Author Archives: Barbara Gabrys

  1. Zen teachings: letting go

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    This is a well-worn out advice: if you want to be free, you need to let go of grudges, grievances, stale emotions, grief but also all the positive things. All have their place in time but that’s it.  

    Letting go – much advice is given but this is one of the hardest things to do. Old problems are rarely clear cut; for example, forgetting a grudge is linked to forgiving, oneself as well as the offender. Depending on the magnitude of the offense, letting go may seem to be an impossible task. Hence rather than tackling the whole big problem, it helps initially to look at its elements. Practical book ‘Letting go of nothing’ by Peter Russell is inspirational, as it breaks letting go into several small, concrete steps. The power of his advice lies in a combination of general approach and practical tasks. It is not bound to any particular religion or psychotherapy, and is very useful in our Zen practice.

    Let’s have a closer look at three main steps – these are letting in, letting be, and letting go.

    Letting in is an essential first step: we need to acknowledge that there is something that makes us uneasy, bound or dragging heavy baggage. Once we open up to it, we let it sit and play out whatever it is. Only then we’d be able to say goodbye, maybe kick it out or perhaps wave it off gently. It does not really matter, how; it’s getting rid of it that’s important.

    How does it relate to Zen practice?

    Let’s look at the practice of presence – Shikantaza or just sitting. This practice has no anchor, we just sit and allow thoughts, feelings, emotions to come and pass; without judgement. Sometimes the practitioner is compared to a mirror, in which all objects are reflected without judgement, recognised for what they are, and being intangible, allowed to pass. Note but not follow what will arise; allow it to stay with you for a while. It’s very important that we don’t follow the train of thought – action comes when we get out of zazen.

    That’s when letting go truly takes off – we can try to clarify matters with an ‘offender’ orally or in writing, write down the grudge and burn the paper, use the paper shredder for any paperwork, make a ritual fire etc. To use a well-worn comparison, we’re leaving some baggage behind and travel lighter. 

    Let’s have a closer look at deconstructing an emotion and letting go of feelings in turn.

    Deconstructing an emotion needs to be done not just mentally, but in the body as in Zen’s bodymind approach. What is it that makes you unsettled, unhappy, or fearful? Maybe giving this unease a label is helpful or maybe it’s too early. Searching, searching…

    An example would be ‘my work stresses me’. That’s too general – tell me, whether it is your boss, your colleagues or just the volume of work? If the latter, what exactly – a new project, an old report or being stuck in a problem? As an saying goes a formulation of a problem is half of solution. Hence you can ask yourself what is the outcome that you want: recognition, pay rise, more free time, help etc. Listening and noting how the body reacts – is the tension gone, a warm feeling in the heart or the gut, clearing a headache etc.

    This process may take some time and several iterations, and you may need to step back for a while if the going is too heavy.

    How to let go of feelings?

    Going deeper into Zen practice let’s have a look at a koan from Hekiganroku (Blue Cliff Record) collection. Most koans have a threefold structure: an introduction by Engo, the main case and a comment in verse by Setcho.

    Case 87 Ummon’s ‘Medicine and sickness cure each other’.

    The first two sentences from Engo’s introduction set up the scene: ‘The clear-eyed man knows no restrictions. At one time he stands on top of the mountain, with the weeds thick about him.’

    Meaning: he’s in absolute samadhi, so holding fast on nothing – and the weeds refer to letting go as he cannot hold fast on weeds. In absolute samadhi there is no time, no space, no thought, no feeling. No falling into delusions.

    Main subject: Ummon said to his disciples ‘Medicine and sickness mutually heal. The entire universe is medicine. Where is the self?’

    Medicine and sickness are both complementary (if you’re sick, you need medicine) and opposite (if you’re healthy, you don’t need medicine). When you achieve deep healing through Zen practice, you can discard the medicine. Buddhist theory is often compared to a medicine – once you’re healthy, you need to leave behind idle deliberations, and live a simple life. Otherwise the medicine becomes a poison, named sometimes as Zen sickness.

    Picture the travel as on a spiritual path as going up the mountain through the thick growth. It is necessary to keep hacking the passage until one reaches the top of the mountain, with clear view. Hence we can imagine letting go as an essential part of the process to be in samadhi state, with no hindrance. Another allegory are the first two stages of Ten Oxherding Pictures, with the practitioner searching for the ox in the thick growth.

    It would be wonderful if the weeding process would sort us out once and forever. Alas weeds have a tendency to crop up again. So we need a resolve to be mindful, and don’t allow them to overshadow the top of the mountain.

    Let’s remember Great Vows for All – Shiguseigan – and in particular this one:

    …bo no mu jin sei gan dan…

    …However inexhaustible our delusions are,

    We vow to extinguish them all…


    Peter Russell Letting Go of Nothing: Relax Your Mind and Discover the Wonder of Your True Nature, An Eckhardt Tolle Edition, New World Library 2021.

    Katsuki Sekida (translator) Two Zen Classics: Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, Ed. A.V. Grimstone, Weatherhill, New York and Tokyo, 1977

  2. Giving and receiving: Zen guidance

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    Giving is generally considered to be a good thing. Giving to support poor and sick is a duty of a pious Buddhist, and features in all major religions. There are ‘guidelines’ in a sense how much, what to give (money, time, expertise etc), reasons for giving (from the most selfish to utmost altruistic). However, how do we know to whom give? And when to give?

    There are a lot of good causes clamouring for our attention: children, endangered species, destitute people, and environment to mention just a few. And that on top of less fortunate family members and friends. Even if we’re very rich and philanthropically inclined, eventually the available resources would dry up. So how to choose?

