Yorktown Zen http://yorktownzen.org/index.html Authentic Zen Practice in the Hudson Valley of New York Sun, 18 Sep 2022 15:46:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 SitePad Form and Emptiness http://yorktownzen.org/blog/form-and-emptiness.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/form-and-emptiness/#respond Sun, 18 Sep 2022 15:40:30 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/form-and-emptiness.html
Form and Emptiness


This week goroshi opened his talk by discussing the forms we use in practice, both words and deeds.  If everything is empty, why have forms in our practice?  Why do we bow a certain way?  Why do chose certain translations of chants over others?  In a very practical way, Roshi mentioned that this “standardization” can make one feel comfortable in any sangha anywhere in the world.  He related a story where his dharma “colleague” Tenku Roshi traveled to Italy and felt totally comfortable participating in a Sangha there.  


The question is whether words and deeds and actions have meaning?  They do!  Words and deeds drive thoughts, and thoughts drive energy, and energy drives karma.  However, as with everything in our practice, words and deeds can have great power, but in the ultimate sense are still meaningless.  Goroshi noted how so much of our language has dualism “baked in.”  he noted that every language with a term for “I” also has a term for “you.”  


It is because of the limitations of language and its potential power to drive karma, words can become a great teaching tool, but also a great source of suffering and misunderstanding.  As an example, Tesshin Roshi, asked the group to consider the word “Prajna.”  The common translation of Prajna in English is “wisdom.”  However, the term wisdom is loaded with so many connotations and preconceptions to almost be useless for our purposes.  What is “perfect wisdom” anyway?  Goroshi suggested that perhaps a different word like “Understanding” may be more appropriate.   However, even “understanding” does not get at the heart of the matter.  Here again, words, have great power to distract us, but at the same time members of the sangha must be able to communicate.  Form and emptiness dance back and forth.


Tesshin Roshi gave another example from the Blue Cliff Record of koans.  In the first case, Bodhidharma is called in front of the emperor and asked what is the nature of the dharma.  So first, is dharma the teachings or all phenomena?  Does the question even matter?  Do all phenomena teach us?  Bodhidharma is way too accomplished to get confused here.  He responds that all dharmas are “empty.”  Again, “empty” is another poor translation.  Empty does not mean negated.  It means that it does not stand separate from ultimate reality.  So, the emperor asks Bodhidharma, “who are you, then?”  To which Bodhidharma responds, “I don’t know.”  Again, perfect answer!  It is not that Bodhidharma does not know who he is.  Rather, how could he use forms and words to separate himself from the very suchness he has spent his life trying to understand.  What he is saying is that I cannot express it to you.  There is nothing to really say!  Any words would do you more hard than good.  


Roshi mentioned that in practice one may come to the point where they think they “know” reality.  The more we grasp at knowing the farther we are from realizing suchness.  How can that be?  If we get a clever idea as to what “it” is, we obsess over it and close our eyes to the rest of reality.  We have broken reality down into “my idea” and everything else.  Our dharma eye is shut and we begin to stumble around again in the dark.  


Goroshi wrapped up by talking about another form in our practice, namely the kyosaku or “awakening stick.”  This is a practice which he will be bringing back.  Again, this practice is charged with many misconceptions.  The stick is not there to beat wayward students.  It is not to enforce discipline.  Again, this is our ego and conditioning getting in the way.  At its simplest, it is what is called.  A device to awaken you.  It is a technique to pull back the wandering mind.  To refresh our memory, below is a link to a talk Rosi gave on the kyosaku a few years back.

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Old Cow http://yorktownzen.org/blog/old-cow.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/old-cow/#respond Sun, 11 Sep 2022 16:43:07 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/old-cow.html
Tesshin Statue - small


Roshi used his talk this week to explore case 60 in the Book of Serenity.  This case is alternatively known as “Iron Grinder” or “Tetsuma, the Cow”  Below is the text …


Ryû Tetsuma came to Isan. 

Isan said, “Old Cow, you have come!” 

Tetsuma said, “Tomorrow there will be a great feast at Mt. Tai. Will you go there, Master?” 

Isan lay down and stretched himself out. 

Tetsuma left immediately.



The first thing Roshi pointed out is that this very brief, but powerful case, is a bit unusual because it is not between two masters, but rather a master and a nun.  Roshi went on to note that although much of Zen literature focuses men, there is a rich thread of accomplished women in our tradition as well.  This is important as women will play an especially active role in Zen in the West.


