The Zen Toolbox

Abraham Maslow famously said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” I use some variation of this a lot in conversation, almost always in a negative way — it’s easy shorthand for saying that others are narrow or deficient or unoriginal in their approach. In one stroke, it can explain why, for example, a manager seems incompetent, or why institutions seem so resistant to change. If only they had more tools.

I’ve been noticing in the last few months how easily this relates to Zen teachings — and teachers — as well. Some in the monastic system believe strongly that monastic practice is the only path to the heart of the teachings. Others place all their chips on the precepts, so that everything they like is seen as an expression of the precepts, and everything they don’t like is a violation. It all comes down to just that. Some who embrace koan study say directly and indirectly that koans are everything, or at least, if you’re doing zazen but not engaging koans, you’re missing half of your body.

And then there is the zazen-only school, which finds support in the teachings of Kosho Uchiyama-roshi and is (I sense) increasingly popular in the West. It feels strange to say this as a Soto Zen monk, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with this all-or-nothing focus on zazen. Maybe it’s the implicit suggestion that it’s a return to what the ancient teachers (Dogen, or Bodhidharma, or maybe even the Buddha himself) really advocated. But more than that, I think it’s my feeling (biased, I confess) that it’s not really challenging. The discipline of zazen is challenging, of course. Zazen itself is hard work; coming back to it is hard work. But too often, the rhetoric around zazen-only practice feels like wish fulfillment: this is why I got into Zen, and this is something I like, so this must be the only thing that has any value or carries any authenticity. Even if every cell in your body resists doing zazen, philosophically, at least for many, I think it’s easy to get on board with it. Other aspects of the tradition do challenge us, directly, on a philosophical level: a hierarchical student/teacher dynamic, bowing, ceremonies as expressions of “offering,” robes…. It’s easy to look at those practices that make us itch a little and label them as “extra.”

If I’m honest with myself about this, I can see that I’m no different: on some deep level, I’m pretty convinced that good posture, a “yes” attitude, and some serious culture shock are the keys to just about everything. It’s a pretty simple vision.

In the Soto tradition, the people formally known as “Zen masters,” or shike (師家), are not necessarily the ones with the deepest realization or the most expansive wisdom — they are the people with the greatest overall knowledge of the tradition itself, particularly of monastic life. They are experts in the monastic system; they are the guides of monks in training. In many cases, these people are selected and specially trained to be vessels of that knowledge. Some, by virtue of having acquired that knowledge through other means, are simply recognized as having that rank. Without a shike around, you cannot have a formally recognized training monastery. At least one person there needs to be that resource.

In a sense, then, the shike is a generalist. We need those people. But we also can’t all be them. Some of us, through temperament or training or our teachers, have nothing but a hammer. What to do with it?

One of my teachers is always encouraging young Zen priests to find their “second specialty.” (The assumption is that every priest’s first specialty is zazen. In the West, it’s not a stretch to suggest that most priests are, to varying degrees, experts in zazen. But in Japan, it’s different, so this suggestion of a “first specialty” is sometimes a kind of attack.) He is an expert — at this moment, perhaps the expert — on how to fold transmission documents. There’s a whole tradition around this one tiny thing, and he knows all about it. Every year, when they hold a precepts ceremony for hundreds of people at a time at Eiheiji, he’s there in a back room, teaching young monks how to properly fold lineage papers. If you’re like me, your first response might be, Who cares? But that’s the point. Nobody cares. And so he stepped up and became that guy.

In Japan, there is so much to this tradition, and there are so many priests, that this idea of a second specialty is just practical. As I’ve written about before, even talking about Buddhism is considered a kind of specialist track. Not nearly all priests do it; if there’s a need for it, they can call up the guy across town who has cultivated that skill. There are priests who are experts in transmission ceremonies, so that other priests don’t have to be. Some focus on baika (a kind of sutra-singing), shōmyō (an even more specialized chant-singing), copying sutras, writing dedications of merit, reading dedications of merit, composing certain kinds of half-mathematical Chinese poems, and about a hundred other things. Most don’t, of course — the vast majority of Zen priests are specialists only in conducting funerals and memorial services, and even then, not really experts. They know a basic form, and no one around knows if that’s right or wrong, and that’s enough to get by. But if they want to take up a focus, they can do so, and no matter how obscure or trivial it may seem, it will be appreciated by the larger community. In the same way that ordained practitioners are responsible for more of the minutiae of the tradition than are lay practitioners, among the ordained, some priests agree to know a lot about one thing so that the others don’t have to.

