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.


Here I Am

You Are Here“Life is one continuous mistake” — for years, this has been one of my favorite Dogen sayings. I’ve always appreciated the humor of it — it feels honest, or at least like an honest description of my life. Only, it turns out that Dogen never said it. On the Internet, it seems, quotation marks are a shorthand for “This is fake.”

Dogen did, however, say something similar: “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another” (Dogen’s Extensive Record, p. 132). Pretty close. But what are these mistakes we keep making? And why?

There’s a word, mayoi (迷い), that shows up a lot in Buddhist writings — the dictionary will tell you that it means “delusion” or “confusion” or “the state of being lost.” For years, I read it without much thought. It’s sometimes used as the opposite of enlightenment, so I read it that way, and since enlightenment seemed a lot more interesting than being lost, I figured that was where I should place my attention. But there are different ways of being lost. There is more than one kind of mayoi.

The first way to be lost is to be wrong. The classic example is a coiled rope on the ground — if you see it out of the corner of your eye and take it for a snake, you might run, or scream, or try to beat it with a shovel, but in each case, you’ll just be wrong. It’s a rope. In the same way, if you ever drive in circles because you are just sure you know the way to the interstate, you understand — the more deeply you believe that you know the right road, the less chance of ever finding the right one. To be clear, in the case of the rope, the problem is not that your eyes misinterpret something you see — the problem is that you believe your own idea about it, so you don’t question it anymore. It’s natural to think you know the streets in your town; the mistake is in not noticing that this time, you got it wrong. This is how we usually understand mayoi: not just being lost, but compounding it by insisting we are not.

The second way to be lost is to know, deeply, that you do not know where you are. Or that you do not know how to get where you are going. Or that you do not know the answer. If you think you know the way to the interstate, you only look for the one landmark that you’re sure is supposed to be there. But if you know you don’t know the way, you look for everything. You drive with your hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel. You ask people for directions, and since you know that you don’t know how to get where you’re going, you recognize that anyone you see might have the answer. Teachers are everywhere. Clues are everywhere. It can be frustrating, even scary. But it’s also very thorough. This is the other mayoi: being lost completely, and knowing it.

Thinking you’re not lost is much more dangerous than knowing that you are. Being sure you are not lost guarantees mistake after mistake, by definition, so if we want to, we can understand Dogen’s statement in this simple way. We don’t know what we don’t know, so in every moment, we work from assumptions and patterns that are unconsidered, unquestioned. I have a friend who didn’t know he was allergic to cats and dogs until he moved out of his pet-filled childhood home and suddenly felt like a new person. For years, he just thought he wasn’t an athletic type, and that was why he never had much energy. In college, I subsisted on what I call the “yellow diet”: Mountain Dew and anything with cheese on it. I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I moved to Japan, where Mountain Dew and cheese were both luxury items. Even if we’re confident in our ignorance, that doesn’t necessarily make it willful. There’s just so much to examine — where do we start?

Tracy and I recently started a “Zen and Parenting” blog, and for the obvious reason (if you have kids), we’re calling it One Continuous Mistake. So this question of making mistakes, and how mistakes relate to practice, has been on my mind. It seems that we have two modes: one is to be totally ignorant of our actions;  the other is to be aware of our actions, but still lost. How can we be skillful and lost at the same time? I see four ways to explore this:

