The Practice of Food



Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the practice of food.  He started by pointing out that this is the week of spring holidays including Passover and Easter.  Passover is a holiday about liberation and hope.  It is very centered on god and how god interacted with the Hebrews and their enemies.  Easter is completely different as it focuses on Jesus, rebirth, and faith.  God is present, but the focus is really on mankind, its fall, and its redemption.


So what ties these two holidays together?  FOOD!  In the practice and celebration of both holidays food plays a huge role.  Jews conduct the Seder meal where the liberation from Egypt is recounted.  Christians have the traditional Easter dinner.  It is also interesting to add that a key part of the Easter story is the “Last Supper” which is actually a Passover Seder meal.


Tesshin asked the group why food and eating play such large part in these religious holidays.  If we think carefully, it is because there is nothing which ties us closer to reality than making and eating food.  We all do this, and like the breath, these are activities which tie all humanity together.  This is why the acts of eating and preparing food can be spiritual things.


In Zen temples the Tenzo or head cook is only second to the abbot in authority.  Tesshin joked that he much preferred the role to Tenzo to abbot as it allowed him to get “elbows deep” in the reality of food.  There is nothing academic or theoretical about cutting carrots and cooking rice.  You are presented food and it is your job to bring the most out of it.  It is your offering and the recipients know immediately whether the food was prepared with care and love or prepared carelessly and mechanically.  Food prepared with the present mind and with love for all sentient beings can be sacred.  Food prepared mindlessly is simply physical matter to be consumed and expelled.  Do you see the difference?  Tesshin reminded us that the state of our mind comes out clearly in the food that we produce – whether it is just for ourselves, our family, or a large group.


The act of eating can also be sacred.  In Japanese monasteries there is the practice of Oryoki.  This refers to a meditative form of eating which emphasizes careful attention to each action and particle of food.  It is eating with the mind fully engaged and actively cherishing each morsel of food.  Imagine a meal totally “in the state of grace.”    


Tesshin wrapped up the talk encouraging everyone to enjoy the holidays and reminded us to actively pursue the practice of food – whether eating or preparing!

Its Not So Simple



Tesshin used his talk this week to remind us that things are not always what they appear to be.  To illustrate the point, he described two very different cases.


The first case was the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the commune his followers established in Oregon in the 1980’s.  (As an aside, there is a very interesting Netflix documentary called “Wild, Wild Country” which documents this story.)  Simply stated, the story is about an Indian guru who had achieved substantial academic and spiritual insights.  He established an “ashram” or monastic community in Poona, India in the 1970’s and decided to move the community to rural Oregon in the 1980’s.  


Tesshin made clear that the Bhagwan was a legitimate teacher whose intentions and teachings were valid.  The problem was the interaction with the surrounding community in Oregon was not skillful and did not come from a place of compassion.  This led to conflicts and many mistakes made by all sides involved.  Knowledge and realization are not enough to alleviate suffering.  We must use skillful means with dealing with all sentient beings.  We must bring wisdom to them as an offering.  There is no room for arrogance!  This only increases suffering.  Watching the documentary, it was sad to see how the Bhagwan and his followers missed this point over and over again.


Tesshin then provided second example of how things are not what they always appear.  Scientists have determined that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain.  It would be reasonable to assume that these substances are “bad” – right?  However, you must ask, if these substances are bad, why do they exist in the first place.  In this case, new research is showing that these substances have a beneficial role in the brain as well.  Recent studies have shown the beta amyloid produced by neurons may be an antimicrobial agent and in the right situation may prevent infections.  However, in other cases, this process gets out of control and could lead to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  Sometimes it is not the substance, but the context it is in which determines “goodness” or “badness.” 



