No Big Deal

I love my wife. And I tell her “I love you”—a lot. When we wake up, when one of us leaves, when we text, when we meet up again, when we go to bed. When she’s tired and uses Japanese grammar for English and sounds hilarious. When our kids are adorable. I just say it. If you were to read a transcript of our daily conversations, you’d probably determine that “I love you,” for me, no longer has any meaning or serves any purpose.

Here’s the beautiful thing: you’d be right. In the beginning, of course, it meant a lot. And it did a lot. I no longer remember the details of the first time I told her (or anyone) “I love you,” but I know I planned for it. I was nervous. Guaranteed, I thought it would change things—my own sense of commitment, the atmosphere between us, how she saw me. It meant things were going to the next level.

And for a long time after, those little stories continued. I really did love her, but “I love you” was transactional. I’d say it in hopes of making her feel good, or of making me feel like a good person. Or I’d say it as a way of smoothing something over, as a reminder that everything’s OK. Or because I thought, well, this is something we do now. If I didn’t say it one day, I’d think that I’d failed. I’d dropped the ball.

But now? I don’t expect anything from “I love you”—no magic, no reward, no orchestra. It doesn’t make my wife weak in the knees; it’s more like a sound I make, or like breathing. She says it too, of course. We pass the phrase back and forth, and the actual words don’t seem to matter much.

When I say I love you, I don’t think I mean “I love you” anymore, not really. I don’t consider “I” or “you.” I’ve been saying this constantly for about fifteen years—now, it’s shorthand for something too big and too complicated to say in words. It includes my entire sense of commitment; it’s my past, and it’s my direction. It’s code. I like to think I also express it in lots of other, nonverbal, ways as well. But “I love you” is the most direct. It’s honest. I just don’t know exactly what it means anymore.

I don’t know what zazen means, either, but I used to think I did. I knew what I wanted from it and what it meant about me. And I thought it was something I did—there was a subject and an object. But after twenty-five years of it, more than anything, it just feels honest. There’s something we recognize in that posture—we know it when we see it, and we know it when we do it. There’s peace and power and poise of a kind we intuitively grasp, and that all adds up to—something. Something I want to express. And the best way I know is to simply do it.

At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of doing something—anything, but especially zazen—for its own sake. Not for gain, not as preparation for something else, but as a complete activity.

I mention this idea when I first give instructions in zazen, but just to plant a seed. I don’t expect anyone to sit in that way on the first day or the first year, or really even in the first decade. We want something from this practice. That’s natural. We want enlightenment or clarity or calm, or maybe we just want to be the kind of person who does Buddhist things. We want to do it right. We want a gold star. Or total liberation, but at least a gold star.

But just because it’s hard to bring a non-seeking mind to zazen doesn’t mean we don’t know what that is. We do, if we look. We know about doing something for its own sake.

This is my simple understanding of practice—to do something over and over, until finally it just means what it is. I love you. It’s not a big deal, but it’s something I need to say.

I moved to Halifax from Japan more than two years ago, and since then, much of my energy has gone into Zen Nova Scotia. Things I might otherwise have written down turned into talks—nearly a hundred of them can be found here. I’m humbled by the continued life of this blog; I want to spend more time here. And I’m grateful for the correspondences and connections that it’s provided me along the way. Thank you. -koun


Clear Voice

shomyo2It’s said that when the Buddha preached the Dharma, he did it in a voice that was somewhere between speech and song; the Japanese expression of this teaching is called shōmyō (聲明 or 声明, “clear voice”) . This half-singing eased the burden on the listener; it made the Buddha’s words easier to absorb.

We have no way of knowing how this sounded, or even if there is an ounce of truth to it. But in an oral tradition, it would not be surprising to learn that formal styles of presentation (beyond repetitive phrasing, a basic element of any oral tradition) were developed along the way, or that they existed in the culture during Buddha’s time.  This question—How to express Dharma?—and its underlying assumption that expressing the Dharma is hard are at the foundation of much of the evolution of Buddhism over the centuries.

Those of us who trace our lineages to Japanese schools inherit this question of voice in two ways. The first is in how we chant sutras. I’m so used to it now that I think of it as normal, but in fact, this deep, powerful, level chanting is highly stylized. It is not intuitive that we would chant in this way. The simple consistency of it facilitates group chanting, but why this thunderous quality? When people chant, what is the feeling?

