Transcending Fear

MLK 16-jan-2020


This Monday we celebrate Martin Luther King Junior’s (MLK) birthday.  With this in mind, Tesshin continued his discussion on MLK’s teachings, but from a Zen perspective.  This week Tesshin wanted to focus on the sermon “Antidotes for Fear” which while not as famous as the “I have a dream” speech, still has quite an impact when you really consider it.


Tesshin shared two quotes from the sermon …


“The New Testament (John 4:18) affirms, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear.” The kind of love which led Christ to a cross and kept Paul un-embittered amid the angry torrents of persecution is not soft, anemic, and sentimental. Such love confronts evil without flinching and shows in our popular parlance an infinite capacity “to take it.” Such love overcomes the world even from a rough-hewn cross against the skyline.”


“Everywhere men and women are confronted by fears that often appear in strange disguises and a variety of wardrobes.  … When unchecked, fear spawns a whole brood of phobias – fear of water, high places, closed rooms, darkness, loneliness, among others – and such an accumulation culminates in “phobia-phobia” or the fear of fear itself.”


Tesshin stopped here and asked the group how we can apply this wisdom to our current life.  Needless to say, there is no shortage of fear considering events of the prior year.  We need only to consider Covid, political unrest, economic turbulence, and continuous isolation to experience fear.  Tesshin pointed out that each of us is part of this multi-dimensional fear which is why this particular MLK teaching is so timely.  


Tesshin next discussed some of the antidotes to fear we should consider …


1)  We must face our fears honestly and ask why we are afraid.  

Radical honesty will grant us power over our fears.  We will not solve anything by escapism.  It has been said that many of our deepest fears were generated from childhood experiences.  Perhaps we had overbearing parents, or conversely, parents who abandoned us.  The key is to stop and explore your inner feelings and try to name that “thing” which is generating the fear.  Tesshin reminded us that practice can really help here.  Practice is all about slowing the mind from distractions and exploring what “really is.” 


2)  We can master fear through the supreme virtue of courage.  

It is said that nothing which is worth doing is easy.  Confronting fear will not be easy.  Courage does not need to be violent or showy.  Courage can be something as simple as deciding to stop, sit, and face your “daemons.”  This is what MLK meant when he said that which confronts evil is not soft or anemic, rather it is unflinching. 


3)  Fear is mastered through love.  

It should come as no surprise that the New Testament, which is a document of love and compassion, talks about a strong and unflinching love.  Love is faith and faith is love.  Love provides the WHY which can drive you to actually confront your fear.  Nietzsche said that, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”  Now, if we have the New Testament and Nietzsche agreeing on a point, we are really on to something!


4)  Fear is mastered through faith.  

Here Tesshin mentioned that the common source of fear is the realization of insufficient “spiritual resources.”  Of the four antidotes, Tesshin through this last one was the most interesting because faith is a bit different in Zen than in MLK’s Christianity.  The anger and fear we see in the public realm are from a sense of false scarcity.  We may feel that our needs mean you need to take something away from someone else.  As an example, “My wins are your losses.”  Zen teaches us that there is no scarcity of anything.  We say this every time we chant the Heart Sutra.  Life is complete in and of itself – nothing is missing.  You may not realize this today, but through practice you will discover that inner perfection of life.  This faith is what keeps Tesshin going through the ups and downs of life.  This is the core of an unflinching faith which can continuously and confidently confront fear.


Tesshin wrapped by asking us to do a small “homework” assignment.  He challenged us to do the “KEEP – START – STOP” exercise… 


KEEP:  What are the three things I have been doing which I will continue to do this year.  

START:  What are three NEW things I will try or begin this year.  

STOP:  What are three things I will eliminate or stop doing this year.

Tender and Tough

MLK 9-jan-2020


Tesshin used his talk this week to recount one of the most important teachings of Martin Luther King Junior and attempt to cast it in a Zen perspective.  The timing of this was driven by many of the events of the past year including Covid, protests, and general unrest in the United States.


In this teaching King states:  


A French philosopher once said that “No man is so strong unless he bears within his character antitheses strongly marked.” The strong man is the man who can hold in a {living blend} strongly marked opposites. Very seldom do men achieve this balance of opposites. The idealists are not usually realistic, and the realists are not usually idealistic. The militant are not usually passive, and the passive are not usually militant. The humble are very seldom self-assertive and the self-assertive are rarely humble. But life at its best is a creative synthesis. It is the bringing together of opposites into fruitful harmony. As the philosopher [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel said, “truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.” 


