Dana Wisdom



Tesshin used his talk this week to talk about the “Wisdom Tradition” in Zen and how we can apply it in our practice.  Traditionally “Dharma” is understood as the “cosmic law” or “universal truth of reality.”  However, it is not enough to know the laws – one must be able to skillfully apply them to alleviate suffering in all beings.  


Our Buddhist practice centers on the six Paramitas or “perfections” which include …

•Generosity or Dana

•Morality  (virtue, discipline)

•Patience  (tolerance, acceptance, endurance)

•Energy  (diligence, effort)


•Wisdom  (insight)


Tesshin likened reading about the Paramitas without deeply investigating them to eating Sushi without the rice.  You can eat just the fish, but you are not really eating Sushi!!  Studying the tradition academically and memorizing all the lists is fine, but it is not living Buddhism.  To do this we must understand and penetrate all of the perfections.  For this week, Tesshin focused on perfections of Dana and Wisdom and how they relate.


Dana, or generosity, is normally understood to be “acts of charity.”   However, this rather sterile definition really misses the point.  Wisdom is normally understood as “seeing things as they really are.”  So how do we combine these two concepts together to really get at the core of Zen practice?  Wisdom tells us that all things are empty.  Understood this way, generosity is just another way to realize that we should not cling to things.  Clinging tightly to ideas and objects shuts us off from everyone else.  Dana and generosity do more for the giver than it does for the receiver!!  One cannot understand the power of Dana until the mind has come to grips with the wisdom of emptiness.


Tesshin next gave a few examples of how this works in everyday life.  The first example happened to him a few days ago.  He was driving his son to karate practice when he came upon a group of expensive tools scattered on the road.  It was clear that these tools fell of a mechanic’s truck and that they would be sorely missed and difficult to replace.  The right thing to do would be to stop and collect the tools and turn them in so they did not get lost or stolen.  However, Tesshin was running late and there were so many chores yet to be done.  His first reaction was to simply drive by and assume that someone else would take care of it.  Then he thought, “Why am I rushing?  What does being late to karate practice actually mean?”  He realized that his real motivation was an attachment to “perfect parenting” including getting his son to his appointment on time.  Generosity is about letting go of our fantasies of ourselves and doing the right thing for others.  Even an accomplished Zen master must constantly remind himself about attachment and generosity.  It is not automatic!!  


Do you see how this is different from our normal view of charity?  Our normal conception is to simply give money.  So we are told to drop something in the donation box when leaving after a sitting session and all will be good.  However, that is “fish without the rice!”  Some people may think, “nobody will know if I give or not!”  Others may say, “nobody will know if I only put in some pocket change instead of a few bucks.”  Someone else may start thinking that if I am giving all this money I should get a tax deduction.  It is obvious that this is not generosity, but attachment!!  Attachment to money, appearances, even tax advantages.


Tesshin next related a time long ago when he was traveling in India.  He was a poor student and his bags and passport were lost and he had to get back to the airport.  The problem was that he had no money, knew nobody, and did not speak the language.  The only thing he could do is start WALKING towards the airport which was many many miles away.  On his journey he came upon a group of “street children” who spotted an American and started asking for money.  The children could not believe that a westerner had no money!!  However, once Tesshin turned out his pockets, the street kids did something very surprising.  Instead of walking away, they took him back to their camp and gave him food and all their pocket change.  One of the boys had a friend who knew someone who knew someone with a motor scooter.  Within an hour Tesshin was at the airport.  The kids asked for nothing in return and knew that they would never meet Tesshin again.  They gave of themselves almost instinctively!!  Tesshin compared the complete instant generosity of the kids to his strained calculations on the side of the road.  He had to admit that the kids were closer to the wisdom of Dana than he was.  


So what do these stories have to do with the Paramitas?   What does it mean to combine Dana with Wisdom?  Here Tesshin told the story about the day he enter his teacher’s monastery.  The teacher agreed to take him on as a student, however there was the question of how much Tesshin should pay to support the temple?  He shyly asked the master, “What does it cost to study here?”  The teacher immediately responded – “To study here will cost you NOTHING, but it will cost you EVERYTHING!!”  Do you understand this?  If you are a billionaire, writing a million dollar check means nothing.  You are still attached to your wealth.  To study Zen you must lose your attachments.  As such, you will be asked to give up EVERYTHING.  However, Zen teaches us that everything is empty, so what are you really giving up beside a faulty idea.  As such, you will be asked to give up NOTHING.   Tesshin encouraged us to really meditate on this message.  It is a theme which keeps coming up again and again in our practice.  Let things go and free yourself from suffering!