Our practice is commonly criticized for not taking a stand in matters of good and evil.  Tesshin was very clear that Buddhism, and Zen in particular do take a stand – it is just that we understand that reality is not a simple bumper sticker.  Our motives should always be rooted the alleviation of suffering.  The true elimination of suffering means finding the deeper answer and not the easiest answer.   In Chinese philosophy, this is captured in the concept of “yin and yang.”  Tesshin reminded us that in the yin, there is an aspect of yang and vice versa.  This is why in the picture the white serpent has a black eye and the black serpent has a white eye.  Things are never “black and white” and never so simple.  This is why we practice.


Karma and Conditioning



Karma and Conditioning are related and can’t exist without each other.  The act of conditioning produces our Karma as Karma is nothing more than “Cause and Effect.”  But what is conditioning?  Conditioning is simply the process of modifying behavior by applying “rewards” or “punishments” each time a given action is performed.  This can cover a wide range of activities such training, forming habits, or even enforcing laws in our criminal justice system.   


Tesshin’s talk the week focused quite a bit on our personal conditioning and how it can be used as a tool for transformation.  We normally think conditioning is a “bad” thing and something we need to eliminate through practice.  Tesshin wanted us to reconsider this and look at conditioning as a tool for how we shape our day to day existence.


A few examples may help.  For instance, what happens when you go grocery shopping?  Hopefully you “condition” yourself to only visit those parts of the store which hold nutritious foods!  We all know the “dangerous parts” of the store! Having a ritual conditions us to avoid the temptation of the cookie aisle.   Tesshin also talked about how athletes and even the military use conditioning to meet expected challenges.  Athletes train and practice their sport or game and the military practices scenarios to be prepared for potential future conflicts.


So is conditioning bad?  Like everything it depends.  What happens if the game the athlete is practicing for changes drastically?  What happens if our military is practicing for the “last war” instead of the conflicts we will face in the future?  What happens when the grocery store changes the placements of products so you suddenly find the cookies where you expected the kale?


It is said that “practice makes permanent.”  This is what conditioning is about.  It is about consciously aiming towards specific behaviors.  Our practice, however, is also about seeing reality as it really is so we can adjust when things suddenly change.  We need both in order to succeed!  It is blind un-thinking conditioning which our practice warns us against.  We must always understand the WHY.  This is why mental training is so important.  This is why we sit on the cushion and attempt to get control of the delusional mind.


Tesshin wrapped up by asking if we can straighten out our karma?  Can you change your conditioning and setup yourself up for success?

What to Do?



Our teacher’s lineage is Soto Zen, however it also contains a strong Rinzai influence as well.  In the Rinzai School, Koans serve as a major teaching tool.  Tesshin started this week’s talk by discussing one of these “teaching cases” and how we can use it to expand our understanding of the practice.


First, what is a Koan?  Koans have worked their way into the popular consciousness as puzzles with no logical answers.  Examples include…


                “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

                “If a tree falls in the forest and now one is present, does it make a sound?”


We see that these cases cannot be solved in the normal way we figure things out.  They are designed to “crack open the conventional mind” and allow reality to enter.  One cannot study the koans and a teacher cannot really teach them – we must experience them personally.  We must figure these out alone on the cushion.  The teacher can point the way, but it is individual who must do the actual work of understanding.


In our tradition, there are two main collections of cases we must travel in order to be considered accomplished.


Mumukan – The Gateless Gate

The White Cliff Record


To explain Koans and how they work, Tesshin presented the 5th case from the Gateless Gate.


Great master Kyogen said: “Zen is like a man hanging in a tree by his teeth over a precipice. His hands grasp no branch, his feet rest on no limb, and under the tree another person asks him: ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China from India?’    


“If the man in the tree does not answer, he fails; and if he does answer, he falls and loses his life. Now what shall he do?”


What does this mean?  How must we answer?  If we talk, we fall and die!  If we remain silent we fail the test.  There seems no “logical” answer.  This is the power of the koan!  We must be reality – there is no talking – there is no explaining. 


