Category Archives: Dharma

Tensions and Tenseness Freeing Our Self from Ourself

When I give zazen instruction I encourage people to release or let go of the tenseness in various parts of their body. Easier said than done. There is tension that holds the structure of the body/mind together allowing for a free flow of unhindered energy. And then there is tenseness that causes knots that hinder that flow. The tenseness is extra. An important aspect of our practice both on and off the cushion is to be aware of how we hold our well-balanced unconditioned posture, as well as waking up to the corners and and crannies of our body where we hold our unresolved anger, resentments, fears, frustrations, anxieties, loss and gain, and much, much more that determines our conditioned postures.

In a world where there is so much to be angry, resentful, fearful, frustrated, jealous, and self-critical about, it’s a wonder that we have any freedom from ourselves at all. It is well known that our back from top to bottom is a storage compartment for anger and resentment. After all, if we can’t resolve it, it has to go somewhere. The other parts of our body also hold this mental and emotional baggage. When I adjust posture in the zendo, it becomes clear that we bring our conditioned postures to the cushion.

Zazen is to resume our original unconditioned posture that harbors nothing while embracing whatever appears without attachment. Although angry, not harboring anger, although resentful, not harboring resentment, although self-critical not harboring criticism. Meeting the trials and tribulations as well as savoring the sweetness and love of our everyday activity we follow the natural order of Mind in this way. Suzuki Roshi once said that everything is falling out of balance and finding its balance moment by moment. This takes continuous awareness. Responding allows us the opportunity to stay centered, while reaction usually pulls us off center. Staying centered and balanced and in touch with the profound stillness at the center of our activity is our practice.

Some notes from Sojun about the 2016 Spring Practice Period

Dear Sangha,

It seems a little early to talk about the Spring Practice Period, but due to new bi-monthly newsletter schedule, the next issue will be too late. So here is some news about this year’s practice period.

After seeking suggestions from the Senior Student group, there emerged a number of peers who would be qualified to be Shuso. Given that, I have asked long time practicing member Walter Kieser, Kosan Shinshi, (Tall Mountain, Deep Stillness) to take the position. This will be Walter’s only opportunity, as he will be retiring to his newly developed homestead north of the Bay Area at the end of this year.

The practice period will begin with a one -day sitting on April 30th, and end with the five-day sesshin from June 8th to the 12th. As I mention above, Walter Kieser will be our Shuso, and he will make his best effort to set an example and encourage our practice.

As the fundamental ground for practice period, committing to a zazen schedule that harmonizes with our other activities and following it, is what makes the whole thing work. For our mature practitioners we understand it as refreshing our practice and pruning the unnecessary growth that has accumulated over the previous year. It is setting a tone of lightness, agility, pliancy, tranquility, workability, proficiency, and uprightness to carry us through the year.

The other morning, stepping out of the zendo, we were awed upon seeing the trees in the patio blooming all at once in a magnificent announcement of spring, bringing forth in us a deep appreciation for the nourishing rain refreshing our body and mind. Numberless animate objects seemed to be proclaiming the Dharma, inviting us to awaken.

Our practice has three sides. The first side is turning away from the world and facing the infinite. The second is turning toward the world to face the numberless circumstances. And the third side is the matrix, the side that has no sides, but within which all sides are included.

I invite all of us to come together for this period of renewal and connection with each other, our surroundings, and the deep mystery of embracing and letting go. I have some ideas for our study, but am open to suggestions. If anyone does have suggestions, please contact me. Also if you are new or have questions feel free to contact me, or Vice-Abbot Hozan.

Finally, we will send out more details about the practice period sometime in April.