Tesshin remarked that this is a teaching on how important it is to bring opposite parts of our life into balance.  He mentioned that this should not be a big surprise to anyone currently journeying on the path to true realization.  However, he did ask, is toughness versus tenderness a dualism?  No!  What King is suggesting is for us to be a “real” person and not play at a false ideal.  King tells us to be tender and tough.  What he is saying is to simply be your true self in THIS moment.  Do not play to some imaginary “audience,” rather be your authentic self and do what YOU think is right.  Don’t say tender words if toughness is needed because you think that is what society expects.  On the other hand, there is not a need to be needlessly tough just to be punitive.  A simple example would be confiscating the car keys from your friend who has had a bit too much to drink.  Forcibly taking the keys is being tough, but your intentions are definitely tender.


Next, Tesshin recounted a famous interview of the Dalai Lama.  The interviewers were complimenting him about how tranquil and peaceful he was.  He smiled and thanked the interviewers for their profuse compliments.  He then noted that it is easy to see him this way on a stage in front of many followers.  What they are missing, however, is his everyday human life.  If the interviewers lived with him every day, they would see that he gets as mad and frustrated as any other person.  Why?  … because he is a human – of course!  


Tesshin stopped here and reminded us of the talks he just finished in the prior four weeks.  This is exactly the mountains and water of Dogen again!!  The true nature of water is water.  The true nature of human is human.  Water changes state but it is still water.  The Dalai Lama changes his state, but he is still what he is.  Tesshin continued that we all go through physical or psychological challenges.  But do not identify these challenges with your true identity.  This is not your true nature.  Our true nature is being ourselves.  No separation from the moment …  Tough, Tender, Strong, Weak, Tall, Short, and so on, and so on.


We can easily extend this way of thinking to the noise and racket of current events.  The incursion into the Capitol is not the true nature of the country.  We must look deeper.  Tesshin recalled his own teacher – Ban Roshi.  He had lived through so much.  He was held in a Russian poisoner of war camp during WW2.  His ears were deformed from frostbite from his time in the camp.  He body was wrecked in older age and he needed a pacemaker.  However, he was always happy, strong, and even giddy.  How can this beaten-up old man be like this?  This is because his body is not his true nature.  So, I lose a finger – that is not me.  So, I am old – that is not me.  He would keep asking, “What am I really?”  This, of course, is the fulcrum which our entire practice revolves around!  So, the country is beaten-up a bit.  Covid spreads, people struggle, fear is high – however, it is not the true nature of us or the country.


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that the beauty of King’s teaching is that we are not just one thing.  We have to be ourselves.  We have to live our own rich life.  Our lives are the mountains and are the water.  So our true teachers are the mountains and are the water.

Our Life is a Noun

Life as a Noun


This week Tesshin concluded his four part series on the Mountains and Waters Sutra from Dogen.   (You can find the text HERE)


Tesshin started by reading the following passage …


“… from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water, they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way.… Furthermore, there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way.”


Tesshin explained this passage in two ways.  First, what does one do by the water?  At the simplest level, one would catch fish to survive.  However, what else can a master do?  Well, they can catch humans as well.  In other words, they follow their obligation to teach the way.  However, even this is not really enough!  They also catch catching.  In true practice there is not a student or teacher or anything to learn.  So, what is being caught?  Understanding this is catching “catching!”


Tesshin next commented on the term “catching the self.” Dogen uses the metaphor of fishing.  When we normally go fishing, we may talk about the joy of being on the water and in the “great outdoors.”  Others may talk about the technique of casting or the intricacies of the equipment.  The core question is what is the essence of “fishing?”  Is it the experience of being on a boat on the water or the hooking of the fish?  It is the “hooking” of course – when we hook the fish – everything about fishing makes sense.  If we go out on a boat and play with a rod but catch no fish, are we really fishing?  This is what Dogen was getting at when he talked about hooking the self.  When we achieve this, the self is totally exposed and we realize that there is nothing outside the realm of the self.


Tesshin continued … 


“Priest Decheng abruptly left Mt. Yao and lived on the river.  There he produced a successor, the wise sage of the Huating. Is this not catching a fish, catching a person, catching water, or catching the self? The disciple seeing Decheng is Decheng. Decheng guiding his disciple is his disciple.”


Decheng was a zen master in the 8th century.  During this time Zen was repressed by the government, so Decheng became a ferryman on a river.  One day a disciple named Huating came to seek wisdom.  Decheng agreed to teach and invited Huating onto the ferry.  They get out to the middle of the river and Decheng throws the student into the river!  He then threw himself into the river as well.  Dogen is teaching in this parable that the path, seeker, teacher all disappear into the single “perfection” of suchness.  Dogen asks, “Is this not hooking a fish, person, water, self?”  


Tesshin mentioned that the non separation of teacher, student, Dharma, and reality is a common theme in Zen.  There is nothing outside of the realm of reality and truth.  When in practice, there is nothing outside of it.  What does this really mean and how can we apply it?  Tesshin stated that when we engage with people, places, and things, we are never really totally engaged – this is why we perceive things are outside.  Our practice is one of total engagement – only then do we truly understand that there is nothing outside of reality of this moment.