The case opens up with Tetsuma coming to visit the Zen master.  We are to understand that this is not just a common farm woman, but an accomplished Zen nun.  The master says “Old Cow, you have come!”  Hmmm, “old cow” not exactly the nicest thing to say to someone!  However, as we know, the surface reaction is almost never the right reaction when reading a Zen koan.  What we need to understand is that in this part of the world cows are really important. They were the main form of motive power.  They pulled wagons, drove plows, and did many of the functions that horses did in the West.  So, calling this nun an old cow really means – precious jewel.  


At this point, Tesshin Roshi paused and noted a statue of an Ox (pictured in this article) he gave to his master many years ago.  Like Isan, the invocation of the image of a cow is high praise and Roshi’s master kept this statue on his personal alter until the day he died.


However, in another sense, does it even matter what the master calls the nun?  In Zen we believe that perfection is everywhere.  We do not worry about the role of the master or the role of the nun.  What matters is that there are two people and these two people really understand reality.  The nun asks, “there is a big event at a famous temple, are you going master?”  The master takes a nap.  What does this mean?  In one sense, the master is saying what could possibly be at this big event that would make reality any more “real” than what we have right here and right now.  This is a critical message for us!  There really is nothing special out there.  There is no magic incantation which will be given at the next retreat.  There is no key written in the next book we read.  Nothing profound is going to happen to you in the dokusan room.  Everything we need is right in front of us right now.  The master realized this and simply took a nap.  The nun realized this and simply went home.


Roshi stopped here and painted us the image of every person being a perfect diamond wrapped up in layers and layers of thread.  Imagine our life long conditioning as nothing more than wrapping a long string around and around the perfect diamond.  Our practice is simply stopping this and starting to unwind this thread.  With enough practice, we get the diamond completely unwrapped and shining in the sunlight.  This is what happed in the interaction between Tetsuma and Isan.  They both recognized the perfection in the other.  Thus, there was nothing more to do.


Roshi wrapped up by noting that the point of our practice is to attain a true “state of ease.” This is what Isan’s nap symbolizes.  What does ease really mean?  Most of us look to external things to induce ease.  It could be wine, TV, sports, and a million other things.  However true ease and freedom from suffering comes from within.  Imagine a time when you could be at ease no matter what was going on outside of you.  This is the point of practice.  This is the message Isan was teaching and which Tetsuma understood.

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Mind of Enlightenment http://yorktownzen.org/blog/mind-of-enlightenment.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/mind-of-enlightenment/#respond Sat, 03 Sep 2022 21:06:15 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/mind-of-enlightenment.html
Meaning of Life


Roshi continued our discussion this week on Hakuin.  He opened the talk by reciting a famous koan ascribed to Hakuin.


“You know the sound of two hands clapping, what sound does one hand make.” 


This koan is usually misquoted as asking what is the sound of one hand clapping, but we all know that it is impossible to clap with one hand.  The real question is what sound can one hand make.  It is said that Hakuin commented on this koan by saying, “The sound of one hand saved my life!”  So perhaps this sound, echoing through all time and space, can save us as well.


Roshi next mentioned that Hakuin was not particularly impressed by the monks and priests of his day.  He thought students residing in a zendo “just sitting” were no better than rocks gathered into a pile.  It is said that Hakuin preferred workers and old women.  Workers face the reality of the world everyday and old women have “seen it all” and have deep wisdom.


There is a story about Hakuin where an old lay woman comes to the temple to share her deep enlightenment with the great teacher.  As the teacher respected old women, he ushered her right into a personal interview and invited her to demonstrate her understanding.  The woman states that the Dharma shines everywhere.  Hakuin asks, “Does the Dharma shine up your butt?”  The old woman immediately slaps him and then Hakuin slaps the woman back.  After this exchange they both laugh deeply and share a cup of tea.


Tesshin Roshi asked us to think about this exchange.  What was going on?  Did the woman slap Hakuin because he crossed the line by asking such a “vulgar” question?  “Does the Dharma shine up your butt?”  What kind of question is this?  Also, why did Hakuin slap the woman back?  Was he upset by the initial assault?  Roshi reminded us that in these stories there is always something going on beneath mere surface appearances.  Roshi first noted that the woman stated that the Dharma is everywhere.  Hakuin asks a pretty simple question – everywhere – even up your butt?  We know the answer is yes because there is nothing outside of “it” – even the old lady’s butt!  The woman could have given a long-winded explanation, but instead slapped Hakuin.  This slap was not anger.  The very action of slapping is also in the Dharma!  She passed the “test.”  Hakuin recognizes the successful answer by slapping her back.  This is a deep gift.  If she was not accomplished, he would never consider doing this.  A good teacher can recognize where a student is by what they say and more importantly, what they do.  However, this is yet another test.  You can say and do the “right things”, but how deep is your understanding in a moment of crisis?  The old woman showed her understanding by laughing when Hakuin slapped her.  There is no thinking when you are suddenly slapped.  If she had even the slightest doubt or if she was “playing the Zen role” she would have reacted very differently.  She recognized him and he recognized her.  At that point, the work was done and they had a nice cup of tea.


