Tesshin was traveling this week and asked to group to select a topic in Zen or Buddhist practice to discuss.  In these times of rapid change and stress, the following passage seemed most appropriate…  


Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.


“Maybe,” the farmer replied.


The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.


“Maybe,” replied the old man.


The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.


“Maybe,” answered the farmer.


The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.


“Maybe,” said the farmer.



So what message is this passage conveying?

Basically, the farmer is practicing non-judgment and understands that the true nature of life – namely that you can’t judge any event as an “end” in a way. Our life is not a movie. There is not a single plot which always has a happy ending.


There’s always tomorrow. And whether the day was good or bad, there are a million effects which can arise from one event. Good and bad are interconnected. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. If things are going well, they aren’t. If it seems like it’s the end of the world, it’s not. Things can change in an instant, at all times. And they will at some point or another.


This doesn’t mean that we cannot be happy. On the contrary, it means that we need to realize the truth of  being “non-judgmental” and live a life of awareness in order to find peace and happiness. 

The Big Question



Tesshin was traveling last week and used his talk this week to recount  his trip to Pittsburgh to visit his elderly parents.  Everyday life, it seems, acts as a teacher and points to the really important matters in life.  For instance, visiting his elderly parents served to reinforce the need to be really present with people.  It may be the last time you ever see them.  Tesshin challenged the group to treat every person like it was the last time you were going to see them.  Can we do this? – it is not easy!  It takes real mindfulness to approach each and every person this way.


While in Pittsburgh, Tesshin also attended his 40 year class reunion.  Right before the event he received an article where the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying …


“Love is not the opposite of hate, but rather the absence of judgment”

With this thought in mind, Tesshin recounted that there was a surprising lack of judgment at the reunion.  After 40 years everyone in the class had gone through life’s trials.  There were people present who have lost loved ones, had divorces, suffered medical issues, had lost jobs, and every other kind of malady one can think of.  It is interesting to note that this suffering brought everyone together and made everyone understand that we are all essentially all looking for the same things in life – namely the alleviation of suffering!  This is the wisdom which experience and age provide.  Perhaps this is why wise people tend to be much more understanding of other people.


For Tesshin, visiting his parents and his old high school colleagues brought up the age old question – really the most important question…  Who are these people?  Who am I?  What am I?  Working with this question is the heart of our training.  Of course, a Zen master will always see life in terms of the big question – but so can we.  The Buddha taught that everyday life is always trying to teach us to deal with the “Big Question.”   We just have to slow down the internal dialog long enough to hear the lesson and commit to work to understand it.  


Living this way naturally prevents us from indulging the petty judgments we normally make about people.  If we focus on who and what we are, then we quickly realize that all the small details we focus on about others are much less important.  That other person is a sentient being looking for happiness and to be free from suffering.  They are not a salary, a job, a religion, or a political affiliation!  They deserve our love and full attention.


Tesshin wrapped up by noting that acting this way will not just make others happier, it will also make you happier and at peace.

What is My Truth



Tesshin used this week’s talk to discuss the problem of “Cognitive Dissonance.”  This is the state when an individual cannot reconcile facts with deeply held beliefs.  We commonly see this today with political matters, but Tesshin warned us this also occurs in all realms of life – including the spiritual realm.  The real question is how do we live with integrity, truth, and wisdom – and how do we resist the desire to cling to our beliefs.


Tesshin went on to relate how his own son had to come to grips with his beliefs.  Like all nine year old boys, his son is totally fascinated by sharks – and as this is July and “Shark Week” is on TV – Tesshin found himself parked in front of the TV all week with his son.  At the beginning of the week his son firmly believed that that an ancient, extinct, and “cool!” species of shark called the Megalodon still had to exist somewhere in today’s ocean.  (Of course, it does not help that Hollywood is coming out with an entire monster movie based on the Megalodon!)  The son stubbornly continued to believe this even as scientist after scientist on TV clearly noted that this species was totally extinct.  It was only after the last show where scientists conclusively proved that the ancient shark could not exist that the child finally relented.  Tesshin noted the deep disappointment and commented how his son was affected because his cherished belief was obliterated and that it was “unfair!”  