Tradition tells us that our chanting voices should express five qualities:

  1. Honesty—an unaffected voice, with no attempt at deception. This is listed first for a good reason: to short-circuit our idea of what is or is not a good voice. One’s voice need not be classically beautiful. But it must be sincere. There is something stirringly powerful in the unapologetic voice of someone who is chanting from a place of deep commitment — it goes far beyond having a good voice or a bad one.
  2. Harmony—a gentle, warm, elegant voice.
  3. Clarity—a voice that is clear, transparent.
  4. Fullness—a deep and resonant voice.
  5. Reach—a voice that delivers to every corner of the room.

What interests me about this kind of teaching is how it relates to nyohō, to the question of how we express Dharma. This is not about having a beautiful voice, nor is this kind of half-singing about self-expression. Not at all. It’s about putting what one is expressing before oneself, expressing just that thing. We cannot all have harmonious, clear, full voices, but we can be honest. And in this teaching, honesty means sincerely trying to manifest those other qualities, even when they are out of our reach.

I know that I can never say what I really want to say. In this blog, in a talk, or face to face, what I want most to share with others is precisely the thing to which I cannot really give voice. I don’t mean that as an excuse for when I fail, though I have probably comforted myself a time or two with the magnitude and impossibility of it all.

Perhaps receiving a teaching is a bit like hearing someone humming a tune that feels familiar. It catches—it reminds us of something we already knew, or it just gets into our heads, and when we’re alone, we find ourselves elaborating on it, giving it dimension. Maybe that’s the most we can ask for.

I don’t believe that there is any one correct way to talk about Dharma—we each have our own voice, and that voice will carry to some ears and be just noise to others. But I also believe that some modes of expression have a universal quality. This is true not just of teachers but of all of us. What we show and what we share when we are not speaking is probably the closest thing we have to shōmyō. In the space between words, in that pause, how do we carry this moment? What do we offer with this posture, these eyes, these hands? This breath?

What are we saying right now?

An example of shōmyō in the Shingon tradition. If you have access to a similar video from a Soto Zen temple, please let me know.

For those interested, I’ve established a practice schedule here in Halifax. You can keep connected (and listen to recent talks) by visiting or by joining the Zen Nova Scotia page on Facebook. I’m feeling very fortunate to be practicing with such kind people in such a beautiful part of the world.

What Are the Depths to Which You’ll Go?

IMG_3624Buddhism began for me in high school as a thought experiment. It was a bunch of beautiful assertions about the nature of things—more often than not, the absolute nature of things—that seemed awfully hard to test. The idea that you and I might be fundamentally the same, that the apparent differences between us said more about my deluded view than they did about reality, drew me in completely. I wanted to believe it. But mostly, for me, it was poetic talk.

So early on, from before I ever sat on a cushion or met a Buddhist teacher, my version of practice was to look at the person across from me and ask myself, “Are we the same?” The answer was always “no.” I did not like the same music as the other person; I did not look like the other person; I did not express myself in the same way. We had different memories, different worldviews, different trajectories. In the midst of all that difference, I could usually dig out some little thing in common, but doing so felt like little more than an exercise.

Over time, though, the question morphed into something more workable. It wasn’t “Are we the same?” It was “Am I capable of the same things that person is capable of? Do I have the same components in me that make it possible to feel that way, to speak that way, to behave that way? Are that person’s motivations available to me?” And here the experiment changed; here, the answer started to come up “yes.” Every time. Twenty years later, I still ask it, as a reflex.

When I first started this experiment, I imagined that recognizing the self in other, and the other in self, would be freeing. Joyful, even. I could picture the serene look I’d have on my face as I looked at a stranger and saw, with clear eyes, that we are fundamentally not two. It sounds loving, and it can be. But this line of inquiry can be painful, too.

In the wake of the discovery that Aaron Alexis (the man who shot and killed twelve civilians and injured fourteen more at the Washington Navy Yard) identified as Buddhist, there’s been some interesting Internet chatter. That he was Buddhist is a titillating little fact, a surprise in a story that is feeling, with every successive mass shooting, more and more predictable. “I thought Buddhism taught nonviolence,” goes one conversation, and it hardly seems worthy of a response. Buddhism does not teach aggression; the fact that a Buddhist committed an act of violence is a statement on his own unskillful response to suffering, not on the Buddha’s teachings. The actions of a Buddhist do not define Buddhism.

