The Unyielding Spirit


In my first year of college, I was introduced to a form of sitting meditation by one of my Professors, Rajah Singh, the hereditary Court Musician of the Mogul Emperors of India. Although Rajah Singh did not call what he was teaching us "Zazen," that was in fact what it was. This experience led me into a long, if intermittent, apprenticeship as a Zen practitioner, occasionally as a visitor to a sitting group, but most often alone.
Without a formal teacher, my hither-and-yon education in Zen was punctuated primarily by reading authors such as Alan Watts, Peter Matthiessen, D.T. Suzuki and Shunryu Suzuki.
I drifted away from Zen in the 1990s and early 2000s, focusing more intently on developing my legal practice.
Some years ago, I reintroduced myself to Zen practice under the tutelage of Doshin Cantor Sensei and my Dharma family at the Southern Palm Zen Group in Boca Raton, Florida.
To them this page is dedicated in respect, reverence, and deepest affection.


Who Was The Buddha?

What most people don't realize is that the word "Buddha" is not a name, but a description. Like the word  "budded," to which it is etymologically related, it connotes a awakened state. 

Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, was born 2,500 years ago in the northern Indian city of Kapilavastu. He was a prince of the Shakya Clan, and is therefore often referred to as the Buddha Shakyamuni. At the age of thirty, Shakyamuni left his pampered life, and set out across India, seeking to understand the nature of human existence---really to find himself. Over the next six years, Shakyamuni practiced various disciplines, both ascetic and indulgent. Frustrated by this seemingly endless, answerless life of seeking without finding, he declared that he would sit in meditation either until he became enlightened or he died trying. Enlightenment came with the dawn. It is said that when he perceived the morning star he intuited the singularity that is all existence. 

Following his enlightenment, Shakyamuni spent the next fifty years wandering throughout India teaching others what he had learned. These people became the foundation of the Sangha, the Buddhist community. Today the extended Sangha exists throughout the world, with large populations in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Mongolia, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Japan and Tibet, as well as smaller but vital groups in India, Europe and the Americas.

There is no one Buddhist dogma. Instead, Buddhism has developed hundreds of divergent branches. All Buddhists ascribe to the "Four Noble Truths" and "The Eightfold Path" and to some version of the Buddhist Precepts, but the forms of Buddhist practice are almost as numerous as the Sangha itself. Although many of the various Buddhist sects have woven colorful legends around him,  there was nothing supernatural, divine, or magical about the Buddha. He was a mortal man who lived about eighty years and died of food poisoning, a  quite ordinary occurrence in ancient Asia.

At most, and this is much, it can be said that the  Buddha "got it," that he was one of those individuals who lived every moment of his life, that he was aware and mindful of himself, of others, and of everyone and everything's place in this world.  If Zen practice can be said to have any point it is to live life in that manner.




Soto? Rinzai? Or Doesn't It Matter?

Japanese Zen practitioners belong to a number of different "schools," each of which maintains it's own traditions of ritual, liturgy, and approach to practice. The two major schools are "Rinzai" (named for it's founder) and "Soto" (named for it's two founders, Sozan and Tozan). Both schools use Zazen and Koans in their teaching, though Rinzai uses more Koan study and Soto more Zazen. Rinzai is frequently known as the "sudden enlightenment" school, while Soto is known as the "gradual enlightenment" school. Some lineages, such as the White Plum Asanga, have antecedents in both schools.


Is Zen A Religion? 

This is one of the most common questions I come across. Certainly Zen, like other Buddhist sects, has a liturgy, a formal priesthood, and a congregational structure. But significantly, there is no one answer every Buddhist (Zen or otherwise) will give to questions about, life, death, a deity, reincarnation, vegetarianism, or even the Buddha himself. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism does not consider its founder to be more than human. Unlike Islam, Buddhism does not consider the message of its founder to be the ultimate revelation. Unlike Judaism, Buddhism makes no assertions as to the nature of God and His relationship with Man. There is no Holy Writ. Buddhists recognize the validity of their texts as guides to right living, but they also recognize that sutras and stories about the Buddha are not historical documents. And Zen goes further than most Buddhist sects in jettisoning iconography and liturgy. The old Zen Masters were wont to tell their students, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" and to burn wooden statues of the Buddha to keep warm in their chilly Zendos. Symbols have meaning, but only as symbols. Zen addresses the present moment, and Zen training is all focused on living fully in the present in a meaningful and ethical way as expressed in the Precepts. Meaning and ethics are found through quieting the "monkey mind," that small, angst-ridden, past and future obsessed and infinitely selfish chatterbox inside our heads. As our inner dialogue, wants and fears subside, we are able to live more fully in the present without anxiety and distraction. The methodology of calming the monkey mind and of opening oneself to the present is Zazen.

Western Zen does maintain some traditional Japanese forms, having come from that country. Participation in Sangha activities, adoption into a lineage, and ordination ceremonies are important symbolic wayposts for the dedicated practitioner, and as indicators of the student's depth of commitment. There is, however, nothing that precludes a Zen practitioner from maintaining an active relationship with, or even a religious office within, another tradition. Zen practice and living by the Precepts may deepen a person's spiritual life, but dedication to Zen practice is no more "religious" than an equal dedication to the study of the martial arts.   


Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, Karma

These are terms that recur repeatedly in Buddhist practice of all types. Each one of these words has multiple meanings. One Buddhist scholar notes that there are 40 (!) separate definitions for "Dharma" alone. Even the term "Buddha" evades easy definition. The word means "Awakened," and it, of course, is the title given to to that Prince of the Shakya kingdom who sat under the Bodhi Tree seeking Enlightenment. But the Buddha is not the only Buddha there is. Many Buddhist schools revere other Buddhas alongside Siddhartha Gautama. According to certain schools of Buddhism (including Zen) we are all Buddhas and the universe is an expression of Buddha nature.

"Dharma" is even less easy to grasp. In it's most concrete sense, the Dharma is the teachings of the historical Buddha, but Dharma can also be used to describe any positive sharing between individuals. It can also refer to the natural rhythm of existence. And, as might be expected of a word with so many shades of meaning, some of them are undeniably subtle.

The "Sangha" is the community, usually meaning the membership of one's own Zendo or monastery, but it can also refer to the Buddhist population as a whole, and by even further extension, the entirety of the human family. Together with Buddha and Dharma, Sangha is one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism.

"Karma" means "action," and depending upon one's point of view, Karma may be a system of retribution and reward for prior acts, or it may simply refer to an individual's working out of his own life's path, or the world's fate. People often speak of "good Karma" or "bad Karma" or even "instant Karma." The thing to remember is that none of these definitions excludes any of the others.

"Enlightenment" is that state of existence reached by the Buddha. Exactly what  Enlightenment entails is hard to say. It is certainly not some superhuman condition. According to Zen, we are all already Enlightened, though we are not usually aware of the fact. In our unaware state we often act in ways counter to the behavior inherent in our Enlightened selves. Despite being Enlightened, there's no doubt that the Buddha had head colds, aches and pains, and cranky days. He aged and died quite normally. It was the manner in which he addressed the conditions of his life which made him Enlightened. In Japanese, a "breakthrough" moment of Enlightenment (which we all have) is called kensho. Closely related is satori, the condition of Enlightenment. And when we practice Zazen and quiet our minds, we are experiencing samadhi, a kind of pre-Enlightened state of receptivity. Other students of Zen might define these terms radically differently, but in my own practice these are the working definitions which I feel are most meaningful to me.



The First Noble Truth: An Ordinary Day

Western scholars and philosophers have usually translated the First Noble Truth as "All Life is Suffering." 

However, the Sanskrit word "Dukkha" can also be translated as "unease," "discomfort," or "dissatisfaction." Mick Jagger said it best: "I can't get no satisfaction." 

In Sanskrit itself, "Dukkha" literally refers to the "stuckness" of a cart wheel in mud . . .

Now imagine it's today.

It's right now and our car is mired up to the axles in mud, four wheel drive notwithstanding. Not only can you and I get nowhere, but time is passing, darkness is falling, we need to get where we're going, and, to be honest, we just want to go home. 

How much brute force is it going to take just to move the car out of the mud? Maybe I'm annoyed because I told you to make a left back there and you didn't.  Or maybe you did, and now you're annoyed at me. The kids are crying. I have to "go," real bad. Thanks alot, Einstein. And it could be worse; it could be raining. We might fall face first into the mud in all our floundering around. Wonderful. 

What a job it's going to be first emptying the trunk, making sure our stuff doesn't get muddy, and then reloading it all afterward so we can get on our way. Chances are that beside the jack, the spare and a few tools, the rest of the stuff in the trunk shouldn't even be in there: "Why didn't you take the dry cleaning into the house?"

"Since when is that my job? It's your stuff."

By the end of it all, we're going to be dirty, tired, uncomfortable, sore, bruised, and angry---Angry at ourselves for taking the muddy road (especially if we already had some idea that the road might get muddy), angry at the County for not fixing the road---what are they doing with all that tax money, anyway?---angry with the what and who and why of being out on the road, and angry with each other.

Not to mention that my boss might be angry because I'm late again or your mother's angry because we missed picking her up for your sister's wedding.

And so far we're only up to the First Noble Truth!

Now imagine . . . In our story nothing really bad has happened to us. This is just an inconvenience. That's an awful amount of exertion---exertion to the point of exhaustion---considering that

Nothing happened! 


The Second Noble Truth: Gimme Dat, Gimme Dat, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme Dat, Gimme Dat Ding

Western scholars and philosophers have usually translated the Second Noble Truth as "The Cause of Suffering Is Craving." 

It's just a fancy way of saying that we make ourselves nuts when we want what we can't get. 

Think about it. Especially in our Western culture we are completely hung up on getting more stuff.

"Gee, I really want a flat screen TV. A sixty-inch. And TiVo. What's the point of getting a TV without TiVo? Oh, yeah, we might as well get a Blu-ray while we're at the store. We're gonna need a new TV stand for the TV. And it's gotta match the furniture we already have. And, boy, am I dumb, but we'll have to replace the DVDs with Blu-ray discs, at least a couple at first. I know we just bought "Quantum of Solace" on regular disc, but I've got to have my James Bond! Should we call up and check on satellite TV? 

Of course we'll get something out while we're shopping. Chinese? Mexican? How 'bout that new steakhouse that just opened? I hear they carry Brooklyn Brown Ale.

