Liberation Poetry



Tesshin opened this week’s talk relating a discourse Pope Benedict on world religions.  The Pope critiqued Buddhism as being far too nihilistic and depressing.  Is this fair?  If we look through the Buddhist literature, we will see many poems which on their surface look rather grim.  Below are just two examples.  What are we to make of this?


The birds have vanished down the sky.

Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,

until only the mountain remains.

–  Li Bai, an 8th century Chinese poet


I came once to sit on Cold Mountain

And lingered here for thirty years.

Yesterday I went to see relatives and friends;

Over half had gone to the Yellow Springs.

Bit by bit life fades like a guttering lamp,

Passes on like a river that never rests.

This morning I face my lonely shadow

And before I know it tears stream down.


Today I sat before the cliff,

Sat a long time till mists had cleared.

A single thread, the clear stream runs cold;

A thousand yards the green peaks lift their heads.

White clouds—the morning light is still;

Moonrise—the lamp of night drifts upward;

Body free from dust and stain,

What cares could trouble my mind?


The clear water sparkles like crystal,

You can see through it easily, right to the bottom.

My mind is free from every thought,

Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.

Since it cannot be wantonly roused,

Forever and forever it will stay unchanged.

When you have learned to know in this way

You will know there is no inside or out!

–  From Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the Tang Poet Han-shan


Tesshin contrasted the surface “gloominess” of Buddhism with the “good news” of western traditions.  We in the west also know impermanence.  Everyone dies after all – we all know this!  However, in the west, we are given the hope of perhaps going to a better place after death.  Buddhism does not offer this hope, so is the Pope correct in his criticism?


Tesshin asked how humanity could understand the entire universe.  We know so little.  In this regard, Buddhism is quite modest in its claims.  It states that the only thing we can know is Karma (cause and effect) and impermanence.  Any musings beyond these “laws” is speculation and will not emancipate you from suffering.  


Tesshin related a Tibetan meditation practice he participated in a few years ago to explain how focusing on impermanence can liberate.  The meditator is first invited to imagine a person they love, someone they hate, someone famous, and someone infamous.  The list can include anyone who has had a large impact on the meditator’s life.  The next step is to imagine one-by-one each person naked – not just removing clothes, but any adornment.  To be clear, imagining the person naked is not meant to excite, but to make the participant realize the intrinsic similarity of the group of imagined people.  We all have bodies, after all!   The next step is to remove “external attributes” including hair and skin.  Participants are instructed to do this slowly one person at a time.  At this point the body’s musculature is exposed in the imagination.  Again, participants are encouraged not to imagine pain and suffering or “gore” – rather that the skin, hair, and nails simply dissolve gently away.  At this point the bodies look even more similar as “external features” have been wiped away.  The meditators continue this exercise as they remove muscles and internal organs.  Eventually only skeletons are left in their imagination.  The participants are then invited to travel inside the bones – deeper and deeper.  At some point, inside the bone, we only see the atoms comprising the bones.  As we know, atoms are comprised mostly of empty space – and this is where the meditation takes us after hours of concentration – understanding that the people who have so much impact on life are mostly nothingness!!  At this point Tesshin stopped and asked the group to seriously consider this fact.  Not only are the people who impact us highly similar – they are similar in the fact that they are mostly nothingness!


Do you understand?  Do you understand the deep liberation which is gained by understanding this impermanence and emptiness?  It is not nihilism, but rather freedom from clinging and grasping.  Yes, we can love, but we are not destroyed when that ends.  Yes, we have pain and suffering, but this also is so very fleeting.  


This is what the Buddhist poets throughout history are trying to get us to see!  Yes, we sit on the “Cold Mountain,” of suffering but once you have understanding “You will know there is no inside or out.”  If the body is mostly nothingness then “[It is] free from dust and stain”  If you truly realize this then the “mind is free from every thought, Nothing in the myriad realms can move it.”  “What cares could trouble my mind?”
  Do you see it?  Can you imagine Han-shan jumping up and down to tell you the good news???  If you really understand this, you are liberated from suffering – nothing in the world can trouble you! You are free from clinging, free from grasping, free from suffering!  What could give greater hope!  Tesshin quipped this is why the Buddhist literature is so full of poetry!!


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us about the Day of Zen which will be held on the 24th of August.  Please see our events page for details and please be sure to email to RSVP so that we can make sure we have enough food and supplies.