But nor do the teachings of Buddhism define a Buddhist. There is another conversation in all of this, one that I find more troubling: “He wasn’t a real Buddhist, because a Buddhist could never do something like this.” The math behind this is very simple: If a Buddhist could never do this, and if I am a Buddhist, then I am incapable of doing what Aaron Alexis did. And if he and I do not share the same capacity for doing good or bad, then he and I are fundamentally separate.

It doesn’t work that way. We may want it to, but it doesn’t. The fact is, there’s nothing that a human being (any human being) cannot do. The difference, if there is one, is that Buddhists might know that.

When the children were shot in Newtown, I didn’t want to ask what mattered—instead, I turned to Tracy and asked her, “How could someone do such a thing?” I felt crushed by it, like it had stripped me raw. I assumed at first that it was because I have kids, so now I hear that kind of story differently. And that’s not untrue. But the real pain of it, the wound I didn’t want to see, was the question I had managed to stifle in those first moments. I wanted to say there’s a limit and I’ve found it, that here, finally, I can say, “I am not that.” But that’s not the truth. I know. Whether through practice or the constant asking or just advancing age, I know better.

I don’t mean, of course, that I can imagine the circumstances in which I would commit such an act of aggression. It doesn’t mean I understand why. And it doesn’t mean that I could ever be the particular combination of fears and hopes and memories and grasping that is the shooter, any more than I could be who I was last week. But can I prioritize my suffering over the needs of others? Can I objectify another human being? Can I get lost in a heroic story I tell about myself? Can I feel, in defiance of all rational thought, that I have but one option left open to me? I have dark places. I know I do, because at times like these, I go looking for them.

There is another side of this, one that is easy to forget: if we are, each of us, capable of any human act, then we are capable of any show of bravery, any gesture of compassion. Mahatma Gandhi has been a hero of mine since I was ten years old—like almost no one else, he has inspired me by demonstrating the depths to which one can commit to something, the degree to which one can offer up a life. But though I feel great love when I see a picture of his face, I also look upon him, sometimes, with a heavy heart—not because he sets a standard to which I could never possibly aspire, but because I know that I can, and I don’t. We all can. Our heroes have nothing on us.

When we hear of someone committing an unthinkable act of violence, as Buddhists, our reaction should be to make it thinkable. We have to go there, to dig deep within ourselves, to crawl around and search in the dark until we find where, in our own minds, we are capable of treating another life so lightly. We must gaze, unblinking, at our capacity for treating others as disposable objects, or as mere characters in a story of our own creation. Let the media pundits and psychologists try to figure out why Aaron Alexis did what he did–why is not the right question. The question for us is how—not just, “How could he do it?” but “How could I do it?” Because you can. We can. And because soon, someone else, somewhere, will.


I tried to tackle this same subject on One Continuous Mistake a few months ago, but in relationship to my four-year-old son.

My Teacher Doesn’t Get Me

IMG_1147Not long ago, a Zen student in California wrote to me asking for advice about his teacher. He’s on track to be ordained, he wrote, but as he moves closer to taking that leap, he finds himself worried that his teacher doesn’t really get him. In fact, he’s left teachers in the past for this very reason. He said that he sometimes reads the blogs of priests like me—people he’s never met in person—and starts to think, maybe this teacher would understand me. Having that understanding feels important.

This is normal. I’ve noticed that when people approach me as students, they often try to tell me as much as possible about themselves in our first conversation. It has the feeling of full disclosure, like starting a date by saying, “You should know, I just got out of a bad relationship. And my family’s a little messed up. And some of my friends think I like cats too much, but can you really like cats too much? Anyway, they say I do.” Some of how it comes out is probably just nervousness, but there’s more to it than that. It’s the desire to be seen—and the belief that seeing in that way is the teacher’s job.

But that’s a misunderstanding. What teachers do is practice. What students do is practice with teachers.

I have a favorite Western Zen encounter story; it should be in a koan collection, except that it’s so straightforward. I might be getting the details wrong, but basically, a student at Berkeley Zen Center had a profound and meaningful dream, and when he woke up, he rushed straight to the Zen Center to tell his teacher, Sojun Mel Weitsman. When Weitsman-roshi opened the door, the student exclaimed, “You have to hear about the dream I just had!” His teacher replied, “No, I don’t,” shut the door, and went back inside. That’s a Zen story perfectly suited to our culture and our time. We need it.