Tesshin opened this week’s talk by wishing everyone a happy new year.  He also gave the group some special treats to begin the new-year.  First, he chanted the Heart Sutra for the group in Japanese, which was quite moving.  Secondly, he brought in hearty Japanese noodles for us to try.  Tradition has it that in Japanese temples the monks loudly slurp noodles to ring in the new-year.   This was a challenge for our western sensibilities where we are taught that it is not polite to slurp!  It was quite a site to see a Zen master on the “Mountain Seat” slurping noodles!!  Remember, no attachments!!!


Tesshin next asked the group why Zazen is so important.  He reminded us that Zazen is NOT “work” we suffer through to reach some distant goal.  He likened the modern “Mindfulness” movement in the West to picking up the skill of delaying one’s gratification.  Remember the test where children are measured on how long they can refuse a marshmallow or other sweet?  Mindfulness is telling us that if we can control our mind, all manner of good things will happen to us some day.  Tesshin stated that this gets the relationship backwards!  He reminded us that if we ask the wrong question, we get the wrong answer.  So we should be asking not why we should do Zazen, but why we are not doing it more.  After all, Zazen does not lead to enlightenment – Zazen IS enlightenment!


What does this mean?  According to Tesshin, our life is defined by our choices.  We must choose to be awake right here and right now.  He then described a recent situation in his own life where he was in a bad mood.  He was asked, “Why are you so cranky?”  Tesshin pointed out that this is not really the right question.  Crankiness is not the essence of anyone’s being, after all!  The better question is why do you CHOOSE to be cranky right now?  This changes the whole perspective and opens up the possibility of deeper introspection.  It is the same thing in spirituality?  We should not ask, “why am I not enlightened yet?”  What we should ask is why am I choosing not to be enlightened right now and right here?  Our life is our choices, and Zen is clear – we have everything we need right now.  We have our breath, we have our mind, and we have life.  All we need to do is make the right choice.  One of these choices is Zazen – the state of being awake and open to everything.


Tesshin next recounted a story about his teacher, Ban Roshi.  When he was nearing the end of his life, he become very frail and was frequently in the hospital.  Attendants would come and keep him company and assist where they could.  Towards the end, the attendants said that they could no longer come due to other commitments.  At this point the Roshi realized that it was no longer skillful for him to linger and when the attendants came back for the last time, Roshi was still in Zazen posture on his bed, but he had decided to leave his body.  Now, this is a common story in Zen, but it clearly raises the possibility of having such control of one’s choices that one can even choose the time and place of one’s end.  


So how do we choose to live our lives?  Most of us work hard for some future state.  This could be for financial security in retirement or for a future enlightenment.  Notice that it is always about some other time and place.  We forget to focus on the here and now.  Zazen reminds us that the NOW is the most critical time.  We should make our decisions based on the here and now.  Zen is telling us that we can be awake now.  The choice to be awake is offered to us in each and every moment.  Do not wait for some distant future, grab it right now.

What is your Definition?



Tesshin began this week’s talk by recounting his time during the past week officiating at a friend’s funeral.  The ceremony was located in Rockdale Texas which is roughly one and a half hours outside of Austin.  Rockdale is pretty rural and its residents tend to be rather conservative.  Tesshin wondered how they would react to seeing a Buddhist priest in robes.  It is certain that Tesshin was probably the first Buddhist of any type these residents have ever seen.


As he was picking up his rental car in Austin and preparing for the drive, Tesshin realized that he was carrying quite a few preconceptions in his mind about the people and how he would be treated.  


•     I live in New York and am “progressive” – I do not do rural!  These people will hate me.

•     What could I possibly have in common with these people?

•     I am Buddhist and they are probably Evangelical


How do you define yourself, your group, other individuals, and other groups?  Tesshin mentioned that the winter is a time where we tend to curl up on ourselves and “pull in.”  The days are short and things are dark and cold – kind of like how things are perceived in the country right now.  It would be so easy to fall back on our existing definitions, prejudices, and other “safe certainties.”  


