You’re Free to Stay

When I first started reading about Zen, I was struck by the depictions of Zen masters as spontaneous, unconstrained beings.  The word “spontaneous” came up a lot, actually.  They did and said things that could seem shocking, and they always seemed to have just the right response for any given situation.  Zen masters—as they have been presented to us in myth—are masters of a snappy comeback.  They seem to represent a kind of freedom.

This has been confusing, I think, as Zen has made its way to the West.  Zen masters were met on American shores by members of a counterculture that valued freedom above all other things, and there was ample evidence that these little bald men were offering exactly that.  That counterculture rejected ideas of rank and formality.  It rejected the idea that there were any “shoulds” in spiritual practice.

In fact, those bald men came representing a tradition of precision and conformity.  Their training had been to do everything—from washing their faces in the morning to bowing to using the toilet—in a neatly prescribed way, the way their teachers had done it and their teachers had done it, for centuries.  They were products of one of the most elegantly refined systems of vertical hierarchies the world has ever known.  From any Western perspective, they had trained in a very, very tight box.  If they had anything to teach, it was born of that training.  This surprised people then, and it continues to surprise people now, half a century later.

Traditional Zen training, put very simply, is an exercise in living in such a constricted way that one has no choice but to find freedom within those walls.  From my first moment in a monastery, I was told that the only word I should say—for at least the first few months—was “yes.”  When told to do something, the reply is “yes.”  When offered an explanation (rare—more often, one is simply shown), the response is “yes.”  Asking questions suggests that one wasn’t paying attention the first time.  There is no room for complaint; and since no one will ask about your well being, there is no need or opportunity to lie.  We take off our robes just so, pour water just so, hold our bowls just so, walk just so, sit just so, arrange our personal things just so.  We sleep (barely) and eat (barely) and sit (constantly) on a single 3×6 mat, and to this, we say “yes.”

This is not prison.  This is not a punishment.  I chose to be there.  I could walk away anytime.  During the first days, this was like a mantra in my head:  “I chose this.”  In fact, people leave all the time.  During spring and fall, when new monks enter, it is not unusual to wake and find that a person is simply gone, that all their possessions have been cleaned away.  A phone call later that day will find that monk at home, and we never see him again.  No one pressures anyone to stay.

The first week, called tangaryō, has been written about a lot, but I’ll add my story.  I entered Zuiouji on March 1, and though it had been cold in the days previous, March 1 was a sunny, beautiful day, so I didn’t wear any long underwear or think in terms of keeping warm.  After standing outside the gates and finally being granted provisional entry, I was placed with one other monk in tangaryō, a corner room with thin walls and window frames that didn’t quite fit the windows.  We were told to sit in zazen all day, and so we did.

We knew this was to last a week, but we were constantly threatened with more.  Inspecting monks would burst in at odd hours to see if we were really sitting or not.  We were told that if we couldn’t use our bowls skillfully by the end of the week, we would be a burden on the group, and would have to stay one more week in seclusion for good measure.  We were constantly encouraged to go home, told that we really were not monk material.

The first night, I went to sleep tired but full of resolve.  The second day, it snowed hard, and the snow came into the room through those ill-fitting window frames and gathered on my lap.  Thus began a week of being so cold that I couldn’t stop shaking, ever.  At night, in bed, I shivered so hard that my jaw ached, and I often felt I couldn’t breathe.  And of course, doing zazen literally all day every day, my legs felt as if they’d been hit with hammers.  I would lie in bed, moving between two thoughts:  first, that I had chosen this, and second, that I did not know why.  I tried every kind of pep talk, every kind of mental game imaginable to somehow escape that physical reality, or to feel better, or to feel stronger.  I felt I had been reduced to nothing, in a matter of days.

