Tag Archives: sojun


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?

Does Life Have Meaning?


This morning, March 19, a warm and sunny day, I walked out of the house and wandered into our fenced-off vegetable garden. I walked over to visit the lemon tree that I planted in January. It had been in a pot for two years. It was doing quite well; producing nice new soft, shiny leaves, and new buds. Then I spotted our new cat Willow lying under the shade of the yellow, (dynamite) pepper bush. She seemed very happy that I was there with her in her territory, her garden. It then came to me that tomorrow the 20th is the first day of Spring. I just stood still silently participating with her zazen. Little by little the whole garden was coming alive and revealing itself. The new small lettuce, the green carrot tops, the new leaf buds on the blueberry bushes. I could feel the tremendous energy of the earth all at once reaching for the sun, being expressed through this green world.

A few years ago I made a little housing for Liz’s garden figure of St. Francis, the patron of the animals. She had hung a ceramic sign on it that said, “We come from the Earth and return to the Earth and in between we garden.” I remember one time reading somewhere, something like, “Cultivating the Dharma in the Garden of the Heart.” This reminded me that the seeds of all of our thoughts and actions are stored in our subconscious mind-ground, the ālaya vijñāna, the garden of the mind. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds sprout and manifest according to our actions and thoughts, causing happiness or suffering.

A question was presented to me the other day about the meaning of our life. What is that?  What could be more meaningful than dropping our self-absorption and devoting ourself to cultivating the Garden of the Mind? We are vegetable, animal, mineral and human. When we take off the coverings, and open our eyes we can realize all of these qualities in ourself. Our body/mind is not separate from the world. When we take care of the world we take care of ourself and vice versa.

The blood runs through our body. The heart beats, the breath-door swings, the thought bubbles come and go, the body ages, and none of it is controlled by “me.” It is the universal activity. This is what we belong to. There is a deep satisfaction that comes from cooperating with this universal activity, which is our true self. Maybe this is what self-respect is. Our practice is to find the meaning in each moment, taking nothing for granted.

A monk asked Joshu, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the west?” He said, “The oak tree in the garden.” He also had a great awakening when he saw a peach tree in full bloom.


I have been thinking about mindfulness lately and how it is related to awareness and to concentration. I think about it when I cross the street, especially the busy avenues. I have been a car driver, a taxi driver, a bike rider, and a pedestrian. Engaged in each of those activities I have wanted to get to where I was going as fast and efficiently as possible. Traffic was always a game. But I always played by the rules and never hit anyone or caused an accident. I was always testing and honing my skill.

What I learned was that I had to be mindful and concentrated, and that the act of driving overrides all distractions. A driver should be aware of what is happening two or three blocks ahead as well as what is happening behind and on both sides in a constantly shifting complexity of patterns. I also learned what it means to be a pedestrian some years ago when walking my dog. I trained him to walk off leash, and to stop at all the corners, which he did. I realized how risky it is to walk across the street when there are cars moving around. By myself I can do a little dodging using my judgment. But that was too much to expect of him.

So I came to the conclusion that the best thing is just to wait until all the traffic has gone by on both sides of the street and then walk at our leisure. Slowing down like that and stopping for 10 seconds or 15 or 30 seconds can seem like you will never get to where you are going. Now I am very aware of how pedestrians get hit by cars. The law in California says that a pedestrian has the right of way in the crosswalk. People often take advantage of this and in an arrogant manner step off the curb expecting the traffic (maybe as many as 20 people just like us) to come to a screeching halt. Or on the other hand they may enter traffic being totally oblivious.

In a perfect world no one has the right of way. We should all be looking out for each other. Before walking across the street, I give way to the traffic and wait my turn. Often, people stop for me even though I don’t want them to. I often just wave them on because I don’t want to stop the flow of traffic. If all pedestrians waited until the coast was clear there would be far fewer targets. Giving privilege to one side creates an unequal division putting all the responsibility on the drivers and reduces pedestrians’ reliance on awareness and proper judgment. This is an example of our ordinary daily life practice of mindfulness, awareness and two kinds of concentration; both narrow and wide. Our practice is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity to create harmony and to awaken together with all beings.



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.