    Let’s look at the heart of Buddhist spiritual life, be it monastic or lay one: puṇya (Pali: puñña). This term is translated into English as merit, and as stated in Oxford English Dictionary the noun means “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.”  Thus a meritorious action should bring about something good to the giver and create good karma which in turn – hopefully – will create even more good karma in the future. It has beneficent quality as persons doing good deeds will advance along their spiritual path. But… one can give only if there is another sentient being to receive, or something tangible, for example a temple, is created.

    In the Buddhist tradition merit has a base in generosity (dāna), ethical conduct (sīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Generosity is directed at anybody, though there are subtle nuances. It is considered more meritorious to give to monastics than to laity, thus supporting the Sangha (understood as religious community). In turn there is a sort of a contract that a receiver of a gift will lead an exemplary life, thus being worthy of a giver’s benevolence. This immediately raises a question: having to choose between two possible recipients, how can one know which one is more worthy? As soon as judgement of worth is involved, givers would be under suspicion of not giving generously and freely but trying to get the most merit for themselves. This defeats the object, and implicitly is expected of monastics that they will act as a ‘field of merit’ for the gifts of laity1.

    Why is this important? It goes back to one of the principles of Buddhist ethics that a quality of one’s acts, wholesome or unwholesome, is affected by their object. Hence some concern with the gathering of merit.

    The gathering of merit is not just Buddhist concern. In Catholic church, for example, it was customary to give alms to the poor directly, or give funds with strings attached. In a delightful church in Sutton Courtney there is a tablet in which the benefactor specified how the money towards six poor widows should be used: ‘Every Sabbath day each of them to have a penny Loaf and yearly a Gown and three certain days in the Year they are to have money to buy Meat.’ Another benefactor gave money for schooling of poor boys. This way merit was collected and displayed for all to see.

    Another mechanism of collecting merit was indulgence. Originally meant to absolve sins, in medieval ages selling indulgence became a common practice. Arguably many good deeds came out of that as money was raised for building churches, the poor and sick would receive alms directly or via the church officials, etc. However, the abuse of selling was one of the reasons for the Protestant Reform.

    Let’s turn to Zen now. While generosity of giving is as important as in other streams of Buddhism, there is no importance attached to the merit. Let’s look at the exchange between Bodhidarma, the 28th Indian patriarch who brough Zen from India to China:

    The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall says that in 527, Bodhidharma visited Emperor Wu of Liang (Xiāo Yǎn 蕭衍, posthumous name Wǔdì 武帝), a fervent patron of Buddhism:

    Emperor Wu: “How much karmic merit have I earned for ordaining Buddhist monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?”
    Bodhidharma: “None. Good deeds done with worldly intent bring good karma, but no merit.”

    Emperor Wu: “So what is the highest meaning of noble truth?”
    Bodhidharma: “There is no noble truth, there is only emptiness.”
    Emperor Wu: “Then, who is standing before me?”
    Bodhidharma: “I know not, Your Majesty.”

    This encounter – though only the second half of it – is included as the first koan of the Blue Cliff Record

    During the koan study we have to answer all parts of this koan. Looking just at the first part, the message is clear: there is a clear distinction between good karma and merit. An insight why this is so can be gleaned from Engo’s introduction: ‘When you stopped the deluded activity of consciousness, then, whatever situation you may find yourself in, you enjoy perfect freedom, in adversity and prosperity, in taking and giving.’

    How can we translate ‘no merit’ into Zen actions? This is a delicate question as on one hand we’d like to have a feeling that our hard earned money went to worthy recipients. On the other hand we’re aware of the ideal of no-judgement. No judgement – no bias – no merit. That means we shouldn’t bother about collecting merit, shouldn’t judge whether recipients are worthy our gifts. As a matter of fact the sooner we forget about the good deed, the better. If we act from the place where is no-self, who would collect merit?

    It is a sliding rule: our expectations- our actions – forgetting and letting go. That’s fine – there is a saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. I’d prefer to see it as continuous improvement rather than achieving perfection.

    The consequences are far reaching – the ideal of giving was always to give anonymously. In Japan monks who beg have very large hats so that their face can’t be seen but equally well they can’t see the person offering alms. A western version would be collecting money in the street using sealed tins or buckets. This way of fund-raising is becoming obsolete – however electronic donations can hardly be anonymous. At least if we want to avoid troubles with tax office…

    How do we discern to whom to give? Several years ago Zen Master, Eizan Goto Rōshi, came for a visit to the UK. I was fortunate to host him for a couple of days in Oxfordshire. One day we were walking through town, an accompanying monk carrying his purse. There were people begging on the streets. While passing them he’d say to the monk: give to this one; and to that one; not to that one. To my eye all this people looked alike worthy receiving a small change. So I’ve asked the monk: How does Rōshi know to whom give? The answer ‘he just knows’ did not do much to dispel my puzzlement. However, this lesson stayed with me, and I don’t fret about recipients when I donate.

    Another point worth consideration is the willingness with which we give. Purists would argue that there should be a free giving without a shade of doubt or self-interest. Now this is a lofty ideal which very few of us can fulfil. It’s not unusual to feel resistance, and maybe resentment or pressure of coercion if we’re asked to give. Behind these feelings could be an attachment to money as a guarantor of our safety and status or simple realisation of financial limits. Personally I think it does not matter as long as we recognise why we feel resistance towards giving in a particular case. This is an indicator where we are on the path, and it allows us to adjust and act judiciously.

    There is another angle to giving and that is an expectation of gratitude on the side of the taker. There was a funny video on YouTube showing two Russian men who met a fox. The fox put his head into a jar and could not get it out. So our heroes managed to take the jar off, upon which the fox promptly ran away. One of the men was heard saying ‘A spasiba gdie?’ which translates as ‘Where is thank you’? How many times do we expect to be thanked, no matter how small the deed?