Roshi continued by sharing a piece Hakuin wrote late in his life called the “Mind of Enlightenment.”


What is to be valued above all else is the practice that comes after satori is achieved. What is that practice? It is the practice that puts the Mind of Enlightenment first and foremost.

Many years ago, the great deity of the Kasuga Shrine appeared to Gedatsu Shōnin of Kasagi. “Since the time of the Buddha Kuruson,” he told him, “every wise and eminent priest who has lacked the Mind of Enlightenment has without exception fallen into the paths of evil.”

For years, these words weighed on my mind, greatly troubling me. I couldn’t understand it. Wasn’t a shaven head and monk’s robe the Mind of Enlightenment? Wasn’t reciting sutras, mantras, and dharanis the Mind of Enlightenment? Not to mention all those wise and eminent priests throughout the past: the idea that such men could have lacked the Mind of Enlightenment seemed incomprehensible to me. Yet here was a sacred utterance from the august lips of the great deity of Kasuga. It certainly could not be dismissed lightly.

I first began to have these doubts when I was twenty-five. They remained with me until my forty-first year, when I at long last penetrated into the heart of this great matter. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I saw it — it was as clear as if it were right there in the hollow of my hand. What is the Mind of Enlightenment? It is, I realized, a matter of doing good — benefiting others by giving them the gift of the Dharma teaching.

I pledged that I would from that moment forth drive forward the wheel of the Four Great Universal Vows. Now I am more than eighty years of age, but I have never been remiss in my effort to fulfill that pledge. I go wherever I am asked. Fifty, a hundred leagues — it doesn’t faze me in the least. I do everything I possibly can to impart the Dharma to people. How strange it is that nowhere in the Buddhist teachings or in the records of the Zen patriarchs have I seen any clarification of the Mind of Enlightenment. How fortunate it was for me that the great deity of Kasuga, in an oracle of a few short sentences, succeeded so wonderfully in transcending all the sutras and commentaries. My joy could not have been greater.


Tesshin Roshi noted that it can be as simple as this.  Doing good for all sentient beings!  This phrase sounds simple, but it has deeper message.  Consider people concerned by topics like Social Justice.  What guides their actions?  Some people may do actions to signal their virtue.  This is not the mind of enlightenment.  Some people may want to always do the “right thing.”  However, what is right and wrong in the ultimate sense of non-duality.  The true mind of enlightenment puts all of this thinking and confusion aside.  Our actions are dictated by what is helpful to others.  Anything beyond this is nothing but our ego deluding us!  This is Hakuin’s mind of enlightenment! 


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that Hakuin’s message also extends to our Zazen practice.  Why are we really on the cushion?  What are we trying to accomplish?  What good will it be?  Yes, we meditate, and we study the Sutras, but what is the key?  We practice in order to reduce suffering.  We train to change ourselves first and then the entire world.  We strive for the “Mind of Enlightenment” in order to serve the entire realm of sentient beings!



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Intense Effort – Great Calm http://yorktownzen.org/blog/intense-effort-great-calm.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/intense-effort-great-calm/#respond Sun, 28 Aug 2022 15:29:27 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/intense-effort-great-calm.html


This week Tesshin Roshi began a discussion on Hakuin Roshi who is one of the great Rinzai masters in the Zen tradition.  Roshi reminded us that the main thread of our practice is Soto Zen, but we are still heavily influenced by Rinzai as well.  Hakuin was alive between 1686 and 1769.  From the Buddhist perspective that would make him a “modern” teacher!  


For this week Roshi provided a basic outline of Hakuin’s life.  Next week, we will explore some of his famous teachings.  Hakuin was born in a religious family in the city of Hara right at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan.  His mother followed Nichiren Buddhism.  It is said that as a child, Hakuin attended a lecture on the Buddhist Hells which had a deep effect on him.  He developed a deep fear of hell and dedicated his life to escaping that fate after he died.


