The Teacher’s Last Lesson



Tesshin opened his talk with a conversation he had this week with a leader of a spiritual organization going through many transformations and challenges.  Their teacher had passed away and the organization needed to chart a new direction.  While this organization is not Buddhist, it got Tesshin thinking about the concept of a Sangha and how it can help with our practice.


In this case of this particular spiritual community, the teacher had left behind quite a large history, community, and set of teachings.  The critical question now is what happens to these things when the leader departs.  What does the next “generation” do with these teachings?  We have seen many times that members become “attached” to the forms and the tradition quickly becomes stale.  Yes, it is said that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” but implicit in that is the challenge to keep things fresh and relevant.


Tesshin also noticed that when a teacher passes, the relationship between the other members of the group necessarily changes and could become strained.  This challenge is not new and has really existed since there have been great teachers and spiritual communities.  One can say that one of the last lessons a great teacher provides their students with is how to deal with their passing.  Tesshin noted that ego is very much wrapped up in the relationship with the teacher.  Who did the teacher think was the most accomplished?  Who should become the next teacher?  This is also a very common problem in Zen traditions with its strong tradition of student/teacher relationships.  Here we begin to see the value of this “last lesson.”  Tesshin commonly states that he is the “least important” person in the Zendo.  The message, like everything else in Zen, is meant to get your ego out of your way.  The teacher passing away does not mean practice ends – it is just another event on the long path!


Tesshin next noted that traditionally Zen teachers were happy to pull in wisdom from many other traditions.  Tesshin asked how other traditions can help us with the ego attachment we have to practice, our teachers, and to Zen itself.  He cited the example of Martin Buber who was a famous existential philosopher of the 20th century.  He worked in an area called the ‘Philosophy of Dialog’ and wrote a famous essay called “I and Thou.”  At its core this essay is about relationships.  Buber talks about two main classes of relationships…


•Between the “I” and the “It”

•Between the “I” and the “Thou”


The relationships between the I and the It tend to be very bounded and well understood.  Tesshin gave the example of the relationship between you and your car.  It is an important relationship, but it is bounded to things like maintenance, filling it with gas, and trips to work and the grocery store.  You can explain it to anyone, and if they have a car, they will completely understand.


The relationship between you and some other being – the “Thou” Buber talks about is something totally different!  This relationship is unbounded and constantly changing.  You can explain your relationship with your child or spouse to a co-worker, but they will never completely understand it.  Buber is stating that there is something very precious and special with this type of relationship.  


Tesshin asked how the relationship between the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ can help us remove ego from our practice.  To help us, Tesshin pointed at the Zen Koans.  He mentioned that Siddhartha gained enlightenment (understanding of true reality) while meditating.  However, in the Koans, most insights came from the relationship and interplay of the student with teachers, other students, and common people.  Tesshin paused here and noted that this was a very interesting insight.  Why is this?  It is exactly because of what Martin Buber was talking about.  The interrelation between you and another sentient being automatically weakens the ego.


The clear message is that Kensho does not happen in isolation for most people – it happens in relationships.  This is why relationships and Sanghas are so important to practice.  It is the Sangha which provides the strength to practice.  Tesshin noted that relationships are complex and messy.    However, it is this work and suffering which can open us up to the dissolution of the ego and open us to enlightenment.  


Tesshin wrapped up by noting that the lesson of “I and Thou” is a teacher’s last great gift.  It reminds us to subdue our individual ego and work with others along the path to enlightenment. 


Zen and Time


Tesshin used his talk this week to explore the concept of time – definitely not a small topic!  How does the concept of time affect our practice and how does our conditioning affect our perception of time?  Tesshin mentioned that we have been conditioned to think of time as having intrinsic meaning and value.  We commonly measure what we have accomplished relative to a time period.  We even do this in Zazen.  For instance, how many minutes did you go until you noticed your mind was drifting?  Is this fixation on relative time a stumbling point for our practice?  Tesshin invited us to carefully examine this.


Tesshin next mentioned that our relationship with time has changed over the past year with Covid and the resultant quarantine.  For many, time has slowed down as our lifestyles have changed and potentially slowed down.  In the absolute sense, nothing has changed with time, but in our day-to-day relative life much has changed.  This tension between the relative and absolute should come as no surprise to those committed to practice.  Tesshin reminded us that this tension will continue long after Covid fades into the mists of the past.