Pursuit of Happiness

Pursuit of Happiness


Tesshin invited us this week to consider the phrase “Pursuit of Happiness.”  Happiness is a universal concept in human life, but we need to understand it is not guaranteed – it must be pursued.  So how would we pursue happiness?  Well, there is physical happiness.  Do we have enough to eat?  Do we have a nice house?  Do we have enough of the material things in life?  You may think that is to materialistic!  Well, what about “quality experiences?”  Have we taken a nice vacation?  Do we have a great spouse?  Is this the answer?


Tesshin next asked the group – what do all those definitions of happiness share?  They share the fact that they are conditional and impermanent!  They can come and go and if you tie your happiness to these fleeting things, your happiness can never last or be stable.  Think about it for a minute?  What happens if you lose your job and then lose your nice house?  Is your happiness destroyed forever?  What happens if your trip is cancelled at the last second due to an unforeseen event?  What happens if you are suddenly seriously injured and your body no longer works the way it once reliability did?  Does this mean you are no longer happy?


Tesshin next related an example of this.  He recounted that a friend of his was invited to a gala celebration of Armistice Day at Versailles.  Now who would not be happy at such an opportunity?  However, happiness was short lived – the tickets were $15,000!!!  Ugh, happiness dashed!  Later, they were awarded some spare tickets for free.  Happiness restored!  However, when they arrived it was 100 degrees and everyone was formally dressed!  Misery!  However, the small group had complete run of the palace – no throngs of tourists – Joy!!  However, the wife in the couple was wearing heels which made walking the grounds torture!  Swollen feet – grief!  “Great food / sweating in the heat / the wonder of the Hall of Mirrors / cobblestones in heels”  Back and forth and up and down – Do you see the game and do you realize how fleeting this happiness really is?  We need to base our pursuit on something firmer than pleasures based on impermanence.


This is the message of our practice.  It is not to deny pleasure – rather it is to understand that transient pleasure is a weak foundation to build lasting happiness on.  Our tradition is about gaining perspective and not grasping all the time for impermanent “trinkets.”  It is the same with adversity – it is fleeting – as such we need not sink into deep depression when the reversals come.  True happiness comes with understanding and avoiding this unbalanced desire, attachment, fear, and greed.  Permanent happiness comes with truly embracing how life works and accepting the flow of good with the bad.


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding everyone about some upcoming events.  First, Yorktown Zen is organizing our Summer 1 day retreat which is still currently set for August 31st.  Please email with RSVP.  Tesshin also wanted to let everyone know about a special retreat for women only being held from August 12th through the 18th.  Please contact 

Compassionate Activism



This week Tesshin posed a question, “What does it mean to be a member of a club?”  He next pointed out the membership is a uniquely human phenomena.   For instance, when a tree sprouts, it does not petition to join the local tree union – right?  The trees also do not split into warring groups based on species and location.  (Not withstanding a great song by the rock band Rush called “The Trees”


So what groups are you a member of?  Who is in your clubs and who is out?  How important are the “insiders” to you?  How do the clubs you decide to join affect how you deal with others around you?   How do the groups you belong to affect how you think?  For most of us – people who look, think, or believe like us are more likely to be correct than ones that don’t.  A lot of our activism comes from the perspective of our “in crowd.”  Tesshin reminded us that we all belong to the “club” of sentient beings.  This simple fact should always be remembered when dealing with someone we consider an “outsider.”   


Next, Tesshin related a discussion he had the prior week with another Buddhist clergy member.  This person has become very active in social justice issues.  They are very concerned about inequality, systemic racism, and patriarchal privilege and wanted to know his opinion on these matters from a Zen perspective.  Tesshin understood that this person has decided to join certain groups and reject others.  While Tesshin agreed with many of the issues discussed, he worried that this clergy member was still separating themselves into specific assemblages and cutting themselves off from others. Tesshin reminded his colleague that to really make progress with these issues we need to hold two competing thoughts in their mind at the same time.  Yes, there are sociopaths.  Yes, there are racists and misogynists.  However, there are also enlightened beings.  Humanity is on a spectrum!  For example, we cannot say that Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama should be condemned because they are men and thus are part of the patriarchy!!    This would be incorrect and would help nobody.


