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.


The Bamboo and Banana

Tall Bamboo


This week is our third and final week reviewing the painted cake talk from Dogen. 

There is a translation at:


In this third and last section, Dogen opens with …


Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What is your statement about going beyond buddhas and surpassing ancestors?” 

Yunmen said, “A sesame rice cake.”


Dogen then tells us to “quietly examine these words.”  Tesshin noted that typically the group of monks would stop here and potentially meditate on that phrase for days!  Tesshin next noted that the statement about going beyond buddhas and ancestors is nothing more than gaining enlightenment – or in other words, understanding the ground truth of reality.  Dogen tells us that Yunmen has encapsulated all there is to know in his answer.  Although it is only four words – it could take a lifetime to unpack it and really understand it.  This is our practice – which is why Dogen would normally stop his students right here and exhort them to really examine the words.  By examining, he does not mean an intellectual understanding of the individual words, but a much deeper understanding which go way beyond simple utterances.  Another translation of Dogen states this even more clearly …


“You should just shut up and take a clear look into this.”  In other words, stop talking about it and let the ramifications of this pervade you completely.


One may think that contemplating all of reality in a rice cake will lead to instant enlightenment.  However, Tesshin commented that Dogen does not subscribe to this view.  Dogen believed that enlightenment could be instant, but in most cases, it developed out of a very specific process of training and discipline.  Practice is a lifelong commitment and a journey.  


Dogen continued by stating …


Rujing, my late master, said, “A tall bamboo and a banana enter a painting.”

Things beyond measure are actualized together.  


Tesshin stated here this is all about ending discriminations.  A bamboo is tall and a banana is not.  It is all “this and that” and “yin and yang” – but at the end of the day, both share the same painting.  Is it just two things in this paining?  Of course not – everything is in the painting – it is just that you cannot see everything, but the universe is in there – everything!  Again, Dogen is telling us not to be dualistic in our thinking.  Stop trying to break everything down into its constituent parts.  Doing that is simply our ego trying to reassert control.  Dogen is telling us to stop for a moment and experience “it.”  Can you do that?


Tesshin mentioned that wherever there is a glimmer of understanding in our mind, Dogen looks to blow it up!  Why is this?  It is because crystalizing an understanding is our ego trying to rip up the painting of reality in our attempt to split the bamboo from the banana in the painting.  We are again trying to take reality apart and layout the parts.  Dogen patiently tells us no, no, no – the tall bamboo goes far beyond anything we perceive.


Dogen continues …


Know that the entire heaven and earth are the roots, stem, branches, and leaves of the tall bamboo…

A banana has earth, water, fire, air, and emptiness, as well as mind, consciousness, and wisdom as its roots, stems, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, colors, and forms …


Tesshin noted that a banana has all elements along with mind and wisdom.  He then pondered, what is consciousness?  Do you need a human mind for any of this?  Dogen said NO – a banana has it.  What is a mind and what is consciousness?  Is consciousness as we understand it – really consciousness?  Does a banana have it?  It is interesting to note that many of our brightest scientists are now pondering this exact issue with regards to machine intelligence.  Dogen brought up this exact issue eight hundred years ago!!


Dogen finishes up the essay by stating that the painted rice cake MUST satisfy all hungers.  He goes on to state that the banana and the bamboo are reality, but also a painting.  Those who experience enlightenment by the sound of bamboo (this is a phrase from a famous koan) are all really just painting reality.  Human existence appears from a painting.  Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying the hunger other than a painted rice cake.  Without painted hunger you never become a true person.  There is no other understanding beyond painted hunger.


Tesshin wrapped up by telling the group that if we were sitting in front of Dogen, he would caution us that none of the above is a “language game” or poetic language.  Do not take that easy copout!!  The above is total truth.  If you do not understand, Dogen would invite you to sit on it a bit more!

Painting Reality

Pale Blue Dot


This week Tesshin continued his discussion of Dogen’s Painted Rice Cake fascicle.


(The entire fascicle can be found here)


In this part of the chapter, Dogen states that …

“In painting a rice cake, you use the same materials as you would to paint a landscape. You can use blue pigment to paint mountains and rivers and powdered rice to paint a rice cake. The work of composition is the same.”


Dogen goes on to state …

“There is no difference between paintings, rice cakes, or anything at all and you should understand that these rice cakes in front of you that you are about to eat are all “painted rice cakes.”  If you are looking for these “painted rice cakes” anywhere else you still don’t know how to eat a rice cake. Sometimes they appear as rice cakes, sometimes not.”


Continuing …

“When you paint a landscape, you might use blue paint. The pigment of the blue comes from many ingredients … “Painted cakes” are also painted through the interaction of many elements.  You paint a human being with the five aggregates… “

“In painting a single scroll of green mountains and white snow, Great Awakening is revealed. All movements and conditions are painted like this, and all our present activities are nothing other than such paintings.”


Tesshin stopped here and chuckled and said – “Simple – right?”  He then went on to try to explain what Dogen meant.


In our normal life we are focused on the variety of things.  We spend much of our time distinguishing attributes and assigning special meaning to characteristics.  We also collect attributes which we believe will make us different from everyone else or which will make us special.  Think about your own life – you may focus on your physical attributes, or your job, or even your bank account.  These are attributes about you which you believe make you noteworthy – but are they really your true essence?  Taken more broadly, Tesshin and Dogen are asking us to consider if we are really so different than everyone else.  This thought experiment is not to say we are unimportant, but rather it helps us not to separate from everything else in the universe.  


Tesshin provided an example of this from the world of modern physics.  If we did a deep dive into the atomic structure of matter world, it would be impossible at the subatomic level to identify a particular object.  Everything would be quarks and leptons.  At this fundamental level it is all the same thing.  The world of “this and that” is imposed on this generic matter at a higher level.  So, one can say that at this level there is no difference between a painted rice cake and a real one.