Tesshin continued …


“It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is also a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the phenomenal world. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in one staff. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of Buddha ancestors. You should thoroughly examine the meaning of this. 

Therefore, water is the true dragon’s palace. It is not flowing downward. To consider water as only flowing is to slander water with the word “flowing.” This would be the same as insisting that water does not flow. Water is only the true thusness of water. Water is water’s complete virtue; it is not flowing. When you investigate the flowing of a handful of water and the not-flowing of it, full mastery of all things is immediately present.”


Here Tesshin cracked a smile via Zoom and stated that in many things in life there is “more sizzle than steak” but not in Dogen!  Here we have all steak and no sizzle!  The above passage is explaining that in normal thinking we attempt to “divvy” everything up and make judgements.  Dogen is saying that the “divine” is in everything – or stated differently, everything is in everything.  Stop splitting it all up!  Everything is complete and perfect.  Do not create distance between practice and everyday life.


So what does Dogen mean when he says that “Water is the palace of the true dragon (aka understanding or enlightenment)” There is not duality in flowing and not flowing – that is a misunderstanding.  Tesshin noted that when we think of our lives, we think in adjectives and adverbs.  For instance, we say that the economy is good or bad or that the weather is hot or cold, etc.  Dogen is telling us to stop getting lost in adjectives and focus on the noun.  Water is water and does what water does!    So, what is a mountain or a river?  No, do not describe it as high or wet.  A mountain is a mountain complete in itself.  A river is a river perfect in all respects.  You are you – also perfect in all respects.  Tesshin was clear here – you are not a collection of attributes – you are you and you must live you!  This way of thinking is a way of grounding yourself in existence, life, the breath, and this moment.  It teaches us to get out of our head and favor direct experience instead of elaborate mental illusions. 

The Message of Water



Tesshin continued this week with the Mountains and Waters passage from Dogen.  He commented that Kensho is the state when we suddenly see the deeper meanings of things – like deeply understanding the walking of mountains.  It can be dramatic, but it is but a “slice” of the deeper meaning of existence.   We must keep building on this and not rest on past achievements.  In this spirit, Tesshin moved on from mountains and started discussing the second part of Dogen’s passage – namely the meaning of water.  This passage is short, but it packs three major messages…


Water is neither strong nor weak, neither wet nor dry, neither moving no still, neither cold nor hot, neither existent nor non-existent, neither deluded nor enlightened. 


Tesshin paused and asked us if this sounded familiar?  Of course, it does!  The Heart Sutra talks in a similar way.  Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.  This is the first major lesson we are presented with in this section.  So much of what we assume to be real is due to our karmic background and our ingrained patterns of thought.  What water is for us depends so much on what our preconceptions of water happen to be. 


When water solidifies, it is harder than a diamond. Who can crack it? When water melts, it is gentler than milk. Who can destroy it? Do not doubt that these are the characteristics water manifests. You should reflect on the moment when you see the water of the ten directions as the water of the ten directions. 


Here is the second lesson.  The nature of water is constantly changing.  It is said that you never step into the same river twice as the river changes moment to moment.  Think about it for a minute – even the very water molecules are different each time you step into the flowing river.  In December a river in New York is frozen and, as Dogen says, is as hard as a diamond.  At the same moment, in the Bahamas the water is gentler than milk.  Is the water different there?  Isn’t the water in both places the same thing?


This is not just studying the moment when human and heavenly beings see water; this is studying the moment when water sees water. This is a complete understanding. You should go forward and backward and leap beyond the vital path where other fathoms other.


What does it mean when water sees water?  This is the “turning point” of the entire passage, and the third lesson.  We know that the way of seeing mountains and water differs depending on who sees it.  How would water understand water in this exact moment?  Dogen implies that this insight is critical to understanding!  Here Tesshin was clear – water seeing water verifies “wateriness!”  It is the same with us!    Simply doing our life verifies our life.  The best expression of our human life is to live it in the moment.  Water does what water does.  Humans do what humans do.  The advice is not to over study life – experience is much more valuable.  


All beings do not see mountains and waters in the same way.  Some beings see water as a jeweled ornament, but they do not regard jeweled ornaments as water. What in the human realm corresponds to their water? We only see their jeweled ornaments as water. Some beings see water as wondrous blossoms, but they do not use blossoms as water. Hungry ghosts see water as raging fire or pus and blood. Dragons see water as a palace or a pavilion. Some beings see water as the seven treasures or a wish-granting jewel. Some beings see water as a forest or a wall. Some see it as the Dharma nature of pure liberation, the true human body, or as the form of body and essence of mind. Human beings see water as water. Water is seen as dead or alive depending on causes and conditions. Thus the views of all beings are not the same. You should question this matter now. 