Tesshin next gave other examples.  It is not too hard to see how people cling to beliefs about our current political leaders.  For instance, he noted that he particularly disliked the current president as a person, but upon closer consideration, had to admit that some of the president’s policies were valid.  Tesshin also commented about how Westerners cling to many mistaken beliefs about Zen and Zen centers.  Teachers are commonly seen as magical beings that possess answers to all questions and have no faults.  Of course, this is not the case, and “teacher worship” is actually counterproductive to practice.


Tesshin next commented on how our deeply held beliefs mesh together and any challenge to one belief can call someone’s whole system of being into question.  This may explain why innocent questions on minor topics – say choice of food – may provoke a violent reaction. A food preference could be tied to religion, politics, culture, etc.  Is it any wonder that people are finding it harder and harder to get along?


It seems that people are more subject to cognitive dissonance today than years ago – why is this?  People have access to so much more knowledge today than they did even 30 years ago.  It is understandable that people would be superstitious 200 years ago when it was unclear why your relative got sick and died.  Having a strong belief was your only defense against the unpredictable world.  However, this is not our problem today.  Today, we have the knowledge, but we are still human, and as such, we are subject to cling to deeply held beliefs.  We define our self by these beliefs.  Tesshin smiled and noted that this is one of the key messages of our practice.  NOT TO CLING!


Finally, Tesshin wrapped up the talk by challenging each of us to the following exercise…

•After meditating, ask yourself – what do I believe in which I know to be false?

•How does this false belief diminish me?


The Flower



Tesshin recounted this week the “Flower Sermon” which is a famous story in Zen Buddhism.  In this story, the Buddha was about to give a talk, but instead of speaking, he simply plucked a lotus flower and held it aloft.  Of all the accomplished students attending, only Mahakasyapa reacted – he smiled.   At this point, the Buddha states …


I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle Dharma Gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa. 


Zen Buddhism now uses this story as a Koan.  So what is this Koan trying to teach?  First, it is good to have a bit of background on what is happening here.  A Lotus flower grows in the mud of a pond.  When the Buddha plucked the flower, everything came up.  The pretty flower, but also the ugly roots covered in mud.  What was Mahakasyapa smiling at?  Did he realize that the flower is nothing without the mud?  What does it mean when mud and flower is really the same thing?  We smile today because we see the constant pattern of the Koan – namely no duality.


There is a second aspect of this story which Tesshin focused on this week – namely the wordless transmission which Zen is famous for.  The Buddha raises a flower, Mahakasyapa smiles, and “transmission” happens.  Tesshin asked us what was actually transmitted.  Of course, the answer is NOTHING.  Nothing was transmitted because we already exist and have “suchness” – we just do not realize it yet.  The Buddha raised a flower – he raised mud – he raised roots – and only Mahakasyapa realized it.  He realized it and smiled.  BANG!  Everything passes – but nothing passed.  All Buddha stated is that Mahakasyapa “got it.”


Tesshin next talked a bit about formal Zen transmission.  When a teacher transmits to a student, it is essentially one generation recognizing itself in the next generation.  It is said that the new generation is the “Dharma Heir” to the previous generation.  In Japan this is called “inka shōmei” and it roughly translates to “the formal recognition of Zen’s deepest realization”  Tesshin was emphatic at this point, however, that the teacher is not giving anything to the student.  It is merely recognition.  This is an important thing because as we come to sit each week, we must perform the work of realization ourselves.  The teacher is merely present to help.  I think the best way to look at this is like a coach of a sports team.  The coach is critical, but they never participate in the game.  It is only the athletes performing the real action.  However there would be ZERO success without the coach.


Tesshin concluded by encouraging us to be steadfast in our practice.  He reminded us about the custom in Japanese gardens where there is a bamboo pipe dripping water onto a rock.  It is said that it takes three years for the water to make a mark on the rock.  This is like our practice!  Slow steady dripping to make a mark on our consciousness.    

