Monthly Archives: October 2016



Recently I had occasion to walk through a toy department in one of our largest retailers. Very interesting. Toys sure have changed since my little kid days. Some of the stuff looked interesting and imaginative, but too much of it, way too much, seemed to reflect a warped imagination, a distorted view of reality, a proneness to entice our most superficial energies, a programming of the young mind for total unreality. Things do not bode well for our future! Of course all this prepares them quite well for our unreal techno world.


I ran across this quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, a Zen teacher: “We’re here to get our present model repainted a little bit. If the car of our life is a deep grey, we want to turn it into lavender or pink. But transformation means that the car may disappear altogether. Maybe instead of a car it will be a turtle. We don’t even want to hear of such possibilities. We hope that the teacher will tell us something that will fix our present model. A lot of therapy merely provides techniques for improving the model. They tinker here and there, and we may even feel a lot better. Still, that is not transformation. Transformation arises from a willingness that develops very slowly over time to be what life asks of us. Most of us (myself included at times) are like children: we want something or somebody to give us what a small child wants from its parents. We want to be given peace, attention, comfort, understanding. If our life doesn’t give us this, we think, ‘A few years of Zen practice will do this for me.’ No, they won’t. That’s not what practice is about. Practice is about opening ourselves so that this little ‘I’ that wants and wants and wants and wants and wants–that wants the whole world to be its parents, really–grows up.”

Indeed. Well put! In addition to what she is saying here directly, this also has a certain relevence and application to people entering monastic life. Very often they come to monastic life just to get their “present model repainted a little bit.” When it turns out that the life is pulling them into something much more demanding, a lot of them bail out. Another interesting application of this account is to the public sphere, the social and political reality. This extrapolation I will leave to you.


Speaking of politics, we are approaching a very critical national election. An election that has enormous moral and religious dimensions as well as social and economic ones. More is at stake in this election than at any time since I think the LBJ–Goldwater tussle back in 1964. As much as I dislike and distrust Hillary Clinton as a politician and as much as I think that there are many questions around her, it is absolutely imperative that Trump be defeated for the sake of the common good and the well-being of the nation. And it does seem as I write this that Clinton should have a very sizeable victory. But….and this is a BIG “but”….I won’t be celebrating the day after election day. This is not only because of my view of Clinton, but much more so because I realize that Trump is not “the disease”; he is only one symptom of what ails America now. And this problem is going to be with us after election day big time!


Random Thoughts On Politics:

The Economist, hardly a leftist rag, recently had an article with the title, “The Debasing of American Politics.” Just one sentence tells you what that’s about: “By normalizing attitudes that, before he came along, were publicly taboo, Mr. Trump has taken a knuckle-duster to American political culture.” Indeed. So true, but note the key words–“publicly taboo.” Trump is only bringing to the surface and to the light what was lurking there all along, things that were “not allowed” to appear in the public sphere.


Sometimes I wonder…. I recall a Scripture scholar I had in seminary, an elderly Jesuit who was the essence of gentleness and kindness and deeply knowledgeable in all the ancient languages. I never really enjoyed Scripture classes as a rule–they seemed to me to kill the spiritual element there–but this guy was interesting to listen to. One day, however, he jolted me out of my complacency. He pointed to something in the Gospel of Luke that was right there in front of my nose but which we all usually just take for granted, never really pondering the full implications of these words. The full pericope was the “Temptation in the Desert,” Lk 4: 5-7—“Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.’” (Similar words in Matthew.) The old Jesuit was trying to challenge all the young Jesuit students in class (I was the only non-Jesuit in class!) who at that time were totally mesmerized by the call to political action as a religious activity, and you can readily understand that in the context of Liberation theology and other such movements. The old Jesuit was simply cautioning them not to “put all their chips” on politics. This realm is not a “godly realm” no matter how good your intentions; and if you really study history you will begin to see what he means. Well, at that time I thought he was overly pessimistic, and I still do today; but, sometimes, I begin to wonder…..


American history is an eye-opener if you get beyond the mythologized narrative they give you in school. Read Howard Zinn’s account for a change. In any case, just as an example, I used to idolize Thomas Jefferson. I even identified myself as a “Jeffersonian American”—until I discovered the “real” Jefferson, the one who not only was a slave-owner but also participated energetically in hunting down runaway slaves, dead or alive. On top of that, when he became president and got that big piece of land from the French, the Louisiana Purchase, he planned the removal or extermination of all natives from that land. This is the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence and “all men are created equal.” In school we usually get only half the picture. Or take the case of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson who had the support of the KKK and welcomed that support and wanted to keep Blacks “in their place,” and lied to get us into World War I so that many made money off that–like the Republican George Bush in recent years. So the story goes…..

All through American history the political parties and the candidates they put forward are only “beards” for various money interests. The term “beard” comes from the world of sports betting. When a person cannot or does not want to be seen making a big sports bet in a casino, he will send in another person to make that bet for him. The bet’s true owner is thus concealed, and the person making this bet is called a “beard.” The image is self-explanatory! In any case, the phenomenon can be seen in politics quite readily.