As life usually does, things turned out very differently.  When Tesshin arrived in Rockdale, he was amazed by how friendly everyone was.  It appeared that these people were the same as everyone else.  Tesshin reiterated that Buddhism teaches that we are all essentially the same “thing” as we all desire to be free of suffering.  These people were no different.  Within the day, Tesshin and the general store keeper were happily discussing optimal mixes of chicken feed.  Tesshin learned quite a bit about raising chickens which will help him with his group of organic free-range chickens back in New York.  


Tesshin then continued the talk with the story about a football coach, Keanon Lowe, recently disarming a student with a handgun in Oregon.  What was noteworthy about this story is that after the gun was secured, the teacher hugs the student and tells him that he “really cares” about him.  The student, of course, cannot believe this and continues to struggle.  However, after a few minutes, the student asks, “really??” which Lowe says YES!  At this point the student’s aggression melts away.  What happened here?  First, Lowe had the ability to change his definition of a gunman from a predator to a child require affection.  Also, the student changed his definition of the world from ‘everyone hates me’ to ‘this teacher actually cares.’  Tesshin reminded us that it is our definitions, preconceptions, and prejudices we carry in our mind which produces our karma and suffering.  He encouraged us to be like the teacher and be brave enough to change our preconceptions about things which we are so “certain” about.


Tesshin wrapped up by asking the group a simple question – Are we diminished by changing and letting go of our definitions?  He reminded us to examine our definitions and encouraged us to be open to changing them.  Lastly Tesshin wished the group happy holidays and happy new year. 

The Ox and the Cart



Tesshin continued our Shobogenzo study this week by focusing on Chapter 12 (chapter 27 in the public domain translation)  The full text is available HERE


The chapter is called Zazenshin which roughly translates as “the healing acupuncture needle of Zazen” or how Zazen can cure the human condition.  Tesshin described the chapter as Dogen’s explanation of the “heart of sitting.”  


Tesshin next cited Dogen’s story of Zen master Daijaku and Zen master Nangaku discussing the merits of Zazen.  Nangaku stated that we sit Zazen in order to “Become Buddha.”  What does this mean?  Do we mean that an already accomplished being is doing Buddha’s work?  Does this mean a delusional creature striving to become enlightened?  Does it mean that the instant we hit the mat we become Buddha?  Here, Tesshin was clear.  Becoming Buddha is all about our intention and this intention is what Dogen meant by “Becoming Buddha.”  So the minute we commit to the Buddha way – we are in fact manifesting Buddha!


The story continues that Nangaku picks up a tile and starts to polish it on a stone.  Daijaku asks him why he is doing this.  Is he just doing a simple task?  Is there anything deeper going on here?  Dogen states that you cannot simply rely on your own views when judging.  We see the Dharma – we know it is there even if we don’t fully understand it.  Dogen uses the metaphor of seeing water without knowing you are seeing water.  Tesshin explained this as building the skill of not jumping to hasty interpretations.  Again, this is why we sit – we want to slow the mind so that it does not “short circuit” every phenomena to the most obvious explanation.  It is the old saying that not everything is “black and white, but there are always shades of gray.”


Tesshin next mused about Fred Rodgers, host of the famous PBS children’s show Mr. Rodgers neighborhood.   He asked the group how they would think Mr. Rodgers would react to our highly polarized political climate.  Tesshin then answered that Rodgers would listen patiently to all points of view.  One of the true talents of Fred Rodgers is that he did not discount or suppress people’s most emotionally held opinions.  He dealt with everyone with compassion regardless of their age.  Tesshin next compared this attitude to the “Zazen Mind” which Dogen is describing.  It is not some simple relativism, but rather a state where we understand that all answers could potentially have some merit.


They story continues as Nangaku states that he is polishing the tile to make a mirror.  Of course, the metaphor of the mirror is the truly enlightened mind.  Needless to say, a clay tile is not the best item to begin with if our goal is a mirror.  It is the same with Zazen.  We are starting with our deluded mind and are slowly and diligently working to make a perfect mirror of enlightenment.  


Tesshin then continued with the story from Dogen.  Nangaku says if a person is riding in a cart and the cart does not move is it right to whip the cart or the ox?  Obviously, the ox and cart represent our practice.  So what is a person to do when stuck?  Our first reaction is to whip the ox to get it moving again.  If we are the ox, this obviously means we have to work harder – but is that always the right answer?  Here we need to be open to all possibilities.  Should we whip the cart?  Well, how silly is that?  Dogen states that most people do not have “methods” to whip a cart.  Tesshin interpreted this to mean that they have not fully considered all possibilities.  Commonly we call this “thinking outside of the box.”  Zazen mind allows us to start working this way.  