Tesshin then flipped the perspective and stated that there are no countries when we look at the Earth from space.  Furthermore, if we looked at the Earth from Mars, it would just be a “pale blue dot.”  Everything we know and care about and every aspect of life we have so carefully categorized and distinguished would be a single totality when viewed from the perspective of a Martian.  Such a Martian would not be able to distinguish a pained rice cake from a “real one.”  All they would be able to say is that is all an aspect of Earth.  The “suchness” of Earth and everything we know can be summarized as ‘Pale Blue Dot.”  


Tessin, then went on to say that if you pulled back even further our entire galaxy would be a blip of light when seen from thousands of light years away.  One can continue this until all of existence is just a totality.  Now you are beginning to see what Dogen understood all these years ago.  What is a rice cake when contemplating the totality of reality?  Is there really a big difference between a “painted” and “real” rice cake?


So, at all levels everything is everything.  Eating something does not change anything.  The “Hunger” is universal.  The painted rice cake is everything – and the act of painting the rice cake is the painting of all reality.  We are trained early on to distinguish and discriminate, and to some extent and in many situations, this is skillful to do.  However, we must understand that these collected characteristics are nothing more than a narrative in our own mind – this is not the real truth.  The real truth is the totality of suchness experienced in this very instant.


Painted Rice Cakes

Dogens Pained Rice Cake


Tesshin used this week’s talk to continue the discussion of Dogen’s Shobogenzo.  Specifically, this week we worked on Dogen’s Gabyo or “Painted Rice Cakes.”  

(The entire facile can be found here)


Tesshin called out some of the key passages for us…


All buddhas are realization; thus all things are realization. Yet, no buddhas or things have the same characteristics; none have the same mind. Although there are no identical characteristics or minds, at the moment of your actualization numerous actualizations manifest without hindrance.


Do not use the measure of oneness or difference as the criterion of your study. Thus, it is said, “To reach one thing is to reach myriad things.


To reach one thing does not take away its inherent characteristics. Just as reaching does not limit one thing, it does not make one thing not separate. To try to make it not different is a hindrance.


An ancient buddha said, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger.”


Tesshin remarked that this passage is a commentary Dogen was applying to a much older Zen story.  Tesshin wanted to provide his commentary on Dogen’s commentary to help us to understand.  At this point, Tesshin chuckled as he wondered out loud if he could really add anything to Dogen and if layering commentary on top of commentary really helps anyone achieve true understanding.  


So, what is Dogen trying to convey in the above passage?  According to Tesshin, Dogen is trying to get us to look at the absolute “ground truth” of reality.  The statement, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger” is a common rejoinder in Zen.  It means that the teachings only point to reality and are not reality themselves.  It is similar to the Zen warning that one should not to focus on the finger pointing at the moon, but rather at the moon itself.  


Dogen is not content with this Zen cliché, however.  He is pushing us to go further, and clearly notes in this facile that most monks and masters have not really deeply penetrated this issue.  Tesshin commented that Dogen is clearly stating that making a distinction between the painted rice cake and the real rice cake is dualistic thinking.  Dogen states that, “All buddhas are realization; thus, all things are realization. Yet, no buddhas or things have the same characteristics.”  (Buddhas meaning phenomena in this case.)  So Dogen is stating that we must begin to see the painted and physical cake as the same thing.


You may be thinking at this point – “Whoh!  How can a picture of a rice cake be equivalent to a real rice cake?”  If you are feeling tension at this point, that is good because you know that the original koan Dogen is writing about is starting to work upon your consciousness.  It is that same message again and again.  It would not be a surprise if MU made an appearance in your mind at this point.  


Dogen is clear that he is not just talking about “real” and painted rice cakes.  He notes that there are many different kinds of rice cakes, teachings, phenomena, and so on.  Each “thing” is different, however if we look deeper and deeper, we begin to see the sameness of all things.  We also see this in the spiritual studies.  We study one school of Buddhism and think we have the “truth.”  As we practice more and more, we realize that all schools, and in reality, all philosophies and religions are trying to convey the same truth.  At a very practical level, this must be the case as they all arise from the mind of humanity – how could they be radically different?  


Next, Tesshin read another quote out of the facile…  


“Know that a painted rice-cake is your face after your parents were born, your face before your parents were born… All rice-cakes actualized right now are nothing but a painted rice-cake. If you look for some other kind of painted rice- cake, you will never find it, you will never grasp it.”


Zen normally asks what was your face before your parents were born.  This is to get the student to understand that there is no point in discriminating between this and that.  Your true nature is universal and is part of an enduring suchness.  Dogen doubles down, however and states that the rice cake is your face both BEFORE and AFTER you were born.  Do you see it?


Tesshin moved on to state that in many religious traditions, there is talk of the spiritual plane and the conventional plane.  We hear this commonly in Zen as the “Ultimate vs Relative.”  There is a misconception that the ultimate plane is reality and the relative plane is delusion.  The thinking is that meditation allows us to get to the Nirvana of the Ultimate.  Dogen is warning us that this is WRONG thinking.  The ultimate and relative are the same thing and there is no place to get to.  THIS is the key message of this facile – specifically there is no difference between the absolute and relative.  


Tesshin wrapped up by asking us to watch/stream a movie called “Being There” by peter sellers which came out in 1979.  It is a story about a man who is a complete “Tabula Rasa” –   he knows nothing of the world.  The story is about how is moves through the world and people “paint” on him what they want to see in him.  Tesshin wanted us to watch this movie and we will discuss it at our next program.