One of the really serious problems in American politics is the truncated nature of our choices. Ok, the Republicans are really a far right party; and the Dems are more a center-right party, to use a European metric. To use the word “leftist” for the Dems is to not see what is really going on. Even the much weaker word “liberal” will not do–primarily because it has had so many different changes in meaning over the last century. If another serious choice pops up, like the socialist Bernie Sanders, he has to run as a Dem to have any chance and then the system will find a way to defeat him. I followed the Washington Post’s handling of the Sanders campaign and it was amazingly negative, even making fun and distorting all his proposals and his agenda. What we have really is what Chomsky called “a manufactured consent.” Only these two options will be allowed. And one is getting so looney that pretty soon we might really have only a one-party system.


I saw in the news an evangelical Trump supporter holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in another. No more need be said. Then, again, I am totally perturbed, even aghast, that Trump is doing relatively well among my own Catholic community. Granted, these are conservative Catholics, but don’t they know anything about Catholic social teaching? It will be interesting to see what the demographics of the Trump support will be on Election Day. How many vote for him and exactly who votes for him. I predict that he will get about 38% of the vote, which is truly bad for the country considering there are THAT many people who believe in Trump. They will be there after the election as a real problem. If Trump gets over 40%, we are in BIG trouble; and if he gets around 48%, I am getting in touch with the Canadian embassy!


So what has happened to the Republican Party? Way back when, it used to stand against American involvement in foreign wars and supported civil rights, more or less. The party of Robert Taft, Eisenhower and Rockefeller, you could have an honest debate with. Trump’s supporters today talk of rebellion and assassination if they lose the election. Even Richard Nixon, wow I can’t believe I am saying this, had some remarkable positions but all these went down the toilet of history with Watergate. Few people know that he was responsible for starting the Environmental Protection Agency and for getting the Clean Air and Pure Water Act passed. He was also going to push for a single-payer health plan in the U.S. way back in 1970; and he was also exploring the feasibility of a guaranteed income for all American citizens, whether they worked or not, something that is only now being tried in Finland. Even Bernie didn’t openly propose that! What happened since Reagan is a complex phenomenon but it can be reduced to several elements at least. One is a real deep anger and frustration that a lot of people are feeling that demagogues like Trump and the far right have exploited to the nth-degree. This anger is due both to constant propagandizing and distorting by the far-right and it is due to a perceived betrayal by the elites of the country. And so any “anti-establishment” voice will get a hearing in this climate. Both Sanders and Trump actually connected to some of that, but one totally exploited that anger and anxiety ; the other tried to address it to some extent. Interesting that Bernie Sanders, this very old Jewish figure, gave voice to so much of Catholic Social Teaching (unbeknownst to him!!) and appealed to an overwhelming majority of people under 30…..the future.


About the future of the Republican Party…..recently Mother Jones had an interesting article about a Republican senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse. An obviously intelligent man, a Ph.D. in history from Yale, an evangelical, and someone who was critical of Trump from the very beginning and disassociated himself from “Trumpism.” That much he is to be commended for, and perhaps he can be a building block for a new Republican Party of the future. However, Sasse sees the problems of Trump as a “personal behavior” problem ,more or less, and he is objectionable as a person. I think that is only scratching the surface. Sasse himself seems to be part of that very wave that Trump is riding….the Tea Party. And with support from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, he is not in good company. But we shall see….   As Mother Jones implies at the end, we have yet to see the real Sasse and what he stands for. He uses terms like “entitlement reform” and he says he is against “centralized planning,” for example, and these kind of words usually lead to privatizing Social Security, cutting Medicare and the likes. What Sasse really needs is a really different Republican vision, and for that we will have to wait and see. Right now they are starting to spew this “the-election-is-rigged” thing, and they are preparing to be total obstructionists for Clinton just as they were for Obama. Obama’s big mistake was his inclination to try and “work together” with these folks, not really assessing their nasty intentions. LBJ used to pull Republican congressman to the White House and tell them that he would pull all Federal money out of their district if they didn’t vote for such and such a bill. That’s how he got the Civil Rights Act passed and the War on Poverty. It’s not “nice” but when you are faced with that degree of nastiness and so much is at stake, then you better be tough enough to twist some political arms, that is, if you really want to get such legislation passed. That’s a whole other story. In any case, it remains to be seen if Sasse will be with these obstructionists or will he try to lead another kind of Republican “loyal opposition” that will actually dialogue and compromise with Clinton. A lot is at stake in all this for the well-being of the country.


A much deeper survey of our situation is hinted at in this incredibly complex essay by Henry A. Giroux.   As Giroux acutely observes, our problems are a lot more serious than this or that politician. Here is the beginning of this piece verbatim:

“What happens to a society when thinking is eviscerated and is disdained in favor of raw emotion? What happens when political discourse functions as a bunker rather than a bridge? What happens when the spheres of morality and spirituality give way to the naked instrumentalism of a savage market rationality? What happens when time becomes a burden for most people and surviving becomes more crucial than trying to lead a life with dignity? What happens when domestic terrorism, disposability, and social death become the new signposts and defining features of a society? What happens to a social order ruled by an “economics of contempt” that blames the poor for their condition and wallows in a culture of shaming? What happens when loneliness and isolation become the preferred modes of sociality? What happens to a polity when it retreats into private silos and is no longer able to connect personal suffering with larger social issues? What happens to thinking when a society is addicted to speed and over-stimulation? What happens to a country when the presiding principles of a society are violence and ignorance? What happens is that democracy withers not just as an ideal but also as a reality, and individual and social agency become weaponized as part of the larger spectacle and matrix of violence.