  1. Fumble around, actively. I used to train at Shogoji, a monastery that had no electricity. We all wore little headlamps at night, but when the batteries died on us, we would find ourselves navigating the maze of hallways in perfect darkness. I became more competent with time, but to be competent, I could never get cocky — one wrong assumption and I would fall down a flight of stairs or crash into a glass kerosene lamp. I explored those buildings as if I was a blind man and Shogoji was a face I needed to memorize forever. I’ve lived in my current house for two years now, but if I had to find something in the dark here, I’m not sure that I could; even now, years later, I probably know Shogoji better. It’s about choosing to pay attention.
  2.  Embrace not knowing. Notice when you’re lost, and choose to stay there. When our son was born, I knew nothing about parenting. I still don’t. As with the dark halls of Shogoji, I’d like to think I am becoming more competent as a father — I hope so. But when I think I have it figured out, I screw it up (and when I remember how much I thought I knew before we had kids, I just laugh). When I read a parenting book with some sort of “system” and decide that this is the one-size-fits-all solution to, say, tantrums, it goes wrong. Very, very wrong. A book is useful if it gives me an idea about how to fumble around. It might offer new mistakes for me to make. But if I take it as a map of the territory, then I’m more lost than before. …All of this is to say that we can seek out this realm of not knowing. Having kids works, but so does a dance class, or traveling in a place you’ve never been, or entering into a friendship with someone very different from yourself. Learning what you don’t know about playing music is a window into how little you know about anything.
  3. When you make a mistake, make it big. Knowing you are lost is not an excuse to be meek. Don’t hold back. If your job in the orchestra is to hit the gong at the critical time, and you get lost and you’re not sure of your cue, you have two choices: hit the gong, or don’t. If you decide it’s better to hit it, HIT it. In Zen practice, the question is whether or not, not how much. The degree is always the same — 100%. Mistakes are not optional — as Dogen says, we “must make one mistake after another.” On some level, you’re probably making a mistake right now. So am I. But knowing that cannot be a justification for a life lived halfway, for a moment half expressed, for a child half hugged. Never withhold.
  4. Make wherever you are into where you are. This is one of the simplest arguments for zazen, for taking up a practice of sitting still. If you wake up in perfect darkness, you may be afraid or even cry out, but eventually, you will start the slow, deliberate process of mapping your world, figuring out where you are. You must do that. Even then, there is a degree to which, in that blackness, you cannot know where you are. You cannot know all the details of the room of your life. You cannot make all the good choices before making some bad ones. But even though you may not know the way to the door, in another way, you know exactly where you are: you are here. I am here, where my feet touch the ground. I am here, and though I may spend my all my remaining years trying to be more competent at navigating the maze of my life, I will never be anywhere but here. Sitting down in zazen is a way of coming to see that, but even more, it is a way of expressing it. “The room is perfectly dark and I have no idea where I am or how to get out? No problem.”

At the start of a hiking trail, we stand and pour over the map showing us how to get to our destination. But there on the same map is a big red arrow pointing to where we are standing, reminding us, “You are here.” We can make wrong turn after wrong turn; we can get hopelessly lost. We can give up and go home. But that red arrow doesn’t go away. It’s one of the hardest things, but next time you don’t know where you are or what to do, try starting with “I am here.” Plant yourself under that arrow. Then go make some mistakes.


Please visit One Continuous Mistake if you have time. Tracy writes really beautifully about the complications of our children and our lives, and I, true to form, write long essays about things I really don’t understand. There’s also a Facebook page. Also, if you’re interested, note that you can now follow this blog through Twitter as well.

Teacher? Student?

in a row ganzoujiThe other night, after returning home from my teacher’s temple, where we celebrated the Buddha’s enlightenment, I fell head first into what I suppose is my own version of internet porn: Zen people arguing with Zen people on Zen blogs about Zen. These days the topic is sex, and the discussion is heated, and like any kind of pornography, it left me simultaneously wanting to see more and never, never wanting to see it again.

Combing through all those hundreds of comments, I read the words “student” and “teacher” over and over — we seem to use them as if we all agree on what they mean. But I think there is very little actual agreement about what either one is. Or does. Or should do. I have my own take on it, but I’m sure I do not represent a majority view. I don’t know if there is a majority view.