Tesshin also mentioned at this point when the mind is calm we begin to see that there are no boundaries.  We begin to see that the cart, the ox, our practice, and everything else are really just part of a unified reality.  There does not need to be a deep “back story” about why the cart is not moving.  What works to get it moving again?   It may not be the obvious answer.  Tesshin reminded the group that thinking outside the box has not been historically popular with “the powers that be.”  This may be one reason that until recently Zen has not been very popular around the world.  People in power are not exactly comfortable with the masses thinking creatively.  This also may explain why Zen is growing in the West where creative thought is prized and supported.


So what do we do when faced with the cart which is not moving?  Do we focus on the cart?  Do we focus on the ox?  Do we focus on both?  Neither?  Are all of these options equivalent and equally useful?  So how do we move forward?  Here Tesshin was clear – we consider everything and then we move forward in the most skillful way.  All answers are not equal – skillful means is choosing the correct answer for the particular situation.  What Dogen is telling us is that the best answer may not be the obvious one.  Our intent should always be to become the Buddha.  Our mandate is to be compassionate for all sentient beings and with Zazen Mind we can act spontaneously and correctly with no preconditions or no personal agendas.  

Here and Now

Here and Now1


Tesshin continued our Shobogenzo study this week.    Again, a public domain translation the Shobogenzo is available.  The direct link to the relevant PDF is HERE 


This week, we focused on the fourth fascicle (chapter six in the online copy) entitled “Soku-shin-ze-butsu” or “Mind Here and Now is Buddha”  Briefly, we should interpret this to mean that we should not get distracted with arcane intellectual studies of Zen, but focus on the actual practice of Zen.  First and foremost, this means meditation or Zazen, where we clear the mind of distractions so as to experience ‘suchness’ with no filters or distortions.  One should understand this not as a spiritual state, but rather in day to day reality – the “here and now.”  Here Tesshin was clear, Dogen is not telling us to enter a trance state to avoid our suffering, rather he is reminding us that the only answer to suffering is right in front of you.


Tesshin next stated that one cannot understand the “Buddha way” or enlightenment through a dualistic explanation.  In other words, it is not enough to read intellectual treatises in a book.  Dogen is preaching that disciplining the mind is only a start on our path to enlightenment.  We must also practice through the body, and harmonize body practice with mind practice.  Dogen understood that there is no dualism between the body and the mind.  We must practice with our whole selves!  This is why “work practice” is so highly prized in monasteries.  Tesshin reminded us about the story of the Monk who achieved enlightenment by sweeping out the temple instead of listening to Dharma talks with the rest of the “smart” monks.  He reminded us that there is great wisdom in our day to day activities – if we actually PRACTICE them and not shuffle through them mindlessly.  There is wisdom in driving to work, paying bills, taking care of family members, even walking the dog!


Tesshin next talked about what Dogen called “Spiritual Intelligence.”  This is not the state of being an expert in spiritual matters.  In addition, it is not putting a religious “stamp” on our understanding.  Tesshin noted here that many other traditions will state that practitioners can reach “a state of grace due to the beneficence of God.”  Tesshin stated that our spiritual intelligence is independent of this external party because the perfection is already inside of you.  All that is needed is practice with your whole self (body and mind!)


So what does it mean to be HERE and NOW?  It means really being present.  It means not living in the past, and not planning in the future.  Can you be in THIS particular moment?  It is easy to say, but not easy to do.  Dogen is telling us that each moment is special in and of itself.  If you are lost in the past or the future, you never really get to experience the here and now.  Everything – heaven and earth reduces to a single moment.  


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us about the full day retreat occurring on December 7th.


Update:  There was an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times entitled the “Zen of Weight Lifting” which really hit on Tesshin’s talk of practicing with the Body and the Mind.  

Maha Prajna Paramita



Tesshin continued our Shobogenzo study this week.    Again, a public domain translation the Shobogenzo is available  HERE  


This week we focused the second fascicle in the work which in which Dogen provides his interpretation of  “Maha Prajna Paramita” or “Great Wisdom”  which we encounter every time we chant the “Heart Sutra.”  (Text is on our Home Practice page) As Dogen investigates the Heart Sutra, he reminds us that the great wisdom is not intellectual, but intuitive.  Wisdom expresses itself from the right state of the body and the mind and this state only occurs when there is balance between the mind and body.  It should come as no surprise to any of us that this balanced is achieved through a practice of Zazen, or seated meditation.  This is why Dogen believed that Zazen is the core of our practice and that sitting is Prajna and Prajna is Zazen.