The forces normalizing and contributing to such violence are too expansive to cite, but surely they would include: the absurdity of celebrity culture; the blight of rampant consumerism; state-legitimated pedagogies of repression that kill the imagination of students; a culture of immediacy in which accelerated time leaves no room for reflection; the reduction of education to training; the transformation of mainstream media into a mix of advertisements, propaganda, and entertainment; the emergence of an economic system which argues that only the market can provide remedies for the endless problems it produces, extending from massive poverty and unemployment to decaying schools and a war on poor minority youth; the expanding use of state secrecy and the fear-producing surveillance state; and a Hollywood fluff machine that rarely relies on anything but an endless spectacle of mind-numbing violence. Historical memory has been reduced to the likes of a Disney theme park and a culture of instant gratification has a lock on producing new levels of social amnesia.”


Here is the link to this article:


Christ Hedges, my favorite commentator writes about Trump—“Donald Trump: The Dress Rehearsal For Fascism”       Here is the link:

And a more mainstream commentator, Robert Reich, who once served in the Clinton Cabinet and is now a professor at Berkeley, has an alarming prognostication–that a win by Hillary will be welcome by Wall Street and that they will get something important for them from her and the growing income disparity will continue to widen. Here is the link to that piece:


The things these folks predict may not happen, but still we need to face our predicament with open eyes and with thoughtful minds and hearts. The future is going to be a most serious challenge.

Leaving this quagmire of politics, now I would like to turn to a very different kind of person and a very different kind of world: In The Sun Magazine there recently was this article: “Not On Any Map: Jack Turner On Our Lost Intimacy With the Natural World,” by Leath Tonino. It is a marvelous interview with Mr. Turner and here is the introduction to this piece:

Since 1978 he has lived at the foot of the Tetons, one of North America’s most dramatic mountain ranges, usually in cabins without electricity or running water. A retired mountain guide, he believes that to really love a place, one must forge an intimate, bodily relationship with it, and that to do so in this day and age is an “achievement.” One cabin in which he lived, a twelve-by-twenty-foot plywood shack located inside Grand Teton National Park, could be reached during the winter months only by skiing or snowshoeing four miles from the nearest plowed road.  Temperatures sometimes dropped to 40 below. Weeks passed without a visit to town. He says the years he spent there with his wife, Dana, and dog, Rio, were the best of his life.

Raised in Washington, D.C., and Southern California, Turner grew up in a family of outdoorsmen. His grandfather was the co-owner of a hunting-and-fishing camp in northern Pennsylvania, and his father hunted and fished year-round. Turner got an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Colorado and went on to study Chinese and philosophy at Stanford and Cornell. Soon after, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois in Chicago, but he was less comfortable in the halls of academia than he was wandering the backcountry. He’d become obsessed with rock climbing in the early 1960s, and by the middle of that decade he was partnering with some of the best climbers in the U.S. on difficult routes in Yosemite National Park and Colorado. He loved climbing more than philosophy, so he quit being a professor. The mountains were calling, and he trusted their voice.

Now seventy-two years old, Turner has spent more time outdoors in pursuit of wildness and wilderness than anybody else you’re likely to meet. For forty-two years he worked for Exum Mountain Guides, a company based in Wyoming, leading clients up the 13,776-foot Grand Teton and neighboring peaks. He has climbed the Grand Teton roughly four hundred times and participated in more than forty treks and expeditions to Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and Peru. In his free time he’s backpacked, canoed, fished, bird-watched, and camped — often alone and always without a GPS — all across North America.”


Now this guy I really feel in tune with! He makes a very strong case for the human need for real and personal encounter with wilderness for both human and spiritual health. This is a topic that I have touched on a few times in this blog, and I was exhilarated by this interview. He also has a good understanding of the hermit life, which is quite rare. Here is the link to the full online interview:


And let us conclude with an actual contemporary Zen story. This took place at Esalen, the New Age spirituality and therapy center right on the coast of California in Big Sur and just down the road from the Hermitage where I lived at the time. Kobun Chino Roshi, who was a Zen master and a master of Kyudo, the way of the bow, was visiting Esalen with his archery teacher. The teacher fired off some arrows at a practice target and then he handed off the bow and arrow to Kobun and invited him to demonstrate his skill.   Esalen is high on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Kobun took an arrow and with complete concentration and attention and care shot the arrow into the ocean. When it hit the water he said, “Bull’s eye!” (The story is told in Essential Zen.)

This is connected to everything I wrote above, but don’t ask for an explanation!!










The Continuing Saga of Zen Masters: Japan

So we continue our little perusal of these fascinating figures in the history of religion: the Zen Masters. This time our attention shifts to Japan. Now to be very clear, we are not under the spell of a romanticized, idealized view of Zen Buddhism. It has had plenty of problems thru its history until this very day, and this could be said of Buddhism in general. About some of this we shall reflect on in the next posting. But here and now I simply want to enjoy the company of some remarkable people–folks who are as endearing as many of my favorite Desert Fathers. When I was visiting with the Chinese masters, I used Red Pine as my guide. Here I will use a lovely little work by Richard Bryan McDaniel, Zen Masters of Japan.