Here Dogen asks that if different types of being see different natures of water – who has the “real truth about water?”  Is there an absolute truth or do we all have mistaken images?  Can we all be right and wrong at the same moment?  For dragons, the water is a palace, but “hungry ghosts” it is a fire.  For humans it is “water” but we are not sure what this word even means!  (solid, liquid, gas??)  


It is the same with our life.  How we see our lives is what it exactly is.  You are creating your life every minute.  If you switch your perspective – your life changes.  This is the message of water.  Everything around you changes depending on your perception.  Some of this perception is due to your karma and history, but a lot of it is under your direct control.  Tesshin noted that taking control of our perceptions is a large part of what our practice is about.  


Tesshin wrapped up by again stating the main lessons of water according to Dogen.

•Experience is relative

•Our perception of life is our reality

•The act of being water is water.  The act of living is life is life

Mountain and Water Lecture 2

Mountains and Water2


Tesshin used his talk this week to continue the discussion on the Mountains and Waters sutra from Dogen’s Shobogenzo.  


For convenience, here is an online translation of the sutra


This week, Tesshin recited the following sections below …


Because green mountains walk, they are permanent.  Although they walk more swiftly than the wind, someone in the mountains does not realize or understand it. “In the mountains” means the blossoming of the entire world. People outside the mountains do not realize or understand the mountains walking. Those without eyes to see mountains cannot realize, understand, see, or hear this as it is. If you doubt mountains’ walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking. Since you do not know your walking, you should fully know the green mountains’ walking. Green mountains are neither sentient nor insentient. You are neither sentient nor insentient.  At this moment, you cannot doubt the green mountains’ walking.


You should also examine walking backward and backward walking and investigate the fact that walking forward and backward has never stopped since the very moment before form arose…


Green mountains master walking and eastern mountains master traveling on water.  Accordingly, these activities are a mountain’s practice. Keep its own form, without changing body and mind, a mountain always practices in every place. Don’t slander by saying that a green mountain cannot walk and an eastern mountain cannot travel on water. When your understanding is shallow, you doubt the phrase, “Green mountains are walking.” When your learning is immature, you are shocked by the words “flowing mountains.” Without full understanding even the words “flowing water,” you drown in small views and narrow understanding. Yet the characteristics of mountains manifest their form and life-force.  There is walking, there is flowing, and there is a moment when a mountain gives birth to a mountain’s child. Because mountains are Buddha ancestors, Buddha ancestors appear in this way.  Even if you see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not take this seriously or worry about it; it is not complete realization. Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures shining, this is not the true source. Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all Buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to. Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all Buddhas’ inconceivable qualities, the truth is not only this. These are conditioned views. This is not the understanding of the Buddha ancestors, but just looking through a bamboo tube at the corner of the sky. Turning an object and turning the mind is rejected by the great sage. Explaining the mind and explaining true nature is not agreeable to Buddha ancestors. Seeing into mind and seeing into true nature is the activity of people outside the way. Set words and phrases are not the words of liberation. There is something free from all of these understandings: “Green mountains are always walking,” and “Eastern mountains travel on water.” You should study this in detail.


What does all this mean?


For Tesshin the idea of this passage understanding what is the “real truth” versus “convenient truth.”  He again cautioned us that the above passage is not a poetic metaphor for Dogen – it is reality!!   Dogen would agree with us that a rock is a rock and a mountain is a mountain.  This is not in dispute!  The issue is that we see this truth and assume it to be the entire truth.  What Dogen is telling us to do is stop and think deeper.  It is delusion to think that surface perception is the whole truth.  


Tesshin next mentioned that many people ask him why he stayed in japan to study for so long.  It was precisely because these delusions are so hard to eliminate.  Zen is not for the impatient – the learning curve is high.  Tesshin remarked that his teacher had to gently deconstruct many of his conceptions and delusions over his 20 years of study.  All of his inflated ideas had to be deflated one by one.  You might start with the stubborn idea that a rock is a rock.  You then read Dogen and think that the rock is sentient and is walking.  “No, No, No – my precious student.  Keep trying – you are missing it!”  Start by asking yourself what is a rock and what is walking.  Tesshin’s teacher had to patiently show him that there is so much more than surface ideas and assumptions.  On top of all of this, it is well known that Americans are especially prone to the malady of lazy thinking.  We like our entire philosophy to fit on a bumper sticker!


Tesshin suggested to us that the rocks, grasses, and stones of the mountain are true but it is only a superficial level of understanding.  The splendors of understanding how we and the mountain are one is wonderful and deeper, but is still not the entire story.  Our practice is to keep digging deeper and deeper – we need to keep going.  Again, this tradition is not one for rapid gratification!  Progress is not enlightenment it is just progress.  Even when we reach the realization of the Buddhas themselves – we are not there yet.  