    It is much easier to talk about giving than receiving. Especially in the Western culture, being independent equates with self-sufficiency. Brought to extreme, we would have to do everything ourselves, from farming through clothes making to generating electricity. It clearly is not possible for everybody, and there is no real need for it, either. We have to remember that we’re interdependent, so giving and receiving has a certain beautiful symmetry to it. Though not in a literal sense ‘I give you £100, and you give me an exact equivalent of this sum when your turn comes’. The life philosophy of Steven Covey provides an interesting insight here. His ethics raises above the Christian view of the world, and his concern is how to combine ideals with daily bread-earning activities2. In order to be highly effective in our action he advocates a development, from a dependent person through independence to interdependence. While being dependent implies more receiving than giving, independence would be the other way round. In interdependence these two actions are harmonised, and one does not exist without the other. But we need to look beyond the

    surface: receiving training from one’s teachers, for example, does not imply we give it back to them. It is expected that we give to our students, who in turn will give to their students.

    Some final points about giving and receiving: drop your expectations, don’t be judgemental in your choices. If you give something to somebody, and get abused – as it may happen – just let it go. ‘No good, no bad’ – we act from the point where we are. Which is always perfect. If you get something which you don’t need or want, accept it in good grace and consider carefully how it can be best used; if not by you then by somebody more in need.

    It seems to me that often there are no clear-cut answers to whom to give or to which cause. It is a sliding rule: our expectations – our actions – forgetting and letting go. That’s fine – there is a saying that ‘practice makes perfect’. I’d prefer to see it as continuous improvement rather than achieving perfection.

    Whatever you do if you act from no-self is ok. And of course it’s nearly impossible to be there 24/7. But we can always sit in zazen before making decisions – when the mind is clear and free of delusions, we act freely.

    1 R. Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998    2 S. R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press, 1989

  3. Resilience

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    Recently the word ‘resilience’ has become much used. What does it mean? Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’. In materials science, it means ‘the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.’ In Zen training we don’t talk much about resilience – if things change, how would we spring back into an old shape? And why? Instead, perseverance is valued.

    There are several ways in which to consider resilience: personal, communal and that of nature. Arguably a lot is known and understood about personal resilience. We all know somebody who has dealt with a bereavement, emotional heartbreak, loss of a job or business – but who nonetheless has carried on, and emerged with renewed energy. It is impossible to put time limit on ‘quick’ recovery: it may take one person just a few weeks, somebody else may spend a few solitary years before starting a new relationship, for example.

    A lot depends on how we view the facts and vicissitudes of life. We may not be able to avert disasters if we live in the shadow of an active volcano, but we can change our perspective on this volcano eruption. On the emotional or relationship level we may resort to cognitive therapy, any other psychotherapy, life-long Zen practice or a combination of both.

    There are plenty of books around about resilience. It is fine to read, but how we implement this knowledge is more important. Somewhat simplistically, rather than sitting and moaning ‘why me’? when disaster strikes it’s more productive to say ‘ok, I don’t like it, so what? What can I do about it?’ Maybe no action can be taken straight away but I can stop moaning and think what’s next…

    When the universe doesn’t smile on me, I think of a Japanese doll, Daruma, which has a rounded bottom. When you strike it, it falls but then gets up again. A Japanese saying ‘seven times down, eight times up’ captures this.

    On a deeper level, a lot how we react and recover depends on our personal history and attitude to life. We can’t change the past, but we can adjust our attitude. This becomes of ever greater importance when a natural disaster such as pandemic strikes, with no control in our hands.

    What are the conditions for resilience? In my view, these are the most important: opening up to acknowledge the current state; willingness to change; help by others. This has been demonstrated in a Fukushima disaster in March 2011 – a combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown. The fallout in terms of people’s lives changed forever is well documented, as is the role of innovative counselling by a Soto Zen priest, Taio Kaneta, chief priest at Tsudaiji temple in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture. He realised that the trauma went so deep that people lost their ability to acknowledge and to express emotions. Hence, he set up a travelling Café de Monk which provided a pop-up place for people to get coffee and be able to open up in a chat. Not just with him, but others who lost everything in the disaster, volunteers or practitioners of other faiths. A nice touch is the name of the café: he’s a monk, in Japanese ‘monku’ means ‘to complain’, and he plays music by Thelonius Monk. A wider community involvement in the healing process thus has happened in an unobtrusive, informal way. However, for this to occur he had to go out and create opportunities for people to approach him easily rather than waiting in his temple. His credo is to really listen, to allow people’s emotions to surface as the first step to recovery.

    It is enough to switch on the news to see the ravages that humans cause in natural world. Can our planet survive us, as we’re not likely to survive outside natural world? There are many examples of destruction and havoc wreaked by humans, but also a few signs of hope. A recent example of natural resilience is provided by a rare wildcat kitten which had survived outside its den for several hours before being found by humans. The resilient animal hanged onto his life but would have perished without human help. He’s doing very well, and it is planned to release it into the wild in due time. It can only thrive if there is enough territory to sustain it. There are several organisations in Scotland working on preserving the land where not just Scottish wildcat can live but other animals and plants can flourish.

    The story of this kitten is a symbol of a more enlightened understanding of our place in the universe: rather than being its masters, we’re the guardians.

    Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan, Richard Lloyd Parry, Vintage, 2018

  4. Seven-day sesshin

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    People often ask me what do I get out of this? Daily zazen for eight hours or more – with breaks, of course, and periods of work, meals and rest – in silence. How is it possible not to get bored by not-doing? And what does it mean to face yourself, can you find Truth?

