Dogen Saying 2


This week we discussed the sixth Paramita, Prajna, which translates as the wisdom to deeply understand the nature of all things.  Tesshin mentioned that in Zen Jhana (concentration) and Prajna (wisdom) are deeply interrelated.  This should come as no surprise as the very center of our practice is Zazen which develops the mind for deep concentration.  When we are in deep concentration the state of Prajna is naturally present.  


Tesshin went on to reinforce the fact that all of the paramitas work as a single unity.  For instance, when practicing Dana with Prajna is one really being generous?  If one truly realizes the true nature of reality, then there is really nothing to give and no one to receive.  What is really happening is simply the skillful actions of life.  We need the paramita of Dana to guide us because we are not totally realized and thus our unskillful mental states interfere with what should be a natural action.  It is the same with the paramita of ethics.  In the beginning we “think” a lot about the rules and break down our behavior into good and bad.  However, in a state a Prajna, it is understood that all of these rules, regulations, principles are simple discriminations that the mind plays with.  Ethics in a state of Prajna is understood to flow from the pure nature of reality.  Ideally, we must do the things we do because of our deep abiding nature.


Tesshin then asked why do we discuss and study the paramitas if the words are nothing more than delusions distracting us from the absolute “suchness” of our existence.  Here Tesshin was clear – the paramitas are the path of the bodhisattvas.  However, remember that a bodhisattva is not the buddha.  The state of Buddhahood is pure Prajna.  The state of the bodhisattva is being in this world – we are on the bodhisattva path so we live in the world of samsara – thus the paramitas serve as a tool for our aspiration towards pure awakening.   


All mystical traditions have the concept of Jhana and Prajna.  These are commonly called “spiritual states.”  Many of these traditions have elaborate rituals to enter and maintain this state, however if we look deeply, they all teach to bring the mind into the present and to eliminate distractions.  For Zen, we have Zazen which places emphasis on something we all do – breathe.  This stress on the breath connects us with all the Buddhas and Patriarchs throughout space and time.  Everyone breathes, so everyone can generate Jhana and Prajna.  


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that the goal of the major Zen schools (Soto and Rinzai) is to strip away the complexity of the spiritual path into the crucible of mental clarity.  In Soto we practice “just sitting.”  Here the challenge is to see if we can exist in absolute reality right here and right now on this very cushion.  In Rinzai, we are mandated to solve a puzzle with no solution.  We use every mental faculty at our disposal in a futile attempt to solve.  At some point, the mind melts down and all that is left is pure existence. Different approaches lead to the same outcome Prajna.  




This week Tesshin continued our discussions of the Paramitas with Jnana, which roughly translates as “concentration.”  Tesshin noted that jnana predates Buddhism.  In fact, many of the practices that the historical Buddha explored on his spiritual journey before his enlightenment were considered jnana practices including ritualistic fasting, yoga, and others.  The idea of being concentrated in the moment is really a universal and timeless concept.  Tesshin noted that even “cavemen” in the distant past recognized special states of mind that differed from the ordinary.  Perhaps they were experienced during hunting or during religious rituals.  The single-minded concentration of jnana is a fundamental aspect of being human.


Tesshin noted that many religious traditions in the East tend to think of jnana as a “technique” which must be developed in order to obtain insights.  For instance, practitioners can take specific poses in yoga or chant specific mantras, or focus on specific objects for periods of time.  These traditions focus on increasing “skill” over time in their methods in order to achieve a spiritual goal.


However, Zen is very different, and this difference is vital to understanding our tradition.  In Zen there is no difference between jnana (concentration) and paramita (insight) – they are exactly the same thing.  So, we don’t say that sitting leads to insight, rather sitting IS insight.  Also, we don’t work hard to improve our sitting “skills” in order to have a better chance at Kensho.  Rather the act of sitting is the epitome of existing – nothing else needs to be done.  Jnana is fundamental to human existence and Zazen is exactly human existence so there is no way that Zazen cannot naturally generate heightened states of Jnana.  Tesshin recounted a Zen story where one master asked – “what is zazen?”  The other master said, “Zazen is NOT zazen.”  How is this?  Because Zazen is reality – it encompasses everything.  To call Zazen a technique is to separate it out as something apart from universal reality.  This would be wrong thinking. 