Hard Knocks Buddha

There are many wonderful representations of Buddha in this world. Among them paintings, statues, and mandalas. They appear in temples, homes, and monasteries. Their postures, noble bearing, and beautiful features instill inspiration and higher levels of possibility in us. Back in the early 70’s when the San Francisco Zen Center acquired Green Gulch Farm and turned it into the Green Dragon Zen Center, there were a lot of small buildings in the long green valley that extends to Muir Beach. Many of them were cow barns that little by little were converted to other uses. One of those buildings became the electric and auto shop. Being so close to the ocean, it was always a bit dark and somewhat grimy and damp. It is customary within Zen Center for most buildings to have an altar, and on each altar for there to sit a Buddha figure or some representation. The shop at Green Gulch is no exception. Every morning the shop crew meets at the altar and has a short service; three bows and a chant before going to work. I would like to describe the unique qualities of this particular shop Buddha, as I remember it. He was not very high, maybe ten inches or so and was made of clay. If I remember correctly, he had a white glaze. He seemed to be made by a talented artist but probably not a professional. He was no doubt originally a handsome figure. But for one reason or another he had fallen to the floor a couple of times and been put back together rather awkwardly. The head was a little off center. The nose was flattened and some of the limbs were chipped. He seemed to have the look of an old auto mechanic or a longshoreman, or maybe a carpenter or fisherman. He gave off a feeling of someone who had grown up on the street, in the school of hard knocks and had the scars to prove it. His slightly bent posture expressed the mature humility of someone who had seen through the veils and was not fooled by anything. He also seemed to have been adjusted by auto mechanics before they washed their hands. At the same time there was an unmistakable beauty that drew one to him as if the hardships he had endured only made him glow more brightly, lighting up that dark corner. I went looking for him recently but he didn’t seem to be around. No one knew where he was or even remembered. To me he was an archetype, the real thing, and I miss him.

Mindfulness Practice During Sesshin From a talk by Sojun Roshi, 1985

I want to say just a little bit about how I would like us to practice today.  When you walk, be conscious of how your feet touch the floor.  When you’re serving a meal, be careful when walking to not pound your heels on the floor. What does the floor feel like?  Am I creating a disturbance when I walk? When I carry the pot, is it up here, or down there? What does it feel like to carry this pot? When I serve someone, am I really bowing to that person, or am I just going through the motions because I’m supposed to?  If you and the other person are bowing at a different rhythm, it doesn’t make much sense; you’re missing each other.  The point is to meet each other at the bottom of the bow just for a moment.  When you open the zendo door, try to open it so that you make as little disturbance as possible.  How do you slide the bolt with your undivided attention, so that it slides easily this way and that way, opening and closing without a sound?

To be that attentive creates a mindful atmosphere.  When we use our eating bowls, we pick them up and put them down in such a way that we don’t make a sound.  We should keep the same concentration during work period, being careful not to start up a conversation with somebody.  Sometimes when we’re discussing a project, we get caught up in a conversation without thinking about it or without being aware of it, in the same way that thoughts come up in zazen.  Before we realize it, we’ve become involved in some fantasy.  So when we become aware that our conversation is getting out of bounds, we can just bow and return to silence.

When working in the kitchen, it’s good to figure out a systematic way to arrange your space in order to work efficiently.  Take care of the food and equipment so you don’t have things piling up around you while you’re working in a small crowded space.  Keep the whole thing moving so that you don’t find yourself cornered.  In order to do that, you have to clean up as you go, taking care of the ingredients and the tools, aware that you are also working in harmony with others.  Let go of anxiety, knowing that if you pay attention, everything will come out on time.

Having that kind of concentrated absorption, we can forget ourselves in our activity.  Let yourself immediately accept the total situation, adjusting to changes without judgment or regret; “This is good or bad.” “This is right or wrong.” “Why did that have to happen?” Just to do is how you drop yourself and merge with the activity in a selfless way.  Even if you’re doing something that you don’t like, you can still have freedom within it.  Keep returning to your deep, calm mind from moment to moment and abide in the samadhi of equanimity.

From Sojun…

Ever since the 70’s my wife and I have almost always had a dog and a cat. But for me the dog was far more important. The dog is a companion. You walk together, you train together, you share similar emotions, you have adventures. For me the cat has been mostly in the background. But this is the first time we have had a cat and no dog. I always liked our cats but I guess you could say that I was not particularly drawn to them.

Recently, my wife acquired a calico cat while I was at sesshin. She let me know by emailing me a photo of the new cat on the mantle! I have to admit that I was charmed, even though it had been our understanding not to bring home an animal without a prior agreement. I gave her a variance because during sesshin I was in a state far beyond right and wrong, form and emptiness.

