A Universal Recommendation of Zazen


The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. What need is there for practice and realization?

The Dharma vehicle is rolling freely. Why should we exhaust our effort?

There is no speck of dust in the whole universe. How could we ever try to brush it clean?

Everything is manifest at this very place. Where are we supposed to direct the feet of our practice?

Now, if you make the slightest discrimination, you will create a gap like that between heaven and earth.

If you follow one thing while you resist the other, your mind will be shattered and lost.

Suppose you are confident in your understanding and rich in enlightenment, gaining the wisdom that knows at a glance, attaining the way and clarifying the mind, arousing an aspiration to reach for the heavens. Now your head is stuck in the entrance-way, while your body has no clue how to get out.

Although Shakyamuni was wise at birth, can't you see the traces of his six years of upright sitting? Bodhidharma transmitted the mind-seal from India. Can't you hear the echo of the nine years he sat facing a wall?

If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice? Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.

Your body and mind will drop away of themselves, and your original face will manifest. If you want to get into touch with things as they are, you - right here and now - have to start being yourself, as you are.

For practicing Zen, a quiet room is suitable. Eat and drink moderately. Put aside all involvements and suspend all affairs.

Don't think about "good" or "bad". Don't judge true or false. Your mind, intellect, and consciousness are spinning around - let them have rest. Give up measuring with thoughts, ideas, and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha. How could that be limited to sitting or lying down?

When you sit, spread a mat and put a cushion on it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, first place your right foot on your left thigh, then your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus position, simply place your left foot on your right thigh.

Tie your robes loosely and arrange them neatly. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left hand on your right palm, thumb-tips lightly touching.

Straighten your body and sit upright, leaning neither left nor right, neither forward nor backward. Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel. Rest the tip of your tongue against the front of the roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips together both shut. Always keep your eyes open, and breathe softly through your nose. Once you have adjusted your posture, take a breath and exhale fully, rock your body right and left, and settle into steady, immovable sitting. Think of not thinking. Not thinking: What kind of thinking is that? Letting thoughts go (Nonthinking). This is the essential art of zazen.

Zazen is not a meditation technique. It is simply the Dharma gate of joyful ease, it is practicing the realization of the boundless Dharma way. Here, the open mystery manifests, and there are no more traps and snares for you to get caught in.

If you grasp the point, you are like a dragon gaining the water, like a tiger taking to the mountains. For you must know that the true Dharma appears of itself, so that from the start dullness and distraction are struck aside.

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Don't do it head over heels. Understand that those who transcended the mundane and sacred, and died while either sitting or standing, have all committed themselves entirely to this power.

In addition, turning the Dharma wheel with a finger, a banner, a needle, or a mallet, and realizing it with a whisk, a fist, a staff, or a shout - these cannot be understood by discriminative thinking. Much less can they be known through the practice of supernatural power. Your conduct must be beyond seeing forms and hearing sounds, it must be based on the order that is prior to knowledge and views. Don't worry about if you are more intelligent than the others, or not. Make no distinction between the dull and the sharp-witted. If you concentrate your effort single-mindedly, that in itself is wholeheartedly engaging the way. Practice-realization is naturally undefiled. Practicing the way means to live the present day.

In our world and others, in both India and China, all equally hold the buddha-seal. The wind of truth is blowing unhindered, so just give yourself to the sitting, be totally blocked in resolute stability.

Although they say that there are ten thousand distinctions and a thousand variations, just wholeheartedly engage the way in zazen. Why leave behind the seat in your own home to wander in vain through the dusty realms of other lands? If you make one misstep you stumble past what is directly in front of you. You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form. Do not pass your days and nights in vain.

You met the Buddha way in this life - how could you waste your time delighting in sparks from a flint stone? Form and substance are like the dew on the grass, the fortunes of life like a dart of lightning - emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.

Please, honored followers of Zen, long accustomed to groping for the elephant, do not doubt the true dragon.

Devote your energies to the way that points directly to the real thing. Revere the one who has gone beyond learning and is free from effort.

Share the wisdom of Buddhas with Buddhas, transmit the samadhi of patriarchs to patriarchs. Continue to live in such a way, and you will be such a person. The treasure store will open of itself, it is up to you to use it freely.

-Dogen zenji


A monk asked, "Does a dog have a Buddha-nature or not?"

The master said, "Mu!"

The monk said, "Above to all the Buddhas, below to the crawling bugs, all have Buddha-nature. Why is it that the dog has not?"

The master said, "Because he has the nature of karmic delusions".
—The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, koan 132, translation by James Green

"Ku," "mu" or "sūnyatā" is the underlying true nature of all phenomena. Often translated (read: "dumbed-down") as "emptiness" or "void", it is the base level of reality in a Buddhist paradigm. And, (all too) often, this--to outside observers--is seen as being tinged with negativity. "What point is there to life if all things are empty? That sounds suspiciously like nihilism, and I don't like that!" More advanced or formal practitioners appreciate that this is not, in fact, a proper apprehension of the concept. They do, however, understand why so many misapprehend the concept of ku. Were it to be easy, we'd all have a handle on it by now, and render practice unnecessary.