Let us begin by repeating a story that I already once related, a story that I consider one of the most important in all the history of religion. This is the account of the meeting of Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk who had arrived in China from India, with the Emperor of China. Recall that Buddhism had long before entered China and this Emperor himself was not only friendly to Buddhism but also a convert to it. But Bodhidharma’s Buddhism was very different to what the Emperor was used to and so he was very curious what this strange monk was about. Whether this account is mythic in nature or an actual historical incident is totally irrelevant for our purposes. The meaning of this story is what matters. So let us listen in to this encounter once more:

“The Emperor was a practicing Buddhist and proud of the many ways he had supported the tradition in his realm. When he learned that there was a visitor in his kingdom from the land where the Buddha had lived, he naturally invited Bodhidharma to come to the court. There, Wu described all he had done to promote Buddhism and asked, ‘What is your opinion? What merit have I accumulated as a result of these deeds?’ Bodhidharma’s reply was blunt and tactless: ‘No merit whatsoever.’ ‘Why not?’ the Emperor demanded. ‘Motives for such actions are always impure,’ Bodhidharma told him. ‘They are undertaken solely for the purpose of attaining future rebirth. They are like shadows cast by bodies, following those bodies but having no reality of their own.’ ‘Then what is true merit?’ the Emperor asked. ‘It is clear seeing, pure knowing, beyond discriminating intelligence. Its essence is emptiness. Such merit cannot be gained by worldly means.’ This was unlike any exposition of the Buddhist faith the Emperor had heard before, and, perhaps a little testily, he asked, ‘According to your understanding, then, what is the first principle of Buddhism?’ ‘Vast emptiness and not a thing that can be called holy,’ Bodhidharma responded at once. Wu spluttered: ‘What is that supposed to mean? And who are you who now stands before me?’ To which Bodhidharma replied: ‘I don’t know.’ Then he left the court.” (as presented by Richard Bryan McDaniel)

What a remarkable story! This story has a universal significance–it holds for all the great religions whether it be Christianity or Hinduism or Islam–you might say that it points to “A Tale of Two Views Within a Religion,” to borrow a phrase. In one story religion is a kind of transaction, you do something in order to gain something. There is this “I” that is constantly seeking “gain,” and so religion energizes this self-centered dynamism disguised by piety, worship, rituals and traditions, spirituality, doctrines, even benevolence–all of which is for the enhancement of this “I”–(Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Zosima pointed this out also in The Brothers Karamazov–in fact he pushed this to the extreme with unspeakable irony when he said that a person would even endure crucifixion as long as he got adulation for it, as long as there were people there to “applaud.”) The Zen Masters (and Desert Fathers) totally deconstruct this inner dynamism. Theirs is the “other” story of religion, one which seeks a piercing vision into the reality of the human condition and deconstructs the ground of all those dualisms that the “I” lives by: I like this; I don’t like that; here is the holy; there is the not-holy, you are you and I am I, two separate realities, etc., etc.


Now the history of Zen Buddhism oscillates between these two stories of religion as it travels through the centuries. Both in China and in Japan Zen Buddhism has its periods where it becomes lost in stagnation, superficiality, decadence and self-seeking; and it has its moments, and I use this word deliberately because these tend to be brief, when the intense light of Zen shines clearly and fully. We will hit a few of these moments in Japan.


Buddhism came to Japan from China. Chinese culture was looked upon as something to learn from and imitate, and so were the religious tendencies. At first there were three schools of Buddhism that came from China and flourished in Japan: the Tendai, the Shingon, and the Pure Land. The Tendai School is often considered the first wholly Chinese School of Buddhism, and it was primarily concerned with the teachings of the historic Buddha. McDaniel: “Although meditation was practiced in the Tendai tradition, the majority of Tendai adherents were satisfied with understanding it as the doctrinal system which was intellectually coherent and which was able to meet the devotional needs of the literate population.” So the focus of the Tendai was on Scripture, while the focus of the Shingon School was on ritual. McDaniel: “It was one of the so-called ‘esoteric’ schools of Buddhism, in which secret teachings, or ‘empowerments,’ were transmitted from teacher to student.” Shingon practice had elaborate rituals and mantra recitation. When this School reached Japan, initially it was very popular with the ruling class. Finally, there was the Pure Land Buddhism which became very popular among common people who found “philosophical Buddhism” too abstruse. Pure Land was utter simplicity–you simply recited this mantra and you would be “reborn” in a heaven-like afterlife. Also, you didn’t need to be a monk. It arrived in Japan in the 12th Century; it was always popular among ordinary people; and today it is the most popular form of Buddhism in Japan. (And Zen Buddhism is practically dead or just a cultural artifact!!)


Now in China all these varieties of Buddhism competed for popularity, power and influence. Zen Buddhism somehow emerged among all these others–due to those great Patriarchs of Zen we previously mentioned– and at times even flourished. It seemed to survive the various persecutions that some Emperors engaged in when they determined that Budddhism was a “foreign” religion and the push was for a return to Taoism and Confucianism. Because Zen Buddhist monasteries pretty much stayed in far-off rural areas and the hermits lived in remote mountains, Zen Buddhism was often “off the radar” and left alone. There were some great Zen Masters, but there were also periods of decline and decay when, for one reason or another, the focus on enlightenment, on that “direct seeing” into one’s mind that Hui Neng and Lin Chi emphasized, all that seemed lost and Zen Buddhism became “infected” with the kinds of problems the other varieties of Buddhism exhibited: emphasis on ritual, on doctrine, on wealth and power and prestige, etc., etc. There is a lot of controversy about this history, and about all that I will touch on in the next posting. (Recall that what made Hui Neng’s Zen Buddhism so special and revolutionary was his emphasis on “sudden enlightenment,” the downplaying of intellectual prowess and intellectual efforts, the openness to all no matter their station in society or in life, and most startling of all, Hui Neng’s downplaying the necessity of having a teacher—after all he himself, the greatest Zen figure of all time, didn’t have one until after his awakening.)


