Category Archives: Dharma


There is a Zen saying: “Don’t mistake a jar for a bell.” A jar full of something, when you tapit, goes “click.” Although they may resemble each other, a bell when tapped has a resonant voice. Dogen’s teacher Rujing offered a well known poem about the wind bell. Something like, ”Hanging in emptiness, its whole body is its mouth. Whichever direction the wind blows, it doesn’t mind. All day long it rings the song of prajna; ting liang ting, ding ling ding.”

Although we use bell sounds to keep the time in our service for chanting and bowing, their primary purpose is, when properly played, to create a devotional atmosphere and a feeling of reverence and profound stillness.

Playing the bells is an art. As in any instrument, to find the true voice of the bells is to find the true voice within our self. Each time we sound the bell we search for that true voice, the one that resonates deeply within our solar plexus where I, the hand, the beater and the bell disappear, and the clear round sound, free from all restraints, fills the space.

I think we have all heard of the horse whisperer and the dog whisperer. They accomplish their ends through love, understanding and co-operation. We can produce an enormous amount of sound from the bell with least amount of effort. The bell koan is: How do you produce a sound without hitting the bell? The bell is a wonderful teacher for us and needs to be treated with reverence and respect. Suzuki Roshi once said of the mokugyo, “If you keep hitting it like that, the poor thing is likely to have a heart attack.”

There is a true story of the boy whose father sent him to the monastery because he was unable to support him. The young acolytes were trained to sound the big Bonsho outside. One day the abbot was having tea with the officers of the temple when the big Bonsho was sounded. It was a wonderful sound, and the abbot asked that whoever it was, to please bring him over. To everyone’s surprise, in walks this little boy. The abbot asked him what he was thinking when he sounded the bell. The boy said that when his father sent him to the monastery he would be asked to ring the Bonsho, and that every time he sounded the bell a Buddha would come forth.

The little boy grew up to be a famous Zen master.

The Form and Shape of Practice

When we come to practice we have to put some  limitation on our life. It’s like a bowl of water. If you put water into a flat dish it doesn’t have much depth, but if you have a nice deep bowl it will hold a lot of water. It has form and some shape to it. Practice has to have some form and shape. It can hold some deep water and when there are  turbulent waves on the surface there is a ballast of calm deep  water. This is one of the things that people struggle with in  our society because there is so much opportunity, and it  keeps us strung out. The things that only a king would have  had in the past, every one of us has the opportunity to have  today. It’s amazing. The kings were some of the most  distraught people because they had so much and had to  protect it. It’s hard to put limitations on ourselves but necessary. If we want to practice, we have to put some  limitation on our activity which can be a big relief because then we don’t have to run after everything  we see. We don’t have to own everything that’s advertised. One TV might be enough.

Master Mumon says, “Don’t discuss another’s faults.” That’s right. Just look to yourself, examine  your own life. Don’t blame others for what is happening to you. “You made me angry.” No. “You did something and I got angry.” “You walked by and made me fall in love with you.” No. “You walked by  and I fell in love.” In other words, take responsibility for your own feelings, take responsibility for your own thoughts, and your own actions: don’t blame. If you can refrain from blaming, then you can  examine yourself in a very clear way, no matter what, even if, as the sixth ancestor says, someone else  is in the wrong. This is a very important point. Even if someone else appears to be at fault, do not fall into fault-finding. See if you can do that. See what that brings up for you. Don’t explore another’s affairs; just take care of your own life. Don’t gossip, don’t pick into someone else’s life. Just make sure that you are doing the right thing. Make sure you are following your own intentions. As the saying goes, if you want the tiger’s cub, you have to go into the tiger’s cave. If you really want something, you really have to put yourself on the line. But better to just do it, without looking for something. This is one secret of practice. The koan “mu” is one of the fundamental koans, maybe the first koan that many students receive. If you recite “mu” all day long with the idea of having kensho, it won’t work. If you think that by sitting zazen you’ll become enlightened, you will be waiting a long time. Just sit.