At the age of 13 he asked his parents to become a monk.  His parents thought he was too young and hesitated, however after two years of persistence, Hakuin became a monk at age 15.  While at Daisho-ji temple he read and studied the Lotus Sutra which is considered the primary scripture of his family’s Nichiren sect.  Roshi mentioned that the Lotus Sutra is difficult for a novice to follow and understand, and it comes as no surprise that Hakuin became completely frustrated with it.


Three years later he was studying the koan “My Last Words” by Gānto Zenkatsu and was struck that even a famous master having reached enlightenment could not avoid being killed by random raiding bandits.  If a great master could not avoid a bloody death in this life how would a deluded beginner monk like himself avoid the hell realms.  This became a great crisis for Hakuin.  At this point, he left his current temple and wandered the country studying poetry.


Eventually Hakuin arrived at the Zuiun-ji temple run by Bao Rojin.  There is a legend that while at Juiun-ji, Hakuin came across a pile of books from every school of Buddhism.  The legend states that Hakuin randomly picked a book and the sect responsible for the work would become his path as well.  It turns out that the book he chose was a collection of Zen stories from the Ming Dynasty in China.


The next story Roshi told was about Hakuin’s first awakening experience.  Two years after choosing the Zen path, he was at Eigen-ji temple in intensive practice.  He locked himself away in the temple shrine for seven days and suddenly had an awakening experience when he heard the temple bell ring.  He runs to the master and exclaims that he now “gets all of Zen.”  The master asks Hakuin to demonstrate this enlightenment.  After he demonstrates, the master replies with a “meh” and recommends he keeps working on it.  I think this exchange is heartening to all Zen students!  If a great master like Hakuin had his demonstrations rejected, then we, as beginning students, should not feel so bad when our attempts are similarly passed over with little comment from the master.  With this rejection, Hakuin became frustrated again and he traveled to a different temple.


The next master Hakuin encountered was Shoju Rojin.  This teacher had a reputation of being extremely stern which was perfect for Hakuin’s personality.  Shoju’s teaching theory was that harshness would free the student from their ego and self-centeredness.  Shoju would assign the hardest koans and would hurl insults no matter what answer a student would provide.  


Roshi commented that Hakuin had been studying with all of these past teachers, but he still had not gained a formal recognition of his awakening from any of them.  This got Hakuin thinking…

1)  All of these teachers are illegitimate

2)  Hakuin, himself, is so deluded that practice is hopeless

Hakuin asked himself whether he is blocking his own enlightenment?  Was his own deluded mind going to consign him to the hell realm?  His answer was to practice even harder and in a more ascetic manner.  His practice got so intense that it began to affect his health in significant negative ways.  Roshi mentioned that in today’s language, we would say that he had a complete nervous breakdown.  Eventually Hakuin realized the error of his ways and called this period in his life a “Zen Sickness.”  Roshi paused here to reinforce the point and have us reflect on Hakuin’s error.  There is a point of diminishing returns when we practice too intensely.  This is yet another form a self-delusion.  Roshi reminded us that Zen practice is for both the body and mind.  If we only train the mind at the expense of the body, we will never reach true understanding.  Mind and body are one and we cannot reach realization with only part of our being.  This is why the breath is so important in our practice.


Roshi continued by noting that Hakuin reached his deepest insight at 41.  Again, this should give us encouragement that great masters did not gain insight quickly or necessarily when they were young.  It is also a great irony that this great insight happened when he was reading the Lotus Sutra – the very sutra he struggled with so much as a young monk.  It was only after he matured in his practice that the words of the sutra opened up for him.  For the rest of his life, Hakuin continued to study and practice.  He became famous in his later life for poetry and brush work.  


Roshi wrapped up by telling one more famous story about Hakuin.  This story opens with a farmer’s daughter announcing she was pregnant.  The farmer wanted to know who the father was.  The daughter pointed to Hakuin in order to protect the real father.  The farmer brings the baby the Hakuin and demands that he raise it.  Haukin simply takes the child and raises it as his own with no complaint or argument.  Years later, the daughter admits that Hakuin was not the real father and identifies the correct person.  When the family came to Hakuin to collect the child, he gave it up with no fight or argument.  “Is that so?” he would simply ask?  Roshi mentioned though intense practice, he generated great calm.

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No Pursuit No Attainment http://yorktownzen.org/blog/no-pursuit-no-attainment.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/no-pursuit-no-attainment/#respond Sun, 21 Aug 2022 15:32:24 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/no-pursuit-no-attainment.html
No Pursuit No Attainment


Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week by asking a question – How can you attain a thing without pursuing it.  This is an important question in our Zen practice.  Why do we show up for Zazen, period after period.  What are we looking to accomplish?  Is it enlightenment?  Roshi would say if you seek enlightenment, you will never find it.  However, if we are not seeking anything, then why even show up?  Perhaps the concept of “Attainment” is what is distracting us!


