Dogen Zenji: When buddhas are truly buddhas, they are not necessarily aware of themselves as buddhas

When buddhas are truly buddhas, they are not necessarily aware of themselves as buddhas.

– Dogen Zenji in Genjo Koan

In some cases, the oneness we are recognizes itself and lives its life through and as a human being, and there is no awareness of it being unusual or having a name. It may not ever have heard about it, or it has heard about it but doesn’t apply it to itself. It’s just a natural and uncontrived living from and as itself as oneness.

In some cases, the oneness we are recognizes itself and there is an awareness of it as having a name, but it’s not a focus, and it’s mostly forgotten. The metaphorical center of gravity is mostly in oneness, it knows full well about labels and perhaps maps of the process, and labels are not important in daily life.

It’s mostly when the oneness we are has a tenuous conscious grasp on its own nature that it feels a need to hold onto labels and to remind itself about those labels. And that’s not wrong. It’s natural and innocent and a part of the process.

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Big Mind process & awakening

What’s the relationship between the Big Mind process and awakening?

And what is the Big Mind process?


The Big Mind process was developed by Zen teacher Genpo Roshi based on Voice Dialog and his experience as a Zen student and teacher.

In the Big Mind process, we take on the role of different perspectives and these are typically personal (parts of our human psyche) or transpersonal (Big Mind, Big Heart, etc.).

It’s a therapeutic process, and it can also help us shift into the “view” of Big Mind, of our nature, of what the world to us happens within and as. A skilled facilitator can help most people find their nature within minutes and speak from this, which means novices can sound like traditional Zen masters or mystics in a very short while.


Is this awakening?

Yes and no.

The noticing itself is a noticing of our nature, and that is awakening. It’s typically a noticing free of bells and whistles and big experiences. It helps us get a sense of what it’s about and, equally important, what it’s not about. (It’s not anything distant, it’s not for special people, it’s not about mystical powers, etc.)

At the same time, for this to transform us, we need to keep noticing and exploring how to live from it.

It’s not enough to notice it once or when we do the Big Mind process. We need to keep noticing, clarify, deepen, and continue to explore how to live from it.

We need to allow it to transform us and our perception, life in the world, and the different parts of our human self and psyche.


This process is supported by different forms of practice.

The noticing itself is a form of practice and can be supported by the Big Mind process and similar forms of inquiry (e.g. Headless experiments.)

Living from it is also a form of practice and can be supported by therapeutic work. The more healed we are as a human being the more able we are to live from a conscious noticing of our nature in more situations and areas of life.

And traditional forms of spiritual practice also support us in this process.

Basic meditation helps us notice that all our content comes and goes, and find ourselves as what it all happens within and as.

Heart-centered practice helps us shift our relationship with ourselves, others, the world, and all content of experience. It helps us have a relationship with it that’s more aligned with oneness.

Training a more stable attention supports all of this and just about anything else in our life.

And so on.


I was at Kanzen Zen Center when Genpo Roshi developed the Big Mind process, I took part in several Big Mind workshops, and I have used it for myself since then and occasionally facilitated others. And that’s about it.

I remember some conversations about this at Kanzeon Zen Center at the time. People off the street would get koans almost immediately, even if they had no experience with Zen or meditation. Some old-timers seemed miffed that newbies, within minutes, would “get” – at some level – what they themselves had spent years on. (Which was entertaining to me.) And Genpro Roshi likened the process to bringing water down the mountain to people and emphasized that we still need practice to clarify, deepen, and learn to live from it.

As with so much else, I have been out of the loop for more than a decade due to my health so I am not sure how others see it or what the “official” take on it is these days.

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Real Zen is not about Zen

Real Zen is not about Zen.


When Zen is about Zen, it’s about the identity of Zen. It’s about the tradition, rituals, specific practices, and so on. There is nothing wrong in this but it’s good to be honest about it. There is a lot of value in Zen, and when Zen is about Zen, this can be passed on to new generations.


Real Zen is not about Zen. It’s about the exploration. It’s about finding what we are and exploring how to live from it. The essence of this is inherent in who and what we are, and in reality, and it’s not dependent on any traditions.

Many traditions have insights and pointers for exploring this, and no tradition has any monopoly on it. And if we are too identified with a particular tradition and its particular approach, we may miss out on practices and pointers that could be very valuable to us.


The seed of this article came from a brief comment I made about Zen on a friend’s social media post, so I wrote it about Zen. But this is far more universal. This is about spiritual or awakening traditions in general.

They each contain valuable pointers, practices, guidelines, and insights.

Since they are traditions, their main priority is inevitably to maintain themselves. In practice, this means that for many within a trdtiion, they will set their tradition on part with or sometimes above what the tradition is explicitly about or initially was about.

And it means that if we are sincere about finding what we are and living from it, we lose out on valuable pointers, guidelines, and practices if we stay too rigidly within the tradition for too long.

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Hakuin: What is true meditation?