Dogen. This is the first great Japanese Zen Master to look at. He is generally known as the “founder” and foundation of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism in Japan–throughout Japanese history there are then these two parallel tracks of Zen Buddhism, Soto and Rinzai. The peculiar thing is that both branches trace their lineage back to the same Chinese Zen Patriarchs, like the great Hui Neng , and the amazing Zen Master Lin Chi. Yet these two branches are very different in their approach to Zen and at times they were fierce rivals—D. T. Suzuki simply ignored Soto in his presentation of Zen and thought it was not “real” Zen. Yet today Soto is the only Zen Buddhism that has any life left in Japan and is the prevalent form of Zen in the Wes(though in some cases Westerners combine Soto and Rinzai traditions). In any case, back to the great Dogen.

Dogen lives about the same time that Romuald, Bruno Francis, and Bernard are doing their thing with monks and hermits in the West. He came from a noble family, received an excellent education as a youngster and was definitely slated for a life in the imperial court. But his parents died while he was still young, and this deeply affected him. By the time he was sixteen he had run away from that scene and became a monk at a Tendai monastery. Here he studied the Buddhist sutras, and since he was well-trained in Chinese he took to the study readily. However, his deepest questions and concerns were not assuaged by this approach. He traveled to other monasteries, and he was exposed to a kind of amalgam of Tendai and Shingon brands of Buddhism with a little bit of Zen that had filtered into Japan. It was here that Dogen sensed that his deepest quest was leading him beyond any study and ritual, and the path he was on was not going to lead to any kind of awakening. He had a sense that Zen had what he needed, and so he traveled to China to learn Zen Buddhism from its source.

So Dogen goes to China, and there he encounters various Zen Masters. Things are not quite as good as in the Tang period, the “golden age of Chinese Zen,” and due to various government persecutions and pressures Zen is in decline.   The lineage of Hui Neng and Lin Chi has split up into several schools and not all the branches are flourishing. Dogen finds himself with what was the Chinese beginnings of the Soto school. Now let’s take a moment and explain what’s going on. For Hui Neng and someone like Lin Chi, Zen Buddhism was all about this “direct pointing at the Mind.” Sometimes called your “original face,” sometimes called “the true person of no-rank,” sometimes called “the Buddha nature,” sometimes called “your original nature,” sometimes called, the Unborn or the Self, etc., etc.   This whole awakening, this wholly revolutionary way of seeing things, this piercing of reality into the true nature of things, was called by different names by different masters but it all amounts to the same thing and for Hui Neng everything was for the purpose of this awakening. Yes, meditation could play a role, but it was not essential in primitive Zen; anything and everything was an instrument in someone like Hui Neng’s hands. All of life, your whole situation, anything was a means to this awakening. Lay or monk didn’t matter. This is the purest Zen, but it is also a very intense way of living, and not many could keep up with the likes of Hui Neng and Lin Chi. So what happens is quite understandable, various Zen masters develop various ways of ameliorating the journey if you will, or at least making it more “well-defined.” Thus, the koan method develops. People are given the koan and this is the total content of their meditation. Their mind is given “something to do,” something to focus on—in a sense it becomes like the wall that Bodhidharma sat in front of for years. It is still a very intense practice, but you see it is a very well-defined path and that takes some of the stress out of it. Later on the koans get systemztized and people go from koan to koan as if solving one puzzle and getting a deeper one. The koan method usually implies a totally monastic life.   When a person has a breakthrough, an awakening, “kensho” as it is called, then he is able to give an answer to the Zen Master that shows he has broken through the wall of his rational, ego-centered, dualistic vision of things.

Another approach was completely different. Here the emphasis is on a kind of empty meditation, the key thing is precisely the meditation and not some content of the meditation. The student is taught a formless meditation, shikantaza, which literally means “just sitting.” So here sitting meditation or zazen is the central practice. Dogen eventually settled in a Chinese Zen (Chan)monastery that was following this path. He stayed there for several years and had his first awakening. When he returned to Japan he brought back this path, enhanced it, intensified it, made it THE practice of his Zen monasteries, and today this school, the Soto School, is the most popular Zen path both in Japan and in the West.


A story related by McDaniel: “Dogen found an elderly monk working in the heat of the day preparing food. The tenzo (monastery cook) was hatless in the sun and walked over tiles which must have burned, but he showed no sign of discomfort. Dogen asked the monk how old he was and the monk replied that he was approaching his seventieth year. ‘Are there no younger monks who could assist you?’ Dogen asked. ‘Others are not me,’ the tenzo answered. ‘These are my duties, how can someone else fulfill them?’ ‘But surely there’s no need to carry them out during the hottest part of the day,’ Dogen persisted. ‘If not now, when?’ the monk asked. ‘I can see that you are a man of the Way (Tao),’ Dogen said. ‘Please tell me, what is the true Way?’ ‘The universe has never concealed it,’ the cook said and turned back to his work. The conversation struck Dogen profoundly, and the memory of it would stay with him long after he returned to Japan.”