The Three Sons



Tesshin spoke this week about Koans and how they are perfect – even if we do not understand them right away.  He gave us two examples… 


The first relates a story where a monk a monk asked Ummon, “What will happen when the leaves fall and the trees become bare?” Ummon said, “Physical emanation in the golden wind!” What does that mean?  How can something be prefect when we do not even understand it?


Tesshin mentioned that there are three way to approach the teachings.  The first is academic studies.  We can read about the Koan on the web and get a neatly summarized explanation.  This approach is like reading about baseball in a book and become frustrated when we still cannot hit the ball!  The second approach is to steady the mind through meditation.  This is like working out in the gym to improve our strength before stepping up to the batter’s box.  However, it is the last step – taking up the Koans directly and transcending them – which is like hitting the home run.  If you ask a baseball player how to be great, they would not be able to tell you much beyond the rules of the game and engaging in lots of practice.  It is the same with Zen.  We need to know the background stories of the Koans and we need to have a steady mind, however this means nothing until we apply to Koans to our life in this exact moment.


So what is the “Golden Wind?”  This is a poetic expression for autumn in China.  In the Koan Autumn is to mean a sense of vulnerability.  The monk is really asking what happens when we finally let go of our attachments?  Yumen answers “Body Exposed”  We are open to the “autumn winds” of life.  This is to mean the good and bad of life – everything with no pre-judgment.  Do you understand – if not, then do not worry – simply practice practice practice! 


The second example Tesshin provided was the parable of the Shogun and his three sons.  This is not technically a Koan, but nicely reinforces again what Tesshin was talking about when approaching the Koans.   The story starts with the Shogun calling his first son into the audience chamber.  On top of the door is poised an expensive vase.  The first son enthusiastically rushes into the chamber and is knocked out when the vase hits his head.  OUCH!  The Shougn then calls in the second son.  This son is more self-conscious and disciplined.  When he comes in, he draws his sword and smashes the vase before it can hit his head.  Great, but the vase is still smashed!  The third son is the most accomplished of the group.  When he is called,  he simply raises his hands and catches the vase and brings it to his father.  The shogun exclaimed, “This son will inherit my kingdom!”  The message here is clear.  The first son is like many of us practicing today.  We are enthusiastic and spirited, but we lack grounding and experience – as such, we go bumbling about and get easily frustrated.  The second son is like a student who has achieved a small amount.  This one is less  “dangerous” but still is deluded.  It is only the last son – or the student who has achieved mastery – who can inherit and care for Zen into the future.  Personally, I think this is very relevant today as there are many teachers in the West who really have not had full realization.  They are like the second son, who could still potentially cause great harm.  In this sense, we are lucky to have Tesshin who embodies the third son and who is willing and able to inherit and care for Zen well into the future.

Buddha’s Dumbest Student

Monk Sweeping


Tesshin related the parable of Buddha’s dumbest student this week.  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 school teachers today – would they “think outside the box” and try unconventional ideas to help a “different” type of student.  This is why 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 dust left in the temple to sweep!  BANG!  Instant enlightenment with a broom!  Why?  What happened?  This is Zen – that very moment is everything!  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!  



There is a famous saying in Zen that if you meet the Buddha on the road – you should kill him.   In this week’s talk Tesshin is reminding us with the parable of the “slow” monk that realization cannot be intellectually understood or learned – it must be “rediscovered” and experienced.  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, work and faith.

Coming Together



Tesshin spoke this week about an experience he had while participating at an Interfaith Council in the Hudson Valley.  A popular Presbyterian church in our area is known to run many community outreach programs.  Some of these programs cater to adults and others such as the Sunday school and the Boy Scouts are for children. 