Tesshin brought up this point because he wanted to remind us that all people belong to the club of sentient beings, and as such, deserve compassion.  To be clear, compassion does not mean people are not held accountable for their actions.  It does mean, however, that there is no such thing as a person so bad that they are not redeemable.   Giving up on someone is height of separation and dualism.  Again, our practice – at its core – is unity and alleviation of suffering.


Tesshin next warned us that these are not easy matters and there is not a simple “black and white” answer.  We must balance our desire to fix the world with our commitment to be compassionate.  A person who is totally sure they are correct and imbued with an unlimited desire to fix everything becomes a tyrant.  On the other hand, someone who intones the cliché of compassion without holding people accountable becomes detached and hypocritical.  In other words, their “Dharma is dead!”     


So what does it mean to you to be a member of the “Sentience Club?”  How much slack do we give our fellow imperfect beings?  These are the questions we are trying to solve in living our day to day life.  In our practice, we always start from the fact that down deep – everyone is perfect – they have simply forgotten that fact.  We also understand that because of the amnesia, we all suffer.  Activism, then, is reminding people by our actions that there is a better way for all beings.  It is never about anger, but rather wisdom.  This takes time, and sometimes humanity may regress, but patience and compassion is the only way.  Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that our work on the cushion helps us to realize and enhance our ability to balance compassion with activism.  

Waves of Enlightenment



One knows it is summer when Tesshin uses a beach related theme for this week’s talk.  He invited to group to imagine a beach and then imagine the waves flowing in and out.  When looking at waves, we tend to compare and contrast them like everything else in our lives.  There are good waves for surfing.  There are waves which make the “correct” crashing sound.  Of course, there are also weak waves which peter out before they actually do anything useful.  


But have we ever considered things from the wave’s perspective?  What is the nature of a wave anyway?  Tesshin wanted us to consider that even the weakest wave has no shame – it is “of the wide and expansive ocean” like any other wave!  This is a very powerful message!  Although each wave has different characteristics – at the end of the day, they are simply manifestations of the same unity – the ocean.  Whether the wave is tall, short, perfect, or feeble – this is only a temporary characteristic.  None of these temporary attributes changes the absolute truth that the wave is the ocean and always will be the ocean.  This is the absolute reality or “suchness” of the wave.  


Tesshin was using the wave to teach us the difference between temporary relative qualities and our indestructible absolute nature.  It is this nature we are trying to rediscover in practice.  He called this the “Bigger I” as opposed to the “Smaller I” we use in our day to day existence.  So we are invited to contemplate what bigger undying reality we are part of.  This is the “True Nature” Buddhism is pointing to through so many skillful means.  Our job, like that feeble wave is to realize that we are something much more than this single manifestation – we are one with a much bigger reality – like the wave IS the ocean.  At this point, Tesshin cautioned us.  He emphasized that the wave is not part of the ocean – that still separates it from the ocean.  The wave IS the ocean.  It is the same with us – we are not part of suchness we ARE suchness.  This is the deep message of our practice.  The challenge is reaching this insight when daily life calls on us to exist in the “Small I” of jobs, grocery shopping, and paying taxes.


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by announcing that Yorktown Zen will be holding a “Day of Zen” at the end of August.  Tentative dates are either Saturday August, 24th or Saturday August 31st.  The day of Zen will include Zazen (meditation) along with classic Zen arts including formal lunch and Japanese calligraphy.  Tesshin invited everyone to come out to the retreat and invite friends as well.  More details will follow.  Please consult our EVENTS page at: 


Power of Ritual



Tesshin returned this week after traveling to his home town to deal with a death in his family.  He used this week’s talk to discuss the power which rituals have in our day to day life.  What is a ritual and what is its purpose?  A ritual is defined in the dictionary as “A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”  However, as Tesshin explained, this definition just scratches the surface and he then proceeded to break down what a ritual is and why it is so precious.


First, a ritual is different than normal activity.  It is held separate from our day to day activities.  The message is clear – be awake – something important is happening here.  Next, there is a well-known series of steps.  Generally, each step in a ritual is loaded with messages and symbolism.  The ritual is telling us a story which connects us to a tradition and to a group of people.  It binds us and reminds us that we are not alone, but part of something much larger than we are.  Also, the order and execution of the steps are important.  Lastly, the ritual must be done right and not done while thinking of other things!  Tesshin remarked that ritual is so effective that every civilization throughout history has used them to teach, explain, and to guide people through all the stages of life.


