Advanced Zen

Step Eight – Both Self and Ox Forgotten

The Third Dharma Realm

Whip, rope, person, and bull — all merge in No-Thing. This heaven is so vast no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire? Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.


Both Self and Ox Forgotten

The third dharma realm is the dharma realm of the Pratyeka Buddhas.

The central practice is to apply the super power mindfulness developed by the above steps to the Doctrine of Dependent Arising.

The Pratyeka Buddha is defined as a being who attains Buddhahood even when there is no Buddha in the world. In other words, a Pratyeka Buddha is a self-taught Buddha.

However, Pratyeka Buddhas can also arise when there is a Buddha in the world. They are then considered to be beings enlightened by conditions.

Just as the realm of the hungry ghost is perhaps best understood as being a transitional realm between the hell realm and the animal realm, we can also think of the Pratyekabuddhas as occupying a realm above that of the Arhats but below that of the Bodhisattvas.

Master Yasutani says: At the eighth stage, we come to realize the fact that this “I” (self), which has been seeking, and the essential self (ox), which has been the object of our search, did not exist at all. Thus, both self and ox are forgotten.

Harada Roshi

Harada Roshi, teacher of Yasutani Roshi


This isn’t the kind of statement we can understand with the critical thinking mind. For us to say that neither we nor our minds exist is nonsense to our rational, thinking mind.

The original set of the Ox-Herding Pictures ended with the eighth “drawing.” It was a blank space, indicating that anything that was depicted about the eighth and final stage would be misleading.

“This heaven is so vast, no message can stain it” means that any words or drawings about the eighth and final stage were meaningless. Words and drawings are mere snowflakes that can’t exist in a raging fire.

The circle (enso) indicating no beginning of practice and no ending to enlightenment was added as the eighth drawing when the eight Ox-Herding Pictures were augmented to include the ninth and tenth drawings.

Apparently, the augmentation took place when someone decided that forgetting the self and the ox, i.e., eliminating the duality between self and goal, placed the practitioner not in nirvana but in the neighborhood of nirvana.

The ninth step of reaching or returning to the source was added as was the tenth step of returning to the marketplace to indicate that the ideal of the Bodhisattva – teaching and helping others while refraining from entering into Nirvana until all others have done so as a result of such teaching – was the true final step, not Buddahood.

However, we rank the first dharma realm of the Buddhas above the second dharma realm of the Bodhisattvas. Ranking a Bodhisattva above a Buddha seems to be part of the Mahayana’s attempts to “trump” the “Hinayana” or “lesser vehicle” (Theravada) by announcing that one who returns to teach is above a Buddha who simply disappears into Nirvana.

A Bodhisattava, however, is a Buddha-to-be, so it is hard to see how a future Buddha is to be more revered than an actual Buddha. And the Mahayana assertion that a Theravada Buddha vanishes and becomes meaningless but that a Mahayana Buddha returns to teach and to rescue beings from the hell realms – which a Theravada Buddha supposedly doesn’t do – seems to emanate from an ill will toward the “Hinayana.”

I have attended so-called Buddhist events at Thai (Theravada) temples where the slaughtered bodies of animals are served up in copious quantities, and I certainly understand the origins of the Mahayana disdain for the Theravadans.

If the Theravadans would start following the precept against killing, the two major schools of Buddhism could re-unite. Both schools could then practice Theravada tranquil wisdom meditation to develop the super power mindfulness needed to see the doctrine of dependent arising, both forward and backward, and to solve Mahayana/Zen koans.

Just as the Christians have limited “Thou Shalt Not Kill” by interpreting that commandment to mean “Thou Shalt Not Kill Human Beings And Even That Is OK When The Government Wants A War And Thou Shalt Kill All Animals That Thou Thinketh To Be Tasty When Cooked,” (real carnivores eat meat raw) so have the Theravadans limited the first precept to non-killing of human beings.

The Buddha, who used the strongest terms when condemning the wanton slaughter of animals, mentions multiple times in the Pali Canon that an enlightened being sees dependent arising, both forward and backward, and that no enlightenment has occurred if the being has not seen dependent arising, both forward and backward.

Intellectually understanding the Doctrine of Dependent Arising/Origination has nothing at all to do with knowledge of the doctrine in the conventional sense. True understanding is non-intellectual and arises from having coursed through the four dhyanas/jhanas and the four immaterial attainments and applying the super power mindfulness so developed to the doctrine in a non-intellectual, non-verbal way.

There are a number of sutras/suttas that mention the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. The Buddha said that to understand the Doctrine of Dependent Origination is to understand the Four Noble Truths.

The hyperlinked article is lengthy but well worthy of our study at the Advanced Zen level. It is also available in book form under the title Dependent Origination: Buddhist Law of Conditionality.

In a verbal way, this is the doctrine in the forward or arising direction:

1-2. From ignorance (avijja) arises volition (sankhara); (avijja paccaya sankhara)

2-3. From volition (sankhara) arises consciousness (vinnana); (sankhara paccaya vinnanam)

3-4. From consciousness (vinnana) arises body and mind (nama-rupa); (vinnana paccaya nama-rupam)

4-5. From body and mind (nama-rupa) arises the six senses (salayatana); (nama-rupa paccaya salayatanam)

5-6. From the six senses (salayatana) arises contact (phassa); (salayatana paccaya phassa)

6-7. From contact (phassa) arises feeling (vedana); (phassa paccaya vedana)

7-8. From feeling (vedana) arises craving (tanha); (vedana paccaya tanha)

8-9. From craving (tanha) arises clinging (upadana); (tanha paccaya upadanam)

9-10. From clinging (upadana) arises becoming (bhava);

(upadana paccaya bhava)

10-11. From becoming (bhava) arises birth (jati); (bhava paccaya jati) and

11-12. From birth (jati) arises old age and death (jaramaranam); (jata paccaya jaramaranam).

From old age and death (jaramaranam) arises sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa nirujjhan’ti). (jaramaranam paccaya soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa nirujjhan’ti)

Here is the doctrine in the ceasing direction:

1-2. When ignorance (avijja) ceases, then volition (sankhara) ceases;

2-3. When volition (sankhara) ceases, then consciousness (vinnana) ceases;

3-4. When consciousness (vinnana) ceases, then mentality-materiality (mind and body) (namarupa) ceases;

4-5. When mentality-materiality (mind and body) (namarupa) ceases, the six sense bases (salayatana) cease;

5-6. When the six sense bases (salayatana) cease, then contact (phassa) ceases;

6-7. When contact (phassa) ceases, then feelings (vedana) cease;

7-8. When feelings (vedana) cease, then cravings (tanha) cease;

8-9. When craving (tanha) ceases, then clinging (upadana) ceases;

9-10. When clinging (upadana) ceases, then becoming (bhava) ceases;

10-11. When becoming (bhava) ceases, then birth (jati) ceases; and

11-12. When birth (jati) ceases, then old age and death (jaramaranam) cease.

When old age and death cease, then sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa nirujjhan’ti) cease.

The Buddha defined Nirvana as the highest happiness.

By the way, he never said “old age, sickness and death.” He said “old age and death.”

Sickness is optional.

Diamond sanghha

Palolo Zen Center, home of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha

Step Nine – Reaching the Source

The Second Dharma Realm

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned within and without – The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.


Reaching the Source

The second dharma realm is the dharma realm of the Bodhisattvas, the highest ideal of the Mahayana school.

The central practice is the solving of Zen koans as the antidote to conceit, restlessness, and ignorance (the eighth, ninth, and tenth fetters, respectively).

If we are not familiar with koan practice, we can read Albert Low’s Working with Koans in Zen Buddhism and John Daiso Loori’s Sitting With Koans.

Even though the first dharma realm is the dharma realm of the Buddhas, the Ox-Herding pictures depict the first dharma realm as a Bodhisattva entering the marketplace to teach.

The Theravada ideal of a Buddha who disappears from all dharma realms, never again to be seen or heard from, did not sit well with the Mahayana school. In the Mahayana, the ideal of the Bodhisattva who returns to teach is the highest ideal.

A being of infinite compassion would not disappear, leaving the unenlightened to their sufferings. No compassionate being could enjoy heaven knowing that the hell worlds were occupied.

The Theravada school replies that the Buddha left his teachings behind and thus expressed his infinite compassion.

And that the hell worlds are impermanent and everyone will attain Nirvana someday.

The Zen sect replies that everything is mind alone, i.e., the dharma realms are different levels of awareness. A Buddha can visit the dharma realm of Bodhisattvas.

Reaching or more accurately, returning to the source, occurs when the Zen practitioner is “unconcerned within and without.” According to the commentary that accompanies the ninth picture, all notions of subject and object, self and other, inside and outside, gain and loss, life and death, up and down, beginning and ending, are gone.

Reaching the Source, also known as Breaking Through the Zen Barrier, is the hardest thing an untrained human being can do.

However, we who have honestly followed the first eight steps of this course are no longer untrained.

Jerry Seinfeld tells a story about horses talking to one another after a race. One horse says to another: “After crossing the finish line, I noticed it was the same as the starting line. I could’ve won the race just by staying where I was!”

The traditional commentary on this ninth stage is that when one continues to practice, one breaks through the Zen barrier and realizes that one has returned to the starting line and that one has traveled far just to go nowhere.

It is discouraging at first to learn that when we experience a full-blown, fully matured enlightenment after years of arduous practice, we have merely returned to the starting point. Mountains and rivers are again just mountains and rivers.

Buddhist Temple On Wolf Hill

Buddhist temple on the peak of Wolf Hill

Even the verse that accompanies the ninth picture of the ten ox-herding pictures seems to have been written in anger, an emotion that an awakened master would not be expected to exhibit:

Too many steps have been taken returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning!

But the end of the verse throws more light:

Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned within and without – The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

(End of verse) This means that the river doesn’t need us to perceive it nor do the flowers. There is no self within to observe the river and the flowers, and no river and flowers without. We have here an affirmation that the dichotomy of subjective/objective doesn’t exist. To see this, we need to return to the source.

No Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individual.

The Diamond Sutra

When we have followed the preliminary steps of Beginning Zen and all sixteen steps of tranquil wisdom meditation every day until the practice has become second nature, we have climbed the One Hundred Foot Pole and are ready to leap. Our practice has created the conditions that allow us to break through the barrier, reaching the source.

Too many steps have been taken; that means we have been thinking too much.

The Buddha conveyed in words the sixteen steps that he experienced after first placing mindfulness up front. Obviously, he did not undergo those sixteen steps the way we do – thinking about them, rather than trusting them to flow naturally.

There are no “steps” if we get ourselves out of the way and let the meditation deepen all by itself. The Buddha’s meditation was an analog process but when it is described in words it becomes a digital, step-by-step process.

We work hard to master the sixteen steps and sometimes we do feel that too many steps have been taken. However, we have to practice until we stop thinking about the steps, letting them flow naturally, one after the other without our mental intervention.

But we use our mental intervention, moving from step to step, until the movement flows without us.

When tranquil wisdom meditation becomes effortless, when it meditates itself without our involvement, we are finally ready for Zen practice. It’s time to leap from the One Hundred Foot Pole.

Christmas Humphreys’ commentary on the One Hundred Foot Pole koan explains that climbing to the top of the pole represents the height of thought. That’s what most of us have been doing throughout this program; we are thinking about the steps of the program, and then we think about them some more.

He then explains that leaping from the pole, after we have climbed to its top, represents the existential leap from thought to direct awareness.

images christmas humpreys

Christmas Humphreys, Founder of the London Buddhist Society


That’s what it means to break through the Zen barrier; we must go from thought to direct awareness.

We have to go from digital thought to analog direct awareness. From thinking about steps to letting go, and letting go, and letting go until the preliminary steps and the sixteen steps work without us.

We will experience the sixteen steps for the first time as we let go of the sixteen steps.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

–T.S. Eliot

As professor Timothy Ferris observes in The Whole Shebang, any hack poet could have written the first three lines. Only a genius could have written the fourth.

The ninth step is awakening itself. The tenth step flows naturally from the ninth so this ninth step is the big one.

How can we break through the Zen barrier? And know the place -our mind- for the first time? Zen Master Mumon, referring to working on the koan “Mu,” said:

“Concentrate your whole self with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores, into Mu and making your whole body a solid lump of doubt, day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it. But don’t take it as “nothingness” or “being” or “non-being.”

“It must be like a red hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up, but cannot.”

“You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and feelings you have up to the present cherished.”

“Zen means dropping off body and mind,” screamed Ch’an Master Ju-Ching at a monk who had dozed off during zazen.

And from the Diamond Sutra, the most famous exhortation of all:

“Arouse the mind without resting it upon anything.”

Do such exhortations really help? Are we missing something here?

The meaning of “Arouse the mind without resting it upon anything” is well-explained by Roshi Albert Low of the Montreal Zen Center in Zen and the Sutras.

We can meditate before breakfast, before lunch, before dinner, and before bedtime. But if we just sit in quietude, we are not arousing our mind and thus are not arousing our mind without resting it upon anything.

And that is the value of koan practice: It arouses the mind and the koan will not be solved until the aroused mind does not rest upon anything. The “solution” or “answer” to the koan doesn’t rest upon any Buddhist principle. It doesn’t rest upon logic or any other type of thought. It doesn’t rest upon Supreme Oneness because there is no Supreme Oneness out there nor is there one deep within. See Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.

Looking out and looking in both miss the Way. Neither subject nor object will ever be found. Emptiness includes no subject and no object. As we saw in the Hsin Hsin Ming:

If all thought-objects disappear

the thinking subject drops away.

For things are things because of mind,

as mind is mind because of things.

At 2:00 a.m., we can chant Master Hakuin’s Chant In Praise Of Zazen and we can sit until 2:30 a.m.

We can follow the example of Sensei Lawson Sachter, co-abbot of the Windhorse Zen Community; he set his alarm for 2:00 a.m. every night so that he could work on Mu in the middle of the night after having spent the day working on it.

Roshi Philip Kapleau eventually certified that Lawson had seen Mu, and proceeded to assign koan after koan thereafter.  He passed all of them and became a fully sanctioned teacher as a dharma heir of Roshi Kapleau. He credits, at least in part, his 2:00 a.m. sittings.

When we catch ourselves daydreaming, we can recite The Ten Cardinal Precepts, we can recite The Four Vows, we can recall all ten of the Ten Great Vows of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra, or we can perform Buddha Name Recitations. That avoids wasting time on frivolity. As Roshi Kapleau said:

“Great is the matter of birth and death.

Life slips quickly by.

Time waits for no one.

Wake up! Wake up!

Don’t waste a moment.”

But really, how does one not waste a moment?

When feelings of lethargy arise, when we just want to lie down and take a snooze, we can follow Ajahn Brahm’s advice and do exactly that. But when we are rested, we can hit the meditation mat.

After all, the last words of the Buddha were:

“All compounded things decay. Work out your salvation with diligence.”

But how is that done?

Venerable Ajahn Brahm teaches that many mind objects may be contemplated after the meditator has emerged from the jhanas because the mind has acquired what he calls “super power mindfulness.”

Of course his use of the term “super power” jokingly refers to the super powers of various cartoon characters, but the idea of mindfulness being so strong that it is super powerful is a perceptive observation.

A Zen koan is a mind object. (Until it isn’t)!

Therefore, super power mindfulness can be used to work on a Zen koan that has been assigned by a teacher. After struggling with koans for years, we can develop super power mindfulness by following the Buddha’s sixteen steps and at last finally demonstrate to our teacher that the koan has been solved.

Although this website is called How To Practice Zen, until now we have obviously been learning primarily about Tranquil Wisdom meditation as taught in the Pali Canon. But we have been leading up to the Zen practiced by the Rinzai sect.

Harnessing the power of super power mindfulness is the key to cracking open a Zen koan. Without it, a Zen student can struggle a lifetime with koans and never open the gateless gate. With it, the koans are seen and the gate opens.

Tranquil Wisdom meditation provides the super power mindfulness required for koan penetration.

We will never hear that observation from a Theravada teacher because they ignore koans.

We will never hear that observation from a Zen teacher because they ignore Tranquil Wisdom meditation.

Most Zen students are assigned counting the breath as taught by Master Hakuin as their first practice, and then they are given a koan to solve.

No Zen teacher tells a Zen student to develop super power mindfulness as taught by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutta for koan penetration. If you are a Zen teacher who has taught tranquil wisdom meditation to students to develop super power mindfulness for the purpose of penetrating a Zen koan, (before learning that technique here, of course) please Contact Us.

The Buddha, Bhante U. Vimalaramsi, and Venerable Ajahn Brahm have given us the key to super power mindfulness. That’s what we have when we finish the sixteen steps.

An authentic Rinzai Zen practice can now begin. We practice the preliminary steps to put mindfulness up front and then we practice the sixteen steps that lead to super power mindfulness.

We then turn our super power mindfulness onto our teacher-assigned koan. We demonstrate that koan and the teacher gives us another one and we demonstrate it as well.

