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.

Waiting for the Sincere Question

moss buddhaMy grandmother — we called her Oma — struggled with Alzheimer’s before passing away a few years ago. One evening after dinner, during her last Christmas visit with our family, we were sitting around the table — Oma, my brother, Tracy, and I. Oma took a cookie from her plate, held it up, and asked, “What is it?” One of us, in the gentle way that people do, said, “Oma, that’s a cookie.” She looked irritated. Again: “What is it?” We all glanced at each other around the table. This was awkward. This time, one of us started to explain how a cookie is made. “Well, there’s flour, and egg, and this one has chocolate chips.” Then this 90-plus-year-old woman, who in her lifetime had probably baked about 80,000 cookies, shot us all a very lucid, fiery look, as if we were all disappointments. “I know how to make them,” she said. She held up the cookie again. “What IS it?”

And so the four of us found ourselves staring in earnest at a cookie in an old, shaking hand, really unsure of the answer. What was she asking us? We all looked hard at that cookie and said, “Wow, Oma, I don’t know.” That was how we left it.

There is an old rule that a teacher should not speak of the Dharma unless requested to do so three times. This always seemed silly to me. How does one reject the first two requests? And since the rule is well known, wouldn’t people just ask three times quickly? Isn’t it a kind of game?

Perhaps. But now I see it more clearly. It’s a way of insisting on sincerity. And like all the rules, it evolved in response to a problem — namely, that most questions are insincere.

Especially in Zen, there is a misunderstanding about what we are asking when we ask. And why.

So much of the Zen tradition rests on dialogues in which traveling monks challenge a teacher. The monk throws a curveball, and when the story is good, the teacher hits it out of the park (or throws one right back). It’s all very dynamic, even explosive.

And so we get this unfortunate term, “Dharma combat.” There is a strong idea in the Zen world — even stronger in the West, where people tend to be more familiar with the literature and with those stories — that Zen is aggressive, that a good Zen exchange has these steps:

  1. Someone is tested.
  2. Someone is shot down.
  3. The “answer” either makes no sense (“The snail outside my window”) or appeals to an absolute view of reality (“My friend, there is no question, and no questioner. A songbird! I rest my case”).

I’ve encountered a lot of this in person. Now, from Japan, I need only look at online forums or comments threads to find more of the same. Perfectly intelligent people, when Zen is mentioned, suddenly start tossing around Song Dynasty-era metaphors and accusing each other of being attached to views. There are a few good reasons why some people really hate Zen. This is one of them.

What’s missing in this kind of Koan Theatre is a genuine desire to help. It’s play-acting. It’s insincere. What we forget when we imagine those ancient dialogues is this: the traveling monk didn’t question the teacher because he wanted to win. He wanted to lose. He was searching desperately, risking everything, to find his true teacher. So when he asked, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?” he wasn’t trying to see if the teacher had the “right” answer or not. He wasn’t checking if the teacher’s understanding matched his own. He was asking because he really wanted to know. He didn’t want the teacher’s understanding to match his own. He wanted the teacher’s understanding to blow him away, and if he really didn’t have any hope that it would, he wouldn’t bother asking the question. He just moved on.

Likewise, if the teacher saw the monk coming and thought, “I’ll teach him a thing or two,” well, I hope that the monk just kept walking. A sincere question, in this tradition, will never get an answer. At best, it will get a skillful response. Just as no one can blow your nose for you, no teacher can tell you what you most want to know. Why? Because if it’s a really good question, the teacher also doesn’t know. She can’t know. But a teacher might know how to help you to know. There’s a big difference.

The teacher must sincerely want to help. The student must sincerely want to be helped. A poetic, hard-to-grasp image, if it is part of a response, is only compassionate if the teacher believes that this particular image is actually more helpful than a straightforward one. The goal cannot be to obscure, or to look wise, or to add a little Zen flavor. Likewise, one can only penetrate with an absolute view if the other person is clinging fiercely to the relative; it can only be an antidote. Never a weapon. Never a way of shutting it all down.

I will never know what my grandmother was asking when she held up that cookie. But I do know that the question was a sincere one. She genuinely wanted to know — it was important to her, and she knew she couldn’t see the answer. And as she continued to ask the question, as we wrestled to find a response, we also took on some of that sincerity. We felt the intensity she brought to that exchange, and we tried to match it. I don’t think we satisfied her. She still wanted something more. But “I don’t know” — that was pretty good. That’s always a good place to start.

I’ve been invited this month to respond to Zen-related questions from Reddit users. You can eavesdrop on the conversation here (where they’re collecting questions), or you can register with Reddit and participate. I think it might be fun.

An Attempt at Instructions for Zazen

fukanzazengiLast summer, as I was re-reading Carl Bielefeldt’s Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation, I received a very kind email from a reader asking me to offer my take on how to do zazen. I have no idea how many times I’ve offered zazen instruction in person, but in reading that request, I realized that I had never tried to write it all down. Furthermore, it had never really occurred to me that I have a particular take on it — when I explain it to someone else, I’m very aware of both Dogen’s instructions and things I’ve heard from my teachers. But the timing — that book, with this request — inspired me to look more closely at how I approach zazen, how I hear the explanation in my head.