Tesshin told us that in many ways, sitting zazen is an act of radical love.  By this we mean that feeling deep love and gratitude it is not in recognition of a favor – it is not transactional.  We do not feel deep love because our spouse cleaned the kitchen or the husband took out the trash.  Deep love is a state of mind.  It comes from within.  Tesshin likened Zazen to this deep state of mind – it is almost like tuning into the frequency of life.  So much of our life is running around multi-tasking that we are never really in sync with reality.  Zazen is the chance to live and experience profound gratitude and love – which is what life is, after all.  


So how do you increase this state of love and life?  It is as simple as coming back to the breath wherever you are.  The breath is our entry to mental serenity.  Once we are there, we can also use the gift of sensations.  Tune into your feelings, smells, hearing, etc.  All of these things bring us into the present.  Come back to the details of your life.  


Tesshin wrapped up by stating that none of the paramitas really “breathe” without the power of jnana.  The other paramitas degrade into basic tools and methods without the power of jnana.  Jnana makes the paramitas “who we are” and practice sits behind all the paramitas as the basis of our reality.

Enthusiastic Perseverance



This week Tesshin continued our discussions of the paramitas by focusing on Virya which roughly translates as vigor.  Tesshin noted that translations are heavily affected by the value judgements of the culture making the translation, and this term is no exception.  In the west we look at a word like Virya and virility and physical strength come to mind.  However, as this concept moved into China and Korea the term became more subtle and morphed into perseverance and single mindedness.  


Tesshin next recounted that in Japan there is the practice of “Polishing Rice.”  When preparing rice in the Japanese style there is a process of repeated washing until the white color has completely disappeared.  Each time you clean the rice, something always rinses away.  Is the rice ever perfectly clean?  You could keep cleaning until there was no rice left!  So how much washing is enough?  What happens when we completely wash ourselves away?  Virya in the Zen tradition is exactly this practice except that the object of purification is our mind instead of the rice.  We polish over and over again – in a never-ending process.  


Tesshin noted that Virya is where the drive to practice arises.  Without this the other paramitas are inert and dead.  Tesshin noted that most western sangha’s are comprised of “first generation” practitioners in that the students were not born into a Buddhist family.  When we start practice, we are all excited with the new forms and ideas.  This is like “spiritual fireworks.”  However, what happens when the excitement wears off?  How do we continue and not lose interest or give up?  We could simply continue to practice out of stubbornness.  The issue here is that pure “grit” will not sustain us during deep challenges in practice when we make little progress and we seem lost on the path.  Grit and determination are the death of spirituality as they turn what is essential and alive into yet another mundane task to be completed.  If we enter the Zendo because we feel it is expected or out of rote habit, we are simply wasting our time.  We need something different – namely Virya.  Tesshin likened this to “Enthusiastic Perseverance.”    


How do we manifest Virya in our practice – where does it come from?  It comes from clarity of our understanding of the four noble truths and the deep understanding of suffering in the universe.  Practice is not an exercise in self-improvement, it is an offering to all sentient beings.  This is why the Bodhisattva Vows are repeated again and again in Zen temples.  They serve to remind us as to why we practice and for whom.  This provides us Virya to power us through the vicissitudes of practice.




This week, Tesshin continued our study of the Paramitas.  Our focus for this week was the third paramita, Kshanti, which commonly translates as patience.  


What is patience?  Tesshin commented that he was always praised for being a “patient” child.  Living in a family with eight siblings definitely helps one develop a kind of patience!!  However, he thought that this was more around the skill of “waiting around” than the patience which Kshanti is pointing to.  Tesshin invited us to deeply explore the word “patience.”  The English word patience has the same Latin root as patient.  This points to a meaning of someone who is sick, but is working through the process of getting better.  The kanji roots (pictograms) of the word patient are the heart combined with the symbol for a sword.  We can interpret this as meaning a heart in suffering.  Without the distress and suffering, we are not practicing Kshanti.  