Yes, we'll have two New York strips with garlic mashed potatoes and---Green beans, hon?---She'll have green beans. I'll have peas.

Dessert? Nah, I'm stuffed. You too? No dessert; just the check please.

What do you mean my credit card's been declined???"  

Boy, what an evening! We just bought about $2,000 worth of electronics that will be obsolescent in about three months, we've got bills to pay, which means work, work, work, thank you very much, we've eaten a heavy dinner which is making my bowels growl, and now we suddenly realize we've tapped ourselves out. Lucky we have that other card. That's also been declined? Didn't you pay the bill? Look, it was your idea to buy this junk, it was your idea to go out to eat---I know you're just full of lousy ideas. Wasn't it your idea to get married in the first place?   

By the time the argument's over, one of us is going to be sleeping on the couch. We're probably going to fight over that because that new big TV is in the living room. Does it never end? 

Not really, if we stay stuck on craving. And it doesn't just have to be material things. Even craving for something as altruistic as World Peace can be a problem, because we aren't going to get it. Damn those guys in Stanannistan! Why don't they get it? World Peace, man!

Basically, everything is craving. Even going to the Zendo to meditate can be a trap if I walk in there thinking that meditation is going to give me peace of mind. It's like saying, "Don't think about peppermint candy-striped elephants." Calm my mind? Yadda, yadda, yadda. Why can't I turn this off? Aaargh! Isn't that the point of coming here? 

Not really. The point is that there is no point to sitting beyond the actual act of sitting itself. If I sit with a goal in mind then I'm craving, desiring that goal or outcome. I'm still stuck on the wheel, still living out my Karma. That's human life. Even the Buddha wept when he heard the news that his native land had been invaded and conquered by its enemies.

Is there any such a one as a fully enlightened one? 

The Third Noble Truth: Do I Need This? 

The Buddhist philosophers say that the Third Noble Truth is translated as "The extinguishment of suffering is the extinguishment of craving." It works the other way around, too. That's a mouthful for certain. I've heard someone else describe it as "Suffering can be beaten." I don't like that one. Something about "suffering" and "beaten" in the same sentence tells me we're missing the point somewhere. 

The point is that only when I let go, stop wanting, stop craving, stop desiring, that I'll stop suffering. Maybe I ought to stop beating myself up.

Easy enough. I'll quit smoking. And I'll go on a diet. And I'll be a vegan. And I'll donate time to the Big Brothers/Big Sisters. And I'll do all these good things and I'll stop all these bad things.

So why do I still feel lousy?

Okay, so not all of it is my "fault." It's not my "fault" that Mr. Outsource in Hyderabad mangled his English so bad that now I'm paying for six homeowner's policies on my one house. That can be fixed. And it's not my "fault" that the economy's so bad. And it's not my "fault" that there's starvation and death in Darfur. But it sure causes me stress, and the angrier I get at Mr. Outsource, the worse I feel, and the less compassion I can muster. The less the compassion, the less the intimacy, the more the suffering. Mine and others.

Compassion is key. A feeling of intimacy toward the world is key. What compassion and intimacy can I feel if I'm living pretzel logic and every shrug hurts?

No one said this was going to be easy. 

It's certainly simple enough to say, "I'll quit smoking." It's not so easy to do. Man, you crave that cigarette. But you know it's bad for you, so you persevere. And maybe you quit.

But what about the good things of life, the excellent food at my favorite restaurant, Bow-Thai, in Coral Springs? What about the pleasure of a baseball game on a hot summer's day with a dirty water chili dog, or a cold beer in a plastic bottle for seven bucks?

Or what about making love to your wife?

All of a sudden, Bow-Thai closed. They did reopen with the same owners and the same cook, so I suppose reincarnation is possible.

And the game was rained out the day my best friend came to town.

And then you caught me making love to your wife.

Suddenly---whoa!---this isn't so pretty (especially not for me).

How do you quit the good, healthy and helpful habits? Giving up the good things is far harder and just as necessary, as giving up the bad things. Ideas of heaven, of love, of bliss---THROW 'EM OUT!

Ideas of hellfire, pain, damnation, and Macaulay Culkin?---THROW THEM OUT, TOO!

They're all attachments. What we fear and what we love are on the same side of that line. We want life to stay the same. We want our parents to be forever young and to love us unconditionally, we always want to be twenty-five and slim, we fight those smile lines with Oils of Delay, we don't want this movie to end or the Dodgers to leave Brooklyn, or your wife to rat me out (at least I don't want that to happen). We want things or we want love and we want it the way we want it. We want to stay in our comfort zone, and the problem is that our comfort zone keeps shifting. (Actually, philosophically, we can argue that the comfort zone is fixed and that we're moving, but I don't know that it matters.) And even if we don't mind change, the "Good Old Days" always seem to have been better than the "Right Now Days." Actually very few of us live in the "Right Now Days." We usually live in the past---"Remember when?"---or in the future---"When I win the lottery"---and spend only a few moments each day dealing with the here and now. And most of our here and now time is really either anxiety---"I gotta get this done"---or selfish desire---"I wish Mr. Cloggenbrane would shove that clarinet up his nose, when he plays it sounds like a dying wombat."

Even happiness leads to suffering because it inevitably fades. The girl I love has a bad day and breaks my chops. I get mad. Or upset. Or even sad because she's having a bad day. I suffer right along with her. 

We can't sustain what we have. Or what we don't have. We don't get what we want. And when we get it we don't want it anymore. The car breaks down, the love breaks our hearts, the dish just breaks. It's unavoidable. That's life!

But since life is even more ephemeral than Macaulay Culkin's career, the only workable way to stop all this wanting and its associated suffering, is to realize that you already have everything you need.

 Sounds easy, right? Sure! All it takes is an entire shift in your earthly perspective. All it takes is a constant state of mindfulness. Such a state of mind takes years to develop, and like everything else, it's impermanent and will come and go.

I don't know if you can ever totally escape suffering. Why try? Are you more than human? Will the escape from suffering make you less than human? Be careful what you wish for. The desire to escape suffering is like the desire to escape breathing. It's like any desire really, just another attachment. There is the story of the Zen Master whose son died unexpectedly. When one of the Master's students found him weeping, the student said one word, "Attachment." The Master answered, saying, "No, not attached. But still sad."

If you do manage to let go of suffering even for a moment, suddenly it doesn't matter so much that I'm not twenty-five because  I have only this instant to live. And the next instant, and the next instant, and the next, until I'm instant'd out.  What would I do if I only had an instant to live? THINK FAST! 'Cause it's already gone.

If I only live in this instant, how can my desires control me? And how can my likes and dislikes define me? I can choose to do or not to do something, I can choose to decide to buy or not buy something, and I can choose how to feel about it or how to act on it. No longer a slave to habits and impulses, I'm also no longer a slave to the thinking I've been doing or the things that I've been doing. I still think and I still do, but the reality is that it's all of my choosing. 

Too many people, having read Kerouac, are under the impression that Zazen is about stopping your thought process. It isn't. Zazen is about observing your thought process, watching how the thoughts arise, where they go, how they make you feel, and how they bounce around in your head while they're there. By taking notice of your thought process during sitting you will learn to do the same thing while you're working, eating, and, actually, even sleeping (as weird as that seems). When you first sit, the thoughts in your head sound like the primary approach runway at O'Hare. As time passes, the cacophony lessens. After a while, you even learn how to push your own buttons, as in, "He always manages to push my buttons."

Well, then. Imagine having control of your own buttons! Guess what? If you can push your own buttons that means you can choose how you want to feel or not feel or suffer or not suffer or be attached or not be attached to anything. "Not attached. But still sad." 

Sufferin' succotash! The irony of the Third Noble Truth is that it is the easiest and the most difficult of all the Four Noble Truths at the same time.

Suffering seems so endemic to who we are, and yet there's a way around it. We sense it,  we know it,  we just have to master it.

And that is why we practice . . .


The Fourth Noble Truth: Follow The Yellow Brick Road 

The Fourth Noble Truth is not so much of a statement of fact than a statement of intention. In the midst of your perfectly ordinary day of living The First Noble Truth, you decide (as you do a hundred times a day) that you want this or you need that. You want to eat lunch. You need a Number Two pencil. You're plugged into The Second Noble Truth: "Gimme dat ding." It's a song by Dr. Hook, and boy, are you hooked. Having done, to this point in time, just a fraction of the Zazen you will do in your lifetime, you're still aware enough (just) to realize that you're doing the hamster on the wheel thing once again. Do you need this? Having decided you don't (as you do and have done ten thousand times in your life), and more importantly, having decided to do something about it for the five thousandth "once" in your life, what do you do? 

The Buddha apparently spent a lot of time thinking about this. After all, he'd come up with this incredible insight into the place of suffering in human nature. Knowing what he knew, he had to figure out a way to actually make it all work. So he called his insights "The Four Noble Truths." The Fourth Noble Truth is really a road map up and away from suffering. He called it "The Eightfold Path." (I really don't know if Shakyamuni called it anything, but his followers codified it all.)

The Eightfold Path is a behavior plan. Think of it as an Eight Step Program to break your addiction to suffering:

 To follow "The Eightfold Path" we are asked to always keep in mind our outlook on the world, our intentions,  the way we speak and communicate with others, our behavior and actions, how we earn our daily bread, and our effort and attention to how we actually do keep these in mind. It's an endless circle of capability. It's also difficult to do. There are so many distractions in daily life, and never more than right now. Losing yourself to work, sex, drugs, the news, an argument with the neighbors, bills, and everything else is the norm. Attentiveness isn't.

Maybe Shakyamuni never kicked the dog, but you might. Practicing Zen doesn't suddenly turn a person into a vegetarian pacifist who haunts airport concourses. After a lot of Zazen practice and talks with your Zen teacher you might be able to do the old "Five-Four-Three-Two-One . . . Hold everything!" and catch yourself from having an habitual reaction to something. "Hmmm . . ." 

And you might get to the point where you can make sensible decisions about how you're going to choose to react in a particular set of circumstances.

"The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous." Suzuki said it. Not me. 

And beyond that, at the moment, I'm not even going to pretend I know what I'd be talking about.



1. Right View


2. Right Intention

3. Right Speech

Ethical Conduct

4. Right Action

5. Right Livelihood

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness 

8. Right Concentration

Mental Development


adapted from 


The Essence of The Four Noble Truths:

"Life isn't what we want it to be; because it isn't, we're unhappy; when we decide it doesn't have to be, we become happy; and to help us make that decision, we should get plenty of sleep and eat a good breakfast every day."



Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep Prajna Paramita
Perceived the emptiness of all five conditions
And was freed of pain
Oh Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness
Emptiness no other than form
Form is precisely emptiness, emptiness precisely form
sensation, perception, reaction, and consciousness
Are also like this
Oh Shariputra, all things are expressions of emptiness
Not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure
Neither waxing nor waning
Thus emptiness is not form
Not sensation nor perception nor reaction nor consciousness
No eye, ear, tongue, body, mind
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, thing
No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness
No ignorance, no end to ignorance
No old age and death and cessation of old age and death
No suffering, no cause or end to suffering
No path, no wisdom, and no gain
No gain, thus Bodhisattvas live this Prajna Paramita
With no hindrance of mind
No hindrance therefore no fear
Far beyond all such delusion, Nirvana is already here
All past, present, and future Buddhas live this Prajna Paramita
And therefore attain Supreme Perfect Enlightenment
Therefore know Prajna Paramita is the holy mantra
The luminous mantra, the incomparable mantra
By which all suffering is cleared this is no other than truth
Therefore set forth the Prajna Paramita mantra
Set forth this mantra and proclaim,
"Gate! Gate! Paragate!
Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha!"



Kan ji zai bo sa gyo jin han nya ha ra mi ta ji
sho ken go on kai ku do is sai ku yaku.
Sha ri shi shiki fu I ku ku fu I shiki
shiki soku ze ku ku soku ze shiki.
Ju so gyo shiki yaku bu nyo ze.
Sha ri shi ze sho ho ku so
Fu sho fu metsu fu ku fu jo fu zo fu gen ze ko ku chu
Mu shiki mu ju so gyo shiki mu gen ni bi zes shin I
mu shiki sho ko mi soku ho mu gen kai nai shi mu I shiki kai
mu mu myo yaku mu mu myo jin.
Nai shi mu ro shi yaku mu ro shi jin
mu ku shu metsu do mu chi yaku mu toku I mu sho tok'ko.
Bo dai sat ta e han nya ha ra mi ta ko
shim-mu kei ge mu kei ge ko mu u ku fu
on ri is sai ten do mu so ku gyo ne han.
San ze sho butsu e han nya ha ra mi ta ko
Toku a noku ta ra sam myaku sam bo dai.
Ko chi han nya ha ra mi ta ze dai shin shu ze dai myo shu
ze mu jo shu ze mu to to shu no jo is sai ku shin jitsu fu ko.
Ko setsu han mya ha ra mi ta shu soku setsu shu watsu
Gya tei gya tei ha ra gya tei hara so gya tei.
Bodhi sva ha ka han-nya shin gyo.



There are at least as many translations of the Heart Sutra as there are Buddhists, and they are all broadly similar but individually unique. This ancient Sutra gained its name and central place in the teachings because it expresses the 'heart' of Buddhist teachings, that all things are manifestations of  an "emptiness" of infinite active potentialities.  This version is by The Southern Palm Zen Group, and I have provided the Japanese phonetic transliteration.

In this sutra, Avalokiteshvara the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion, is practicing intensive meditation---"Prajna Paramita" can roughly be translated as "the canon of wisdom"---when s/he realizes that the "five conditions" of form, sensation, perception, reaction and consciousness all are this emptiness, and no different from it. "Supreme Perfect Enlightenment" (anutarra samyaksambodhi) consists of discovering this for oneself, in effect letting go of all our notions and expectations of existence. The Bodhisattva passes this knowledge on to Shariputra, the Buddha's earliest disciple, and then sets forth the Prajna Paramita mantra, "Gate, gate, paragate, parasam gate, bodhi svaha!" which translates (again imprecisely) as "Gone, gone, far beyond enlightenment, to reach the other shore."

The imprecision of the translation (from the original Pali to Sanskrit to Chinese to Japanese and then to English) is due rather less to the differing conceptual frameworks of the different languages than to the fact that the sutra is addressing issues that are nearly impossible to render into any language at all. Words like "emptiness" and "delusion" have very negative connotations in English, and so Buddhism is often considered nihilistic or negative (which it is not). The sutra is not concerned with the reader's psychopathological delusions, but rather with the overarching intuitive awareness that all ideas and thoughts are constructs, and that reality is nothing more than a group of mutually agreed-upon such constructs. Even the "I"s that create the constructs are constructs themselves. The "non-being" and "non-doing" "empty" state that underlies the construct of "I" is also a construct.

I have found Dainin Katagiri Roshi's rendering of "Emptiness" as either "Impermanence" or "Transience" to be more meaningful.

Reduced down to its minimum, then, only the present exists.   

 This teaching, of only 900 Chinese ideographs in length, is considered central to Buddhism.


The mind of the Great Sage of India is intimately conveyed from West and East.
Among human beings are wise ones and fools
in the Way there is no Ancestor of North or South.  
The subtle source is clear and bright; 
the branching streams flow in the dark. 
To be attached to things is primordial illusion; 
to encounter the absolute is not yet enlightenment.  
Each sphere, every sense and field intermingle even as they shine alone; 
interacting even as they merge, yet keeping their places in expression of their own. Forms differ primally in shape and character and sounds in sharp or soothing tones. The dark makes all words one; the brightness distinguishes good and bad phrases. The four elements return to their true nature as a child to its mother.
Fire is hot, water is wet, wind moves and the earth is dense. 
Eye and form, ear and sound, nose and smell, tongue and taste---the sweet and sour. Each independent of the other like leaves that come from the same root;   
and though root and leaves must go back to the Source both root and leaves have their own uses.  
Light is also darkness, but do not think of it as darkness. 
Darkness is light; Do not see it as light. 
Light and darkness are not one, not two, 
like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.   
Each thing has its own being which is not different from its place and function.   
The relative fits the absolute As a box and its lid. 
The absolute meets the relative like two arrow points that touch in the air. 
Hearing this, simply perceive the Source. 
Make no criterion. 
If you do not see the Way, You do not see it even as you walk upon it. 
If you walk the Way, you draw no nearer, progress no farther.  
Who fails to see this is Mountains and Rivers away.  
Listen, those who would pierce this subtle matter. 
Do not waste your time by night or day! 

The Sandokai (also known as the "Harmony of Difference and Equality," "The Identity of Relative And Absolute," and other similar titles) is an eighth century poem by Sekito Kisen, addressing the apparent contradiction between the seeming diversity and separateness of existence which we perceive with the senses (the relative) and the underlying unified nature of all existence (the absolute) we grasp with our hearts.


Southern Palm Sangha: My Dharma Journey


I joined the Southern Palm Zen Group of Boca Raton in August of 2006. 

On April 4, 2007, I (center) received Jukai flanked by my Dharma brothers Jimyo (left) and Shonen (right). Receiving Jukai means that the participant, having vowed to practice the Buddhist Precepts, is permitted to wear the rakusu, a biblike garment symbolic of the Buddha's patched robe. The cross-hatchings on the rakusu are meant to represent the ordered fields and water channels of the rice fields, wherein frogs, fish, earthworms and insects abide in natural harmony. It's said that the rakusu was devised during a period of Buddhist persecution as an easily-concealed substitute for the kesa, or full robe. At the time of Jukai, the participant is given a Dharma name. Mine is Konrei, "The Unyielding Spirit."

Here, Doshin Sensei leads us in a recitation of the Heart Sutra. My parents, Jack Minde (wearing the red sweater) and Sheila Minde (in the striped blouse) were specifically honored during the ceremony. Other guests included my aunt and uncle, Bea and Jerome Freedman (audience left) and my beloved friends and colleagues, Ken Tucker and Hope Kraas, who can be seen just behind my father, probably puzzling over the unfamiliar Japanese transliterations provided.

The Southern Palm Zen Group in April 2007. Shonen, Jimyo and I flank Doshin Sensei.

In the Jukai Ceremony the Zen student affirms his or her commitment to the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts.

These Precepts are traditionally divided into three sets, the "Three Treasures, the "Three Pure Precepts," and the "Ten Grave Precepts.".

The Three Treasures are enlightened living, knowledge, and community.

The Three Pure Precepts are abstention from evil, doing good for oneself, and doing good for others.

Many of The Ten Grave Precepts are similar in wording to the more familiar Ten Commandments, though they are considered inspired guidelines for living, not divine commands.

The jukai is encouraged not to kill, not to steal, not to covet, not to bear false witness, not to be ignorant, not to gossip, not to engage in self aggrandizement, to be generous, and to respect the Three Treasures.


The head shaving ceremony takes place the night before Tokudo. Here I am, dressed in jubon and kimono. 

Tokudo, my ordination as a Zen monk, took place as scheduled on August 15, 2009, despite my having suffered a broken back as the result of a serious car accident just three weeks before. Although I was in significant pain and had to use a walker to take the traditional steps, my Tokudo ceremony seemed all the deeper for it. Having come face to face with my mortality and the very tenuous hold I have on being a healthy human being, the state of existence represented by being an "Unsui" or "Cloud Water Man" took on a whole new importance. The term Unsui is usually translated into English either as "monk" or "priest;" in a practical sense, there is no difference between the two in Zen Buddhism. An Unsui is a fully ordained clergyman who may give teisho or Dharma teachings, conduct services, and officiate at life cycle rituals. Most Western Unsui generally see theirs as a figurative rather than a literal status.

  I offer incense at the opening of the head shaving ceremony. I was unable to stand or walk unaided as a result of my accident.

The term Tokudo itself is one of those wonderfully untranslatable Japanese idioms which means, "Leaving home to take up the journey." In the days of the Buddha and until quite recently, the Unsui literally did leave home to become a mendicant or a monastic, dedicated to teaching the Dharma. The Unsui did not abandon home and family so much as he (and in those days monks were always males) exchanged one family for another, the Sangha for parents, siblings, spouse and children (if any).

Although a modern Unsui can choose the monastic path, Western Zen has effectively transformed the act of Tokudo into a deeply symbolic ritual in which the Unsui "leaves home" by renewing his or her dedication to the Precepts first adopted in Jukai, and by actively practicing renunciation of fixed concepts, thoughtless habits, and the mindless existence of everyday life. An Unsui is supposed, like a cloud, to move comfortably from moment to moment. Obviously, most Unsui must make an active practice of mindful living; one does not become an Unsui because one has attained anything---rather, Tokudo represents a dedication to an active life of constant practice. It is probably more difficult for a modern, non-cloistered Unsui to keep the Precepts than it was for the Zen monastics of Dogen's day, the distractions of modern life being all-pervasive. Thus, rededication must go on moment by moment, not just during formal Zazen.