Over and over, the koans keep coming and we show every one of them to our teacher by subjecting the koan to the super power mindfulness generated by Tranquil Wisdom meditation.

Failure to penetrate a koan then is understood as simply practicing without super power mindfulness.

We reach the source by penetrating every koan our teacher assigns to us.

And when that happens, we become a dharma heir of our teacher and that takes us to the first dharma realm. A certified Zen teacher who receives full dharma transmission from a certified Zen teacher who received full dharma transmission, and so on, joins the line of mind-to-mind dharma transmission that began with the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Our practice never ends. We carry it into the marketplace, into the hustle and bustle of daily life.

In A Still Forest Pool, the authors relate a story about the time when Venerable Ajahn Chah of Thailand was approached by a monk who had spent three years in his monastery.

The monk announced that he would be moving on to another monastery because he wanted to practice under an enlightened master. He told Ajahn Chah that he noticed that on some days the master was cheerful, friendly, and soft, yet on other days he would seem hard and unapproachable. His moods seemed to swing up and down, just like those of a normal person.

“How can I obtain enlightenment when my master himself is not enlightened?” the monk asked.

Ajahn Chah smiled.

“See, there you go again,” said the monk, “acting like you’re pleased that I’m leaving.”

“I’m smiling because I am happy,” said the great master. “This is a wonderful day. Today, after wasting three years, you will finally begin your spiritual practice.”

“You have been watching me, looking for the Buddha.”

“Today you have finally learned that you will never find the Buddha outside yourself.”

The monk performed a prostration and returned to his meditation hut. He understood the Buddha Dharma for the first time.

images achaan chah

Venerable Ajahn Chah


Many people wonder about the meaning of: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” It means to kill the notion that the Buddha is outside ourselves; if we think we have found the Buddha outside ourselves, we must drop that thought.

We will never find the Buddha on the road, in a book, or on a website. However, if we work hard and diligently follow the steps of this course, including working with a sanctioned teacher, we will find the Buddha.

But the Buddha is emptiness, the Buddha has no self. Zen practice does not purify a self so that it can become a Buddha. Zen practice brings suffering to an end because only a self can suffer.

Super power mindfulness, the result of following the Buddha’s sixteen step Tranquil Meditation, penetrates koans.

We do not look for a savior outside ourselves nor do we seek a kingdom of heaven within ourselves. We awaken to no-self.

The Ox-Herding Pictures follow a cycle from beginning to end, and the end is the beginning. Who seeks the Ox? Who finds the footprints?

Our inherent Buddha nature seeks the Ox and finds the footprints.

But what is the point of realizing Buddhahood? It is not to selfishly acquire freedom from suffering for oneself because there is no independent self.

The point of attaining Buddhahood is to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. This is done in our daily life by following The Precepts and maintaining our daily practices with diligence.

An authentic Zen practice creates super power mindfulness and that super power mindfulness mends the rip in reality created by delusion, knitting reality back to its oneness.

Beginnings and endings return to their original beginningless beginning and endless ending, the dharma realm of the Buddhas, free of mortal thoughts.

We have started a Zen practice, but we have to sustain it every day. It’s easy to slide back, like an upstream-bound rowboat drifting downstream when the oars are not used.

Upon harnessing super power mindfulness to penetrate koans, the bottom will drop out of the bucket. As Roshi Phillip Kapleau said, he felt like a fish swimming in cool, clear water after having been stuck in glue.

We will understand, for the first time, Yuanwu’s words, found in Zen Letters:

“Fundamentally, the Path is wordless and the Truth is birthless. Wordless words are used to reveal the birthless Truth. There is no second thing. As soon as you try to pursue and catch hold of the wordless Path and the birthless Truth, you have already stumbled past it.”

What does: “There is no second thing” mean? It means that nothing has ever happened.

This is the secret that Zen practice reveals: There are no secrets because everything is obvious. Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes. If we use our discriminating, thinking mind, the mind that divides everything into parts, then we make it hidden and non-obvious. We do that to ourselves; no one is doing it to us.

Having eaten the forbidden fruit, we now believe that we are independent entities having a birth date when we entered into existence and that we will have a death date when we exit existence. We have fallen from the garden of wisdom into the badlands of ignorance. We have to empty the cup of nonsense, of delusion, and super power mindfulness does exactly that.

There are no seams in a stupa. There are no beginnings nor are there endings. As the third patriarch of Zen says in the Hsin Hsin Ming, there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today. Reality is indivisible and completely empty; we can divide it in our minds, but it is our mind that gets divided, not emptiness. It’s like time; we say it is limited but it is the delusion we call “us” that is limited. Time is inexhaustible; use up quadrillions of years, and nothing has been used up.

Our Buddha nature is the same way. Nothing is there to get used up.

images stupa

The Chaukhandi stupa, Sarnath, India

Judging, dividing good from evil, today from tomorrow, life from death, creates the thinking mind, the self that is separate from the whole, the self that expels itself from the garden, the self that is a collection of mortal thoughts.

And mortal thoughts are the opposite of super power mindfulness just as ignorance is the opposite of wisdom.

The second step of the eightfold path is Right Thought. Right Thought does not run towards what it likes and away from what it dislikes. It follows the Middle Way, neither liking nor disliking, free of judgment.

We left the Garden of Eden because we chose to choose, to weigh, to decide, to activate our thinking mind, thereby losing our inherent super power mindfulness. No one kicked us out of the garden. No one observes us and decides if we should be punished or rewarded.

The law of cause and effect is real. We create our own experiences. Nothing could be more obvious.

We experience our inherent Buddhahood by dint of diligent daily practice, including emptying the cup of mortal thoughts, and not engaging in philosophical or religious speculation.

This is the birthless truth, known by those who have established an authentic Buddhist practice. Only those with sharp karmic roots will understand this birthless truth and maintain their practice with diligence.

This website provides step-by-step instructions that anyone can follow, but few will. As the Bible wisely points out, broad is the path that leads to destruction (ignorance), but narrow is the path that leads to salvation (awakening).

Reaching out to grab enlightenment is a sure way to miss it. Zen teachers often tell the story of a young monk who asked a Zen master:

“How long will it take me to attain enlightenment?”

The master thought for a few moments and replied: “About ten years.”

The young monk was upset and said: “But you are assuming I am like the other monks and I am not. I will practice with great determination.”

“In that case,” replied the Master, “twenty years.”

A grasping, ambitious mind is an impediment to enlightenment.

Zen practice is not about aiming at a target and trying to hit it or setting a goal and trying to attain it.

To the contrary, Zen practice is about letting go. As the Buddha said, the twelfth step of the sixteen steps is to liberate the mind. This means to let go, to fall into the nimitta. And that leads to super power mindfulness and that enables penetration of koans and that leads to Nirvana.

In the practice of Zen, we create the conditions that allow enlightenment to happen. And then we let go and experience the Incomprehensible Unconditioned State of Ultimate Reality – and by naming it we have stumbled past it.

Remember T’zu-ming, who would stab himself in the thigh with a sharp tool when he felt himself becoming drowsy?

That’s the kind of dedication it takes to wake up.

Master Hakuin in Wild Ivy tells of a time when he and another monk vowed to sit for seven days together without eating or sleeping. They placed their mats a few inches apart and faced each other. They put a bamboo stick between the mats and agreed that if either meditator saw the other one getting sleepy, he was to pick up the stick and whack the sleepyhead between the eyes.

Master Hakuin reports that for seven days, neither monk so much as flickered an eyelash; the bamboo stick was never used.

The Buddha, having sought without success a teacher who could point the way to enlightenment, vowed that he would sit under a Bo tree until he either died or woke up.

It takes the determination of a Hakuin, a Tzu-ming, a Buddha to wake up.

Hakuin praised a book entitled “Breaking Through the Zen Barriers.” Note the plural in “Barriers.” Solving the koan “Mu!” is not the end of practice. Many koans must be passed. Many barriers must be broken through.

There is no beginning to practice, no end of enlightenment.

So for our ninth step we perform our Beginning Zen steps to put mindfulness in front of us and then we segue into Tranquil Wisdom meditation.

Bhavana Society

Bhavana Society Forest Monastery and Meditation Center

We attain super power mindfulness, or we should say that super power mindfulness appears, and we penetrate our koans, one by one, until we see It.

What happened to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai? What is the burning bush that burned but was not consumed by the flames? Why did the bush say: “I am the Great I Am”?

If we sit twice a day and master Tranquil Wisdom meditation and put super power mindfulness to work, the answer will become obvious.

Zen teachers tell us to place our attention about three finger widths below our belly button and into the center of our body (called the hara or tanden in Japanese or the dantian in Mandarin). This is the site of the third chakra in Tantric Hinduism.

Despite our best efforts, there will come a time when the pleasant burning sensation we feel in our hara rises to the top of our head. Whenever I reported that event to my teacher during a dokusan he would bristle: “That’s not Zen! Return your attention to the hara.”

The hair of our head is the burning bush that burns but is not consumed. We have left the hara and climbed to the top of the mountain, the top of our head, home of the chakra our Hindu friends call the crown chakra.

And when we feel the flame burning, we hear what Moses heard (I am the great “I am”) and we know what he experienced. It may not be Zen, as my teacher insists, but it is real.

But my teacher is right. When we feel that burning sensation on the top of the mountain, and we feel that we are the great I am, we let go of that mortal thought, that makyo, and return our attention to the hara. That’s Zen.

images dogen zenji

Dogen Zenji


I once read a sign on the grounds across the moat from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. It said, in English: “No smoking, no bonfires.” I chuckled because it was so Japanese – saying “no fires” by prohibiting fires from the smallest to the largest.

We can keep a little bonfire burning in our hara all the time. It requires mindfulness but with effort the fire never goes out.

Keeping that bonfire burning throughout the day, and not just during times of formal sitting, is a deep mindfulness practice. Whenever we discover that the fire has gone out, we return our attention to the hara and get it going again.

One way to re-start or re-fresh the fire is to recite namo amituo fo throughout the day, using it as a bellows to make the flames stronger.

Keeping the fire going is the Buddhist equivalent of the Christian injunction to pray without ceasing. If we can keep our hara or dantian glowing warmly 24/7, we are in the neighborhood of Nirvana.

Hara: The Vital Center of Man

When we sit for a formal zen sitting, zazen, our hara is already on fire and we can glide through present moment awareness, metta, silent present moment awareness, awareness of breaths both long and short, awareness of the whole body of the breath and awareness of the breath of the moment, the single tooth of the saw, in just a short while.

Having established mindfulness of the body, the three other mindfulnesses flow freely, without effort, and we are soon ready to solve another koan.

There are four stages of enlightenment according to the Buddha. Stream Entry (sotapanna), the Once Returner (sakadagamin), the Non-Returner (anagamin), and Buddhahood.

The Buddha taught that Stream Entry was attained when the first three of the ten fetters were overcome (the belief in an independent self -sakkaya ditthi-, doubt, and belief that chanting, rites and rituals alone could lead to Nirvana).

It is not difficult for modern people to agree that chanting, rites and rituals alone cannot lead to enlightenment, nor is it difficult to overcome doubt in the Buddhadharma; practice rather quickly removes such doubt. Sakkaya ditthi is the biggest hurdle for most of us.

A once-returner is one who has cut the first three of the ten fetters (thus attaining stream entry) and loosened the fetters of sense-desire (greed, lust, aversion), and ill will. Notice that these two powerful fetters need only be loosened to graduate from stream entry to once-returner status!

We loosen the fetter of sense desire with Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness. We loosen the fetter of ill will by practicing metta.

A non-returner has cut the five fetters of belief in a self, doubt, belief that chanting, rites and rituals alone can lead to awakening, sense desire, and ill will.

Our daily practice of metta/loving kindness reduces our ill will. Our daily practice of Present Moment Awareness, and Silent Present Moment Awareness reduces our sense desire and our daily Mindfulness of the Body, the Feelings, the Mind and Mind Objects eliminates our sense desire.

The path that leads from ignorance to Stream Entry is the Eightfold Path and the path that leads from Stream Entry to the Once-Returner and to the Non-Returner is the Noble Eightfold Path according to Venerable Ajahn Brahm, because now it is a noble one who is following it.

And full enlightenment requires dropping the desire to experience the world of form, attained through the jhanas (fetter number six), and the world of formlessness, attained through the immaterial attainments (fetter number seven). And then conceit (fetter number eight), restlessness (fetter number nine), and ignorance (fetter number ten) must still be overcome.

When we drop all of the fetters, we discover that we created the fetters.

And we discover that we created the notion of a self that needed to drop fetters.

As R.E.M. says: “Oh, no, I’ve said too much. I haven’t said enough.”

world buddhist forum

The Second World Buddhist Forum

Step Ten – Returning to the Marketplace

The First Dharma Realm

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; Now, before me, the dead trees become alive.


Returning to the Marketplace

The first dharma realm is the dharma realm of the Buddhas. The central practice of this dharma realm is teaching the Buddha Dharma but that practice does not lift us to a higher dharma realm because there is no higher dharma realm.

Here is a recap of the central practices of all ten dharma realms.

Those of us who work on this course every day may not have attained the status of awakened masters, but as the tenth step of our program, we teach by example.

We become awakened masters if we master Tranquil Wisdom meditation and our teacher certifies that we have passed all assigned koans.

images dharma wheel

The Dharmacakra (wheel of dharma)

If we are traditional Rinzai Zen students working on teacher-assigned koans, in step nine we harness the super power mindfulness created by Tranquil Wisdom meditation to penetrate those koans and in step ten we teach other individuals on a one-to-one basis if we become sanctioned teachers.

Until we pass all our koans, we let our daily practices and our daily activities be our teachings.

If a Theravada practitioner masters Tranquil Wisdom meditation, he or she will have no problem with Zen koans.

An awakened master spreads enlightenment by mingling with humankind. Maybe even with animals, insects, and dull rocks as well.

How do dead trees become alive? We are the dead trees of whom the Master speaks. An enlightened Master works to awaken the dead trees – those of us who are asleep.

Many of us will not reach the stages of Reaching the Source and Returning To The Marketplace in this lifetime. But Returning To The Marketplace is the goal we reach without striving to reach it, without leaving home, without embarking on a self-improvement project.

We just practice, because the journey is the destination.

The Buddha maintained his practice for forty five years, i.e., from his enlightenment at age 35 until his parinirvana at age 80.

This is what an awakened Zen Master does: He or she lives in the world, teaching by example.

This is the highest, the first of the ten dharma realms – the realm of the Buddhas. It is “attained” only by the fully awakened.

I practiced with Roshi Aitken and other members of the Honolulu Diamond Sangha at the Palolo Zen Center on the last Sunday of his life, August 1, 2010. He was unable to sit at the mid-week Wednesday sitting and passed away that Thursday the 5th of August. So the Sunday sitting, my first and last with him, was his last group sitting. He was 93.

He practiced every day and inspired thousands of others to practice as well. We too can inspire others.

Robert Aitken Roshi, author of Taking the Path of Zen, was the first American who received full dharma transmission from the lineage of Japanese Zen masters Harada and Yasutani. During his lifetime, he passed that same dharma transmission to a small number of practitioners who are identified in the hyperlink associated with his name.


Robert Aitken, Roshi, Founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Honolulu Diamond Sangha


Some members of the Diamond Sangha advised me that Philip Kapleau Roshi had completed about one-third to one-half of the koan course provided by masters Harada and Yasutani before he left Japan. However, he received permission to teach in a formal ceremony, a photograph of which appears in The Three Pillars of Zen, so there was no requirement that he demonstrate penetration of all of the Harada-Yasutani koans. He had reached the point where further koan study was worthless.

Teachers in the Soto sect are more numerous than Rinzai sect teachers since authority to teach is given after ten years of sustained practice in a Soto Zen community such as the San Francisco Zen Center. However, there are still very few people who have completed such a rigorous requirement.

In a nation of over three hundred million people, we have less than three hundred certified Zen teachers. That’s less than one per million.

So whether we follow the Rinzai/koan or the Soto/shikantaza route, the tenth practice is to teach upon being given the authority to do so or to encourage others to practice if we are not yet sanctioned teachers. We can become a Zen Practice Foundation Certified Lay Teacher if we meet certain rigorous requirements.

We really shouldn’t say Rinzai or Soto. Rinzai masters assign shikantaza to their students who have passed all koans, and modern day shikantaza masters assign koans to their students just as Master Eihei Dogen did.



(Replica temple in Hawaii; the original is in Japan)

The term “teach” in the Zen sect refers to individual instruction of the type that occurs during dokusan (that’s the Soto Zen term; in Rinzai Zen it’s called daisan). The teacher determines what needs to be done or said at that moment in dokusan or daisan to guide the student toward enlightenment. Sometimes no words are exchanged.

