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. 

Who Are You?



Tesshin spent the previous week in Detroit, Michigan leading a training session for GM and the United Auto Workers.  Before the sessions began, Tesshin was driving around looking for something to eat.  While lost in thoughts, he suddenly came to a checkpoint which cheerily announced “Welcome to Canada!”  (For those who do not know the area, Detroit is only 2 miles from Windsor, Canada)  Whoh!  how did this happen?  And there is was –  BANG!  reality took Tesshin out of his wandering thoughts.  He was at the border with a big Canadian flag staring down at him.


Now unlike us, who would have been upset at having to go through the hassle of a checkpoint, explain an innocent error, and waste a bunch of time, Tesshin realized there was a “teachable point” in this situation.  The realization of the border crossing is like the experience of realizing a Koan.  When you finally get it – you get it – and it is so simple.  Here is the border – it is a border – and I am HERE.  This is “suchness” – it is reality – plain and simple.  It is moments like this where the story in our heads falls away and we come face to face with the reality of a situation.  


Tesshin next asked the question, “How do we ever know where we truly are and who we truly are?”  For many of us, there is an internal narrative we tell ourselves, but is this real?  This story is the “ego” repeating over and over again – “Here I am!  Here I am!”  It is a desperate shout – almost like if it is not reasserted every minute it will disappear.  This is why time on the cushion is so challenging!  The ego keeps throwing thoughts up and distracting us – it is reminding us that it will not go away without a fight!  Even an accomplished Zen master is not immune!  Our challenge, according to Tesshin, is to recognize the ego, its story, and its constant monologue and realize that the story is not reality.  Our practice is to train the mind to quiet down so that we can get out of our own way and see reality for what it really is.  This could be as simple as realizing that we just drove to Canada instead of the Indian buffet we intended.


So who are we really and where are we?  The ego narrative tells us a story and the attachment to this story blinds us to reality.  You may think you are the greatest person in the world.  You may identify with a high-powered job or with the fact that your child just got accepted into Harvard.  On the other hand, your narrative could be negative.  You think you are a failure or even an evil person.  This relationship fell apart because I am a terrible person and nobody would ever love me.  The ego does not care – it simply needs a story which it can shout out to the world to assert its existence.  The key thing is that these stories are just that – stories!  They are not real and they do not help. 


Tesshin recounted his time training in Japan.  Monks are always in turmoil about their spiritual attainment.  (Yes, even monks have ego!)  It is a tradition in Zen that the teacher “knocks” the student out of their “ego games” with Koans, shouts, or even bonks on the head – if necessary!  Tesshin commented that his teacher, Ban Roshi, ( was very conscientious on this.  However, what happens when the teacher disappears?  Then what?  This is a key message in our practice – a teacher can only take you part of the way.  You must finish the journey yourself.  This is why we train!  If we can master the mind, then we can quiet the ego and really understand what is going on around us.  We will not need to depend on anyone and will truly be in control of our own fate.




Tesshin used this week’s talk to expound on a fundamental part of our practice – namely Zazen and the simple act of breathing.  The first thing Zen students are taught is to follow the breath during seated meditation. (Zazen)  Why is this?  First, every sentient being has the breath!  Being mindful of this simple action ties us to every other living being and reminds us that we are not separated from the totality of life.  Second, the breath is an accurate reflection of your state of mind.  For instance, if you are agitated, the breath will be shallow and rapid.  On the other hand, if you are mentally focused, it will be deep and strong.  Lastly, the breath is something we have partial conscious control of.  We can choose control it, observe it directly, or let go and allow it to take its own path.  There is a lot of wisdom contained in the breath – which is why it is so critical to practice!


So what does Zen mean by “following the breath” if there is no-self?  Whose breath is being observed and by whom?  Tesshin normally states that in breath practice, one must join with the breath!    We cannot force ourselves to control the breath like a drill sergeant barking orders at a “raw meditation recruit.”  You are observing the breath from inside the breath!  It is one thing – you and the breath.  So by following the breath, Tesshin means nothing more than following yourself – your mind, body, and soul.  The breath is central to everything.  