Just as Jukai,  Tokudo is very much a service of affirmation in which the Unsui again dedicates himself to the Buddhist Precepts after being ritually purified. As part of the symbolism of purification inherent in Tokudo, the Unsui has his or her head shaved, is given a set of begging bowls, and is permitted to wear the garb of a monk: A long shirtlike garment called a jubon, a belted wrap or kimono, a capacious mantle called a koromo, and a large robe called a kesa. The kesa is a patchy garment, traditionally sewn together from rags of shrouds found at the charnel grounds. The Unsui thus symbolically wastes nothing. With his robes and utensils, the Unsui is a free person: "Just this is enough."

Doshin Sensei symbolically enacts Dharma transmission from mind to mind as he brushes my head with pine needles dipped in water taken from a Tibetan stream as my friends and relatives look on.

The Sangha celebrates my ordination, August 2009. My family members all stand to the left of Doshin Sensei. My father, suffering with Alzheimer's, was not able to attend.

Although Zen uses basic black and white garments, saffron is a common color in other traditions, not for any reason other than that for hundreds of years corpses in hotter climes were preserved with spices (including saffron) which tended to stain their shrouds yellow-orange, the colors which ultimately became identified with the Buddhist communities of Southeast Asia. Whatever the color or the style of the robes they are all physical representations of the same Bodhisattva Precepts.

I have been asked to describe the difference between Jukai and Tokudo. For me, Jukai represents my personal commitment to the Precepts as practiced locally, while Tokudo represents my personal commitment to the Precepts as practiced globally.

"In going and returning we never leave home."      

Zen traces its earliest roots back to the intense sitting meditation practiced by the Buddha which resulted in his enlightenment. "Zen" is a Japanese word transcribed from the Chinese "Ch'an," which in turn derives from the Sanskrit word "Dhyana." It is also known as "Thien" in Vietnam and "Son" in Korea. Zen is spare. It puts aside the iconography and ritual of other forms of Buddhism, focusing on the practitioner's direct experience of this present moment...

Konrei's Dharma Bookshelf

This is a short list of books which I've found particularly helpful or enjoyable or both.

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.

In 1973, the newly-widowered Peter Matthiessen, author, explorer and student of Zen, joined naturalist George Schaller in a trek across the Himalayas to a remote lamasery. Matthiessen's luminous account of his travels, read when I was seventeen, inspired me to adopt an ongoing Zen practice. Just by chance (if such things exist) the Southern Palm Sangha of which I am now a member, was founded by my Dharma grandfather, Ishin Muryo Roshi---none other than Peter Matthiessen.

The Mind Of Clover by Robert Aitken Roshi. 

Aitken Roshi was one of the earliest ordained Occidental Zen Masters. This slim volume, in which he discusses the Zen Precepts, builds on itself like a sonata, and is a fine read both for the dedicated student or the curious layman.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.

Suzuki was the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. This famous book is a collection of his teisho (Zen talks) edited shortly after his death. The abridged audiobook version, read by Peter Coyote, brings the Master's lectures back to their original medium, the spoken word.  

Choosing To Be by Kat Tansey.

Tansey's book is a splendid, short reminiscence of how she found her way to Zen and to Shikantaza. This is a particularly good book for a beginner, as it recounts, with unvarnished honesty, the difficulties a new Zen student will face on the cushion. 

Bankei Zen by Bankei; edited by Peter Haskel.

Bankei (1622-1693) is considered the third of the great Zen philosophers, along with Dogen and Hakuin. Bankei reads at times like a 17th century Albert Ellis; at other times Bankei sounds like a feudal Dr. Phil as he provides commonsensical advice on a plethora of mundane subjects like the raising of children and getting along with neighbors. Bankei's Zen has a curiously 21st century feel. Peter Haskel has brought Bankei to life with a fine appreciation for the depth of the man's mind and the expansiveness of his spirit.

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura.

In its simplicity and its elegance, the Tea Ceremony is a form of Zen practice. Every element, from the atmosphere of the tearoom (called in Japanese "The Abode of Fancy," a world unto itself), the selection of the flowers, the artwork, the bamboo tea implements, the bright, sharp jade green macha tea, and the specially made jangling teapot and ceramic cups, speaks to an aesthetic foreign to the West. Okakura calls it "Teaism," a play on Taoism, and its purpose is to delight the senses, touch the heart, and place the participant fully in the present moment. I can honestly say that this little book provided me with comprehension, a deeper insight, and a first true appreciation for Japanese art forms, so different than the European.

Ideals of The Samurai by William Scott Wilson.

This collection of essays, letters, directives to subordinates, and poetry by Japanese liege-lords and warriors focuses on the Bushido Code as it developed and was put into practice in Japan in the 12th to 17th Centuries, and provides a fascinating look at how the spirit of Zen inculcated itself into the very fabric of Japanese existence even, and particularly, in the sphere of arms.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead by Padmasambhava; edited by Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

This classic text of Tibetan Buddhism is traditionally read to the dying and the dead as they begin their Bardo journey, the mysterious "in-between" state during which the deceased confronts the consequences of his karma and either attains Nirvana or reincarnates. This isn't a Zen text. Generations of young Westerners have read it to explore the hallucinogenic environment described as the Bardo, but more sedate readers can find this book an interesting and insightful guide to living.

Where Did Zen Come From?


Zen traces its putative beginnings back to the day the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bodhi Tree all those years ago. In India, the sitting practice was known as Dhyana. Dhyana was carried from India to China by Bodhidharma two millennia later, and developed in China as Ch'an, which was then brought to Japan as Zen by Master Eisai. Zen also traveled to Korea, where it is known as Son, and to Vietnam, where it is called Thien. Around 1500, Zen became a major influence on Japanese culture, inspiring calligraphy, art, gardening, the Tea Ceremony, and other traditional Japanese activities. Zen was adopted by the Imperial Court, and became the prime philosophy of the Samurai.

Zen did not reach the West until after Japan was opened by Commodore Perry in 1853, and it put down very shallow roots for the next century as the esoteric practice of a very few Westerners. The first Japanese Zen Master, Soyen Shaku, arrived in America in 1893. Zen only really began to grow in the Occident in the Twentieth Century, when academics like Christmas Humphreys, Reginald Blyth, Lafcadio Hearn, Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Gary Snyder, and Alan Watts began writing about it in books and in the popular press. The Platform Sutra was translated into English for the first time in 1930, the same year that Sokei-an Sasaki established the First Zen Institute of the United States. The end of the Second World War, and the return of American soldiers from Occupied Japan, brought an upsurge of interest in Zen. Eugen Herrigel wrote "Zen In The Art of Archery"  in 1953. Jack Kerouac published "The Dharma Bums" in 1959, and Watts' prolific pen continued spawning new writings until his death in 1973.

In 1950, D.T. Suzuki, a transplanted Japanese Zen student of Soyen Shaku began writing incisive (though intellectual) popular books on Zen. Despite his very linear Western approach to Zen, "Big" Suzuki sowed fertile ground for "Little" Suzuki, Shogaku Shunryu Suzuki,  who arrived in San Francisco in 1958, creating the San Francisco Zen Center, an open-door Zendo, where anyone interested in Zen could come and sit, listen to lectures, and immerse themselves in active, daily Zen practice. In the experimental and freewheeling era of the 1960s, Zen grew rapidly. Shunryu Suzuki established the first U.S. Zen monastery in 1967, at Tassajara. In 1970, his seminal "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" was published.

Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi arrived in Los Angeles in 1956, and established the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967. His resulting lineage, The White Plum Asanga, is one of the largest Zen groups in the West, and has branches in Europe, the Americas, and Israel. 

Other important Zen teachers in the West include Dainan Katagiri, whose Asanga is primarily Midwestern; Yasutani Hakuun, who founded the Three Treasures Association in Japan and ordained Western Zen Masters to teach in America; and the Americans Bernie Tetsugen Glassman, Charlotte Joko Beck, Tenshin Reb Anderson, Jakusho Kwong, Robert Aitken Roshi, Joan Jiko Halifax Roshi, Robert Kennedy Roshi, S.J., Daigaku Rumme, and Gerry Shishin Wick. Many of the teachers have founded organizations, like Glassman's Zen Peacemakers Order, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and networks of Settlement Houses in poorer areas.

Although most of these teachers can trace their lineages back to either Suzuki Roshi or Maezumi Roshi, one of the hallmarks of American Zen is its flexibility. Teachers from different lineages work together freely, liturgy and practice are both shared and improvisational, and teachers easily found their own schools and lineages. Thus, American Zen is a colorfully tangled tapestry of creative thought, mindful living, and social action.












Litttle Zen Garden

Three examples of Zen gardens: Kyushu, Japan; Ryoanji Temple, Japan, and an original home garden in a box by Jacob Carmona


 Zen and Japanese Culture

Traditional Japanese culture, as it is understood in the West, is very largely a Zen culture. In a compressed and mountainous land with little open space and a high population, the simple, spare forms of Zen allow for expression while, very importantly, respecting the personal space of others. Unlike the boisterous frontier-driven culture of the United States in which space and place were never at a premium, Japan developed formal and highly ritualized social structures.

One of the seeming oddities of Japanese culture was the joinder of evanescent Buddhism with the robust Warrior Culture of the Samurai. This link dates back to Bodhidharma, who devised Kung Fu as a method of self-defense (and physical activity) for Zazen-sitting monks who would otherwise be at the mercy of brigands. 

Zen has much in it that would be attractive to a Warrior class. In focusing on living in the here and now, it allows the Warrior to make the most of every moment and frees him from the anxiety of facing death. Since "all things are expressions of Emptiness" death is not to be feared, it is to be easily accepted. This is one underpinning of bushido, the Samurai Code.