Roshi next provided the group with some concrete examples of how this “no pursuit no attainment” works.  He mentioned a recent movie titled “13 Lives” about 12 Thai children and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave tunnel during 2018.  The location where the children were trapped was so remote it took seven hours of highly dangerous cave scuba diving just to reach them.  After a week of planning, the first divers set off to locate the children.  Basically, this was a mission to recover bodies as everyone assumed the children were already dead.  When the divers finally arrived in the completely dark cavern, they miraculously found everyone alive and calm.  How could this be?  Here Roshi paused and noted that all of the children were brought up with a strong mediation practice.  The children were able to remain calm, conserve energy and oxygen and most importantly, not panic.  This last part is really most important.  Roshi asked us to think about our own situation.  How many times do we take a bad situation and make it so much worse by adding more and more negative thoughts.  How many times, in the pursuit of some attainment, we clutter the mind with recollections of all of our shortcomings and why we will never get anywhere.  Roshi asked us to consider the possibility of letting all those negative thoughts go and simply live the situation moment by moment.  We saw the children practicing this, can we?  


Roshi provide another example by reading an email he received from a student who practiced with him in Japan in the 1990’s.  This student contracted a serous case of Covid-19 early in the pandemic.  He described a 96-hour period where if his blood oxygen dipped below a certain level, he would be sure to die.  What do you do in this situation?  Many people would panic, which doctors tell us, is the worst thing to do.  This student was able to rely on his meditation training to slow down and give his body a chance to heal.  Simply clear out all the worries and allow the breath to do its thing.  The student wanted to live, of course, but he stopped thinking of every possible bad outcome and simply existed moment to moment.  


Tesshin Roshi wrapped up by noting that Zen never promotes itself.  Zen does not strive to gain converts or adherents because we understand that everything is Zen already.  Students on the path make a vow to help everyone because we are all the same ‘thing.’  However, we do this not by desiring or striving – we do this by understanding reality and manifesting that understanding in all directions.  Roshi challenged us to leave desires and attainments behind and realize them for the attachments they are.  This does not mean do nothing, it just means getting out of our own way and simply get on with what must be done.

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Ancestors We Choose http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ancestors-we-choose.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ancestors-we-choose/#respond Tue, 16 Aug 2022 11:43:05 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ancestors-we-choose.html


Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week by talking about the Japanese Obon festival which runs from August 13th through August 16th.  During this time many Japanese flee the big cities like Tokyo to return to the villages where they were born.  Obon is a time to visit ancestors and to clean and care for their graves.  Some people call this festival the “day of the dead.”  However, we should not consider this a morose activity.  In Japan it is a time of celebration and partying, dancing, and having a good time.  Roshi also mentioned that many Japanese reach out to long lost acquaintances right before Obon begins.  The tradition is to send small gifts to someone who you have not talked to in a long time.


The Obon festival got Roshi thinking a lot about ancestors.  There are two types of ancestors.  There are the ones we are born with and the ones we choose.  The ones we are born with are our parents, their parents, and so on.  We are with these ancestors in every moment of our lives.  This is because, in a very real sense, we are the manifestation of all of their collected karma.  All that we are in this very moment is the result of the effects of actions taken by our biological ancestors in the past.  


However, there are also the ancestors we choose.  In Zen practice, we have the ability to augment our biological ancestors with our Zen ancestors.  Many people wonder why Zen practitioners pay such special attention to past teachers.  For example, we write out our full lineage of past teachers when we take the Buddhist precepts.  We chant the names of past teachers every week in our service.  We bow to the likeness of past teachers.  Why is this?  Here Roshi was clear – our Zen ancestors and their positive karma of teaching the Dharma affect us just like the karma from our biological ancestors.  The message is that we have ancestors we were born with and ones we choose.  Choosing ancestors wisely can have a great affect on how our life turns out even if the karmic package from our biological ancestors is problematic.


Roshi also mentioned that this choice comes with great responsibilities.  These teachers imparted the Dharma asking for nothing in return – except that we practice diligently and then “pay it forward” by keeping the teaching alive for our successors.  Who are these successors – all sentient beings of course!  The actions of our practice echo out as karma well into the future.  One does not need to be a teacher to teach the Dharma.  Our actions and positive karma are all that our chosen Zen ancestors require. 