But around the fifth day, I gave up.  I gave up trying to make it better.  And I gave up hope that it would get better with time.  I had settled into a very cool place, as if sitting still in the most remote chamber of a deep, deep cave.  I did not feel warm—I was still freezing.  My legs still ached so badly that it was difficult to walk to the bathroom and back.  I had chillblains on my ears—they looked, and felt, as if they were made of bloody crepe paper.  I had let go of my fantasies about how wonderful this would all be, how spiritual.  I no longer imagined that I would be transformed here into a certain kind of person, or that I would learn things that no one else knows.  I could see in the monks who visited us that while some were quite kind in their strictness, all were human, and some were simply children, enjoying power over someone of lesser rank.  Even in seclusion, I could see clearly that this monastery would not transform us all into walking embodiments of compassion.  Until that day, I could not have known how much baggage I had carried with me into that monastery.

So I gave up.  But I did not quit.  I did not do what a rational person might do, which is to pack up my things, politely thank everyone for the food and shelter, and go home.  I cannot say why I didn’t leave—I’m certain that at times in my life, I would have.  But I stayed.  It may seem too simple, but now, years later, much of my understanding of Zen practice comes down to just this:  to give up, then to continue anyway.

If we delve into classical Buddhist texts and teachings, we come across the word “liberation” countless times:  liberation from suffering, liberation from desire, enlightenment as liberation, the liberation of all beings, and on and on.  And Zen—again, especially in what we’ve received in the West—seems to add to that this word freedom, this idea of being somehow unbound.  Both of these words, liberation and freedom, absolutely belong in any conversation about spiritual practice.  But, as with all the keywords of the tradition, they also require extreme caution.

Perhaps the greatest mistake we can make in this practice—or in any endeavor, any relationship, anything we undertake—is to have a clear idea of what success looks like.  I, like many, have watched my definition of success change over the years, but it has always been there.  At first, in high school and in college, I understood Zen to be something mental—reading about koans led me to believe that Zen was about breakthrough experiences and realizations that caused a permanent shift in the mind.  My assumption was that there was something I was not seeing, some great universal truth that was the domain only of the initiated, of the enlightened.  I wanted to see that.  I pictured that it would come to me in a flash, and that my thoughts and actions from that day forward would be based on a greater truth than what ordinary people could understand.

Later, after I had started sitting and had met others engaged in the practice, I held on to this idea of a mental realization, but my focus shifted from that experience to being a particular kind of person.  I had tasted a bit of the discipline of Zen practice, so I imagined that if I continued, I would become a model of discipline, a kind of spiritual warrior, unstoppable in my pursuit of truth, and recognizable—to myself and others—as, again, one of the initiated.  When I was very young, I watched Star Wars and wanted to be a Jedi; Zen, I think, offered me a real-world path to achieving that status.

Over the years, I broadened and narrowed my gaze.  In many instances, my vision of a true practitioner was based on compassion and compassionate action; at other times, it was all about insight; at other times, it was about single-minded focus, a kind of clarity of gaze.  Every time I sat down and faced the wall in zazen, I wanted something.  When zazen felt good, I imagined myself to be in the process of becoming the person I imagined; when it felt awkward or difficult, I despaired at my failure, or questioned the practice all together.

For the record, I don’t think we can avoid this goal-seeking mind.  Especially in the beginning.  “Practice for the sake of practice” means nothing if you’re not actually practicing, and to actually practice, there must be some draw.  There must be some reason, some hope—perhaps we can’t even define it to ourselves, but there is something we look for when we sit down on that cushion for the first time, or we would not sit there at all.  So this is a problem we cannot avoid.

But it is a problem.  Over the course of years of practice, do people develop some insight?  Do they investigate the nature of compassion?  Do they become more intentional in their own behavior?  I do not doubt that many of them do.  That practice sometimes bears fruit should not be surprising, and we can celebrate when it happens.  The problem is that by defining freedom, or insight, or compassion, we limit them.  We rob them of their true boundless nature, and in the process, we eliminate any possibility of seeing that nature for ourselves.  To say “I desire freedom” is, whether we mean to or not, to have a definition in mind of what freedom really is.  But that definition is wrong.  Because to imagine that you want freedom is to say that you are not now free; a person with boundaries cannot conceive of what it means to have none.  We have an idea in our minds, but it is not of true freedom—it is of a state with slightly broader boundaries.  That’s all.  That’s a very small wish.