Tesshin next provided some examples about how time plays a big part in our understanding of progress and achievement.  For example, he cited the Perseverance probe’s “7-Minutes of Terror.”  This is a precisely timed sequence of steps from when the lander first hits the Martian atmosphere until it is safe on the planet’s surface.  Tens of thousands of labor-hours were invested in complex hardware and software to pull off this feat.  The entire process can only succeed with timing down to the second.  “7 minutes of terror,” sub-second timings, ten thousand labor hours.  Do you see how we are conditioned to bring time into everything we do?  Tesshin invited the group to think about how we do this on a day to day basis in our own lives.


Tesshin next noted that this attitude is opposite to our work on the cushion.  There is no time in meditation.  There is no meaning and achievement in Zazen.  Stated simply, “Time is Ego!”  Everything we attach to time is our ego wanting to be in control.  We have an opportunity on the cushion to be free of the tyranny of time.   We have all had the moment during sitting when we wonder when the practice bell is going to ring.  If we are honest, that kind of thinking is missing the opportunity which Zazen provides to us. 


Tesshin wrapped up by asked if we can we liberate ourselves from time and ego.  When we see time popping up during our sitting, we need to realize that the ego is reasserting control.  What to do?  Unsurprisingly, Tesshin recommended coming back to the breath!  In a way the breath is an absolute.  Siddhartha breathed, the patriarchs breathed, you breathe.  We all share this thing independent of time and space.  The breath is our best connection to transcend time and ego.

Yanguan’s Fan

Yanguan’s Fan


This week Tesshin reviewed case 91 from the Blue Cliff Record called “Yanguan and the Rhinoceros Fan”


The Case:

One day, Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”

The attendant said, “It is broken.”

Yanguan said, “If the fan is already broken, bring me the rhinoceros himself.”

The attendant gave no answer.

Touzi said, “I wouldn’t mind bringing that, but the horn on its head would not be complete.”

   (Xuedou said, “I need to see that incomplete horn.”)

Shishuang said, “If I brought it back to you, nothing would remain [for me].”

   (Xuedou said, “That rhinoceros is still there.”)

Zifu drew a circle and wrote the ideograph “ox” in it. [The Chinese character for “ox” is one of the two characters for “rhinoceros.”]

   (Xuedou said, “Why didn’t you bring it out sooner?)

Baofu said, “Master, you are so advanced in years. Please engage someone else.”

   (Xuedou said, “Regrettable! All efforts have proved fruitless!”)


Tesshin next provided some background on the people cited in the case.

Yanguan (750-842, 9th generation, Hongzhou) was a disciple of Mazu (709-788, 8th gen.). He trained with Mazu for 30 years, and, after Mazu died, wandered around for thirty more years. He was over seventy when he finally settled down to teach, until he died at ninety-two. 

Touzi (819-914, 11th gen.), Shishuang (807-88, 11th gen.), Zifu (870?-940?, 13th gen.), and Baofu (868-928, 13th gen.) were later masters whose response to the case has now become a part of the case. 

Xuedou (980-1052, 16th gen.) is the original compiler of the Blue Cliff Record, and here inserts his editorial comment. This is the only case in which Yanguan appears. 


Tesshin next broke down the case piece by piece in order to ensure that everyone understood the context.  He reminded us, however, that a koan is never about the individuals in the case or the story – these only serve to illustrate the real issue at hand.  The koan is always about YOU!


Yanguan is the head of the monastery.  The ox is an elegant animal and is a persistent symbol in Zen.  The same could be said of a rhino.  This particular master had an elegant hand-crafted fan created from rhino horn which must have been very beautiful and expensive.  So, the master asks for this fan and the attendant states that it is broken.  As normal, this dialog is a Zen test.  Ok, if the fan is broken, bring me the entire rhino!  What are we talking about here?  


Tesshin recalled a time at his temple in Japan when his teacher – Ban Roshi – presided over a service in a very elaborate outfit.  Tesshin was shocked – normally, monks wear plain robes.  This is not the Zen world he knew or signed up for!  How do fancy clothes support the message of Zen?  The master is calling forth this elaborate object.  It seems almost hypocritical.  Why have expensive outfits when others are starving?    Tesshin recalled the story of Bhagwan Rajneesh who was an Indian spiritual leader who became mired in financial and sexual scandal.  At one point, he visited Tesshin’s temple and was very put off by the austerity of Japanese Zen.  He would say that “Life is about living life – and not sitting around staring at walls!”  Did he have a point?  