Now that we are between dogs, I have this opportunity to study our cat. We are obligated to train dogs because they are responsible members of society. Dog people. Cats on the other hand train us. They weave in and out of society as they wish without any obligations and live according to some inner mysterious compass. Our cat mostly lives outside and comes in to eat and sometimes takes a long nap in the morning after prowling around all night. I have spotted her all over the neighborhood crossing streets.

But I have to say that she really loves us. She doesn’t like to be handled, but we always greet each other with affection, bumping heads and short strokes. She often makes a little statement when she comes in to announce her arrival. She also spends time in the backyard garden, and appears seemingly from nowhere when you think she is gone. When she is around outside, she seems to know everything that is going on in the house and has an unerring sense of time and timing. She prefers to be out all night and when I get up at 4:45 we meet at the back door at exactly the same time. I could go on about the virtues of this little creature, her intelligence, her agility, her perfect composure and so forth. She is so well coordinated, it seems like her whole being is her brain. But just one more thing. Animals are such great models for us, and have so much to teach us including silent communication, loyalty, love and communion. Sometime I will tell you about Doug’s chickens.

The Old Buddha Communes With the Pillar From the February 2004 BZC Newsletter

Master Ummon said, “The old Buddha communes with the pillar. What sort of mind is this?” He answered himself, “Clouds gather over the southern mountain. Rain falls on the northern mountain.” In the zendo the wooden Buddha on the altar is facing the back wall all day long without getting tired. Human beings are not wooden Buddhas, but nevertheless they are Buddhas, and commune with one thing or another all day long. What are they doing? What does it mean to commune with a pillar or with a human being or with an inanimate object? A pillar is a pillar, and a Buddha is a Buddha. Why do we sit zazen, why do we bow? Why do we eat the way we do in the zendo? Why do we maintain the various forms of practice that we do?

Today I want to talk about bowing. What is bowing? In our everyday practice we bow quite a lot. When I first came to Zen Center, the first thing that struck me—right away—was that everyone was bowing. At first I was a little hesitant to engage in something like bowing. Nobody I knew ever did, and it was something that I had seldom done. My gut feeling, though, was that I was drawn to it—but you know—who does it? Maybe I was getting caught by something, or engaging in something that made me feel some trepidation. But everyone around me was doing it. So I did it, and actually I liked it. It felt right to bow. Once I accepted it I felt grateful for the opportunity it afforded me to express myself with deep sincerity in such a simple direct way.

I remember my teacher bowing. He didn’t have any hesitation at all, and when he would bow to me, it would have felt funny not bowing to him. I felt very much at ease bowing to him. I began to realize that the act of bowing was as important as the act of sitting. That sitting and bowing are two expressions of the same thing. Zazen settles us in the deep fundamental stillness of the self, and bowing gives outward expression to that. I came to understand that sitting is just sitting and bowing is just bowing. Then I began to realize that the formal way of eating in the zendo is just eating, and it was very rarely that I had ever done that. Even though I had always just eaten, it didn’t have the same quality of attention and merging.

When working with my teacher in the practice environment, the work always had a different feeling. Zazen, bowing, eating, and working together felt like the ancient Buddha communing with the pillar, the stones, the creek and the garbage. To understand zazen is to understand bowing. We can have a problem sometimes when we see ourselves as the subject, over against the other as the object—whether it be a pillar or a person. It is said that the foolish person sees himself or herself as other, whereas the sage sees the other as the one body. But more often than not, we don’t see the water for the waves. We don’t see the forest for the trees. In zazen we allow the waves to subside so that we can be at one with the deep fundamental stillness that is water. When the waves are calm, we can see all the way to the bottom.

When we bow we don’t necessarily think, “I am now bowing to that Buddha,” or “I am now bowing to that pillar,” or “I am now bowing to that person.” We can bow with nothing at all in our mind. When we bow to the pillar, we are not bowing to an object. One day someone asked, “Do we have to bow to the gomasio?” Gomasio is the sesame salt that we use to season our cereal. We bow when we pick it up and when we put it down. Formal practice is to bow at the beginning and at the end of each activity.

Bowing is an act of merging, communion, gratitude, acknowledgement, respect, and letting go of discriminating mind so that we enter the deep ocean of complete being. So, when we bow, we may ask, “Who am I bowing to? What am I bowing to?” We can also say “Just this.” When we bow to a wooden Buddha we’re bowing to ourselves, and when I bow to you, I’m bowing to myself—an all-inclusive, selfless act.