What is this true meditation?
It is to make everything:
coughing, swallowing, waving the arms,
motion, stillness, words, action,
the evil and the good, prosperity and shame,
gain and loss, right and wrong,
into one single koan.

– Hakuin Ekaku

When I look, I find that in my first-person experience, I am capacity for the world as it appears to me. I am what my world happens within and as. I am what any experience – including the list in the quote – happens within and as.

To myself, I am oneness and the world happens within and as this oneness.

This is already happening, whether I notice it or not. And when I notice, I find it’s all happening within and as the oneness I am. It’s all one single koan.


This noticing has an active and receptive aspect.

It’s active in that there is intention in the noticing, and a bit of (relaxed) effort. And it may be guided by pointers and/or an experienced guide. Also, there is some effort in keeping noticing.

And noticing also has a receptive aspect. I notice what’s already here. Nothing needs to be created or fabricated. My nature is here independent of states and any content of experience. All that’s needed is noticing and finding receptivity to what’s already here.


This form of true meditation can happen anywhere and at any time. It can happen within any spiritual practice. It can happen through situations in daily life.

Basic meditation is similar. It’s to notice and allow what’s here. And then to notice that what’s here is already noticed and allowed. The first is more effortful and ultimately impossible. And the second a bit more relaxed, essential, and possible, and something we can notice anywhere and at any time.


Hakuin calls it a koan, so in what sense it is a koan? Perhaps because it’s all inherently a mystery? And how I live my life with all of this – with all of the richness of experience and life – is an ongoing exploration. There is no final answer. There is no finishing line.

Drawing: Ink on paper by Hakuin Ekaku

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Imperfect practice and noticing what’s already here

Maezumi Roshi, and I am sure many others, pointed out that we can only do approximate shikantaza. We can only imperfectly do the basic meditation of noticing and allowing.

It’s that way with many practices. We can only do it imperfectly.

And there is a great blessing in this, in more than one way. It keeps us humble, and it invites us to find the nature of what we already are.


Basic meditation is to notice and allow what’s already here in our experience. As a human being, this is something we can do only imperfectly.

Why can we only do it imperfectly?

The simple answer is that it’s not humanly possible. We’ll get distracted. We cannot intentionally notice everything happening in our field of experience. We cannot fully allow it all, or do so all the time. And we are always one step behind what’s already happened.

And the more real answer is that the premise is already out of alignment with reality. There is ultimately nobody doing it, and basic meditation cannot be “done” or manifactured.

So what’s the solution?

We can practice more. We can get more familiar with and fine-tune our practice. That is part of the answer and very valuable.

And the more real solution is to notice that basic meditation is already happening. What’s here in my experience is already allowed – by life, space, mind. I can notice it’s already allowed. And I can notice that what’s here in experience is already, in a sense, already noticed. It’s already happening within and as this (ordinary) awakeness.

Both of these perspectives have validity. In a sense, there is a human being here engaging in this practice, and perhaps fine-tuning it through experience. And ultimately, there is nobody doing it and the practice cannot be successfully done or manifactured. All we can do is notice it’s already happening. It’s our natural state.

The nature of what we are is to allow and notice what’s here, and it happens no matter what this human self is doing or distracted by.

When we do basic meditation, we mimic what our nature already does and is.

At first, it may seem unfortunate that we can only do approximate basic meditation. And, in reality, it’s a blessing since the only real solution is to notice the nature of what we already are.


Finding more directly what we are, through pointers and noticing, is similar. As someone doing it, we can only do it imperfectly.

When I find myself as capacity for the world, or oneness, or stillness & silence, do I actually notice this? Or do I notice my mental representations of being capacity, or oneness, or stillness & silence? Or is there a combination?

Also, when I find myself as this, is there some part of my sense field that’s not included in my noticing, and that there is still some identification with?

In my case, there is likely a yes to all of these questions. There is some actual noticing. There is some noticing of the mental representations, and these are partly mistaken for what they refer to, and they are partly used as pointers to notice what they refer to. And there is sometimes a part of the sense field that is identified with, and especially some sensations and mental images in the area where the head is.

For these reasons, and because my attention is not always stable or fully on, this noticing is imperfect.

Of course, practice helps, especially when combined with honesty and sincerity.

And what really helps is to go beyond what’s done and manifactured.

Can I notice the capacity that’s already here, and that allows all this doing and noticing?

Can I notice the stillness & silence that’s inherent in this field of experience, independent of any noticing and doing?


As I mentioned, there are real gifts in this imperfect practice.

One is that it keeps us humble at a human level. I cannot really do any of these practices. I can only do it imperfectly, and – in a sense – fake it.

And the other is that the only real solution to this is to notice what’s already here. To notice the allowing & noticing inherent in this field of experience. And notice the capacity, stillness & silence, and oneness inherent in this field of experience.

At first, we may assume that the practice is to do it and manufacture something. And after a while, we may find that it’s noticing what’s already here.