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that each of us is embedded in a web of karma.  Past actions lead to us in this very moment and our actions spread out into the distant future.  During this Obon season, we give a deep bow to our parents for making us who we are, but we also give a deep bow to our Zen ancestors as they make our practice what it is.

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Zen and the Art of Diving http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-and-the-art-of-diving.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-and-the-art-of-diving/#respond Wed, 10 Aug 2022 11:58:51 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-and-the-art-of-diving.html
Zen Diving


The group was happy to have Roshi back after his three-week trip to Egypt and Israel.  Roshi used his talk to relate his three weeks of Scuba diving to our practice.  It is said that there is a “Zen to everything” and diving is no exception.  If one stops and thinks for a moment, this should not be a surprise as one of the most fundamental teachings is that nothing exists outside of Zen.  


Roshi noted that the purpose of his trip was to learn new diving techniques.  Normally, when we think of Scuba, we think of divers jumping out of boats into deep water.  However, there is another technique called “Shore Diving” where one enters the water from the shore instead of diving off of a boat.  Although this does not seem like a big difference, the diver must learn a totally new set of skills to be effective.  For instance, at the site Roshi was diving, one had to scramble up and down from a steep underwater cliff to get in and out of the water.  This can be quite dangerous as the force of waves upon the rocks can easily kill an inexperienced diver.  Roshi’s instructor commented that he was extremely calm during the training whereas most first-time students are terrified.  Roshi noted here that his many years of Zen training was the reason he could maintain his calm.  What is panic, after all, but the negative stories we keep telling ourselves…  


•What happens if I am not fast enough to get out of the water before the waves hit?

•What happens if I do something wrong?

•I am not good enough, experienced enough, strong enough to really be doing this


Here Roshi was clear – what Zen practice provides is the ability to clear the mind of this “mental garbage” and confront the situation as it arises.  What is important is “out there” and is not the ongoing dialog within our heads.


Another common issue with diving is that new students typically get a burst of confidence and quickly put themselves into dangerous situations.  Perhaps someone is certified to dive 50 meters and thinks they can now easily do 100 meters.  Another example may be that an experienced boat diver thinks they can do shore diving with no training because “diving is diving.”  It is these poor choices which get people into trouble.  Again, Roshi pointed out that this happens in practice as well.  We have a bit of progress and we get all excited and quickly lose the insight we just gained.  We grasp tightly and try to do too much!  The solution to this, of course, is to be aware of where you are and what you are doing.  This is a common thread in Zen – namely direct awareness and honesty.  


The last story Roshi mentioned was that at the end of his shore dive, there is a point where one must jump up on a ledge while the waves come crashing in.  An expert shore diver can do this by timing the waves and “body surfing” the wave over the cliff.  Students, however, require help from the dive master.  The student must raise their hand over their head and out of the water close to the cliff edge.  The dive master then grabs the student’s hand and hoists them over the cliff lip.  The student still needs to scramble forward to get past the breakers or the waves will pull them back in.  Roshi likened this to our practice.  As students, we need to trust that if we raise out hand a teacher will give us a boost over obstacles.  However, most of the work is still up to us.  We need to know when it is best to raise the hand, and we still must do most of the work to scramble over the obstacle.  The teacher is there to simply give that small well-timed boost over the edge of our sticking point.


Roshi wrapped up by stating that he was glad to be back and looked forward to the group intensifying our practice in the upcoming weeks.

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The Last Word http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-last-word.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-last-word/#respond Sun, 10 Jul 2022 15:28:34 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-last-word.html
Zen Crossword


This week Goroshi continued the discussion of Case 51 in the Blue Cliff Record known as Xuefeng’s (jap:Seppo) “What is This?”  Last week, Roshi provided some of the historical background of the koan.  This week we drilled into some of the key messages of this case.  Before he started, however, Roshi reminded the group that discussing a koan in a taisho is very different from actually “doing” the koan.  These discussions serve to provide background and understanding.  Actually, doing the work is “becoming the koan” in the heart, soul, and mind.  We should never confuse this.


Roshi first reminded us about the initial interaction of the Koan.  Two unnamed monks approached Seppo in his hermitage.  Seppo comes out and simply states, “What is this?”  The monks were not really mentally prepared for this profound teaching, and as such, Seppo hung his head and retreated back into his cave.  Later our monks traveled and visited Seppo’s dharma colleague, Ganto.  Ganto asks one of the monks what Seppo asked and the hapless monk replied that Seppo said ‘nothing.’  Ganto replies that it is a shame that he did not give Seppo the ‘last word.’