So, Dogen starts with the first line of the Heart Sutra….

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions (also known as “aggregates or Skandhas”), thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.


Tesshin remarked that the 5 Skandhas include …

•Form (physicality)

•Sensations (physical feelings)

•Perceptions (You hear something physically, then you perceive the sound)

•Mental activity (mental states)



We normally assume that these “aggregates” are what makes the “I” which we normally cling to so tightly.  I have a body and it feels!  My mind perceives sensations and these sensations affect my states of happiness or sadness.  All of these things combine to create a sense of consciousness.  Dogen is pointing at this first line of the Heart Sutra (the heart of Buddhism) to remind us that the aggregates are just transient things.  They do not define who are what we really are.  Buddhism states that they are empty – but empty of what?  Specifically, they are empty of an independent enduring existence separated from the entirety of reality.  Countless events (karma) throughout endless time combined to cause the group of aggregates you identify to arise.  


The next line states this clearly…

Oh Shariputra (disciple of Buddha), form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.” 


Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.  Do you see it?  Form is ‘it’ and ‘it’ is form.  No separation!  No delusion!  Another way to think of this is that the aggregates describe reality, but they are NOT reality in and of itself.  There is an old Zen parable about a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon in and of itself.  


The Heart Sutra continues …

“Oh Shariputra, all Dharmas are forms of emptiness; not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain.


“So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena; no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance and no end to ignorance, no old age and death and no end to old age and death, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path, no wisdom and no gain, no gain and thus the bodhisattva lives prajna paramita.”


To be clear, this does not mean that we are blind, deaf, and dumb!  It means that we should not grant any special transcendent value to these things.  In other words, we should not cling to transient specifics.  We should simply recognize that death, old age, and suffering are not separate from reality.  True wisdom is also realizing that there is no universal wisdom which sits apart from absolute reality.  This is why there is nothing special for us to seek – all we need to do is be – in Zazen.  This is when we experience Prajna.  As the heart Sutra says …

With no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance therefore no fear.  Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana.” 

What more can be said here, except that when one realizes Prajna the mind is free and we have entered nirvana!


One may think – Wow!  The Heart Sutra and emptiness is really important.  This message needs to be preserved and protected.  NO!  If you think this, then you have missed the entire point.  Dogen cites the following parable to explain …


The god Indra subsequently addresses the Buddha, “World-honored One! When good sons and daughters receive and retain, read and recite, think reasonably about, and expound to others this profound prajñāpāramitā  that you have preached, how should I guard it?  (by guarding, he means protecting it and dispersing it to others)

Then the venerable monk Subhūti says to the god Indra,  Do you see something that you must guard, or not?”  (Is there something permanent and abiding here?)

The god Indra says, “No, Virtuous One, I do not see anything here that I must guard.”  (How can you protect something which you, yourself, are a part of?)

Subhūti says, if you want to guard the bodhisattvas who abide in the profound prajñāpāramitā as thus preached, it is no different from wanting to guard space.  (e.g. Totality of the entire universe – while simultaneously nothing!  Good luck with that!)


Tesshin made the comment that in today’s society, many religious groups are trying to guard and protect their messages.  But what are the guarding – forms!!  They are not guarding and protecting the “Word” – they are protecting traditions, liturgies, and opinions.  True Wisdom – or the “Word” – does not need to be guarded or protected – it just is.  It cannot be created or destroyed – how could it – it is everything!!  It will be here long after we gone and forgotten.  It will be here when the Earth is no more.  It will be here when the universe is a cold void.  It never goes away – who are we to think that we can protect it!!


To wrap things up, Tesshin reminded us of a few upcoming events which are also posted on our Events page.


•Yorktown Interfaith Ceremony :  November 24th


•Full day Meditation Retreat :  December 7th

Genjo Koan



Tesshin is starting a four week Shobogenzo review in preparation for our full day meditation intensive on December 7th.  (Details are on our event page)   A public domain translation the Shobogenzo is available  HERE  for students who would like to study further.  