Books or websites about Buddhism are directed to a broad audience for the benefit of all sentient beings and are not the kind of individual, customized teaching that requires formal Dharma Transmission. For example, a koan should be assigned to a student only by a sanctioned teacher and the student and teacher need to work together in person until the koan is “solved.” And that may lead to another koan, or another practice entirely…


The Student Bell

But the rest of us can refer others to this and other Buddhist websites or blogs and we can start sitting groups. We can rent or buy a house and convert it into a zendo, we can start a Buddhadharma talk show on local radio or TV, we can write articles for our local newspaper, write magazine articles or a book, and so on.

We can also enroll in and complete the Dedicated Practitioners Program or the Community Dharma Leaders Program at Spirit Rock, a Theravada practice center about thirty five miles north of San Francisco.


Spirit Rock

(The practitioner on the right is in the Burmese position; note the support under the left knee. It is important that both knees touch the ground or other support such as shown here. The practitioner on the left is in either full or half lotus with hands in the classic Zen position, left hand on top, thumbs touching lightly.)

But the most important teaching we can provide to fulfill this tenth step is to carry our Zen practices into the marketplace every day.

Our classmates, customers, patients, clients, co-workers and everyone else we deal with are our teachers and they are in the dokusan room we enter every day.

The traditional commentary says that this tenth and final stage is the step of attaining full Buddhahood. We may therefore conclude, without speculation, that it corresponds to whatever it is that lies beyond the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments, i.e., Nirvana.

The Buddha never referred to Nirvana as the ninth jhana or the fifth immaterial attainment. He said there were four jhanas, four immaterial attainments, and Nirvana. And that until we experience dependent origination, both forward and backward, we can’t know Nirvana.

Although memorization is far from realization, memorization has value. For certification as a lay teacher, we recommend memorization of:

The Repentance Gatha

The Three General Resolutions

The Three Refuges

The Four Vows

The Four Brahma Viharas

The Four Noble Truths

The Five Hindrances

The Six Paramitas

The Seven Factors of Enlightenment

The Eight Steps of the Eightfold Path

The Ten Vows of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra;

The Ten Precepts

The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination

The title and verse of each of the ten ox-herding pictures; and

All of the chants.

The concept of ten dharma realms is a Mahayana concept not held by the Theravada school; as mentioned earlier, thirty one dharma realms are described in the Pali canon and Nibbana is not considered one of them. Nor does the Theravada school subscribe to the ten ox-herding pictures – the pictures are from the Zen sect of the Mahayana school.

By the same token, the Mahayana school and the Zen sect ignore the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments as described by the Buddha so there is no direct correlation between the ten dharma realms and the stages of meditation as taught by the Buddha.

The word jhana is the Pali word for the Sanskrit word dhyana that was transliterated into Chinese as Ch’an and into Japanese as Zen. So it is ironic that the jhana sect ignores the Buddha’s teachings about the jhanas!

(My wife once asked a well-known Zen sensei what he thought of jhana meditation. He had never heard of it).

Nor is it traditional to correlate the ten dharma realms and the ten Ox-herding pictures. We have conflated them merely as a teaching tool; it helps us learn about both when we visualize them in matching pairs, i.e., leaving the tenth dharma realm of the sad but impermanent hell worlds by practicing the cultivation of happiness when we begin our search for the ox, leaving the ninth dharma realm of the hateful hungry ghosts by cultivating Loving Kindness as we find the footprints, and so on.

The jhanas are not indispensable, however. As the Buddha made clear in the Satipatthana Sutta, practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and awareness of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment also provide a “direct path” to Nibbana, without experiencing the jhanas. This is known as “dry insight.” See Breathing Through The Whole Body by Will Johnson.

As Jack Kornfield points out in his introduction to Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, there are many practices that lead to awakening, not just the tranquil wisdom meditation taught in the Anapanasati Sutta. He mentions the teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Tibetan master the Dalai Lama, Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa, and Venerable Sunyun Sayadaw who offer “different and equally liberating perspectives.”


Jack Kornfield

Theravada teachers often instruct students to begin a sitting with samatha (calmness) meditation, and when the mind is calm, to begin vipassana (insight) practice. Others argue that a practitioner should do either samatha or vipassana but not both.

Some works on Theravada Buddhism contend that samatha practice cannot lead to Buddhahood and that vipassana is the only practice that is valid.

Other books on the same subject hold that the Buddha himself practiced samatha, not vipassana.

Still other writers argue that the practices of samatha and vippasana are not really different meditations at all, that deep samatha practice naturally leads to vipassana practice. Ajhan Brahm, in Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, is one of the teachers who argues that the practices are not distinct from one another.

Ajahn Brahm in robes

Venerable Ajahn Brahm

If it is true that the Buddha performed only jhana practice, then it is obvious that those who announce that jhana practice cannot lead to enlightenment must be mistaken.

Koan practice, favored by the Rinzai sect of Zen, is not mentioned in the original Buddhist writings. However, many Zen practitioners have attained enlightenment through koan practice and Zen teachers assure us that koan practice is the most effective meditation technique.

Jhana, vipassana, and koan practices are all authentic; they are just different and none of them should be ignored.

Zen master Robert Zenrin Lewis, of the Jacksonville Zen Sangha, like Jack Kornfield, also agrees that there are many paths to awakening. “Choose one!” he exhorts.

But in this course we have chosen two methods and combined them. We develop “super power” mindfulness by following the Theravada Tranquil Wisdom meditation and we harness that super power mindfulness to enable us to demonstrate to our Sensei or Roshi (a Sensei for many years) that we have penetrated the koans assigned to us.

Practitioners of Zen koans, shikantaza, counting the exhalations meditation, and other forms of meditation may attain enlightenment while ignoring the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

But most Zen students spend their entire lifetime trying to penetrate a single koan or sitting in shikantaza to little or no effect. With super power mindfulness generated by following the Buddha’s instructions, koan and shikantaza practice will bear more fruit.

I have never heard any Theravada teacher suggest that the super power mindfulness generated by a jhana experience could be harnessed to penetrate a koan.

Nor have I heard of a Zen teacher instructing a student to develop super power mindfulness by following the Buddha’s sixteen step meditation so that a koan could be penetrated.


Kiyomizu (Clear Water) Tera, Kyoto

So it seems that the Theravada school has developed a tool of which Zen teachers are unaware, and the Zen school is unaware that the Theravada has a tool that the Zen school could use.

The Buddha said that true liberation requires experience of dependent origination, both forward and backwards. A practitioner who follows the precepts will see – someday – dependent origination, forward and backward, upon diligent practice of vipassana/insight meditation, samatha/samadhi or calming meditation such as tranquil wisdom meditation, koan practice, counting the breath, loving kindness meditation, or shikantaza.

But by harnessing super power mindfulness and using it for koan practice, that someday becomes now. Working without the proper tool makes the work much harder.

In the first nine steps of this course, each step has a central practice that takes us to the next level. The central practice is an antidote to the causes and conditions that take us to and bind us to that particular dharma realm.

But as mentioned above, there is no central practice to lift us from the first dharma realm because it is the Buddha dharma realm and nothing lies above it.

If Nibbana is outside of all dharma realms as taught by the Theravada school, then reality has a split formed in it, i.e., there is a dichotomy.

If Nirvana is the first dharma realm and the beings who attain it are no longer beings at all and cannot re-enter the evil dharma realms, as taught by the Mahayana school, the dichotomy again appears.

So we can look at the dharma/dhamma realms as not being clearly defined and as extending infinitely in both directions from the crude to the subtle. No hottest hell, no best heaven. No bottom at one end and no top at the other.

Or we can take the position of The Heart Sutra, the ultimate Zen sutra, and see the emptiness of all dharmas, all dharma realms.

Nor is there pain,

Or cause of pain,

Nor noble path to lead from pain,

Not even wisdom to attain.

“Nor is there pain” denies the First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha.

“Or cause of pain” is a denial of the Second Noble Truth, that dukkha is caused by desire (tanha) conditioned by ignorance (avijja).

“Nor noble path to lead from pain” is denial of the Third Noble Truth that suffering/pain (dukkha) can be brought to cessation (nirodha).

“Not even wisdom to attain” is denial of the Fourth Noble Truth that wisdom is attainable by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

Here we see another difference between classic Buddhism and Zen. The former says we have to do the work, i.e., follow the eightfold path until we attain wisdom/enlightenment, and the latter says: No, our inherent nature is Buddha nature, we already have wisdom, we merely have to uncover it.

But we uncover it by following the eightfold path.

So all we really have is just a play on words, discursive thinking creating a chasm where none exists.

So if we sit in tranquil wisdom and reach the realm of neither perception nor non perception, and then fade away into Nibbana, never to be re-born into “existence” again, what if that final cessation, that liberation from existence is merely entry into the lowest Nibbana…

But the Mahayana teaching is that no independent self exists so there is no one to enter into Nibanna. Anuttara samyak sambodhi is extinction of self as taught by the Theravada, but neither extinction of self nor eternal existence of self as taught by the Mahayana.

The Mahayana explanation is understood if we accept the Mahayana premise that nothing is independent of anything else, that reality is indivisible and empty of individual entities who stand outside of reality.

If reality is indivisible/empty of independent individuals, then no independent individual can enter reality at birth or depart it at death. Nor can an enlightened Buddha leave reality because even Buddhahood is empty of self – nothing stands alone, outside of reality. There are no two things.

That’s why Zen masters tell us we are whole and complete just as we are. From the very beginning, all beings are Buddhas.

But we have to cultivate/practice Zen to realize the truth of that statement. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a belief and our Buddhism has the stench of blind belief religion.

Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky, then I know why I believe!

–Lyrics written by an incredibly stupid person in a popular song of the 1960s

With practice comes the awareness of Buddhahood but that awareness is not owned or experienced by an independent being.

There are several important Buddhist practices that support our central practices, even though none of the auxiliary practices, standing alone, can lift us from one level of realization to another.

So we reserve discussion of these auxiliary practices for this tenth and final step of the How To Practice Zen program. Buddhists all over the world practice these auxiliary steps. They are non-meditation steps but they support our meditation practice.

Moreover, if performed mindfully, these steps can become meditation steps as well. We begin with chanting.


Chanting is an important part of an authentic Zen practice.

Learning chants takes a lot of time but is well worth the effort. When memorized, the chants become a part of us. A chant or a part thereof can be summoned at any time, any place; we won’t need to carry a chant book with us if we have committed each one to memory.

Roshi Philip Kapleau said:

“Mind is unlimited.

Chanting, when performed egolessly,

has the power to penetrate

visible and invisible worlds.”

Chanting also has the power to lift us from the realm of desire into the heavenly realms.

Roshi Kapleau advised against forced memorization, advising us to chant daily and to let the memorization happen gradually. However, some people who have practiced for more than ten years still reach for a chant book when a chanting service begins. Obviously, gradual memorization doesn’t work for everybody.

Roshi Kapleau further advised us to chant in a voice near the lower end of our range. So we chant with a low pitch but not with a growl. When chanting with a group, we try to harmonize with the group. We chant in a monotone, without emphasizing syllables. This helps keep the mind on an even keel. A sing-songy, emotion-driven rendition of a chant dilutes its power.

I once had to lead a chant at a Vesak ceremony at a Unitarian-Universalist congregaton (held in May at about the time of the first full moon to observe the Buddha’s birth and in some countries his death and enlightenment as well) because no one else in our Zen group would do it. My plan was to open the chanting session by asking the audience – a non-Buddhist crowd – to chant with our chanters – a team assembled from our local Zen center – in a low voice, but not so low as to be a growling voice. However, we were preceded in the program by a Tibetan monk who chanted the Heart Sutra in one long growling growl; it was quite pleasant and well-received but of course I had to change my opening remarks.


Vesak Day at Wat Phra Dhammakaya

To chant, we kneel on a mat, with back straight and knees forward, spread apart at a distance that is comfortable, and sit on our feet. This is the seiza position mentioned in Creating a Practice Space in Beginning Zen. We place our right hand in our lap, palm up, and then place our left hand, palm up, on top of the right hand with the thumbs crossing, not touching at the tips.

Subject to the exception of Master Hakuin’s Chant In Praise Of Zazen, chants are chanted to the beat of a mokugyo (Japanese for wooden fish). You can purchase a small one for home use at The Monastery Store. Most Zen centers also have a large bowl-shaped gong known by its Japanese name, keisu, as well as a small one for use in chants.

The photo on the left shows a mokugyo and a keisu is on the right:


The drumstick of the mokugyo is stored in a slot in the back of the instrument. Only the drumhead is visible in the photo. There is a bit of history behind these pictured items.

All of the chants and more are in bound form and can be purchased for a nominal fee at the marketplace of the Rochester Zen Center.

On the subject of chanting, it is worth noting that many Chinese Ch’an/Zen masters promote both the practice of Zen chanting as well as the practice of Pure Land (Jin Tu) chanting.

We recommend Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen as the first chant to learn.

This very famous chant, written in the 1700s by Japanese Master Hakuin during his work to revitalize Zen practice in Japan, follows a logical flow, beginning with: “From the very beginning…” Therefore, it is not difficult to memorize.

Master Hakuin’s chant is chanted, as aforesaid, without the beat of a mokugyo, the wooden fish drum used in other chants. It is customarily chanted prior to a Teisho at retreats. However, it is so deep and so instructive that daily repetition is invaluable.

If our first thought every morning is to fire up the coffee maker, or to check Facebook, or to turn on the news, we can try chanting In Praise of Zazen instead. The things that concern us gradually fade away as we tune into higher planes of consciousness.

Master Hakuin’s Chant In Praise of Zazen

From the very beginning, all beings are Buddha.

Like water and ice, without water no ice,

outside us, no Buddhas.

How near the truth yet how far we seek,

like one in water crying “I thirst.”

Like a child of rich birth wand’ring poor on this earth,

we endlessly circle the six worlds.

The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion.

From dark path to dark path we’ve wandered in darkness —

how can we be free from birth and death?

The gateway to freedom is zazen samadhi–

beyond exaltation, beyond all our praises,

the pure Mahayana.

Upholding the precepts,

repentance and giving,

the countless good deeds,

and the Way of right-living

all come from zazen.

Thus one true samadhi extinguishes evils;

it purifies karma, dissolving obstructions.

Then where are the dark paths to lead us astray?

The pure lotus land is not far away.

Hearing this truth, heart humble and grateful,

to praise and embrace it, to practice its wisdom,

brings unending blessings,

brings mountains of merit.

And when we turn inward and prove our True-nature —

That True-self is no-self,

our own self is no-self —

we go beyond ego and past clever words.

Then the gate to the oneness

of cause and effect

is thrown open.

Not two and not three,

straight ahead runs the Way.

Our form now being no-form,

in going and returning we never leave home.

Our thought now being no-thought,

our dancing and songs are the

voice of the Dharma.

How vast is the heaven

of boundless samadhi!

How bright and transparent

the moonlight of wisdom!

What is there outside us,

what is there we lack?

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.

This earth where we stand

is the pure lotus land,

and this very body the body of Buddha.

(end of chant)

If you want to be a Buddha, you must think like a Buddha – Dharma Master Hsuan Hua.

Daily chanting of Master Hakuin’s Chant will help us think like a Buddha. The day will come when the truth of this chant is realized and we will understand that this earth where we stand is the pure lotus land.

A Teisho is a talk by a sanctioned teacher, usually given during an intensive meditation retreat known by the Japanese term sesshin. The teacher sits on a raised platform and faces the Buddha altar, not the meditators. The teacher thus directs the Teisho to the Buddha, and this helps the teacher raise the Teisho to the highest level.

A Teisho is not a Dharma Talk which is a talk by a senior student who has not received sanction to teach. The speaker faces the sangha during the talk and sits on his or her normal cushions, there being no raised platform in use. Dharma talks are typically given during regular meetings of the meditation group and usually supplant a round of meditation. Master Hakuin’s chant is not recited prior to a Dharma talk.

Although Zen practitioners sit without motion during periods of formal zazen, most Zen centers have a rule that allows the listeners to adjust their posture during a Teisho or a Dharma talk because listening is the paramount activity during either talk.

The “six worlds” refers to the bottom six worlds of the ten dharma realms. This is the desire realm that we find ourselves in. A sentient being in the desire realm is subject to visiting the other five realms in one lifetime and is subject to re-birth in any one of the six realms. Only the sentient beings of the top four realms are immune to falling into the desire realm.

Samadhi is Sanskrit and is usually translated as concentration but it is a high degree of concentration, one-pointedness, that is often experienced as spiritual bliss. Every meditator eventually experiences it except those who meditate while ignoring the precepts and the third, fourth and fifth folds of the eightfold path. Samadhi is called kensho in Japanese.

Having a samadhi experience does not mean that one has attained enlightenment.

There are many different levels of samadhi. The experience may be brief in time or lengthy. It may be deep or shallow.

Master Hsuan Hua was meditating one night in a hut he built by his mother’s grave as an exercise in filial piety. A bright light shot out of the hut and the townspeople grabbed buckets of water and ran to the cemetery to douse what they thought was a fire. The hut was ablaze with light when they arrived. The Master was sitting inside, in samadhi, emitting light. There was no fire.