As so much, it seems obvious. And yet, for a mind used to complexify things, it’s so simple and natural that it’s easy to overlook.

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Dogen: Enlightenment is intimacy with all things

Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.

– Dogen Zenji

This is a classic in Zen, and the meaning is immediately clear when we notice what we are.

When we find ourselves as capacity for the world, and what our field of experience happens within and as, we find intimacy with all things. We are what all things – to us – happen within and as.

In a conventional sense, there is distance and boundaries. And in reality, whether we notice or not, all our experiences happen within and as us. There is no distance, and boundaries only come from an overlay of mental images and representations.

It’s already that way. There is already more than intimacy with all things. We just need to notice.

Ikkyu: At the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon

Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.

Ikkyu, 1394-1481

If we seek to find our true nature, then there are many paths from the foot of the mountain, and in each case, when we get to the “peak” we gaze at the single bright moon.

Some of these paths are within a tradition and some may be outside, that doesn’t matter so much. And we can emphasize heart-centered practices, inquiry, basic meditation, or some other practice, or a combination of several.

What we find – our true nature – is the same in each case.

There is also some that’s slightly different… The way we talk about it. Exactly how we live it in our life. The challenges we encounter and apply it to. Some of the insights that are more specific to the particular practices we are familiar with. Anything that has to do with our human self and our life in the world is colored by who we are as a human being with our own unique history, inclinations, and experiences.

In general, the “peak” may be noticing our true nature, or also living from it, or also bring most of our human self onboard with it. Only noticing our true nature is the “single bright moon”, and the two others will be colored by our uniqueness as a human being in the world.

Bankei: Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave

When Bankei held his seclusion-weeks of meditation, pupils from many parts of Japan came to attend. During one of these gatherings, a pupil was caught stealing. The matter was reported to Bankei with the request that the culprit be expelled. Bankei ignored the case. Later the pupil was caught in a similar act, and again Bankei disregarded the matter. This angered the other pupils, who drew up a petition asking for the dismissal of the thief, stating that otherwise, they would leave in a body. When Bankei had read the petition he called everyone before him. “You are wise brothers,” he told them. “You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I am going to keep him here even if all the rest of you leave.” A torrent of tears cleansed the face of the brother who had stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.

– from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings

Intellectual honesty in spirituality: Zen and not dead yet

The Emperor asked Master Gudo, “What happens to a man of enlightenment after death?”

“How should I know?” replied Gudo.

“Because you are a master,” answered the Emperor.

“Yes sir,” said Gudo, “but not a dead one.”

– I heard this story almost 30 years ago but can’t find an original source right now. It seems to be quoted a lot without a source.

This is honesty. There is a huge amount of bs in spirituality, and it consists mostly of people pretending that stories are reality.

Do we know that reincarnation exists? Or the soul? Or any afterlife? Or karma? Isn’t this just what someone else has told us?

Is it something we can check for ourselves? And if not, why repeat it or pretend we know it’s true?

Why not instead be honest? Why not admit we don’t know?

There are other ways to use these concepts and ideas that seem more helpful. For instance, why not explore these concepts and ideas as projections? Why not use them as something we can explore here and now? How can I find where they fit my experience?

For instance, I can find a kind of reincarnation here and now. I notice that each moment is fresh and new and something is kind of recreated. I notice that any ideas I have of a me or I are recreated here and now. In that way, “I” am reborn. (Any ideas of continuity are just that, ideas. I cannot find it outside of my ideas. This means that reborn even in this sense is also based on an idea on not something actual I can put my finger on.)

I can find karma in that something that happens has consequences. Actions has consequences. Through how I think, feel, and act, I create habits and grooves that it’s easier to follow in the future. When I act in the world, the world responds. This is the karma I can find in my own life and check out for myself. Beyond that, I don’t really know. (Even here, I cannot really find karma, cause and effect, and so on outside of my ideas.)

What about the afterlife? I can find it in my ideas, but not outside of my ideas. I can find timelessness here, and that all my experiences happen within and as this timelessness. I notice that this human self – and the idea of time itself – happens within and as that timelessness. But I still don’t know if there is anything after this human self dies.

Of course, I know that not everyone are interested in or inclined to explore in this way. For many, holding onto ideas is comforting and sufficient. It’s that way for me too, sometimes and in some areas of life, and probably in ways I am not even aware of. That’s completely fine. But I prefer to be honest about it, at least as much as I can.

Silence or not during group meditation?

Having a Zen background (I lived for a few years at Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Like City), I am used to silence during the sitting periods. If someone makes repeated sounds, it wouldn’t be unusual for the monitor – the senior monk monitoring the Zendo – to shout “sit still!!!”.

Silence allows for easier centering, inner silence, and focus, at least in my experience. And having to sit still also requires me to find a way to allow and give space to my own restlessness and discomfort instead of distracting myself through sounds or movement. That’s perhaps the greatest benefit and one of the reasons the silence-norm is in place.