About a month ago, during one of the youth programs, a small child became agitated.  A good Samaritan, not associated with the youth program, noticed the child and came over to comfort the child.  Tesshin emphasized that this was a totally innocent act which spontaneously came from the woman’s loving kindness.  One would think this would be a good thing – a stranger showing a “random act of kindness.”  This was not how the community perceived this, however.  Apparently some of the parents became quite upset that a stranger had access to their children.  Suddenly there were demands for expensive security systems, cameras, guards, locks, and a whole assortment of restriction on “non child” programs run by the church.


Tesshin wondered out loud what was really going on here and if this situation was a microcosm of what is going on at the national level.  Tesshin reminded us that there are different parts of the brain.  There is a “reptilian” brain which controls the reaction of fear and anger.  There is also the higher part of the brain which controls rational though, empathy, and love.   The unfortunate part is that the reptilian brain, while less evolved, is much stronger than the more evolved parts of our brain.  It is this automatic unthinking “lurch” to fear and anger mediated by our reptilian bran which causes so many problems in society.  In the case of the church parents, it was unrealistic fear of the stranger which caused the desire to eliminate or severely restrict many successful adult and child programs at the church.  It is this same unthinking fear which drives many bad policies at the national level with war being the worst of these.


So what is to be done about our normal propensity to go with the reptilian brain during times of stress?  Tesshin first, stated that we must all come together and foster trust.  Trust in the good intentions of the stranger – whether that is someone outside of your “group” or someone outside of your political beliefs, or someone outside of your nation.  Now, this is not to say that we should be naïve about risks, but rather that we should err on the side of inclusiveness where possible.  In the spiritual realm, this means that we should be open to other people’s beliefs and look for common ground.  This is why Tesshin invests a lot of time representing Buddhism in interfaith councils.  Practicing love and trust strengthens the higher part of the brain and weakens the strength of the lower brain.  


So how does one learn to depend less on the reptilian bran and more on the higher brain?  At this point, Tesshin smiled a bit and said simply that this is what our tradition means by enlightenment and practice.  It really is that simple!  


Tesshin wrapped the talk describing a metaphor for enlightenment.   Imagine you are in a room with no windows.  Everyone is lined up against one wall.  Throughout the room are a bunch of chairs.  Now imagine that the lights were turned off.  You are then instructed to walk to the wall on the opposite side of the room without bumping into any chairs.  In fact, if you hit a chair, you have to start all over again.  How long would it take for you to reach the end? – probably never.  Now if we turned on the lights – how long would it take – seconds!!  This is enlightenment.  How long does it take for us to make good decisions in the mental darkness??  How long would it take if we put in the effort to become enlightened?  Tesshin stated that this is why we practice!  We want to make good decisions for ourselves, our community, our nation!

Mumonkan Case 10



Tesshin used his talk this week to review Koan study in Zen practice.  Briefly stated, Koans are puzzles which cannot be solved with logical thought.  They are designed to get the Zen student to slow down the thinking mind and open up to new ways of seeing.  Koans have entered the public consciousness with instances such as…


“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“What was your face before your parents were born?”

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one heard it – did it fall?”


There are thousands of Koans which comprise the “curriculum” of Zen practice which a student must master to be considered accomplished.  One of the most widely used collections is called the Mumonkan.  This week Tesshin focused on the 10th case – “Seizei is Utterly Destitute”  


The Case:  

Seizei said to Sõzan, “Seizei is utterly destitute.  Will you give him support?”

Sõzan called out, “Seizei!”  

Seizei responded, “Yes, sir!”

Sõzan said, “You have finished three cups of the finest wine in China, and still you say you have not yet moistened your lips!”


So what is going on here and what is the point of this Koan?    The typical scenario in a Koan is for a monk to ask a question of a master.  Sometimes, however, you have two masters “sparing” with each other to test their understanding of Zen.  This is the case here.  Seizei presents himself to Sozan and claims that he is nothing but a poor destitute monk and begs for instruction.  This is the trap Seizei is laying for Sozan!   Sozan is having none of this – he sees right through this.  Why?  First, Sozan knows there is nothing to teach as Seizei already has everything he needs.  To start to teach, Sozan would acknowledge a dualism between having something and having nothing.  Seizei instead calls out to Seizei.  And Seizei falls into the trap by responding “Yes Sir.”  What does that mean?  In Zen there is also no separation between student and master.  Who is calling and who is answering?    Next in a very poetic way, Sozan simply reminds Seizei that he has had the finest wine (realization) and asks if why his lips are not moistened (why he is not manifesting understanding?)  