    I have sat many sesshins with different Buddhist groups, Triratna, Soto, Tibetan, and of course Rinzai. In beautiful places, noisy places, special places… What I found there is a universal rhythm to days and nights, especially for a seven-day sesshin. By the end the pain in legs and other parts of your body is immaterial – simple joy of being alive and inexpressible gratitude to masters, teachers and fellow travellers outshines all.

    As over-explaining is abhorred by Zen, there is a distilled record of a seven-day sesshin.

    Day one

    Great! The sesshin is about to start! Settling into an assigned place, glad to crash onto a cushion.

    Day two

    What am I doing here? I should have done this… had no time to do that… will x, y and z be done without me? What’s for an evening meal?

    Day three

    Hello bodymind! End of the day: bones stopped screaming; monkey mind had gone to sleep. Quick lie down watching the moon.

    Day four

    It will take a while

    to meet Zen ancestors

    in the starry space

    Day five

    11th Oxherding Picture

    Through the trees

    I glimpse white ox in the grove.

    Now there is an eye, now a swish of a tail –

    It mocks me as it has run away.

    C’mon get me! The harder I try

    the faster it plays hide and seek –

    the path is overgrown.

    Day six

    Watching the dusk fall

    getting up before the sun

    pulling out the weeds

    and then –

    zazen is my home

    Day seven

    The bell no longer calls for zazen

    the trip back home is a flash

    looking at a willow tree in a neighbour’s garden

    everything is empty –

    and yet so full

    Dedicated to Melody Eshin Cornell Rōshi

  5. Combatting fear and terror

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    Commentary on Bhaya-Bherava Sutta

    It is the second week of the lock-down in the UK, with stringent restrictions on movement imposed by the government in order to contain pandemic. Economy is barely breathing, people are cooped up in their homes, perhaps in cramped space with their families. Or they are alone, self-isolating or because they live alone. Neither way is an easy one. There is hardly anything else in the news but updates on covid-19, with new cases and death statistics not showing much of slow down. Street are empty, and people who take their daily exercise perform a complex dance when they pass in order to keep 2m distance. As of the moment of writing, there is no end to lock-down in view.

    Where and how to escape? Not a question that a Zen practitioner would ask. But some guidance is needed to deal with self- and social isolation as we may experience feelings from the whole spectrum of anxiety, worry, fear, terror…only natural. And that we need to handle. Zen does not put much value on scriptures as such. It is what we do with the message that counts. And where better to look that in the treasure trove of sutras? Let’s take a couple of fragments of Bhaya-Bherava Sutta, Fear & Terror as translated from Pali by Thānissaro Bhikkhu.

    Commentary: After enlightenment, the Buddha walked through the Indian continent, teaching. In this sutra his teachings are exposed by setting the scene, place (Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove), and having an interlocutor (Jāṇussoṇin the brahman) asking questions.

    The Buddha is referred to as the Blessed One or Master Gotama. We should not forget the historical context: men leaving homes in order to become monks, and living monastic life of poverty and purity. The main question posed here is the Buddha a worthy teacher and leader to these aspirants? How can he show it? In Zen we show, don’t tell. Is this a good example for Zennists?

    Let’s turn to the text now.

    “I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then Jāṇussoṇin the brahman went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “Master Gotama, the sons of good families who have gone forth from the home life into homelessness out of conviction in Master Gotama: Is Master Gotama their leader? Is Master Gotama their helper? Is Master Gotama their inspirer? Do they take Master Gotama as their example?”

    “Yes, brahman, so it is. The sons of good families who have gone forth from the home life into homelessness out of conviction in me: I am their leader. I am their helper. I am their inspirer. They take me as their example.”

    “But, Master Gotama, it’s not easy to endure isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. It’s not easy to maintain seclusion, not easy to enjoy being alone. The forests, as it were, plunder the mind of a monk who has not attained concentration.”

    “Yes, brahman, so it is. It’s not easy to endure isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. It’s not easy to maintain seclusion, not easy to enjoy being alone. The forests, as it were, plunder the mind of a monk who has not attained concentration.  Before my self-awakening, when I was still just an unawakened bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me as well: ‘It’s not easy to endure isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. It’s not easy to maintain seclusion, not easy to enjoy being alone. The forests, as it were, plunder the mind of a monk who has not attained concentration.’”

    Commentary: People leaving lay life, often men after they’ve brought up their families and discharged duties to the society, would take monastic vows and repair to forests. There they were supposed to lead ‘holy’ life. But they had to be prepared to leave the secular world, with its pleasures and pains, behind – since they would be severely tested.

    One needs spiritual maturity in order to undertake seclusion, that is to have attained concentration. Being alone in a forest – at Buddha’s times forests must have been full of wild animals and terrifying events such as storms or fires. Then fear and terror would arise in those not fully prepared for life of seclusion.

    Buddha says:

    “The thought occurred to me: ‘When brahmans or contemplatives who are drooling idiots, resort to isolated forest or wilderness dwellings, it’s the fault of their drooling idiocy that they give rise to unskillful fear & terror. But it’s not the case that I am a drooling idiot, when I resort to isolated forest or wilderness dwellings. I am consummate in discernment. I am one of those noble ones who are consummate in discernment when they resort to isolated forest or wilderness dwellings.’ Seeing in myself this consummate discernment, I felt even more undaunted about staying in the wilderness.

    “The thought occurred to me: ‘What if — on recognized, designated nights such as the eighth, fourteenth, & fifteenth of the lunar fortnight — I were to stay in the sort of places that are awe-inspiring and make your hair stand on end, such as park-shrines, forest-shrines, & tree-shrines? Perhaps I would get to see that fear & terror.’ So at a later time — on recognized, designated nights such as the eighth, fourteenth, & fifteenth of the lunar fortnight — I stayed in the sort of places that are awe-inspiring and make your hair stand on end, such as park-shrines, forest-shrines, & tree-shrines. And while I was staying there a wild animal would come, or a peacock would make a twig fall, or wind would rustle the fallen leaves. The thought would occur to me: ‘Is this that fear & terror coming?’ Then the thought occurred to me: ‘Why do I just keep waiting for fear?