When I first took a Vortex Healing class, I was surprised by the sound level. People seemed to move around and make quite a bit of sound (breathing, sighing, coughing, pulling in snot, moving, opening bottles, even reading through notebooks!) during the transmissions or meditations. It’s distracting, but the benefit is that I get to see my own reactivity to it, and it triggers some emotional issues (rooted in trauma), so I can then work on and clear those. In fact, due to my own discomfort from the noise level in the group, I am motivated to work on and clear those issues. I want to get a good portion done before next class…..!

So there are benefits to each approach. I also guess Vortex Healing has more of an Indian and Hinduism connection with it’s higher tolerance for noise (and chaos!), so that’s why they do it differently.

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Backward step

In Zen, they sometimes talk about taking the backward step.

And as so often, it is a metaphor, and it’s also the description that’s close to the immediate experience of it – at least for me.

The forward step is going into familiar stories and images, fueled by familiar emotions and identities. It’s a very familiar territory, and it feels like tightening a knot. It’s an escape from uncomfortable sensations, emotions, images and thoughts. It’s a distraction. It’s an attempt to run away.

And the backward step is to open to what’s here, meet the discomfort that’s here, notice it’s already opened to, welcome it, find what it’s deepest wish is for, invite it to notice what it really is. And it is to notice the images and thoughts that’s here, and inquire into these to find what’s more true for me.

The first is experienced as a forward step because it’s often very familiar, it’s what I have learned to do from our families, friends and culture. It’s also a forward step because it takes me “away” from what’s really going on for me.

The second is experienced as a backward step because it’s – at least at first – more unfamiliar to me, and it brings me towards what’s here – the contraction, the sensations, the images and thoughts as images and thoughts.

Gateless gate

Something very simple about the gateless gate:

When I am caught up in thoughts about time and space, confusion and awakening, a me and I, there appears to be an I that is now confused, in the past was more awake, in the future can awake, and is not as awake as some others out there. It all seems and feels very real and true. The gate leading from confusion to clarity seems real and true.

When there is more clarity – when images of time and space, confusion and awake, a me and I, an inner and outer world, a gate from confusion to clarity are recognized as images, happening within and as awareness, it all looks a bit different. It’s all appearances and experiences within and as awareness, including a me and I that is confused or clear, confusion and clarity, and a gate leading from confusion to clarity.

So being caught up in and taking these thoughts as real and true, there is certainly the appearance of time, a me and I, confusion and clarity, and a gate to pass through. It all feels very real and substantial. Passing through this gate, it’s all revealed as happening within and as awareness. It’s all the play of awareness. Spirit taking on all these different forms, and temporarily identifying as a me and I, and taking thoughts of confusion and clarity etc. as real and true, making it all appear real and true to itself. It’s the infinite temporarily experiencing itself as finite, from the “inside” of all of these ideas, and then again noticing itself as infinite.

So there is a gate since it’s experienced as real and true. And there is not a gate, since it’s all happening within and as awareness. And as capacity for all of this – awareness and it’s infinite forms and appearances.

It’s a gateless gate.

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The Backward Step

Take the backward step that turns your light inwardly to illuminate your self.
– Dogen Zenji in Fukanzazengi

Dogen mentions taking the backward step.

It seems that I just wrote about one of these backward steps: Noticing and connecting with the fear that’s here, behind unease, tension, discomfort etc.

The forward step, the habitual step for many of us, is the recoil from the fear, and instead go into reactive emotions, tension, seeking comfort, over-thinking and so on. And the backward step is to instead notice and connect with this fear.

Another backwards step is The Work. Here, the forward step – the habitual one for many of us – is to take the belief and run with it, fuel it as it leads to more thoughts, emotions, a life in the world. The backward step is to notice the belief, write it down, and take it to inquiry to see what’s there.

Yet another is sense field inquiry. Or even, in a sense, ho’oponopono. Or one of the many other practices which invites us to look at what’s really here, or reverse a process of going into and fueling beliefs.

Of course, what Dogen talked about was zazen.

Structured training

I just spent three weeks at a Zen center and am reminded of what I already knew from experience: There is no substitute for structured training with a competent teacher.

Since I have written about the dark night more lately, I can add that I suspect that the processes inherent in a dark night (switches into the opposite end of polarities, disowned voices surfacing, disidentifying with familiar identities and viewpoints) happens in such a setting as well, but often in a more stable and slightly easier way. The setting provide support and stability through the schedule, community and teacher, and the sitting provide space for it all to unfold and pass through. Without such a structure, it can go a bit haywire – loss of health, friends, ability to function etc. – as I know from own experience. Of course, there are unique and valuable lessons available within and outside of a traditional structure.

What’s hearing?

Here is a classic Zen question/koan:

What’s hearing the sounds?

Or… What’s standing? What’s walking?