Sitting in meditation in Taipei, Taiwan in August, 1979, I heard a beautiful flute playing. A window was open and I was certain that a musician was in the street. I got out of my posture and looked out the window, but no flute player was there; just the usual street scene.

I then realized that I had heard the flute of Krishna of which our Hindu friends speak. Still in a meditative mood, I sat back down, certain that the music would return and it did.

I listened to it for awhile, and it was beautiful. I will remember this sublime, unforgettable tune forever, I thought. And I will record it and Paul McCartney, eat your heart out! I’m going to be rich!

Need I add that the music stopped and I can’t recall a single note of it?

Zen masters have a colorful term for a samadhi experienced in the absence of wisdom: they call it Dead Tree Samadhi.

Master Hakuin’s chant also employs that oft-heard word, “karma.”

Karma is a Sanskrit word meaning “action” but it is perhaps better understood as meaning “the law of cause and effect.” Every action produces an effect. Karma, not God, controls the universe. Yes, there are sentient beings in the heavenly worlds but they are not our judges.

The law of cause and effect is like the law of gravity: It extends everywhere, it never stops working, and there is no brain behind it.

No god sits in judgment, deciding to punish us when we are bad and deciding to reward us when we are good.

Thanks to the law of gravity, we trip, we fall. Karma works the same way. Punch other people in the nose and get punched back in return. Help others, receive help.

What is the most obvious observation that anyone could ever make? Here it is, the open secret of the six worlds, the realm of desire:

Everything that (apparently) happens is the result of everything that has been done.

It can’t be otherwise. Effects cannot appear without a cause. And every effect then become the next cause.

Stephen Hawking tells us that in the quantum world, causes may precede effects but such effects disappear in the larger, macro world.

And there is, apparently, no first cause because something earlier would have had to cause that first cause.

But the law of karma does not always operate in an obvious way. Sure, some simple karmic activities like kicking a brick wall while barefooted have immediate karmic consequences but it isn’t always so obvious.

Karma can even carry over from lifetime to lifetime, but that’s another subject.

We are the sum of all our thoughts. Scary as it may seem, all of us have thought ourselves into our respective predicaments. Where we are today is the result of everything we have ever thought from beginningless time and what we do today sets us on a course into the endless future.

But if there is no self, who experiences the results of a thought? Answer: Another thought experiences the result of a preceding thought.

We are simply the thoughts we cling to or identify with. Disengagement from thoughts arises from the practice of zazen and the practices that make effective zazen possible.

Do we perceive the world as one big loving family? Or as a mean place where terrorists lurk? Most of us see the world as a mixture of good and bad.

However, a person with little or no spiritual enlightenment will see the world as an extremely hostile place and a fully enlightened Buddha will see the world as Nirvana.

As one is, so one sees.

Next we encounter the term “Mahayana.” Mahayana is Sanskrit for Great Vehicle or Big Boat. Just as the protestants split from the original Catholic faith, so too did the Buddhist world split into two major schools. And the largest of those two also split many times.

Original Indian Buddhism had multiple schools but the only one that survived into the modern world is known as the Theravada school, the Way of the Elders.

Most of the other schools of Buddhism that survived to the modern world are grouped together under the heading Mahayana. Zen is one of the Mahayana schools. There are two major Zen schools, Soto and Rinzai, and a smaller school found mostly in Japan, Obako.

Tibetan Buddhism has its own category: Vajrayana. Just as Zen is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism (Wade-Giles), the indigenous “religion” of China, Vajrayana is a mixture of Mahayana and Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet.

Zen is the second largest of the Mahayana schools. The largest Mahayana school is The Pure Land school and its practitioners in China and Japan greatly outnumber Zen practitioners.

Many Chinese Ch’an/Zen masters encourage Pure Land practices.

Zen was created by the merger of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism (pinyin). None of the famous Zen sutras were spoken by the Buddha; they were written by enlightened Chinese masters who understood what the Buddha had said (and more importantly, experienced what the Buddha experienced) and placed the Buddha’s teachings into their own words.

Many of the Chinese sutras begin with: “Thus I have heard…” and what follows is the Chinese Master’s version of what the Buddha said. Scholars strongly suspect this to be the case because the Chinese Ch’an/Zen sutras are drastically different in style from the original Pali texts as preserved through the centuries by the Theravada school. (Pali is a dialect of Sanskrit: Sanskrit “nirvana” is “nibbana” in Pali; Sanskrit “dharma” is “dhamma” in Pali, and so on).

We even find, in one Chinese sutra, that the Buddha said: “How lucky it is to be re-born in human form. Luckier still to be re-born Chinese!”

Since the Buddha most likely never heard of China, and since the Buddha taught non-discrimination, it is a pretty safe bet that those words came from a Chinese master, no doubt giggling as he wrote with tongue-in-cheek.

Or the “Luckier still to be re-born Chinese” was simply a humorous commentary. The Chinese are very fond of commenting on every phrase of a sutra.

As practiced in the modern world, there are few differences between Theravada and the several schools of the Mahayana. Both Theravada and Mahayana schools meditate and Zen simply means “meditation” so what is the difference?

The meditation techniques are different and the two schools follow different rituals, but they both are essentially the same. The Zen sect simply emphasizes meditation more than the other sects. That’s why most Americans are attracted to the Zen sect. We are more interested in meditation than we are in rites and rituals.

I have attended multiple Sunday morning Chinese Buddhist services, and I am no longer amazed that they do everything except meditation.

Some Asian teachers tell the story of two people who come to a wall. They climb atop it, and both shout with joy at the sight they behold. Apparently, they see the land of milk and honey. (Perhaps considered hell by vegans!)

Delighted, the first person leaps from the wall and disappears into the promised land, never to be heard from again. The second person practices restraint and resolves not to pass over the wall until all sentient beings have crossed over. Only then will the selfless one enter into that happy land.

The first person is the Arhat, the selfish Theravadan who only wants to save himself. The second person is the Bodhisattva, the ideal of the Mahayana.

That is a mean-minded, unenlightened story! Sadly, in Asia the Mahayana followers really do look down on the Theravadans, who they dismissively call the Hinayana (Small Vehicle or Little Boat), implying that the Hinayana people are small-minded and somewhat selfish. After all, they do kill animals for food and think nothing of it.

This Asian problem has cultural roots. The Mahayana countries are China (including Tibet), Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam, i.e., China and the countries that historically find themselves in the cultural orbit of China.

The Theravada countries are Sri Lanka (Holy Island), Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and the Cambodian border area of Vietnam. Malaysia is primarily Muslim with a minority Buddhist population.

The story of a self-centered Arhat is ludicrous because an Arhat has attained perfect enlightenment. That of course cannot happen until the practitioner has developed the Bodhisattva spirit, vowing not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings have done so.

The Arhat does not pass into Nirvana, never to be heard from again. Both people went back from that wall, compelled by compassion, to help others enter into the promised land. One of them, however, spread a rumor that the other had selfishly disappeared over the wall.

That, in a nutshell, is how Buddhism divided into a Northern or Mahayana school and a Southern or Theravada school.

In the United States, the two schools mix freely, each attending the other’s sittings, chanting services, and retreats. Very little mixing occurs in Asia, primarily due to the geographical distances, cultural differences, historical inertia, and language problems involved, none of which prevails in the States.

Although the Mahayana appears a little haughty if not arrogant in its attitude toward the Hinayana (actually considered to be a dirty word!), scholars say that the Theravada school preserved the Buddha’s original teachings but that Buddhism would not have become a world “religion” if the Mahayana had not transformed it from a “monkish” religion. As the Mahayana spread, Buddhism became a religion for lay people as well as monks and nuns.

Most scholars also agree that the split between Mahayana and Theravada occurred vey early, perhaps as little as one hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha.

Master Hsuan Hua, a modern day Ch’an master from China, was well aware of the prejudices held by many Mahayana practitioners against the Theravada practitioners so he worked hard during his lifetime to dispel such prejudices. He befriended Theravada practitioners and even gave them land to build a Theravada monastery near his own property (The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas) in northern California.

So even though we are speaking of starting and maintaining an authentic Zen practice, we mean no prejudice against other forms of practice. If we are lucky enough to live near a Pure Land or a Theravada practice center, by all means we should go there and practice. But we can skip the animal-killing that defiles the Theravada temples.

And when we practice Zen, we include selected Theravada and Pure Land practices.

If we ever make it to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we can drive another eighteen miles and visit the Abhayagiri monastery, the Thai forest tradition monastery that received the gift of land from Master Hua.

When visiting Abhayagiri, I saw an alabaster Buddha on the hillside, overlooking the monastery, so I climbed a path to get closer to it for a photo. After taking the photo, I saw that the path continued around the side of the mountain so I started following it. After just a few steps, I encountered a sign that said something like:

Do not walk alone.

No jogging, no bike riding.

Beware of mountain lions.

I still regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to photograph that sign. I just descended from the hillside without delay.

Hakuin also mentions “wisdom,” a word that pops up frequently in Buddhism and during sports casts.”The quarterback hit the tight end instead of the wide receiver, a wise choice. That’s the wisdom that comes with experience, folks.”

We often hear of Wisdom but the word is hard to define. In Buddhism, it simply refers to deep understanding of The Four Noble Truths.

Most writers say that The First Noble Truth is that life is suffering but the Buddha never said that. He said life is out of whack like a wheel mounted on an eccentric axle.

If the axle of a wheel is concentrically mounted, that means it is mounted in the center of the wheel and any vehicle carried by such a wheel will proceed smoothly in a level plane.

Mount the axle away from the center and the vehicle will go up and down as it proceeds. The amplitude of the up and down motion increases as the distance from the center of the wheel to the axle increases.

No doubt the Buddha had seen ox-pulled carts in his day, 2500 years ago, where the axle was eccentrically mounted and the wagon rose and fell with each rotation of such a wheel. He saw that imperfection in his daily life.

After attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he searched for a way to communicate to others what he had realized and settled upon the Pali word “dukkha” when announcing The First Noble Truth that life is unacceptable, unsatisfactory, out of whack like an eccentrically-mounted wheel, a dukkha wheel.

If we can penetrate The First Noble Truth, we know the other three.

Right Understanding, also known as Right View, is the first fold of the eightfold path.

Right Understanding of what? Of the First Noble Truth. Right Understanding is the cure for ignorance. In Buddhism, an ignorant person is a person who doesn’t know the First Noble Truth. Or someone who intellectually knows it, but does not really know it.

The Second Noble Truth is often stated as “The suffering of The First Noble Truth is caused by desire.”

Desire for what? Desire for a separate, independent self. From ignorance there arises a desire to withdraw, to separate, to know good and evil.

Red Pine tells us that the Sarvastidians, one of the early Buddhist sects who were contemporaries of the Theravadans, realized that the Four Noble Truths applied only to the six worlds. There could be no desire in the four heavenly realms.

The Biblical story of Satan being kicked out of heaven because he wanted to be a king just like God has the ring of truth.

Who is that nasty old Satan who wanted to have a separate self, who wanted a discriminating mind so that he (or it) could pick and choose between things it likes and things it doesn’t?

Do we know anyone who judges, who picks and chooses, who thinks he or she has a self that is independent of everything else?

When we judge, when we weigh, when we choose, when we like, when we dislike…that is the satanic mind.

We practice Zen to awaken to our original Buddha nature, thereby transforming our satanic nature which is so inbred in us that we don’t even realize how far our axle is from its central position. But no god or devil did it to us. We kicked ourselves out of paradise with our desire.

How successful we have been in creating the powerful illusion of a separate self. No one told us to be careful of what we wished, or if they did we ignored the advice. Can we click our heels three times and go home? There is no positive action we can take to propel us back into the Nirvana from which we emerged.

We can only practice Zen, thereby creating the conditions that allow us to return to our natural state.

Deeply understanding The Second Noble Truth is just another way of deeply understanding The First Noble Truth. They really are the same Noble Truth.

The Third Noble Truth is that when the desire for a separate self evaporates, the separate self is extinguished. Nirvana means blown out like a candle, gone. The separate self is gone and our true nature is revealed.

The Buddha simply said the same Noble Truth in three different ways, trying to communicate something that is not easy to communicate to stupid human beings, burning with desire.

So to lay it out in a step-by-step program, because he knew people were too dense to penetrate the Noble Truth expressed in three different ways, the Buddha produced a Fourth Noble Truth and called it the middle way or The Eightfold Path.

People who follow the Buddha’s eight step program will eventually understand the First, Second and Third Noble Truths.

This is another point of departure where Zen departs from classic (Theravada) Buddhism. The early Ch’an masters felt that the eight steps were quite wordy and that some people would be mis-led by the words. “The Indians think too much” is a common comment of Chinese thinkers.

Zen wants to simplify, to cut through words, to get straight to the heart of the matter without thinking too much about following an eight-point plan. The early Zen masters felt that The Eightfold Path was somewhat discursive, too intellectual for their taste. So they stripped The Eightfold Path from classical Buddhism and said: Let’s just meditate like the Buddha did. Let’s not get bogged down in words.

We can listen to podcasts from Zen centers all over the U.S. and we may never hear a discourse on The Fourth Noble Truth. Or the first Three Noble Truths for that matter. Listen to Theravada podcasts and it’s The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path all the time.

This is one way the divide between Mahayana and Theravada manifests itself.

There is value in studying and practicing The Eightfold Path, however. If we practice authentic Zen, we will be following all eight folds of the path automatically.

1. Right Understanding or Right View. This refers to understanding The Four Noble Truths.

2. Right Thought. This refers to not picking and choosing, not running towards things or people we like and away from things or people we don’t like but instead taking the middle way of neither liking nor disliking.

Together, the first two folds of the path form the Wisdom group of The Eightfold Path.

3. Right Speech. Refers to not lying, but includes the concept of maintaining noble silence instead of chatting mindlessly. Buddhism is pragmatic on the subject of lying. It was perfectly OK, of course, for the family hiding Anne Frank to tell the Nazis they had seen no Jews in the neighborhood.

4. Right Action. Self-explanatory. Refrain from doing hurtful things.

5. Right Livelihood. Don’t engage in occupations that hurt others. Don’t sell cigarettes, drugs, booze, or slaughtered animal meat, for example. The Buddha himself admonished a man for being a commercial fisherman. He also spoke out against those who sold weapons.

As a child, I sat through countless Church of Christ sermons where the preacher would rant against the evils of smoking. I was surprised to learn years later that the preacher of the largest Church of Christ congregation in the world, in Nashville, Tennessee, was a tobacco farmer.

In my adult hometown, one of the most prominent Christians, who has now passed away, owned a beer franchise. I often wondered if he ever gave a second thought to all the deaths, divorces, disease and demonic behavior his product facilitated.

6. Right Effort. When a bad or mean-minded thought arises, nip it in the bud. If it has already taken over, and you’re mad as hell about something (like when thinking about nicotine and booze-selling Christians who ooze self-righteousness), drop such thoughts. If the mind is blank, plant a thought of loving kindness. If kind thoughts have arisen spontaneously, nourish them. Note that there are four steps to Right Effort.

Together, steps 4, 5, and 6 make up what is known as the Ethical folds of The Eightfold Path. Step 5 is utterly ignored in Christianity.

7. Right Mindfulness. This one has four basic parts as well: 1) Contemplation of the body; 2) Contemplation of feelings, whether repulsive, attractive, or neutral; 3) contemplation of the state of mind; and 4) contemplation of phenomena/mind objects. Obviously, this is what we do in Tranquil Wisdom meditation.

8. Right Concentration, sometimes called Right Meditation. Self-explanatory.

Steps 6, 7, and 8 are the Concentration or Meditation group.

The Ethical group forms the foundation because practicing the Meditation group requires an ethical foundation. An unethical lifestyle is a roadblock to meditation. And Right Understanding and Right Thought cannot arise if the practices of the Meditation group are not followed.

What The Buddha Taught

Here are the next three chants that we can gradually add to our practice: Affirming Faith In Mind, the Ten Verse Kannnon Sutra, and The Dharani to Allay Disasters.

Written in the sixth century by Chinese Master Jianzhi Seng Tsan, the Third Patriarch of Zen (even though he was a Taoist), scholars have praised Affirming Faith In Mind as “the highest achievement of the human mind.”

“Thought cannot reach this state of truth” but these words come as close as it gets. This awesome work leaves no secret unrevealed. No one told me to memorize this lengthy chant. The first time I read it, I knew I would.

In Chinese it’s called the Hsin Hsin Ming. Like any chant, it can be recited aloud or silently. The Great Way is the Tao (Dao); this is a Taoist (Daoist) chant, adopted by the Zen sect.

The great American Zen master John Daido Loori was given the name Daido by his teacher because he (Loori) was fond of this chant. He is said to have imprinted it on Christmas cards, New Year greetings, and so on. “Daido” is Japanese for “Great Way.”

The author is talking about sakkaya ditthi. Only a self within can like or dislike a world without, only a self can hold opinions. The gap between where we are now and Nirvana is caused by the slightest distinction made between inside and outside; the presence of the slightest distinction is the manifestation of sakkaya ditthi.