Tesshin next compared his own experience this past week grieving according to Jewish tradition to a close friend who considered themselves too “modern” to do any ceremony to mark a death in the family.  The observant Jewish rituals for grieving are quite elaborate and last for over a week.  First, the grieving family rips their garments.  This is done to signify loss and to “make it real” for the mourners.  It also reminds everyone that the body is nothing more than a garment which the soul wears – the garments may be ripped and ruined but the essential soul never dies. (Sound familiar?  Relative vs absolute?  Who are you?  What are you?)


The ritual does not stop there.  For the next seven days the family sits “Shiva.”  Tesshin remarked that during this time people take care of the grievers by feeding them and taking care of their needs.  This community ritual is critical.  The community is present for the family and reminds them that although they have lost, they are not alone.  During this seven day period, the griever’s only “job” is to grieve!  This ritual acts as the beginning of the process of healing – for the family and for the community.  This may involve telling stories about the deceased such as recounting funny or touching events in their life.  It could also be nothing more than a kind act given to a family member who is from out of town and is alone.  


Even when the body is buried, ritual guides the practice and serves as a teachable moment.  Instead of “outsourcing” the burial to cemetery workers, the family literally buries the body.  Yes, that means shoveling lots of dirt into a deep hole.  However, it is critical to pay attention while doing this solemn work.  (sound familiar??)  The family will commonly shovel the dirt with the shovel turned face down.  This makes the work even harder – which focuses the mind on the task.  No daydreaming or multitasking here! 


Now, let’s compare this community ritual to the experience of a “modern” who eschews all rituals when a close family member dies.  Tesshin was clear here – after a year his friend has never really recovered.  What he has really done is suppress his feelings.  There is no closure and thus no real healing.  Tesshin next mused that much of our modern life is like his friend.  In our attempt to be rational and modern we have turned our backs on the wisdom bequeathed over thousands of years of experience.  These rituals – whichever tradition they originate from – are gifts.  They allow us to mark the main stages of life, deal with trauma, and reconnect with others.  It is not surprising that alienation is such a big problem in today’s society.  We have disconnected ourselves from the wisdom of our past.


Tesshin wrapped up by reiterating the power of ritual in our lives.  He then reminded us that the rituals of death remind us that life is finite and that one should not waste our time.  This is the core of a spiritual practice.  Time is short, be awake!!


Buddha’s Dumbest Student

Monk Sweeping


Tesshin was called away this week due to a family emergency.  Below is one of the Sangha’s favorite talks he gave almost one year ago…

In this talk, Tesshin related the parable of Buddha’s dumbest student.  When Shakyamuni started his Sangha many different types of people were attracted.  Some were very academic, some were spiritual, and some were very physically active.  The story goes that one student in particular was quite – how shall we say it? – DENSE.  This student would come to every lecture, but in personal interview he would show no progress.  The Buddha would never lose patience because as a teacher it was his duty to utilize any and all methods to reach a student.  However, this student proved to be quite a challenge. 


Most teachers would have become frustrated and would have given up on this “stupid” student.  What is the point on spending so much time “dumbing down” lessons for someone who obviously lacks the intelligence to understand?  Like everything else in Buddhism – the surface observation is usually not the right one! 


After many attempts, Shakyamuni eventually tells the “dumbest” student to stop coming to lectures and to simply sweep out the temple.  At this, the monk states, “I can do that!”  So every day the “slowest” monk dutifully and carefully sweeps out the temple while all the “smart” monks are in listening to the master.  At this point, we should start thinking that there is a message here about masters and students!!  First, this “stupid” monk never gave up and became disgusted.  That is something!  Second, he had absolute faith in the master.  The master said sweep and he swept.  Would we have such faith in our teachers today?  Would we have become insulted if the master said that we should not come to the seminar – and even worse, we should be some servile janitor and clean out the temple?   Lastly, think about teachers today – would they “think outside the box” and try unconventional ideas to help a “different” type of student.  This is why Tesshin’s job of being a Zen teacher is so difficult.  How do you teach what cannot be taught or even put into words?