Fortunately, "living in the here and now" was not a license to be boorish in traditional Japan. The noble and warrior classes who studied Zen used its lessons to create unique forms of expression such as Chanoyo, the Tea Ceremony, a highly-abstract form of performance art in which the act of sharing tea becomes a metaphor for life and death; the brief, dramatic forms of Japanese poetry, haiku and waka, with their focus on nature; Ikebana and Bonsai culture in which the arranging of flowers and the pruning of trees is meant to represent both natural spontaneity and manmade order; Zen Gardens, with their dramatic patternings, the very creation of which is a form of Zazen; brush calligraphy; martial arts prowess; and swordcraft itself. A Japanese man of the upper classes who did not cultivate some form of artistic practice was considered ill-bred.

Many Zen students today continue to practice these traditional arts as a further expression of intention. 


No one really knows for how long incense has been used in religious and spiritual ceremonies, but it's likely that these fragrant resins have been propitiarily burned for as long as Man has perceived of things greater than himself.  Incense has medicinal and psychoactive properties; extracts of various incenses have been used in tinctures, elixirs, and patent medicines for thousands of years, and the burning of incense calms and clears the mind. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the burning of incense increases chi,  life energy. Other traditions believe that incense has powerful effects on vibrational energies in the body and environment. Incense appears in virtually all spiritual cultures, and is always used as part of meditation practice.

Almost any incense is appropriate for meditation, although such cheaply produced products as the Tutti-Frutti and Wild Strawberry scents available in gift shops probably aren't conducive to setting the proper relaxed state of mind and body preferable for Zazen.  Zen Masters would say that a true practitioner could do Zazen in the New York subways in airs redolent of sewage, but even so, that type of environment is not the usual setting for meditation practice.

Incense burners, whether clay, porcelain, ceramic, metal or wood, don't matter very much. Neither does the choice of cone incense, powdered incense, or stick incense, although better incense almost always comes in stick form. Incense in whatever form can burn anywhere from two minutes to two hours, usually the better quality the longer.

A good quality fragrant wood such as Sandalwood produces fine, inexpensive, incense, and is readily available in specialty stores and online. Some practitioners choose to use more costly incenses like Aloeswood (once described as, "the essential smell of Buddhism"), but remember that you will be burning incense every day for the rest of your practice life. Spending a dollar per stick or more can become very expensive. Using a daily "ordinary" good quality incense means having an "extraordinary"  better quality incense for occasional use. And if you are like me, you'll find yourself lighting incense just to brighten up the atmosphere of a room. In fact, "just" lighting incense can be a form of practice in and of itself.

"In gratitude we offer this incense to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout space and time...May it be fragant as Earth herself, reflecting our careful efforts, our wholehearted awareness, and the fruit of understanding slowly ripening...May we and all beings be companions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas...May we awaken from forgetfulness and realize our true home."       



Mudras are ritual hand gestures. It is believed that these gestures were originally a form of sign language. Although there are many Mudras, Zen uses only a few as a regular part of practice. 

Gassho is the mudra of  acknowledgement and thanks, greeting and leavetaking. We are in Gassho when we are pressing our palms firmly together, fingertip to fingertip, with the elbows held at near right angles to the floor. It is similar, if not identical to the Hindu namaste, which is used for the same reasons.

The "Cosmic" or Dhyani Mudra is the position in which the hands are held during Zazen. The fingers of one hand are cupped by the other, with the tips of the thumbs lightly touching, forming an oval. 

Sasshu is the mudra of  mindful attentiveness, and is used during rituals by observing participants, and during walking meditation  (kinhin). Sasshu is formed by balling one hand into a loose fist while embracing it with the other hand.

Choki is the mudra of supplication, and is used during jukai, Tokudo, and other investiture  rituals by the persons being so honored. The fingers are interlaced  at chin level with the arms held at a 90 degree angle to the body.  

Zen makes little use of images, and does not venerate the various Buddhas in a religious sense. Zen liturgy occasionally references the various Buddhas, but primarily as symbolic embodiments of  the virtues, not as deities. 

In fact, the Diamond Sutra teaches that "There are no Buddhas and no Dharmas."  Still, appreciating Buddhist iconography can be both interesting and, well, enlightening, in helping a student to understand some  of the underlying concepts of practice. 

In Buddha images, the hands are often shown in varying positions. All these variants have differing meanings and in fact often identify these as different Buddhas. This iconography serves the practitioner as a visual reminder of the Dharma teachings, whether to be sensibly and calmly grounded, to not submit to our fears, or to serve , teach and heal all sentient beings. 

Shakyamuni is most often shown with his hands in the cosmic mudra, representing meditative enlightenment.  He is also often shown with his hands in the vitarka, or teaching, mudra, formed by touching the thumb and forefinger together with the other fingers raised. In American culture, this hand gesture usually means "You  got it!" 

Amida Buddha, another venerated Japanese Buddha figure, and the principal Buddha of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism, also frequently displays the Dhyani mudra.

The Dharmachakra mudra is formed when the thumb and forefingers of both hands are linked in a circle over the heart, with three fingers of the right hand elevated.  The Buddha Vairochana , who is the legendary Buddha of the Uncreated Potential of existence (Shunyata), the "Emptiness" spoken of in the Heart Sutra, is usually displaying this mudra, and this mudra is said to represent the turning wheel of the Dharma, which is generally translated as "existence" or "teaching."

The Bumiparsha or "Earth-Touching Mudra," is most closely related with the Buddha Akshobya, "The Unshakable One," another legendary Buddha who is said to turn uncertainty into wisdom. Akshobya is usually shown with one hand in his lap with the other hand, fingers downward, just touching the earth in a gesture of grounding.  

The Abhaya mudra, or mudra of fearlessness, is a simple mudra in which one hand is raised---a perfectly natural gesture, used by Shakyamuni to calm and reassure all sentient beings. The Abhaya mudra is most common in standing images of Shakyamuni.  

A Medicine Buddha is a representation of the Buddha Shakyamuni in his role as  healer of the sick and spiritual physician to the ills of the world. In Tibetan Buddhism, he is often represented in the color lapis lazuli, the ancient blue stone of healing. In Japanese representations he is seen holding a small cask of azure medicine, and often a plum sprig in the other hand. Uniquely, a Medicine Buddha is never shown with his hands in a mudra position. As a healer, he is said to be so powerful that the mere thought of him can help bring recovery.

"The Laughing Buddha" with his fat belly, broad smile, crowd of children around him, and his never-empty sack full of presents, is sometimes called "the Chinese Santa Claus." He is sometimes shown with his arms raised, palms upward, supporting the sky. In reality, he was a Ch'an (Zen) monk from China named  Pu-Tai (or Budai); in Japan he is known as Hotei. It is said that Hotei taught the Dharma through laughter and generosity. Upon his deathbed, he revealed that he was a preincarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha Yet To Come. who would fulfill Shakyamuni's promise. His image is a popular good luck charm, often seen in places as disparate as temples and Chinese restaurants.


The word "Sutra" comes from a Sanskrit root word for "thread" (as in what holds things together). The word 'suture" comes from the same root, as do the words "sidrah" (a weekly Torah portion) and "surah" (a Qur'anic chapter). Even the word "chapter" comes from that root (say it soft, "shapter," and it is more obvious). 

Sutras are the teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, transcribed sometimes hundreds of years after his death. They are generally not considered historical documents. Some sutras have specific authors. Some recount the teachings of other Masters.  

There are literally thousands of sutras in Buddhism, from one line invocations to multivolume tomes. Exactly what constitutes a sutra is difficult to say, as each Buddhist sect has it's traditional sutras, which may or may not be used by another sect. A key writing in Siamese Buddhism may be a curiosity, and little more, in Nepal.

Some of the more important sutras in Zen Buddhism are the Diamond Sutra, the Platform Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Heart Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra has the distinction of being the oldest printed book in the world. It is a teaching of the Buddha regarding the nature of perception and reality, which addresses the Shunyata, or Emptiness, of all creation. It is a document of seeming paradoxes. The Buddha teaches us that he has given us no definite teachings in the sutra, and that there are no Buddhas and no Dharmas.     

The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng the Sixth Patriarch is a discussion of the Paramitas or wisdoms: Dana Paramita (generosity), Sila Paramita (virtuous living), Kshanti Paramita (humility), Virya Paramita (diligence), Dhyana Paramita (sitting meditation), and Prajna Paramita, or enlightened living.  

The Lotus Sutra was a recitative given by the Buddha at the end of his life. The teaching of the Lotus Sutra is that the Buddhas are innumerable and timeless and that they choose to remain in the world to aid all sentient beings rather than seeking Nirvana.

The Heart Sutra, at 900 Chinese ideographs, is one of the shortest sutras, but is considered the most important, as it contains the "heart" of Buddhist teachings.



Used by both the Soto and Rinzai schools of Zen, Koans (pronounced Ko-an) are actually remnants of Confucian legal decisions. In the famous collections The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Record they are even referred to as "cases," complete with briefs and casenotes. 

The most famous Koan is Master Hakuin's "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" but there are thousands more of varying complexity. Koans cannot be understood by using the linear mind---when viewed through the lens of logic they are often pure gobbledygook. They must be puzzled out and solved intuitively. The purpose of Koans is to free the student from the linear, logical straitjacket of rational thought.

Another great Koan is Master Eihei Dogen's admonition "that to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened." What is all this talk of emptiness and of forgetting the self? Is it nihilism? 

No. Obviously, an admonition to "forget the self" cannot be taken literally. 

Western culture is particularly "I" oriented. All day long we talk to ourselves internally: "I am hungry", "I am tired", " I hope I get that promotion", "I can't believe she won't go out with me", "I think, therefore I am", and so on. This "I. Me, Mine" approach to life makes us fearful and insecure in the face of loss, disappointment and death. When we're clinging so hard to our identity, the idea of "forgetting the self" can be downright terrifying. 

Still, scientists tell us that if we cannot study something objectively we are bound to distort our discoveries. 

Traditional Western psychotherapy requires that we study the self, but only insofar as such study allows us to manipulate the structures of our mind to obtain better results for ourselves. 

Zen, however, looks at it differently. If we forget the "I," we change our perspective on life to a much broader one that permits us to put aside the structures of desire, clinging and ego. Not that they disappear---they merely become less dominating. Thus, while we may still be hungry, we don't focus on the hunger, we focus on getting something to eat. When we're tired, we'll sleep. And though we may still want that date or that promotion, we're not crushed if we don't get what we want. 

Obviously then, Zen doesn't call for the eradication of the self. To the contrary. the intense focus on the self seems almost egotistical. 

Again, no. Zen recognizes the self as a construct, partially built up by upbringing, partially by daily experience, but mostly by the illusion of ourselves as separate, discrete beings. Western philosophy is largely based on this idea.