Normally, when we are in distress we want to get as far away from the source of pain as possible.  In many ways, this is running away from our problems instead of facing them bravely.  Our practice is facing reality as it really is.  This includes states of suffering and distress!  Traditionally the Bodhisattva stays in the world of suffering until every sentient being is delivered from suffering.  This is the ideal which we should aim for.  Kshanti is not about running away from suffering in ourselves and others, it is about deeply understanding it, the causes of it, and patiently working to mitigate and transcend it.


Tesshin noted that another reaction to suffering is fear and anger.  These emotions act to cloud our insight.  The antidote to these emotions is patience which Kshanti alludes to.  Consider anything which really makes you angry or induces suffering.  How it ultimately affects you is really determined by your attitude.  For instance, you get fired from a job – how do you react?  You can ruminate over your failures and shortcomings and despair.  An alternative strategy could be for you to realize that there is a recession and that many people are being laid off and that things will turn around.  Patience gives the mind enough time to form new plans of action.  Perhaps this is a good time to go back to school to learn a new skill or start a new business.  Perhaps this setback is really an opportunity.  Tesshin stated that Kshanti is not just being overly optimistic, however.  There are very painful situations, many without easy answers.  The point is that even the worst situation can be helped by the right attitude and patience.  


Tesshin next described the formal types of Kshanti in the Buddhist tradition.  He noted that we should not consider any level more advanced than others, but rather as different types of Kshanti.


Gentle Compassion or Forbearance – this is how we deal with others.  For instance, certain people could be cruel to us or others.  Kshanti at this level is resistance to flying into a rage or judging the other person.  What we should do is stop and consider their conditioning and understand their suffering.  Why are they behaving in the way they are?  If someone is acting badly, it is most likely a result of their karma which will affect many parts of their life.


Patience with our own pain and suffering.  We all have some type of distress – mental, physical, spiritual.  Nobody can avoid this.  We don’t want to get so wrapped up in it, however.  Tesshin mentioned that his teacher used to say that a Zen master walking in the rain gets wet.  It is that simple – there is not extra commentary!  The master does not clutter the mind with the inherent unfairness of the timing of the rain.  The weather is the weather.  In this view, patience is a type of simplicity.  It is this simplicity which allows the mind to clear and focus on what is really important.    


Patience with the teachings.  Tesshin noted that a lot of people are “Zen Tourists.” Why is this?  Some people struggle in the practice, and feel that they are getting nowhere.  They give up before they gave the teachings a chance to blossom in their mind!   Tesshin lamented that patience is NOT a virtue anymore.  One cannot simply click a button on a webpage and get Kensho.  Satori is not available to Amazon Prime members with free shipping!  Nothing is free with our practice – we must pay the full price in the form of diligent and consistent practice.  However, we must have the patience to allow the practice unfold at its own pace in our mind.  This is the Kshanti of practice.  


Tesshin wrapped up by noting that Ksanti is fuel for our practice right up to our very last breath.


Morality and Ethics



Tesshin continued the discussion of the paramitas this week.  He likened the paramitas to baking a cake, as all the ingredients need to work together to get a good outcome.  Stated differently, no paramita is more important than the others.  This week, Tesshin introduced paramita “ingredient” of Sila, which commonly translates as ethics and morality.  


For this talk, Tesshin planned to explore the differences between a system of ethics and a code of morality.  He also wanted to compare and contrast how they work in Abrahamic and Buddhist traditions.


Tesshin started with the concept of ethics.  Stated simply, ethics provide a system of beliefs which can help us guide our behaviors.  It is all about concepts and principles.  Ethics also answers the question of why we would choose one behavior over another.  For instance, in Buddhism our main goal is to alleviate suffering in all sentient beings by understanding the true nature of reality.  Our code of ethics then asks us to align all of our actions keeping this ultimate goal in mind.  A system of ethics is not clear and crisp.  It does not actually prescribe a list of “do’s and do not’s.”  The western religious traditions also have a code of ethics which is commonly described as love in a personal god and behaving in a way that God has stated to be optimal.  Again, here the ethics do not tell someone what to do, rather it describes the background set of beliefs which drive us to specific behaviors.  Again, Tesshin likes to call this our “operating system.”