So how should we breathe when in Zazen?  First, one needs to understand where the breath comes from.  In our normal hectic world, we breathe from the top of our chest.  This causes rapid and shallow breathing.  How can we have a settled mind when our breathing is rushed and shallow?  Instead we must breathe from our core or “Hara” in Japanese.  This is the region a few inches below your navel.  The idea is to take slow deep breaths from the hara and then slowly release them.  When doing this correctly, you should feel your lower stomach fill on the inhale and flatten on the exhale.  At this point, one of the female students made an observation that women are always taught to pull in the stomach to appear thinner.  Tesshin agreed about this “peer pressure” and emphasized that “sucking in the gut” is not useful in Zazen.  In essence, we need to “let it all hang out.”  In other words, we need to be real and authentic and not be concerned with what others are thinking.  Tesshin likened proper Zazen breathing to how a dog breathes while sleeping.  Sleeping dogs take large, slow, deep breaths – they really do not care who is looking at them or how they appear.


So where to begin?  In your next sitting session, try taking a few deep breaths at the beginning.  This may allow you to enter a slower and deeper pattern.  Another suggestion would be to place your hands on your abdomen and check to see if it is rising and falling as you breathe?  In Zen practice, we hold our hands in a mudra which naturally brings awareness to the hara.  One can hold the mudra by placing the right hand on the right thigh and then place the left hand within the right hand with the thumbs touching. 



The “Cosmic Mudra” commonly used in Zazen practice


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us that deep breathing clears the mind and allows us to start releasing all of the garbage in our subconscious mind.  He encouraged us to be patient but persistent in our practice.


A review a Zazen and breathing can be found on the Home Practice guide of the website.



This week’s title image sourced from

You are Life and Death



Tesshin started his talk this week by recounting how he brought his children to a farm stand so that they could “adopt” some pet chicks.  The idea was to teach the children the responsibility for caring for another living being.  The children were very excited and named each chick and then played with them for the entire day.  After a day or two, the children got bored with the chicks and went on to other things.  On the fourth day, Tesshin noticed that one of the chicks had died due to lack of food and water.  He gathered up the children and showed them the dead chick.  What is the lesson here?  Of all the children, his eight year daughter cried but then had a realization.  She was a part of the cycle of life and death.  Her actions could cause life or death and that she was not separated from the death of the chick.  According to Tesshin, this is the moment of opening and the moment of realization for his daughter!


Tesshin was born Jewish and he celebrates Passover with his family.  In the Jewish tradition, during the Seder ceremony, there is the parable of the Four Sons.  There is the Wise, Evil, Simple, and Infant sons.  The main difference between the wise and evil sons is how they inquire about Passover ceremony …

“What is the meaning of this ceremony WE do?”

While the evil son asks…

“What is the meaning of this ceremony YOU do?”

Do you see the difference?  The second question exposes the evil nature of the second son because he separates himself from everything and everyone.  In Buddhism, we believe this separation is the greatest delusion and one of the key sources of suffering.  When we say there is no “self” it is this disconnection from everything that we are trying to get at.  It is a reminder that one is not really separate from the world around us.  Like when Tesshin’s daughter realized that she was part of the cycle of life and death and that her actions mattered.  “Non Duality” stopped becoming an intellectual concept and became REAL for her.


Today, we see all around us the effects of this separation.  We see this when we judge others without trying to understand and help.  We see this when we stop listening to people we disagree with.  We see this when we attempt to “signal our virtue” with simple slogans rather than digging into the complicated issues of the day.  Lastly, we see this when we simply abandon challenges and look for ease and pleasure.  Our practice is one of enlightenment or coming face to face with reality.  It is never about what “YOU out there” think, rather it is about what WE must do together in the single unified world we inhabit to alleviate suffering of all beings.    Your actions matter – and they can have huge effects on others.  Evil is tuning your eyes away and thinking that this is someone else’s problem.


Tesshin wrapped up by wishing everyone a happy Easter and Passover.

The Gate

The Gate


Tesshin opened his talk this week with a parable…  


A muscular samurai approaches a Zen master to ask for wisdom on Heaven and Hell.  

The master asks, “What is it to you?”  

(Remember a master never asks a casual question – it is always loaded with meaning)   

The warrior responds that he wants to get into heaven. 

(Does he even know what that means?)  

To which the master responds, “You are ugly and smell – you will never get into heaven!”  

(This is the master lovingly ‘bonking’ the swordsman on the head – do you see it?)

The samurai is not used to someone talking to him like this and becomes very angry.

