Category Archives: Dharma

Sojun Roshi on “Think Not Thinking”

Often we read or hear that we should stop the activity of thinking in order to meditate properly. But that is almost impossible. The mechanism of thinking is going on constantly like a rushing torrent, and although you can stop it for a few moments, it always wins. It’s like the bubbles in a fish tank. When we sit, we think the thought of zazen. When we breath, we think the thought of breathing, when sitting up straight, we think the thought of balance, and when working, we think the thought of work. In other words, our thought and our activity become one. Thinking and that which is thought are not separate.

Master Dogen calls this (“Think not thinking”) the art of zazen. When there is no gap, there is no discrimination. When our thoughts wander, as they will because they are always hungry, we bring them home where they belong, and include them in some satisfying work. When our thoughts sit zazen, they become enlightened. So when you sit, think the thought of zazen.

In This Time of Crises

And I must say tonight, that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear?

—Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a time of pandemic, of racist violence, and social divisiveness, we call to mind Zen Master Dogen, who wrote: “We should without fail arouse bodhicitta, ferrying others before ourselves.” Bodhicitta, enlightening mind, is the expression of our commitment to the awakening of all: Freedom from sickness, from suffering, from exploitation, from fear and discrimination, from poverty and want, and, ultimately, from delusion. This is true, but first things first: Black Lives Matter. Freedom from the policeman’s knee, from the bullet, freedom from the callous brutality of a president and a government furthering White Supremacy.

One of the early teachers in the West, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, expressed Zen practice succinctly in the titles of two books. The first book was Returning to Silence—this is zazen, the dynamic stillness that is refuge for all who seek it. The second book was titled You Have to Say Something. Truly, the peace of meditation expresses itself in enlightening words and actions.

Our Zen community walks hand in hand with numberless religious communities and people of conscience. We will not accept hatred and division between the races and among ourselves. Yes, all of American history is scarred by racism and violence. For generations, some of us have actually profited from the exploitation of less-privileged communities and peoples. Our nation itself has failed to hear the anguish of African-Americans and of many others. Now, painfully, all ears must be open to suffering sisters and brothers.

The Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts, our ethical foundation, can be reduced to one essential vow: I vow not to live at the expense of other people and beings. Each of us must examine our lives, our words and actions. We must ground ourselves in equality—equal rights, equal justice, equal opportunity, equal access to resources. Materially and spiritually, we must help raise up those among us who have been downtrodden. Actually, we must support them to raise themselves. Though each person has distinct skills, capacities, and appearance, finally our lives are equally precious to ourselves and to those who love us.

Dr. King wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is beautiful…and incomplete. We need our complete effort to bend the moral universe towards justice. We must use our minds, our hearts, our voices, and our hands to accomplish the work of peace.

My Zazen

Recently, a fellow practitioner at Berkeley Zen Center sent me an email with this direct question: “I’m wondering what you do when you do zazen?”  Much as I have thought about it, and irrespective of the countless times I’ve given zazen instruction, I’ve never written out my way of zazen, step-by-step. So I will try to do that here, leaving out some of the detail and fine points of posture, although these details are all-important. The fine points have been beautifully articulated by Dogen Zenji in Fukanzazengi, in Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and by so many of our teachers. What I share of “my way” stands on the shoulders (or sits in the shadows) of giants.


From the moment I sit down in zazen—whether I sit cross-legged in half-lotus position or in a chair—from that moment everything is zazen. No preliminaries, no getting ready to sit. Zazen includes each activity. The first thing I do is to establish a stable upright posture, particularly making an effort to build my posture up from the small of my back, the base of the spine, lifting my sternum so that my upper body is open and relaxed. I like the expression “strong back, soft front.” Integral to zazen posture is the “cosmic mudra”—left hand on top of the right palm, thumb tips just barely touching. The mudra rests against my body or in my lap. It forms a half-circle that is capable of holding the universe.

With this upright posture set, I take four or five breaths through my mouth, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly and steadily, making the exhalation last as long as it can, pushing out the remaining air at the end of the breath. A deep inhalation, which naturally follows, refreshes me. After four or five breaths like this, I settle into a more “ordinary” breath, breathing through my nose, allowing the breath to reach down to my hara or belly in a relaxed manner.

Establishing posture and natural breathing, I take a few moments to set my intention, invoking bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment for and with all beings. This is is embodying Dogen Zenji’s admonition in Gakudo Jojin-shu: “You should arouse the thought of enlightenment.”  I have created a simple phrase for myself that I place silently on my breath, repeating it three times: “May I be awake that others may awaken.” It feels as if I am lightly dropping these words into the quieting pool of zazen, letting the ripples spread as they will.