Master Tung-Shan, after recognizing his true face in the stream, said “Everywhere I turn I meet myself.” Of course each being has its own individual existence. The waves rise and fall. When the wave that is me rises up I say, “This is me here, and over there is you.” But whether rising or sinking, we’re always merging with ourselves. We are rising and sinking like the animals on the merry-go-’round. And in this undulating whorl called samsara, while the band plays on, we can wave to each other and smile. Although waves can be a problem we can learn how to ride them. But at the same time, we should understand the source of the waves, and we should know who we are. The purpose of our practice is to settle on just this as the touchstone of our lives.


During our last sesshin the word acceptance came up. I didn’t think so much about it before I began practicing zazen. During my early years as a novice, there were times when zazen was excruciatingly painful.

Suzuki Roshi was always encouraging us to sit still and not move. Our zazen periods were forty minutes,  just like now. At that time, in the early 60s, his students were mostly novices. He had only been here for five years when I came. Sitting zazen once or twice a week was a significant experience for me until I came to my first Saturday morning.

After the first period and kinhin, everyone sat down again. I thought, “They are going to do this again?” I said to the fellow next to me that this was really painful. He said that yes, it always is.

But somehow I kept coming back. I knew that even so, there was something else that I was not able to explain. So coursing through a forty-minute period of zazen, when the pain would arise I would hope that the bell would ring and save me from my suffering. My whole life at that moment was waiting to be rescued. Saved by the bell! I simply could not be where I was. But in fact, I had no alternative because my intention was to stay through the forty minutes. Sometimes, just when we thought the bell would ring, Suzuki Roshi would say in his soft voice, “We will sit ten more minutes.” We’re bursting at the seams, how are we going to do this for ten more minutes? But we did. This was our basic training.

Suzuki Roshi taught us the meaning of acceptance: We must open our self to each sensation and become one with it. If you try to escape you will suffer. But it is not so easy to be one with the pain because of the embedded associations of our discriminating mind. Most of us have to go through the painful process before we can truly open up and be free from our conditioned responses. Instead of shutting down and resisting, we open up and accept whatever appears, and instead of narrowing our borders we allow them to expand and include whatever appears. It is counter-intuitive. Instead of gritting our teeth and clenching our fist, we relax our jaw and open our hand. Suzuki Roshi would encourage us by saying that those who have the most difficulty and see it through will have the most benefit.

As soon as an “uncomfortable” feeling arises and we don’t “like” it and don’t “want” it, we form an attachment and begin to suffer. Wanting to hold on to a “good” feeling, it is painful when it leaves. So in this sense, acceptance means letting go, or freedom from attachment, which is the bedrock of practice. There is no special state of mind to attach to and no special feeling to desire and no special self to hang on to. This can be called bliss.

Suzuki Roshi said he admired the frog sitting completely still on a rock. When a fly buzzes by, without hesitation the frog’s tongue darts out and catches it. If he likes it, gulp. If not, ptooi, he spits it out and just keeps sitting. Frogs are really dumb, but who are we to judge?

From a Lecture by Suzuki Roshi undated

For many of you, Zen is some special teaching. But for us, Zen is Buddhism and not a special teaching distinct from the other schools of Buddhism. So, if you ask me to talk about our teaching, I will talk mostly about the teaching of Buddhism, which started with Buddha and was developed by various teachers in India, China and Japan.

Buddha’s teaching put the emphasis on selflessness. Buddhism is not a special cultural heritage. It is part of Indian thought. And so before Buddhism there must have been some similar teachings as well as some contrary teachings which are in opposition to Buddhism. As you see in the Upanishads there are many similar teaching based on selflessness. Why he put the emphasis on selflessness I believe, is because people at that time had a lot of difficulty because of their strong self- belief.

So, Buddha on the contrary put emphasis on selflessness so that we would have a more balanced understanding of our life. And for people who were trying to find the pleasure of life in this actual present world, he put the emphasis on suffering so that they could understand their life from both sides. So, naturally, his teaching of sitting is through form, and the harmony [of self and no self]. So, sometime he put emphasis on self, instead of on selflessness.