Tesshin next provided some context for this Koan by relating an incident where Oprah Winfrey brought together conservative and liberal individuals to discuss current political issues on television.  Although people were emotional and agreed to nothing, they kept meeting socially after the event.  Why would they keep meeting?  When asked a year later, the participants mentioned that they kept meeting in order to understand points of view.  Many of them never get exposed to the opposing point of view in their day-to-day life.  This points to something critical!  The moment when we label ourselves as something – dualism happens.  We separate ourselves from reality – just like these television participants were separated into their own sphere of opinions and conceptions.  I am a <fill in blank> which means that everything that is not <fill in blank> is outside of me.  This is dualism.  It separates us from reality and is really a kind of narcissism.  Our practice is all about seeing this and resisting it.


Tesshin continued with a cautionary message on the popular conception of “Mindfulness.”  He reminded us that mindfulness is not the goal – it is only a tool.  Mindfulness would not provide the breakthrough of Kyogen’s Man in the Tree.  Mindfulness is not even the total answer for eliminating dualism.  Mindfulness teaches us only understanding – but it does not provide us with enlightenment.  Mindfulness would let us explain the way, but we would need to open our mouth and fall to our death.  Mindfulness is like studying about navigation rather than actually piloting the boat.  Our practice is the actual navigation.  It is the state where navigator, boat, and river are one.  We stop talking, thinking, and explaining and just do.  


Lastly, Tesshin wrapped up with an interesting observation –  people who work our practice never call themselves Buddhist.  To say you are a Buddhist is just another form of dualism.  It separates you from everyone else.  This neatly captured why I have always been uneasy calling myself a Zen practitioner.  I always thought it was pretentious, but what it really was doing was cutting me off from everyone else.


NOTE:  The image in this week’s entry was “The Gateless Gate: 5. Kyogen Mounts the Tree”  The image was obtained from ( and we extend our sincere thanks and encourage everyone to visit and patronize this site.

Zen Without Words



Tesshin used his talk this week to contemplate how people can interact without words getting in the way.  This is very important in Zen as our practice is about experiencing immediacy in this very moment.  We only have to recollect the parable of Mahākāśyapa recognizing all of reality when the Buddha simply held up a flower.  Part of slowing down our discriminating mind is to see how we can be with and for other people without the constant onslaught of words and thoughts.  No Chatter!  No Babble!


The first example our teacher shared was about a recent NPR story about how the country of Columbia trained children in the seventies who could not speak or hear.  Initially the authorities brought in experts to teach the children, but with little success.  The choice was then taken to allow the children to “teach themselves.”  Very quickly the children developed their own language and even went as far as teaching the teachers how they wanted to communicate.   Remember, they did this without the ability to hear or speak!


Even more interesting than the fact that the children spontaneously created a non-verbal way to communicate was the evolution of the language over a number of generations.  Initially, the language was crude.  For example –   “Child wants to fly”  became “The curious small child desired to be free by imaging flight through the sky”  over a short number of years.  


Tesshin next used an example of a Japanese concept called “emoji-yori”  This roughly translates to “emotion projection,” but means much more in practice.  As a way of example, our teacher related his time as a Zen student while in Japan.   During this time, he was really poor and scraping together enough money for food was a challenge.  The monks in the temple realized this and wanted to act.  They could have simply given him money or temple food, but they realized that Tesshin had the dual challenge of not having enough money and being a stranger in a strange land.  With this insight, one of the monks left bananas for Tesshin.  While this sounds really minor, we need to understand that in the 80’s bananas were rare in Japan – they were really only sold to US tourists and visitors.  This act of compassion was really a silent gift to feed the mind and the body.  This was done with no words and ceremony – simply bananas left on a table to give a small taste of home.   To this day, Tesshin does not even know which monk put the bananas on the table.  


It is moments like this that humanity communicates compassion without a single word.  This is the right action we strive to do in our practice.  This is real Zen practice we all should aspire to. 


What is the Secret?