If you enter into a relationship with a teacher defining success as being understood (or seen), then you’re aiming in the wrong direction from the start. If I approach someone as a student, it is to get over myself and to see what the teacher sees—not in me (because that’s not where the teacher is looking) but in the Dharma. In this moment. In this action. I will study how my teacher sits, how she eats breakfast, how she greets people she doesn’t know, and I will imitate it all, not so that I can be her—I can’t—but so that I can step beyond my own story of who I am.

There’s an ongoing discussion about whether or not Zen is therapy. And I know that for many in the West, the experience of relating to a teacher is very much like a form of counseling. But speaking in terms of the Soto tradition, I would say this: Zen is therapy only if your idea of therapy is spending years in the same room as your therapist silently observing your therapist; if, after all those years, there’s a very real possibility that your therapist might turn to you, prostrate three times, and say, “Now we’re both therapists,” then yes, Zen is therapy. (This is not to say that Zen practitioners cannot benefit from therapy, because probably everyone can. Nor is it to say that Buddhist psychology and Western psychology cannot inform one another, because they do. But the idea that Buddhism has been somehow incomplete, and that Western psychology somehow completes it, does a disservice to both traditions—they are not designed to accomplish the same ends.)

In a conversation between student and teacher, what is said? What needs to be? It’s easy to misread the classic exchanges between teachers and students of the past. It can seem, on first glance, that students are offering up their own understanding, asking the teacher to either verify them or send them in a new direction. But—and I’ve written about this before—what’s really happening is that the student, if he’s sincere, is trying to get the teacher, not the reverse. The student is attempting to touch the teacher’s understanding, not to gain approval. It’s a question of direction.

The trajectory of the teacher-student dynamic is not about the student; at least, it shouldn’t be. But nor is it about the teacher. It’s about the Dharma, about the expression of Dharma, about either expanding so far beyond oneself that you contain all beings or becoming so rooted and unshakeable that you can bear the weight of them. But the burden is on the student. The teacher is already holding that space, accepting that work—the student enters that space not to disturb it but to support it, and eventually to learn to carry it alone.

We can get this wrong in communities, too. Most Zen centers are very small, and teachers are pulled in every direction; as a result, ordained students often double as Zen center staff, teaching newcomers, giving talks, offering classes, and so on (often, of course, committed lay students do the same). It’s a practical arrangement. The financial reality of most Zen centers is that you take whatever help you can get, and a committed, ordained student is too precious a resource to waste. And some centers are led by novices, making them de facto teachers from day one. But based on my own experience, I would like to see us move toward a model in which the community understands that ordination, among other things, brings with it a kind of vow of silence. Not true silence, but silence about the Dharma, at least for a few years. I once met a monk who, for the training period when he was shuso (head novice), actually was silent—his teacher forbade him from speaking at all, placing the burden on him not only to lead by example, but to listen and watch and not be in the spotlight, to not be special. Students need to explore a mode of expression outside of the teacher’s seat. That seat is dangerous.

Along the way, I’ve had teachers tell me that I am unique, that I am important, that I am a vital piece of some puzzle. Dealing with the seductiveness of that, and with the inevitable disappointments that follow, has taught me a lot about myself. But I’ve also had teachers who, through their insistence on practice and their apparent indifference to what I think about it all, sent the exact opposite message. From them, I’ve learned a lot about Buddhism.

I bring this up in part because of the seemingly endless parade of scandals in the Zen world. When we read the various accounts, both by those who were directly abused by their teachers and by those who stood idly by, we find a common theme: students wanted to be special, and teachers used that as a weapon. It’s basic psychology that if you want to be liked by someone at a party, then you should ask that person lots of questions about himself. The harsh and simple reality is that teachers are people, and they want to be liked, and they can achieve this by keeping the conversation focused on you. And if you want to be special (and you do—we all do), you will like it. So it continues.

Not all teachers who tell you what you want to hear are trying to manipulate you. But they’re also not helping.

Buddhism is clear: there is no you, and you are not special. You have a story to tell, of course—you always will. And you have gifts, and failings. I’m personally grateful to have people in my life who see me in that way, who have an investment in the story of me. Caring about that story is one way we show love. But we also need people who see beyond that, who see us as being both larger in scope and, at the same time, less interesting than our image of ourselves.  We need people who have learned to teach without speaking—something  learned from having been silent themselves. We need to be with people who are focusing their attention on something greater than themselves, greater than us, people who really do get us—not because they understand our story, but because they see beyond it.