Dogen Zenji has a saying from the Genjokoan. “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.“ If you want to study yourself you have to forget yourself. This is
Genjokoan. How do I study the self by forgetting the self? Another way of saying this is, to attain the Buddhadharma is to attain the self, and to attain the self is to forget the self. According to Buddhadharma there is no self. The self is not exactly a self. It’s a dynamic flowing of elements; a dynamic flowing of Buddha nature. There is nothing you can grasp. So to forget the self is to forget our
idea of self, to forget our idea of who we are. It is a turn toward our true self. The only way to do that is to not hanker after anything. Then we can see clearly who we are. And when we bow, we bow in
gratitude. When we have some insight we bow in gratitude. That is all. We bow to our true self, or better yet, we just bow.
Instead of trying to get something from practice, or from the Dharma, it’s better to serve the Dharma. Buddha and Maitreya are servants of the Dharma, “It.” What is the example of the Buddha?
To serve the Dharma—to serve the truth. That’s all there is. When you serve, you’re fed.

— Sojun Roshi (from a talk on February 18, 1992; reprinted from the March 2010 BZC Newsletter.)

Hierarchy and Equality

In this practice, each one of us is given a challenge, and we have to come up to that challenge, whatever it is. If you are a new student, you have the challenge of being a new student. If you’re an older student, you have the challenge of being an older student. You have the challenge of your practice position and your relationship to the other members of the sangha. Hierarchy exists in the vertical relationships of all societies, while equality exists in the horizontal relationships. Both are necessary and where they meet is where we find our true position at any moment. In this way we can relate to everyone in a harmonious way, hopefully free from self-centeredness and willful ambition, honoring everyone’s position while feeling satisfied with our own. It doesn’t matter what our position is. If we take responsibility for our position, we have a way to go which for all of us is both unique and the same.

On a chessboard each of the pieces has a hierarchical position. Some have more power and some have less but those pieces which have more power have to be able to share that power, and all pieces have to work together for a common purpose on a basis of equality. That takes skill, the skill to allow people to feel that they have power no matter where they are in relation to everyone else.

By power I don’t mean dominance. There is a difference between dominance and power. And there’s a difference between hierarchy and power. Hierarchy merely means “position in relation to everyone else.” But it doesn’t necessarily mean dominance. People associate hierarchy with dominance. If I say hierarchy I often get a reaction, “Oh, you mean dominance.” But I don’t. I just mean “position in relation to everything else.”

Student: “Are Hinayana and Mahayana two different things?”

Sojun: “They are two aspects of one practice. The Hinayana is like, ‘What am I doing?’ the Mahayana is like, ‘What are we doing?’ There are two aspects of Mahayana practice: self-cultivation on one hand, and saving all beings on the other. Hinayana, for me, simply means narrow focus, while Mahayana means wide. Our practice could be seen as Hinayana practice with Mahayana mind.”

Student: “When you are cutting carrots can you have both at the same time?”

Sojun: “Yes. When you are doing something, it’s like, ‘What am I doing?’ but then there is also, ‘What are we doing?’ If you are a tangaryo student, sitting five days as your entrance requirement to be a Tassajara student, it is easier to think, ‘What am I doing?’ But if you are the Abbot you have to think, ‘What are we doing?’ But actually all of us need to think about ‘What are we doing?’ All of us need to think about how we are relating to the whole. If we take up the responsibility of ‘What are we doing?’and completely become one with our position, then we contribute to everyone’s practice because all positions are connected. In the kitchen, it’s true we just cut carrots. But it’s also true that we stay aware of what’s going on around us and move with the entire situation in a harmonious way. That’s called, ‘Being the Boss.’ “

I trust everyone to take care of themselves. I remember a teacher saying, “I‘m responsible for all the students.” But I don’t feel that I’m responsible for all students. I definitely respond, but I’m not responsible. Ultimately everyone is responsible for themselves. Buddhist or Zen practice is to find your way through your own effort. What I try to do is help everyone find the authority within themselves to stimulate their own effort. I don’t have any method. My attitude is to encourage everyone as much as I can. When you respond to encouragement then we have something to work with.

(from the February 2003 BZC Newsletter)