Every practice, every step on the path--be it kinhin, a walk to the library, or a wiping of your ass--is a practice of ku. Every sneeze, burp, fart, back-rub, egg-scramble, oil-change, fapp, nose-pick, letter-opening, thrust, wince, hug, smile, frown... everything is empty and without form. A true apprehension leads one to experience that every sneeze, burp, fart, back-rub, egg-scramble, oil-change, fapp, nose-pick, letter-opening, thrust, wince, hug, smile, frown... everything is the entire Universe. Whole, total and complete, lacking nothing.

As I am off for a week of monastic retreat (or "sesshin") starting on Monday, I leave you with this:
In your life, in your daily experience of now, where do you touch "ku"? Have you? Do you? What has this experience done for you? Where/how does it manifest? Does it inform your life, or vice-versa?
May all beings achieve enlightenment, even before me...

I've been struggling the past few days.  After returning from the Mindful Eating retreat, I was on a bit of a high.  I felt empowered.  A tad more in control.  I dropped below 240lbs.  I had a job interview that went really well, and I look to be employed soon by a non-profit that I really believe in.  Our sangha has finally found a suitable building, and will pay a mere song for it, not a Wagnerian opera's worth.  I was feeling like...  I dunno.  Things felt good.

Somewhere between there and here, I've slid back into some old, unhelpful ways.  It's illustrated something to me:  No matter how "in control" one feels, it's an illusion.  A delusion, more rightly.  And it reinforces to me Sekito Kisen's admonition: "Do not waste your time by night or day!"[1]

It's so easy to lose sight of what's important, truly important.  It's almost as if we--as monkeys--are programmed to lose it.  I suppose in a way we are, or else practice would be unnecessary.

The weight has ticked back up on the scale a bit.  Not dangerously so, but not insignificantly either.  I feel a clinging arising in me lately.  A desire to fill voids.  A habit of seeing voids where there are none, or making them in my mind in order to feel gratified when they are filled, or by what I choose to stuff them full of.

This I believe is coming from anxiety.

I guess part stems from the initial tastes of S.A.D. 'Tis the season and all.  But I know that the lion's share is stemming from my going to my first full sesshin at the monastery.

The anxiety isn't as great as it has been in the past about this.  I don't feel panicked.  I know I'll be fine.  I have been needing to do this for quite a while, and I have the support of my teachers and my friends, both inside and outside the sangha.  I know I'm "ready" to do this.

I am just railing against the ideas of discomfort and dissatisfaction.  Fighting preconceived notions of a future that I think I may have an idea about.  How dumb.  Here I am, the guy that tells everyone to have no preconceptions, yet I'm busy being bitten in the ass by my own.

But that's just as it goes, innit?

I'm happy, though, in that I do now taste a difference on my palate regarding this anxiety.  It's less than it used to be.  I'm vastly more anxious about being away from my cat for a week, and her needs, than I am my own.  The worse that will happen to me is that I'm mildly uncomfortable and slightly annoyed for a week.  I've suffered worse.

I know this is a bit of a scatter-shot blog today.  Sorry.  Just spitting out a mouthful of what's on my tongue.  Maybe if I do it on a piece of white paper, we can have a pretty Rorschach to look at?

On this Veteran's Day, 2010, 92 years after the armistice, a letter from my great grandmother, Mary Logan-Grady, of Valders, WI. to my maternal grandfather, George Grady, a conscientious objector in WWI, who served as a corpsman and ordinance technician throughout France between 1916-1919.  This entire piece, including the parenthetical addendum, was printed in a local Manitowoc news paper in remembrance of Armistice Day (date unknown).

My Dear Son George:

I am more than bursting with joy this morning.  The glad news of peace arrived yesterday at half-past 2 o'clock.  What a relief and comfort to all mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and all sweethearts.

Every whistle and bell and bugle and horn was heard for miles around.  Yes, more than that, the roosters crew all night and Darkey howled and Sport barked and all the cows came bellowing to the barn and everything was at a standstill.

John just got through plowing as the whistles blew.  It was a real holiday.

And the night before, they had devotions in our church and blessed the service flag.  Sadie and Ella rang for the dedication and thanks to Almighty God and the Blessed Mother, there aren't any gold stars on it yet, if all be true which I hope it is.

Last night I dreamed I seen you coming up the road driving the gray team on an old buggie and you looked so small and thin.  The first time I ever dreamed of you.  We got all your letters and Johney's letter came a few days ago.

So, you seen General Pershing.