Tesshin started his talk with a few comments on the Olympics currently being held in South Korea.  He noted that while all the athletes seem the same, some win and some do not.  What is the difference between them?  If we were to ask the winning athletes what they attribute their success to, they would say … “I was in the zone.”  What is “the zone?”  Tesshin offered that it is the state of mind of pure focus.  It is this pure focus which gets us to higher levels of attainment in everything we do.  As in athletics it can also be for spirituality.  We must approach our practice with faith and focus to obtain the benefits we seek.


Tesshin next moved to a review of the Zen tradition by comparing and contrasting two famous teachers in our tradition – namely Daruma Daishi(Bodhidharma) and Dōgen Zenji.  Bodhidharma traveled from India to China in the 6th century CE.  He was known as the “Barbarian of the West.”  His practice was the radical focus on pure meditation.  It was said that he lived his life in a simple cave staring at the wall.  There is an old story about a villager who traveled to Bodhidharma’s cave to learn wisdom.   In a deep show of compassion, the master threw him out over and over again!  Is this man’s interest in the Dharma a passing fancy, or does he really burn with desire to learn “the way.”    When the man proved his dedication by not going away, Bodhidharma finally admitted him and uttered the turning words – “put your pain in my hand.” With this one phrase the villager was instantly enlightened.  It is interesting to note that Zen monasteries still retain a ”barrier to entry” to new monks to this day.


The other great teacher Tesshin described was Dogen who lived in Japan 600 years after Bodhidharma.  While Bodhidharma was direct and radical, Dogen was cultured and intellectually minded.  However, while different in method, Dogen also firmly believed in focus on meditation and the mind.  Dogen went on to found the Soto school of Zen and the practice of shikantaza or “just sitting.”


Tesshin finished up his talk wondering out loud about how these practices could help today’s generation.  Today is a time of “instant gratification.”  We want results quickly and with a minimum of effort and attention span.  Isn’t there a seven minute you-tube video on how to gain enlightenment? (There is – I checked!!)  Perhaps this practice of radical focus is the antidote for our distracted time.

How do you know?

Japanese Fountain

A common question asked by both experienced and novice mediators is if the practice is actually working.  This is not surprising as this is how our discriminating mind always functions.  We seek instant gratification and miracles for chronic problems which have built up over lifetime.  Our teacher, Tesshin, pointed out that this is one of the biggest risks to our practice as we are too impatient, judge ourselves too harshly, and become discouraged too quickly.


Our discriminating mind is always present judging our progress …

          “I cannot focus – perhaps I am not good at meditation – why bother?”

          “I am still angry – this is not working!”

          “I am tired and drifted – this is a waste of time.”

Tesshin warned all of us against these thoughts and reminded us that any time on the cushion is valuable even if you think it is not working in this particular moment.


So how do we know if the practice is actually working?  Tesshin compared Zazen (seated meditation) to medicine.  If you had a chronic disease and your doctor prescribed a regimen of medicine, how would you know if it was working?  Would you stop taking it if it failed to cure your condition after the first dose?  If you did this, you would never recover.  We take the medicine and notice that our condition clears up over time.  Meditation is similar to this.  Every day we take another dose of mindfulness and our deluded condition clears up.  We can ask ourselves …

           “Do I tend to get less angry than I did a few months back?”

           “Am I more focused and steady in my day to day activities and interactions?”

           “Am I less brittle and vulnerable to every little negative event in my life?”

Again, this will not happen after one sitting session, but ask yourself if you see changes after six months.


Tesshin compared our practice to a common Japanese saying…

          “Three years into a rock”

In Japan it is common to see bamboo fountains which drip water onto a rock.  When the fountain is first built the rock is smooth with no indentations.  Over time the dripping of the water works on the rock.  In three years a mark forms where the water hits the rock.  How can something so gentle as water affect something so hard like a rock?  TIME!  It is also this way with our practice.  Something so quiet and innocuous as meditation, given enough time and consistent application, can have a huge effect on your life.   

What Eye Do You Use?

stock photo of eye


Tesshin related a story about a conversation he had this past week.  What was striking was that the person he was talking to seemed to have one eye consciously focused on him while the other eye seemed to be somewhere completely different.  I think we all have had a similar situation happen to us in the past!