However, Tesshin was clear, our practice is not useless or futile – our work is real and valid.  Changing one’s perspective, even in a small way is very valuable.  The idea is not to get smug and self-satisfied.  A simple metaphor would be weight training.  Today you can lift 100 pounds – congratulations!  Are you done?  No!  We can keep working and lift 110 pounds next week.  Some of us may become Olympic weight lifters and others will not, but everyone showing up the gym will become a bit more fit.  This is our practice – we work ever day to become just a bit more open to the ground truth of reality.  

Mountains and Water

Mountains and Water


Tesshin started with a Zen Joke this week …

Why there are so few monks in the world – they could not get the “chants.”  Ha Ha Ha!!


Tesshin next commented that we are entering the season where the days get short and cold.  It should be no surprise that the ceremonies of the season focus on providing light and warmth.  One reason we may do this is to fight off the depression that this darker and colder season brings.  However, perhaps there is something else we can do.  Tesshin suggested that we should look towards Dogen for some ready answers.  To help us along, Tesshin will be spending the next few weeks exploring the Mountains and Waters Sutra (book 29) of the Shobogenzo.  Tesshin likened this Sutra to a “All you can eat buffet of Wisdom!

(Some helpful links below…)


Wikipedia Entry

Translation with Commentary


First, Tesshin quoted some key passages from the Sutra…

The blue mountains are constantly walking; the stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.” The mountains lack nothing, hence they are constantly at rest and constantly walking. We must devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking. The walking of the mountains is like that of people; do not doubt that mountains walk simply because they may not appear to walk like humans. These words of the Patriarch Ta-yang point out the fundamental meaning of walking, and we should thoroughly investigate his teaching on “constant walking.” Because the blue mountains are walking, they are constant. Their walk is swifter than the wind; yet those in the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. To be “in the mountains” is a flower opening in the world. Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth. [They] who doubt that mountains walk do not yet understand [their] own walking. It is that [they do] not yet understand, have not yet made clear, [their] walking. He who would understand his own walking must also understand the walking of the blue mountains. The blue mountains are neither sentient nor insentient; the self is neither sentient nor insentient. Therefore, we can have no doubts about these blue mountains walking.


What does this mean?  Our first reaction may be to assume that these phrases are some type of poetic license on Dogen’s part.  Perhaps it is a riddle to catch our attention for a deeper lesson.  Here Tesshin was clear – there is no poetry or riddle here.  This is “ground truth” according to Dogen!


Tesshin next started to explain.  If we look at our lives in a Newtonian perspective – we have size and space and time.  We deal with common problems the best we can in this framework.  This is our truth.  However, if we take the here and now and look at it from a different perspective – say a quantum perspective – our daily perceptions no longer have size and shape – and common meaning.  So does the Newtonian reality exist – YES!  Does the quantum reality exist – YES!  Tesshin asked the group – how can they both be true when they are so very different?  


This is what Dogen is trying to get us to see.  Sometimes what we see in our day-to-day life baffles us and only becomes clear when we look at it in another way.  Of course, Dogen did not use the terms “Newtonian” and “Quantum!”  He used the terms Mountains and Rivers, but the point is the same.  When you look at a mountain in the conventional sense, you have split the world into you and the mountain.  The mountain is static and unchanging.  Can you change your perspective?  How about if you were on or in the mountain?   What happened if you BECAME the mountain?  Suddenly “mountain” is very different.  Dogen says, “To be in the mountains is a flower opening in the world. Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth”

He is imploring us to experience the mountain in a different way!  


Another way to think of this is that in the past the term mountain was understood to mean stillness like Zazen or timeless wisdom of the Dharma.  Zen masters were sometimes referred to as mountains.  On the other hand, water or rivers are in constant motion.  Our evolving Buddha nature is seen to resemble water.  So, is our mind a mountain or is it a river?  That is the wrong question!  Dogen tells us that our stability is the stability of water and our evolving spirit is like a mountain.  It is the same thing.    


Tesshin commented that the mountains always walk even though they cannot move.  The problem is not with the mountains walking, but your expectation of what walking is and means.  We make presumptions about existence, but are they all really true? Tesshin suggested that our assumptions about walking derive from how we walk and how we think we exist in the world.  Dogen says that the stone woman gives birth at night.  Again, we immediately project our prior experience on a statement like this and reject it.  What is a stone woman and what is birth in the absolute sense?


Tesshin next brought the discussion back to the emerging season.  We perceive the days as being shorter and colder.  We react by celebrating the light and giving presents.  However, have we ever stopped to wonder if these cold days are actually already perfect?  The mountains do walk and the stone woman does give birth.  It is not about fixing perceived problems – it is about studying ourselves and our whole conceptual framework.  It is about seeing more!  Once we find the abiding perfection – we are liberated.  There is nothing to do – it already exists.