In the West, I think it’s more complicated. In larger communities such as San Francisco Zen Center, we find the model of the kesa expert, or the cooking expert, but in most centers, there is just one priest, so specializing can seem impractical. Often, be it a result of training, or one’s teacher, or one’s temperament, part of the response is to keep things very simple. Even for those with a wide knowledge — and appreciation of — the tradition, there are limits, in a small Zen center, to how much of that can be shared.

All of this is on my mind as we plan our family’s return to North America (to Halifax, Nova Scotia). I know what I would like to do. I would like to build a monastery, a place that is alive with practice by the local lay community, but with an engine fired by full-time monks and nuns. It’s not that I’m necessarily qualified to do this, by the way. I am not a shike. It’s just that so much of my training, and so much of what I would like to share with others, finds such a clear expression in that monastic setting. And it’s not that I want everyone to be ordained, or that I think the monastery is the only vehicle for the practice; it’s that I want to be able to point and say, “That! That’s what I’m talking about.” That, and I deeply, deeply love that life and that schedule.

But building a monastery is not realistic, not today. Even if I can find the path to that goal, I won’t arrive there tomorrow, or even in the next 10 years. So, how best to use the tools I have now, in the workshop I’m actually in?

I don’t know.

And I’m torn. So central to this practice is the teaching that in doing just one thing, we can express every thing. The whole thing. No one aspect of the practice is lacking — each is a full, wide-open gate. Zazen is full and complete, and through it, we can know the point of practice. If we do it fully. Bowing is the same. Sewing a robe is the same. Chanting is the same. Cooking is the same. Just by listening fully, I am saying what needs to be said, doing what needs to be done. I believe that. And so I am interested in this idea of a second specialty. I would like to see teachers take responsibility for just that one thing, whatever it is, and explore it so deeply that their investment in it makes them a doorway to something more.

But the other side is that there is something more, and it’s not measured only in depth — it’s also measured in variety and scope. Zazen is a full expression of the practice, but at the same time, there is much more to this practice than zazen. And when that doorway of the teacher opens, that’s what we should see: “Oh, this too. And this. And this.”

There’s a common belief in the West — and, to a lesser degree, in Japan as well — that the most authentic transmission of Zen is the one that is the most pared down, the one that keeps just the bare essentials. I understand that impulse. But I think it’s not enough to keep alive the parts that we like the most, or that we think have the most staying power.  We also need to take a look at the parts that will die without our intervention. A hundred years from now, what will we have saved?

What is the hammer? And how, with these hands, do we wield it?

11 comments on “The Zen Toolbox

  1. koun, thank you for this honest, clear, and well-written reflection. I like your suggestion of a second specialty. You write, “there is much more to this practice than zazen. And when that doorway of the teacher opens, that’s what we should see: ‘Oh, this too. And this. And this.'” I founded a sanctuary for Buddhist-Christian practice and dialogue in 1993 in the Boston area, and I teach meditation in both traditions. My personal practice is Sui-Zen, the blowing Zen of the shakuhachi. As a householder, therapist, husband, father and grandfather, I am so grateful to the monastic traditions. So many good hearted and wise people have dedicated their lives to the truth and to the path of compassion by making this the total focus of their lives. But I have also found that sometimes, a teacher can inadvertently become a kind of professional who is set apart from the multi-form music of ordinary life, politics and intimacy. Creating a second specialty can open the door to a wider dance of creativity. I am the board chair of a land trust in western MA. Perhaps this is my second specialty, learning how to be with just this, just this, just this, in the midst of intense legal, political and financial pressures and voices, entering into this challenge because it is reality. The current human destruction of the life-systems on our planet is reality and we all need to get up off our cushions to help out. Just this, and a little of that. . . .