Well, George, I have no more paper and I want to write so bad.  Excuse this letter this time.

With love from your loving Mother.

P.S.  Schools and churches and everything was shut down the past five weeks.  Elmer (Barnes) had the flu so bad he died three times, but still lives and is feeling fine.

(James Mullins, formerly of Manitowoc, and now teaching at St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, found this letter among his mother's keepsakes after her death several years ago.  He sent copies to other relatives, including Mrs. Justin Mullins, (formerly Mary Claire Barnes) who brought it to the newspaper office.  Mrs. Grady was her grandmother.

Mrs. Grady writer of the letter, was the former Mary Logan, and the family farm was on County Highway C, where it is still operated by Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Grady and Mrs. Ruth Grady.  Ruth's late husband was John Grady who is mentioned in the letter.)

On this Veteran's Day, 2010, 92 years after the armistice, a letter from my maternal grandfather, George Grady, a conscientious objector in WWI, who served as a corpsman and ordinance technician throughout France between 1916-1919, to my great grandmother, Mary Logan-Grady, of Valders, WI.

Charpentry, France
Jan 1st, 1919

Dearest Mother-

Well, another year has rolled around and in place of the grim and hideous spectacle which the last few years have found confronting them on taking their appointed place in the ages, it finds all mankind at peace.  I can well imagine with what a frenzied and momentous joy the wild bells ushered in this new year of nineteen hundred and nineteen.  God grant that all subsequent years finds the world more securely attached to peace and peaceful pursuits.

It would be too bad if this war has been fought in vain, unless the whole world stands as a unit and agrees to abolish compulsory military service and fails to uphold the fourteen points of President Wilson's plan, I am sure in a few years expect the same awful catastrophe to occur again and with more terrible and appalling results.  There is no way to judge the future but by the past.  My prayers now are for the peace counsil [sic] which is soon to sit.  I hope God be with them in their work so that their poor blind eyes be able to see their way clear and guide them aright.  On their heads rest the future of this turbulent sphere.  How well their work is done determines the safety of it.  Let us sincerely hope and pray for the best so that the sacrifices and heroic sufferings and efforts will bear fruit. 

-PVT George W. Grady
 Ordinance Detachment
 American Expeditionary Force

To go deeper than ever before
Presupposes a shallowness that may
or may not
be a delusion.

Can the ocean ever truly be shallow?
Can the sea ever be anything other than the sea?
Are there parts that are one thing,
but not the other?

I peak
as a wave
acting alone
but never truly

I crest
like a mountain
atop an ever moving

I crash
like diamonds
upon an eternal and endless

I recede
back into the depths
of the infinite potential of

I am
as you are.

But different.

An ango (安居), for those who don't know, is a period of more intensive practice in a zen sangha or monastery.  My sangha observes one every autumn.  For us, it's traditional to make an ango vow or commitment; some extra practice like bowing, chanting, memorizing a sutra, daily- or extra zazen, etc.   This year, I was having a hard time coming up with something that resonated with me.  Last year I committed to sit every time my sangha was at the dharma center (of 32 opportunities, I missed four.  Jes' sayin'...).  This year, I was thinking of trying to memorize the Shosai Myokichijo Dharani, which always renders me dumb and mum.  I may still.  I'll be chanting it daily for six days in about two weeks.

But this past weekend, I attended my teacher, Chozen Bays-roshi's Mindful Eating retreat at Great Vow Zen Monastery.  The retreat was a gift to me by my friend Bansho, but it was a bit extra significant for a few reasons.  I've dropped over fifty pounds this year, and I really wanted to attend this retreat.  He's been following my progress, and had purchased this retreat with the intent of making it a scholarship.  I suddenly couldn't come up with the finances to attend, and it all fell neatly into place.

I'll talk a bit more about the experience in a future post, but suffice it to say that I came up with my commitment tonight as I ate dinner half ōryōki-style.  I will eat at least one meal a day this way throughout all of ango.

Just got back from a weekend-long monastic retreat (focused on mindful eating: more on that in a following blog post) and can report that much zazen was energetically sat. At 4:30am yesterday morning, I was up, sitting zazen outside in the crisp cold of an early Oregon autumn, in the pitch dark with a stunningly bright half-moon hanging behind the translucent UV-blue clouds, and every star in the sky encouraging me to "wake up"! I sent out my intentions, and included all my Weirdness-following friends. One thing that came up for me (thanks in no small part to the aforementioned moon) was the issue of the waxing and waning of practice at times, and specifically the energy required to keep up a good daily zazen/shikantaza practice. My tip to you all: don't be discouraged if you fall off the zafu. Be gentle with yourself. Just get back on. Be it five minutes or a half-hour is no matter. As Dogen-zenji stated, "Do not waste your time by night or day."

Keep at it. Your practice is quite literally of the utmost importance to all beings throughout space and time...

-bows of gratitude-