It’s just not about you. It never was.

Dogen in E-Prime

Eiheiji JizoWhen I enrolled in a poetry class my senior year in college, I fancied myself a bit of a writer. I enjoyed writing, and my professors praised and encouraged me — maybe too much. So I felt some dismay when the new poetry professor explained that for the full semester, we would write exclusively in traditional forms (sonnet, villanelle, and so on). I thought I had landed back in junior high school, where we churned out bad haiku and hammered clumsily at iambic pentameter. What a joke, I thought. I have a voice. I have something to express, and locking my verse in an arbitrary, formal box can only serve to silence what I have to offer. I didn’t write any great poems that semester (nor have I since). But the process of trying to adapt my voice to the parameters of form, of trying on a mode of expression that felt foreign, opened me up to a completely new view — both of my own voice as a writer, and of what it means to write.

Here, the opportunity presents itself to jump to monastic practice and how, in that strict, impersonal atmosphere of sitting like this, standing like this, talking like this, eating like this, one discovers not only a new practice, but also a new practitioner. But I’ll leave that there. For now. Instead, I want to talk about the language of practice, the poetics.

A few years ago, one of my college students introduced me to something called E-Prime. Developed by the linguist D. David Bourland, Jr., E-Prime advocates for the complete omission of the verb ‘to be’ from English. This includes not just be, am, is, and are, but all conjugations of them, all contractions that use them (I’m, what’s), and all use of the present progressive (“He is eating a sandwich”). The basic idea goes like this: If I say, “I am hungry,” you will understand my meaning, but the language will not reflect reality. “I feel hunger” tells the truth; “I am hungry” equates “I” with my subjective experience, essentially conflating the two. Hunger, a sensation, becomes an identity.

In some cases, strict allegiance to E-Prime requires some unnatural acrobatics. “Eating meat is wrong” becomes something like “I believe that eating meat constitutes wrong behavior.” But in other cases, E-Prime delivers an immediacy and frankness that ‘to be’ cannot. “He is a thief” becomes simply — and accurately — “He steals.” As I struggle to skillfully express myself to my 4-year-old son, the question of identity, embodied in ‘to be,’ comes up all the time. If my son shouts in a restaurant, I don’t say, “You’re a bad boy.” To do so reinforces precisely the kind of self-identification we want to avoid. But I might say, “That’s bad behavior.” Not E-Prime, sure, but still, these little tweaks speak to the same problems.

So, in introducing me to this idea , my student essentially placed a little worm in my ear that I cannot remove. I hear the question every time I sit down to write: “Does this verb, in this instance, reveal the truth? Or does it obscure it?” And, for good or bad, I now hear ‘is’ as a shouted word; when I read it, I add my own italics and bold print. I hesitate to write it (though I often give in). I know, at all times, the extent to which I cannot escape this ‘is’ and the questions it poses.

Which brings me to the language of Zen, and to Dogen in particular. Dogen did not write in Classical J-Prime, or anything like it. His principal equation, A=B, permeates his teachings. This doesn’t reflect a laziness of thought on Dogen’s part — A=B says exactly what he wants it to say. A=B, if we take it seriously, challenges us to our depths. Or it should. A=B should throw into question our definitions of A, of B, and of “=.” It should pull our philosophical rug out from under our feet. But does it? The first time one hears that “practice is realization,” or that “emptiness is none other than form,” the shock value can go a long way. But with time and immersion in the practice, we start repeating these things not as earth-shattering questions, but as fundamental truths, statements that require no further explanation (or worse, as teachings so profound that words cannot possibly touch the truth of them). There, exploration stops.

An example from Uji (“Being Time”):

Each moment is all being, is the entire world. (時時の時に尽有尽界あるなり; those last two characters, なり, or nari, function as “is” here.)

In trying to remove “is,” I immediately hit a wall. Alternate verbs dismantle A=B; they describe a relationship, boundaries, a distinctness that Dogen practically screams to cut through. “Each moment contains all being. Each moment encompasses the entire world.” These fall short. With work, we can try to approximate the original: “Each moment fully equals the full scope of all being, of the entire world.” That gets closer, but only because, in its clumsy way, it uses “equals” as a synonym for “is.” How about this — “Each moment realizes all being, manifests the entire world. Or, “In each moment, all being — the entire world — fully manifests” (the original Japanese also includes the notion of “in,” making this another possible direction).