So, we begin to see the tension arising in this koan.  Is life about the forms like bowing and robes or is life about living life to its fullest?  Can a student be so focused on the forms, liturgy, koans that they actually miss the point of the Dharma?  Zen is an experiential tradition, and has asked this question many times over.  However, things are never so simple.  The forms, when they are practiced properly, are a pipeline into the teaching.  It is wrong to cast aside all the forms.  If you want to have fun all the time – you also miss the point as nothing has any value.  One has earned nothing and understands nothing.  


At this point, Tesshin remarked that this should sound familiar.  We again are trying to split the world into dualisms.  Is this form good or bad?  Is the answer this or that?  How many times must we be told that both answers are right AND wrong.  This is our practice.  This is what the koan is trying to explain.  What the master is REALLY saying to the attendant is, “Bring me forth the Dharma!”  The attendant is no slouch and states that the fan is broken – I cannot bring you “suchness” any more than you can tell me what suchness is!  The attendant is almost chiding the master for trying to put words to that thing which cannot be described with words.  “See you have done it now – you have broken ‘IT’.  The master says that if the fan is broken, then bring the entire rhino.  What he is saying is that if you cannot bring me the answer, then bring me your entire heart-mind.    The attendant has no answer.  Is this because the attendant is not enlightened – or is he enlightened and knew not to say anything?


Tesshin reminded us that there is nothing outside of ourselves.  We are the rhino in all our brokenness.  We just are – perfect in the way only we can be.  Get to the source of who and what you are and display that.  This is what the master is asking for!  Yanguan is saying that I don’t need perfection – I need you – as you are already perfect – not some idealized thing.  Who we are right now is the perfect Dharma.


The koan then has Shishuang saying that if he gives the Dharma to Yanguan, nothing would remain for him.  Is that true?  Of course not!  You can never give away what you are already.  


Zifu then draws an Enso (Zen circle) and puts the word for Rhino inside of it.  The enso represents all of reality everywhere and everywhen.  Everything is in the enso –  rhinos, fans, you, me, the Dharma, everything.  There is nothing outside of Zen!  So why would Zifu take the superfluous step of putting the symbol of the rhino in the enso – what is he trying to prove?


Tesshin wrapped up by talking asking the group to consider that is conceivable and inconceivable.  For instance, could kids today imagine what life would be without the Internet?  He also recounted a time at his temple when some traveling students suggest he try to do a triathlon.  He had never done that before, so it was inconceivable that he could drop everything and just do it.  He did not even have a bicycle!!  However, is that not just the ego talking?  Tesshin borrowed a bike bought some cheap sneakers and gave it a try.  Of course, he did not do well, but that was not the point.  He had fun and realized that what is possible is very different than what the ego says is possible.


A verse to cap this koan:

Bring me the rhinoceros.

No matter how big.

No matter how small.

Bring it all.

Not a sinew or smatter of horn in the hall.

Life or Death

Life or Death


Tesshin used his talk this week to review the blue cliff record #55.  Daowu’s ‘I Won’t Say’  


One day Daowu, accompanied by his disciple Jianyuan went to visit a family in which a funeral was to take place, in order to express sympathy.

Jianyuan touched the coffin and said, “Tell me, please, is this life or is this death?”

Daowu said, “I don’t say life; I don’t say death.”

Jianyuan said, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Daowu said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

On their way home, Jianyuan said, “Master, please say it to me right away. If you don’t, I shall hit you.”

Daowu said, “Strike me if you like, but I will never say.”

Jianyuan struck Daowu.

Some time later Daowu passed away. Jianyuan came to Shishuang and told him the whole story.

Shishuang said, “I don’t say life; I don’t say death.”

Jianyuan siad, “Why don’t you tell me?”

Shishuang said, “I won’t say, I won’t say.”

Upon these words, Jianyuan attained sudden realization.

One day Jianyuan, carrying a hoe, went up and down the lecture hall as if he were searching for something.

Shishuang said, “What are you doing?”

Jianyuan said, “I am seeking the sacred bones of the late master.”

