Monthly Archives: January 2014

In the Service of Wisdom

Though “zen” is a word that is used for many things, including MP3 players and beauty salons, the tradition of Zen is known for a variety of practices and arts. What can we learn from these practices that is applicable to life in the West?

Redwood zendo trioZazen

Zen is known to many for its meditation, a form of sitting that involves facing the wall. Although there are as many kinds of meditation as there are minds, zazen can be described as a form of meditation that is at once single-mindedly concentrated and open to a wide field of experience. That is, zazen is sitting that fully meets all aspects of our experience of the moment.

Shodo, Shakyo, and Sumi-e

Shodo is the art of Japanese calligraphy. Shakyo is the art of sutra copying. Sumi-e is the art of ink drawing. These arts, using a brush and black sumi ink, are forms of expression that require focus and years of practice to master.

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

In this age, when it’s possible to simply scan the most beautiful copy of an ancient text, upload it to your favorite copy center, and have 1000 copies made at 0.6 cents each, why would anyone want to write out a text by hand, much less using a brush? Or what is the value of painting yet another stalk of bamboo? Yet the beauty and uniqueness of each of these expressions is renowned.

Shojin Ryori

Shojin ryori literally translates as “devotion cooking” and means Zen temple cooking. It was the topic of a famous teaching by Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen. In the piece, entitled Instructions to the Cook, Dogen explains the way in which cooking is a practice on a par with meditation and the study of the Buddhist teachings. His audience of practitioners would have consisted mostly of men who likely viewed cooking as, at best, a daily necessity or, at worst, an undignified chore. Yet Dogen taught,

Take one stalk of vegetable to make the six-foot body [of buddha]; invite the six-foot body to make one stalk of vegetable. This is the divine power that causes transformations and the buddha work that benefits beings.

– translation by Taigen Dan Leighton

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Japanese gardens

Looking at a Japanese garden your first thought might be, “What kind of garden is this? It hardly has any plants.” The monastery in which I lived had moss gardens in its interior courtyards, a vegetable garden where we grew quite a bit of our food, and a flower garden on the street along the exterior wall. Much of the daily life of the residents involved tending the gardens. Imagine spending an hour weeding a patch of moss the size of one square meter. Kneeling on the coolness of it, with weeding fork in hand, a monk bends closer to look for the tiniest of grasses. Or a person sweeps the trail in the forest with a broom made of bamboo twigs, lifting the leaves into small piles, even as they continue falling from the trees.

Common Denominator

So what is it that can be distilled from this odd collection of practices? What do these arts have in common, and what can we learn from them?

Each of these traditional Zen arts is taking an everyday activity and turning it into a practice. It is taking the mundane activity of life, such as writing or weeding, and doing it in the service of wisdom. This turning toward wisdom takes place through the intention, the awareness, and the Mind that is applied, and it transforms the way we experience the activity. It’s not that it makes the activity into something magical. The cooking is still the cooking, chopping vegetables and boiling water. Yet the experience of cooking is met in an entirely different way, a way that connects to cooking as enlightened activity.

By Andy Serrano

By Andy Serrano

This way of meeting our everyday life as enlightenment is the inheritance of the practice of the Zen ancestors.  Start by understanding that every moment is a moment of enlightenment, ripe with the opportunity for realization. Because this is so, then sweeping must be enlightenment when it is fully engaged. This full engagement takes time, and it demands our full attention. That is why the Zen way is often the slow way. Doing even mundane things is the activity of a Buddha, and it is up to us to encounter how this can be so, whether you are sweeping in Kyoto or in Kansas.

Loving Haters

Sitting in the sandwich shop the other day, I noticed a young man wearing a baseball cap. On the back of the cap, in lovely embroidery, it said “I love haters.” At first I was put off by this statement. I thought to myself, “What?! You enjoy and encourage people who hate? Don’t people who hate cause all kinds of harm in the world? Don’t people who hate cause suffering?” I wondered whether this young man was simply wearing the hat to cause a stir. Or whether he was identifying with haters, loving them as only a fellow hater could.

Frowny Face by Colin T Griffin

Frowny Face by Colin T Griffin

But the more I thought about this phrase, the more I realized that this is a wise person’s statement. I love haters. I embrace even those that have aversion to me, or to someone or something else. I am able to find a warm place in my heart for those who cannot find a warm place in their heart. Whether or not I agree with them, whether or not others agree with them, whether or not they understand or I understand, I am still able to embrace them.