We call this teaching the double nature of Buddhism. Without this paradox of two opposite understandings, we cannot think things through clearly. And what we think will be clear only when we take at least two opposite viewpoints.

Then you will have some reality without being caught by a one-sided idea. But mostly, Buddha’s teaching is based on the understanding of selflessness. Later on his teaching settled into some formal doctrines, like everything changes or the teaching of interdependency or the teaching of cause and effect.

In the Mahayana we have a more advanced philosophical presentation of that teaching, from the Kegon [Avatamsaka Sutra], or the Lotus Sutra. The Kegon put emphasis on jijimuge. Jijimuge is the harmony of each being with the truth and the phenomenal world.

And the Lotus Sutra put emphasis on the understanding that you will have after attaining the experience of emptiness. This is something like Zen. Zen extended this kind of idea through practice and brought the philosophical teaching into our actual experience and demonstrated how to bring this philosophical teaching to life by practicing Zen. In short, to wipe up the dust on the mirror, and to see everything in the reflection of the mirror is our way. Or to erase everything from the blackboard and then write something on it, is Zen.

And we continue this kind of activity, to wipe it clean and then write something on it. Because I try to explain it to you more psychologically or more as our human experience, I put it in this way. But actually what we are doing is just to continue this kind of effort. This is, in other words, detachment.

Detachment means here, to erase [separate from] something. But, actually we cannot, erase what we did [laughs]. Actually that is not possible. But, you feel as if you make up everything and you delude yourself. When you are completely absorbed in the activity of your everyday life, you experience this kind of development of our life force. But even though you study Buddhism nothing happens. And nothing happens even [when] you practice zazen. And, when you feel that way—in your practice—that is enlightenment. Mostly it is difficult for us to wipe everything from our mind. And actually there is no need to do so, and it is foolish to eliminate all of what you have done or the result of your previous activity. That is not possible. And it is foolish to try to do that. But there is a way to develop our everyday life without being bothered by our previous activity or the result of that previous activity. This is how I can explain what I have in my mind about the teaching of Zen.

Now, [for example] this one piece of paper has two sides, I want to explain this kind of double structure [or double nature] of our teaching. To me the reality of everything may be understood in this way. For instance, according to our understanding, time has a double structure. One side is continuity of time. At the same time, there is the idea of discontinuity of time. If time is continuous, there is no need to have [a] watch here. And when I say it is half past ten, it means that, at that time I have discontinuity of time, my idea of time is discontinuous. It is not actually half past ten. While I’m watching it, it continues to go. But I have to say that as long as I have [a] watch, if someone asks me what time is it, I have to say half past ten. But it is not actually so. That is the idea of discontinuity of time. So discontinuity of time and continuity of time, are a double reality. Only through this double structure of our reasoning we can we figure out what is reality. Self and selflessness are also like this.

Every Day Is a Good Day From a Transcription of a Talk Given on the Blue Cliff Record, Case 6

Ummon Bun-en (Yun-men Wen-yen) was a disciple of Seppō (Hsueh-feng I-ts’un). He died in 949.

Introductory Comments by Suzuki-roshi

Each existence, animate and inanimate, is changing during every moment day and night. The change is like flowing water which does not ever come back and which reveals its true nature in its eternal travel.

Water flowing and clouds drifting are similar to a well-trained old Zen master. The true nature of water and clouds is like the determined, single-minded, traveling monks, who do not take off their traveling sandals even under the roof of sages. Worldly

Zen Master Ummon
Zen master Ummon Bun-en (Yun-men Wen-yen) (862/4-949). Painting by Hakuin, one of three hanging scrolls comprising a set, with Daruma and Rinzai in the others. Eiheji temple copy.

pleasure, philosophical pursuit, or whimsical ideas do not interest the traveling monk, sincere to his true nature, for he does not want to be fat and idle. Such a monk does not care for hospitality which would stop his travels. He recognizes as true friends only those who travel with him on the way.

The idea of this kind of travel may make you feel lonely and helpless.
In Japan, Zen is understood by the word wabi or sabi. These two words are nouns, but today they are used mostly as adjectives: wabishi or sabishi. One meaning of wabishi and sabishi is lonesome and monotonous. The intellectuals understand these words to mean the simplest and most humble form and style of beauty.

