You Know What You’re Doing (Keizan’s Zazen Yōjinki, Part 1)

12034305_1638362479736451_4630572736537283963_oLast year I talked at Zen Nova Scotia about Keizan Jokin’s “Notes on What To Be Aware of in Zazen” (ZazenYōjinki), a text I feel an impulse to uphold—not just because it’s so good but because it’s so rarely part of the dialogue around what zazen is (or isn’t). Below is a slightly edited version of the first of those talks, with a few changes for clarity but all of the rambling quality of how I actually speak. My deep thanks to Mike Landay for so patiently transcribing this talk and all the rest. 

At most temples and centers, when we chant the lineage, we stop at Keizan. It’s Dōgen, then Koun Ejō, then Tettsu Gikai, then Keizan Jōkin. The lineage divides in two from there, so he’s the last ancestor common to us all. But the fact is, we don’t treat him very well. We say that there are two founders, Dōgen and Keizan, and if you go to a full temple in Japan that has all of the statuary and all the stuff, there will always be a little statue for each of them; if not that, at least a little scroll for Dōgen and a little scroll for Keizan. Either way, they both get to be there. But even though we say that Keizan is the other founder, there’s a bias. He founded one of the two head monasteries, Sōjiji, and people who train at Sōjiji have a very strong feeling about him. But for everybody else, he’s kind of second, if that. The result is that we tend to overlook what he wrote—and what he wrote is remarkable.

You can’t really talk about Keizan without talking about Dōgen, and we know a lot about Dōgen because everything in this Sōtō Zen tradition seems to point straight at him. The Dōgen of our imagination was very upright and very strict, kind of pure. He had an idea about bringing back something that was authentic. So he developed monastic forms, and those forms were very much about moment-to-moment practice. He wasn’t so interested in what other people were doing, he wasn’t so interested in ceremonies, or at least not in the kinds of ceremonies that have since become standard in Sōtō Zen, in which people chant and then offer merit. That really wasn’t his thing.

His idea of ceremony was that when you brush your teeth, you do it just like this—after chanting a verse. And you hold a cup just like this. And you open a door just like this. That was his sense of ceremony. When he died, his whole funeral was that his disciple Koun Ejō chanted a very short little sutra three times—and that was it. That was the end, and it feels appropriate, given who he was.

The joke about Dōgen is that everybody wants to train the way Dōgen trained, but that probably the only person who trained the way that Dōgen trained was Dōgen. In all likelihood, the tradition started to change as soon as he died; no one had the patience to do every. Little. Thing. Just. Like. That. So immediately people start tweaking it, or they said, “You know, every fifth day you can skip that one part,” and so on.

Koun Ejō followed, then Tettsu Gikai. And so we arrive at Keizan. I have to confess, I don’t know deeply about Keizan’s history. I don’t know where Keizan came from – or maybe I did at one point but I’ve forgotten, because I’m wrapped up in all of this too. But when Keizan came along, he was considered to be a popularizer of Sōtō Zen. Until that time it had been a bunch of people in a monastery in the mountains with very little contact with the outside world, following this rigorous schedule. Then Keizan came along and he made it make sense to people outside the tradition. And one of the ways that he did that was by synthesizing with things that people were already doing, including these ceremonies in which we chant and we offer merit. So under Keizan, ceremony—in the sense of ceremonial—achieved a new importance.

What we find today is that even though there was kind of a political decision to acknowledge Keizan as a second founder—and honestly, I think it’s realistic to say that the lineage may not have continued without someone like Keizan coming along—there’s always been this feeling that Dōgen was the pure thing, and that Keizan somehow muddied the waters a little bit. It’s as if he’s earned our gratitude, but maybe not our full respect.

One genuine distinction between Dōgen and Keizan is that up until Keizan, the story of the lineage is that the Buddha transmitted to Mahakasyapa, Mahakasyapa transmitted to Ananda, and so on, and it was one-to-one: one teacher, one student, and then one student, and then one student… all the way to Dōgen. Still just one—Dōgen had one student to whom he transmitted (or at least one student we would call his successor). That student had one successor. That student had one successor. But that student was Keizan, and Keizan transmitted to two, and that was all it took for the Sōtō lineage to explode, because those two transmitted to a few, and then a few, and a few, and this thing that had been a straight line suddenly had branches, and the branches had branches. So today, when we chant the lineage, we only chant to Keizan because that’s the last name upon which we can all agree.