Reciting the Hsin Hsin Ming every day provides a foundation for a strong Zen practice because it helps us to empty the cup of our opinions. As Ch’an master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud) said: “Drop everything, and let no thought arise.” Dropping everything means to drop everything. Even the wrong view, sakkaya ditthi, that we are a self in a world that is outside us.

imagesCAPZ2Y97.jpg John Daido Loori

Roshi John Daido Loori, Founder of the Mountains and Rivers Order


Affirming Faith in Mind

(Hsin Hsin Ming)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.

When pref’rences are cast aside, the Way stands clear and undisguised.

But even slight distinctions made set earth and heaven far apart.

If you would clearly see the truth, discard opinions pro and con.

To founder in dislike and like is nothing but the mind’s disease

And not to see the Way’s deep truth disturbs the mind’s essential peace.

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.

Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our see’ng this simple truth.

Both striving for the outer world as well as for the inner void condemn us to entangled lives.

Just calmly see that all is one and by themselves false views will go.

Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity.

Remaining in duality you’ll never know of unity.

And not to know this unity lets conflict lead you far astray.

When you assert that things are real, you miss their true reality. But to assert that things are void also misses reality.

The more you talk and think on this the further from the truth you’ll be.

Cut off all useless thoughts and words and there’s nowhere you cannot go.

Returning to the root itself, you’ll find the meaning of all things.

If you pursue appearances you overlook the primal source.

Awak’ning is to go beyond both emptiness as well as form.

All changes in this empty world seem real because of ignorance.

Do not go searching for the truth, just let those fond opinions go.

Abide not in duality, refrain from all pursuit of it.

If there’s a trace of right and wrong, True-mind is lost, confused, distraught.

From One-mind comes duality, but cling not even to this One.

When this One-mind rests undisturbed, then nothing in the world offends.

And when no thing can give offense, then all obstructions cease to be.

If all thought-objects disappear, the thinking subject drops away.

For things are things because of mind, as mind is mind because of things.

These two are merely relative and both at source are emptiness.

In emptiness these are not two, yet in each are contained all forms.

Once coarse and fine are seen no more, then how can there be taking sides?

The Great Way is without limit, beyond the easy and the hard.

But those who hold to narrow views are fearful and irresolute;

their frantic haste just slows them down.

If you’re attached to anything, you surely will go far astray.

Just let go now of clinging mind, and all things are just as they are. In essence nothing goes or stays.

See into the true self of things, and you’re in step with the Great Way, thus walking freely, undisturbed.

But live in bondage to your thoughts, and you will be confused, unclear.

This heavy burden weighs you down, so why keep judging good or bad?

If you would walk the highest way, do not reject the sense domain.

For as it is, whole and complete, this sense world is enlightenment.

The wise do not strive after goals, but fools put themselves in bonds.

The One Way knows no diff’rences, the foolish cling to this and that.

To seek Great Mind with thinking mind is certainly a grave mistake.

From small mind comes rest and unrest, but mind awakened transcends both.

Delusion spawns dualities – these dreams are merely flowers of air – why work so hard at grasping them?

Both gain and loss and right and wrong – once and for all get rid of them.

When you no longer are asleep, all dreams will vanish by themselves.

If mind does not discriminate, all things are just as they are, as One.

To go to this mysterious Source frees us from all entanglements.

When all is seen with “equal mind,” to our Self-nature we return.

This single mind goes right beyond all reasons and comparison.

Seek movement and there’s no-movement, seek rest and no-rest comes instead.

When rest and no-rest cease to be, then even oneness disappears.

This ultimate finality’s beyond all laws, can’t be described.

With single mind one with the Way, all ego-centered strivings cease.

Doubts and confusion disappear and so true faith pervades our life.

There is no thing that clings to us and nothing that is left behind.

All’s self-revealing, void and clear, without exerting power of mind.

Thought cannot reach this state of truth, here feelings are of no avail.

In this true world of Emptiness, both self and other are no more.

To enter this true empty world, immediately affirm “not-two.”

In this “not-two” all is the same, with nothing separate or outside.

The wise in all times and places awaken to this primal truth.

The Way’s beyond all space, all time; one instant is ten thousand years.

Not only here, not only there, truth’s right before your very eyes.

Distinctions such as large and small have relevance for you no more.

The largest is the smallest, too – here limitations have no place.

What is is not, what is not is – if this is not yet clear to you, you’re still far from the inner truth.

One thing is all, all things are one – know this and all’s whole and complete.

When faith and Mind are not separate, and not separate are Mind and faith, this is beyond all words, all thought.

For here there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

(End of chant)

Kanzeon and Kannon are Japanese for Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion. This short chant is typically repeated a number of times. Concentrate on this chant, especially the last two lines.

Ten Verse Kannon Sutra


Praise to Buddha!

All are one with Buddha,

all awake to Buddha–

Buddha, Dharma, Sangha–

eternal, joyous, selfless, pure.

Through the day Kanzeon,

Through the night Kanzeon.

This moment arises from Mind.

This moment itself is Mind.

The next two chants include Sanskrit words transliterated phonetically into Chinese and transliterated phonetically a second time into Japanese. When chanted for long periods of time in a group, they are powerful chants.

Sho Sai Myo Kichijo Dharani

(Dharani to Allay Disasters)

No Mo Sam Man Da Moto Nan Oha Ra

Chi Koto Sha Sono Nan To Ji To En

Gya Gya Gya Ki Gya Ki

Un Nun Shifu Ra Shifu Ra

Hara Shifu Ra Hara Shifu Ra

Chisu Sa Chisu Sa Chisu Ri Chisu Ri

Soha Ja Soha Ja Sen Chi Gya Shiri Ei

Somo Ko

Dai Hi Shin Dharani

(Dharani of the Great Compassionate One)

Namu Kara Tan No Tora Ya Ya

Namu Ori Ya Boryo Ki Chi Shifu Ra Ya

Fuji Sato Bo Ya

Moko Sato Bo Ya

Mo Ko Kya Runi Kya Ya En Sa

Hara Ha Ei Shu Tan No Ton Sha

Namu Shiki Ri Toi Mo Ori Ya

Boryo Ki Chi Shifu Ra

Rin To Bo Na Mu No Ra Kin Ji

Ki Ri Mo Ko Ho Do

Sha Mi Sa Bo O To Jo Shu Ben

O Shu In Sa Bo Sa To No Mo

Bo Gya Mo Ha Tei Cho

To Ji To En O Boryo Ki

Ru Gya Chi Kya Ra Chi I

Kiri Mo Ko Fuji Sa To Sa Bo Sa Bo

Mo Ra Mo Ra Mo Ki Mo Ki

Ri To In Ku Ryo Ku Ryo

Ke Mo To Ryo To Ryo

Ho Ja Ya Chi Mo Ko Ho Ja Ya Chi

To Ra To Ra Chiri Ni Shifu Ra Ya

Sha Ro Sha Ro Mo Mo Ha Mo Ra

Ho Chi Ri Yu Ki Yu Ki Shi No Shi No

Ora San Fura Sha Ri

Ha Za Ha Za Fura Sha Ya

Ku Ryo Ku Ryo Mo Ra Ku Ryo Ku Ryo

Ki Ri Sha Ro Sha Ro Shi Ri Shi Ri

Su Ryo Su Ryo Fuji Ya Fuji Ya

Fudo Ya Fudo Ya Mi Chiri Ya Nora Kin Ji

Chiri Shuni No Hoya Mono Somo Ko

Shido Ya Somo Ko

Moko Shido Ya Somo Ko

Shidu Yu Ki Shifu Ra Ya Somo Ko

Nora Kin Ji Somo Ko Mo Ra No Ra

Somo Ko Shira Su Omo Gya Ya

Somo Ko Sobo Moko Shido Ya

Somo Ko Shaki Ra Osho Do Ya

Somo Ko Hodo Mogya Shido Ya

Somo Ko Nora Kin Ji Ha Gyara Ya

Somo Ko Mo Hori Shin Gyara Ya

Somo Ko Namu Kara Tan No Tora Ya Ya

Namu Ori Ya Boryo Ki Chi Shifu Ra Ya

Somo Ko Shite Do Modo Ra Hodo Ya

So Mo Ko.

For those who think memorizing the Dai Hi Shin Dharani is too daunting a task, the Shurangama Mantra is many times longer than this relatively short piece. There are native speakers of English and other non-Chinese languages residing at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in northern California who have not only memorized the Shurangama Mantra in Chinese, they have also learned to read and write it in Chinese. Among them is Dharma Master Heng Sure who now resides in Berkeley as the founder of the Berkeley Institute of Religious Studies.

 imagesCALUUWZV.jpg Rev. Heng Sure

Rev. Heng Sure, Ph.D.

It is standard practice to conclude each chanting session with the Return of Merit:

Return of Merit

(Honzon Eko)

Faith in Buddha, Dharma, Sangha

brings true liberation.

We now return the merit of our chanting to:

Shakyamuni Buddha,

Manjusri Bodhisattva,

Avalokita Bodhisattva,

Bhadra Bodhisattva.

We place our faith in the Great Heart of Perfect Wisdom.

May all beings attain Buddhahood!

Ten Directions, Three Worlds,

All Buddhas, Bodhisattva-mahasattvas,

Maha Prajna Paramita.

In a formal setting, the italicized part is chanted by the chant leader only. Everyone joins in on the final three lines. When practicing alone, we chant the leader’s lines as well.

Chiang Mai

British Buddhists in Chiang Mai, Thailand

That concludes the daily chanting practice. However, there is one more chant worth knowing. It’s chanted at Buddhist funerals. However, I silently chanted it at my parents’ funerals, my older brother’s funeral, and I chant it for friends and acquaintances. Maybe someday I’ll chant it for strangers as well.

Memorial Prayer

O Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,

abiding in all directions,

endowed with great compassion,

endowed with love,

affording protection to sentient beings,

consent through the power

of your great compassion to come forth.

O Compassionate Ones,

you who possess

the wisdom of understanding,

the power of protecting

in incomprehensible measure,

[____] is passing from

this world to the next.

The light of this world has faded for her/him.

S/he has entered solitude

with her/his karmic forces.

S/he has gone into a vast Silence.

S/he is borne away

by the Great Ocean of birth and death.

O Compassionate Ones,

protect [_____], who is defenseless.

Be to her/him like a father and a mother.

O Compassionate Ones,

Let not the force of your compassion be weak,

but aid her/him.

Forget not your ancient vows.

We haven’t yet mentioned the most famous, the most-often chanted of all Buddhist chants, the Heart Sutra, also known as the Prajna Paramita Hridaya. We employ it as a part of our daily prostration practice.

And here’s a poem that I’ve never heard chanted but it’s beautiful and well worth committing to memory. It’s so beautifully written that I can’t understand why anyone would not want to memorize it so that it can be called up whenever desired! (Not all desires are bad!)

You may recognize it:

In the pasture of the world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the Ox. Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains, My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the Ox. I only hear the locusts chirping Through the forest at night.

Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints. Even under the fragrant grass, I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains They are found. These traces can no more be hidden Than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

I hear the song of the nightingale. The sun is warm, the wind is mild, willows are green along the shore – Here no Ox can hide! What artist can draw that massive head, Those majestic horns?

I seize him with a terrific struggle. His great will and power are inexhaustible. He charges to the high plateau far above the cloud-mists, or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.

The whip and rope are necessary, Else he may stray off down some dusty road. Being well-trained, he become naturally gentle, Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.

Mounting the Ox, slowly I return homeward. The voice of my flute intones Through the evening. Measuring with hand-beats the pulsating harmony, I direct the endless rhythm. Whoever hears this melody Will join me.

Astride the Ox, I reach home. I am serene. The Ox too can rest. The dawn has come. In blissful repose, Within my thatched dwelling, I have abandoned the whips and ropes.

Whip, rope, person, and bull – all merge in No Thing. This heaven is so vast no message can stain it. How may a snowflake exist in a raging fire? Here are the footprints of the patriarchs.

Too many steps have been taken Returning to the root and the source. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! Dwelling in one’s true abode, Unconcerned within and without – The river flows tranquilly on And the flowers are red.

Barefooted and naked of breast, I mingle with the people of the world. My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, And I am ever blissful. I use no magic to extend my life; Now, before me, the dead trees Become alive.

Prostration Practice

Let’s move on to prostration practice. It’s a practice that needs to be built up gradually over time and not rushed into. We recommend starting with nine prostrations per day and working up to the larger numbers as the counting technique is learned. The counting technique does not involve counting the prostrations with numbers.

There are no external entities to whom we bow. There is no “out there,” no mind and body within, no world without.

Roshi Yasutani called prostrations “the horizontalizing of the mast of ego.” We bow to our inherent Buddha nature, which is, in the words of the Ten Verse Kanzeon chant, eternal, joyous, selfless, pure.


Yasutani Roshi


We begin standing erect, facing a Buddha statue if available, or just empty space if we prefer. We can use a yoga or pilates mat, or just a towel on a carpet.

1. We squat down and place our hands in front of us, preferably one hand at a time, and then rock forward so that our knees are on the floor. Our left hand is on the mat in front of our left knee and our right hand is on the mat in front of our right knee, palms down. Our hands may be further apart than our knees and our hands may be just a few inches in front of our knees.

2. We lift our feet so that our toes can lie flat with the top surface of the toes overlying the floor.

3. We bend our elbows and lower our head to the floor or mat, touching our forehead.

4. With our neck muscles now supporting our torso, we lift our hands, move them forward, turn the palms up and shift the torso weight back to our arms. We lift both palms together about six inches or so, hold them there for a moment, and return them to the floor, still palms up, pausing a moment just above the floor before putting them down. We may visualize when lifting the hands that we are lifting the Buddha or the Buddhadharma (the teachings of the Buddha).

5. Then we turn both palms back to the floor, lift our feet so that the bottom surface of the toes once again overlie the floor, and return to a standing posture.

The Chinese version differs from the Japanese version just described in that instead of lifting the hands when the palms are turned up, the hands remain down, the fingers are closed to form a fist, re-opened, and then the hands are turned palms down for returning to the standing posture.

Flexible people can drop to their knees before placing their hands in front of them, and they can rock back to a standing position after completing the prostration without using their hands to push up from the floor.

Here is a short YouTube video of someone I don’t know demonstrating three prostrations. I have always wanted to say “Thank You” to that fellow for his excellent demonstration. He performs each prostration quickly but we can go more slowly.

Prostrations may seem at first glance to have religious overtones. However, nothing in Buddhism is religious because there is no Great Entity out there to whom we must re-connect.

Religious people tell their god or savior that they are sorry for not believing in them earlier, or not following their teachings earlier.

Taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, on the other hand, recognizes that there is no independent entity outside ourselves that we can say “I’m sorry” to.

.Shing Yin

Taking Refuge with Master Hsing Yun

(founder of Fo Guang Shan, Buddha Light Mountain)

With the first prostration, we inwardly recite:

I take refuge in the Buddha and resolve that with all beings I will understand the Great Way whereby the Buddha seed may forever thrive.

With the second prostration, we inwardly recite:

I take refuge in the Dharma and resolve that with all beings I will enter deeply into the sutra treasure whereby my wisdom may grow as vast as the ocean.

With the third prostration, we inwardly recite:

I take refuge in the Sangha and in its wisdom, example, and never failing help, and resolve to live in harmony with all sentient beings.

With the fourth prostration, we inwardly recite:

For the second time, I take refuge in the Buddha and resolve that with all beings I will understand the Great Way whereby the Buddha seed may forever thrive.

With the fifth prostration, we inwardly recite:

For the second time, I take refuge in the Dharma and resolve that with all beings I will enter deeply into the sutra treasure whereby my wisdom may grow as vast as the ocean.

With the sixth prostration, we inwardly recite:

For the second time, I take refuge in the Sangha and in its wisdom, example, and never failing help, and resolve to live in harmony with all sentient beings.

With the seventh prostration, we inwardly recite:

For the third time, I take refuge in the Buddha and resolve that with all beings I will understand the Great Way whereby the Buddha seed may forever thrive.

With the eighth prostration, we inwardly recite:

For the third time, I take refuge in the Dharma and resolve that with all beings I will enter deeply into the sutra treasure whereby my wisdom may grow as vast as the ocean.

With the ninth prostration, we inwardly recite:

For the third time, I take refuge in the Sangha and in its wisdom, example, and never failing help, and resolve to live in harmony with all sentient beings.

Obviously, these nine prostrations are simply taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha three times. This is the traditional way of taking refuge.

After we are used to nine prostrations and have memorized the Taking Refuge chants, we can gradually do more prostrations.

To increase our daily prostration practice from nine to twelve, we recite the Three General Resolutions that we learned in beginning Zen.

With the tenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

I resolve to avoid evil.

With the eleventh prostration, we inwardly recite:

I resolve to do good.

With the twelfth prostration, we inwardly recite:

I resolve to liberate all sentient beings.