Honestly, I cannot say what happens for the remainder of the zazen period. I make no effort to remember, and I don’t remember. That’s fine, because there is nothing I am trying to accomplish. The effort is to be awake and receptive to the flow of sensations, perceptions, and thoughts that arise and fall away as they will. But this is not drifting and dreaming. Rather, a kind of fluid alertness, capable of including each thing without being caught on it.

This alertness calls for an element of concentration, samadhi, which, of course, is a step on the Eightfold Path. Concentration arises from our posture, which is never slack. From time-to-time I give myself zazen instruction, checking my mudra and each point of posture, making an effort to re-align my body. Concentration also arises with breathing. Often, I do breath-counting, susokan in Japanese, lightly counting ten breaths, one at a time, giving each breath a silent count on the exhalation and contraction of my belly. I find that a whole world can arise in the space of a single breath—a world of sense receptivity, or a world of distracted thinking. If I lose count, I start over again at one, leaving behind all judgments and distractions.

Sometimes I do an alternative breath practice—”Just This.” Breathing in on the word “Just,” breathing out on “This.” In time, counting or words fall away and there is just the rhythmic rise and fall or breath, the unencumbered flow of mind. The bell rings, drawing me up from the depths and back into the world of so-called ordinary thoughts.

This approach to susokan, sliding into shikantaza—just sitting—is what I understand Dogen Zenji to means as “think not-thinking.” Mind fades but does not disappear. This is not sleep or trance, but a mind that is fresh as an autumn breeze. My senses are functioning, but not actively. That is, I am seeing, but not looking. Hearing, but not listening. Thoughts may arise, but I am not stringing them into stories.

My experience over the years is that the mind of zazen reaches far beyond the zendo and permeates my everyday activity. Sometimes no more than a single mindful breath is sufficient to enter the dharma gate of zazen. But, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.

COVID-19 – A Message from Sojun Roshi

Message from Sojun Roshi

The persecutions of Buddhism in the Tang Dynasty in China forced
Zen monks to flee to the mountains where they thrived. Today we are
forced to find our monks’ life in semi-isolation. What a great
opportunity to practice zazen and various forms of contemplation. This
wonderful opportunity is bringing forth our creativity as a sangha,
setting up the guideposts for the future. This present situation,
dangerous and uncertain as it is, must be an inescapable field of
innovative practice for all of us. Let’s continue to make good use of
this opportunity.

Hopelessness—Reflections in the Viral Age

Hozan Alan Senauke

Plagues and natural disasters appear regularly throughout human history. No times, places, or people have been immune to these occurrences. During Japan’s Kamakura period a series of plagues and famines burned across the country. During the Kanki Famine in 1230-31 roughly a third of Japan’s population died—from 1.5 to 2 million people. In that year Dogen Zenji left the famine and sectarian strife of Kyoto to practice in an abandoned hermitage south of the city. I think of this as Dogen’s approach to social distancing in the 13th Century.

What did Dogen rely on during this terrible time? Zazen for sure, but we don’t exactly know more, except, that in the midst of crisis he moved away from the center of the turmoil. Did he cultivate hope or radical hopelessness? Are they different? Dogen turned inward for a time, surely digging into zazen. He turned inward, then opening his dharma eye he widened the field of enlightened action and stepped forward into his world.

In 1231 Dogen began composing Shobogenzo, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, and wrote Bendowa, the first expression of zazen in the Japanese language. Two years later he founded Kannondori Temple in Fukakusa, the locus of practice for his community over the next ten years, before he moved to Fukui Prefecture and built Eiheiji.

The way of our zazen practice is to turn inward, noticing and embracing everything that happens within us, which allows us to regulate and harmonize body and mind. Zazen enables us to put our mind in order. The purpose of our practice is, with a well-regulated mind, to take beings across to the shore of liberation. The form of our sangha practice is to create an island of sanity in a world of turmoil. We do this by offering material needs, dharma teachings, and fearlessness. We reflect on justice, a sense of proper balance among all people and beings.

In this pandemic moment we need all these offerings: inner reflection and work for justice. These are strange days. Streets are virtually empty but for people in masks, stores are shuttered, businesses are going broke, religious services have morphed into video conferences. We hardly dare to imagine the future. For the last month, as we practice social distancing to tamp down Covid-19’s impact, it is sometimes hard to know when we are turning inward and when we are moving in the wider world. Such provisional distinctions seem less clear with each passing day. It feels as if we are living in a dystopian novel, a bad dream. And we are writing that novel as we live it. But there is a lot of love out there. Warm greetings as strangers pass on the sidewalk.