(Attached to his story of greatness) 

Without thinking he pulls out his sword and is ready to smite the master. 

The master calmly comments, “Now the gates of hell are open to you!”  

The samurai instantly understands and bows deeply.  

(He got it, do you?)  

In the same calm voice, the master says, “Now the gates of heaven are open to you. 


Do you understand what just happened?  The warrior had to make a choice.  It is a choice we all really have to make.  What do we value?  On the one hand, we have our status and accomplishments – namely our story which we will do anything to protect.  On the other hand we have spiritual understanding.  In the parable we have this wrinkled old man standing in front of a mighty samurai – brave beyond belief due to his mastery of reality.  With endless love for all beings he simply “states it as it is.”  If you cling to your story the gates of hell will open up to you.  The warrior is stuck – he has hit a barrier to understanding which the old master knocks down with a single sentence.  Who is the more powerful one here? 


Commonly in Zen temples, there is a gate called the “Mon.”  A new student arrives at the temple gate and announces his desire to know the truth.  Immediately, the gate is closed to him and he is told to go away.  Remember, nothing is done in the training for capricious reasons.  The young student does not know it yet, but the training has already begun!  Is this gate a real barrier?  Is there anything intrinsic in that gate at that time which is preventing the student from knowing suchness?  It is just a gate, after all – wood and metal.  Here is the first test of Zen.  Can you distinguish a physical barrier from a spiritual barrier?  Many students fail and leave the temple before the waiting period is over.  They falsely believe that the something is being withheld.  How sad!


Tesshin reminded us that the real barriers to spiritual understanding are in your own mind and not “out there” in the physical world.  The temple gate is nothing and can never keep you out if you understand!  The barriers are what we bring to practice.  It is interesting that the first set of koans which we study is called the Mumonkan or “Gateless Gate.”  So what is a gateless gate?  How can nothing be the greatest barrier to understanding?  How can nothing be greater than a wall constructed of mile thick concrete?  Mu is nothingness – so what is holding you back???   The “gate” manifests when you cannot sit down to practice.  What stopped you?  The “gate” manifests when you “buy into” your own story.  You know better!  For the samurai the gate manifested when he became enraged at the seeming disrespect of the master.  He changed, can you?


Tesshin wrapped up by saying that in practice there is no barrier because there is nothing in practice which is outside of your own mind.  The challenges and blockages are in your own mind and only you can transcend them – and when you do the gates of heaven will be open to you as well.




One of our senior students, Barbara Green, gave the Dharma talk this week as Tesshin was away traveling.  The topic was the first patriarch of Zen.  Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century CE.  He is considered the first patriarch of Zen because he introduced Zen/Chan to China.  It is believed that Bodhidharma was born in either central Asia or India where he learned Buddhism and then migrated east to China.  Buddhism was already thriving in China at this time, but Bodhidharma brought a new message of an austere practice which operated “outside of scriptures” and relied on intuitive understanding of reality.  


Bodhidharma is normally depicted as an irritable bearded monk.  Some sources also call him the “The Blue-Eyed Barbarian.”  This label probably has more to do with him being a foreigner in China than any real physical appearance.  However, it is known that he taught a very strict form of Zen and gave no credence to fools or those merely casually interested in the Buddhist practice.  In fact, it is said, that when he arrived in China, he encountered Emperor Xiao Yan.  The king asked how much merit he had accumulated by supporting Buddhism and building many temples.  Bodhidharma said NONE.  All your worldly deeds mean nothing if your true desire is to find the noble truth.  The king asked what is this noble truth – to which the Zen master could only respond emptiness!  The frustrated king then asked, if emptiness is the only truth, who is standing in front of me?  To which Bodhidharma answered – I know not!  If you think this sounds like a Koan – you are right!  It is the first Koan of the Blue Cliff Record!  (full 23 MB text of the Koan collection)


Needless to say, the Emperor Xiao was not exactly happy with Bodhidharma’s answer and sent him away.  The master then spent the next NINE years in a cave facing a wall in silent meditation.  It is from this story that many Zen centers throughout history have used “Wall Gazing” in their mediation techniques.  Personally, I find this practice very practical as it removes distraction – especially the constant comparison with other mediators across the hall.  Oh that one just moved!  This one is listing to a side.  That other one is so much better.  Bodhidharma said it best in “Two Entrances and Four Acts” …


“Those who turn from delusion back to reality, who meditate on the walls, the absence of self and other, the oneness of mortal and sage, and who remain unmoved even by scriptures are in complete and unspoken agreement with reason.”