When we feel that we are physically fit enough to double our prostrations from twelve to twenty four, we add recitation of the Four Noble Truths (ariya sacca), and the Eightfold Path (ariyo atthangiko maggo), also known as the path leading to cessation/nirodha of suffering/dukkha, or dukkha nirodha gamini patipada.

With the thirteenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

All compounded things are unsatisfactory/dukkha.

With the fourteenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Craving, tanha, conditioned by ignorance/avijja, is dukkha samudaya, the origin of dukkha.

With the fifteenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Dukkha can be brought to cessation, dukkha nirodha.

With the sixteenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

The eightfold path, ariyo atthangiko maggo, is the path to cessation of dukkha.

With the seventeenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right understanding, samma ditthi, is the first fold.

With the eighteenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right thought, samma sankappa, is the second fold.

With the nineteenth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right speech, samma vacha, is the third fold.

With the twentieth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right action, samma kammanta, is the fourth fold.

With the twenty first prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right livelihood, samma ajiva, is the fifth fold.

With the twenty second prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right effort, samma vayama, is the sixth fold.

With the twenty third prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right mindfulness, samma sati, is the seventh fold.

With the twenty fourth prostration, we inwardly recite:

Right concentration, samma samadhi, is the eighth fold.

When we want to do more than twenty four prostrations each day, we recite the Repentance Gatha three times to bring our total to twenty seven.

With the twenty fifth prostration, we inwardly recite:

All evil deeds committed by me since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger and delusion, arising from body, speech and mind, I now repent having committed.

With the twenty sixth prostration, we inwardly recite:

For a second time, all evil deeds committed by me since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger and delusion, arising from body, speech and mind, I now repent having committed.

With the twenty seventh prostration, we inwardly recite:

For a third time, all evil deeds committed by me since time immemorial, stemming from greed, anger and delusion, arising from body, speech and mind, I now repent having committed.

We can substitute “ignorance” for “delusion” if we prefer.

These twenty seven recitals are easily remembered. The first nine are simply taking refuge for a first, second and third time, a very common practice. We then recite the three general resolutions to get to twelve prostrations, followed by the four noble truths, the eightfold path, and three recitations of the repentance gatha.

The alternative is to count twenty seven prostrations. However, by incorporating these silent recitations into prostration practice, we avoid counting and the prostrations become less of a physical exercise and more of a Buddhist practice.

We can also build up to twenty seven prostrations gradually. We can do three daily until we are ready for six, and so on. Twenty seven is one-quarter of the way to the traditional number of one hundred eight.

By repeating the above recitations every day, they become second nature, i.e., part of us.

Tiger's Lair Temple, Nepal

Tiger’s Lair temple, Bhutan

To complete a second set of twenty seven, we recite the Ten Cardinal Precepts in order to complete thirty seven prostrations. Then we recite the twelve Nidanas (the twelve steps of Dependent Origination) to arrive at forty nine prostrations. We then recite the five hindrances to arrive at the total of fifty four (half-way to the traditional number of one hundred eight).

The Pali term for Dependent Origination is pratityasamupada.

Thus, with prostration number thirty eight we recite: (choose either of Pali/Sanskrit)

The arising of ignorance (avijja/avidya) leads to volition. (Avijja paccaya sankhara)

The next eleven recitations (of course you can re-word these as you like) are:

The arising of volition (sankhara/samskara) leads to consciousness. (Sankhara paccaya vinnanam)

The arising of consciousness (vinnana/vijnana) leads to name and form. (Vinnana paccaya namarupam)

The arising of name and form (nama-rupa) leads to the six sense organs. (Nama-rupa paccaya salayatanam)

The arising of the six sense organs (the five senses plus the mind) (salayatana/shadayatana) leads to contact. (Salayatana paccaya phasso)

The arising of contact (phassa/sparsha) leads to feeling. (Phasso paccayam vedana)

The arising of feeling (vedana/vedana) leads to craving. (Vedana paccaya tanha)

The arising of craving (tanha/trishna) leads to clinging. (Tanha paccaya upadanam)

The arising of clinging (upadana/upadana) leads to becoming. (Upadana paccaya bhava)

The arising of becoming (bhava/bjava) leads to birth. (Bhava paccaya jati)

The arising of birth (jati/jati) leads to old age, sickness, and death. (Jati paccaya jara-maranam)

This completes the twelve parts of the doctrine but since they are recited in eleven statements, it is customary to add a twelfth statement:

The arising of old age, sickness and death (jara-marana/jaramaranam) leads to sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. (soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa sambhavan’ti)

That brings us to forty nine and the final five recitations relate to the Five Hindrances (again, re-word as desired):

I resolve to overcome sense desire (by practicing Silent Present Moment Awareness).

I resolve to overcome ill will/anger/hatred (by practicing Loving Kindness (metta) meditation).

I resolve to overcome sloth and torpor (by performing prostrations).

I resolve to overcome restlessness and worry (by practicing every day).

I resolve to overcome doubt (by observing how I change as I continue practicing every day).

This brings us to fifty four prostrations. Only after we have become comfortable with fifty four daily prostrations should we move on to one hundred eight.

Venerable Yin-Shun, a contemporary Chinese master (1906-2005), in The Way to Buddhahood. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998, recommends taking refuge as the first step in practicing Buddhism.

images yin shun

Master Yin-Shun, teacher of Cheng Yen


For the non-Buddhist who feels that taking refuge in the Buddha is objectionable, we recall that the Buddha is our own inherent awakened nature. Taking refuge in the Buddha is not an act of worship of a man who lived twenty five hundred years ago. We take refuge in our inherent perfect nature, a nature obscured by greed, hatred, and ignorance.

We don’t really take refuge in “our” inherent perfect nature. We don’t own anything and there is no “we” or “I.” Nor is there a Perfect Nature. Emptiness is all there is and it has no name, not even emptiness.

It is customary practice to perform a prostration as one takes refuge in the Buddha, a second prostration as one takes refuge in the Dharma, and a third prostration as one takes refuge in the Sangha. In a typical zendo, for example, there will be three prostrations at the end of a round of sitting.

Enlightenment appears like a thief in the night, unsummoned and unannounced. When the Christ said he would appear like a thief in the night, he was talking about enlightenment.

The second coming of Christ has occurred many times in the past two thousand years; whenever a sentient being wakes up, that is the second coming.

With our daily meditation practice, our daily chanting practice, and our daily prostration practice, we are creating the conditions that allow awakening to occur. We are Pratyeka Buddhas, awakening through self-effort, not waiting for a savior.

We should build up our prostration practice at our own pace. Some people go on retreats and do prostrations all day long.

Some Chinese-influenced practice centers promote the practice of performing 88 prostrations at a time; the number 108 apparently derives from Hindu sources and is the number of prostrations performed in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Chinese consider 8 to be a lucky number, as the world learned when the Beijing Olympics began at 8 minutes after 8 o’clock on 08/08/08.

For inspiration, we can read Heng Sure and Heng Chau, News From True Cultivators: Letters to the Venerable Abbot Hua. Burlingame, CA: Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1983. That book will inspire almost everyone who reads it to start and maintain a prostration practice.

imagesCALUUWZV.jpg Rev. Heng Sure

Dharma Master Heng Sure

(well worth picturing multiple times)

If prostrations make us feel sick or physically upset in any way, we should not do them or at least not exceed the number we feel comfortable with. If we can only do three prostrations per day, we do them slowly and mindfully. That will be better than running through 88 or 108 in an athletic manner.

A single mindful prostration exceeds in value a countless number of mindless prostrations.

A young monk once asked his teacher: “When will I have performed enough prostrations?” The teacher replied: “When you have performed enough prostrations, you will know.”

We are not bowing to the Buddha when we perform prostrations, we are bowing to our inner Buddha nature, our original self. There is no one “out there.” The infinite Buddha is us, always has been and always will be because there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today, and no us that is independent from everything else.

There is no independent self, no other, no time, no space, no sun, no universe, no life, no death. We empty our cup if we believe otherwise.

All phenomena that appear to be external and real are just projections of our deluded, unenlightened minds. When we wake up and see what is really going on, we will have to have a good laugh.

However, we can’t experience the truth of mind alone until we have experienced the four jhanas, the four immaterial attainments, and turned the super power mindfulness thereby created to contemplation of the four foundations (focuses) of mindfulness, or impermanence, fading away, cessation and abandoning/letting go, all as set forth in the Anapanasati Sutta.

As Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy so astutely observed, all thoughts of health and sickness, God on the one hand and self on the other, are merely “mortal thoughts,” the thoughts of the deluded. How could we, on the one hand, bow to the Buddha on the other? The concept of bowing to some external agent is a deluded thought. There are no two things in emptiness, nor is there one thing or zero things or other mental perceptions.

The belief that there are two things is a mortal thought. How could there be a savior out there, separate and apart from us? Mary Baker Eddy, like the Buddha, had the insight that there are no seams in reality. So did Meister Eckhart who said: “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”

And there is no god in emptiness. Nor is there emptiness in emptiness.

Performing prostrations also increases our sense of gratitude for the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. Here is the greatest story ever told about gratitude:

In the eighteenth century, a samurai warrior was determined to bring all of Japan under his control. Assembling an army of like-minded ruffians, he attacked his first town and slaughtered the inhabitants without mercy. “When people see how ruthless I am,” he predicted, “they will stop resisting my advance and I will be the Emperor above all.”

A few people escaped from the destroyed town and warned the people in the next town down the road that a warrior who lacked mercy was approaching. The people of that town fled and the warrior was quite pleased when he learned that they had done so. “My strategy of putting all who resist me to the sword is working,” he smiled.

One day, however, his scouts did not make the usual report. Instead, they said: “The next town has been evacuated, Your Highness, thereby coming under your control and expanding yet further your majestic empire. However, there is one old Zen monk who declined to leave his monastery when we warned him of your approach.”

The warrior was angered. “How dare an old man resist me! I will teach him a lesson.” He stormed into the monastery, saw the monk sitting on the floor in the lotus position, pulled out his sword and roared: “Don’t you know who I am?” The old monk responded by saying: “Sorry, sir, but I do not know who you are.”

Brandishing his sword, the warrior said, with pride: “I am the one who could run you through, and think nothing of it.” To this the old monk responded: “Pleased to meet you. And I am the one who could be run through and think nothing of it.”

This reply so astonished the warrior that he sheathed his sword and said: “To face me so fearlessly, to be so unafraid of my sword, you indeed are a better man than I am. I see that you are a monk, a holy man. Teach me about heaven and hell. I have heard of these things but I never received an education on these matters.”

“I do not teach dogs or swine such as yourself,” replied the monk, without looking up.

Needless to say, the warrior was incensed by that answer and quickly retrieved his sword. Trembling with anger, he raised it high over his head, the better to decapitate the monk with a single stroke.

“That is hell,” said the monk.

“What did you say?” inquired the warrior. “This is hell? This anger? This hatred?” “Yes,” affirmed the monk.

“I see,” said the warrior. “Oh! I understand! This desire to kill, this feeling that comes with wanting to kill someone! So that’s hell! It’s such a terrible feeling! As I prepared to bring my sword down on your neck, I felt so bad! My rage made me truly miserable.”

“You did teach me! I have learned what hell is! Thank you kind sir for this lesson. Thank you, Thank you!”

And the old monk looked up and said: “And that’s heaven.”

I first ran across that delightful (even if apocryphal) story in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, the cite for which is Paul Reps, and Nyogen Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, A collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings.Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1957.

The warrior repented of his war-loving ways, and became a disciple of the monk who could be run through and think nothing of it – legend says it was Master Hakuin.

If we haven’t yet committed to memory Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen, let’s do it now. See Norman Waddell, Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin. Boston & London: Shambhala, 2001.

Master Hakuin never mentioned an encounter with a warrior in his writings so we suspect the story is apocryphal – or it involved a monk or nun other than Hakuin – but it’s still a great story.


Master Hakuin (self portrait)

We have to do prostrations until we want to perform prostrations. And then we will increase our prostrations both in quantity and quality.

What is there outside us? What is there we lack? Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes. This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land, and this very body the body of Buddha.

There is no place to go, no thing to do, no goal to reach. Awakening is the realization that there is no one to awake, no one to fear being run through.

One way to count to 108 is to recite the above 54 steps and to then perform one prostration for each line of the Heart Sutra.

The Heart Sutra is a chant about emptiness, i.e., the absence of an independent self (“none are born or die”) and the concomitant interconnectedness of all sentient beings.

The Heart Sutra is a nickname; the Sanskrit title of this chant is Prajna Paramita Hridaya, which translates as The Perfection Of Wisdom Chant. Prajna means wisdom. Paramita means perfect or perfection and Hridaya means a long mantra, i.e., a chant.

So where does the title “Heart Sutra” come from? One source tells us that the original Prajna Paramita Sutra from which it is taken is very lengthy and the current verses were condensed from the longer sutra. These current verses are the most important phrases, i.e., the heart of the sutra. Another source says that it is a summary of other sutras such as The Diamond Sutra, The Lotus Sutra, The Avatamsaka Sutra, and so on, i.e., that it contains the heart of those sutras and thus the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.

Perhaps the best source of information about The Heart Sutra and more importantly, what it teaches, is Red Pine’s commentary. In my opinion, his book is priceless.

The Bodhisattva of Compassion, mentioned in the opening line of the Heart Sutra, sometimes translated as the Goddess of Mercy, is Guanyin, known in Japanese as Kanzeon or Kannon and sometimes called the Chinese Virgin Mary.

Guanyin came first so Mary is more fairly called the Guanyin of the West. This beautiful lady is called Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit and was a man in India; the Chinese made him into a woman. Perhaps they felt that compassion was more womanly than manly.

The “skandas” are the five aggregates that collectively form an apparent independent self.

The five aggregates are: Form, feeling, thought/perception, choice/volition, and consciousness.

A form or a body must exist before something can be touched to create a feeling and a feeling must exist before a thought can arise. No choice can be made until thoughts arise and there can be no consciousness without form, feeling, thought and choice.

Red Pine points out the connection between the four foundations of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha and the five skandas. The first two skandas are the body and feelings which match the first two foundations of mindfulness. The third foundation of mindfulness, that of the mind, is divided into the third, fourth and fifth skandas of thought, choice, and consciousness. The fourth foundation, mindfulness of mind objects, thus becomes subsumed into the fifth skanda.

The meaning of The Heart Sutra is not easily understood. It won’t make a lot of sense at first but Red Pine’s commentary is very beneficial and we highly recommend it.

The truly mind-blowing, beyond profound meaning of The Heart Sutra can sink in only with months or years of repetition. The unconscious mind will eventually figure it out.

After completing fifty four prostrations, we recite “The Bodhisattva of Compassion” with our fifty-fifth prostration, “from the depths of prajna wisdom” with our fifty-sixth prostration, and so on.

Prajna Paramita Hridaya

(Heart Of Perfect Wisdom)

The Heart Sutra

1. The Bodhisattva of Compassion

2. from the depths of prajna wisdom

3. saw the emptiness of all five skandas

4. and sundered the bonds

5. that cause all suff’ring.

6. Know then:

7. Form here is only emptiness,

8. emptiness only form.

9. Form is no other than emptiness,

10. emptiness no other than form.

11. Feeling, thought and choice

12. consciousness itself

13. are the same as this.

14. Dharmas here are empty,

15. all are the primal void.

16. None are born or die.

17. Nor are they stained or pure,

18. nor do they wax or wane.

19. So in emptiness no form,

20. no feeling, thought or choice,

21. nor is there consciousness.

22. No eye, ear, nose,

23. tongue, body, mind;

24. no color, sound, smell, taste, touch,

25. or what the mind takes hold of,

26. nor even act of sensing.

27. No ignorance or end of it,

28. nor all that comes of ignorance.

29. No withering, no death,

30. no end of them.

31. Nor is there pain

32. or cause of pain

33. or cease in pain

34. or noble path to lead from pain,

35. not even wisdom to attain,

36. attainment too is emptiness.

37. So know that the Bodhisattva,

38. holding to nothing whatever

39. but dwelling in prajna wisdom,

40. is freed of delusive hindrance,

41. rid of the fear bred by it,

42. and reaches clearest nirvana.

43. All buddhas of past and present,

44. buddhas of future time

45. through faith in prajna wisdom

46. come to full enlightenment.

47. Know then the great dharani,

48. the radiant, peerless mantra,

49. the supreme, unfailing mantra,

50. the Prajna Paramita,

51. whose words allay all pain.

52. This is highest wisdom,

53. true beyond all doubt,

54. know and proclaim its truth:

This complete the 108 prostrations. We conclude the prostration practice while standing as we conclude the chant:

Gate, gate (gone, gone)

paragate (gone beyond)

parasamgate (gone completely beyond)

bodhi, svaha! (enlightenment, rejoice!)

We chant the sanskrit words at the end, keeping in mind the translation.

The Heart Sutra is chanted daily in most monasteries and is believed to be chanted worldwide more than any other chant. We did not introduce it in the chanting practice above because it can be recited daily as the second half of the 108 prostrations.