As with any question, the asking and exploration is what’s important, and whatever is “found” is not really it. There is always further to go.

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Backward step

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words.
Take the backward step and turn the light inward.
Your body-mind of itself will drop off
and your original face will appear.
If you want to attain just this,
immediately practice just this.

– Dogen (1200-1253)

Shinzen Young – Six Common Traps

I am finally getting around to listen to some of the talks of Shinzen Young, and it is easy to understand why I have heard universally good things about him. He seems very clear, and has a very comfortable “human packaging” as well.

Live up to your attainment with care III

Live up to your attainment with care.
Sixth Patriarch

Here is yet another way to appreciate this quote….

When I inquire into a belief and find what is more true for me, can I live up to those insights with care?

Can I notice the symptoms of again attaching to the story as true? What did I find when I inquired into it intially, and how would it be to live from those insights here and now? What happens if I live one or more of the turnarounds in this situation? What do I find if I explore it again, here now, in a fresh way?

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Live up to your attainment with care II

Live up to your attainment with care.
Sixth Patriarch

A few more things about this….

I can use a more yang or yin approach to live up to my attainment with care. A yang approach may be: don’t not allow yourself to fall into old patterns. (Don’t think you are absolutely right, protect a viewpoint etc.) While a yin approach may be to simply notice the symptoms of identifying with a viewpoint, and then find what is more true for me. Can I find the freedom to use one or the other, or both, depending on what seems most helpful in the situation?

Also, living up to your attainment means to live with integrity, to live from absolute and relative truths. When I live from relative truths, I live in ways that seem the most sane, mature, wise and kind, even in a conventional sense. And living from absolute truth is to remind myself of what I really am, and that there is no absolute truth inherent in any story or viewpoint. I use stories as practical guidelines for attention and action, chose the stories that seem the most helpful and appropriate in the situation, in the context of don’t know.

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Live up to your attainment with care

Live up to your attainment with care.
Sixth Patriarch

In this koan (see the full text below), Myo awakened. (Reality awakened to itself, awakened from temporarily taking itself to be Myo.)

And after awakening, there is the process of living from it with care. It can easily be obscured, and that happens as soon as we take any story as true or identify with any viewpoint.

As Byron Katie says, we are awakened – or not – to a thought. The thought that is here now.

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The backward step


Hence, you should stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop off and your original face will appear.
Dogen from Enlightenment Unfolds (1999)

What does it mean to take the backward step?

Sitting in the tea house in a Chinese garden yesterday, the words backward step became very much alive for me.

I noticed the symptoms of solidifying a story, taking it as real. I noticed a solidified sense of a separate I, a center located in space, boundaries appearing as real, slight unease, tension, sense of precariousness, a viewpoint to defend, and so on. It was just the beginning movements, but still quite noticeable.

I could see that one option is to enhance, elaborate, support and defend the story, making it appear even more true. This is the forward step and it solidifies the story, and the sense of a separate I, even more.

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When the mouth opens, all are wrong


Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: “The flag is moving.”
The other said: “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”
The Gateless Gate #29

The wind and flag are moving in my own world of images. There are perceptions and then an overlay of images telling me it is a flag moving in, or being moved by, the wind. It is all happening within my own world of images. When I recognize that, there is the possibility of not taking my own world of images as substantial and real. It is very helpful to use an imagined overlay, but also good to notice it is all happening within my own world of images.

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Tail of the ox

An ox passes through a window. Its head, horns, and four legs all pass through. Why can’t it’s tail pass through?

This is a koan that has come up for me now since it reflects immediate experience.

The ox passes through the window. The world and this human self is recognized, in immediacy, as awakeness itself. As no thing appearing as something.

Yet the tail does not pass through. There is still identification with the doer and observer. Even as the doer and observer is recognized as awakeness itself, even as it is recognized as a gestalt made up of sensations and images, there is still some remaining identification there.

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What is Buddha?

Buddhist teachers like to give surprising answers to the question what is Buddha?

Three pounds of flax seed. A shit covered stick.

And sometimes, just twirling a flower.

It may sound clever. Or cute. Or confusing. Or even deep.

But it can be very simple.

Each of these – flax seed, shit, twirling a flower – is awakeness itself.

The question is, what is Buddha? And the answer is literal, pointing directly to the Buddha. To a form that is awakeness itself.

It is the simplest, most direct answer possible.

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Shikantaza as practice, and not

It is common in Zen to say that shikantaza – just sitting, choiceless awareness – is not practice.

We are not practicing in preparation for anything, or to get somewhere. Shikantaza itself is the real thing. It is what we are noticing itself.

It is awakeness noticing itself. This timeless now within, to and as which everything happens.

In that sense, shikantaza is not a practice.

Yet there is also a practice element in shikantaza, which shows up in two ways.

First, it is the practice of shifting into what we are noticing itself.

Attention is absorbed on the inside of thoughts, it is noticed, and there is a shift back into just sitting. This practice happens on the cushion, often several times during a sitting period.