When Dogen got back to Japan, he found many Buddhist monasteries were filled with luxury compared to the Chinese Zen monasteries. He set up teaching in a remote, old, run-down temple and there he started attracting students. He was open to teaching lay people and monks. He also wrote extensively in Japanese–previous Buddhist writings were mostly in Chinese and so of limited accessibility. He wrote of philosophical/theological issues, explaining Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, and he also was propagating what he picked up in China which became the Soto School of Zen. Here he wrote very practical things like how to do zazen, what to eat, how to live as monks, etc. Here is an excellent summary of his teaching by Peter Levitt, a poet and Soto Zen teacher from British Columbia:

“The ability to leap beyond dualistic thinking during zazen is fundamental to Dogen Zen. It is due to the wholehearted, all-inclusive nature of the activity, but we should look at this carefully to be sure we discern his meaning. As taught by Dogen, meditation does not lead to enlightenment. [In that he is very much in tune with Hui Neng] In fact there is no distance of any kind between meditation and enlightenment. There is not even a separation between one’s aspiration to realize the self and that very realization.   According to Dogen, from the very first moment of establishing the meditation posture, no bridge is necessary; practice IS full realization, and full realization IS practice. As he says, ‘Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.’ Dogen’s understanding is that at all moments we are whole, lacking nothing, despite how we feel at any given time. Therefore, zazen is not a practice that leads to realization. It is neither a means to an end in our usual goal-oriented manner of thinking nor a method for learning to concentrate; nor is it a technique designed to help us improve ourselves…. Dogen’s teaching is clear: zazen is…an intimate expression of the oneness of all life…. It is realization itself whether we are aware of it or not…. And so we do not sit in order to become enlightened; we sit as an expression of enlightenment. That is what buddhas do.”


Final Dogen quote: “Studying the Buddha way is studying oneself. Studying oneself is forgetting oneself. Forgetting oneself is being enlightened by all beings.”


The other great Japanese Zen Master to look at is Hakuin. Even though Hakuin lived centuries after Dogen, he can be considered as Dogen’s great rival. Hakuin is probably the most prominent figure in the Japanese Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism. And this is, like I said, very very different from Soto Zen!

Hakuin was born in 1686; his father was a samurai of limited means; his mother a devout practitioner of Nichirin Buddhism, an offshoot of Tendai. They lived in an impoverished region, and throughout his life Hakuin retained a great compassion for the poor people of Japan. Hakuin entered monastic life at the age of 15. He spent time at various temples, studying this and that. It was not until he met this particular teacher that challenged and pushed him to his own awakening. The odd thing to remember in all this is that for most of its history, Zen Buddhism both in China and in Japan was in a state of decline. This seems surprising, but it was especially true of the Rinzai tradition, the one in which Hakuin lived. Yes, there are the great moments and the great masters, figures who can take your breath away with their insight and awareness; but strangely enough this hardly lasts, and most of the time Zen is in decline. Here’s a few examples from McDaniel:

“Official support of the Rinzai tradition perhaps had more negative consequences than positive ones. Since Rinzai temples had become schools for the sons of the nobility and the warrior class, the government had an interest in how they were organized…. The government approved abbots and controlled the curriculum….schools became training grounds for students intending to enter the civil service, and they became a vehicle for promulgating government policies in remote districts. As they became centers of growing cultural importance, they lost something of their credibility as spiritual centers. Students with no religious interest at all were sent to them in order to acquire basic literacy skills. Other students were drawn by an interest in various arts that were becoming associated with Zen. Meanwhile, koan study deteriorated from being a powerful and challenging spiritual exercise to becoming a popular literary activity.”

“Shosan never bothered to have his awakening formally acknowledged, and he would always claim to be ‘self-enlightened without the aid of a teacher.’ The experience even led him to question the value of kensho. He was contemptuous of what he called kitai-zen, Zen practice undertaken in expectation of attaining some end, such as satori. The Rinzai emphasis on kensho, he argued, resulted in monks with very minor awakening experiences coming to believe they were fully enlightened individuals. Particularly significant to him was the fact that he seldom saw a notable change in the moral behavior of these monks. Their lifestyles, preoccupied as they were with physical comfort and ambitions to advance within the hierarchy, were evidence of how preoccupied they remained with self or ego.”

“Temples could be commercial establishments. Some acted as banks; others were publishing centers, where school texts, along with both Buddhist and Confucian documents from China, were made available in woodcut prints. The temples also carried out ritual activities for the benefit of the national government. In many temples, religious teaching became slack. Monks unable to earn them could purchase documents of enlightenment.”