Chinese Pure Land Monks typically perform 500 prostrations per day. And thousands of Buddha Name Recitations.


A prostrating monk

Some of us perform the above 108 prostrations in the morning and would like to repeat the practice in the evening or night.

A good way to do a second set of 108 is to repeat the Taking Refuge prostrations, i.e., the first nine prostrations of the first set, followed by:

Recitation of the Four Brahma Viharas:

10. Metta (loving kindness)

11. Karuna (compassion)

12. Mudita (sympathetic joy, i.e. happiness in others happiness)

13. Upekkha (equanimity)

Then we recite the Six Paramitas (perfections):

14. Dana (generosity)

15. Sila (keeping the precepts)

16. Viriya (energy)

17. Ksanti (patience, tolerance)

18. Dhyana (meditation)

19. Prajna (wisdom)

Followed by the Seven Factors of Enlightenment:

20. Sati (mindfulness)

21. Dhamma vicaya (investigation)

22. Viriya (energy)

23. Piti (joy)

24. Passaddhi (tranquility)

25. Samadhi (concentration)

26. Upekkha (equanimity)

And the Ten Verse Kannon Sutra:

27. Kanzeon!

28. Praise to Buddha!

29. All are one with Buddha,

30. all awake to Buddha –

31. Buddha, Dharma, Sangha –

32. eternal, joyous, selfess, pure.

33. Through the day Kanzeon,

34. Through the night Kanzeon.

35. This moment arises from mind.

36. This moment itself is mind.

Kanzeon is Japanese for Quan Yin (Mandarin), the goddess of mercy or Bodhisattva of Compassion as mentoned above, whose full name is Quan Shi Yin which is why the Japanese transliteration has three syllables.

The final seventy two prostrations, i.e., prostrations 37-108, are reached by recitation of the Hsin Hsin Ming (Affirming Faith in Mind) which has 72 verses and which appears in the chanting section above.

Sutra Study

We recommend beginning sutra study with the Majjhima Nikaya, the middle length discourses of the Buddha, the Digha Nikaya, the longer discourses of the Buddha, the Samyutta Nikaya, the connected discourses of the Buddha, the Anguttara Nikaya, the numerical discourses of the Buddha, and the Khuddaka Nikaya.

The first four works were considered to  include the complete works of the Pali Canon. The Khuddaka Nikaya was added afterwards to collect additional suttas of later origin and is now a part of the Pali Canon. The five Nikayas together collectively form the Theravada Nikayas. These five Nikayas are the five divisions of the Sutta Pitaka, i.e., the Sutta basket of The Three Baskets.

The Majjhima Nikaya contains one hundred fifty two suttas, each just a few pages in length, that contain virtually all of the Buddha’s teachings. The suttas are well introduced and well-footnoted by the translators, Bhikkhu Nanamoli (1905-1960) and Bhikkhu Bodhi (a Theravada monk currently practicing at the Chuang Yen monastery about an hour north of NYC).

imagesCA4X4ZXU.jpg bhikkhu bodhi

Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Satipatthana Sutta is sutta number ten in the Majjhima Nikaya. This is the sutta that teaches the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the heart of vipassana/insight meditation.

In the Theravada school, some practitioners practice vipassana (insight) meditation to the exclusion of tranquil wisdom meditation. This is known as dry insight but it is said to be as powerful as any other form of meditation and the Buddha called it the “direct path” to awakening.

A good book on the Satipatthana Sutta is The Heart of Buddhist Meditation: Satipatthana: A Handbook of Mental Training Based on the Buddha’s Way of Mindfulness.

Sutra/sutta study can be dull at first but the suttas gradually become more interesting as the loose ends are tied together and we begin to see the big picture.

A Zen or any Buddhist practice that does not include sutra/sutta study is an incomplete practice. In the Mahavedalla Sutta, sutta study and discussion of suttas with others is listed as a requirement for Stream Entry (the first stage of the four stages of enlightenment) along with following the precepts, samatha/calmness or tranquil wisdom and vipassana/insight meditation practice.

However, we have to avoid an overemphasis on sutra study. The monastics of the now extinct T’ien T’ai sect, for example, were reputed to spend so much time on sutra study that they had little time left for meditation. That is why we recommend, at the beginning, reading no more than a few pages per day. Even at that relaxed pace, a mountain of wisdom will be acquired by the serious student in just a few months.

When we read the sutras with an open mind, we are listening to the Buddha. Our wisdom grows incrementally day by day.

Here is a website with a comprehensive list of individual sutras. Here is a link to Dwight Goddard’s anthology entitled A Buddhist Bible.

Obviously, we will never run out of Theravada suttas and Mahayana sutras to read and re-read.

Many Mahayana sutras are of Chinese origin and it takes time to get used to the lofty language. However, even if they seem oddly foreign at first, they become delightful with daily reading.

The average westerner will find the Mahayana sutras to be quite bizarre at first. The soaring descriptions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas arriving to hear a sermon, complete with some pretty far out names, as well as the extraordinarily strange way of delivering the main teaching of the sutra itself will strike most people as unusual indeed. Yet, the experience of reading such sutras is not to be missed. As they are read and re-read, they work their magic.

It takes a somewhat advanced practitioner to appreciate the subtle teachings of the Mahayana sutras. The Mahayana sutras presuppose that we already know the fundamentals of Buddhism and have already spent many hours in meditation.

And thus we begin to understand the The Three Characteristics of Existence: Dukkha, Annica, and Anatta. However, one can see the three characteristics of existence without seeing dependent origination but dependent origination cannot be seen until the three characteristics are seen.

Bodhin Kjolhede

Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede, Abbot of the Rochester Zen Center

Rather than read works of mental pollution, we should read the sutras instead.

Here’s what Dharma Master Hsuan Hua says about the sutras:

People need air to live, and the Buddhist sutras are the true air in the atmosphere. When we study the sutras, we are breathing in fresh air. We are also taking in food for the spirit. When we cultivate according to the sutras, and tell other people about the principles found in the sutras, so that they can develop faith in the Buddhadharma, we are in effect giving fresh air to people.

The sheer volume and length of the sutras and suttas may be one reason the Zen sect has historically de-emphasized sutra study. Many historians have also pointed out that the Samurai warrior class of Japan was attracted to Zen in large part for that very reason; most warriors in those days were illiterate.

However, we modern Buddhist practitioners have no excuse; we can read and to shun the sutras or the suttas is to knowingly reject the teachings of the Buddha.

The Theravada school rejects the Mahayana sutras as being syncretic, i.e., borrowing from non-Buddhist sources such as Chinese Taoism (Daoism). For example, as mentioned above, the Hsin Hsin Ming, one of the most prominent of all Zen Sect chants, is a Daoist (Taoist) chant.

The Zen Sect itself, of course, was created when Indian Buddhism, brought to China by Bodhidharma, blended with Chinese Daoism, the indigenous “religion” of China. The Zen Sect was not brought to China from India as so many sloppy writers have announced. There was no Daoism in India so the blend of Buddhism and Daoism could not have occured before Bodhidharma arrived in China.

And some scholars tell us that Bodhidharma was probably a series of Indian monks, not just one.

It may well be that the only suttas uttered by the Buddha are the Theravada suttas; Zen Sect practitioners should not reject them – duh! For crying out loud, the Buddha revealed his sixteen step meditation in the Theravada suttas!

But most Zen teachers continue to ignore the suttas.

Some scholars also point out that the Theravada suttas as they have survived over the centuries may not be the actual words of the Buddha as well; there is evidence of tinkering. For example, many scholars point out that an enlightened being such as the Buddha would not have been so reluctant to admit women into the sangha. Those scholars say that lesser men may have put some small-minded words into the mouth of the Buddha.

Piyadassi Thera

Piyadassi Thera

All teachers of the Buddhadharma often caution their students that the spoken words of the teachers and the written words of the Buddha are a finger that points to the moon. If you want a cat to look at the moon, you can point at the moon but the cat will look intently at your finger, especially if you wave it around.

Some practitioners become attached to the words of the Buddha and they forget that the words are pointing at the moon and are not the moon itself. The Mahayana sutras evolved from the original suttas, and broke away from the prison of words that some practitioners imposed on themselves. They point at the moon using much loftier speech than the Buddha ever used, but the lofty speech, a product of Chinese culture, is still the Buddhadharma.

Many scholars have argued that if the Mahayana had not arisen about a hundred years after the passing away of the Buddha, Buddhism would not have become a world religion. It would have remained a regional religion, the religion of the southeast Asian countries.

The Buddhism taught by the Theravada school is authentic, although we may want to take some of it (such as the anti-women words above-mentioned) with a grain of salt. The Buddha says repeatedly throughout the suttas to test the words, not to just believe what they say. If a teaching leads to increasing wholesomeness, embrace it, said the Buddha. If a teachings leads to decreasing wholesomeness, i.e., to increasing unwholesomeness, reject it, said the Buddha.

Every Buddhist should study the Theravada suttas to learn the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path (which is the Fourth Noble Truth). The Tipitaka (the Three Baskets) of the Vinaya (rules of discipline), the Suttas, and the Abhidharma have been preserved by the Theravadans from the days of the Buddha and they are a treasure. But the whole of Buddhism contains the Mahayana sutras as well.

Buddhadasa Bhikku

Buddhadasa Bhikku

What the Buddha Taught is not a sutra, but it is probably the most-read book on Buddhism in the Western world. It has been criticized as being dry, academic and non-inspirational but it includes the basics of what the Buddha taught so it is a good book to read before beginning sutra study.

The sutta pitaka (sutra basket) is the first of the three baskets (tripitaka) that collectively form the Buddhist canon.

The second basket, the vinaya pitaka, is that of discipline, specifically the monastic rules to which monks and nuns must adhere when interacting with each other and members of the laity.

The third basket is the abhidhamma pitaka, which is a collection of commentaries on the suttas, sub-commentaries on the commentaries, and other miscellaneous writing and poems. However, it is sometimes criticized as being too psychology-based.

No amount of intellectual reasoning will allow us to experience dependent origination. When we experience the four jhanas and the four immaterial attainments, followed by the dharma realm of Nirvana, that of cessation of neither perception nor non-perception, we then experience dependent origination both forward and backward and that means Buddhahood, the first dharma realm, has been realized. (But the “I” is utterly dissolved and there is no “I” that attains Nirvana).

In the Theravada suttas, Nirvana is not considered one of the dharma realms. It is not a plane of existence.

The Zen Sect, because it is highly disciplined and stresses meditation more than sutta or sutra study or chanting, is considered by some Buddhists to be a radical sect. It is true that many meditation techniques are designed to make it to the top of the mountain by spiraling round and round, gradually ascending with great strain like a train gradually gaining elevation. Zen, however, has been compared to a rocket that blasts off and goes straight up, bursting through the clouds into the sky.

One of the great shortcomings of American Zen, however, is its lack of emphasis on following precepts and engaging in sutta study. Buddhists who study the suttas to the exclusion of meditation are making a mistake; meditation must be practiced. However, Buddhists who meditate without sutta study are also missing the boat. It is futile to meditate in total ignorance of the suttas.


Bhante G

Some teachers even teach their students to ignore meditation for years, teaching them to concentrate on sutra study. The theory is that by the time the student begins meditation, the amount of time spent in meditation will be nominal because the student’s mind will be close to enlightenment thanks to the effects of the sutra study.

Enlightenment doesn’t happen magically. The conditions have to be ripe. Those who study without meditation and those who meditate without study have not created the conditions that allow awakening to occur.

Daily sutta/sutra reading, preferably near the end of the day, will become second nature.

In our previous lives, we skipped sutta/sutra study. That’s why we have to do it now. We failed to awaken to Buddhahood then because we deemed such practice unimportant. Now we know better.

The Mahayana sutras include The Diamond Sutra, The Shurangama Sutra, The Lotus Sutra, The Avatamsaka Sutra (chapter 26 of which forms the basis for the ox-herding pictures), The Lankavatara Sutra, The Heart Sutra, and many others.

On a personal note, if I were to own only two (2) books, they would be Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond and the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra, also known as the Flower Garland Sutra).  No two works could be more different from one another. Ajahn Brahm’s book is filled with concrete, practical and easy-to-follow instructions. It is a classic Theravada work and is easily one of the greatest books ever written. The Flower Ornament Sutra, author unknown, offers no instruction. It is lengthy, seemingly pointless, and mind-numbing. But it works its magic and transforms the mind of the reader. It is a classic Mahayana work and is easily one of the greatest products of the human mind.

The Mahayana texts represent the evolution of the original Pali texts. The Theravada school rejects the Mahayana sutras, but almost every talk I’ve heard given by a Theravada teacher includes at least one Zen teaching. The schools are not really that far apart.


Narayan Liebenson Grady

In addition to sutta and sutra reading, we also recommend How the Swans Came to the Lake and The Buddha and the Sahibs. These books have no Buddhist teachings but tell the story of how Buddhism came to the West. Despite similar objectives, the two books include little overlap. The former introduces us to many of the major Buddhist organizations that are active today and the latter tells the amazing story of how British explorers in the 19th Century uncovered India’s forgotten Buddhist past.

Koan study requires close teacher/student collaboration. However, an advanced practitioner can benefit from reading koan collections such as The Blue Cliff Record, The Mumonkan, (The Gateless Gate), The Book of Serenity, (Shoyoroku), The Shobogenzo, (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), and books such as Sitting With Koans by John Daido Loori.

Cultivating Wholesome States

Cultivating Wholesome States

“Therefore, bhikkus, abandon what is unwholesome and devote yourselves to wholesome states, for that is how you will come to growth, increase, and fulfilment in this Dhamma and Discipline.”

-The Buddha, The Kakacupama Sutta

During sutra study, we will encounter the Six Paramitas (Perfections) as well as the Four Brahma Viharas and the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

The Six Paramitas are:

1. Giving or generosity (a direct counteraction to greed);

2. Precepts/morality (practicing all ten precepts to perfection);

3. Patience (which may work as a forbearance of greed);

4. Vigor or diligence (emphasizing the importance of Seeking The Ox);

5. Concentration or mindfulness (the foundation of which is Present Moment Awareness, followed by Silent Present Moment Awareness); and

6. Wisdom (Understanding the Four Noble Truths).

These are six wholesome states or practices to be cultivated.

Red Pine points out that items 2, 5, and 6 are the morality (right speech, action and livelihood), meditation (right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration) and wisdom (right view and right thought), respectively, of the eightfold path.

The Mahayana put generosity first, and inserted patience and diligence after morality to arrive at the six perfections.

The Four Brahma Viharas are:

1. Good will/loving kindness (metta);

2. Compassion (karuna);

3. Altruistic/Sympathetic Joy (mudita); and

4. Equanimity (upekkha).

These are four wholesome states to be cultivated.

The seven factors of enlightenment are:

1. Mindfulness (sati)

2. Keen investigation of the dhamma (dhammavicaya)

3. Energy (viriya)

4. Rapture or happiness (piti)

5. Calm (tranquility) (passaddhi)

6. Concentration (samadhi)

7. Equanimity (upekkha)

They are not the seven factors of feeling good. They are the seven factors of anuttara samyak sambodhi, perfect unexcelled Buddhahood. They provide seven more wholesome states to be cultivated.



If we have not practiced zazen, sitting meditation, we know nothing about Zen, regardless of how many Buddhist books we’ve read and Buddhist websites we’ve visited. We are like the scientist who studies sugar but never tastes it.

Or the scholar who wrote books on Catholicism but was not a Catholic. When asked why he had never become a Catholic even though he was a world-class scholar on the religion, he said: “You can study a disease without catching it.” A funny line. Obviously, however, he had no idea what Catholicism is all about because he had never experienced it.

To empty the cup means to drop opinions, to admit that we know nothing. As Socrates said: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Socrates was no Buddha but he was close. He famously counseled his students to “Know Thyself.” As Hyon Gak Sunim says, Zen is all about answering the question: Who are you?


Hyon Gak Sunim

We cultivate wholesome states by practicing the six paramitas, the four brahma viharas, and the seven factors of enlightenment. We also cultivate wholesome states by practicing mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of the mind and mind objects.

Leaning toward pleasure and away from pain is evidence of Wrong Thought. Right Thought walks the middle way between pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Right Thought leads to the realization that pleasure is nothing but a temporary end to pain and it is always followed by the resumption of pain, which is followed by more pleasure, and so on, endlessly.


Robert Thurman

Advanced Physical Training

When we attend a sesshin, we will begin the day with a fast-paced morning kinhin. Although usually only about ten minutes in length, the pace is too fast for the obese or physically unfit. We will then have a drink of water and go the meditation hall, or zendo, for the first sitting of the day.

kinhin at anzenkai

Kinhin at Anzenkai

So we prepare for the fast kinhin in our daily practice at home. In Advanced Zen, after completing our Beginning Zen kinhin and our warm-up exercises, we take a brisk walk. We have a glass of water afterwards and go to our private meditation hall as soon as we finish our morning walk. An invigorating thirty minute walk is recommended.