Leading up to my ordination and after, what I wanted more than anything was for my teacher to teach me. I wanted to hear his views on Buddhism. I wanted him to challenge mine. I wanted to tangle eyebrows a little. I also wanted homework, some concrete, achievable task that I could take to him so that he could put a check mark in his book and see how serious I was. He gave me nothing. While I was living in a different town, I would call him up and ask, “What do you want me to be doing?” and his reply was always, “Just settle down.” Which drove me crazy. Even then, I was sure that if/when he came to the conclusion that I had, in fact, “settled down,” then the formal teaching would begin. But I’m still waiting on that. He is not what I expected, not what I thought I was looking for. His favorite activity is to walk in the mountains surrounding his temple and collect wild, edible plants. I’ve never seen him do a ceremony the same way twice, and even if a ceremony becomes a total disaster, it doesn’t faze him at all. (Just before the ceremony the other day, after waiting an hour for this conversation, I asked, “So… how do you want to do this?” His reply, as we’re starting to walk into the hall: “Let’s do the Heart Sutra!” That is not enough information.) I used to wonder if all this silence and pointing away was all supposed to be a teaching in itself. After all, he has mastered one of the most basic parts of this relationship: not giving the student what he wants. It’s taken me years to accept that he really just doesn’t care — not about this or that teaching, not about this or that form, not about this or that tradition. Mostly, he goes into people’s homes, does short ceremonies for their ancestors, then sits and talks with them over tea about whatever is going on in their lives. And they trust him. Completely. That is the shape of the practice for him, though I don’t think it would even occur to him to call it practice. It’s just how he spends his day.

So that’s one version of what it is to be a student. It can be frustrating and confusing. My teacher was happy to turn my training over to others — he was honest at the start about being someone who was “opening a gate” for me. He didn’t really expect me to go up through all the ranks, but he was happy when I did. And though my expression of the Dharma and his are very, very different, he has never suggested that he would have it any other way. He doesn’t play guru, but nor does he play “spiritual friend.” He’s something else.

Upon entering monastic life, I started to meet lots of senior priests and see different ways in which people play that role. The monastery where I spent most of my time, Zuiōji, is well known for its emphasis on form and formality, and though I hated it at first, I came to embrace that model of the practice for myself. I saw for the first time how powerful the formal side of this tradition can be, how it can push our understanding of action into something completely new. I saw how the physical expressions of the Dharma — the ritual, the clothes, the etiquette — created an atmosphere for practice unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else. And there, in that world, I became a priest very much unlike my teacher.

One of the teachers I met there kind of adopted me; he is not my teacher by any formal definition, but still, he is — he is my “teacher of debt (onshi, 恩師).” He, too, has embraced that formality. We speak often of the Dharma, often until late in the night. I interpret his lectures. When we walk, I walk just a little behind him; when we eat, I am sure to finish just after he does, not before. Our relationship is completely honest, but at the same time, it is a fair description to say that he is playing “teacher” and I am playing “student.” We are trying to do it “right.” We are each making a space in which the other person can explore that role, that way of being. This is another way of being a student.

The man who is formally my teacher does not, by any conventional definition, teach, nor does he permit me to play the role of a student. And the man who has taken the most responsibility for cultivating me as a priest is not, by any formal definition, my teacher at all. I cannot express how fortunate I have been to have entered the spheres of these two teachers, to be pushed and pulled and frustrated and encouraged and challenged by my relationships with them. Together they have offered me models not only of how to invest in students, but also how to let go of them.

But they also did all this in the context of me being a priest. It is understood that priests have things they must learn; later, it is understood that there are things they must pass on. In Western Zen centers, the dynamic is a little different. In most places, only one person is a priest, maybe two. How the lay members of a community are supposed to relate to priests is really new territory.

When I joined the Anchorage Zen Community in 2006, most if not all of the members were older than me. A few of them had been sitting for as long as I’d been alive. Tozen Akiyama, the former resident priest, had just left after being there for five years. A couple of those more experienced members seemed to take on a student stance towards me (one by choice, the other seemingly in spite of herself). Some, I think, felt that they were Tozen Akiyama’s students, and there was no pressing reason to change. After I was there a few months, some young people started to arrive, students who had met me at the university. Many considered me their teacher and called me “sensei,” but I was their Japanese teacher first, their Zen teacher second.

One woman from the university, during sesshin, came to dokusan for the very first time, bowed, sat down, and said, “Well, I guess everything is different now.” And she was right. But she was right because she said it, not because she had come to dokusan.