Tesshin stated that this change in perspective is not easy – we cannot see the mountain walking because we have a fixed perspective of what a mountain is.  However, we only see it from a distance.  We see it with our assumptions – thus we never really see it.  We see it with our own personal karmic package.  Dogen is telling us to get closer – and then even closer!  Can you do that?

Zen Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories


Tesshin structured his talk a bit differently this week.  Instead of a normal Dharma talk, he decided to share a few “ghost stories.”  Stories like this are common in the Zen tradition.  However, when a Zen master shares a ghost story, we can be sure it is a bit more than your typical tale told around the campfire toasting marshmallows!   


The first story was something which actually happened to Tesshin when he was first starting as a student at his temple in Japan.  In the early days, he was practicing by himself.  His day would start at 4am with trips to the meditation hall for sitting and chanting.  One morning in the hallway outside the Zendo he saw a small pile of some strange substance.   He cleaned it, but it left a stain in the wood.    Next morning, the mound was back in the exact same spot – and Tesshin cleaned it up again.  This pattern went on for a number of days.  Finally, out of exasperation, Tesshin asked one of his rural farmer neighbors to explain this strange phenomenon.  The farmer laughed and said that it was simply bat poop!  The temple must be filled with bats!!  Tesshin searched high and low, but could not find any bats anywhere in the temple building.  What now??   With no clear answers, Tesshin asked his elder “dharma brother” (more senior student or practitioner) what could be causing this.  The answer was even more surprising – the temple did not have bat – rather it had bat ghosts!  The answer here is to dedicate the merits of the next few zazen sessions to the spirit of this bat.  The strangest thing is that this worked – no more bat poop!  If you visit Tetsugyuji Temple today, you will still be able to see the stain in the wood!  


The second “ghost story” is a very famous one in the Zen tradition.  It goes like this …


The wife of a man became very sick. On her deathbed, she said to him, “I love you so much! I don’t want to leave you, and I don’t want you to betray me. Promise that you will not see any other women once I die, or I will come back to haunt you.”


For several months after her death, the husband did avoid other women, but then he met someone and fell in love. On the night that they were engaged to be married, the ghost of his former wife appeared to him. She blamed him for not keeping the promise, and every night thereafter she returned to taunt him. The ghost would remind him of everything that transpired between him and his fiancé that day, even to the point of repeating, word for word, their conversations. It upset him so badly that he couldn’t sleep at all.


Desperate, he sought the advice of a Zen master who lived near the village. “This is a very clever ghost,” the master said upon hearing the man’s story. “It is!” replied the man. “She remembers every detail of what I say and do. It knows everything!” The master smiled, “You should admire such a ghost, but I will tell you what to do the next time you see it.”


That night the ghost returned. The man responded just as the master had advised. “You are such a wise ghost,” the man said, “You know that I can hide nothing from you. If you can answer me one question, I will break off the engagement and remain single for the rest of my life.” “Ask your question,” the ghost replied. The man scooped up a handful of beans from a large bag on the floor, “Tell me exactly how many beans there are in my hand.”


At that moment the ghost disappeared and never returned.


Tesshin asked everyone to respond to this story.  This is interesting.  Why should we respond?  Did you ever remember responding or demonstrating your understanding of a ghost story when you were a kid?  This is a clue that there is more to these stories than simply thrills and chills.  So, what does these ghosts and spirits represent?  We should not shrug here – this is important.  


Many of the students theorized that the ghost was a representation of the ego or mind.  In other words, the bat was Tessin and the wife’s ghost was nothing more than the man.  These spirits are manifestations of the ego causing delusions!  Tesshin’s Dharma Brother, in a kind way, told Tesshin to return to the Zafu and meditate and dedicate the labor of meditation to the bat’s spirit.   In other words, dedicate the merit to his own liberation!    The Zen master in the second story claims that this ghost is very clever.  (hmmm!)  The only way the man can dispel this ghost is by having the insight that the spirit is simply a manifestation of his own mind.  The man picks up an unknowable number of beans and challenges the ghost to tell him the number.  The ghost cannot know because the man himself does not even know.  The ghost is the man – poof – no ghost!


Tesshin wrapped up by stating that ego is a clever adversary on the path to liberation.  Delusion is a challenge which will never end.  However, we build strength against it as we mature in practice.  This is why we practice every day.

No Finger, No Moon

Finger to Moon


Tesshin used his talk this week to caution us about “elitism” in Zen.  This particular delusion comes in many shapes and sizes.  In the West there is a certain sense of spiritual superiority associated with Zen practice.  In Asian Buddhist societies there is also a kind of exclusivity where certain practices are associated with a “Greater Vehicle” and other practices and traditions are associated with a “Lesser Vehicle.”  Both of these delusions can be amplified by racial and class overtones.  For instance, in the West, Zen practice has historically been concentrated in white upper middleclass groups.  In the East, Mahayana is concentrated in the richer northeast Asia (China, Japan, Korea) whereas Hinayana, or more properly called Theravadin Buddhism is concentrated in the poorer southeast Asia.  (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, etc.)   Unfortunately, it seems that the delusion of practicing a “better class” of Buddhism has infected both east and west.  This should not be a surprise, however, as all people suffer from the same types of delusion!!