Compassion, truth, enlightenment—these, too, are emphatically without boundary.  By definition, any definition we offer up is limited, and therefore false.  It falls short.  We fall short.

Our only hope of seeing into the true nature of things is to let the practice play itself out, and to do that, to let go of our idea of it, is to abandon all hope of fruition.  Sesshin (zazen intensives of multiple days) can offer this, sometimes.  Sitting all day is painful, and no one pats you on the back for it, and you could be doing any one of a thousand fun things instead.  So it’s not uncommon to spend the first few days just complaining to yourself about your legs, and about the teacher, and about Zen in general, and to think, over and over, “What am I doing here?  I should just leave.  Maybe I’ll just leave.  Maybe I’ll say I’m sick.  Maybe I’ll just storm out, or maybe I’ll sneak out at the next break.  Maybe I can get more kitchen duty, so I’m not just sitting here all day….”  Obsessing like this is not zazen, but we cannot really separate it from zazen, either.  Because one day, we wake up and realize that our legs are not going to feel better, that all the compelling reasons for leaving are not going to go away, that maybe this is not going to give us what we were looking for, and we stay anyway.  Zazen begins on that day.  Practice begins on that day.  Our lives begin on that day.  From that moment forward, anything is possible, because we have let go of what we needed it to be.

18 comments on “You’re Free to Stay

  1. doshoport says:

    Wonderful! I did tangaryo in that room too! In early September. Hot hot hot. Thanks for jumping into the blogosphere. Your voice will be an important one!


  2. Shotai De La Rosa says:

    A great description of the trips of the mind during tangaryo. I did it twice, one at Shobozan Fudenji in Italy (a week) and in Tassajara (five days). No tangaryo at the Nisodo. They do not do it, but all year was a tangaryo for me.
    Thank you for your nyoho voice.
    Shotai, nueve bows

    • Koun says:


      Thank you. Interesting that the nisodo doesn’t do tangaryo. I’ve heard from people who have done tangaryo multiple times that they intense, dark-night-of-the-soul version only happens once, that the second or third time around, you’ve already resolved those issues at a basic level. I’d be curious to hear if this was your experience as well.


      • Shotai De La Rosa says:


        You are right. I experienced the “intense dark-night-of-the-soul” at Fudenji, until I realized that the question I got asked daily, “What are you doing here?”, could not be answered in the way I thought. So, I gave it up and, then, relax. The tangaryo in Tassajara was different. I was not alone, by myself; there was around 15 more practitioners with me. I just sat for five days, almost never even got up to go the restroom. It was a peaceful sitting, you can call it the basic level of sitting.

        Shotai, with bows

  3. Thank you for your efforts Koun. I’m sure I’ll return to Shogoji some time in the future. Gassho, Hans Chudo Mongen

  4. Harry says:

    Hi Koun, Thanks for this insightful post.

    I agree that there can be seen to be quite a contrast between what the Japanese bald men brought over the seas and US/Western ‘freedom’ culture. However, is it really fair to compare the two? Didn’t the Japanese chaps really bring a form of aspirational lay Buddhism west, not a strict traditional monastic model?

    I wonder how you percieve the role of lay Buddhism in this, and it’s historical contributions.

    I suggest that Buddhism is now better placed in the west due to this compared to Japan where lay practice seems to be in a rather precarious place.



    • Koun says:


      Thank you–your short comment is a veritable mine of huge ideas. I probably can’t do them justice, but some thoughts come to mind:

      First, you bring up an important point about the Japanese teachers who first came over. My impression is that, generally speaking, they were quite counter-cultural in their own right. I’ve read that many (if not all) of them were fed up with the decay of Buddhism in Japan and the bureaucratization of religious institutions; they wanted to leave that scene and establish something more pure. That sets them apart from many of their colleagues. But I believe that whatever they brought over as teachers was inseparable from their intense experience as monastics. Some people from that time will sometimes describe those teachers (especially Suzuki-roshi) as having an almost magical presence, but in those descriptions, I see so much that is common to people who have trained for a long time in a particular system. They were products–wonderful products–of a particular system. What I also find striking is that, at least in the case of Suzuki-roshi, then Katagiri-roshi, a big part of the dream, after establishing this zazen-centric practice, was to then establish traditional monastic practice. They seemed to see that as a critical piece of the puzzle.