In the strict sense, wabi and sabi mean reality which does not belong to any category of subjectivity or objectivity, simple or fancy. However, it is this reality that makes subjective and objective observation possible and perfect, and that means everything, simple or fancy, able to come home to our heart. In the realm of wabi or sabi, even on one drop of dew you will see the whole universe.

Contrary to wabi and sabi, usually when some object is put into the range of perception, our first reaction is not acceptance, but rather rationality, repulsion, or emotional disturbance. The way of Western civilization is not directed at acceptance so much as at “how to organize many objects and ideas in the realm of perception or thinking” and “how to control the sense data of the sensual world.”

In the world of wabi and sabi there is no attempt, no attainment, no anger, no joy, sorrow, or any waves of mind of this kind whatsoever. Each existence in this world is the fruit of subjective self-training and objective pure and direct understanding. The savor of fruits comes home to our heart, and confirmation of reality takes place. We observe falling flowers at their best. By repeating this kind of direct experience, one may have calm and deep understanding of life and deliverance from it, like a traveling monk who has full appreciation of everything and is nonetheless completely detached from it.

Now may I call your attention to the following subject:

Main Subject by Setchō (presented by Suzuki-roshi)

Attention! Ummon introduced the subject by saying: I do not ask you about fifteen days ago. But what about fifteen days hence? Come, say a word about this. He himself replied for them: Every day is a good day.

Commentary by Suzuki-roshi

Today does not become yesterday, and Dōgen-zenji states that today does not become tomorrow. Each day is its own past and future and has its own absolute value.

Taken from a San Francisco City Center transcript thought to be based on notes by Richard Baker. It is not verbatim; no tape is available. The City Center transcript was entered onto disk by Bill Redican (11/4/01). This talk is thought to have been given on Thursday, November 1st, 1962. From

Another translation of Case 6 of the Blue Cliff Record (by Cleary and Cleary):

Yun-men said, “I don’t ask you about before the fifteenth day; try to say something about after the fifteenth day.” / Yun-men himself answered for everyone, “Every day is a good day.”
There is no introduction to this case by Yuanwu.
Here is the verse on this story by Xuedou:

He throws away one,
Picks up seven.
Above, below, and in the four directions, there is no comparison.
Placidly walking along, he treads down the sound of the flowing stream;
His relaxed gaze descries the tracks of flying birds.
The grasses grow thick,
The mists overhand.
‘Round Subhuti’s cliff, the flowers make a mess;
I snap my fingers; how lamentable is Shunyata!
Don’t make a move!
If you move, thirty blows!

Practice Period

Our six-week spring practice period will begin Saturday, May 2 with a one-day sitting. The requirements and sign-up sheet are on the bulletin board. Practice period gives us an opportunity to examine the rhythm of our zazen attendance and make adjustments according to the changing circumstances of our other obligations. If we can realistically balance our many obligations with our zendo attendance and activities, respecting each one’s Buddha nature, studying the Dharma, and harmonizing with the sangha, we can have a rewarding practice period together. When we can forget about our self, and simply contribute our effort while supporting each other, all aspects of our life can come together, with zazen as the fundamental touchstone.

Practice period can be like spring cleaning. We look around and let go of what we have been dragging around and lighten up our load going forth into the rest of the year both refreshed and  rejuvenated. I encourage all of us to attend the opening day sesshin when we will install long-time practitioner Susan Marvin as the head student (shuso). Her attendant Dean Bradley will be organizing teas where informal dharma discussion can take place.

The five-week class will be based on ancestor Vasubandhu’s teaching model of the eight levels of consciousness interactive (and not interactive) with the dharmas. What are the eight levels? Do I really know what dharmas are? What is true self and what is not? If there is no self then what is there? Where exactly is the ego? How is consciousness transformed into wisdom? These and other questions will be dealt with, and class materials for study will be forthcoming.

So come and enjoy these three fundamental activities together: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Let the Dharma turn you as you turn the Dharma. Each one of us is both  individual and collective, and one does not interfere with the other.  Let’s make our effort to find this harmonious balance moment by moment.