There are also many legends about what happened during those nine years of intense mediation.  For instance, it is said that to prevent himself from falling asleep during meditation – Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids!!  (Not something we suggest – even if you find yourself dozing off during a zazen session!!)  It is said that when his eyelids hit the ground they became tea plants – and this is why tea is so connected with Zen practice.  


While the stories such as these are entertaining and interesting, there are real lessons for all of us in Bodhidharma’s life.  First, I think we can take inspiration from his dedication.  Many of use struggle through a single zazen session – imagine going for nine years straight.  However physical endurance is just the beginning.  I think we can also take inspiration from his single minded focus to solve the question of life and death – namely what is this “suchness” or the reality we find ourselves in.  What does it all mean?  Lastly, Bodhidharma focused on the actual experience of suchness and not on academic study, devotional rituals, or doctrinal debates.  For him it was about the intuitive grasp of “Buddha Mind” through concentrated meditation.  It is this active rather than academic effort which so characterizes Zen to this day.    


To close, here are a few famous Bodhidharma quotes…


“Not thinking about anything is Zen. Once you know this, walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, everything you do is Zen. To know that the mind is empty is to see the Buddha…Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness. Freeing oneself from words is liberation.” 


“To find a Buddha all you have to do is see your nature.  Your nature is the Buddha.”


Again, special thanks to Barbara Green for putting together such a wonderful talk!


Image Credit:  Bodhidharma, Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887.  (Taken from Wikipedia entry)





Radical Transformation

Radical Transformation


Tesshin used this week’s talk to discuss Linji’s 15th case.  An excerpt is provided below…  


Someone asked, “What is true insight?”

The master said, “You have only to enter the secular, enter the sacred, enter the defiled, enter the pure, enter the lands of all the buddhas, enter the Tower of Maitreya, enter the dharma realm of Vairocana and all of the lands everywhere that manifest and come into being, exist, decay, and disappear.

The Buddha appeared in the world, turned the Wheel of the Great Dharma, then entered nirvana, yet no trace of his coming and going can be seen.  Though you seek his birth and death, you will never find it.

Then, having entered the dharma realm of no-birth and traveled throughout every country, you enter the realm of the lotus-womb, and there see through and through that all dharmas are characterized by emptiness and that there are no real dharmas whatsoever.

There is only the man of the Way who depends upon nothing, here listening to my discourse – it is he who is the mother of all buddhas.  Therefore, buddhas are born from nondependence.  Awaken to the nondependence, then there is no Buddha to be obtained.  Insight such as that is true insight.


What is this Koan trying to convey to us?  According to Tesshin, nothing more than radical transformation!  What does that mean and how do we know when this happens?  Tesshin mentioned to us that there is a lot of talk about being “radical” in today’s culture, but most of it is nothing more than simple “protest.”  It is done to make a statement while looking enlightened to other people.  Here the koan is explicit – transformation can never come from the outside!  “There is only the man of the Way who depends upon nothing”  Transformation must come from within us – it is never in reference to anything external to us.


To elaborate, Tesshin recounted how as a graduate student, he was required to present his thesis to the president of the university in order to get a diploma.  Tesshin and a group of students burned their thesis instead of presenting as they disagreed with the university in its support of military research.  Due to this action they did not receive a diploma and did not walk in graduation.  (However, he did note that he was awarded the degree)  So is this radical transformation or simply making a statement?  It is clear that while this action is laudable it is NOT radical transformation.  The university may have slightly changed its actions regarding the military, but the students went on and worked in the current society and implicitly accepted its norms and requirements.     


Another example Tesshin gave is when the Pope washes the feet of inmates?  Is this radical transformation?  It is a beautiful ceremony and serves as a great teaching moment for church followers – but it does not break through any real barriers of belief – it only reinforces the message of the church.  This action is relative to and for the follows of the church.  It makes them believe that their leader is “good and just.”  What if the Pope washed the feet of Putin or Kim Jong-un?  What would the followers think then?  What assumptions or cherished beliefs would that action break?  Now we may be getting somewhere!!