Tesshin paused at this point to be very clear – there is not a better or worse vehicle of Buddhism, or for that matter, any spiritual tradition.  They are all valid means of gaining insight and liberation from suffering.  What is really important is a student’s intent and how “far along” they are in practice.  To illustrate this point, Tesshin returned to the parable of the master pointing at the moon and discussed how different students at different places on the path would experience the master’s finger.  Tesshin’s goal here is to “redefine” greater and lesser vehicles away from what tradition you follow and more about OUR mind and the state and strength of OUR practice.  


Tesshin invited us to imagine we were alive 2500 years ago and Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching his disciple Ananda.  He points at the moon and says …


“You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”  


Tesshin then asked, how would someone at the most basic level “Lesser Vehicle” experience the master’s message.  The easiest way to think of this level is when you entered a Zendo for the first time.  Everything was amazing and otherworldly.  The Sensei comes out accompanied by his attendants.  You mind is racing and you know something different is happening.  The first reaction is veneration and perhaps a bow or even prostration is in order.  Many practitioners of Buddhism are at this level.  Is this a bad level to be at? – NO!  If one travels through Asia, you will see devotion everywhere.  (northeast and southeast)  Our Western egos look down on devotion as inauthentic practice – but we must remember that the sixth patriarch of Zen was instantly enlightened by hearing the Diamond Sutra!!  Devotion is a totally viable vehicle to Nirvana if practiced correctly.


Tesshin next asked us to imagine someone using the “Middle Vehicle.”  This is where many of us are in the West and it can be the most dangerous vehicle!  He we go beyond ritual and devotion and try to understand the Dharma at its deepest levels.  The challenge is that we are doing it intellectually.  We are reading books and studying instead of experiencing the Dharma directly.  We are trying to find out how we can “utilize” the Dharma to make our lives better.  Someone here would see the master pointing at the moon and may ask him why he is pointing at the moon and not a tree.  They may think that the master is pointing at a crescent moon and a full moon would be so much more effective.  This person is lost in detail.  However, if the intention is pure – namely to really live and experience the truth –  than the act of studying can be a type of meditation which prepares the student for higher achievement and is not a total waste of time.


Tesshin next described the “Great Vehicle.” Here a student realizes that the Dharma is not something out there to learn, but rather something which is already internal.  You are not practicing Zen – you are Zen manifest!  It is alive and breathing in every act you are doing.  Here the student winks at the Master and completely disregards the finger.  It is the Moon and the moonlight shines everywhere throughout space and time.


Tesshin asked the group, what is greater than the Great Vehicle of Liberation?  This state, of course, is Nirvana.  Here there is no moon, teacher, or student.  Nothing needs to be said or asked.  All that is present is [X]!


So, when we become smug in our confidence in choosing the right practice and having the right knowledge – it is important to realize how far away we really are from the goal.  The tradition does not matter, the teacher does not matter, the books do not matter.  All that matters is reality and our experience of it.  




Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the concept of “Saṅkhāra” which is fundamental to Buddhism.  This is a tricky word to translate.  The formal definition is “formations,” but this does not fully explain it.  Tesshin prefers the definition of “that which has been put together and that which puts together.”  Stated differently, we can contemplate Saṅkhāra as considering all the phenomena which come together to make something and how that very something contributes to everything else in the universe.  This definition should make you immediately think of the unending chain of Karma and codependent origination.  Simply stated there is nothing in the universe which is not comprised of other things and everything in the universe contributes to the formation of other things.  


Tesshin mentioned that this is what the Heart Sutra is saying when it states that everything is empty.  It is important to remember this, because the western term “empty” means something much more negative and this is one of the reasons people new to Buddhism consider it very nihilistic.  


So how do we work with Saṅkhāra?  First, we should realize that there are no absolutes in our existence.  Things are always changing and transforming.  However, in the West, we have been conditioned to think that we have complete, or near complete control over conditions.    If you steal consistently, you will probably be having a conversation with a policeman.  Alternatively, if you study hard, you will probably end up with a well-paying job.  Even an infant can see that it has ‘control’ over things in its environment.  It can cry and see its mother come running.  


But if we think a bit deeper, we realize this is only an approximation of reality.  We quickly realize that there are facts outside of our control.  One may study hard, but if you are in a war zone, you may not end up with that “plum job.”  In that same war zone, you may be forced to steal because there is no food available.  Even in our life today, one may have studied hard but graduated into the Covid economy with far fewer jobs.  We quickly see that we don’t control the situation entirely.  Tesshin reminded us that these examples are not provided to make us depressed, rather they serve to remind us to look at the deeper karmic conditions which brought us to a given place.  We are invited to go deeper than simply assuming we have complete control of everything.