And this practice on the cushion is also a practice for daily life. We practice shifting into what we are noticing itself on the cushion, and then bring it into daily life.

Finding myself on the other side

For a few years in my life, there was what I came to call “instant karma”. I would go into judgment about someone, fueling a sense of being right and a separate I, and then, days, hours or often minutes later, I would find myself in the same position as the one I had judged, sometimes in a quite literal way. It was a great way of learning, and very humbling.

It is always true that I am what I see in others, but it is not always so easy to notice. It may happen in a quite different form and area of life. So when it happens in a more literal way, it is harder to overlook. (That more literal form can be experienced as another flavor of synchronicity.)

Over the last year or so, I have had some stories going about people making noise during sitting practice, especially since I am used to the relative quietness of the Zen zendo, and have been going to more adveita type groups who tend to be less strict in their meditation instructions. (In Zen, sitting still and not making a sound is a pretty standard guideline, and the monitor will often remind folks if they don’t follow it, sometimes by a loud shout.)

So yesterday, when I finally did a mini sesshin (Zen retreat), I found myself as the by far most noisy one. I have brewed on a germ for several days, and the main symptom is a persistent and unstoppable dry cough. I coughed and swallowed incessantly, and on top of it all had a very growly stomach at times. (The swallowing and talkative stomach from sucking on Fisherman’s Friends to alleviate the couching.)

I found myself in the exact role I had judged others for being in, and was helpless in changing it. All I could do was to find some peace with it, and allow it to work on me. To wear down old habits, soften me, to wear down and expand my identity as someone who is quiet and follows strict zendo guidelines. To feel it, take it in.

It also helped me take another look at noisy folks in the zendo. For seasoned practitioners, it either doesn’t matter or is actually a benefit. Any sound just become part of what is happening, and I also find that sharp sounds, such as a cough, helps me stay alert and awake. And if it is annoying, that too becomes part of the practice. It is just part of what is arising.

Or we can take a closer look at it. What happens when there is an experience of being annoyed? What happens if I resist the experience, try to push it away? What happens if I fully allow it, as it is? And what is annoyance? Where do I find it? Do I find it outside of a sensation and a story about that sensation? If annoyance is part of the content of experience, coming and going as any other content of experience, what it is that does not come and go? And what am I?

But for beginners, it may be different. For them, it may just be distracting.

Misunderstanding is sometimes more interesting



Kazuaki Tanahashi is in town, and I had the opportunity to go to an excellent presentation yesterday on Dogen, and an ink brush presentation today at the art museum.

One of the stories he told today was about John Cage who apparently was influenced by a D. T. Suzuki comment about Zen being complete freedom. Cage had taken it in a more western sense, as a freedom from any rules and traditions, and went on to create some amazing and innovative music.

It was a misunderstanding on his part, of course, as the Zen form of freedom is quite different (although can include the form it took for Cage). Tanahashi commented that misunderstandings are sometimes more interesting.

I can see how that is true in a few different ways.

It is true in that it can lead to some quite different and refreshing perspectives that can lead to new insights for everyone.

It is true in that it gives the person an opportunity to project, notice and get familiar with and explore something alive for them. (John Cage obviously had that form of freedom brewing in him, and took the D.T. Suzuki quote as an opportunity to support it and bring it out in his life.)

It is true in that it is an invitation to notice it as a projection, especially when we realize it is a misunderstanding.

And it is true in that it still leaves the conventional/intended understanding to be discovered. This is interesting in itself, and the process of discovering it can be interesting as well.

Leave no trace

In Zen and other traditions, they talk about leaving no trace, or the man that casts no shadow or leaves no footprints in the snow.

This can be understood in several ways, and I am probably aware of only a few.

In a worldly sense, it means leaving no trace ecologically and socially. To leave our ecosystems and society to our children and decedents in no worse condition than it was for us. This is the ecological and generational sense of leaving no trace.

It can also mean leaving no trace as a guest, or in one’s own home, in terms of cleaning up after oneself, and here also leave the house in no worse condition than when we entered. This is the politeness sense of leaving no trace.

In a different sense, it can mean leaving no trace in terms of the dynamics and processes of this human self, or those this human self participate in. Instead of resisting these processes, we can allow them fully and even amplify them, seeing where they lead and what they ask of us and have to show us. We could say that this is the Process Work meaning of leaving no trace.

And finally, it can mean leaving no trace in terms of not being caught up in identification with content of awareness, or as Byron Katie says, to not be at war with what is. Identification is released from stories, so also with resistance, which allows the struggle and drama to go out of it. This human self is allowed to live its own life, as it does anyway. This is the nondual sense of leaving no trace.

What is the truth in the reversal of this statement? In what way is leave traces true?