    What if I, in whatever state I’m in when fear & terror come to me, were to subdue that fear & terror in that very state?’ So when fear & terror came to me while I was walking back & forth, I would not stand or sit or lie down. I would keep walking back & forth until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was standing, I would not walk or sit or lie down. I would keep standing until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was sitting, I would not lie down or stand up or walk. I would keep sitting until I had subdued that fear & terror. When fear & terror came to me while I was lying down, I would not sit up or stand or walk. I would keep lying down until I had subdued that fear & terror.”

    Commentary: we must not forget the context of this teaching. There is a world of difference between monastic and lay lives, and some two and half thousand years, time difference between the Buddha’s time and now. Lay persons fears and worries have different origin than those of monks, especially in time of pandemic. Becoming ill and perhaps dying from contracting the virus, loss of jobs, money debts, housing, provision for oneself and family, looking after animals: farming and domestic, … But such fear and terror aren’t less scary that being alone in the forest.

    Buddha tells us that we need to keep strong and concentrated mind in order to combat the fear, and squarely face it. He does not explain how he subdued fear and terror; as if it would have followed from having a concentrated mind.

    It is left to us to find ways to deal with our fears. This may require more than just sitting until we see fear for what it is, and subdue it. Some people may lock the horns with it and fight until it’s over; some may take softly-softly approach and crush it little by little. Sometimes an external help may be needed. But the basis is to accept the situation which brought about fear and keep a concentrated mind.

    Then we can take possible and necessary action calmly, while still acknowledging that there are no guarantees. The future is uncertain for every single one of us. Years ago at a sesshin Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi had one look at me and said: ‘zazen is your home’; like answering my unspoken question.

    Let’s do zazen and find our home there.

    With deep gratitude to Thānissaro Bhikkhu,

  6. Have no fear

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    Hardly anybody talks about or experiences anything else now – the pandemic took our lives over, directly or indirectly. For me, it has brought in a sharp focus the koan ‘Mr Zhang drinks wine and Mr Li gets drunk’ which has tested generations of Zen practitioners. On the light side, would they both get the same hangover? Or Mr Zhang is merry after drinking, and Mr Li just gets angry after virtually drinking? You tell me in the sanzen room…

    It takes a lifetime to truly understand the meaning of this koan. One layer is the reality that we are all interconnected. Going one step further, it’s not just people, but people and animals. The covid-19 virus is allegedly traced back to China where it has jumped from snakes or pangolins to people in the wild animal market in China. So ‘they tell us.’ Could it be a sinister proof that animals are sentient beings, or as my mother tongue has it, our lesser brothers?

    In Zen, compassion embraces all sentient beings, hence we’re interconnected with animals, too.

    Covid-19 spread is serious stuff, and everybody will be tested over the coming weeks and months. Eventually pandemic will run out its course, and a vaccine will be made to help to prevent future outbreaks. But the maxim ‘here and now’ is no longer abstract for many people.

    It is easy to succumb to fear and depression, count deaths and number of new sick daily. The picture is grim and future uncertain. There is no cure for covid-19, and it affects the whole population, not just elderly and sick. Should we just sit back, shake and cry, wait till pandemic dies out?

    Firstly, ask yourself these questions:

    Do I know the symptoms? Do I follow government/health organisations/common sense guidelines? Do I take simple precautions such as frequently washing hands, and keeping some distance while in public? Am I fit, and symptom-free?

    If answers are ‘yes’ to the above, the next question would be ‘How can I help?’ That’s what our Zen practice is about. Reaching out to others can be done on so many levels: from getting shopping for a frail neighbour to volunteering help to ‘essential services’ when the time comes. Sitting with others when possible has always been, and is our essential service.

    Many sanghas are turning to online communication as communal zazen may be suspended for a while. This will enrich our practice even with teething problems as we get to grips with technology, and likely stretching of service providers’ capacities. The coming days and months will test all of us. With the right intention and effort, we will come out of it –

    Like a lotus shining in the fire.

  7. Zen on Water

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    What is Zen? If you asked me some three decades ago, I would be very confident in my answer – as a Zen neophyte you know it all. Now I’d hide behind the definition ‘Zen is dialectic pragmatism with religious basis’ or would give a non-committal answer ‘art of living and dying’. It’s worth mentioning that there is no division into body and soul; everything centres on ‘bodymind’. It is my deep conviction that Zen is to be experienced – through meditation and work –  and only talked about when absolutely necessary. But today is such a day, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to talk about the role that water plays in Zen training and living.

    The roots of Zen are in nature, so it follows that we relate to it in various ways. In everyday life deep respect for natural resources shows through right actions. A story of monks drinking water from a river illustrates this: drinking only half a cup and returning the rest to the river.

    There are five levels of Zen practice as defined by an 8th century Chinese Zen master. The first one is called ‘bompu’, secular practice for mental and physical well-being. That’s what nowadays mindfulness approach is closest to. Next levels describe various stages of the Path towards the spiritual aim of Zen –  enlightenment experience, or kensho in Japanese. But that’s not a goal in itself as way of living that follows after kensho certifies the quality of this experience. And Zen is a lifelong practice; I can liken it to climbing infinitely long Jacob’s ladder.