Ethics tend to be problematic when we demand a YES/NO answer quickly.  This is where morality enters, as it is a set of specific rules of behavior.  So, for instance, almost all traditions have a moral rule against killing.  In the Abrahamic traditions, we see in the 10 commandments, “Thou shall not kill!”  In the Buddhist precepts, we have “Affirm Life, do not be violent.”   


Here Tesshin was clear, Sila is a subtle mix of morality and ethics. Buddhism has a long tradition of an interplay of these two concepts.  This should not come as a surprise as a hard split between the two would simply be another dualism distracting us from really understanding how things work.  Tesshin next provided some examples to help us understand this mixing.  As stated above, most traditions have an injunction against killing.  The ethics behind this in Buddhism is suffering and, in the West, it is obeying God’s plan.  However, things are never so simple.  For instance, what happens when someone joins the military?  The military has a code of ethics of “justified defense.”  The question of whether it is justified to kill to defend your country or yourself is a question of ethics.  Morality cannot answer this.  Another example is the dilemma of a lawyer defending a murder suspect.  What is the nature of society’s retribution against an offender?  What is the extent of a lawyer’s responsibly to provide a vigorous defense?  If we took a purely moralistic stance, we may come to the wrong conclusion.  In activating Sila, we may start with some core absolutes of morality, but it is in ethics where the gray areas are negotiated and resolved.  This negotiation is where Sila exists.


However, Tesshin noted that we should not over emphasize ethics when thinking of Sila.  Our morality pervades our ethics!  Again, he cited the law and noted that at the base of most legal systems we find the morality of the Ten Commandments.  The Abrahamic faiths state clearly that each individual is special because they are a creation of God.  If the sanctity of the individual was not in our morality, it would never make it into our ethics or legal systems and our cultures would be quite different.  (One need only read history of ancient Rome to see what that would look like.)   


Another example Tesshin provided was the debate in Buddhism over vegetarianism.  If we are to do no harm, how can you eat meat?  We can start with morality to unwind this.  Killing a sentient animal is doing harm – thus we should not do this.  Many Buddhists take this exact position.  However, is it the only answer?  Tesshin noted that his own teacher Ban Roshi was from a tradition where they did eat meat.  Roshi would say that he was not “anything” and this includes vegetarian.  The point is not to get hung up on the word as it is yet another discrimination!  Roshi still subscribed to the injunction against violence, so he would not actively select meat in his diet.  However, he also believed in the paramita of Dana and would not refuse alms in the form of meat.  If someone put meat in his begging bowl, he would eat it and give thanks.  What was the alternative, mindlessly throw it away because it violates a moral rule?  This is even worse!!  The animal suffered and no gain came of it.  All he would have had was smug satisfaction that a moral rule was obeyed.


Tesshin wrapped up by saying that the debate is where Sila operates.  There is nothing simple.  Morality are rules and ethics are the concepts.  They are two sides of the same thing – no separation!  Our practice is about understanding this and using the ingredient of Sila paramita in the larger perfection of our existence.  

Fearless Dana



This week Tesshin began our study of the six Paramitas.  The term Paramita translates as “reaching the far shore.”  The understanding of this ‘reaching’ is all about the balance between that which is attainable and that which is not attainable.  The “other shore” is hard to attain but remains understandable and achievable.  If it was not, then striving for it would be a useless pursuit.  Our desire to achieve the perfections, or paramitas, give our practice and belief system focus and grounding.  Tesshin likes to compare our belief system to be an embedded “operating system” for our life.  We can think of the paramitas as a way to optimize that operating system and keep it free of viruses and malware.  Stated differently, the paramitas allow us to always act from a place of skillfulness for both ourselves and others.