Dogen was a Japanese monk living in Japan in the 13th century.  He began in the Tendai Buddhist tradition, but over time he became dissatisfied with his practice and traveled to China to find a more authentic form of Buddhism.  He studied in China for five years under Tiatong Ruijing.  Upon returning to Japan, he began to emphasize the practice of Zazen rather than studying the sutras.  Dogen eventually left the Tendai School to start a new school – Soto Zen, in which he could teach his methods more fully.  In addition, he started his own monastery, Eihei-ji  which remains the head temple of the Soto school of Buddhism to this day.


Much of Dogen’s writing is in classical Chinese, but the Shobogenzo “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye” is written in day-to-day Japanese.  He did this so as to broaden its appeal beyond monks trained in classical Chinese.  The work is split into 95 chapters or “fascicles.”  The work was written between 1231 and 1253 CE.  Tesshin decided to begin our review with the “Genjo-Koan” (Fascicle #1 in the 75 chapter versions and Chapter #3 in the Gudo Wafu Nishijima translation cited above)  This was the first part of the Shobogenzo Dogen wrote.  History has it that he gave the manuscript of Genjo-koan to Mitsuhide Yo, a layman in Kyushu instead of another abbot or even a monk.  The title, Genjo-Koan, is translated as “Actualization of Enlightenment.”  It is also sometimes understood as “Realized Law of the Universe.”  


This fascicle is considered the “heart and soul” of the Shobogenzo.  It is said that if the student penetrates this, the other chapters are mere branches.  In Soto training Genjo-Koan is taught as the “koan of daily life.”  In other words, this is not a riddle to solve, but a way to live one’s life.  This is why it is said that Dogen gave this to Mitsuhide Yo.  


Tesshin next read the beginning of Genjo-Koan…


As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many of the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.

Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.


Tesshin mentioned that this should sound familiar to us now that we have reviewed some Koans already.  The first stanza states that everything we know of is part of “reality” including delusion, realization, Buddhas, and normal people.  No separation!  However, we also know that there is no abiding, independent, ever-lasting thing in suchness – so there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddha’s, and no normal people.  This is the normal “formula” we see in koans.  There is and there is not.  Do you see it?  Do not attach – do not grasp.  If you do then blossoms fall – in other words, you miss the insight and you never transcend your suffering.  


Tesshin next read some more of the text…


When a fish swims in the ocean, there is no end to the water, no matter how far it swims.  When a bird flies, there is no end to the air, no matter how far it flies.”  When you think the sky or the water is something special and try to discover its end, you cannot.  You have no chance to study, because you cannot reach the end of the water or the limit of the air.  So he says no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.


“However, the fish and bird do not leave their elements.”  A fish or bird does not go out of the water or air.  The water or air we want to study is for everyone, they are not particular things.  You cannot live without water or without air.


Tesshin mentioned that Dogen is trying to say that there is perfection in the “Ten Thousand things” of our reality.  This perfection is the Genjo koan.  So there is a genjo koan of delusion and a genjo koan of enlightenment.  There is a genjo koan when washing the dishes and a genjo koan of paying taxes.  Everything is genjo koan!!  Everything is reality.  Our problem is that we try to break it all apart.  Like Dogen says, we try to understand more and more and see less and less.  We are not experiencing it – we are breaking it down and putting it back together.  In doing this, we miss the point.  This is why Buddhism stresses meditation.  Slow the mind and exist within reality.  Do not try to classify it – do not try to find the edges – simply let it be and experience it.


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by likening our practice to cooking up a “Secret Sauce” for realization.  The ingredients are all around us.  They can be supplied by a wise teacher, a true friend, even an enemy.  The sutras and koans can provide a recipe, but it is up to each of us in our day to day existence to mix all the ingredients and provide the right heat to make the sauce.  Nobody can do this for us.  We must figure this out for ourselves.  Dogen gives us a hint.  Genjo-koan tells us that the answer is in this world – in the ten thousand different things – all perfect in themselves.  He tells us that not to think with the discriminating mind.  Sitting and slowing down to experience suchness is the key.  We do not practice to become enlightened – we are enlightened the very minute we take our place on the cushion.  

Skillful Means



Tesshin used his talk this week to provide some background about Tenku Ruff.  Tesshin met Tenku in Japan where she was working as a high school teacher.  Her first introduction to Zen was at Tetsugyuji where she attended a five day silent retreat.  Later on, she achieved Kensho (initial insight) at with Tesshin and ordained as a formal Zen nun.   However at this time, Tesshin was moving back to the US so she continued her studies with Tesshin’s “Dharma Brother” Tessai Yamamoto Roshi.  Tenku now resides in America and acts as a certified chaplain specializing in end of life care.  Tenku is also the president of the Soto Zen Buddhist association and she teaches in Beacon, New York.