    There is tradition in Zen not to talk about spiritual experiences directly but in oblique, poetic terms, relating to natural world. Water plays major role in reflecting and describing mind states. Mind of an experienced meditator is compared to an ocean – nothing disturbs the stillness and quiet at its bottom but there are still waves on the surface; ranging from storms to light breezes. Water may reflect the moon of enlightenment. It may feature in ‘after-kensho’ poems, as for example in a poem that a female Zen Master Mugai Nyodai (childhood name Chiyono) wrote upon enlightenment when a water pail broke [Zen flesh, Zen bones compiled by Paul Reps; Harmondsworth, Penguin; 6th Edition edition (1978)]:

    In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
    Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
    Until at last the bottom fell out.
    No more water in the pail!
    No more moon in the water!

    In my tradition there is a poem which is chanted  daily in Rinzai Zen temples: The song of Zen by Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1768)  – Hakuin Zenji zazen wasan. Here is the first stance:

    All beings by nature are Buddha,
    As ice by nature is water.

    Apart from water there is no ice;
    Apart from beings, no Buddha.

    Translated by Norman Waddell

    At a risk of over-simplification, it suffices to say that Buddha here stands for Absolute. It expresses the connection between individual and One.

    Water is essence of life, and the way it changes its form, adapts to its surroundings and in turn adapts them is an exemplar for an aspiring Zennist. I would like to quote a poem by a 20-th century Zen Master Mumon Yamada ( entitled ‘Like water’ (

    Like water
    Not stagnating
    Hope to go

    Even if we meet good things
    Even if we meet bad things
    Never look back
    Keep advancing
    Hope to go flowingly

    Even if we see the beautiful flowers on either bank of the river
    Even if we hear the birds chirping cheerfully
    Praising their beauty
    Taking joy in their cheer
    Continue on moving forward

    They say that flowing water never freezes
    They say that running water never stagnates
    I believe it is alive

    Nourishes farms
    Raises plants
    Rears fish
    Never want a higher place
    Towards a lower and lower place
    Like water
    I hope to flow


    I would like you to do zazen (sitting meditation) now. Please pay attention to your posture. When sitting on a chair, be grounded: feet hips-width apart, firmly planted on the ground. In your lower body, feet and the buttocks form a tripod, a very stable support for the spine. Spine is straight, as much as its natural curve allows. Gently rock your body side-to-side, back to front until it settles in a comfortable position. If your back is weak, use the back of the chair for support. Take a few deep breaths, and allow your breath to be what it wants to be today. Then gently close your eyes or have them half-open, unfocused.

    Listen to the sounds of the city, sounds in the garden, then bring your attention to the sounds in the room. Now listen to your heart, the external sounds quietening. Now imagine that you’re standing on a bank of a big river, which flows from some place far, far away. Step in gently, dipping in your toes first, then immersing yourself fully. Allow water to caress your body, to permeate it gently until you become the river, flowing and flowing. Perhaps the river flows through narrow canyons, rapidly and loudly, or it flows gently through fragrant meadows. Like a drop of water, you are IT, not distinguishable, yet the part of the river.

    Now you come to a ledge. In a big waterfall, there are billions of water droplets falling down. You are one of them, individual, enjoying the air, the sunshine and the freedom of fall. Then you meet other droplets again at the bottom of the falls, and the river flows again until it joins the ocean. From there life of a droplet will begin again: evaporating, being a tiny part of a cloud, falling as rain on the mountains where the river is born and flows on the plains.

    Experience this process in its totality or parts of it at your own space. Feel the water flow, feel Life. If thoughts and distractions come, let them come and go, like the clouds – do not attach to them but go back to the river flow.

    Now we have come to the end of our meditation. Listen to the sounds in your body, to the sounds in the room, silence of the garden, and to the sounds of city life. Feel your toes, fingers, hands; open your eyes gently and rock your body side-to-side until you can firmly come back to this room. Then have a really good stretch and you’re ready for the next activity.

    Talk given at Quaker Summer Retreat Day, 2nd June 2018, at Oxford Meeting House

  8. Forgotten? Eminent Zen women

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    Anybody interested in Zen has a vast literature available. Stories and anecdotes abound about what came to be known as ‘Patriarch Zen’. Anybody willing to undergo a strict Zen training, especially in the Rinzai tradition, would nowadays have a choice. It is either to go to a Japanese Zen temple or to find a western Zen master, who got a permission to teach from an acknowledged Zen master. Moreover, traditional Zen training is in a monastic setting, male Zen masters sometimes accepting female students. Aspiring women would have been really determined to enter training as often they were not allowed to live in temple grounds.

    In times of the Buddha, and some couple of centuries afterwards, a blueprint for the Buddhist practice was set. There were monastic orders, of monks and nuns, and two broad categories of laymen and laywomen. It is well known that Zen sect traces its origin to one of Buddha’s disciple, Mahākāśyapa. What is perhaps less well known that it was the Buddha’s stepmother and aunt, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī who asked his permission to form nun’s order. Her request was eventually granted, with the proviso that nuns were subordinate to monks according to eight rules. (The origin of the rules is traditionally accepted to be set by the Buddha.) To become a monk, a man would have to give up everything, leave home and become a mendicant, living off begging. What about nuns? Could they leave home, leave behind everyone and everything they took care of? Hence another type of arrangement had to take place. Penetrating insight into the role of societal restrictions through ages and wider picture is given in an invaluable book by Grace Schireson ‘Zen women: beyond tea ladies, iron maidens and macho masters’.

    In the second half of the last century, when Zen started to move from Japan to America and Europe, a new phenomenon took place.  A new Zen ‘order’ has appeared: that of ordained priests who chose to practice as lay people, thus not leaving families behind and supporting themselves through work. With the equality of men and women, at least on paper, in most Western countries women are becoming successors of male Zen masters more easily. But there is historical precedence; however for various reasons women’s role in the Dharma transmission in Zen is under-emphasized, to put it mildly. Also as there are women Zen masters both men and women can become successors in female lineages.