Finally, Tesshin mused about our own Buddhist community.  Just this past week, he received a phone call from another teacher who asked about the forms and ceremony of “Dharma Transmission.”  Transmission is the ceremony where a teacher chooses a student to carry on the message of the Dharma.  Teachers have been choosing successors for thousands of years, and these teaching lineages are a big part of Zen.  What became clear in the conversation, however, is that the caller was more interested in ensuring that all the forms and ceremonies were being followed properly.  Again, the concern was about which actions relative to observers were correct.  Instead of asking about the student’s mastery of the forms, Tesshin wanted to know …


Is this student “true and real?”

Do they really understand the message of the Dharma?

Do they have a burning desire to save all beings by teaching?


These are the correct questions!!  Has the student undergone radical transformation or are they simply looking for an accolade from someone outside of themselves?  If the student WANTS transmission, then they have completely missed the whole point and really could never receive “real” transmission.  


It is the same thing with any type of radical change.  Your reputation is beside the point!  Radical transformation is not a 1st place ribbon.  It is not “virtue-signaling.”  It is a commitment to save all beings.  It is teaching the way.  It is delivering 100% of yourself everyday knowing full well that your efforts are only a drop in the ocean, but you are still willing to do it day in and day out.


In temples at night after a day of meditation, the group commonly chants the “Four Vows.”

Beings are numberless

I vow to free them

Delusions are inexhaustible

I vow to end them

Dharma gates are boundless

I vow to master them

The Buddha way is unsurpassable

I vow to realize it 


Radical transformation is applying yourself to this hopeless goal with everything you have.  Tesshin closed by reminding us that the koan is clearly pointing to this foundational truth in our practice.




Tesshin invited this week to image we were playing a survival game.  In the scenario, we are traveling on a plane which crashes in an arctic region.  Everyone survives, and after a quick inventory, the following items are discovered…

    • Compass
    • Map
    • Gun
    • Can of Crisco Oil
    • Ax
    • Ball of steel wool
    • Lighter with no lighter fluid
    • Newspapers
    • Bag of Chocolate 
    • 20 inch X 20 inch piece of canvas
    • Bottle of Whiskey


The point of the game is to rank order the most important items which will allow the group to survive this terrible situation.  (Hint, it is not the Whiskey!!)   After the group debates the order and how they will use the supplies, the host of the game judges their plan and assigns a “success probability score.”


This game is commonly given to corporate groups during team building exercises.  It is also given to school groups and Boy Scout groups.  What commonly happens is that people quickly come up with a plan to use the map and compass to leave the crash site and set out for the nearest town on the map which is 30 miles away.  In this plan the map, compass, gun, and ax are the highest rated items.  This seems like an obvious solution – right?  It may seem this way as this is the most commonly selected plan and list of items.  However, this plan receives the LOWEST survival score!  Remember, the plane crashed in the arctic.  Most people are not able to hike 30 miles in these conditions even assuming that they could use the map and compass correctly.  


Tesshin emphasized how most groups come to a snap conclusion.  He suggested that in situations like this, the best thing to do is to STOP, breathe, and take the time to carefully consider the situation.  First, consider that all flights are tracked by air traffic control.  This means that most likely, the authorities will quickly realize that there is a problem when the plane disappears from the radar.  Next, consider that the plane fuselage will provide basic shelter from the elements.  After some consideration, it probably makes sense to stay put and attempt to survive rather than braving the arctic for 30 miles to get to town.  This is very difficult to realize for most people as they feel that they must do something – anything – and doing “NOTHING” appears to be totally passive.  So with this strategy, our priority list of items changes quite a bit.  The map and compass are not important.  The Crisco is important as it can be used as fuel and calories.  The lid of its can makes a great reflector which can be used to alert rescue parties.  The lighter can generate sparks which can start a fire with the newspapers.  The chocolate is a source of calories.  Now, of course, Tesshin would NOT suggesting getting drunk on the whiskey while waiting for the rescue party, but it could be used as a fuel as well.  The teams which put together this plan and item list always score the highest in suitability!