At Berkeley Zen Center, where I live, we are sewing masks, offering food and funds to those in need, sweeping the temple grounds, and sustaining a daily zazen practice and Saturday dharma talks, cultivating fearlessness even as we learn of friends and family struck by the virus. Actually, we are sustaining Zen practice and it is sustaining us. Right now I am not much thinking about the future. There’s something fresh and creative about such “hopelessness.” Not to hope for things to return to some imagined normal, but to feel alive and full of questions right now, and now, and now.

We would never wish for a time like this, and we grieve for the thousands of lives lost from Coronavirus and from governmental irresponsibility. Still there is an opportunity here for each of us to stabilize our mind and be of service, as Dogen did in his own time of crisis.  What is that opportunity for you? How does practice teach us to love each other?

Practice Has No Gaps

Dear Sangha,

Being that we are so well informed, the state of our virus situation needs no more information from me. But what I do wish to talk about is how we manage, or practice as a Zen student in this trying time. We always talk about how in this Saha world (of suffering), facing our trials and difficulties is the ground where our personal dramas are played out. What we are dealing with now is no exception. This is a great test for our practice.

Every one of our lives has been altered. Some will not go back to the way it was and for them life will never be the same. Others will not be so affected. For many of us, both the present and future are tragic and unknown. For some, the shut-down is a kind of blessing; a relief from the day-to-day grind, and a chance to lay down the burden while the curtain is open.

Whatever the circumstances, at this time we all share the imposed condition of personal confinement. The Zen temple, the center of our shared practice with its AM and PM schedule, the talks, interviews, classes, and the immovable bedrock that we are sure is always there suddenly has exploded. The pieces have scattered, and a complete piece has landed in your lap and my lap. For now, each one of us is on our own, confined to our personal hermitage.

We are used to practicing all together in one space in the Japanese fashion. Now we need to adjust to the solo meditation way as is done in other countries. I suggest that you set up an altar where you sit if you don’t already have one, and offer flowers or incense before you sit. When you make a meal, do an offering. This is a good time to study one of those Buddhist books that has been taking up space on your shelf and flashing at you every time you walk by. The fundamental thing is to not dwell on when you are going to be released, but to completely live your life situation right here, one moment at a time.

This is a time to look at the tide pool of your environment and let those things that have always been there but you rarely see, reveal themselves. Everything is significant. This is how we do zazen continuously.

Instead of seeing this confinement as an imposition, it can be seen and be experienced as an opportunity. It’s great that we have Zoom and other forms of communication, and that our practice leadership is working hard to keep the ship afloat. Another suggestion is that we take advantage of the practice leaders’ offering of dokusan and practice instruction. So there are two sides; one is to keep the lines of communication flowing, and the other is to enjoy our solitude.

Blessings to all, and I am always open to your call.

Sojun Mel

from my cozy full service zendo

Letter from Sojun Roshi

Dear Sangha,

I want to express my gratitude to all of you and wish you a satisfying and healthy year in 2020. Although I have nothing against happiness, I avoid using that word here, and maintain that a healthy and satisfying life is a happy one.
I am greatly encouraged by the constancy of your practice and the way the temple has been taken care of while I was on sabbatical last year, and during my recent illness since mid-September. I want to express my gratitude to our board of directors and the leadership of the Vice Abbot, who pay attention to the maintenance, infrastructure, finances, and major issues that effect all of us.
I want to thank all of you members for your willingness to pay your dues and to make contributions: the support that keeps us rolling along. And of course the balance of daily participation among the practice leaders and members willing to take positions, have dokusan and practice discussion, attend classes, dharma groups, and
teisho (lectures). All of this has made for a strong sangha based on mutual encouragement, which has been a great support for me at this time.
Currently I have been tolerating my chemotherapy without side effects, which enables me to move around easily and continue my practice at the zendo. Given the situation of being a 90-year-old with cancer, I do need my fair share of rest. So I sleep a bit late most mornings and have been attending afternoon zazen. I see members mostly semiformally in my office, or informally. I make appointments online.
I remember Suzuki Roshi saying that when what you have to do and what you want to do are the same, your discriminating mind is under control. This is shikantaza: just doing, and a secret of happiness.