So the question is what eye do you use in your moment to moment existence?


Current scientific studies have shown that input from the eyes first pass through the limbic system of the brain.  This is the area which processes emotions, flight/fight responses, and desires and drives.  It has been called the “darker” and more primitive part of the brain.


So are you casting a “limbic eye” when dealing with people?  Are you experiencing hate, anger, lust, etc?   Do you spend your time in hot emotion all the time?


These same studies also state that after being processed by the limbic system, the pre-frontal cortex overlays more complex ideas onto the visual input.  This is where we process the “social impact” of our interactions and where we exercise “executive functions” like planning, ethics, and weighing cause and effect.  It is said that the human mind grew so large in the past because we were so concerned with social interaction, status, and effects of our actions.


So is social status your main motivation for the actions you take?  Is the other person a tool to raise your status or to secure something you need or want?  Was the person talking to Tesshin focused on the topic or him as a person, or was he weighing or calculating?


Our practice recognizes that our biology affects how we think, but it also states that we can move beyond simple biology.  We can train and thus learn how to control of the mind.  We do this  through meditation.  This is one of the reasons meditation practice is emphasized.


So what eye do you want to use?  This is the question!


The Cracker

Tree on Cracker BW


Abbot Paul returned today from his yearly visit to his temple, Tetsugyuji, in Oita Prefecture, on the island of Kyushu, Japan. He is the first westerner ever to be named the head of a Zen temple in Japan.  After our weekly meditation, which included two 40 minutes seated zazen sessions with Kinhin (walking mediation) in between, we gathered for our traditional tea and chat with the Tesshin.

This time, however, Abbot Paul brought us back traditional Japanese crackers from the north of Japan called Miroki Sembi and asked that we distribute them among ourselves.

And then he told us a story….

He had gone back last week for his yearly visit to his Temple in southern Japan where he still serves as Abbot.  He had looked forward to quiet tea times with his monks and was feeling somewhat guilty about not keeping up with relationships ‘back home in Japan’.

One relationship in particular that he had wished to renew was with a 92 year old Buddhist nun named Kenahida. The nun was very important to him as (in the abbot’s words) “she had taught him more about living the Dharma than any monk he had known over his 40 years as a Buddhist”.  She had taught him more “about devotion and applying his heart to something he loves” than any other teacher. So he traveled from his Temple in the South of Japan to the northern temple of his former teacher, Zen Master Ban Tetsugyu Roshi, on the island of Honshu, where Kenahida resided.

It just so happened that it was the 23rd anniversary of Kyoshi’s death, and a large celebration was underway at this time. But when the abbot inquired about Kenahida, his Dharma brother Tessai Yamamoto – Head Abbott of Kannonji Zen Temple (Iwate Prefecture) and Jofukuji (Nagano Prefecture), told him that “she was in a dark place” and “today was not a good day to see her”. So the abbot helped with the preparations for the celebration and after a day or so again inquired after Kenahida. And again he was told that it was probably not a good time to see her as ‘she was in a dark place’. Concerned, the abbot called Kenahida’s daughter and was told that her mother was in a day care center and didn’t remember anyone due to Alzheimer’s disease. To which, the abbot replied, “please call your mother and tell her that Paul Tesshin is here”.

When the daughter called her mother at the day care center, the daughter told the abbot, “my mother said to tell you she is coming to the temple to meet you.”

Now Kenahida had not been to the temple in a long time. Apparently the abbot’s Dharma brother, Tessai, had angered Kenahida when he had asked her to stop ‘running things’ as she had forgotten to turn off the stove several times.  You see, Kenahida, even at 92 years of age, was still intent on running everything at the monastery herself as she had done for years despite her advanced age. 