Shishuang said, “Giant billows far and wide; whitecaps swelling up to heaven. What sort of sacred bones of your late master are you searching for?”

[“Heavens! Heavens!” –Xuedou]

Jianyuan said, “That was very good for me in order to gain power.”

Taiyuan Fu said, “The sacred bones of the late master are still there.”

(Koan and commentaires can be found at:


First, Tesshin wanted to give us some historical context for the Koan so that we may understand it better.  Daowu Yuanzhi (769-835) was a disciple of Yaoshan (751-834), who was a disciple of Shitou (700-90). Jianyuan Zhongxing (b. ca. 800?) was a student of Daowu’s and Shishuang Qingzhu (807-88) was Daowu’s dharma heir. The case deals with two episodes, about 35 years apart. The first happened about 835, when Daowu was about 66 years-old and Shishuang about 28. The second was probably about 868, 33 years after Daowu’s death, when Shishuang was about 61.  


Tesshin next started his discussion of the Koan.  It seems strange that someone attending a funeral would start striking the coffin.  Jianyuan is demanding his teacher explain life and death to him.  The teacher will not say.  In some interpretations, the teacher claims that he “cannot” say as opposed to “will not” say.  Jianyuan gets frustrated – “You must know – tell me or I will strike you!”  Needless to say, Jianyuan is getting kind of desperate for an answer.  Here Tesshin stopped to make some comments.  First, there is no real shortcut to realizing reality.  There are no “magic words” that master Daowu could say which would give Jianyuan what he is looking for.  Secondly, the Zen tradition is full of stories of teachers striking students to knock them out of their complacency.  However, for a student to strike a master is a major breach of decorum.  


Needless to say, after this incident, Jianyuan left his teacher and became an iterant monk.  In time Jianyuan found a new teacher and his original teacher passed away.  The death of Daowu raised this burning question again in Jianyuan’s mind.  “Alive or Dead?”  Jianyuan asks his new master and he gets the exact same response.  However, this time Jianyuan is not frustrated – he has instant Kensho!  Why the difference in outcome from the same response?  It is important to understand that the two events in this Koan happened 35 years apart.  Tesshin remarked that where we are in life has a big impact on how the Dharma affects us.  For instance, when Tesshin ordained as a monk at the age of 20 the vow of poverty was not a big deal for him – he was already fully broke in a foreign land!  However, when he later started the temple, he had much more experience in life.  The vows meant something totally different to him.  Tesshin then asked everyone to consider their own path.  Many people read about Buddhism while in college.  Do you remember your initial readings on the tradition back then versus how you read them now?  As you live, your perceptions change.  This is Jianyuan.  The teaching was always consistent – it was the student which changed.  This is the point of practice.  We work and work until that point when we are ready to penetrate the teachings.


Tesshin next moved on to what the Koan is trying to teach.  “Alive or Dead – I cannot say”  The student sees death up close and asks the master to explain it.  The problem is that life is death and death is life.  It is all one thing.  If Daowu starts to put words to it, he is just flapping his lips!  He is actually doing his student a great disservice!  At this point, Tesshin apologized for doing that thing which Daowu refused to do – namely putting words to the larger reality which cannot be explained with words.  The direct answer is and can only ever be Mu.  There is nothing else to say.


It may appear cruel to not to give Jianyuan a better answer than this.  He is trying to deal with the big issue of death but he cannot penetrate it.  His teacher is silent on the matter!  But this is how it must be.  One can only deal with life and death by one’s own effort.  This is why we practice.  It is said in Zen that the great issue is life and death.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  This is why we sit right now – to work out this issue in our own body-mind.   Yes, the master could have told Jianyuan a “nice story” to feel better, but this would have corrupted his study of suchness.  If you are looking for nice stories, the Zen monastery is not the door to knock on – go see a movie!


As the Koan concludes, we see Jianyuan entering the teaching hall with a hoe to rake funerary ashes looking for relics of his late master.  He is asked – what relics are you looking for?  Jianyuan states that this raking is where he should apply his effort.  Tesshin noted that the holding of relics (bones sifted from cremated bodies) is a common tradition in Asia.  However, Tesshin noted that Jianyuan is not actually looking for bones.  This really means that now that the student has Kensho he realizes that his teacher’s “spiritual remains” pervade the entire universe – they remain intact and they still exist.  Do you see it?  Do you see it?  What is the meaning of life and death?     