    In orthodox Buddhism women were considered by some to have a karmic burden and not to be able to see the true nature. A convenient theory? There is an inherent conflict as Zen goes beyond gender – the Buddha mind is neither male or female. The absurd of woman’s mind being inferior to that of man’s has been exposed by In words of Bankei (1622-1693) in the Hōshin-ji sermons: (source: The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen master Bankei, translated by Norman Waddell).

    ‘Here is something that will prove to you that the Buddha-mind is the same in men and women. There are a lot of people gathered here. Now, suppose that outside the temple walls someone started to beat on a drum or strike a bell. When you heard those sounds, would the women here mistake the drumbeat for the bell, or the bell for the drumbeat? No. As far as hearing those sounds is concerned, no difference exists between the men and the women. It’s not only true of men and women; there are people of all kinds in this hall: old people and young, priests and laity, and so on. But there wouldn’t be any difference in the way that a young person, or a monk, or a layman heard the sounds either. The place in which there’s no difference in the hearing of those sounds is the Unborn, the Buddha-mind, and it’s perfectly equal and absolutely the same in each of you. When we

    say  “This is a man” or “This is a woman”, those designations result from the arising of thought. They come afterward. At the place of the Unborn, before the thought arises, attributes such as “man” or “woman” don’t even exist. That should make it clear that there is no distinction between men’s Buddha-minds and women’s. There is no reason, then to doubt about women having Buddha-minds.’

    Today Bankei’s teachings have lost nothing of their validity. He had been a very popular Zen teacher who attracted a big following of monastics and lay people. His enlightened attitude to women was unusual in feudal Japan.

    I’d like to concentrate on the beginnings of Zen Rinzai tradition in Japan. The first Buddhists in Japan were three women linked to Korean nuns (Schireson, p.57). The first ordained Buddhist was a young girl Shima who received the Buddhist name of Zenshin; she was ordained in 584 together with two other girls. The ordination ceremony was in Japan, conducted by a Korean priest turned layman, and an old Korean nun. Shortly afterwards they have suffered persecution under orders of a powerful lord Mononobe no Moriya to destroy their temple: they were defrocked, stripped of their ordained status, and beaten. But when the fortunes of war changed they could travel to Korea in 587, receive a full ordination and return to Japan in 590. These facts have been left out of the usual records of Buddhism’s transmission across Asia.

    A few centuries forward and there is first documented female Zen Rinzai master Mugai Nyodai (1223-1298), and the first woman in Japanese history to be recognised as a Rinzai Zen Master. Well-read in Chinese and Japanese classics, she was married to a feudal lord who was killed in the battle, and his clan was destroyed. It’s not known when she began her Zen practice – she was ordained as a nun in her fifties. Her Zen teachers were Enni Bennen (Shoichi Kokushi) of Tofukuji Monastery, and Wuxue Zuyuan (Mugaku Sogen). It is implied from imperial records that in order to gain entry to Tofukuji she has burned her face in order not to ‘distract the monks’…She was recognised as one of Mugaku Sogen’s Dharma heir, and has founded a sub-temple at Engakuji. Little is known about her as – allegedly – her Dharma nephew Muso Soseki erased all traces of this Zen abbess from the Engakuji history. He was a successor of the male Dharma heir of Mugaku Sogen. We can only speculate what was his motivation.

    Here is a poem that Mugai Nyodai (childhood name Chiyono) wrote upon enlightenment when a water pail broke (from Rep’s Zen flesh, Zen bones):

    In this way and that I tried to save the old pail/
    Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break/
    Until at last the bottom fell out./
    No more water in the pail!/
    No more moon in the water!

    We have a partial answer why women were invisible throughout centuries of Zen history. This is the representation of the Zen lineages as continuing through one main male Dharma heir. Modern Zen, while acknowledging more contemporary female successors, is not free of this omission. Toni Packer, the first Dharma heir of Kapleau Roshi, has been removed from some renditions of his lineage. She eventually formed her own meditation school. Another female Zen master, Charlotte Joko Beck, was  Taizan Maezumi Roshi’s Dharma heir who broke off with her teacher and formed the Ordinary Mind Zen. One of her successors, Barry Magid, is a co-founder of Lay Zen Teacher

    Association (LZTA). Even in my own lineage, the first female successor of Shinzan Roshi, Melody Eshin Cornell Roshi is not widely known.

    Let’s hope things will change with Zen moving to the West. But I have no hope this can change overnight. As somebody has said, it takes about 500 years for Zen to adapt to new society – we have another 400 plus years to go!


  9. Will our planet survive us?

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    Recently I’ve been asked to give a talk on any subject of interest to me to a group of undergraduate and postgraduate students at Oxford University. After some deliberation, the subject revealed itself: it is how we act upon and are acted on the natural world. And there is ‘how’ to consider, but also ‘why’. Our stance is conditioned by many factors, starting from cultural, economic, societal… Where to begin?

    As I intended this talk to be an introduction to a wide discussion, I’ve chosen a Buddhist viewpoint to start. I often repeat that Zen is experiential, no teachings are taken on face value – however there is some guiding principle of our actions. This can be traced back to the Buddhist cosmology, which defines humans’ place in the universe. Briefly, there are six realms: gods, semi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell. They are interconnected and beings transmigrate from one realm to another in an endless cycle of birth and death. Until, through ardent practice, they reach enlightenment which frees them from suffering.