A full background on Tenku can be found HERE and HERE

Her work on Zen Women can be found here:  Reclaiming Our Stories: Four Remarkable Zen Women


Tesshin expressed how he is deeply moved by her chaplaincy, teaching, and activism.  Tenku is very interested in ensuring that women and disadvantaged groups have access to the Dharma.  Tesshin stated that he whole-heartily supports this work, but he wondered how Zen should do “Inclusion and Representation” properly.   The question he explored with us is whether there is a single Dharma or if there are different Dharmas “tuned and optimized” for different groups?  This seems to be a common question with many different pursuits in today’s society.  So how should Zen approach this?


Tesshin first noted that his lineage (see here) has a long history of openness and inclusion.  For instance, a hundred years ago, his lineage was one of the first to open up practice to non Samurai in Japan.  Tesshin’s own teacher was one of the first to open Zen up to non-Japanese including himself.  It was unheard back then to ordain a Westerner as an abbot of a temple.  However, one thing was always made clear.  The practice is the practice and Zen is Zen.  The work never changed only the people doing the work.


Tesshin next asked, should the practice change to make it more inviting to people who have not had access to it before.  He reminded all of us that we take a vow to “Save all Beings” and a core part of saving all beings is exposing them to the Dharma.  There are many parables in Buddhism and Zen about teachers cleverly changing their methods to fit a given student.  The Buddha started the tradition by explicitly eschewing the Hindu caste system which only allowed Brahmans to study.  He opened up the Sangha to all classes, ordained nuns, and taught in Pali instead of the more elite language of Sanskrit.   Buddhism also teaches that EVERY sentient being is already perfect and everyone has access to the Dharma – not just the holy or privileged.  It is the teacher’s job and obligation to do everything possible to get the student to realize this.  We see this today in the multiple “schools” and forms of Buddhism both in the West and in the East.


Tesshin then reiterated that there is a balancing act, however, between skillful means and changing the Dharma.  Things are never simple and easy.  He reminded the group that there is a single truth.  The Koan has an answer and only one answer!  The teacher’s almost impossible job is to make widely different people understand that one answer.  However, the teacher has faith that every sentient being can get to the truth.  So is there an “Japanese truth” or a “woman’s truth” or a “privileged’ s person truth”  NO!  Yes, there are perspectives, histories, and attitudes – but Zen is Zen!  We can never lose this fact or the teachings get muddled into nothing but noise and propaganda.  The way out is skillful means – not only by the teacher, but by each one of us as we live the teachings in our everyday life.  An old master used to say “You and I are the same thing, but I am not you and you are not me”  We all bring different perspectives, but our goal is all the same:  Understand “Suchness” and by doing this transcend suffering!


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding everyone that Tenku will be holding a one day intensive retreat in December.  More details will be coming shortly. 

A Time for Reflection



Tesshin announced that this week marks the second anniversary of Yorktown Zen.  Looking back on the past two years, we realize how lucky we are to have Tesshin’s teaching and guidance.  This anniversary also serves to remind us that the time to get serious about practice is right now!  The following quote by Dogen comes to mind…


“Life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed, do not squander your life.”


Tesshin is always exhorting us to wake up and intensify our practice.  This milestone for our group serves as the perfect reminder to take our practice to the next level.  Perhaps this involves recommitting to a daily sitting practice.  It could mean approaching a koan in a totally new and risky manner.  It could also mean facing up to the delusions we hold so close and are afraid of letting go.  


Tesshin has quoted Dogen many times.  He has taught us that the question of life and death is really the question of “What is this?”  What are we doing here?  What is this thing right in front of your nose?  This is not a minor question.  We do not fool around on the cushion – we are investigating a matter of great importance.  


“Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost.”  Tesshin has recounted many parables and stores in Buddhism stating that being born human is precious as only we can truly unwind the Dharma and transcend suffering and delusion.  However, being human comes at a cost – mortality.  We do not have infinite time to solve this riddle.  Our time is short.  Can you believe that two years have already passed?