So what happened?  One day our “slow” student suddenly realized that there was no more dust left in the temple to sweep!  BANG!  Instant enlightenment – with a broom no less!  Why?  What happened?  This is Zen – that very moment is everything!  Dusting when there is no dust.   – Cleaning bowls which are already clean –  Your face before you were born!  The dumbest person in the room realized it while all the “geniuses” in the lecture hall continued to read books and hear lectures, but never got anywhere! 


This story reminded me about the sixth patriarch of Zen – Hui Neng who lived in southern China from 638 – 713 CE.  Here was a boy who was an uneducated peasant.  The story goes that he achieved awakening while hearing the Diamond sutra.  At this point, he presents himself to the the 5th patriarch – who immediately recognized the deep understanding and eventually made him the successor.  The story goes that the 5th patriarch had a poetry competition where the most accomplished monk would receive transmission. 

The senior monk presented the following …

The body is the wisdom-tree,

The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;

Take care to wipe it all the time,

And allow no dust to cling.


Then the “kitchen rat” stands up and presents …

Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,

Nor the stand of a mirror bright.

Since all is empty from the beginning,

Where can the dust alight


Ah, there we are, dusting where there is no dust!! 

Personally, I would love to have been in the room when the kitchen rat “put the hurt” on the senior monk with an obviously superior understanding of reality.  The story continues that the master understood that Hui Neng was the most accomplished, but was afraid to announce it to all the rest of the monks as there would have been an uproar (a bit of classism from our zen monks – if you ask me!)  As such, the master called Hui Neng at night and secretly transmitted to him and then sent him away to teach elsewhere.


Finally, there is a famous saying in Zen that if you meet the Buddha on the road – you should kill him.   Here Tesshin was reminding us with the parable of the “slow” monk that realization cannot be intellectually understood or learned – it must be “rediscovered” and experienced personally.  Even a teacher like Shakyamuni can only point at “it” –  he cannot teach it.  This is why Zen emphasizes time on the cushion and living moment to moment.  Yes!  It is possible to gain enlightenment by everyday activities.  Shakyamuni understood this and it is why he lovingly told the monk to sweep – he understood that the books and lectures were a distraction.  Tesshin wanted us to hear that message today and remind us that enlightenment is not a function of intellect –  it is a function of realization.  We all have this ability to realize as we are all human and sentient.  All that is needed is focus, hard work and faith.

The Many Masks of Zuigan



Tesshin used his talk this week to take us through the 12th case of the Mumonkan collection of Koans.  This case is unusual in that it does not follow the normal flow of a conversation between a master and a student or between masters, but rather is between a master and himself.  Below are the case, commentary, and verse…


Every day Zuigan used to call to himself, “MASTER!  MASTER!”

and would answer “Yes?”


“Awake! Awake!” he would cry,

and “Yes! Yes!” he would answer.


“From now onwards, do not be deceived by others!” 

“No, I will not!”


Mumon’s Commentary

The master, Zuigan, sells out and buys himself. He has a lot of puppets of gods and devils that he plays with. Why is this so? With one mask he asked, and with another he answered. With another mask he said, “Awake!” and another, “Don’t be cheated by others!”

If you adhere to any one of these, you are totally mistaken. If, however, you imitate Zuigan, then all these are no other than the fox’s disguises.


The Capping Verse

Those is search of the Way do not realize the existence and true nature of the self;

This is because they recognize only the relative mind,

Which is the origin of our eternal transmigration;

Foolish people take it for the true original self.


First, a bit of background on Zuigan.  He was active in China between 830-900 CE which would put him about 40 years after Lin-chi who founded the Rinzai school.  He appears in a number of koan collections including “Records of Serenity,” “Gateless Gate / Mumonkan,” and the Shobogenzo.  


So what is going on here?  Is Zuigan crazy to be talking to himself?   He calls out “Master! Master!”  so this must mean he is the student – right?  But then he answers the call himself – so that makes him a master – right?  We see this pattern over and over in Zen koans.  Is it “A” and it is “Not A”  If you think it is A, you are mistaken and if you think it is “not A” you have missed it.  So is Zuigan a Master? – “Mu!”  is he a student “Mu!”  So who is he?  This is what we must penetrate in this koan!


Tesshin commented that people understand themselves by compiling lists of attributes.  “I am a teacher, a man, a father…..”  However is this really who you are?   The world is fluid – things are always changing.  We try to create a solid persona, but it is like building a sand castle against the rising tide.  It just does not work.  We build our persona by wearing many masks in many different situations.  You may wear the mask of “manager” at work in order to get people to complete tasks.  You may wear the face of “mother” when interacting with your children.   Down deep, when alone, however, you may ask who am I really?  – if this is your question – then this koan is for you!  