To some, I was the resident priest; to others, I was the teacher, whether or not they considered themselves my students. And I did not think of them as “my” students — I thought of them as students of Zen.  A few people — maybe 10 over the four years — came to me and said they wanted to be my student, formally. I explained to them that in this tradition, the burden is on the student, and the curriculum is proximity. Come sit with me more often, I said. Spend time with me. Talk with me as much as you want, but if you think I have something that you want for yourself, your best bet is to hang around and see if it rubs off. Imitate if you want. Two really tried. The rest came less often after that conversation than they did before. I know they wanted what I had wanted: a curriculum, homework, acknowledgment. I have no problem with giving deliberate shape to that dynamic, but I don’t think it’s the starting point, either. First, just be in the room. Try that.

I have conferred the precepts to about 40 people — are they my students? As a priest, I have a responsibility to offer the precepts to whomever wants to receive them — I cannot deny them. I can make people jump through hoops first, and I do: everyone sews a rakusu. But everyone is welcome. (That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I have a responsibility to ordain anyone who wants to become a priest — that’s a different conversation. But in any case, the precepts are the same.)

Tracy, my wife, received the precepts from me. Does that cross some kind of line? No — she was never my student, nor could she be (and the precepts, while we’re at it, are not “my” precepts). Even if she were to walk into the dokusan room and sit across from me, that would not be dokusan, because her presence there would make it something else. We would probably act all serious for a minute, then just talk about how cute/exhausting our kids are.  (None of this is to say that we have a perfectly equal relationship, because we don’t. She’s much smarter than I am.)

Some teachers take a very authoritative place in even their lay students’ lives, getting mixed up in their day-to-day activities and relationships; others, like myself, often don’t know who identifies as a student and who does not. Even in this tradition, where there has traditionally been a significant vertical gap between teachers and ordained students, some teachers choose the model of spiritual friend, engaging more as a fellow practitioner than as a guide. I know a monk who met his teacher on the day of ordination, after having it all arranged by a third party. And I know another who lived in his teacher’s house for 10 years, essentially living as a member of the teacher’s family. If you are practicing koan Zen, then your teacher holds certain answers, and an authority to pass you or not. You’re probably spending a lot of time talking alone. But take the koan away, and you might have a relationship with your teacher that is almost entirely nonverbal (and relatively public).

All of this is just one simple illustration of the fact that there is no such thing as “American Zen,” much less “Zen.” We have Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen; we have lineages that are neither, and also some that are both. We have what are sometimes referred to as “Catholic Zen,” which embraces form and formality, and “Protestant Zen,” which asserts that form is a distraction from the real point. There is Zen that seeks enlightenment and Zen that says it is already here. Japanese Zen, Korean Zen, Chinese Zen, Vietnamese Zen — each has its own gifts to offer, and each has its own dangers.

Beyond all those categories, there is the place where you actually practice; there is the teacher you actually know. There is what you want from the practice, and there is what your teacher is capable of giving.

As I said, we’re making this up as we go along. But it’s not just about these new shores, or about ordained versus lay. We’ve always been making this up as we go along. Where there are two individuals, it will always be new. It will always be an experiment. Any one of us could probably write volumes about what we think it should be — I could. But it’s not that. It’s not that simple.

This is our beautiful mess. We make it. And we can never completely clean it up.

Behind Closed Doors

Like Dosho Port over at Wild Fox Zen, I have lots of things I want to write about, but when everyone is talking about a scandal, not talking about it starts to feel like avoidance. Today, to many people such as myself (who have never been privy to the American Zen gossip mill), the news about Joshu Sasaki comes as a surprise. So did the very disturbing details about Eido Shimano not long ago. But the greater surprise, for me at least, is learning that so many people have known so much for so long. I am not mystified by how these things happen — I have seen for myself how students can enable teachers, and how they can look away from actions and “teachings” that bear greater scrutiny. I have also seen how a teacher can become so insulated that there is no real pressure to act like — or be– a mature adult. It’s a trap, one that everyone sets together. The Zen world — all over the world — needs to do some serious housecleaning. But that is painful, and sad, and it gets ugly along the way.