With practice, the Zen student begins to understand that this separateness is an illusion, that he or she is a temporary, permeable creature, absorbing everything from the environment and giving back in equal measure, and that therefore, every action has a consequence (Karma). Whether fouling the environment or expressing anger, such action is not simply "out there," but has a direct and immediate impact on the world, of which we ourselves will partake.  

This change of perspective allows us to respect other beings, whether trees, dogs or our neighbors, and to avoid satiating ourselves with booze, drugs, cigarettes, and consumer goods in lieu of real satisfaction---and to remember that  satisfaction is fleeting: "Boy, that hamburger had no taste," "I really need a new mattress," "All this work!," "I can't believe she filed for divorce." 

Nothing is permanent. Everything is in flux. But if I am living this moment of my life, whether it is good, bad, indifferent, terrifying, sad, or ecstatic, it is this moment, unique and unlike any other moment, anytime, anywhere, ever. 

Our vision expands commensurately.

The oxymoron of  "forgetting the self" means to open oneself to a new order of experience. 


The Zen of Tao or The Tao of Zen

Zen was born in China, not Japan. It was called "Ch'an," which is a Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word "Dhyani" or "Meditation"  (just as "Zen" is the Japanese transliteration of "Ch'an").  As a Chinese export, it was, in it's earliest days, exposed to Chinese thought, such as Confucianism and Taoism. Thus, Zen is an amalgam of various lines of Eastern philosophies. 

Of all the various lines of descent, "Ch'an" was most deeply influenced by Taoism. "Tao" (usually pronounced "Dow") is one of those philosophic words that has no specific translation. It is generally interpreted as "The Way." The philosopher Alan Watts calls it "The Watercourse Way," which happens to be a simple, graphic, and poetical descriptor, which finely describes the naturalism which the Tao embodies. 

Ch'an adopted this "go with the flow" and "be in the moment" outlook toward human life, and mindfulness and "momentness" are the core principles of Zen. Most Zen sutras and poems try to embody these concepts (I say "try" because it is impossible for human beings to share this state of awareness between ourselves through words alone). 

The Hsin Hsin Ming (Faith-Mind Verses) were attributed to Seng-T'san, the Third Chinese Patriarch, who lived around the year 600. They are, in their very essence, Tao (and Zen):


The tao is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart. If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

The tao is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things. Live neither in the entanglements of outer things, nor in inner feelings of emptiness. Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves. When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity your very effort fills you with activity. As long as you remain in one extreme or the other you will never know oneness.

Those who do not live in the single tao fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial. To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality, to assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality. The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth. Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know. To return to the root is to find the meaning, but to pursue appearances is to miss the source. At the moment of inner enlightenment there is a going beyond appearance and emptiness. The changes that appear to occur in the empty world, we call real only because of our ignorance. Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.

Do not remain in the dualistic state, avoid such pursuits carefully. If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong, the mind-essence will be lost in confusion. Although all dualities come from the one, do not be attached even to this one.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the tao, nothing in the world can offend, and when a thing can no longer offend, it ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thoughts arise, the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking-subject vanishes, as when the mind vanishes, objects vanish. Things are objects because of The subject (mind); the mind (subject) is such because of things (object). Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality: the unity of emptiness. In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable and each contains in itself the whole world. If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.

To live in the tao is neither easy nor difficult, but those with limited views are fearful and irresolute: the faster they hurry, the slower they go, and clinging (attachment) cannot be limited; even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way and there will be neither coming nor going.

Obey the nature of things (your own nature), and you will walk freely and undisturbed. When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden, for everything is murky and unclear. and the burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness. What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?

If you wish to move in the tao do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas. Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment. The wise man strives to no goals but the foolish man fetters himself. There is one Dharma, not many; distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant. To seek Mind with the discriminating mind is the greatest of all mistakes.

Rest and unrest derive from illusion, with enlightenment there is no liking and disliking. All dualities come from ignorant inference. They are like dreams or flowers in air: foolish to try to grasp them. Gain and loss, right and wrong, such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.

If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease: if the mind makes no discriminations, the ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence. To understand the mystery of this One-essence is to be released from all entanglements. When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this causeless, relationless state.

Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion, both movement and rest disappear. When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist. To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.

For the unified mind in accord with the tao all self-centered striving ceases. Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible. With a single stroke we are freed from bondage; nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing. All is empty, clear, self-illuminating, with no exertion of the mind's power. Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value. In this world of suchness there is neither seer nor other-than-self.

To come directly into harmony with this reality just simply say when doubt arises, ‘Not two.’ In this ‘not two’ nothing is separate, nothing is excluded. No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth. And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space; in it a single thought is ten thousand years.

Emptiness here, Emptiness there, but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes. Infinitely large and infinitely small, no difference, for definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen. So too with Being and non-Being. Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments that have nothing to do with this.

One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection. To live in this faith is the road to non-duality, because the non-dual is one with the trusting mind.

Words! The tao is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.


Bodhidharma, the "blue-eyed monk," was the  26th Patriarch in direct line from Shakyamuni Buddha . He brought Dhyana Buddhism to China in CE 527. After a legendary meeting with the Chinese Emperor, Bodhidharma became the abbot of a Shaolin Temple where he taught Zazen (sitting meditation) to the resident monks. Concerned that the monks were defenseless against brigands, he devised Kung Fu as a method of unarmed self-defense and Tai Chi as a form of physical meditation and conditioning for the members of his community. As a result, he is widely regarded as the 'father of martial arts.'  Bodhidharma is also credited with being the original cultivator of green tea in ancient China.


Bodhisattvas are beings (both legendary and real) who, it is said, choose to postpone their entry into Nirvana in order to aid all sentient beings. The Buddha himself was a living, breathing Bodhisattva. Zen Masters often begin addresses to their students with the greeting, "Bodhisattvas," just as a public speaker might say, "Ladies and gentlemen."

All human beings are considered incipient Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are also hundreds of legendary Bodhisattvas  honored in the different Buddhist cultures. Legendary Bodhisattvas serve the purpose of symbolizing certain human virtues. They are often portrayed as the inheritors of the Buddha 's spoken teachings as recorded in the various Sutras. Four important legendary Bodhisattvas are Avalokiteshvara, Jizo, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra. 

Avalokiteshvara (also known variously as Kanzeon, Kannon and Kanjizai in Japan, Kuan Yin in China, Quon Am in Southeast Asia, Tara and Chenresigs in Tibet, and Padma Pani in India, represented as a man, a woman, an hermaphrodite, a many-headed or a multiple armed being depending on the context) is one of the most popular and important Bodhisattvas, called "The Lord Who Looks Down In Compassion" or "She Who Hears The Cries Of The World."  Avalokiteshvara's appointed mission is to comfort the suffering and to aid them in times of trouble. During the suppression of Christianity by the Japanese Shoguns, Japanese Catholics secretly took to portraying the Virgin Mother as the female Bodhisattva, thus creating a syncretic figure, the Maria Kannon. As Chenresigs, the Bodhisattva is invoked by the famous mantra, " Om mani padme hum."  Avalokiteshvara's importance is also manifest by the fact that he/she is the speaker of the Heart Sutra.  

Jizo (also called Ti Tsang in Chinese and Kṣitigarbha in Sanskrit) is the Bodhisattva who holds women, travelers and children under his special protection. Jizo is the gentle guardian of the spirits of departed youngsters, leading them safely and fearlessly into their afterlife. He also watches over the sick and troubled. As a result, Jizo figures are often found in Buddhist cemeteries and hospital wards. particularly those serving the very young. In Japan, Jizo is represented almost always with a halo and as carrying a guide staff, much like an icon of a Christian saint. Jizo is also the comforter and Dharma patron of  hell-bound beings. It is said that during Jizo's human lifetime he vowed, "Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; Not until all beings are saved will I attain nirvana."

Jizo Bosatsu - unknown artist and period; found on web at

Manjusri is almost always portrayed as a male riding a white tiger and brandishing the sword of the dharma in one hand (meant to cut through delusions) and the lotus of enlightened thought in the other (meant to represent wisdom and knowledge). Manjusri is also called Wenshu in Chinese, Monju in Japan, and Jampelyang in Tibetan. He is said to have been one of the Buddha Shakyamuni's original disciples. He was the recipient of the Buddha 's great Lotus Sutra, which Manjusri then taught to the Dragon Girl, who then in turn taught it to the Sangha.  The Lotus Sutra teaches that enlightenment can be found in the wise use of  knowledge. It also states that the Buddhas are innumerable and without beginning or end. According to the Lotus Sutra, it is the task of the Buddhas to guide and teach human beings to attain enlightenment. In that regard, Manjusri is the personification of the ideal being as described in the Sutra.

Samantabhadra (known as Pu-Hsien or Quontuzangpo in China, Fugen in Japan, Kamugha Sain in Mongolia, and Pho Hien Bo Tat in Vietnam)  is a chief figure in the Flower Garland Sutra. Like Manjusri, Samantabhadra is considered to have been a direct disciple of Shakyamuni. Similarly to Manjusri, who rides a white Tiger, Samantabadhra rides a white Elephant. When he became the Buddha 's disciple, Samantabhadra took ten vows from which the Buddhist Precepts evolved. In accord particularly with the tenth vow, during the liturgy many Buddhists dedicate the merits of their practice to all beings in all places at all times.  Samantabadhra vowed to pay respect to and to praise all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, to give generously, to repent all misdeeds and harmful karma, and to rejoice in others' merits and virtues. He asked that the Buddhas continue teaching the Dharma and that the Buddhas not leave the world. He dedicated himself to follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times, to accommodate all living beings, and to use all merits and virtues to benefit all beings.

Pu Hsien P'usa


The Four Bodhisattva Vows

Creations are numberless. I vow to free them. 

Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them. 

Reality is boundless. I vow to perceive it. 

The Enlightened Way is unsurpassable. I vow to embody it. 

The White Plum Asanga, of which the Southern Palm Zen Group is a part, was founded by Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi (1931-1995), whose lineage as a Zen Master descends from both the Soto and Rinzai schools. 






Here I am berobed and shaven-headed, sitting on the meditation cushion in a more informal setting.

The robe was gifted to me by my Dharma friend Joy Levy. The Buddha figure is a Dharma gift from my Mother, and serves both as a night light and meditation focus.