This koan is famous and loved in Zen as it is so direct in its message.  We begin to see the futility of identifying with our masks.  As we meditate on the dropping our “ego masks” we begin to get a glimpse of what real liberation looks like.  Once we realize that these masks are not real – anything is possible in life!  We can break the old habits of our false personas.  We don’t need to act the same way every time because we believe it is expected.  We can act spontaneously!  


Awake! Awake!”  Realize the truth – Zuigan calls out to himself.  Do you see it?  Do you see it?  This is the challenge of Zen.  It is the constant question we ask.  Can you see reality for what it is?  We are confronted with this question when we meditate in Zazen, when we work, when we eat.  It is always there.  Even Zuigan tests himself constantly to make sure he has not become complacent.  Has he forgotten?  Does he still understand?  Awake!  Remember reality for what it is!!


Tesshin next moved onto a very moving story which really hits at the fluidity of our personas.  The story starts out with a starving chicken walking along a lake.  A fox jumps out ready to eat the chicken.  The chicken begs the fox not to eat him, but rather to give him a bite to eat.  The fox figures, “Why not – let me fatten up the chicken and then eat him later!”  The fox proceeds to nurse the chicken back to health.  


Later the chicken is out by the lake again and the fox secretly follows in order to attack.  “Now is my big chance!” – he thinks.  Just when he is about to attack the chicken turns to him and introduces a sick duck.  “Mr. Duck, here is the kind fox I was talking about.  He helped me and he will probably help you!”  The fox thought, “Wow!  nobody ever called me kind in the past.  Well, what the heck – I can fatten both of these guys up and then have a ready supply of food for the winter.”  So the fox did just that.  


A few weeks later the chicken and the duck were walking by the lake and again the fox followed in the shadows figuring now is the time for that promised meal!  The chicken and duck came across a small and weak bunny.  The duck and chicken start going on about the kindest fox in the world.  At that moment a fearsome wolf jumps out ready to eat all three.  Suddenly at the last second the fox jumps between the three small animals and the big wolf and fights it off.  (Wow!  in all the world, that last animal one would expect to do this is a fox!!)  However, in the process the fox is mortally wounded and dies.  The chicken, bunny, and duck are grief struck and bury the fox while considering the possibility that the fox was really some sort of divine spirit.  


What is especially moving in this story is how the identity of the fox changed as people treated him differently.  This is especially relevant for all of us in today’s society.  What we are reacting to are simply people’s masks – it is not their true nature.  If we change the way we treat people, perhaps they will begin to change the way they act.  Tesshin encouraged us to keep this in mind as we deal with people in our everyday life. 

Zen Labor



Tesshin opened his talk this week speaking about the three main pillars of Rinzai Zen which include seated meditation (Zazen), Koan study, and “Samu” or labor.  This week Tesshin wanted to delve into Samu specifically as we have not really discussed it much in the past.  


From Wikipedia, Samu is defined as “physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical, and spiritual practice.”  This is typically seen as cooking, working in the garden, and general maintenance.  A common parable in Zen which really captures the centrality of Samu is “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” 


Tesshin next described life in a Zen temple.  When one first arrives as a student, they are not allowed to touch anything.  The novice is considered inexperienced – and to be frank – the monks are worried that they may actually break something.  Once the student has gained some familiarity with the temple and its routine, work can then be assigned.  Typically the first job is something menial like cleaning the toilets.  However, we must remember that EVERYTHING in a Zen temple is an opportunity to teach.  The toilets are assigned because it is right there where the student first encounters resistance of the mind.  Many students see menial or unpleasant work as an insult or something which must be borne in order to get to the “good stuff.”  Tesshin was clear – the toilets are the good stuff of Zen!  At his temple, Tesshin personally cleans the toilets as the last thing before closing a retreat.  It reminds him about Samu and that every job is another chance to work with the mind.    