So Hakuin arrives on this scene with that kind of monastic milieu, with Rinzai Zen in very bad shape. As a young monk he tours many temples trying to learn what he can of Buddhism and the Zen tradition. However, he is not interested in formulating ideas about all this; he has a deep, instinctive and intense desire for awakening, and he knows nothing else will satisfy him. Finally he meets this rare bird, a crusty old Rinzai master who was the real thing and who helps Hakkuin break through in Lin Chi fashion–by giving him one helluva time and knocking the psychological stuffings out of him! Hakuin spends some time with this master after his awakening; then he travels a bit more to deepen his awakening; then he finally returns to his hometown and takes up this abandoned, run-down temple. Here is McDaniel’s description: “It had neither roof nor floor boards. When it rained, Hakuin had to wear a rain hat and high getas (sandals with wooden slats on their soles) even indoors. The land and furnishings were mortgaged to local creditors. Undaunted, Hakuin set about rebuilding it, and subsequently this small rural temple became a center to which students from throughout Japan flocked for the next fifty years. Although Hakuin did not actively seek for disciples, his character was such that genuine aspirants were drawn to him…. Although the primary focus of his life’s work was on renewing the Rinzai School…Hakuin also retained a commitment to lay people, in particular the working classes. He took lay disciples and was sensitive to the challenges they faced…. Hakuin took upon himself the responsibility of affecting a complete reform of the Rinzai School. Central to that reform was ensuring that only individuals who had legitimately received inka be allowed to teach. It was essential that students work with genuinely awakened teachers, although Hakuin realized there were only a few available in Japan during his lifetime. He set high standards for both students and teachers. He had no illusions about the difficulties facing those who came to him…. Awakening was central to Hakuin’s Zen. One was not, in his opinion, a member of the Zen community until one had ‘seen into one’s true nature.’”


Here’s a very well-known story about Hakuin, which I long ago related and which corresponds so closely to a Desert Father story –totally amazing actually:

In the village in which Hakuin was building a Zen monastic life, there was a family who had a daughter who got pregnant. The parents demanded to know who the father was. At first she wouldn’t talk; they pressured her and wore her down, and she finally said, “The father is the monk, Hakuin.” All the villagers were outraged, and word spread all over that Hakuin had impregnated the girl and everyone feelings toward Hakuin changed for the worse. When the child was finally born, the parents and the villagers brought the baby to Hakuin and said, “This is your child. You look after it.” “Is that so?” Hakuin said. He accepted the baby and did not appear distressed at receiving it. His reputation was in tatters, but he looked after the child as best as he could. The baby was kept clean and warm, and Hakuin sang it to sleep at night. He lived like this for almost a year. Then one winter’s day, the girl happened to see Hakuin making his way through the snow, going from house to house, begging for food with the baby tied securely on his back. She felt ashamed at what she had done and confessed to her parents that it was not Hakuin at all who had fathered the child; rather it was a young man who worked at the market whom she had been seeing on the sly. Abashed, her parents rushed to Hakuin and apologized profusely. The child was not his; they would take the child off his hands and the girl would marry the real father. “Is that so?” is the only thing Hakuin said, and turned the child over to them.


So much for these two giants of Japanese Zen. There were of course many other outstanding figures through the centuries right into modern times, and each one made his own contribution to our appreciation of Zen. The figures who appeal to me the most are the ones who are unconventional, who are not “officially approved,” who don’t fit in, who are in fact “Zen fools.” Ryokan would certainly be one of these. Here’s a few others:


Shuho (later known as Daito Kokushi).

Here is a story about him: In the 14th century, Japan had a very young emperor who was so interested in Zen that he abdicated his throne at the age of 22 to give his whole time to Buddhist study and practice. Here is McDaniel’s account of what happened: “The retired Emperor heard a rumor that a Zen master of exceptional ability had come to the city of Kyoto where, instead of establishing himself at one of the city’s temples, he had chosen to live among the derelicts and beggars residing under the Gojo Bridge. The emperor was intrigued by the tale and asked his informant if there were any way that he could identify which of the beggars was the Zen Master. All the informant could tell him was that it was rumored the master was particularly fond of honeydew melons.

The emperor disguised himself as a fruit peddler and pushed a cart laden with melons to the bridge. As the residents gathered around him, he held up a ripe melon and announced, ‘I will give this melon freely to anyone who can come up to me and claim it without using his feet.’ One of the beggars immediately challenged him, ‘Then give it to me without using your hands.’ It was as much the gleam in the eye of the beggar as his reply that told the emperor that he had found the Zen teacher he was seeking.”


One of Shuho students was Kanzan. He was an especially gifted Zen student, but after his awakening Kanzan retreated to a rural village in a distant mountain region where for the next eight years he worked as a farm laborer during the day and spent his evenings in meditation seated on a stone ledge that jutted from the edge of a high cliff. He lived in this manner until the Emperor summoned him to Kyoto to become an abbot. While abbot he lived as frugally and austerely as when he was in the mountains. Not many could withstand the rigors of his training, and there were frequent defections. But those who stayed became the basis of one of the strongest lines in Japanese Rinzai.


Bassui: From McDaniel: “At the age of 20 he entered Jifukuji where he sought instruction from a master named Oko. Under Oko’s instruction, he began a rigorous meditation practice. However, he still questioned the value of the many ritual activities carried out in the temple…. As a consequence, he resisted taking the precepts, choosing instead to practice as a layman. He did this for nine years before finally having his head shaved and becoming a monk. Even then, despite his official change of status, he remained uncomfortable with the trappings of monastic life and remained noncompliant in many regards. He refused to chant sutras or take part in rituals; he even decided not to wear the traditional robes of a monk. Eventually he even ceased to stay at the monastery…choosing to live in a nearby hermitage.”