In our human life, we do leave traces. Whatever we do has social and ecological ripple effects, and we are aware of only a very few of them. So by bringing more awareness, information and experience to this, we can aim at producing ripple effects that are more likely – in our best guess – to support life rather than harm it. We leave traces anyway, so why not bring as much attention to it as possible. Why not be a little more consciously engaged.

There is another way of playing with the initial sentence: don’t leave traces of no traces. When I make a big deal out of leaving no trace, then that in itself is leaving a trace. Again, just something to notice.

Koan: withered tree

In ancient days an old woman made offering to a hermit over a period of twenty years, and one day she sent her sixteen-year-old niece to take food to the hermit, telling her to make advances to him and to see what he would do. So the girl lay her head on the hermits lap and said, how is this?

The hermit said: The withered tree is rooted in an ancient rock in bitter cold during winter months. There is no warmth, no life.

The girl reported this to her aunt, and the old woman said: That vulgarian! How outrageous! To think that I have made offerings to him for twenty years!

So she drove the hermit away and burnt down his cottage.

Zen, in my limited experience, is of course about awakening in the traditional sense, the realization of no I with an Other. But it is equally much about becoming more fully human, and how the practice before awakening, and the awakening itself, allows us to be more fully, deeply and richly human.

In the beginning, and depending on what teachings we are exposed to and practices we engage in, it can appear as the two are somehow in conflict. But after a while, and even right away with the right teachings and practices, we can see very clearly how they are not only aligned, but support each other. When we deepen into one, we can deepen further into the other.

Including both not only makes the path much more enjoyable, and allows us to get something out of it even if there is not a stable awakening of Big Mind, but it also allows Big Mind – however clearly it has awakened to itself – to express itself more fully, richly and fluidly through our human self.

It helps who we take ourselves to be, before awakening. And it helps what we find ourselves to always be to express itself more fully and richly, following awakening. (Big Mind always expresses itself fully and perfectly, whether it is awake to itself or not, and no matter what shape the human self is in, but there is still a difference in how maturely, richly and fluidly it is expressed through our human self.)

To use God language, we can say that all is God, no matter what, and it is all God expressing and exploring itself. But there is a difference in whether it is awake to itself or not. And there is a difference in how healed, mature and developed the human self is that it is awake (or not) to itself through. Why focus on just one?

In this case, the test was not only how attached the monk still was to beliefs and identities, which is the awakening aspect, but also how fluidly any awakening and release from beliefs and identities was expressed. The monk failed in both respects.

As with any koan, this one must be resolved by living it. It is never resolved by insight alone, however clever, even if it comes from a clear and stable awakening.

Ikkyu, that crazy monk, knew this:

The old woman was bighearted enough
To elevate the pure monk with a girl to wed.
Tonight if a beauty were to embrace me
My withered old willow branch would sprout a new shoot!

Buddhism is not about becoming good, yet is

A good topic over at Thoughts Chase Thoughts: Buddhism is not about becoming a good person, but becoming a human being.

And really, it is about both. It is about deepening into our humanity, as it is, and as it reveals itself and matures when not resisted. And it is about living from ethical guidelines, from the empathy that naturally emerges from embracing the fullness of our own humanity, and from the inherent goodness revealed behind narrow beliefs and identities.

By deepening in our embrace of the fullness of who we are, as human beings, there is a release of resistance to any of it and also a release of beliefs and identities. This opens for a recognition of our shared humanity, and of ourselves and others, which in turn tends to lead to a natural empathy which spills over into our lives. And this release of beliefs and identities also invites us to notice what we are.

Exploring what we are, untouched by stories, there is a fuller allowing and a wider embrace of who we are, as human beings. And there is also an uncovering of the inherent compassion and wisdom in what we are, this awake void and form, noticing itself, even while operating through this one particular human self.

And by following ethical guidelines throughout this process, we are more likely to stay out of trouble and be less of a nuisance to others in a conventional way, and it also helps us deepen into who and what we are. Ethical guidelines helps us notice what is happening, what comes up in us and how we relate to it. They serve as a pointer for recognizing our shared humanity and ourselves in others. And they mimic how we naturally live our lives within the context of Big Mind/Big Heart awake to itself.

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Differentiating resistance: to experiene, and the French


This is something that is (I assume) clear to folks who have done some meditation practice, and (apparently) can be confusing to those outside looking in.

I just read an anthology of essays by and interviews with the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, where an interviewer refer to Zen as a philosophy of no-doing, which he (strangely enough) took to mean never getting involved in any sort of social action, and also watched a movie involving the French resistance, and the combination of the two brought it up.

When there is a reference to allowing in a meditation context, it means allowing experience… not resisting experience (including the resistance itself!) This is very different from allowing and not resisting circumstances in the world, such as social injustice and violence against living beings.

The two go perfectly well together. The Germans invade France, maybe kill or torture friends and family, and great sadness and anger may come up, and I can fully allow those experiences. To resist these experiences creates drama and suffering. To not resist them allows for clarity and a sense of ease, even in the midst of the intensity of the experiences and the situation.

