes or toys that I don’t even play with anymore but, to Alicia, they are a gift. It makes her happy.” I was speechless. Here was my daughter talking about practicing sympathetic joy, one of the four Sublime Abodes, while I worried about the details! In one sentence my seven year old had reminded me that I could choose to see life as a problem or as a practice.

And so it was with Master Ma, who told his disciple not to worry about his illness, but to practice with it. I try to walk in his shoes even today.


Mountains and Monks and Snakes - Oh My!

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Case 24 from the Book of Serenity - Xuefeng's "Look Out For The Snake"

INTRODUCTION: Can you drop the self or will you get bitten?

Turtle-nosed snake. Photo by Dave Emma from paherps.com

Turtle-nosed snake. Photo by Dave Emma from paherps.com



Xuefeng said to the congregation, "On South Mountain there's a turtle-nosed snake; you people must watch out for it."

Chanquing said, "Today in the hall there are many people losing their bodies and lives."

A monk quoted this to Xuansha; Xuansha said, "Only brother Chanquing could say this. However, even though he is right, I do not concur." 

The monk said, "What do you mean, Master?"

Xuansha said, "Why use South Mountain?"

Yunmen threw down his staff in front of Xuefeng and made a gesture of fright.


South Mountain was an actual place near Xuefeng's monastery, but his statement also points subtly to the Southern school of Chan, whose teaching emphasized "sudden enlightenment." The turtle-nosed snake is very poisonous; here it represents delusion, one of the "three poisons" of Buddhism. In this case the snake refers specifically to delusion about enlightenment. Interestingly, the snake is also said to have represented something not as good as a dragon, according to Chinese lore. As dragons are associated with Zen Masters (in fact some have the character for dragon in their dharma name), one might see the snake as Master wanna be. Thus, Xuefeng's admonition means that there is delusion that resides close to home and you should be practicing with this, and it means that his students are deluded about the nature of awakening.

Chanquing agrees by saying that the monks in the meditation hall have been poisoned by this delusion, and thus "lose their bodies and minds."

When Xuansha hears of this he affirms Chanquing's statement that the monks are deluded. However, he has something more to say. By asking why Xuefeng mentioned South Mountain, Xuansha points out that the poison of delusion is not limited to one place or one idea. 

Yumen shows just how true this is when he makes his move. The monk's staff is one of her or his personal Dharma accessories. Here it represents the identity, in Yumen's case that of a monk. Or it can also been seen as a precious thing. Either way, he throws it down and pretends to be afraid. This is another reference to Chinese lore, in which a person mistook a stick for a snake, and saw the arising of fear. The moral of the story is that fear arises out of confusion abut the way things actually are. So Yumen's gesture means that when we are confused about the self or when we cling to something precious like enlightenment, it is the source of fear and suffering. However, when we see the self clearly,  as it has always been right before us,  and perceive the fleeting nature of what seems precious, then we can set it down and, with it, the poison of delusion.


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.