Tesshin continued that there is even a deeper level than this.  This is larger than anything we can directly and casually perceive.  It is understanding absolute reality.  It is the moon which the master’s finger keeps pointing at.  It is the point where we simultaneously understand ALL the conditions in life and reality.  It is so wide and deep!  For most of us, our feelings, emotions, and state of being determine our world.  The Buddha taught that our immediate condition drives our karma.  If we want to step off the cycle of karma, we must remember that there is so much more than what is directly in front of our nose!  This is really where our agency or control lies.  This is the practice of working with Saṅkhāra.


Tesshin next used a personal example to illustrate this point.  He commented that he is a pretty “mean” chef and looks forward every year to Thanksgiving.  He was looking forward to a “properly socially distanced” gathering this year with family and friends.  However, only a few days before the big holiday he learned that one of his children had contact with another child who tested positive for Covid.  This means that Tesshin’s entire family must now quarantine.  Furthermore, he learned that the infected child’s family knew of the condition but did nothing to prevent the spread.  Needless to say, Tesshin’s immediate reaction was disappointment and anger as his holiday is now all but cancelled.  He asked, how do you really sit with this?  Like much in our tradition, it is deeply inspecting the situation honestly…


•Why am I angry?  

•What are the conditions which led to this situation?

•What can I control and what was outside of my control?  

•What are my attachment delusions?

• … and lastly, how do I choose to deal with the situation in this moment?


When we explore these questions, we see the depth of Saṅkhāra and we realize that our scope of agency is very small.  Tesshin asked us to explore that this week.

Recipe for a Balanced Life

Life Balance


Tesshin opened his talk this week pondering on how we can proceed on the Bodhisattva path in the middle of so many challenges.  The days are now getting shorter and colder and Covid is forcing us to self-isolate again.  It is a natural reaction to pull in a bit and ‘hibernate.’  Needless to say, this is not what we want to do!  So, how can we be empowered and happy and balanced in our training during this challenging time?


Tesshin mentioned that a Zen minister friend of his has a simple recipe for this exact situation.  Basically, it consists of three ingredients:


Bearing Witness:  This is the act of being able to sit with equanimity and without judgement.  This step encourages us to take in all the aspects of the world, both positive and negative. 


Tesshin noted, that if we don’t have a practice, it is so easy to become overwhelmed with everything going on.  The cup is full – there is no capacity to grow and help others.  Tesshin mentioned that this is the point of our work on the cushion.  We need to calm the mind so that we can open up and see what really “is” without the ego constantly judging, categorizing, and forming detailed plans.  The challenge is to simply experience everything directly and authentically.


Taking Care:  This is the step of actually taking action in the world.  


Zen has often been criticized as being a wholly theoretical practice.  This is actually incorrect!  Once we have actually experienced the world impartially, we have the chance to take the “skillful” or correct action.  The main point here is that with a clear and stable mind, our decision-making process is much more robust.  Decisions are less governed by emotion or stories from our past, rather they are grounded in a clear understanding of the present situation in front of us.


Make the World a Better Place:  What are the guiding principles driving action?  


Properly apprehending reality and having clear decision-making processes is not enough.  What is the goal of right-action?  Zen teaches the importance of all sentient beings and that the alleviation of suffering must be our highest aim.  How do you make the voice of universal compassion heard?  Can you go out into the real world and actually change karma?  This is something we should ask every day.  It is important to remember that the laws of karma are not always obvious.  What may seem like a small act of kindness will echo through reality with the sound of thunder due to how karma works.


Tesshin next related this to a situation in his own life.  He started a book called “Caste” which about race relations in America.  He wondered out loud how he could “bear witness” to something deeply disturbing like this with everything else going on in his life.  It is not enough to simply read a book and acknowledge facts.  One must read, understand, and take affirmative steps to change karma.  This is a tall order!  Tesshin admitted he was overwhelmed even though he has a strong practice.  Part of the Bodhisattva way is understanding yourself as you really are in this moment!   Tesshin admitted that right now he could not even properly bear witness to this work.  The best and most clearheaded decision was to shift to “self-care” in order to recharge.  How can you change karma when your own life situation is demanding immediate attention?  The Buddhist tradition and many other spiritual traditions remind us of this fact.   Universal compassion includes the self.  You too are a sentient being.  This is part of bearing witness to reality with absolute authenticity and then making skillful decisions.


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us that, first and foremost, a strong and consistent practice is key to happiness.  This is because it allows the mind to settle which allows us to see reality and properly bear witness.  Once we have that, we can apply universal compassion to actually start improving the karma of the world which is not a bad goal for us to take into this period of time.