That too was instrumental in keeping the school going, but when we tell the story, there’s a little bit of Come on… you couldn’t choose one? It seems wishy-washy. Keizan’s just not coming out on top.

Keizan was not as prolific as Dōgen, but he wrote a few things of huge importance. One is what we call now the Keizan Shingi, which was his set of monastic standards. Up until then, everyone trained using the Eihei Shingi, which was Dōgen’s set, but today no one does; if you train at a monastery in Japan, you’ll basically follow a modified version of the Keizan Shingi, in part because it just feels more practical. There were philosophical reasons why, for example, in Dōgen’s schedule the monastic day begins the night before—in his schedule, there’s a moment in the evening when it’s no longer the day that it has been, and now it’s the next day. These things make sense if you go through old Chinese texts. But Keizan said, “Well, we wake up in the morning, so the day will start the way normal people think that the day starts.” That, I think, was well received.

Keizan’s other really critical text, which we too often forget about, is called Zazen Yōjinki, “Notes on What To Be Aware of in Zazen.” These are his zazen instructions, and they are not the same as Dōgen’s—not in conflict, but definitely not the same. They don’t feel the same. Here’s the opening, just a taste (translation from The Art of Just Sitting: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza):

Sitting is the way to clarify the ground of experiences and to rest at ease in your Actual Nature.

Dōgen, in his instructions for zazen (Fukanzazengi), says, Zazen wa shuzen ni wa arazu: “Zazen is not learning Zen.”

Zazen is not some volitional practice. Whatever Zen it is, it isn’t Zen that you’re doing. And then he goes on to say: in fact, it is the Dharma gate of joyful ease. So they’re starting out on the same page. Here Keizan is saying: “Sitting is the way to clarify the ground of experiences”—that’s worth talking about—”and to rest at ease in your Actual Nature. This is called ‘the display of the Original Face’ and ‘revealing the landscape of the basic ground'”

So he’s beginning from this idea that there’s a starting point, a kind of home base for a human being. He calls this the ground of experiences, actual nature, the original face, the basic ground. And then he says we’re clarifying this and we’re revealing this, and we’re resting at ease in this.

When we encounter anything like this, it’s critical to not go where our mind automatically goes, which is to think of whatever this is as something other, or something lost, or something obscured.

When he says your actual nature, we think Oh, I have another nature that’s not my actual nature! And it can sound very exciting because I have a real one… I’m going to find it! I’m going to sit in zazen, and I’m going to reveal the thing that is true, and all the other stuff will just disappear! There’s adventure, there’s something you’re going to find. There’s a diamond, there’s a pearl.

That is not what he means. I’m sometimes hesitant to say something like that, because who knows what anyone actually meant? But I’m confident about this, because he’s coming out of a conversation, and the conversation is never that. The conversation is never that there is something that is the kernel of you, or that is an unformed part of you that should be formed because that would be somehow more true.

The conversation is that you, right here, right now, are one hundred percent—but also that it probably doesn’t feel that way. Why not? A lot of it has to do with this notion of resting at ease. We don’t rest at ease.

In the same way that the brainwave patterns of zazen so often happen to be the same as the brainwave patterns of deep dreamless sleep, the experience of zazen has to do with when you’re not trying to do zazen. The only thing more difficult than doing something correctly is not trying to do something that you think can be done correctly while you’re doing it.

What happens, then, is that when we sit, we take up this posture… and then we contract around it.

If you do yoga, you know that in order to stretch a muscle you have to contract a muscle. There’s no pure stretch unless you’re on a rack. Intuitively we understand this, so we sit here and we think I’m going to stretch my mind, and the way that we stretch our mind sometimes is by contracting everything else. Or, more to the point maybe, we think I’m going to stretch the part of my mind that I think is the spiritual part of my mind, and the way that I’m going to do that is by clenching the rest of my mind so that nothing else can interfere, nothing else can come in.