Tesshin interpreted this Koan not as a challenge between two masters, but as a playful recognition of an unspeakable truth between two masters who understand.  We, as students, observe the exchange and are offered another chance to learn this truth for ourselves.  This is the purpose of the Koan.


Tesshin compared this exchange to what happens in a Sumo match.  The two wrestlers engage in an elaborate ritual before the match where they throw salt and walk around the ring.  It is here that the two masters determine who the superior athlete is.  That actual match is simply staged for the benefit of the audience who came to see some action.  


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us again about how Koan study is just another mechanism to allow us to slow the mind and experience “suchness” directly.  It is built on top of the foundation of mental discipline and strength created by consistent Zazen. (seated meditation) 


(This week’s image graciously supplied by


Memorialize Yourself



Tesshin opened his talk this week by wishing everyone a happy Memorial Day.


He then recounted current research into aging.  It is a well-known fact that over seven years many of our cells – and even every molecule and atom are changed out.  If this is the case, then can we possibly say that we are the same person we were seven years ago?  The very physical “stuff” of us is totally different than it was in the past!


If you are truly a different person than your were in the past, then today is the perfect time to memorialize your old self!  What do we mean by this?  Perhaps it simply means to let go of all past thoughts, fears, angers, and agendas.  It also means, however,  letting go of the smugness of past successes and achievements.  If we can fully and honestly do this, then we can face the present with immediacy because we have left the baggage of the past with our old selves.


So the message to the group today from Tesshin was to bow in gratitude to your old self and then let it go.  Live and focus on this exact moment.

Mind Maps



Tesshin spoke to the group this week about the structure of the mind.  He compared the 2500 year old Buddhist/Hindu understanding of the mind with the more recent Western conception starting with Freud and extending through modern neuroscience.  


Understanding the map of the mind is important because it allows one insight into why certain problems and reactions keep reoccurring.  Our spiritual pursuit is all about understanding the mind so that we can alleviate suffering from these reoccurring problems.  


Buddhist teachers in the West commonly talk about overcoming the ego as a goal of practice.  But what exactly does the word Ego mean?  Tesshin speculated that the term “Ego” may have been over interpreted by translators bringing the Dharma to the West.  In the Freudian construct, the mind is divided into specific parts called the Ego, Id, and Super Ego.  The Ego is the part of the psyche which deals with the rational world.  It is the thinking and deciding part of our consciousness.  Commonly it is called the ‘I’ of the psyche.  So when Buddhism teaches that the key to enlightenment is to destroy the “ego,” it should not be surprising that students misinterpret Buddhism as nihilistic.   


Tesshin suggested that there is better non-dualistic way to map our consciousness and existence.  Many Eastern traditions have the concept of chakras.  Each of the chakras represents a part of our total existence.  For instance, the Root Chakra centers on survival and would be most associated with our primitive limbic system.  At the other end of the spectrum is the Crown Chakra which represents our ability to be fully integrated in life and in spirit.  This would be equivalent to the prefrontal cortex in the brain.  


In the chakra tradition, we do not try to suppress anything or eliminate anything as all chakras comprise our existence.  The symbols of the chakras remind us that we cannot exist without each aspect.  (survival, pleasure, self, love, expression, wisdom, actualization)  This is why chakras mediation is considered non-dualistic and very different than the mind/body dualism commonly understood in the west.   


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that the goal in mediation is to understand and penetrate all of the chakras from highest to lowest.  Students tend to over intellectualize meditation and thus no real progress is ever made.  The way to prevent this is to strive for unity and balance between all aspects of existence!


This week’s image courtesy of wikipedia