Again from McDaniel: “Bassui had heard about a hermit named Takukei who lived in a small hut in the wilderness…. Intrigued by what he had been told, Bassui sought the hermit out. At their first meeting, Takukei was confounded by the young man’s appearance and remarked, ‘I can tell by your shaved head that you are a monk. Why then aren’t you wearing the robes of a monk?’ I became a monk to learn the Buddha way, not to wear special clothes,’ Bassui answered.

‘So do you study the koans of the old masters?’

‘Of what use to me are the koans of the old masters when I do not understand my own mind?’

‘What then is your practice?’

‘I seek to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings in order to help them overcoming their sufferings even if by doing so I should fall into the deepest hells.’

Tokukei was so impressed by this answer that he bowed to the youth.”


When Bassui was about 50 he emerged from his “hidden life” and began accepting students. Eventually he had over a thousand disciples!


Then finally there is the incomparable Ikkyu, the “anti-monk,” the no-monk, the ultimate fool, the outrageous one….but also one of the most profound…..

Ikkyu seems to have been an illegitimate son of the emperor, but his mother was kicked out of the court when she became pregnant and was banished. She raised her child in poverty, and this deeply influenced his formation. He acquired a life-long aversion to the upper classes and a sympathy for working people and for the tribulations of women in that culture. When Ikkyu was a child, his mother enrolled him as a student in a Rinzai Zen temple. Ikkyu was a very good student and he also received a good literary education but he was drawn to Buddhism. McDaniel: “Even as a youth, Ikkyu had a naturally reflective temperament. He was drawn to Buddhist practice, but he was also sensitive to the discrepancy he observed between the way monks lived in the temple and the principles of monastic life to which they paid lip service.”

With his thirst for enlightenment growing, Ikkyu sought out some real masters. He found one in Kaso Sodon, who at that time was living in a hermitage near a village. Kaso had a reputation as a very demanding Zen Master, and he gave Ikkyu the “full treatment.” It took several years, but Ikkyu had an especially deep awakening, but when Kaso wanted to give him the formal certificate of Dharma transmission, the credential that allowed him to become a teacher in his own right, Ikkyu threw it into the fire. McDaniel: “Ikkyu was leery of the formal customs associated with the established Zen tradition. He refused to give his own students certificates of inka since such documents could now be purchased from less scrupulous teachers and, to his mind, were no longer credible evidence of a practitioner’s level of attainment.”

After his enlightenment, Ikkyu stayed with Kaso until the latter’s death. He took care of Kaso’s physical needs as Kaso weakened with age and illness, but there was always tension between the two for Kaso was a firm adherent to Zen traditions and the monastic code, while Ikkyu preferred saki, dallied with prostitutes and showed no deference to distinguished visitors. Ikkyu was in his early 30s when Kaso died; he could have become a teacher and would have many disciples. Instead he adopted the life of a wandering monk, visiting wine shops and brothels as often as he did Zen Temples. Ikkyu was critical of the pretentions of monks who affected a sanctimonious lifestyle.

A story that McDaniel relates about Ikkyu begging for food: “He came to the house of a wealthy landowner who, although he professed to be a Buddhist, gave Ikkyu only a single small coin and that grudgingly. Ikkyu returned to his dwelling and put on the formal robes of a transmitted Zen Master; wearing these, he returned to the landowner’s house. The landowner eagerly invited Ikkyu in and ordered an elaborate meal prepared for his guest. When the meal was served, Ikkyu stood, took off his robes and placed them on the seat of honor. ‘This meal has obviously been prepared not for me but for my clothes,’ he remarked. Then he left the house.”


Another tale narrated by McDaniel: “Ikkyu was crossing Osaka Bay on a ferry when a warrior monk of the Yamabushi School approached him. Yamabushi combined Shingon and Tendai teachings with native Shintoism, its adherents were trained in martial arts and magic.

‘You’re a Zen monk, aren’t you?’ the warrior monk asked. Ikkyu admitted he was.

‘I’ve heard that your school produces great meditators, but what else can it do?’

‘I don’t know. What can you do?’

‘We’re trained to be warriors and magicians. We can perform miracles which terrify our enemies and amaze the people and, by doing so, we bring respect to the Buddha way. Can you do anything like that?’

‘Certainly there are miracles in the Zen tradition, but tell me what kind of miracles you can do.’

‘I can call up the Bodhisattva Fudo on this very boat.’ Fudo was a guardian bodhisattva usually portrayed bearing a sword and a rope and surrounded by a fiery halo.

‘That would be very impressive,’ Ikkyu admitted. ‘Please show me.’

The monk began a series of chants and prayers and then, indeed, the Bodhisattva appeared in the boat surrounded by his halo of flames. The other passengers fell to their knees in amazement.

‘Can the Zen monk match my skill?’ the Yamabushi asked.

‘Well, I’m capable of a miracle or two as well,’ Ikkyu said. ‘For example, I can make water with my own body.’ So saying, Ikkyu pulled out his penis and urinated on the flames surrounding the bodhisattva, putting them out.”


In his old age Ikkyu finally took on some students and even got enticed in rebuilding a precious temple; the memorial temple for the beloved Daito Kokushi. But even here he was most unconventional and had his girl friend Mori visit him often. Even when he was 80, the two could be heard in the evenings playing duets. She was a harpist and vocalist, and Ikkyu accompanied her on the flute.