    • koun says:


      Thank you. Your group in Boston sounds really, really interesting. And I’m always happy to meet people who play shakuhachi. I took it up for a few years, then put it aside — I haven’t found my way back to it. But I love it.

      The issue of teachers becoming “set apart” is an interesting one. On a gut level, I don’t accept the common suggestion that monastic life is not “real life,” or that monastics cannot understand ordinary human experience. I think the whole point of Buddha’s earliest teachings was to demonstrate that human experience really is universal, regardless of the specifics. But it’s true that teachers can be shielded from certain kinds of mundane problems, probably to no one’s benefit.

      My best to you, in all your work.


  2. Kyōshin says:

    the zazen-only school, which finds support in the teachings of Kosho Uchiyama-roshi

    I’ve seen the “all-or-nothing focus on zazen” out there too. But Uchiyama himself, judging from the records of his teachings I’ve read, seems to have been interested in single practice (in his case ‘zazen-only’) in the sense of not treating practice as another game alongside others – hence his ‘no toys’ approach. He said, “we are apt to take [various things] as the purpose of practice, and we should not practice in that way. From the outset we should not engage in such extra activities, because purifying our system of value is important.” So the issue is this purified system of value first and foremost, not the form of the practice. He cannot have been utterly dogmatic about zazen-only as he spoke positively of Shin Buddhist nembutsu practice and actually practiced chanting the name of Kannon when he was unable to sit. (see: The Wholehearted Way, Tuttle 1997)

    • koun says:


      I agree with you — I don’t think that Uchiyama-roshi’s take on practice is terribly simple or limited. Truthfully, I think his expression of practice is beautiful — Opening the Hand of Thought had a huge influence on my thought when I was younger. But I know many people who point to his “Zen without toys” as support for a version of practice in which everything that isn’t zazen is a silly distraction (at best). I think that can become the foundation of a kind of aversion, which, to me, feels less powerful than “What about this?”


  3. You write well (and often! how do you find the time?), Koun. Thank you for your honest reflections. I hope you’ll continue sharing how the adventure unfolds in Halifax. I wonder if something around Dogen’s teaching around letting things come forward and realize themselves might be helpful in thinking about what you might do as a priest in this new context? Show up, get to know the community and see where the interest is. Maybe building a monastery is possible, maybe it isn’t. No way to know really is there? But of course you know all this. We’ll all appreciate being along for the ride. May all beings benefit from our stumbling well-intentioned efforts!

    • koun says:


      Thank you. If you look at the timeline of the blog, though, you’ll see I’m barely keeping it up — I found some time this week, but I frequently let it completely slide for weeks or months at a time. I’d really like to take it all more seriously.

      And thank you for your encouragement regarding future endeavors. I think some things will clarify/reveal themselves, and I look forward to seeing what those things are. But as I age, I find I’m a little less attached to the big thing than I used to be — I’m pretty happy, right now, to make concrete plans for what I might be able to do on a smaller scale, and to just enjoy that for a while. After the last few years, if I can just find a way to sit with people every day, I’ll consider my life a great success. And if I can’t, well, then I’ll keep trying.

      Nine bows,

  4. Hi Koun-san: When you’re ready to build your training temple, please let me know. I’d like to help.

    — Hoko

    • koun says:


      Thank you. If that moment comes, you are most definitely someone whose help I would want. And probably need.

      Nine bows,

  5. Greg Hooper says:

    My impression is that one of the reasons for a zazen-only approach is simply to cut through the endless discussions that spring from aspects of practice. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those discussions, but their value as practice is often questionable.

    • koun says:


      I think that may be true. My own experience is that people find ways to talk no matter what, so a zazen-only practice often leads to endless discussions about zazen. As you say, there can be value there, but that kind of dialogue can be a distraction from the actual practice. What I found in a monastic setting was that there, where every aspect of practice was so strictly and clearly spelled out, the main distraction from any given part of the practice was just another part of the practice. Which doesn’t seem too bad. The difficulty in the West, I think, is establishing that kind of immersive atmosphere.

      Thank you.


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