Tesshin Roshi stopped here to explain to us what is meant by the ‘last word.’  In Zen lore the last word is the ultimate teaching after which no additional teaching is necessary.  So, what is this last word?  It is nothing more than the answer to the question, “What is it?”  Roshi next related how this contemplation of the ‘last word’ pervades Zen culture in Japan.  In medieval times, if a Samurai warrior was captured and had to commit ritual suicide, he was provided with paper and pen to record his last thoughts right before the act.  Many Samurai were followers of Zen and it was thought that the moment of Seppuku provided absolute clarity of life and death.  The warrior stood with one foot in life and one foot in death and clearly saw how these two things were really one.  Roshi then remarked that we do not need to go to this extreme to touch the ‘last word’ however.  We have Zazen and practice which prepares the mind for this experience.


The case continues that at the end of the training period, the unnamed monk asks Ganto what Seppo meant by the question, “What is it?”  Ganto asks the monk why he waited so long to ask such an important question.  The monk replies that he did not want to presume to ask the great master such an important question the moment he first showed up at the temple.  Roshi noted that the message here is not to be shy about the Dharma.  It is said in Buddhism that your current life is precious as it affords you the ability to study the Dharma.  One should not be shy about this.  It is essential that we grab every opportunity.  In many Zen temples you will see the phrase…

“Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken.  Take heed.  Do not squander your life!” 

Roshi also commented that timing, circumstance, and preparation are very important to achieving realization.  There are many stories of a monk expressing the same answer to a koan which was deemed wrong one week, but correct in another week.  Sometimes it is not the answer itself, but the circumstances in which the answer is given.  All we can do is practice to increase the probability of having the right circumstances.


Tesshin continues to where Ganto mentions that he and Seppo were born in the same lineage, but Seppo will not die in the same lineage as Ganto.  Here the message is that we are all the same “thing” but I am not you and you are not me.  In the absolute sense, we are one, but everyone still lives their individual life with their own karmic “packages.”  Understanding the relative and absolute and understanding that they are exactly the same thing is key foundation to Zen practice.


Roshi wrapped up by asking us if we wanted to know the “last word?”  He said that the last word is not “THAT” “THAT” “THAT”  NO!  The last word is “THIS” “THIS” “THIS”  This moment right here and right now.  Can you understand that?  Can you express it?  This moment holds the mundane and sacred simultaneously.  There is nothing out there it is all right here in THIS.

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What is This? – Part 1 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/what-is-this-part-1.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/what-is-this-part-1/#respond Sun, 03 Jul 2022 16:12:07 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/what-is-this-part-1.html
What is This Saying


Tesshin Roshi used his talk this week to begin discussing Case 51 in the Blue Cliff Record.  This is known as Xuefeng’s (jap:Seppo) “What is This?”  For this first talk, Roshi provided the group with a background of the koan.  In the next talk he will dive into the deeper meaning of the koan.  


Many of the koans were developed in China and translated into Japanese when Zen moved there.  As such, we commonly see Chinese and Japanese names used interchangeably when discussing these cases.  As Roshi trained in Japan, he commonly defaults to the Japanese names.  


This koan centers on two Zen masters Seppo Gison (822-908 ce) and Ganto Zenkatsu (828-887 ce) both of which were direct descendants of master Deshan.  Both of these monks were active in a period of Chinese history when Buddhism was favored politically.  These two individuals could best be considered “Dharma Friends” as they trained and traveled together.  


In one famous story which happened before the events in this koan, the two monks hiked across the vastness of China to study with the famous master Rinzai.  One day during this long journey, Seppo became troubled about his practice.  He asked his colleague, “I have spent so much time and effort practicing, but I am still not enlightened yet.  Am I wasting my time?”  Ganto asks him to describe his entire impressive “Zen Career.”  Needless to say, that Seppo had a lot to describe.  He went over all the great masters he trained under and all the meditation work he accomplished.  Gunto then stated that there was one thing missing in Seppo’s description.  Everything listed was external to Seppo – what was missing is what is within!  At this point Seppo had a great realization.  The story ends by noting that the two monks arrive at Rinzai’s temple just after he dies.  At this point, the two monks split up to find new temples to study in.  It is at this point where the actual koan case begins.


Roshi next read the koan…

When Seppo was living in a hermitage, two unnamed monks came to pay their respects.

When he saw them coming, Seppo thrust open the gate of his hermitage with his hands, jumped out, and said, “What is this?”

[One of] the monks also said, “What is this?”

Seppo hung his head and retired into his hermitage.

Later, the monk came to Ganto.

Ganto asked him, “Where have you come from?”