When I play this game — with any piece of writing, not just Dogen — I often find that the E-Prime version surpasses the original, or at least, that the original suffers no loss. Take the opening from Genjo-koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”):

As all things are Buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.  As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The Buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.  Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

And in E-Prime:

As all things exist as Buddha-dharma itself, there arises delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there exist buddhas and sentient beings. As the myriad things have no abiding self, no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death can manifest. The Buddha way, essentially, leaps clear of the many and the one; thus the existence of birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

No problem. I won’t say that E-Prime improved it, but it didn’t hurt it (and I like how the Buddha way actively “leaps”).

But then we have the above line from Uji. After hours of thinking and tinkering and rearranging, I find, finally, that it had revealed itself to me from the start: Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Dogen got it right. Or at least, saying it any other way changes the equation, and here, ‘=,’ more than A or B, constitutes the point. Yet I feel, again, that simply accepting “Each moment is all being” on its face betrays a kind of laziness, or if not that, points to a fear of going further, of testing one’s own voice. When Dogen says, “A=B,” he offers us an invitation — not to repeat what he said, but to test its veracity, to see if, in our own expression, we might something that points even more directly to the center.

Even in a tradition which calls itself “a transmission outside of the scriptures, a teaching beyond words and letters,” I personally see no contradiction in exploring practice through the investigation of language — what it can express, and what it cannot. One of my teachers, for a full year as a novice monk decades ago, had to follow a rule of never uttering a first-person pronoun, in any context. No I, me, my, mine. He says it transformed his understanding of himself, that he reflects on that experience every day. It changed his relationships. It opened up a new way of being in the world.

We have to use caution, and not confuse “beyond” with “separate from” or “minus.” I can go to quiet places, but language will follow me (as will everything else). What do I do with it?

As a rule, when describing absolute reality, we fall into A=B; we say things like, “There is no difference, no gap, between you and me.” And when we speak of relative reality, we do the opposite: “You and I are separate, different. I am not you.” Is, are, am. But we have another option beyond these two. We have the the choice to grapple with the gap between what the teachings tell us and what we feel most of the time. We can decide to look for true, inclusive, poetic, useful language powerful enough and flexible enough to at least start to contain the fullness of the reality we sometimes only sense.

We should try. Or at least, I believe that doing so constitutes good behavior.

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?

Thoughts on Not Thinking about Non-thinking

Bamboo ForestOne of Dogen’s favorite encounter stories goes like this:

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked,
”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”

Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”

The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”

Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

I’ve had the privilege of interpreting some interesting talks on this short exchange. It’s a good example of how translation has limitations — it’s equally befuddling to readers in Japanese or Chinese, but unavoidably, the confusion is a little different depending on the language. “Thinking” here is shiryō (思量). “Not thinking” is fushiryō (不思量). And “non-thinking” is hishiryō (非思量). The fu in “not thinking” is a common negating prefix, similar to “un-” or “non-.” And the hi of “non-thinking” is also a common negating prefix ― really, the difference between fu and hi is negligible, except that hi might tend to be associated with a few more words with negative connotations (as opposed to words that are negative in a purely technical sense). So while “not thinking” and “non-thinking” seem to have caught on in English for the purposes of telling this story, they could have been reversed, with no real loss or gain. That is to say, linguistic analysis will not bring much clarity to this encounter.

Like so many of these types of teachings, the party line is that if you’ve experienced what’s being described, it makes perfect sense, and if you haven’t, well, nothing anyone else says or does will clarify it for you. And like most things in life, that’s basically true.

There is one hint we can gain from language, though, and I bring it up because I have never once heard it discussed in English. It’s this shiryō. Shiryō is not a common word for “thinking.” There are other words for “thinking” that start with the same shi (which itself means “thought”): shii, shikō, shian. But the ryō is very specific. Ryō refers to measurement. Which means that this dialogue, from the start, is not about just any kind of thinking. It’s not, for example, about daydreaming. It’s about the aspect of mind that measures and evaluates, that holds a yardstick up to experiences or to thought-objects. It is a kind of directed thought. That, I think, is important to keep in mind.