Tesshin next described the role of the Tenzo – or cook – in a Zen temple.  Why would the cook be considered the most important job in a temple, except maybe for the Abbot?  Traditionally the Tenzo is seen to care and protect the practice of all the other monks.  Also, a Tenzo with an undisciplined mind will produce subpar food – and this will become clear immediately.  In other words, the Abbot can “fake” realization, but the Tenzo cannot – as everyone will taste it right away!!  Tesshin then related a story when his teacher – Ban Roshi – first asked him to prepare the Miso soup (a big deal in a temple!)  Tesshin’s mind raced with excitement and worry – would the master approve of his offering….  Of course, Tesshin’s mind was reflected in the soup and the master called it the WORST miso soup he ever tasted!  This was yet another loving teaching of Ban Roshi – food does not lie – it clearly reflected the chaos in Tesshin’s mind.  This is why the kitchen is so sacred in Zen temples and the Tenzo is so prized!


Tesshin continued the discussion on labor by relating a story about his visit to Tenryu-ji temple in Kyoto during his recent tour of Japan.  This is a famous temple and Tesshin personally knew the Abbot.  The idea was to show his traveling companions an authentic Rinzai temple – specifically the meditation halls, statues, and other religious artifacts.  However, all the abbot was interested in sharing were the gardens he personally tended.  Why would this be so?  It is because the garden is the abbot’s Samu.  It was what had significance for his own practice!  We spend so much of our lives in labor that it makes sense that this is where we can really practice.  It is in labor that we can confront our mind and understand our delusions.  Tesshin was clear here – labor is our best opportunity to practice wisdom.  The abbot wanted to show Tesshin his realization, which was his Samu, which was the garden.


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by announcing that we would have an opportunity to “labor like the abbot of Tenryu-ji!”  Yorktown Zen is sponsoring a plot in the Yorktown Garden of Hope.  Here the group will have the opportunity to tend crops with all the produce being donated to charity.  Tesshin reminded us that this will be a great opportunity to strengthen our practice and do some good for the community.



Lastly, the group decided to meditate outside in the beautiful spring weather.  Below is a picture Tesshin…



Tools of the Trade



Tesshin was back from Japan this week.  One observation he wanted to share with us are the statues of Manjushri which commonly guard the entrance of Zen temples.  Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom.  A Bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an accomplished being who delays their entry into nirvana in order to help all other sentient beings achieve awakening.  Many Japanese and especially western tourists see these statues as representing warrior daemons that protect the temple and monks from outsiders.  Tesshin reminded us that this could not be further from the truth!


So why would an accomplished being dedicated to saving all beings wield a sword – a recognized instrument of violence?  One clue that Manjushri is not meant to scare away “infidels” is what is in his other hand – a scroll containing the Dharma or the codification of all wisdom.  (I would like to believe that in Zen this scroll would be BLANK!!)   


Here Tesshin was very clear.  Manjushri is holding “Tools of the Trade” for awakening.  The scroll is pretty obvious.  The Dharma is our guide for alleviating suffering.  We can think of the Dharma as the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path, etc.  The sword is a symbol to remind us to cut away all of our delusions.   So the sword is not an instrument of vengeance used on others in violence.  It is used only on ourselves.  But why a sword and not something more peaceful like a “dust whisk” to remove delusions.  It is because the removal of delusions is critical and is not to be taken lightly.  We do not casually remove delusions – this is a matter of life and death and we must be constantly reminded of this fact.   So, these statues are put out in front of the temple, not to protect it from others, but to clearly tell everyone what is going on INSIDE the temple.  The monks are working with wisdom and simultaneously training their mind by constantly cutting out distractions.  Tesshin then asked – is this not what we do every time we sit down on the cushion?  We work with the mind – constantly eliminating distractions, fantasies, thoughts, etc.  


Tesshin then explained that Zen is not the only tradition which focuses on contemplation, wisdom, and the removal of distraction.  It so happens that right next to his temple sits a Carmelite nunnery.  Tesshin has known these nuns for decades as they were already cloistered when Tetsugyuji temple was established.  While the theology and traditions are quite different, it is striking how much the Carmelite nuns and Zen monks share in practical practices for mental discipline, contemplation, and focus.  In fact, Tesshin mentioned that this group of Japanese women joined the nunnery as the felt that modern Buddhism in Japan has become too casual and “indulgent.”  Tesshin mentioned that he gained a lot of inspiration from these spiritual sisters in the early days of his temple.