    Does it imply no special standing of humans in the natural world, no special powers over animals, no free ticket for limitless exploitation? Yes, but with a caveat: it’s only humans who can reach freedom from suffering through application of their moral and mental faculties. Does it follow that humans should multiply without any consideration for other species? No, because buried more deeply is understanding of interconnectedness between humans, all sentient beings and the universe. In practical terms, it can be interpreted as having only as many children as a family can raise without condemning them to life in poverty. Such life would be counterproductive, as for too many it would mean fight for survival and lack of consideration for other humans, sentient being and the environment.

    The reverence for nature and conservation of resources is an integral part of Ch’an (Chinese) and Zen (Japanese) traditional monastic training. It has influenced the way of life in the East for many centuries.

    The ensuing discussion was lively as we looked at various facets of living in harmony with Nature – or eventually transforming Nature beyond recognition through domination of single species, humans. I was truly impressed by the respect that participants had for other than theirs point of view. I was encouraged by how the pieces of a complex picture started to fit together, and it became obvious that each one of us can play a role in doing good for the sake of others. Provided we start small, start from ourselves and hope that a shift in attitudes will save the Earth.


    I’m indebted to ‘An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics’ by Peter Harvey (Cambridge University Press, fourth printing 2004),  especially Chapter 4 “Attitude to and treatment of the natural world”

  10. How to meditate

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    Imagine you are a regular citizen who suddenly heard about mindfulness and meditation. Your curiosity is picked, and you start looking around. And there is a veritable supermarket of choices how to meditate: thousands of secular and Buddhist groups, hundreds of different techniques – most of them promise a quick success and lasting happiness. In the last decade or so there are also meditation applications with guided meditations so you can do three minutes… five minutes… longer times at any point in the day provided you’re welded to your mobile phone. Well I exaggerate a bit, just to make a point.

    How do you choose which one is suitable for you if you did not get discouraged already? There are two questions you need to ask: ‘why’ and ‘how’? Simplifying greatly, relaxation, stress relief and life enhancement are the reasons given in the secular context. But there is also the spiritual side: enlightenment or seeing reality. Let’s turn first to ‘how’.

    Compared to other traditions, Zen meditation – or zazen, sitting as we prefer to refer to this activity – Zen is boring. Most of the time. The chances are that you begin from counting breaths: one on inhale, two on exhale, three on inhale… and so forth, up to ten, when you come back to one and start all over again. Once you can hold your attention for a while, you can drop counting on inhale and just count (from one) on exhale. Again, from one to ten, and then back to one. And there are all this thoughts and distractions bothering you but you’re told not to worry about it. Let them come, let them go… always come back to counting, starting from one when you lose count. Eventually you’d be able to hold your attention for longer times, and then you may progress to following breath.

    On the other end of meditation techniques spectrum is shikan taza ‘just sitting’, also named fusho (the practice of presence or unborn mind). Often it is compared to being a mirror which reflect everything without judgement but does not hold anything – only reflects. This is possibly the most challenging of all techniques, and is the main one in Soto lineage.

    Why so? Let me quote an extract from a paper on “Zen meditation and mindfulness for modern times”, B.J. Gabrys and J.D. Skinner, in Proceedings of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association (ANPA) 32 (2011), A.D. Ford, Editor, the MPG Books Group (2012):

    “We teach four fundamental meditation and mindfulness techniques for health and well-being: bodyscan (a simplification of a traditional Zen practice called nanso no ho or soft ointment meditation), counting breath, following breath and fusho (the practice of presence or unborn mind). They serve as an anchor for attention to which we revert when distracted, and their relation to foundations of mindfulness is summarised below:

    Attaching attention

    • bodyscan – strong physical anchor
    • counting breath – abstract and physical anchor
    • following breath – physical anchor
    • fusho – no anchor  “

    The secret revealed – it’s all about anchor! Not really but rigorous Zen frowns upon meditation with sound, even New Age type soft music, as distraction. However, it is legitimate to take in sounds of natural world: tap-tapping of rain drops on the roof, sound of wind in trees, splash of ocean waves… We should not forget about chanting sutras (good) or repeating mantras aloud (not done in Zen Rinzai).

    At this point I make a distinction between listening to or making music. There is little known tradition in Zen of playing special flute or shakuhachi. This was a meditation practice for mendicant monks from Zen Fuke sect. They were known as komuso (monks of nothingness) and were in existence as a sect from about 1700 till 1872 (

    There are still some individuals who practice this way today, and there are plenty of short videos on YouTube. Somewhat randomly, I’ve picked up this video as it shows a monk in full attire in an urban setting.

    Playing shakuhachi became an art form, and there are several artists worldwide who took it into new zones. Adrian Freedman, a master of shakuhachi, is my favourite ( He refers to shakuhachi music as ‘music at the edge of silence’. For me this is silence at the edge of music, too. Especially at live concerts, his music – traditional pieces for shakuhachi as well as his own compositions – is truly transporting. Try it!

    So far it was all about ‘how’. Importantly we need to answer ‘why’, too. Part of the answer is already given above: handling stress, good relaxation, sharp focus… But there is a deeper reason, too – to gain an insight into how things really are; a spiritual reason. And this requires a long-term commitment. Accepting that things may get worse before they get better. Accepting this is travel into unknown. Like in old fables, there are scary monsters along the road but also breath-taking vistas. Motivation can wane, tiredness may set in – but if you press ahead, the reward will be there. Not a pot of gold, nothing tangible – simply a new perspective on life and contentment. Enlightenment comes in many forms; it can be a volcanic eruption or simply a gentle flow.

    All techniques only tell you about how to sit still, focus, open your mind. Practice makes perfect. Once you’re able to hold attention for a decent time span, there comes a choice, not unlike a fork in a road: one leads to sleep, the other to timeless space. You’d need to drop any technique to enter timeless, space-less universe. And come back again to your daily life, a little wiser, a little happier.