      The successful cultivation of lay zazen practice in the West is one of the most exciting developments in Buddhist history (the really big one, related, is the embrace in Western Buddhism of women). There is lay practice in Japan too, of course, but it’s of a different shape, and it hasn’t been given all that much value. Part of that is an idea (still strong) that if you’re really serious about zazen and the practices that surround it, you should just go ahead and be ordained and investigate it in a monastic setting. I’ve bumped into that a lot, and it still surprises me sometimes.

      Town by town, center by center, the focus of practice is lay practice and lay practitioners, and that’s not at all a bad thing. It’s something to celebrate. The US, at least, is dense with little secret zazen groups in tiny towns–there’s tremendous strength in that shape of the practice. But on a larger scale, I think we need to find ways to cultivate priests–people who are willing to take on that public role, who are willing to be responsible for the aspects of Zen that are not as easily understood or easily embraced as zazen. Without a strong investment in those people, I think much will be lost in the next few generations. There’s more to this than what can be offered at the average Zen center–to see it in its totality (as it’s been passed down), we need places where people are engaged directly in the practice 24 hours a day.

      I realize there’s a lot of resistance to that kind of thinking–I used to believe exactly the opposite of what I’m saying now. 🙂


      • doshoport says:

        Koun and Harry,

        I appreciate the lay/priest issue coming up here.

        Katagiri Roshi was shocked and intrigued by the counter culture, although a Japanese Hippie in some regards! … and exactly as Koun says, thought that monastic training for some really important. I agree for the reasons Koun gives.

        One additional thought, the lay practice movement in Zen arose in a 20th Century historical context – across several traditions serious lay practice was emergent while the number of people doing monastic practice dropped dramatically. At least several million people world wide were in monasteries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas in 1900 but a fraction of that in 2000.

        Maybe without knowing it, Katagiri Roshi and Suzuki Roshi were part of the big “descoping” of the monastic traditions, finding portable practices for the lay movement – in their case, especially the form of zazen. In a similar way, Yasutani Roshi and Harada Daiun Roshi took the traditional Rinzai koan system and simplified it so that it could done by lay people.

        Not sure where that historic trend is going – after 50 years of zazen practice and many many more lay practitioners in the US, there are not many more monastics than there were in 1980.

        Rolling in speculation with coffee in hand,


      • Harry says:

        I realize there’s a lot of resistance to that kind of thinking–I used to believe exactly the opposite of what I’m saying now.

        Hi Koun,

        I doubt that any reasonably serious practitioner (or even a lazy layman like me!) would harbour too much resistance to the need for serious monastic practice/training places; especially if we can acknowledge that it is not for everyone, and that there are other contexts in which people can engage in meaningful Buddhist practice and observances.

        IMO, the backlash against religious institutions and their creaking hierarchies is long overdue in the west, given our unfortunate history (I live in ireland… enough said!) The abuse of power of one person over another, and casual cruelty arising from it (as you describe), is now a much more serious issue in western societies with the recent institutional and cult abuse scandals/ crises (in fact, not so long ago it just didn’t even exist as an issue given the dire power imbalances that existed eminating from those white men at the top of the pile).

        From what I’ve read of accounts of people who have underwent monastic Zen training cruelty from superiors seems to be considered somewhat part of the parcel. That’s something that I hope does not translate into a western monastic model: It’s taken us years and many destroyed lives and broken hearts in order for us to start getting our own religious affairs in order in this regards in the west (and there is still much to strive for).

        I would suggest that facilitating such cruelty by accepting it on our person is unethical, is a violation of the Bodhisattva Precepts, and has no place in institutions or any area of civilised society.

        Discuss! 🙂



      • Koun says:


        Again, big questions. You mention that I describe casual cruelty in this post, but that’s not what it was. It was far from casual, and hardly cruel–if anything, it was cold, by design. But I could have left anytime. That said, it should be acknowledged that I, as a Westerner and a person who came to the priesthood from a lay life, knew better than many of my peers that I could always just walk away. Other young monks who were raised in temples and set to inherit them from their fathers probably felt that they had very little choice in the matter, and it’s very likely that for them, the process itself was a kind of cruelty, again by design. That is an unfortunate side of things on this side of the ocean.