The monk said, “From Reinan.”

Ganto said, “Did you ever visit Seppo?”

The monk said, “Yes, we visited him.”

Ganto said, “What did he say?” 

The monk related what had happened.

Ganto said, “What else did he say?”

The monk said, “Not a word; he hung his head and retired into his hermitage.”

Ganto said, “Ah, how I regret now that in those days I did not tell him the last phrase![14] If I had told it to him, no one under heaven could do anything against him.”

At the end of the summer practice period the monk came back to this conversation and asked him about its meaning.

Ganto said, “Why didn’t you ask me about it sooner?”

The monk said, “I could not dare to ask you about it.”

Ganto said, “Seppo was born on the same stem as I, but he will not die on the same stem. If you want to know the last phrase, it is just this.”


Tesshin Roshi then asked the group, what is Seppo doing when he came out of his hut and asked, “What is it?”  Did he mean, “What do you want – you are bothering me – get lost!!”  The key here is not Seppo, but the state of mind of the students coming to visit?  If they are insecure in their practice or lack understanding, they may think that Seppo was saying nothing.  However, if they are deep in practice, the question, “what is it?” is the most important question in the universe.  In this context Seppo is engaging the students with the most important question there is – the true nature of all reality.  


Roshi likened this exchange to Dokusan, which is the face to face interview a student has with a Zen master.  What happens in the Dokusan room is entirely determined by the student and what they bring in with them.  It was the same thing with the two monks in this koan.  When describing the interaction, they said nothing happened – they missed the big issue right in front of them because their minds were not in the right place.  For us to succeed in practice, we must be “primed” for enlightenment.  This is done by our time on the cushion – training the mind to open so that we are ready.  


Roshi wrapped up by stating that he will dive into the remainder of the case next week.

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The Six Gates to the Sublime http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-six-gates-to-the-sublime.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-six-gates-to-the-sublime/#respond Sun, 19 Jun 2022 15:07:17 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-six-gates-to-the-sublime.html


Tesshin Roshi returned to our normal Dharma talks this week after our intensive preparation for the Jukai ceremony during this past spring.  This week he shared with us the “The Six Gates to the Sublime.”  This classic text was written by the sixth-century Chinese Buddhist monk and meditation master, Shramana Zhiyi (Chih-i)


The text lays out six gates or methods a meditation student should follow on the path to liberation.  It is interesting to note that all of them center on the breath.  This is because the breath is a universal constant for all of us throughout time.  We share the same breath which master Zhiyi had.


The first gate is “Counting the Breath” In one way, we can look at this as our entry gate.  We use the count as a way to quiet the mind and be in the moment.  How are we ever to realize the true nature of reality if our mind is buzzing with all kinds of distracting thoughts?  It is interesting to note that in counting the breath, we can count to some arbitrary number like ten or simply realize the fact that every breath is actually our first breath.


The second gate is “Following the Breath through the Body” Once our mind is settled, we can follow the breath and notice how it flows through the body.  This is why we focus so much on our center point, namely the Hara which is co-located with the diaphragm which is where the breath is generated from.  The key message here, according to Roshi, is that there is no separation between our mind and our body.  As the breath calms the mind, we also note how this calmness pervades our entire body.


The third gate is “Active Breath” This is bringing life to the breath.  This is a common practice in schools of Yoga.  Roshi described this as bringing life to the breath and can describe the energy which powers the practice during good times and bad.


The Fourth gate is the “Discriminating Breath” This is the state in Zazen where we notice and see everything.  We notice how we are “really” feeling and we see everything around us.  Nothing escapes us as we are really “awake” and not lost in our internal monolog.  


The Fifth gate is the “Question Breath” Here we have found our center and are in a good place.  All of our internal conflicts are resolved and our pain and suffering has melted away.  The only thing left is the most profound question.  We are finally ready to really practice.  What is the nature of reality?  What is Mu?  When passing through this gate it is just you and the question – nothing else.


The Sixth gate is the “Falling Breath” Here the question is resolved as there never really was a question.  Here we have made the leap into the abyss of no perfection and everything is perfection.  Roshi likened this breath to standing at the edge of the precipice – can we really take refuge?  Can we make the leap?


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that the most important message here is that these gates are not to be considered levels of practice.  One does not start with gate 1 and work up to gate 6.  Once we really understand, it becomes clear that all the gates are in all the other gates.  They are all here right now.  For instance, in sitting down to count the breath (gate 1) we are actually taking a leap of faith (gate 6)  It is only that we are unrealized that we see these as separate gates.

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