Zen practice requires vigor. Only a healthy, vibrant body can sit perfectly still. The cultivation of vigor or energy is also the fourth factor of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment.

The energy referred to in the Seven Factors, however, is a different quality of energy. It arises from sustained meditation, and primarily through practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

We therefore walk or jog every morning after warming up using the Eight Form Moving Meditation to help us prepare for the retreats that we will be attending, and to develop and maintain the fitness level we need to enable us to sit motionless during our daily meditation practice.

Physical fitness is an important part of Zen practice. The length and pace of the morning walk is up to us. Thirty minutes is probably an effective minimum. An hour feels even better. The athletic nature of a walk or jog is secondary; the primary purpose is to develop the habit of walking or jogging in the morning after performing the beginning and intermediate zen warm-up practices.

As advanced practitioners who by now have read and studied Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond, we know that the first two of the four jhanas are recognized by feelings of intense joy at the first jhana and by feelings of a more stable and serene happiness at the second jhana.

No amount of advanced physical training will take us into the first and second jhanas because the pleasant feelings we generate fall far short of the intense experience of those two jhana states.

Still, it is instructive to note that as we insulate ourselves from falling into the tenth dharma realm, we are forming a foundation for the experience of the first two jhanas.

Helpings Others In Their Practice

When we have cultivated happiness, loving kindness, generosity, the precepts, learned the chants, performed Buddha Name Recitation, when we have taken refuge and performed prostrations, studied the most fundamental sutras, and have established a yaza practice, we are ready to start helping others in their practice.

When we sit with a group we are performing a bodhisattva service. Everyone who participates in a group sitting supports the others.

However, sitting with a group for a couple of hours once a week is the minimum service we can provide.

The Buddha said that from time to time, we need to sit for an extended period of time. Near the end of the Anapanasati Sutta, he famously mentioned seven days of continuous meditation as the period of time required to enter the stream.

Since that time, millions of people have attended seven day retreats, known in the States by the Japanese name sesshin. Venerable Ajahn Brahm says that the reason most of those people did not awaken was because they did not follow the Buddha’s instruction to “put mindfulness in front of you” as an integral part of each sitting.

So the importance of Present Moment Awareness and Silent Present Moment Awareness cannot be over-emphasized. It is of paramount, primary and fundamental importance.

However, people who attend lengthy sesshins early in their practice usually quit practicing altogether; I have known several people who started off with a four day sesshin, never to be heard from again.

A strong foundation should be in place before a lengthy sesshin is attempted. We recommend starting with a home sitting practice, then joining a group (while continuing the daily home practice, of course), and then moving on to single day sittings (zazenkai) or weekend sittings.

After a few weekend sesshins, we will be ready for a four day sesshin and after a few of those we can attend a full seven day sesshin.

Yaza is encouraged at sesshins, but we probably should not attempt yaza during our first sesshin unless we have a teacher who encourages us to stay up late for additional practice. Many of us are ready to collapse after a sesshin day, especially during the first few sesshins.

I have attended twenty six four day sesshins and have never attended a seven day one. As a registered patent attorney workaholic, whenever I have seven days off I visit my sister in Oahu. But at least I spend some time with meditation groups there!

Sesshin attendees should have a full, well-rounded practice. When we have developed a strong morning and yaza practice at home, and have attended multiple one day and weekend sesshins, then we are at least ready for a four day sesshin.

Sesshin is Japanese for “collecting the heart.” It is often called Zen boot camp because it is rigorous. In the states, sesshin typically begins at 5:00 AM and continues until 9:30 PM for several days.

A four day sesshin will begin on a Wednesday evening, for example, and end on the following Sunday afternoon. On Wednesday evening, everyone gathers for an orientation meeting where the various rules of sesshin are reviewed. The orientation is followed by a round or two of sitting, often accompanied by a brief tea ceremony. Here is a typical four day sesshin schedule. We can try a day or two of following the schedule at home before attending a real sesshin.

Thursday morning begins with a wake-up bell and everyone gathers for a brisk morning walk at 5:15. Known by the Japanese term “kinhin” mentioned earlier, this is a fast-paced single file walk through the grounds of the sesshin location. If we can walk quickly for ten or fifteen minutes, we will have no problem keeping up. We can train for such a walk a few weeks or maybe even a few months before attending a sesshin.

At 5:30 AM after the morning kinhin, we drink some water and enter the zendo for one round of sitting, typically 35 minutes. Then we can expect a chanting period where the Heart Sutra and the Hsin Hsin Ming (Affirming Faith in Mind) are chanted, along with one or two other chants.

Chanting is typically followed by two 35 minute rounds of sitting, spaced apart by six or seven minutes of single file kinhin, and then it’s time for breakfast. The meal chants are included in the Rochester Zen Center chant book.

About the only times our hands are not in the kinhin position is when leaving the zendo for a formal meal. Everyone files out of the zendo in single file, as during a kinhin, but the hands are in gassho (palm-to-palm, the “praying hands posture,” with the thumbs centered on the chest and the elbows bent just as in kinhin) instead of the kinhin position.

A work period of about forty five (45) minutes follows breakfast. We will be assigned a job such as sweeping, vacuuming, mopping, etc. The work period is followed by an hour of rest where we are free to sleep.

The next round of sitting is followed by a live Teisho, a talk by an ordained Zen teacher, and the talk is followed by another round of sitting and an informal (no chanting) lunch. Another rest period follows lunch.

Next comes three rounds of sitting, separated only by kinhins. Dokusan is typically offered. Then there is an exercise period where an advanced student will lead stretching or yoga exercises, followed by an extended kinhin, another sitting, and supper.

March 2012 474

Guang Ming Temple, Orlando, Florida

Supper is followed by the final rest period of the day and the day ends with three more sittings after that rest period. Dokusan is usually offered during these last three rounds of sitting as well. The final sitting ends around 9:30 PM.

However, many teachers urge sesshin participants to stay up and practice as long as they can, foregoing sleep. That’s yaza practice. Snacks are available for those who meditate throughout the night. Unless we have become a very advanced practitioner, we will probably need all the sleep we can get to be ready for the next day.

What does a Buddha do? A Buddha sits in meditation. Morning and evening.

The meditation doesn’t end when the bell rings and we stand up to bow and begin kinhin. Nor does it end when the sesshin ends and we drive home or to a post-sesshin meal at a restaurant.

The whole point of Zen practice is to remain mindful of the Buddhadharma at all times. We stay with the koan or the breath, with the practice, even when we leave the cushion. Especially when we leave the cushion.

The time spent outside of formal meditation is more important than the time spent in formal meditation because that is when we manifest the practice.

If we have honestly followed this program up to this point, we will understand what is meant by: “Sesshin never ends.”

We meditate in the morning, we meditate in the night, and throughout the day we walk in Zen.

We should attend as many sesshins as we can. By doing so, we are helping others in their practice, and, obviously, they are helping us. We can never practice alone as intensely as we practice with others.

Some sesshins are tougher than others. At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the first sitting of the day is 2:30 AM and the day ends at midnight. But even an “easy” 5:30 AM to 9:30 PM four day sesshin can be quite a challenge.

At Japan’s Eiheiji Temple, founded by Master Dogen, sesshins are very strict, as is daily life at the temple. See Eat Sleep Sit.

If there is no sitting group near us, we can start one by using or Facebook and meeting at a place like Starbuck’s or Panera Bread, for example, until the group is big enough to rent or buy a practice center. We don’t recommend meeting at full service restaurants; donut or coffee shops are best. The Meetup group continues to meet so that new members are continually welcomed into the practice center.

Sangha is a Sanskrit word defined as a community of monks or nuns. In the U.S., we use the word loosely to include a sitting group of lay people. Places like Starbuck’s and Panera Bread are perfect spots for a Meetup group but of course such locations are not suitable for the practice of sitting meditation.

The Meetup group can discuss practice but the formation of a sangha requires a meeting place where practice is appropriate.

Buddhism is changed by every culture that practices it. In the States, Buddhism has changed in three major ways from Asian Buddhism.

First, Americans have no Buddhist heritage and are not concerned with the Asian division of Buddhism into Northern School Mahayana practiced in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet and most of Viet Nam and Southern School Theravada practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and parts of Viet Nam along the Cambodian border.

The division of Buddhism in Asia into two major schools was based primarily upon geographical separation and cultural differences. In the States, Mahayana and Theravada groups attend each other’s events and individuals move freely between the groups.

A good sitting group, in my opinion, welcomes teachers from all traditions and avoids connection to a particular teacher who bars other teachers from the premises and wants to control even trivial matters.

Ch’an/Zen Master Hsuan Hua has worked in profound ways with the Theravada community, even to the point of donating land for use as a monastery. He once remarked that he had practiced in previous lifetimes with Ajahn Sumedo.

Secondly, Buddhism in the States is primarily a lay movement. There are very few people who qualify for the title Sensei or Roshi; the vast majority of practitioners are lay people. In Asia, few lay people who self-identify as Buddhists practice daily meditation and Buddhism is known primarily as a monastic practice.

However, at least a few American Buddhists are working to establish monastaries in the U.S.

When in Japan on business, I usually mention to my Japanese counterparts that I enjoy visiting and meditating in temples (few monasteries are equipped for visitors). When I tell them I meditate daily at home and that most of my friends do the same thing, even though none of us are monastics, they are simply flabbergasted. “Why, why?” they ask. Then they explain that it is the job of monks and nuns to meditate and to dedicate the merit thereby gained to lay people. Therefore, lay people do not need to meditate and if one does meditate as a lay person, it is as if they do not trust the monastic community to do its job.

todaiji nara


Thirdly, men and women practice together in the States. Asian Buddhism is primarily segregated due to its monastic nature.

So we help others in their practice by forming sitting groups if no local group exists. We also form a new sitting group if the local group is on a mission to convert everyone to their way of practice or controlled by a domineering teacher who bans other Buddhist teachers from his or her sangha.

Stream Entry

Seeking the Ox requires that we persist in the practice even when we become discouraged. Buddhist scholars have commented that Seeking the Ox doesn’t begin until the urge to give up has been overcome. And that most people give up.

However, if we persist in the Beginning Zen practices every day for a long time, we are at least seeking the ox.

If we can keep our daily practice schedule, perhaps for multiple lifetimes, we will attain Buddhahood. But even the Buddha continued practicing after his great awakening.

And realizing Buddhahood requires a pure mind, not a mind that is quite pure.

Most of us have minds that are too defiled to perform all ten of these steps to perfection. However, with sustained practice, awakening can happen.

How well we cultivate wholesome states will determine whether and when awakening occurs.

Fail to follow the precepts or hold the Buddhadharma in contempt and you can kiss enlightenment goodbye.

But cultivate wholesome states all day long, not just when on the cushion, and “you will come to growth, increase, and fulfilment in this Dhamma and Discipline.”

The classic explanation of Seeking the Ox refers to the difficulties a beginner experiences if he or she perseveres with the practice. Most beginners never reach this point. They develop pains from sitting and they quit. They never seek the ox.

To seek the Ox means to persevere when it seems that no progress is being made. Right when we decide to quit, we begin seeking the ox if we don’t.

We have not reached even the first jhana at this point, of course. Instead of being awash in bliss, we are more awash in physical pain that accompanies long hours of sitting. When the going gets tough, the tough persevere and start seeking the ox.

When we begin a meditation practice, we are told to return to the practice whenever we start daydreaming. The same applies to all of Zen practice. When we reach a point beyond which it seems we cannot transcend, we return to step one, cultivating happiness and mindfulness through Present Moment Awareness to transcend the tenth dharma realm.

We then move on to step two, practicing loving kindness meditation, transcending the ninth dharma realm. We cultivate happiness and loving kindness and generosity through Silent Present Moment Awareness and follow the sixteen steps of Tranquil Wisdom meditation every day, twice a day, until one day the bottom of the bucket drops out and we reach the source.

The final step of Returning To The Marketplace is then the easiest step of all; it comes naturally. One for whom the bottom has dropped out will naturally become a teacher in order to fulfill the ancient vow of liberating all sentient beings.

We seek the ox, find its footprints, glimpse the ox, catch it, tame it, ride it home, and forget it. Then we forget the self, reach the source and return to the marketplace. And if our practice is authentic, we repeat those ten steps until the practice cultivates itself without beginning and without end.

Although we don’t practice to get benefits, by patiently working on each step of this program, those with whom we come into contact may reap the benefits of our practice. One cannot follow the steps outlined here without becoming more kind to people, animals, insects, and the non-sentient world. We will naturally find ourselves becoming more environmentally conscious as well as awakening begins to manifest itself.


Entrance Gate City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, Ukiah, California

Those of us who go through this How To Practice Zen course many times, until it becomes second nature to practice all ten steps every day, and to attend sesshins whenever we can, do not become enlightened teachers by doing so. Again, we are merely creating the conditions within which awakening may occur.

In the Rinzai tradition, we must be tested by a sanctioned teacher before our awakening can be confirmed. There are small awakenings, large awakenings, and an infinite degree of awakenings therebetween. What one may think is a major awakening experience may actually be quite small.

As beginners, we do not qualify as teachers. But we can practice Zen every day and encourage others to do the same by introducing them to these ten easy steps. We can refer others to this website, for example.

Sharing the Buddhadharma with others is also a form of giving, the first of the six perfections (paramitas) practiced by Buddhas-to-be (Bodhisattvas).

Those who have persisted in this course until it becomes second nature are qualified to share this course with others.

The Zen sect of Buddhism traces its origins to a story that, most admit, probably never happened. The Buddha stood before a multitude of monks who had assembled at the Vulture Peak in India to hear him speak. Instead of speaking, he held up a Golden Lotus. Of all the monks present, only Mahakashapa got it. He smiled, the Buddha handed him the flower, and the sermon was over. The Buddha had transmitted the Buddha Dharma to Mahakashapa without words and Zen became known as the teaching that does not rely upon words.

A lovely story, but it doesn’t appear in the Pali canon so it is probably apocryphal. The Nichiren sect really hates the story, saying it was designed to prevent people from studying the sutras, specifically The Lotus Sutra.

But it makes an important point, that not even an avalanche of words can convey the deepest of meanings. The perfect Zen website is the one that was never uploaded. The most beautiful music is silence. The most enlightened words are no words at all.

We see the outside world as a huge collection of diverse objects and we see our inside world as the subject that perceives those objects. But the self we think we know is just another object. As we detach from our fascination with objects and draw deeper into our subjective self by the dint of persistent practice, we realize that the objects were just projections of our own minds. And that includes our view of our selves.

When the dichotomy of inside/outside falls away, both are discovered to be empty and our Buddha nature is uncovered. We then realize that it was there all along, and that it was not created by our practice. But just as the wind blows away clouds to reveal the sun that was there all along, the wind of practice blows away delusions to reveal the Buddha nature that was there all along.

Buddha nature does not belong to Buddhists. It could just as well be called Original nature. Buddhist teachers of old called it Your Face Before Your Parents Were Born. After all, our Buddha nature was there long before our parents were born. Time has no beginning or end and no one owns it and  that is true of Buddha nature as well.

As soon as we try to describe what Zen is, we have stumbled past it. But perhaps we have to stumble past it at least a few times just to realize what we have done – unleashed a cavalcade of words and thoughts, stumbling past enlightenment while as clueless as Wily E. Coyote contemplating a burning fuse (Thank you Dan Ruth). As we follow the steps of this course on a daily basis, perhaps we will become less clueless.

Golden Lotus

Golden lotus, Macau

We promised on the Home page to reveal the meaning of:

“What is the deepest wisdom of Buddhism?” Answer: “The cypress tree in the courtyard!” (Or “vast emptiness.”)

Using our intellect, the answer is:

The tree really is demonstrating the deepest wisdom of Buddhism. The tree is practicing Silent Present Moment Awareness. While standing by the Still Forest Pool. Perhaps it is in the jhanas, the immaterial attainments, or Nirvana.

If it is chopped down, it will fall over, without complaint, without clinging to what used to be.

As it lies on its side, decaying into the forest, or hauled off to a lumberyard to be made into kitchen cabinets, it stays in Silent Present Moment Awareness by the Still Forest Pool, in Nirvana, not preferring one moment over another. It is always now, and now is always It.

Try giving that intellectual answer to your Sensei at dokusan and then observe the flight path of your body as you are booted from the dokusan room.

The real answer is: The meaning is unfigureoutable by thinking with a discriminating brain. We cannot think or reason our way into Nirvana. We practice until we realize that things are things because of mind and mind is mind because of things. And then we laugh at how stupid we were to think that objective things were observed by a subjective mind when in fact there are no two things, i.e., no object, no subject.

The human dharma realm! What was that all about?

If we have worked hard to develop super power mindfulness and turned that super power mindfulness to the koan and have penetrated it until we see the deepest wisdom of Buddhism, our Sensei will know we have passed the koan and not a word will be spoken.

But he or she might still give us a swift kick in the butt to send us out of the dokusan room, just for the fun of it.

May we all enter the stream!

Guanyin with knee up

Quan Yin Bodhisattva