So why would Tesshin use a survival game as a subject for a Dharma talk.  He did this to remind us that our most important survival tool is our minds!  The key to winning this game is not jumping to action immediately.  It is slowing down, breathing, and thinking through all scenarios.  It is the same thing in our everyday life.  We must slow down and understand what our real goal is.  Why do we do the things we do?  Are they contributing to our happiness?  Do these actions or things eliminate suffering in our life and the life of others?  If they do not, then they are leading us in an unskillful direction.  Our practice of mediation serves as training for just this skill.  We learn to control our mind.  This allows us to slow down and make better decisions, suffer less, and lead happier lives.


Tesshin wrapped up by asking everyone in the group to show solidarity with the Hudson Valley Islamic Center by leaving flowers.  As we all know there was a terrorist attack in New Zealand this past week and we all want to show our support.  Information on the HV Islamic Center can be found on their facebook page. 


Hitting the Wall

Hitting the Wall


First of all, we all want to welcome Tesshin back after three weeks away from the Sangha.  The topic of this week’s talk was what happens when we “hit the wall” in life.  To illustrate this, Tesshin contrasted two very different individuals.  The first was a terminal cancer patient who sought solace from a Buddhist priest.  The second was an abbot of a Japanese monastery who decided it was time to retire.


Tesshin started with the cancer patient – let’s call him “Jay.”  He is 70 years old and has always been interested in “new age” pursuits like mindfulness and meditation.  Upon hearing that he had cancer, Jay completely fell apart.  He refused “modern” treatments as they did not “jive” with the holistic and organic lifestyle which he preferred.    Tesshin was struck by how “lost” Jay was and it was clear that he was in denial about his condition.  Jay would frequently state that he had “no energy” to deal with his condition and refused to make serious and necessary end of life decisions.  Jay would often quote Alan Watts and ask what Watts would do in this situation.  Tesshin had to remind Jay that Watts was not in the room and that Jay needed to make these decisions himself.


Tesshin next contrasted Jay with one of his Dharma Brothers, Muhō Noelke, who recently decided to retire from being the abbot of Antaiji temple in Japan.  Muhō  has been a monk for seventeen years.  He began practicing with homeless people in a public park because he could not afford rent in Japan.  In his retirement announcement, he warned people that monastery life is not easy.  It is not just mentally demanding, but it is physically demanding as well.  Monks need to grow their own food and maintain the temple building.  It also requires a significant time investment.  Muhō talks about giving the practice ten years, then another ten, and then another ten.  At the end of thirty years all you have is the fact that you are thirty years older.  (Think Zen koan here!)  You can watch his retirement announcement video here:  

Muhō’s video makes it very clear that this decision was not rash.  It was thoroughly thought out and Muhō has made plans for a successor to follow after him at the temple.  He realizes that it is no longer skillful for him to run a temple and it is time for others to take on this responsibility.  


So what does it mean to be “done” and is there a way to “be done” skillfully?  Tesshin was addressing this exact point in this week’s talk.  Muhō is at the end of his practice as an abbot.  He has clarity.  Jay is at the end and he has no idea what to do.  What is the difference between these two people?  Simply stated, Muhō practiced Zen authentically with his entire heart, body, and mind while Jay simply imitated what he thought the practice looked like.  Muhō’s mind was stable and clear by virtue of many years of practice.  As such, his decisions were clear.  Jay never really practiced, and when he hit the wall with his cancer diagnosis, he was totally unprepared.


Why is this important?  In today’s modern age it is very easy to “consume” Zen.  One can go to a spa to “get the Zen experience.”  There is “Zen music” available on youtube.  There are numerous “Calm” Zen apps available for your smart phone.  The problem is that when we really hit the wall, this “Ersatz Zen” will not help!  Our mind is wired for suffering, attachment, and delusion.  It takes real work to unwire it.  This cannot be done with an app or a trip to the day spa!  It is accomplished with consistent practice on the cushion working to unwind the delusions of our mind.  


Tesshin asked how does one know that the practice is working.  Ask yourself – does one bad event ruin your entire day?  Does one argument at home or work cause you to make decisions which lead you down a karmic path of suffering?  Do you have the stability to handle real tragedies of life with care and compassion?  Can you determine clearly when something is done and it is time to move to something new? 


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding the group that we have something very special in the West – namely lay Sangha’s doing authentic Zen practice.  In Japan, one must commonly ordain as a monk to do serious Zen training.  He reminded us that the time we spend on the cushion will help us when life deals an unexpected blow.  For this, and his teaching, we are truly lucky.