“Awaken!”  This is why we practice.  Our practice is not exercise.  It is not mental hygiene.  It is not an “enrichment activity.”  It is a process of liberation from delusion.  It is awakening from a dream and facing reality “straight up.”  It is starting to live authentically.  Time is limited – do not squander your life.  Awaken!  Do the hard work – it is worth it.   


Tesshin wrapped up by leading a discussion on what concrete steps we could take to improve our practice and what Yorktown Zen could do to facilitate this process.  One theme is that many students are finding it hard to meditate during the week.  Tesshin stated that he is willing to guide us in practice during the week by “live casting” his meditation sessions via Zoom conferencing.  In the next few days, we will be sending out a link with the exact times Tesshin will be casting.  The link will include instructions on how to download the client to your phone so you can see Tesshin.  To begin with, Tesshin will cast a 15 minute meditation session once a week.  The goal is to provide a sense that we are sitting together without having to travel to a central location.  Please try to participate if you can.

The Four Steps of Meditation

The Four Steps Of Meditation


Tesshin used this week’s talk to discuss the four steps of mediation as described by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh.  This teacher comes out of the Vietnamese Zen tradition, but freely mixes in many other ideas such as Theravada Buddhism.   Thich Nhan Hanh is world renown for his clear and insightful teaching which are useful not just for his monks but for lay practitioners and common people around the world.  


The four step process can be summarized as …






Stopping, according to Tesshin, means exactly what it sounds like – namely stopping your daily activities and preparing for meditation.  This is particularly hard for people living in the United States as we are taught that to get ahead we must work all the time and never slow down.  Tesshin recounted that even after his elderly mother had multiple strokes, she could not slow down and adjust.  She would wander around the house upset that she did not “know what she should be doing now.”  We hold so much of this “nervous habit energy,” but we really do not know how to switch it off.  Tesshin mentioned that in Zen temples, the monks are commonly busy, but there are defined periods where they must stop and meditate.  This is done on purpose.  If one is constantly moving, there is not time and space to reflect and catch up.  We see this in our meditation.  When we come to sit, our minds are still racing with the day’s issues and problems.  Many times, we simply forget to stop and the meditation time flies by with little result.  So the gateway to success in meditation and mindfulness is building the skill to simply STOP.


The next step is to calm down.  Tesshin emphasized that there is a difference between stopping and calming.  One can sit on a cushion and stop the mental locomotive, but still be tense.  In this situation, we are still bringing in the problems of the day, but it is carried in the body which, of course, affects the mind.  To calm down, we must really let go and detach from everything.  Letting go is not suppression – it is recognizing what we bring to the cushion and simply allowing it to float away from our consciousness.  (Don’t worry, it will still be there when you are done sitting!)  Tesshin recounted a famous story in Buddhism.  Out in the forests, certain tribes catch monkeys.  They catch them by building a basket with thin spaces between the slats or a small opening at the top of the basket.  Inside is a treat irresistible to monkeys.  The monkey puts its hand in and grasps the prize, but then it cannot get its closed fist out.  Now, the monkey could easily release the prize and get its hand out of the trap, but it is INVESTED in the reward.  The fascinating thing is that the monkey holds on, even as it sees the captors approaching.  Of course, WE are the monkey and the cage is our delusions and habit energy.  All we need to do is open our hand and we can escape our suffering.  We learn to open our hand by calming down.


Once we have stopped and calmed the body and mind, we can begin to actually rest.  The nervous energy starts to dissipate.  However resting is not a passive activity.  It must be actively sought out.  Tesshin related this REST to the rest God commanded in the Abrahamic traditions.  He pointed out that in the hierarchy of commandments, the Sabbath rest is even higher than the injunction not to kill!  Why would this be?  It is because all wisdom traditions understand that rest and contemplation are “intrinsic” to our humanity and having this humanity is key to creating a harmonious civilization.  Tesshin mused that perhaps modern society is so precarious because people have forgotten the simple exercise of stopping, calming, and resting.


The last step is healing.  Tesshin remarked that this is the result of the above steps.  The healing can be mental, physical, or both.  Tesshin likened this to an athlete.  After intense physical training, there is a recovery period where the muscles repair themselves and grow.  One cannot become faster or stronger without these recovery periods.  It is the same with everything we do.  In order to progress, there must be a period of recovery.  This recovery is generated by first stopping, calming the nervous habit energy, and then finally resting.  Tesshin reminded us that meditation is a great way to do this and encouraged everyone to add a few extra minutes each day to our Zazen practice.