For this talk, Tesshin focused on the paramita of Dana which roughly translates to “generosity.”  The concept of giving is fascinating in all spiritual traditions.  For instance, if you look in the Jewish tradition for the term charity – it talks about four types with each subsequent level being more prized.  The most basic level of giving is when it is done to someone whom you know and, in addition, they know you.  The next level is publicly giving to an unknown recipient.  (e.g. like public giving to a charitable organization)  The next level is giving anonymously to a known person or organization.  The highest level is an anonymous gift to an unknown recipient.


The Buddhist perspective on generosity is somewhat different.  First, we need to understand that in Zen, in an absolute sense, we are all the same thing.  Dana is not about me giving something to you.  If we think that way, we have smashed reality into the tiny bits of you, me, and the thing given.  This is wrong thinking!!  So, what is generosity in Zen?  It is performing actions that have a real impact on reality of Karma.  Tesshin noted that the greatest generosity is life itself and asked us to consider how we can make our very life an act of generosity.    


With this in mind, Tesshin described the Buddhist conception of Dana.  Like other religious traditions, there are many ways to approach Dana with each subsequent stage being more prized than the former.  The first stage is the Dana of physical things.  This is basically our common conception of charity.  Of course, for this level to work karmically, we must have correct motivations.  We should not look at charity as a transaction where I give something (e.g. cash) and hope to get something back (e.g. recognition)  Yes, these types of transactions can have a benefit, but karmically they are very weak.  The next level of Dana is kindness to yourself and others.  This behavior is considered better because the karmic impact can be greater.  Tesshin used the example of Mr. Rodgers.  His entire live was living and breathing the Dana of kindness.  Is it quite easy to see how much more impact this had versus mindlessly sending in some money once a year to a worthy cause.  Finally, the highest and greatest level of generosity in Buddhism is the dana of fearlessness.  Can you give someone the gift of fearlessness?  How do you help someone to transcend their fear so they can flourish in life and become enlightened?  This action has the greatest karmic impact.  This Dana can be generated by teaching, parenting, and supporting.  This is the friend listening to someone in pain and giving them skillful advice – even if they really do not want to hear it.  This is the mentor carefully guiding someone to achieve success in their career.  This level of Dana is the most prized in Buddhism because it allows flourishing in life.  It has the greatest karmic impact because flourishing people have a greater chance of being generous to others – thus continuing a virtuous cycle.  


Tesshin wrapped up by stating that fearlessness does not need to be dramatic.  Our sitting practice is the dana of fearlessness.  The sangha supports each of us in fearless practice.  We then take this Dana out into the world to do good.  Lastly, at the core of fearlessness, is the Bodhisattva who devotes its entire existence for all eternity to Dana.  This is the personification of the paramita of Dana which we should strive for. 


Tesshin reminded everyone that next Saturday is the 4th UU TLC day.  It will be from 9am -2pm.  Tesshin encouraged everyone to show some Dana by coming out and lending a hand to spruce up the building and grounds.

Yorktown Pride



Tesshin postponed our study of Xufeng’s “What is It” this week so he could arrive at the Yorktown Pride Parade on time.  (see our events page – hope to get some pictures as well!!)  


What is a Pride Parade and what does it have to do with our study of Zen?  At one level, this should be obvious.  A Pride parade is nothing more than the reiteration of non-duality.  Individuals are marching to simply state that they are ‘normal’ people and as people, they seek nothing more than to alleviate suffering and strive towards happiness.  Of course, this is correct, but there is even a deeper teaching Tesshin wanted us to ponder.


The Pride parade was arranged by the Methodist minister in Yorktown, NY.  He asked the other clergy to get involved by handing out water and tea to the marchers.  At the end of the organizing meeting the Rabbi mentioned that Judaism deeply relates to the feelings and desires of a marginalized and persecuted group represented by the marchers.  However, not every clergy member was comfortable with what the Pride march represented.  Tesshin asked us if this was a problem?  Were the clergy members who did not endorse Pride, the parade, or the message “defective” in some way?  Tesshin was clear here, NO they were not!  This is the deeper message of what is going on this weekend.  


People are marching, people are supporting the march, others are uncomfortable.  What we have here is the typical “this and that” of life.  The friction between this and that is where the greatest learning happens.  Tesshin likes to say that everyone is a teacher.  The opponent to a cherished belief can be a greater teacher than someone you totally agree with.  This is something we need to remember when we interact with others.  