I do not feel that I have much to offer regarding the current scandal. The scope of it is still being defined, and while that’s happening, people have already stepped forward and said much of what needs to be said, at least at this stage (Myoan Schireson’s article at Sweeping Zen, “A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective on Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, and Other Abuses in Zen Centers,” is a good place to start). I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I will say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a Zen teacher desiring sex. That just means he or she is human. For that matter, I’m not concerned with a teacher being attracted to a student — we do not have much control over who or what we desire. But when a teacher, in a practice setting, acts on that attraction (even with just a word, or a gesture, or an unmistakable look), the teacher is elevating that desire to primary importance. He is saying that satisfying his desire or his curiosity is more important than the student, more important than the transmission of the teachings, more important than the practice, more important than the health of the community. That is the mindset of a child, and we don’t need children teaching Zen. But all that’s obvious, and it’s been said better elsewhere.

There is one aspect of this scandal and all the others, however, that seems not to be getting much airtime, so I’d like to try to explore it here. It’s dokusan.

Dokusan (or sanzen in the Rinzai world — even more confusing, sanzen is also a Soto word, but with a completely different meaning), is the formal, private meeting between student and teacher. Some Zen centers offer it year round, others only during sesshin or special practice periods. Generations of Westerners know, from Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen (and other books describing koan-based practice), that dokusan is where the excitement is. It’s where student and teacher tangle eyebrows, where they shout and hit and stare and cry and break through to something new. If you’re a new student, dokusan is where you go to find your most romantic ideas about Zen; if you’re a teacher with a new student, dokusan is where your authenticity is tested, where you do or do not live up to that student’s dreams. It can be intense. (My advice: don’t live up to those dreams.)

But dokusan is also the setting and starting point of almost every sex scandal in the Zen world. Dokusan is where a teacher touches a student’s knee, where a teacher suggests that the student is special and that theirs is an intimacy that goes well beyond the mind, where the teacher cultivates an ambiguous sexual tension to see where it might go. It is where a student and teacher having an affair can be perfectly alone, but in public. In some cases, it is where the teacher assaults the student outright. And it is also where, by the nature of it, the student is most vulnerable, most raw, most receptive to whatever the teacher is offering. It’s the scene of the crime, over and over and over again.

My own experience of dokusan: The first time I entered that room was as a student here in Japan, with a Soto teacher who uses koans. It was not magical or even all that intense, but it was honest, and I was grateful for the encounter (in that one sesshin, I learned a lot about how not to behave in dokusan). My second experience of it was as a teacher, receiving students. That may seem shocking, but in the Soto world, at least for those of us who trained in Japan, that’s normal. In the conventional Soto Zen world (meaning temples and teachers who do not use koans as teaching tools), there is no such thing as dokusan. I’m sure there are some exceptions to that, but in my 12 years in Japan, I have yet to find even one. A student can always meet formally with a teacher — structures exist for that. But even then — even if the meeting opens and closes with prostrations, even if it produces all the intensity we might expect — it is also more likely than not that tea will be served, and that the conversation will stretch on for an hour or more. There will not be a line of students waiting their turns; there will not be an attendant guarding the door.

In the West, due largely to the influence of Philip Kapleau’s book (and some others), Soto Zen practitioners decided decades ago that dokusan is indispensable to Zen practice. The fact that it is employed is not a bad thing — it creates an encounter that is deliberate and formal in ways that are difficult to maintain at other times, perhaps especially in the casual world of the West. In the teaching seat, I have seen how it throws even seasoned practitioners off center to walk into that room, how it makes them open to something new. And that’s good. I have watched people with whom I have only ever had casual conversations bow, sit down, tear open their chests, and hand me their beating hearts. It is a very humbling place to be. I have also had the profound privilege of serving as an interpreter for Japanese teachers visiting the US and conducting dokusan at students’ requests. From my spot in the shadows, I have been able to watch encounters that are not intended for an audience; I have witnessed how skillful teachers can create that open and forgiving space, how they stay so clear and so honest in the face of so many projections and so much transference.