        I agree with your concerns about the dangers in these kinds of institutions, and also with your reasons. For those reasons and others, there is a strong distrust in the Western Zen world of institutions and of vertical hierarchies in general. I understand that, and I know that many groups have lived through a lot. But I had a great experience in the monastery, even when it was terrible. I would not trade it for anything. I love it. My understanding of this practice is inseparable from that world. So I will continue to hope that we will set our sights high–not on transcending institutions altogether, but on cultivating people who can help those institutions to find their highest expression. In spite of the dangers, I hope we don’t give up on that possibility.

        I’ll add, by the way, that there are plenty of “reasonably serious practitioners”–teachers, in the Soto world–who feel that monastic practice has no place in Zen. I’ve been privy to some of those conversations. For many people, anything that structured is just simply absurd.


  5. Harry says:

    …p.s. I know for a fact that institutuional abuse of power, and attendant cruelty, IS happening in at least one prominent European monastic-geared centre. So it’s already a current issue. I suspect we’ll hear about it soon enough… maybe in 20-50 years or so after the horse has bolted.



  6. Harry says:

    I’ll add, by the way, that there are plenty of “reasonably serious practitioners”–teachers, in the Soto world–who feel that monastic practice has no place in Zen. I’ve been privy to some of those conversations. For many people, anything that structured is just simply absurd.

    Hi Koun,

    That surprises me. I don’t see any good reason for such an extreme line of reasoning even if some approaches to monastic practice sometimes seem a bit overboard to me personally.

    In saying that I think any organisation, especially religious ones where people may be vulnerable due to their deep expectations, and the convoluted desires of others, should have inbuilt organisational checks to avoid the excesses of hierarchy and the general human messiness around power relationships. It’s really not that difficult to do and I think that history more than justifies it.



  7. keith says:

    I quoted pieces from your piece about tangaryo for my ‘talk’ this Sunday. I based my talk on Red Pine’s translation of Bodhidharma’s “The Bloodstream Sermon” wherein he presents the idea of that the mind is nature, our nature is the mind, the mind is the Buddha…so why go looking elsewhere for the Buddha?

    You may not have the “merits?” of nine years of wall-sitting, but your descriptions of tangaryo seemed to a taste of what nine years may have included. It may have contributed to your impulses to frame this character in novel-form?

    (Genmyo is in Japan completing her ordination for the couple of months, so we’re making do in our sangha with members volunteering to do talks.)

    The Anchorage group continues on….

    • Koun says:


      I wish I could have heard your talk. I am still fascinated by Bodhidharma, but that fascination keeps changing. I recently had occasion to look back at that attempted novel from years and years ago, and I could hardly recognize myself in it. I told my advisor at the time, “I have an idea, but I’m not ready to write it.” He said that was crazy and encouraged me to try anyway (and I’m glad), but that doesn’t negate the truth of what I told him. That novel, if I ever go back to it, can be like my death poem, a record of how confused and deluded I was at various stages of my life.

      My thoughts are with the AZC.


  8. Raj says:

    Shri.Koun’s conversations here, surely narrows and broadens the gaze. Thanks.

  9. Al Coleman says:


    Were you forced to sit full lotus the entire tangaryo? Had you been sitting in that manner up until that point?



  10. Marcus Barlow says:


    Hi, I enjoy reading your blog posts and I came across this one on Tuesday. So I know it’s a bit late but I wanted to respond. I am a zen priest in training and I should soon go to Japan to do an ango. I wonder how old you were when you did the tangaryo practice that you spoke of above? I am fifty seven years old and have had major knee surgery. I just can’t imagine how someone in my age and physical condition can attempt such an effort as this. You said you had trouble walking to the bathroom when you would get off of your cushion. Often I have trouble walking when I get out of the car. The demographics of priest trainees in America is completely different from those in Japan. Should or can we try to place ourselves into this model?

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