Zen teaches us that under all the noise of “this and that” we are all the same thing existing in the same suchness.  The “this and that” which separate us is much less important that the unifying “IT” that we all participate in.  So, wherever you stand on Pride, no not fear the reality, rather learn and grow from it.

No Comparisons

No Comparisons 5-June-2021


This week we continued our analysis of “Xuefeng’s What is It?” 

(Book of serenity case #50 and the Blue Cliff Record case #51.)  


Again, to refresh our memories, here is the case:

When Xuefeng was living in a hermitage, two monks came to pay their respects.

When he saw them coming, Xuefeng thrust open the gate of his hermitage with his hands, jumped out, and said, “What is this?”

[One of] the monks also said, “What is this?”

Xuefeng hung his head and retired into his hermitage.

Later, the monk came to Yantou.

Yantou asked him, “Where have you come from?”

The monk said, “From Reinan.”

Yantou said, “Did you ever visit Xuefeng?”

The monk said, “Yes, we visited him.”

Yantou said, “What did he say?” 

The monk related what had happened.

Yantou said, “What else did he say?”

The monk said, “Not a word; he hung his head and retired into his hermitage.”

Yantou said, “Ah, how I regret now that in those days I did not tell him the last phrase!

If I had told it to him, no one under heaven could do anything against him.”

At the end of the summer practice period the monk came back to this conversation and asked him about its meaning.

Yantou said, “Why didn’t you ask me about it sooner?”

The monk said, “I could not dare to ask you about it.”

Yantou said, “Xuefeng was born on the same stem as I, but he will not die on the same stem.

If you want to know the last phrase, it is just this.”


Tesshin started by remarking that this past week he lost a good friend and his family dentist – Dr. Richard Rifkin.  This spurred Tesshin to think about how we generally react when major life events happen.  Rifkin passed at the age of 60.  The natural reaction is to begin to compare his situation to our own.  We may worry that someone younger than ourselves has died and start to worry about our own mortality.  We may think that 60 is “ancient” and it not relevant to ‘our’ lives.  The interesting thing is that to find meaning in what happened we automatically place the event in relation to our own personal situation.  We perform these comparisons every day and in most situations.  We compare ourselves to others on measures such as relationships, health, wealth, and a myriad of other facets.  However, what we are losing is the absolute meaning of the original thing which just happened.  


Tessin linked this act of endless comparing to the koan we are studying.  The monks visit Xuefeng, then they travel and gain new experiences, then they visit another master.  Only much later on do the monks begin to understand what Xuefeng was getting at when he said “it is just this.”  What is going on here?  According to Tesshin, it is nothing more than the process of maturation and development.  Realization takes time and effort.  Even ‘instant’ realization so prized in Zen is born from a foundation of great effort and the mysterious flow of karma.


Tesshin mentioned that time is a great teacher and that it is ok if the big answers are not immediately available to us.  He cited a famous Zora Neil Hurston quote … “there are years which ask questions and years which answer.”  Today, people want all questions answered instantly.  This is not surprising in the technological age we find ourselves in.  If you google “steps to enlightenment” you will get back 24 million answers!!  What we see in the koan is that instant gratification is not how our practice works.  We need to let things ruminate.  


At the end of the summer practice period the monk asked Yantou about the meaning of the conversation with Xuefeng.

Yantou said, “Why didn’t you ask me about it sooner?”

The monk said, “I could not dare to ask you about it.”

(Other translations have the monk saying that ‘I did not want to be casual about it.’)


Basically, this monk understood that you have to let the big question of existence “cook” for a while otherwise any answer we land on would be casual and superficial.    We need to fight against instant gratification – this is a key cornerstone of our practice. 


Yantou said, “If I had told it to him (Xuefeng), no one under heaven could do anything against him.”


What is the last word which Yantou is speaking of?  Tesshin responded by saying it is the same answer as your original face before you were born.  It is Mu.  This is the deeper message!  There can be no comparison between this and that.  Between Rifkin and Tesshin.  Between you and me!  It is all “the last word.”  To borrow an old philosophical phrase – “it is Mu all the way down!”  