I have also seen where it can become complicated. A woman I had just recently met once came to me in dokusan and told me that she felt like she might have a crush on me. She described this as a feeling that was confusing to her, but her presentation was giggly and a little flirtatious. I don’t believe she wanted anything to happen between us. She was considerably older than I was; it didn’t feel like a proposition. But she was also inviting me to respond. She was testing me a little, and maybe also seeking out some sort of affirmation. I told her this: those feelings are natural, even normal. I, too, have felt something like a crush on teachers, male and female — that initial attraction, that desire to be close to the teacher or even to be considered special is probably only rarely a romantic one, but since those feelings are so analogous to romantic feelings (we don’t even have multiple words for “crush,” though they are obviously needed), it is easy for either party to be confused. She and I shared a laugh about it, and we went on to talk about other things. But in that moment between what she said and how I responded, what if she had reached out and touched me on the hand? Or what if I had touched her hand, just to be reassuring or friendly? It could have happened, easily. One of us would have been left wondering what on earth it all meant.  She could have told that story to the rest of the sangha any way she wanted; I could have done the same. Or we could have held that moment as a secret between us — this little thing, that should have meant nothing, could have transformed into something that needed to be resolved, or hidden, or somehow followed up on. A small gesture like that, when two people are so exposed, can tear the world down the middle. It can terrify or excite the student — maybe both. And it can embolden a teacher — making others uncomfortable or afraid can be an intoxicating kind of power, whether it’s about sex or not.

I don’t know if any of the horrible stories we hear about teachers molesting and assaulting and generally manipulating students start out in that small way. But I think I see how easy it is for that dynamic to fall away from what it should be. We sometimes describe Zen in dangerous terms, and rightly so — zazen is not a safe activity. Walking into a room and exposing your heart to someone is not a safe thing to do. Nor should it be. But even recognizing and honoring that, we can agree that the dokusan room, in more conventional terms, must be a safe space. There must be rules. There must be guidelines that are public — not only so that teachers can be held accountable, but so that students can know, without any question, that what just happened was a transgression and not a teaching to be unraveled.

I do not want to dissuade anyone from walking into that room. There is a beautiful, honest, uncomfortable encounter to be had there, and Zen is all of those things. I encourage anyone who wants that confrontation to seek it out. But given the problems that continue to occur there, I also want to offer two thoughts, for what they’re worth:

The first is that Zen teachers do not need to touch students. Ever. As someone who teaches at a university, I am not allowed to close the door when a female student visits my office. This is for her protection and mine. In dokusan, the door will be closed, so there needs to be transparency before it closes about what can and cannot happen there. I don’t know what other teachers do; I don’t want to suggest all sorts of arbitrary limits. But I cannot imagine how a teacher is hindered by not physically touching the student. Teachers, just don’t do it. Students, don’t press the issue. If the student really wants to hug the teacher, that should be done later, and it should happen in front of other people. But even better, let’s bow to each other. When I visit American Zen centers, I find that bowing is being traded in for handshakes and hugs, but what is lacking in a bow? I used to visit a women’s prison where I was expressly forbidden from touching anyone in the prison population. Every time as I left, the woman we visited there most often would say she wished she could hug me, then we would bow instead. But that bow contained that hug. It contained more than a hug. I loved that bow.

The second thing I want to say is that dokusan is not at the center of the practice — let’s be careful not to put it there. I’m not sure that can be said of the koan tradition — there, it may be difficult to move forward without it. But in Soto Zen, there is nothing your teacher can offer you in that room that is more special than what she offers outside of it. And if you try to bring more to that room than you do to the way you sit or walk or stand or lie down, then you are missing what actually is at the center. If you go into dokusan, then really show up, really be there. But then, after the bell rings, open the door with that same presence, and walk away withholding nothing, offering that action and the next and the next. Be careful about anything special happening in that room. I don’t just mean sex — I mean anything.

There is no room more special than the one you’re in right now. There is no encounter more important than the one you’re having in this moment.

Dokusan is just another room, just another encounter. Let’s try not to forget.