 The Practice Of Selfless Living

Zazen is the timeless practice of realizing our selflessness so that we may be truly of service to others and ourselves. Only in the narrowest sense is Zazen equivalent to Shikantaza or "just sitting" as a form of meditation practice. When Zazen becomes an integral part of your life Zazen is expressed in every action you take.

 Here are the Southern Palm Zen Group's guidelines for sitting Zazen

1. Sit on the forward third of your chair or on a cushion on the floor.

2. Arrange your legs in a position you can maintain comfortably

3. Straighten and extend your spine, keeping it naturally upright,
centering your balance in the lower abdomen.

4. Keep your shoulders straight and chest open.

5. Tuck your chin in slightly, keeping your head upright, not leaning forward, backwards, nor to the side.

6. Keep your eyes lowered to a 45 degree angle, neither fully opened
nor closed, "softly gazing" about 3 feet in front of you.

7. Keep your lips and teeth closed with the tip of the tongue touching
the back of the upper teeth.

8. Place your hands on your lap with the right palm up against the
abdomen, and your left hand (palm up) resting on your right hand,
thumbs touching lightly, forming an oval (the "cosmic mudra.")

9. Take a deep breath, exhale fully, and then take another deep breath.
Then let your breath settle into a natural rhythm.

10. Remain as still as possible, following your breath and return to it whenever thoughts arise.

11. Practice daily at least 15 minutes or more.

My Thoughts on Zazen

Zazen is the central practice of Zen and is the primary, but not exclusive, method for meditation. Although Dogen Zenji recommends the lotus posture and the use of a zafu and zabuton for Zazen, none of these three are mandatory. The point is to sit, and whether you or I use the traditional postures and implements or whether we sit on the throne of the British Empire (or any other throne) is less important than just sitting.

It's impossible to stop our thoughts. They're going to pop up and disappear about as ephemerally as bubbles in a pot of boiling water. The point is not to stop this from happening. Instead, just let them come and go---Pop pop pop! If you want to, consider where your thoughts come from and go to, and then consider just who is doing the considering. Before long, you'll be looking at the back of your own head, so to speak.

Watching the breath is a technique that's useful to allow the practitioner to minimize distractions. Shunryu Suzuki calls these distractions "mind weeds" and "mind waves" and actually credits them as a method of deepening our practice. The more we sit, the less we'll be distracted by these random thoughts. Don't expect that they'll ever stop forever. Breath counting helps us to redirect our wandering attention, yes, but the point of Zazen is not mastery of the ability to count to ten over and over without interruption. Breath counting is only a technique---it is not Zazen.

Zazen isn't sleep or sleepiness, either. At those times when I attain what I presume is samadhi, my "monkey mind" stills, my random thoughts become few and far between and less memorable, and I rest my tired and hyperactive frontal lobe. But whenever I anticipate that this is going to be the outcome of Zazen it isn't.

That tells me something.


Bowing, like Zazen, is central to Zen practice. We bow when entering the Zendo. We bow when donning our ritual garb. We bow when crossing in front of the altar. We bow to our zafu. We bow to the person facing us when we sit. We bow several times during the liturgy. We bow after we stand. We bow before we speak. We bow when we are done speaking. We bow after another person speaks. We bow before we eat. We bow after our meal. And so on.

Bowing is an unusual behavior in the modern world. Bowing is one of the elements of Zen practice which students find hardest to adapt. In part, this is because bowing has taken on a connotation of subjection in Western culture. Some religious traditions frown strongly on bowing, especially toward the altar. 

Suzuki-roshi said it best, "The disciple may bow to the teacher . . . the teacher to the disciple. Sometimes we may bow to cats and dogs." We are not worshiping nor abasing ourselves before the person or object to whom we bow. Rather, we are giving that person or object our acknowledgment and respect. And they bow reciprocally, whether literally or metaphorically. In a sense, we are bowing through that person or object to the ultimate reality  beyond.    


The Best Bonsai Caring Ways And Techniques



"Let me respectfully remind you---Birth and death are of supreme importance; time swiftly passes, and opportunity is lost. We should all strive to awaken. Awaken! Do not squander your life." 



Samu has been described as "the cultivation of work as spiritual practice."  Traditionally, Samu consisted of all those activities necessary to maintaining the Sangha or managing the monastery. Among the most important jobs was that of tenzo, or cook, traditionally given to the most advanced student. Dogen, the greatest mind of Soto Zen, wrote a masterwork of  philosophy entitled Instructions To The Cook, describing in detail the duties and set of mind incumbent upon this most important person, responsible for the strength, health, and well-being of the Sangha. Zen's approach to work is not that it is merely the mindless, often boring and repetitious stuff we do just to earn our pay eight hours a day---Instead, each task should be done with deliberation and care, never rushed, never delayed, and never  handled perfunctorily. When this happens, even the most dull or difficult work can be a source of immense satisfaction and creativity. 

Zen altar (Dharma Crafts)


Dogen Zenji (also known as Dogen Kigen, Eihei Dogen, or Koso Joyo Daishi) brought Soto Zen practice to Japan. In the fifty three years of his life (1200 to 1253) he managed to have the most profound impact on Japanese Zen, an impact which still being felt today in a dozen countries. He is, by most, considered the greatest of Zen philosophers. 

Dōgen was born into a noble family. Dōgen's parents both died before he was nine years old, and these losses deeply affected the boy, who elected to become a monk at the age of thirteen. As Dogen's practice matured, he found he was driven by a single question:

As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Buddha Nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages—undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment—find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice? 

Although Dogen studied under Zen Master Eisai and other leading lights of Zen for many years, he was unable to find a coherent answer to the problem. As a result, he was advised to travel to China to study with the great Ch'an Masters. He arrived there in 1223. 

In China, Dōgen first studied Gonqins (Koans), but was ultimately dissatisfied with the training. In 1225, he became a student of Zen Master Rujing (Nyojo in Japanese), leader of the Caodung (Soto in Japanese) school of Zen. 

Under Rujing, Dogen came to settle his "life's quest of the great matter;" he was later to write,  

To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.

This assertion makes up the core of the Genjokoan, one of Dogen's greatest writings, which makes up the first of the 95 fascicles of his masterwork,  Shōbōgenzō (The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). Among his other great works is Fukanzazengi (Universal Instruction For The Practice of Zazen), a guide to proper sitting practice. Throughout his writings, Dōgen constantly emphasized the absolute primacy of Shikantaza ("just sitting"), and that practice and enlightenment are one and the same.

 In 1227, Dōgen received Dharma Transmission and inka from Rujing, and  returned to Japan in 1228. He founded Eiheiji Monastery in 1246.

Dogen wrote in Japanese, not, as was then customary for Zen Masters, in Chinese, and he is considered a master stylist, remarkable both for the conciseness of his language and his subtlety. 

The Enso is a common motif in Zen brush calligraphy  



Soyen Shaku was the first Japanese Zen Master to visit the United States (1893). These are his rules of Zen practice:  

In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.

Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.

Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.

Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.

When an opportunity comes do not let it pass you by, yet always think twice before acting.

Do not regret the past. Look to the future.

Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.

Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.



The Five Remembrances

Recited daily by Buddhist monks of many sects (including some Zen communities) the five Remembrances teach us to be aware of impermanence and to make the most of our lives

I am sure to age.

J am sure to become ill.

I am sure to die.

I am sure to lose those nearest and dearest to me.

My life's only legacy will be my actions.




Hakuin Zenji or as he is also known, Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1769) is to Rinzai Zen what Dogen is to Soto Zen. Hakuin was born a commoner in the small village of Hara, at the foot of Mount Fuji, and despite a life full of peregrinations, died there as abbot of Shoin-ji Monastery. 

Raised in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, at an early age Hakuin became frightened of going to hell. His fear was so all-encompassing that he entered a monastery at age fifteen. It was at this time that he first read the Lotus Sutra, and found it disappointing, saying "it consisted of nothing more than simple tales about cause and effect."  He despaired when he read the story of Ch'an Master Yantou Quanhuo (Gānto Zenkatsu in Japanese) who met a brutal end at the hands of brigands. How could such an enlightened Master suffer such a terrible death?

Troubled, Hakuin left the monastic life, and wandered around Japan, writing poetry, perfecting his calligraphy, and creating artworks. He was a man of much talent, but his immersion in the arts did not quiet his soul. Finding himself one day in a temple library, he commended his soul to the Dharma, and picked out a book to read at random, a collection of Zen tales. 

He returned to the study of Zen, and became a disciple of Shoju Ronin. Ronin treated Hakuin contemptuously, insulting and belittling him constantly, all in an attempt to keep Hakuin from becoming complacent. Hakuin was driven to distraction, even while absorbing valuable lessons. Although their relationship lasted less than a year, Hakuin always considered Shoju Ronin his primary teacher.

 After another several years of travel, at age 31 Hakuin returned to Shoin-ji, where he was appointed abbot. At age 41, Hakuin experienced enlightenment after rereading the Lotus Sutra.

Hakuin's teaching style, like Shoju Ronin's, was rigorous, and he demanded that his monks engage in active Samu, believing that Zen practice could be expressed in daily activities. He systematized Koan study, and wrote many new Koans himself, including "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" the most famous Koan of all. 

Hakuin believed that the way for a student to achieve enlightenment was through extensive work on Koans. The psychological pressure and doubt that arises when one struggles with a Koan is meant to create tension that leads to awakening. Hakuin called this the "great doubt," writing, 

At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.

Hakuin was a man of strong opinions. He described the Soto Zen practice of Shikantaza as "Do-Nothing Zen," and he derided Zen Master Bankei and his followers as "undisciplined." Yet, like Dogen, he encouraged meditative sitting and scholasticism, and like Bankei, he made Zen---the practice of the nobility and the samurai---accessible to the common people. He was beloved by the poor, the unknown, and the struggling, whom he freely helped at need. 

Hakuin named more than eighty Dharma heirs, and all Rinzai teachers today trace their lineages back to him.


Is Zen Trendy? 