Tesshin stated that this is not an understanding that comes immediately – it takes work.  This is what we have practice for.  We ask, we probe, we chase ‘suchness’ around trying to catch it until we finally realize that we are chasing our own tails!!  We must exhaust ourselves with the chase, however, before we reach that point when we realize that there are no comparisons in the perfect universal “it” which Xuefeng points to.

Refuge of the Crowd

Wisdom of Crowds2


This week Tesshin shared a koan which actually appears in two different collections.  (Book of serenity case #50 and the Blue Cliff Record case #51.)  Tesshin mentioned that we will work on unpacking this case over a three-week period.  


First, here is the case:

When Xuefeng was living in a hermitage, two monks came to pay their respects.

When he saw them coming, Xuefeng thrust open the gate of his hermitage with his hands, jumped out, and said, “What is this?”

[One of] the monks also said, “What is this?”

Xuefeng hung his head and retired into his hermitage.

Later, the monk came to Yantou.

Yantou asked him, “Where have you come from?”

The monk said, “From Reinan.”

Yantou said, “Did you ever visit Xuefeng?”

The monk said, “Yes, we visited him.”

Yantou said, “What did he say?” 

The monk related what had happened.

Yantou said, “What else did he say?”

The monk said, “Not a word; he hung his head and retired into his hermitage.”

Yantou said, “Ah, how I regret now that in those days I did not tell him the last phrase!

If I had told it to him, no one under heaven could do anything against him.”

At the end of the summer practice period the monk came back to this conversation and asked him about its meaning.

Yantou said, “Why didn’t you ask me about it sooner?”

The monk said, “I could not dare to ask you about it.”

Yantou said, “Xuefeng was born on the same stem as I, but he will not die on the same stem.

If you want to know the last phrase, it is just this.”


After reading the case, Tesshin joked that the language and story, as always, are easy to understand.  


This week tesshin wanted to focus on the “crowd” of characters in this case.  In a normal koan, there is normally just the master and a monk.  In this example, we have Xuefeng, Yantau, and the two unnamed monks as well.  Clearly, Tau and Feng have a close relationship, however it is left unclear as to which one is teacher and student.  Tesshin promised the group that we would explore this point in a subsequent week.  At this point, Tesshin noted that the number of people is a particular “feature” of this case and proceeded to explain why.


In Buddhism, it is common to speak of the “Three Refuges,” namely the Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha.  

The Buddha and the Dharma are easy to take refuge in as they are steady and always available to us.  The statue of the buddha will not change with the weather – it is always there and relatively constant.  The Dharma contain our teachings and have been consistent in its message over the millennia.   As an example, the Blue Cliff Record you are reading today is very similar to the one studied by masters a thousand years ago.    However, the Sangha is different.  It is made up of PEOPLE who are NOT consistent, but are always changing in new ways.


This “changeability” is the point of the case according to Tesshin.  All of these people are playing off each other.  It is this dynamic which is key to the insight that they had.  Without the interplay between the characters, there would be no space for spiritual growth.  As much as we try, we cannot eliminate people on our path to liberation even if they have the potential to cause so much suffering and challenge.  In reality other people can be the greatest teachers on our path.  If you think about it, our practice would be useless and sterile without the interaction, interplay, and potentially conflict of other people.  


As an example, Tesshin talked about the Garden of Hope which is a community volunteer garden to raise food for people in need.  Last weekend, over 120 people showed up to help.  It is noteworthy how many different kinds of people were present.  They had different backgrounds, different levels of energy, different levels of gardening skills, and lastly – different preconceived notions of the purpose of the garden itself.  Nobody was the same, but they were all there together to help.  Tesshin noted that it is a great learning experience to manage all of these different people to achieve a singular goal.  Again, this is the same thing with the koan we are studying!  