Guilty? I am.

This is why—or this is part of why—when we do a Newcomers’ Night, I ask everyone to go ahead and contract from the beginning. Take a memory or a fantasy or a regret or a hope, and just go ahead before you even start: wrap yourself around it like you’re a cat with a ball. Hold it and play with it—exhaust yourself around that thing. And then experience just dropping it. Not pushing it out, but getting tired.

If you don’t really recognize what contraction is, then you don’t know what it is to let go. And most of the time we don’t realize the degree to which we’re clenching around something.

I was thinking about this recently because I attended a talk by Isshō Fujita in which he led us through an exercise and said that to find the posture of zazen, the first thing you do is you find the posture that it’s not. He continued something like this:

Go ahead and roll your back, roll back on your hips so that your back is round and your head is forward, and feel how even though this feels lazy, at the same time it’s exhausting to sit in this way. You’re actually working really hard, you’re working really hard in your stomach to do this. And then once you’ve done that, go ahead and roll forward, and then roll your hips forward as far as you can so that you feel that stretch in your back, you’re trying to push your belly button down to the ground, and roll your shoulders back. This is the other way we do it. And then drop that.

Zazen is in between. It’s not volitional. Sitting down is volitional; there’s a choice to be made there. But then you sit, and you let the blocks just stack. Leaning back is not a stack. Leaning forward is not a stack. And holding yourself rigidly in place means the stack isn’t supporting itself. But somewhere in there, you can find a place where your body isn’t doing anything.

Now, I’m saying this and you’re thinking, Ah, there’s a right way. And I’m going to find it. Next time I’m going to find it and I’m going to do it just like that. And I’m going to find the place in the middle and as soon as I find it there’s going to be a locking sound: ker-chunk! And I’ll just stay. Right. There. That’s not it. That’s not it either.

If you watch sped-up video of someone doing zazen, it is never a person who is perfectly still. If a person is perfectly still the whole time they’re doing it, I’m going to come out and say: they’re doing it wrong. Because in that perfect rigid stillness, there’s no relationship to the body. That’s someone who’s just able to clench for forty-five minutes. What you really see when you see people doing zazen, if they’re doing it in an active way and an honest way is that there’re sitting still, but every once in a while there might be a little turn, or they kind of find their neck a little bit. They’re always in the process of settling in.

In that same talk by Isshō Fujita, I learned a wonderful new word: pandiculation. Pandiculation refers to the involuntary movements that we make in response to our bodies. Think of how when you yawn, you stretch. Maybe this time I do it like this, because my body just needs to do that. I don’t think about it. If you think about it, it gets really weird. If you plan it, if you think I’m going to yawn, and this time I’ll do the wide arms, but next time I yawn, oh, maybe I’ll do something else, that’s weird. There’s something that your body just does. You see this with animals, you see this with cats. They just move. This is my understanding of what pandiculation is.

And when we’re doing zazen, if we are actually being active in zazen, if we’re really bringing ourselves to zazen and to this idea of rest, then there are lots of small versions of pandiculation going on all the time while we sit. Not these big stretches, but we’re responding. We’re here, and we’re letting ourselves move. Because it’s not that my mind is sitting in some sort of crystal cage doing zazen, and this is the platform for it that needs to hold it up. It’s that this body–mind is doing zazen: the whole thing, the whole organism. And the whole organism—really, the point of the whole thing—is that the whole organism actually knows what it’s doing.

There’s a degree to which zazen, or the tradition behind zazen, rests on a faith that we already kind of understand what to do. We’re already at a hundred percent. So there’s a trust when you sit. To a degree, yes, there’s trust in the posture because we’ve been taught this, but then once we get there, there’s this other trust that we know how to do this. And so… we adjust a little bit. We trust our bodies to do this. And in that trust, we relax. Not because it’s supposed to feel a particular way, but because it’s not supposed to feel a particular way. It just is what it is.

I’ll post parts 2–6 soon. This and many other talks can be found on the ZNS Podcast; you can support both Zen Nova Scotia and the podcast by clicking here



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?