Monday, July 19, 2010

The Eternally Burning House

        We all live in an eternally burning house, we move from room to room and refuse to smell the smoke or see the flames, but we are never unaware that the house is burning. One day we find ourselves cornered and we can no longer avoid the smell of the smoke or refuse to see the flames. Like rats cornered we panic and we hiss and snarl as if we could scare the fire away. In this no one is alone.

        My Sensei and his teacher Soyu Matsuoka-roshi ask me, what the rat now does.

                    My only answer is that the flames are as real as I am.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shadows of the moon –Soto Zen Death Poems

               There was a man who was to become known as Dogen Zenji. He left his home and traveled to China and there meets his true master Tiantong Rujing. Master Rujing (1162-1228) is called Tendō Nyōjo in Japanese. He was a member of the Caodong school of Buddhism in China. Dogen meets him when he was living in Jingde Temple on Tiāntóng Mountain in Yinzhou District, Ningbo. He taught and gave dharma transmission to both Dogen and the Soto monk Jakuen. Ruijing’s remains rest in his Stupa which is located at Jingci Temple in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. Master Rujing is believed to be the originator of the terms shikantaza and shinjin-datsuraku "casting off of body and mind".  So Says master Dogen.

Rujing’s death poem

For sixty-six years committing sins against Heaven,
Now leaping beyond, while still alive.
Plunging into yellow springs; amazing!
I used to believe life and death were unrelated.

             Death poems have been written by Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Zen monks for centuries. It was an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to compose such a poem on their death bed.

Dogen’s death poem

Fifty-four years lighting up the sky.
A quivering leap smashes a billion worlds.
Entire body looks for nothing.
Living, I plunge into Yellow Springs.

(In Chinese “yellow springs” means the concept of “Yomi” or underworld, this concept of Yomi was later transferred to Japan.)

Kozan’s Death Poem

(Our history relates that a few days before his death, he called his pupils together, ordered them to bury him without ceremony, forbidding them to hold services in his memory. After writing this poem on the morning of his death, he lay down his brush and died sitting upright.)

Empty handed I entered the world.
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going-
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

(Kozan Ichikyo is usually considered the 2nd founder of Soto Zen in Japan – he died February 12, 1360 CE, at age 77.)

Gesshu Soko’s death Poem

Translation 1.

Breathing in, breathing out,
Moving forward, moving back,
Living, dying, coming, going --
Like two arrows meeting in flight,
In the midst of nothingness
There is a road that goes directly
to my true home.

Translation 2.

Breathing in, out,
forward, back,
living, dying.
Two arrows meet in mid air,
slice and sail on through
into open space.
I turn around.

(Master Gesshu Soko, 1618-1696. Was a Soto Zen reformer who brought attention to Dogen’s writings, after centuries of neglect by the Soto community.)

The Enso as a Death Poem:

"During his last moment, Shisui's disciples requested that he write a death poem. He grasped his brush, painted a circle, cast the brush aside, and died. The circle— indicating the void, the essence of everything, enlightenment—"

The death poem of Basho, one of the greatest haiku poets of all time:

On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


        In the practice of Zen a disciple is one who follows the teachings or doctrines of a person whom he or she considers to be a master or authority.
   “Tozan, a famous Zen master, said, "The blue mountain is the father of the white cloud. The white cloud is the son of the blue mountain. All day long they depend on each other, without being dependent on each other. The white cloud is always the white cloud. The blue mountain is always the blue mountain." This is a pure, clear interpretation of life. There may be many things like the white cloud and Blue Mountain: man and woman, teacher and disciple. They depend on each other. But the white cloud should not be bothered by the blue mountain. The blue mountain should not be bothered by the white cloud. They are quite independent, but yet dependent. This is how we live, and how we practice zazen.”


     I have asked myself what qualities a disciple should try to adopt in Zen and have not found any better advice than Mr. William Howard Stein’s advice to his own students. When the Nobel Prize winning biochemist was asked what his advice to aspiring students would be, he replied:

“Keep high aspirations, moderate expectations, and small needs.”

          I must observe that people have a tendency to project onto a spiritual teacher all their own fantasies and expectations; this often leads to great disappointment. To maintain the relationship of the blue mountain to the white cloud requires a certain natural balance that can be easily disturbed.
        When I asked my teacher if I had accomplished anything this year, he said stop trying to accomplish something. So I gave up having goals in my practice and expanded my striving to objectives instead. Objectives are more general in nature than goals and very hard to measure. Objectives have no real time frame and are very hard to miss. He told to give up my expectations of Zen but to keep my aspirations. I had to ask myself what I was in fact aspiring  to. What I decided during this week end was that I was aspiring to find the truth. I am not sure I even know what it means “To aspire to find the truth”, but it’s what I found in the bottom of barrel, so for now I am stuck with it.

               I still have an expectation that to practice will somehow make me able to achieve spiritual progress. An expectation that there can be for me a thing called spiritual progress. That practice over time will remove obstacles in my path to that progress. I realize holding onto expectations is often simply asking for disappointments, but I can live with a few disappointments. And of all my delusions these I admit to and will hold onto for a bit.

     “This is the substance of Zen. Just action! You will not learn the Zen spirit from a myriad of words, long discourses. Just do it. Just sit in meditation and then just act—all of your actions contain the Zen spirit. Zen is not just sitting in meditation or talking. It is also making and drinking tea; it is cleaning and dusting and making it immaculate by washing the toilet and mopping the floors; it is making items out of wood in carpentry; it is raking leaves; it is hauling water for a garden or pruning the young plants and leaves; it is looking at the sky and standing in the rain. Each of your movements will come to reflect the spirit of Zen within your life. Your manner will reflect the depth of the Zen spirit of Enlightenment that has come to be unraveled through your work and meditation. It will be seen in the quietness of your voice and in the calm of your brow; it will be seen in the surety of your steps and in the strength of your sitting.”
                                             Soyu Matsuoka-roshi
We, shall see.