Much of Bielefeldt’s book (which I cannot recommend highly enough) chronicles the evolution of Dogen’s “Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen [Fukanzazengi]” from an earlier draft to a later one, showing that Dogen’s understanding of zazen — both how to practice it, and how to express that practice to others — was evolving. Dogen passed away when he was 53; if he’d lived to 80, I have no doubt that the zazen instructions we read in temples every evening would be different, somehow, from what they are.

I am fond of complaining that we rely too heavily on Dogen in this tradition. That doesn’t come from any complaint about him or his writings — not at all. But it seems to me that in the 800 years since his death, we should have a few more people to reference. More teachers should have stepped forward with their own understanding of the tradition. Or perhaps the institutions around this practice should have given greater voice to those who were trying, in vain, to be heard. In any case, 800 years later, it’s still pretty much all Dogen.

So on planes and in line at the bank, I have found myself picking away at my own instructions for zazen. Of this, I’m sure: if I had tried to write these instructions 10 years ago, they would have been very, very different. And I sincerely hope that 10 years from now, these instructions will be equally different, that they will have evolved with my understanding of the practice. If all goes well, I’ll read these instructions when I’m an old man and wince a little, seeing more clearly then what I don’t see clearly now.

But today, at age 40, I think this is my best effort. I put out these instructions (some are pretty standard, but a few are not) not to rewrite anything, but to put myself on the spot, to make myself open to whatever discussion or comments might follow. This is a work in progress. More than that, I do it in the hopes that it might start a dialogue, and that others might feel a push to publish their own instructions. I would very much like to read them.



Choose this place.

Whenever you can, sit with others. When you can’t, sit with others. Let others sit with you.

Wear the kashaya. Just as Buddhas sit in zazen while zazen is the activity of Buddhas, Buddhas wear the kashaya —  the kashaya manifests the shape of a Buddha. Even if there is no robe, just wear it.

Do not put yourself into sitting — come empty handed. Do not make zazen — let sitting reveal itself. Do not use zazen for this or that — sitting is neither means nor end.

Spread a blanket or mat and place a zafu on top. Sit down, marking the center of the zafu with the base of the spine.

To sit in the full lotus, place the right foot over the left thigh, then the left foot over the right thigh. Rest your left hand on your right hand, palm up — the middle joint of the middle finger below aligns with the middle joint of the middle finger above, and thumbtips touch as if trying not to, just near enough to feel the electricity between them. This is called Sitting in Practice.

Reverse the legs; reverse the hands. This is called Sitting in Verification.

Sit in practice today and in two days. Sit in verification tomorrow and yesterday.

If not full lotus, half lotus. If not half lotus, rest the foot of the raised leg across the calf of the lower leg. Or kneel. Or sit on a chair. Remember that this body is the buddha’s body. Do not harm it. Also, do not underestimate it.

Always place the knees below the hips, the pelvis tilted forward, the lower back slightly curved. Establish a posture that need not fight gravity.

Be the tree beneath which other buddhas sit.

Press the hands below the navel; let them move with the breath. In full lotus, rest them on top of the heels. In any other posture, support the hands with a blanket or cushion.

Once seated, rotate the torso at the hips in wide circles, then in small ones until the spine is holding the earth in place; pull in the chin and stretch the back of the neck upwards, lifting the sky.

Take seven long breaths. As you inhale, fill the body with a wind that loops through your feet and across your thumbs. As you exhale, do so slowly, continuing until your breath has touched the far corners of the world. Exhale until nothing remains.

On the eighth breath, just breathe.

How long must one sit? How many breaths? Ancient buddhas did not measure zazen in minutes or hours.

Let in all sounds — hear the shifting of the continents, a bird turning in flight. Facing the wall, see beyond the horizon. Feel your heart beating, your lungs moving, your skin expanding and shrinking, the magnetic draw of your thumbs. Breathe in the stench and the perfume of the world. Let your tongue rest flat in your mouth, and taste.

Mara visits during zazen, but not as visions — visions, if only glanced at, will pass by like shadows. Nor will Mara come disguised as desire — desires, confronted directly, lose their power to haunt. Mara will visit as a weight on the eyelids, bearing the soft seduction of sleep. Open your eyes; if they grow heavy or the world blurs, open them wider. Keep the room cool. Let light in. Explore the waking world, not dreams.

Be the force of gravity, pulling you deep into the ground; be the weight of a flame. Do not move from this posture. With every cell in your body, every drop of blood, every inch of skin, constantly do not move.

Zazen is not non-doing; it is not non-thinking. Zazen is a deep, dreamless sleep on fire. It is clutching a boulder to your belly at the bottom of the cool ocean. Roots penetrate and plunge downward into the rough textures of the earth. A cloud dissolves into open sky.


Sitting in Practice: gōmaza (降魔坐)
Sitting in Verification: kichijōza (吉祥坐)
The phrase “weight of a flame” is taken from a verse provided by Dai-en Bennage, abbess of Mt. Equity Zendo: “Abandoning myself to breathing out, and letting breathing in naturally fill me.  All that is left is this empty zafu under the vast sky, the weight of a flame.” (original source unknown)


Update January 20, 2019: My gratitude to Saiho Sandra Laureano, of Centro Budista Soto Zen in Puerto Rico,  who very generously translated these instructions into Spanish.