Tesshin next told a story about his own delusions.  When he was a Japanese monk, his teacher once asked him what faith tradition he came from and why he turned towards Buddhism.  Tesshin explained that he did not like the hypocrisy and corruption in the Western religious traditions.  The wise teacher laughed and “bonked” Tessin on the head and said that is the most stupid reason for turning away from a wisdom tradition covering thousands of years of teaching.  It is just another form of delusion to think that one faith is a better road to realization than another.  They all have something to teach.  As such, Tesshin started reading the Western Bible again – this time with fresh eyes!  What Tesshin began to realize is that there is wisdom everywhere in the world – if you can cut out your delusions, fantasies, preconceptions – in other words, if you can cut your ego away and see reality as it really is.  Tesshin reminded us that this is the real lesson of Zen – not the history – not the Sutras – not the lineages  – but raw reality!  This reality can be apprehended in Zen, in a Carmelite nunnery, or in a mosque.  It can be apprehended everywhere because the apprehension is in YOUR mind – not in a building or a tradition.


Tesshin wrapped up by saying he was happy to be back with us and encouraged all of us to strengthen our meditation practice.

Bodhidharma’s Beard

Bodhidharma's Beard


Tesshin used his talk this week to cover the fourth case in the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) collection of koans.


The Case:

Wakun complained when he saw a picture of the bearded Bodhidharma:  `Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?’ 


Mumon’s comment:

If you want to study Zen, you must it with your heart. When you attain realization, it must be true realization. You yourself must have the face of the great Bodhidharma to see him. Just once such glimpse will be enough. But if you say you met him, you never saw him at all.


The Verse:

One should not discuss a dream

In front of a simpleton.

Why has Bodhidharma no beard?

What an absurd question!


So what does this mean?  Tesshin first gave us a bit of background so that we could understand this koan better.  First, the term “barbarian” simply means that a person is a foreigner.  Bodhidharma is traditionally understood as a traveling monk from India who came to China and established Zen Buddhism.  Next, Bodhidharma’s beard was his “trademark” and every image we have of him has this prominent and bushy beard.  Wakun would definitely have known this!  This serves as a hint.  Everyone knew he had a beard, so why does Wakun state that he does not have one – and what does this have to do with realization?  You may notice that this koan is very short and to the point – the bearded monk has no beard – figure it out!  This is very much in keeping with the way Zen started in China.  


Tesshin explained that this Koan is trying to get you out of your everyday phenomenal or “relative” understanding of reality and get you to think in more spiritual or “absolute” way.  So there is a phenomena where Bodhidharma always has a beard – but this is not his essence.  We can test this by simply imagining that we cut off his beard.  So do we not have the sage anymore? – of course not! – it is just one of many relative phenomena we use to contingently describe Bodhidharma.  So what is his essence??  Ah, that is the question isn’t it!  Tesshin tried to help us by using the analogy of the dual nature of light.  Sometimes it exhibits the phenomena of a particle and sometimes it acts as a wave.  So what is the essence of light?  In quantum theory, the minute we try to answer that question the true essence of light disappears and we are left with only a particle or wave and not the truth.  Sounds a lot like our bearded barbarian!!


Let’s see if Mumon’s commentary can help us…

“If you want to study Zen, you must it with your heart.”

This as meaning that this is not going to be easy or trivial – well if you have studied koans, you already know this.


“When you attain realization, it must be true realization.”

This means that your first answer is probably going to be wrong – try again!  Again, this is not easy.


“You yourself must have the face of the great Bodhidharma to see him. Just once such glimpse will be enough.”

Ah!  Now here there is something interesting!!  You must have his face!!  There is no separation between you and the sage!  Your face is his face.  There is no separation, no faces, and no beards.  In fact, this whole question about beards is beside the point!!  As in the previous example, there is no particle and no wave – there is just light.  This is where we must work with all of heart to gain true realization.


“But if you say you met him, you never saw him at all.”

And of course, the final warning from Mumon.  If there is no separation then how could you ever see him?  Do you see it?  What is your face before you were born?  How could you see it?  Particle or Wave – one cannot take a measurement!  It is really all the same question!


The verse poetically reinforces the point.

   One should not discuss a dream

   In front of a simpleton.

   Why has Bodhidharma no beard?

   What an absurd question!


There is no book or article we can read which will give us this answer.  Even reading a description like this is probably a distraction.  One must realize this truth through practice.   Adding words only muddies the water.