It puts me in mind of Shakyamuni Buddha’s oft quoted teaching in the Dhammapada:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.

By non-hatred alone does it end.”

That is to say, the only way to deal with haters is not to hate them. Hating haters only robs you of energy for life, and gives them more energy to fight against. Responding in kind only adds fuel to the fire of hatred. Hating hatred allows hatred into your own heart and mind. Why would you want to do that? The only way to have peace in your heart is to make peace with haters.

In fact, one thing you might notice when you begin to love haters is that you may have a bit of hater in you too. There may be some part of you that is a hater. So the same teaching applies. You could to treat the hater in you with non-hatred and see what happens. See whether that helps the situation, whether it helps you to let go of the hatred, instead of fueling it or covering it up.

Now, to be clear, that may or may not have been that young man’s message. But for me, the phrase “I love haters” takes on a new meaning. And to be clear, loving haters does not mean allowing them to be destructive forces in the world. That is more like ignoring haters. I believe that the best way to love one another is to ensure that our behavior has appropriate consequences, both positive and negative. Yet those consequences have to come from the mind that embraces haters, or it will simply be destructive and arbitrary. It is like the difference between verbally reprimanding a child for disrupting the class, and hitting the child with a ruler. In the end, hitting the child only teaches them the lesson that the one with the stick gets their way. This is not the Buddha Way. The Buddha Way is, “I vow to embrace haters. I love haters.”

Forget About It



At the conclusion of a sesshin, an intensive meditation of several days length, my Master Sekkei Harada Roshi would often give a brief talk. He would typically say, “For those of you who do not live in the monastery, please go home and forget about Zen.” This was usually a topic of discussion afterward, and people would inquire what the Roshi meant by such a thing. Some were disconcerted to hear it, after having worked so hard to embrace Zen, sitting long hours and forgoing so many of the comforts of home.  To be told just to forget it was hard to hear. For others, this was a relief. They were glad to leave behind the strict schedule, painful knees and elaborate meal rituals. They hoped to forget about it before even leaving the temple gates.

Yet either response fails to see the Roshi’s meaning.

The point that Roshi was making is that Zen *is* your life. There is nothing you need to take home with you; no way for you to add it to your agenda. Zen is already here, there and everywhere. Even in a fast-paced, constantly distracted, over-stimulated modern life, Zen is fully manifesting. In fact Roshi also said, “Your life is completely resolved in each moment.”

Still, just saying it’s so doesn’t really cut it. If it were as simple as telling yourself that fact, there would be no need for monasteries or teachings or practice at all. We could all just sit in front of the television or the computer with our snacks and soda pop, and say that everything’s okay. We could even say it’s all perfect and we are all Buddhas. Sounds a bit Polly Anna don’t you think?

Thus, practice outside the monastery is to abide in this mystery, in the inconceivable teaching. It is to connect with the way in which this very life is ineffable: beyond words, beyond ideas, beyond the new notch in your belt after you sat a sesshin. You don’t get to go home and tell your neighbor how well you wielded your chopsticks, or that you asked the most insightful question, because that’s not the point. The point is that you sat on your cushion in a place where there is no distraction from the Zen of this very moment. What did you experience?

So you might say that practice off the cushion is experiencing the Zen of this very moment, whether that moment is sitting behind the wheel of a car or drinking a cup of tea at your desk. Practice off the cushion is abiding in the mystery, stepping closer and closer into intimacy with the present until there is no boundary between you and it. Practice in daily life is about being open to the way in which the mundane is expressing the absolute, being open to the way in which life is saying something larger than life.

Saying it that way, it becomes clear that Zen lives at the monastery and Zen lives outside the monastery. It becomes clear that wherever you live, the task is right in front of you. No matter what you wear, or what haircut you have, or how many minutes of meditation you have done, the task is so simple it may evade you. Don’t be confused by words and concepts; these are just pointers along the way. The Way itself is right before you, each moment and place full of opportunity. Remember, everyday mind is the Way.

So I ask you, how do you abide in the Zen of your life? How will you connect to the Zen of life in 2014?

Happy New Year! May you be safe, joyful, free from suffering, and may you fulfill your infinite potential.