I found an unattributed quote on a website criticizing Zen as "trendy," and then, quite oddly, describing it as "less distracting" for Americans than the colorful and dynamic ritualized practices of Tibetan Buddhism. I'm not really sure what the point of the discussion was. My experience has been that once a practitioner graduates beyond Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which has nothing to do with Zen), Zen is a tough practice that requires discipline, patience, and dedication. Yes, it may be "less distracting" than Tibetan Buddhism, but it also has less "entertainment value" for those just passing through. Those who stay with Zen do so because the spare, direct and unalloyed "voice" of Zen speaks to them profoundly. So-called "Trendy Zen" is the province of marketing executives who call every book The Zen of or Zen and the Art of, and name everything from MP3 Players to dog treats Zen Something. They do it because it sounds cool, it's a bit mysterious to the neighbors, and it grabs your attention. What does it have to do with Zen practice? That, my friends, is the Koan of 21st Century American capitalism.    

Interior view of a tea house in summer

A Japanese Tearoom



Buddha Zen Buddhismus Zen-Meister Bankei

Bankei Zenji or Bankei Eitaku, also known as Kokushi  (1622-1693), abbot of the Ryomon-ji and Nyoho-ji monasteries, is considered the third great Zen Master after Dogen and Hakuin. Unlike either Dogen or Hakuin, Bankei himself wrote little except poetry, and his teachings come down to us through transcriptions made by his students. At the time of his death, Bankei begged that these notes be destroyed as unworthy of attention; some were, but others were saved from the fire. Bankei, whose Zen was nominally Rinzai, did not found any formal practice lineage, and did not name a Dharma successor. As a result, he is less well remembered than either Dogen or Hakuin, though he is considered at least as brilliant. 

Bankei's father was a Samurai turned physician. His father, a strict Confucian scholar, died when Bankei was young, and so Bankei developed a morbid fascination with death. His mother, of whom little is known, was later revered by the common folk as 'Maya who begat three Buddhas' (the historic Maya was the mother of the Buddha Shakyamuni). Bankei's mother was so honored because Bankei's eldest brother was a skilled physician likened to Yakushi the Medicine Buddha, and his second eldest brother was a gifted teacher of the Pure Land sect often compared to Amida Buddha. Bankei himself was compared to Shakyamuni Buddha.

As a child, Bankei disliked school. He often played hooky. Adults knew him as a troublemaker and a gang leader. He frequently quarreled with his family, and once attempted suicide by swallowing a large number of spiders. When nothing happened, he decided not to try again.

As a young adolescent Bankei was sent to a teacher of Chinese. While studying a Confucian classic he was forcibly struck by a passage stating that the "Way of Great Learning was to make clear the Bright Virtue." Puzzled and wishing to understand the meaning of the Bright Virtue, he questioned a number of Confucian and Buddhist scholars, but they admitted that they understood the idea as little as he. Bankei was then advised to consult a Zen master, Umpo Zenjo, who instructed him to practice Zazen in order to experience the Bright Virtue.

 As with everything else, Bankei sat Zazen with his typical all-or-nothing hell-for-leather mentality. He sat in the full lotus posture in a cave for hours on end and fasted for a week at a time. Despite the fact that he developed agonizing and septic decubitus ulcers on his legs and rump, Bankei refused to stop sitting. He went without sleep. He recited the Nembutsu (an invocation of the names of the Buddha) incessantly. Nothing happened except that he became very seriously ill. Tuberculosis was diagnosed. He accepted the fact that he was going to die, his one regret being that the problem of the Bright Virtue remained unsolved.

On his deathbed-apparent, Bankei expectorated a large black clot of mucous. As he stared at this evidence of his mortality, he was suddenly enlightened: 

 "Just at that moment . . . I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn . . . It struck me like a thunderbolt that I had never been born, and that my birthlessness could settle any and every matter.”

Shortly thereafter, Bankei began to mend. He returned to Umpo, who sent him on to Zen Master Dosha, who conferred Dharma Transmission upon him. Bankei laughed and tore up the inka scroll, his certificate of teaching. Dosha thereupon immediately offered him the position of abbot. Instead of becoming the abbot of the monastery, Bankei elected to become the tenzo (cook).

Bankei was itinerant. He often left the monastery, and went to live in hermitage. Although he became the abbot of several different institutions, he traveled extensively, teaching as he went.  He preached to large audiences composed of country folk as well as Zen students, Samurai and nobles, some of whom objected to being among the commoners. With them, Bankei was gentle but firm, and insisted that there are no distinctions in Buddhahood. He angered many people by inviting women to participate in Zen practice. 

Bankei's teaching was individualistic, raw, and unpolished, though possessed of great subtlety and insight. He was kindly, and had an impressive sense of humor. He was fond of giving commonsense advice on topics such as getting along with the neighbors and raising teenagers. As a result, he was an immensely popular Master, with a surprising degree of celebrity. After his death, he was declared a "National Teacher" by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Despite his fame, Bankei was never swayed from his simple and straight-ahead style and simple life. 

Once, a priest of the Pure Land sect objected when many of his people decided to meet with Bankei to hear about Zen. He attended the meeting intending to debate Bankei. He told the Zen Master rather rudely, "A man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?" At that point, Bankei asked the priest to come to the front of the crowd, and the man pushed his way to Bankei, who asked him to sit. The priest sat. "You see, " observed Bankei, "you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person."

Bankei's teaching was altogether different from Dogen's scholasticism or the highly structured Koan system later developed by Hakuin. Although Hakuin also ministered to the general population of that same era, he considered Bankei's Zen to be undisciplined and was highly dismissive of it, a position Hakuin's many followers took. Thus, in memory Bankei became somewhat of a maverick and an outcast among the Rinzai school, and is the least well-known of the three great Zenji.   

Bankei, much like Shakyamuni himself, relied entirely on his own conviction, exhorting his followers to experience reality directly. 

The chief idea of Bankei's Zen is that we are all created in the Unborn, but that life encrusts us with experiences, opinions, and beliefs that cloud our perceptions of reality. Bankei challenged his audiences to toss away these encrustations and to live simply in the Unborn where all things are forever renewing. 

Bankei asked his listeners to forego the mortification of the flesh he himself had suffered. "It isn't necessary. Just be in the Unborn." 
Some of Bankei's followers felt that Zazen was needed to focus the attention. "Sit if you want to," the Master shrugged. An intellectual understanding means nothing, he said. It is enough just to sit on the floor and be a living Buddha. 

Bankei's emphasis on the Unborn Mind and as Zazen practice as all actions taken in the course of living every day differs grandly from Dogen's philosophic preoccupations, and Hakuin's regimented approach. It makes up a third approach to enlightenment, possibly the most difficult, as for the Zen student there is nothing to study and nothing to do except to be. While this be-ing is the point all Zen Masters make, Dogen and Hakuin both believed that the mind had to be trained to accept its own enlightenment, and that a teacher had to confirm the process. In Bankei's view, enlightenment is the natural state in which we all live and we ourselves need merely acknowledge it to be enlightened. As a result, Bankei's methods did not survive him, as there was no succession of authority necessary to create a Zen lineage.    

Bankei's dying declaration to his students was to

Awaken to the Unborn in the midst of everyday life.






And some Zen Masters teach only by example . . . 







Metta is a form of meditation meant to generate lovingkindness in concentric circles outward from the individual to the world at large. A metta prayer is repeated several times, beginning with a wish for your own lovingkindness toward yourself (how can you love others unless you love yourself?) and then moving outward toward your householders and relatives and friends, your neighbors, your workmates, your community, your nation and then all the world...


May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature.
May all beings be free.

Konrei's Dharma Links

"Indra's Net" is an Indian concept in which all aspects of creation are linked as jewels in a mutually reinforcing web of existence. While the Internet is only one bright facet of Indra's Net, it contributes mightily to unifying our world. Here are some sites which you may find helpful or enjoyable or, perhaps, enlightening.

Southern Palm Zen Group

Treeleaf Zendo

Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Zen Peacemakers

Everyday Zen Foundation

Zabu Zabu

Dharma Crafts

Still Sitting

San Francisco Zen Center

Windhorse Zen Community

Unfettered Mind

Upaya Zen Center

Zen Center of Los Angeles

Zen Center of New York City

Ocean Zendo

Shambhala Publications

Wisdom Publications

Nature's Emporium

The Contemplative Lawyer



 Ikebana (Japanese Flower Arranging)


The Eight Awarenesses


According to the Parinirvana Sutra, the Eight Awarenesses comprise the last teachings of the Buddha. They are not just a restatement of the Eightfold Path which he had begun to teach fifty years before. Rather, they represent the distillation of those five decades of evolving wisdom. Even this Enlightened One had things to learn.


۩ Be Free From Desire:  This harks back to the Four Noble Truths, "All life is suffering; the cause of suffering is craving."

۩ Be Satisfied:   If  I don't crave or desire anything, then, by definition, I am in this moment, satisfied.

۩ Be Tranquil and Serene:  If I am satisfied in this moment then I am untroubled, tranquil and serene.

۩ Be Diligent:   This comes directly from the Eightfold Path---"Right Effort." In order to maintain the Eight Awarenesses I must make every effort to be Aware. There is no quick fix to maintain Awareness other than to work to maintain Awareness by conscious ongoing effort.

۩ Be Mindful:  The Buddha knew that it is too easy to fall off the wagon into a life of delusion and suffering. That is the chief challenge of living mindfully. Out of Diligence arises Mindfulness.

۩ Samadhi:     I translate this word as "receptivity," which is a personal definition. Samadhi is a state where distinctions between Self and Other dissipate. When I become truly mindful, then I am open to anything and reject nothing. When I am open to anything and reject nothing, that is Samadhi.

۩ Prajna:   When I am in Samadhi, totally open to life, then I can learn whatever it is I need to learn and apply it. The application of my life's lessons to my life is Prajna or Wisdom.

۩ Be Careful To Avoid Idle Talk:  When we blather on carelessly, we open the door to both craving and karma---"You know, I'd like to taste that," and "Mary is so difficult to make sense of. Did you hear what she did . . . ?"---Simple but profound, this dictum is repeated in the Bodhisattva Precepts and as part of the Eightfold Path. Since gossip and mindless chatter can be both distracting and destructive regardless of how much fun they might be for us as social beings, the Buddha clearly saw the misuse of the spoken word as a force capable of undoing freedom from desire, satisfaction, serenity, diligence, mindfulness, receptivity, and wisdom. By avoiding idle talk we avoid creating a cycle of self-defeating behaviors.


Thus, the Eight Awarenesses are not linear rules to follow. They are a cycle of interdependent conditions simultaneously co-arising in our lives, the sum total of which make up our universe.





"Limitless undying love that shines around me like a million suns, it calls me on and on across the universe..."---Lennon/McCartney


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