What arises may also involve active resistance to the situation that is going on, including actively resisting the German invasion in different ways. In fact, not resisting experience is likely to allow strong empathy to emerge, within more clarity and less drama, which in turn translates to more effective actions in the world.

So there is a big difference between resistance to experience, which only creates suffering for myself, and active resistance to and engagement with circumstances, which may arise from compassion and clarity.

Soul level and inflation

As long as there is still a sense of a separate self hanging around, there will inevitably be inflation. Or more precisely, the inherent neutrality is split into a sense of being better and worse than the rest of the world.

Inflation can especially easily happen when the soul level surfaces in its many forms… as alive presence, indwelling God, luminosity, fertile darkness, luminous blackness, or in whatever other form it takes. On the inherent neutrality of all this, stories are placed, and they are inevitably believed in, to some extent at least… oh – I must be special since this is happening to me, finally – all my years of practice is paying off!, I know something others don’t, I am at a more advanced level than others, and so on. As usual, the variations are endless. And it will happen, even if we know, intellectually, the illusion and mistake that is behind it.

Technically, inflation is when the “ego” takes on something as its own, when it really doesn’t belong to the ego. The term “ego” here means (a) a belief in the story of a separate self, and (b) that sense of a separate self is then placed upon this human self. So all that is happening is that what occurs outside of that boundary is, to some extent, placed within the boundary, as if what is inside somehow possesses, or can take credit for, what is outside.

In Zen and some other traditions, they deal with it by not talking about it, and if a student brings it up, the teacher will ignore it, or (figuratively or literally) give the student a smack with the stick.

It works, to some extent, but is also a crude way of dealing with it. Most of the time, it just creates more confusion for the student.

To me, it seems more effective to (a) allow the inflation (it is there anyway, so may as well allow it), and (b) inquire into it to find what is already more true.

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Don’t side with yourself II

Here is a small addition to the initial post on Bankei’s reminder of not siding with oneself.

I side with myself when I side with my beliefs and identities. And I don’t side with myself when I investigate these beliefs and identities, and find what is already more true for myself… the truth in the reversals of the initial story, and the inherent neutrality of the situation.

A more accurate way of putting it is that I am not siding with my beliefs and identities.

And by not siding with my beliefs, I am actually siding with myself… with what is already more true for me. With the natural fluidity of mind, seeing each story as only a relative truth, receptive to the truths of each of the turnarounds.

Instead of don’t side with yourself, the slogan could be side with your(true)self! Or, if we have Hindu inclinations, side with your Self…! But that would be confusing for most people.

Bankei was a good teacher. Knowing that we naturally identify with our beliefs and take them as I or me, he said don’t side with yourself (with what you take yourself to be). He was free to meet people where they are at.

Not siding with oneself

Bankei advised to not side with yourself.

When I am in the grips of a belief or an identity, I am siding with myself. I believe something is true, and dammit if I am not going to protect it, defend it, come up with reasons why it is obviously true, and so get even more entrenched and stuck in it.

The alternative is to not side with myself, in different ways.

I can notice a belief or an identity being triggered… with its sense of something to protect, stress, righteousness, going into further stories…

Right there, I may find myself refraining from fueling it further and acting blindly on it.

Or I may find that the grip on it loosens, allowing my mind to be more receptive to the truth in the turnarounds, and my heart more receptive to the situation, bringing a sense of connection with myself and other (if another is involved).

And I can then, when the situation allows, take time to investigate the belief (and identity) more in depth. Is it true? What happens when I hold onto the belief? If it is not there? What are the truths in its reversals?

That is the real not siding with oneself: going outside of the boundaries of the initial story and identity, in a very gentle way, seeing what is already more true for me… the truth of what happens when the belief is held onto, the truth in its reversals, even tasting the situation as inherently neutral when the stories cancel each other out.

Placing a Head on top of Your Head

I have no dharma to give. I only cure diseases and undo knots.

Followers of the Way who come from everywhere, try not to depend on anything.

There is no Buddha, no Dharma, no training and no realization.

What are you so hotly chasing? Putting a head on top of your head, you blind fools.

Your head is right where it should be.

Lin Chi

This quote from the Chinese Zen teacher Lin Chi perfectly captures the insights that emerge through Byron Katie’s inquiry process.

When we believe in thoughts, we put a head on to of our head. We get caught up in everything that comes out of believing in thoughts, such as circular thoughts, elaborate abstract constructs, justifications, and judgment, blame, shame, guilt anger, sadness, etc. We create our own little hell, just from believing in thoughts.

When we inquire into our beliefs, we cannot take them seriously anymore. What is revealed is the nature of mind, the spacious clarity, the natural and unbound wisdom and compassion.

This head is right where it should be – and it is always there, even when covered up by beliefs in thoughts.

There is no belief in an abstract thought/idea of Buddha, no Dharma, no training and no realization. There is only a direct experience and living of that which these terms point to.