What we take away from any given contact with another person will always be different.  This is not to be avoided, but serves as our most important “refuge!”  It may be tempting to us on the spiritual path try to avoid this messiness and noisiness, but they do this at their own peril.  We really do need the “wisdom of crowds” to make progress as the dusty books and inanimate statues cannot challenge our understanding like living and breathing people can.  It is a common refrain in Zen that the teachings and traditions are only a “skillful means” to get one started on the path.  Real Zen is in the day-to-day interaction with reality – namely other people.  


Towards the end of the koan, Yantou comes right out and says it…  

“Xuefeng was born on the same stem as I, but he will not die on the same stem “

Although we are all here together, we are really on our own path.  We bring our own karmic baggage with us from our own experiences.  However, this is why it is important to be together so that we can learn from each other.  This is why the Sangha is such an important refuge!  


Tesshin wrapped up by mentioning that everything is progressing well for us to start practicing together and in person at the 4th UU in September.  




Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the topics of imagination and creativity.  During this past week he was doing some art work and asked various people what they thought of it.   Some people looked at it, rolled their eyes, and stated that they did not get it.  Interestingly, his nine-year-old daughter “got it” right away.  Tesshin paused and wondered why children apprehend things so much faster than adults.  Could it be beginner’s mind?  Could it be that they have not built up a layer of cynicism yet?


Along these lines, Tesshin related a story of a friend of his who works as a prop designer for the theater.  One would think that this is a very creative career.  However, the friend mentioned that the job has lost its allure and has really become just another job – no better than flipping burgers!  Everything is a deadline and it is always about keeping costs down.  Tesshin wondered if adults tend to turn everything into dollars and cents and deadlines.  There seems to be so little time to just stop and experience.


At this point, Tesshin remarked that many Zen practitioners are also active in the arts.  Do you think this is a coincidence?  Zen teaches us to slow down and see the creative spark in all things.  It seems to be a counter to what the set designer is experiencing.  When things become mechanical, creativity is the first thing to suffer.


Tesshin next shared with us a quote from the English poet, Taylor Coleridge.  (


The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary.  The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.  The secondar I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.  It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.  It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.


Tesshin remarked that Coleridge believed the primary imagination springs is the “living power and prime agent” of human perception.  It is the special ability of humanity take in the world through sense perceptions and build something totally novel in their consciousness.  The secondary skill is to take this integrated consciousness and actually do something with it in the physical world.  In other words, to create something.  Stated differently, Coleridge believed that humanity is special because it can perceive things from the outside world and recombine them into new forms.  We call this imagination and creativity.  


Tesshin next remarked that there is nothing inherently good or evil about imagination and creativity.  The top inventions and creations throughout history are a product of the imagination.  Einstein did not discover relativity by reading every book in the library.  Once he had mastered the basic physics of his day, he did “thought experiments” in his head to work it out.  The Wright brothers had to have imagination to believe that an object heavier than air could actually fly.  However, history is also replete with disasters and tragedies caused by human imagination.  Communism killed over one hundred million people.  This was nothing more than intelligent people imagining how existence could be improved.  Nazi Germany imagined a peaceful and prosperous country secured with a racially pure population.  


What do these examples tell us?  Nothing more that our imaginations are very powerful tools.  However, these tools must be tied to something greater than ourselves or they can easily be perverted to disaster.  It comes as no surprise that Zen reminds us that everything we do must be in the service of compassion and the alleviation of suffering!  


Tesshin stated that Zen is full of imagination.  You have no chance with the Koans if you read them literally!  Dogen knew this, and he knew that he was not just teaching his own students, but teaching all students throughout space and time.  One must use the imagination to reach all sentient beings with the Dharma!  


Tesshin wrapped up by asking how can we develop the necessary imagination to make progress in our Zen studies.  Not surprisingly, the answer is Zazen!!  Our practice of meditation allows us to open our mind and move beyond literal sense perceptions.  We see more, feel more, experience more.  This opens up our imagination to all possibilities.  Zazen is imagination, and imagination is one of the most radical acts of healing.  There is a place where rationality cannot go?  How do you recover from loss?  There is not formula or protocol to do this.  One must imagine their way to a better life.  Zazen gives us the mental tools to do this.