But when Kenahida learned that Abbot Paul had come to see her, she had insisted on seeing him at the temple. And miraculously, upon returning to the temple despite so long a time, she appeared as her old self. She shared tea time with the abbot and some traditional wafers. Tasting the wafers she smiled and said “only the good ones come from the North.”  And from this reply Abbot Paul knew that Kenahida had truly returned and was her old self again.  And the other Dharma priests and brothers upon seeing this, renewed their relationships with her. Among them was Dharma brother, Tessai, who turned to Kenahida and said “you are no longer caretaker, you are now a devotee and we will take care of you” which made Kenahida very happy. Abbot Paul then asked Kenahida how she felt about this miraculous shift in the relationships between herself and her Dharma brothers, to which she smiled and simply replied: “Miroki Sembi are better.”

And so the moral of the story is two-fold: 

(1) The shifting and healing of relationships is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind that shifting and healing are generations of Karma. People create Karma which continues after death as the next generation is born into the Karma of the previous generation. 

(2) It is not about me but about the shadows I can’t perceive. When the Japanese are asked “how are you?” the traditional reply (roughly translated) is “because I don’t know what is going on behind my back I am well because I assume that you are honorable and have spoken well of me.”

The Awakening



The “awakening stick”, or kyōsaku, is used at the discretion of the Ino, the one in charge of the meditation hall in the Zen Buddhist temple. It is not considered a punishment, but a compassionate means to reinvigorate and awaken the meditator who may be tired from many sessions of zazen, or under stress of the “monkey mind”. Although the uninitiated may ask “do they use it to beat us?” the answer is “No”.  Although it may look intimidating, it is actually an aid to meditation that allows one to “break through” the ego which is holding one back from deep existentialist Buddhist mediation. In this sense, the kyōsaku is one of your best friends.


It is difficult to be totally present in the here and now and leave behind our busy lives. When you get into deeper and more intense meditation you will encounter a battle with your ego which will try to prevent you from the realization of your true nature. The ego is attached to your world view or your identity, i.e., what you have constructed around you that defines who you are. If you let go of all the things you have struggled for, what happens? This is the point where the ego won’t let go of who you are. In essence, you will encounter a block. You will then need help to break through this block. That is when you will go into gassho, i.e., “palms of the hands placed together a slight distance away from your chin” and ask Abbot Paul to help you break through the barrier through the use of the kyōsaku. The kyōsaku is a tapered stick with a wide flat end which makes a sound which is actually worse than the tap itself. When you feel the light tap on your right shoulder (see top photo) from the flat part of the kyōsaku, you then drop your head to the left and bow to the administrator (in this case Abbot Paul) after being struck.


The first time you break through and encounter your true nature it is transitory. This is called Kenshō, the small enlightenment when you start to let go of the trivial things you thought had meaning and realize your true value. You are now on the path to the Satori, the ultimate enlightenment. At this point you start to appreciate the tools which deepen your practice and deepen your soul.  And you start to recognize the simple things that are your tools. You bow to your cushion. You bow to the room where you meditate. But it is critical that you recognize why you bow to things.  You bow to an image of the Buddha. Historically, Abrahamic traditions have taught that we should not worship graven images. But we are not praying to the Buddha. When we bow to a statue of Buddha we are recognizing that the statue is a tool to help us reach enlightenment. There is no Buddha. That Buddha is “Me”, my internal nature. Similarly, in Shinto shrines, the primary object is a mirror, which in some shrines is fixed at such an angle that when worshippers pray, they find they are looking at their own reflection. People are praying to themselves!  But it’s not a case of worshipping your own ego so much as worshipping the divine within yourself. 

When we bow to that thing, the cushion, we thank the cushion for helping us be present. We thank the kyōsaku for helping us be present. And in recognition of the value of these tools, especially the kyōsaku, the abbot carries it as an honorable object against his chest, cradling it using his thumbs. We bow to each other and thank each other for helping us focus as it is easier in a group to meditate, than to try to meditate alone. But you have to really want this. 


Transcribed by Debra B. Kessler from notes taken during the Dharma talk delivered by Abbot Paul on November 25, 2017