Lastly, there are many verses attached to this case.  This one was very apropos…


In arriving, not an atom is added —

thus life is called the unborn.

In departing, not a particle is lost,

thus death is called the unextinguished.


buddhist intoxicants


Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the five Buddhist percepts.  The precepts are often compared to the Ten Commandments from the Abrahamic traditions.  Tesshin asked the group – why do we have the Ten Commandments in the first place?  One reason one could offer is that God commanded it – in other words, the commandments are a complete act of faith.  Another argument is that the commandments are intrinsically necessary for a well-run society.  It should come as no surprise that most countries in the West still use the Ten Commandments as the basis of their legal systems.  


What about the Buddhist precepts?  Why did these develop and what purpose do they serve?  Are they simply an Eastern version of the Ten Commandments?  Well, to some extent, yes.  The precepts do describe actions which will lead to a harmonious society.  However, Tesshin thought there was something additional we should consider.  It has always been taught that the precepts are a practical method which allow Buddhists to eliminate suffering.  Tesshin next enumerated the five percepts normally taken by individuals not following the monastic path…  

(Monks have a few additional percepts specific to their path)


I will be mindful and reverential with all life, 

I will not be mindlessly violent nor will I kill.


I will respect the property of others, 

I will not steal.


I will be conscious and loving in my relationships,

I will not give way to lust. 


I will honor honesty and truth, 

I will not deceive. 


I will exercise proper care of my body and mind, 

I will not be gluttonous nor abuse intoxicants. 


Tesshin noted that one major difference between the Ten Commands and the Buddhist percepts is that the percepts always start with a positive statement.  It is not enough to state that one should not kill.  The first percept starts by declaring that we must revere life.  If you believe that is necessary, then it naturally follows that killing is wrong.


Tesshin next wanted to focus our attention on the fifth percept.  Tesshin asked why would Buddhism want to place such an emphasis on a pure mind and body.  This should be clear to us working on the path.  Everything we do is about realizing reality as it really is and to dispel delusion.  As such, it should come as no surprise that intoxication is unskillful as it hinders our ability to see the world as it really is.


However, Tesshin noted that definition of intoxicants is not as simple as drugs and alcohol.  As Thich Nhat Hanh has noted many times, it can also include “toxic” food, conversations, and entertainments.  Stated simply, intoxicants include anything which “messes you up.”  Tesshin then stopped and mentioned that even a fetishism like “Teetotalism” could be an intoxicant if it is primarily driven by an egoistic desire to be better than everyone else or to wield power over others.  


Here Tesshin was clear, as with all the precepts, it is always about the deeper desire to have a clear mind free of suffering.  The precepts are not about legalism.  You are not an addict if you have one glass of wine.  You are deluded, however, if you think about that glass of wine all day!  Also, if you eschew that can of beer, but spend all day thinking about how superior you are for skipping the beer, then you are no less addicted to intoxicants as the drunk passed out on the street.


However, again, the intoxicants Buddhism is warning about is not just ones consumed by the body.  Buddhism has always been more worried about the intoxicants of the mind.  We need only to look at the past year to see how many Americans became totally intoxicated with “current events.”  Cities were violently occupied and the country’s capitol was attacked.  If that was not bad enough, one could walk through any small town or visit any family gathering and see people screaming at each other over abstractions.  Is this not intoxication in the worst possible sense?  It is the intoxicant of “I am right and you are wrong.”  Tesshin asked, when you look at the protesters on either side, did you see any happy faces?  There is truth in the term “news-junkie!”  A junkie by any other name is still a junkie.  Perhaps these people should consider the fifth percept!


Tesshin next asked, why do people do things which harm themselves?  A psychiatrist friend of Tessin said that people think they are getting a benefit.  So, we take a short-term benefit which comes at a terrible long-term cost!  Tesshin described that he once noticed his children gossiping with their friends.  Gossip may create short term bonding with others, but in the long term it creates suffering and could degenerate into bullying.  In the long term, there can be no true happiness down that road.  Perhaps a better path is to remind the children that everyone desires to be happy and free of suffering.  


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding everyone to think on their “new years homework assignment.”  Specifically, for the new year, what three things are you going to keep doing, start new, and stop doing?

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.