True Faith

Sometimes I hear someone grumble about not getting enough out of practice. When I hear this I realize that we need to remind ourselves every day of the meaning of practice. Although we can’t avoid the desire for material well-being and the necessity of food, shelter, clothing, and good supportive friends, it is important to remember that instead of giving us something, zazen taketh away our materialistic blinders, leaving us free from that which binds. And even though we talk a lot about wanting freedom, it is not always easy to know what we want freedom from (or for).
One purpose of practice is to free us from our addictions, of which we are often unaware. We are all in some way victims of our wants, and of our excessive needs. As we practice zazen over time, we have the opportunity to discover the joy of letting go. The effort we put into this practice is one with the satisfaction we experience. What better reward? Each moment of sincere effort is a moment of satisfaction.
The purpose of ordination for both priest and layperson is to cut off our habitual karma and to find ourself as a newborn being. We don’t have to be bound by the past. We can practice with this intention moment by moment. Even though we still find ourselves drawn to our attachments, the time we spend in zazen while letting go is a great gift that can break the spell of enchantment for that moment in time. Through continuous practice we can step back from reactivity and step forward to find ourself new and fresh in each moment, free from clinging to anger, resentment, and all other unwholesome dharmas as they arise. This is the beginner’s mind—open, unassuming, receptive, and full of vitality. It is also the life of appreciation and thanksgiving. It is the true gift, the bottomless well that never dries up.

Spring Practice Period

What are we endeavoring to accomplish during these six weeks of concentrated and peaceful abiding? A student asked Suzuki Roshi what he meant by a non-gaining mind, to which he replied, “You are perfect just the way you are, and you also could use some improvement.” Practice is focused more on what we don’t need than on what we think we need or what we are told we need or want. There may be some value to self-improvement, but our true Self is not subject to gain or loss or improvement. Practice period is a time to set aside as best we can our “needy side” and to “settle the self on the Self,” taking off the cover and allowing our Big Self to breathe easy. It is a peaceful and harmonious abiding for six weeks and a renewal of our practice intention, setting a tone for the rest of the year.

The practice period has some minimum requirements, but within these requirements each person can create his or her own schedule. This is the nature of lay practice. Some will be able to do only the minimum, while others may have the opportunity to extend or stretch themselves much more. Find the right rhythm for this period of time and make adjustments as appropriate. Be mindful of your obligations while honoring your practice commitments and balancing and integrating zazen with your daily activities. This means creating a reasonable schedule without cherry-picking based on personal preference or convenience. This helps to create an edge: something to push against but not so much as to be discouraging. Give yourself space by letting go of some minor activities. It may not be possible to add more zazen to a busy schedule, but if you can, all the better. It is important to pay attention to your home and work practice and to ask for your family’s support.

It should also be clearly understood that in no way is any sangha member required to participate, nor is there any pressure to do so. You should all feel free to continue to come to BZC as usual and to attend any of the classes and talks and other events even if you have not committed to taking part in the practice period. We will all still be practicing together.

Here are some practices you can do at any time as the occasion arises:

  • Patience: Find your center and settle on the present moment.
  • Complete one activity before going on to the next.
  • Always be aware of being centered.
  • Continuously return to abdominal breathing.
  • Engage each activity wholeheartedly.
  • Honor your intention.
  • Choose one clear-mind precept to work with. (This is good for dokusan.)
  • Be an example for harmony. Be aware of, and helpful to, others.
  •  Feel free to ask questions.

If we pay attention to the elements of this simple outline, we will be sure to have a successful and satisfying practice period.

Samu and Soji

We don’t use these terms so much any more. But when our Japanese teachers were with us in the 60s and for some years after, Japanese terms were used for positions and various activities, including Dharma names.

Soji refers to cleaning up: sweeping, mopping, putting things in order after some activity. Every day after morning zazen some of us sweep and mop the zendo and adjust the cushions, leaving it as it was when we came. Others sweep the central area and the paths. This is our first activity together after zazen and service. So refreshing! At SFZC when Suzuki Roshi was abbot, his room was facing the street and he enjoyed the sound of the brooms on the sidewalk below. He said, “Sweeping the path is [akin to] sweeping the mind.” Single-minded activity, zazen in motion.

Samu refers to a longer sangha work project. It could be moving stones or branches together. Twice a year we have a work day, a sangha endeavor to take care of projects long overdue. Samu, Zazen, Dokusan or Practice Instruction, and Teisho (lecture) are the four fundamental activities of practice. All the various rotating practice positions are forms of Samu. We call it work practice. But the terms Soji or Samu give it a slightly different meaning. Sometimes using a foreign signifier gives a fresh meaning to a familiar activity. In the cool morning we sweep the leaves together into small piles. At that time one person holds the scoop and the other sweeps the leaves into it. There is a subtle satisfaction at play in this silent interactive moment when we agree on which is the last leaf, like the pause at the end of a bow. The next moment it is quickly forgotten as we continue our day. Master Hyakujo was famous for saying that a day of no work was a day of no eating.

Not all of us are in a position to contribute this way. In a lay practice many of us are fortunate simply to be able to practice zazen. In that case, being mindful about how we take care of our space in relation to our surroundings and how we treat each other with respect and thoughtfulness is not different.