If you are the teacher talking about any of this, the audience assumes that you have a direct knowledge of non-thinking, at least. That makes this kind of topic interesting; it also puts the teachers to the test, explaining something that, at least by most assumptions, no one else in the room has any real hope of understanding in the course of the explanation. This kind of story keeps Zen teachers in business. I mean that only half-jokingly. We really do, I think, want someone to speak to these questions, to put a face and an experience on these hard-to-grasp dialogues from centuries ago. I want that. But if someone could really say “It means this,” Zen teachers wouldn’t have much left to talk about.

The most common understanding of this conversation assumes that “non-thinking” is somehow a higher state than either “thinking” or “not thinking.” In that reading, the monk asks, “How are you directing your mind in zazen” (again, as opposed to “What kind of thoughts arise in zazen?”)? And Yaoshan replies, “I direct my thoughts to not directing my thoughts.” The monk asks (reasonably), “How do you do that?” and Yaoshan says, “By not directing my thoughts at all.” That’s one way to read it, anyway. Here, both thinking and not thinking are seen as mistakes ― Yaoshan clarifies that by “not thinking,” he’s really doing something which transcends thinking all together. The word “transcend” comes up a lot in this telling.  That’s the version I’ve heard the most, and the only one I heard for years.

Last year, for the first time, I heard a different interpretation. It goes like this: “Non-thinking” is not superior to either thinking or not thinking. Instead, they are all necessary, all simultaneously-functioning aspects of mind in zazen. So zazen includes (misdirected) direction of thought. It includes the decision to try not to pursue that directed thought. And it includes a state of mind that isn’t concerned about whether or not to think in the first place. All are present; none are completely inside of our control, or beyond it. Right or wrong, this version is very kind, very sympathetic to the actual experience of zazen. Looking out at the faces of the monks listening to that talk, I could see that a few were frustrated by the ordinariness of this description of sitting, but most looked as if they were being told for the first time that their experience of zazen really is zazen.

Both versions, I think, are true.

I want to add one more to the mix, just for fun. It occurred to me in the days after interpreting that kind talk, and though it may be too simple, I think it may also be a good starting point, one that puts this dialogue a little closer to our reach. Here it goes:

In our ordinary, waking lives, our brains are lit up with alpha, beta, and theta waves. Alpha waves can feel creative and inspired; beta waves are strongest when performing analysis; and theta waves are associated with more complex, generative thought, as in complicated visualization exercises. All three, in different ways, are part of the process of directed thought. Delta waves, however, tend to be really strong during just a couple activities. The first is deep, dreamless sleep. The second? Zazen. Delta wave activity is not reflective of directed thought ― it is about receptivity, expansiveness, openness. For years, researchers thought that delta waves were the absence of activity, like the brain’s “pause” setting. After all, we have no sense of “I” in deep, dreamless sleep. Nothing in that state resembles ordinary thinking. And we don’t even remember it. It’s just something an outside observer can notice on an EEG.

But zazen changes that. In zazen, we can have the same basic brainwave patterns as in deep, dreamless sleep, except that we are completely awake and aware. We know where we are. We know what we are doing. We even notice if a fly buzzes by. But still, we remain in this expansive, open state. It’s not directed thought. But it’s also not the absence of thinking. Not at all. It’s something else.

So I find myself wondering if perhaps the monk and Yaoshan are just having a very technical discussion about the nature of zazen. It’s not a contemplation. It’s not a visualization. It’s not thinking. On the other hand, it’s not some kind of brain-dead state, a blankness. It’s not not thinking. It’s a lucid, non-grasping, receptive awareness that, while it sounds like a big deal, is actually something we can understand very well. It’s mental activity that is something other than thinking. It’s a place we can always go, even if it’s a place that few people recognize at all.

I don’t mean for this to be reductive. But I do want to pull away, even if just for a moment, the idea that zazen is some rarefied state, or that Yaoshan was doing something special, or that one can only bring authority to this encounter if they’ve plunged to the deepest depths of this practice. When we think what it might mean to not think, or what non-thinking is, it’s too easy to make the experience as complicated as the language around it. It’s not wrong to frame it in larger-than-life mystical terms, but we should know that there’s another way as well.

And no matter how we approach it, in the end, we have to approach it from the inside. No one can do this for us. What it is we’re receptive to when we sit, and what it is that makes up that awareness ― these are things that an EEG cannot measure. And neither can we.