Power of Ritual



Tesshin returned this week after traveling to his home town to deal with a death in his family.  He used this week’s talk to discuss the power which rituals have in our day to day life.  What is a ritual and what is its purpose?  A ritual is defined in the dictionary as “A religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.”  However, as Tesshin explained, this definition just scratches the surface and he then proceeded to break down what a ritual is and why it is so precious.


First, a ritual is different than normal activity.  It is held separate from our day to day activities.  The message is clear – be awake – something important is happening here.  Next, there is a well-known series of steps.  Generally, each step in a ritual is loaded with messages and symbolism.  The ritual is telling us a story which connects us to a tradition and to a group of people.  It binds us and reminds us that we are not alone, but part of something much larger than we are.  Also, the order and execution of the steps are important.  Lastly, the ritual must be done right and not done while thinking of other things!  Tesshin remarked that ritual is so effective that every civilization throughout history has used them to teach, explain, and to guide people through all the stages of life.


Tesshin next compared his own experience this past week grieving according to Jewish tradition to a close friend who considered themselves too “modern” to do any ceremony to mark a death in the family.  The observant Jewish rituals for grieving are quite elaborate and last for over a week.  First, the grieving family rips their garments.  This is done to signify loss and to “make it real” for the mourners.  It also reminds everyone that the body is nothing more than a garment which the soul wears – the garments may be ripped and ruined but the essential soul never dies. (Sound familiar?  Relative vs absolute?  Who are you?  What are you?)


The ritual does not stop there.  For the next seven days the family sits “Shiva.”  Tesshin remarked that during this time people take care of the grievers by feeding them and taking care of their needs.  This community ritual is critical.  The community is present for the family and reminds them that although they have lost, they are not alone.  During this seven day period, the griever’s only “job” is to grieve!  This ritual acts as the beginning of the process of healing – for the family and for the community.  This may involve telling stories about the deceased such as recounting funny or touching events in their life.  It could also be nothing more than a kind act given to a family member who is from out of town and is alone.  


Even when the body is buried, ritual guides the practice and serves as a teachable moment.  Instead of “outsourcing” the burial to cemetery workers, the family literally buries the body.  Yes, that means shoveling lots of dirt into a deep hole.  However, it is critical to pay attention while doing this solemn work.  (sound familiar??)  The family will commonly shovel the dirt with the shovel turned face down.  This makes the work even harder – which focuses the mind on the task.  No daydreaming or multitasking here! 


Now, let’s compare this community ritual to the experience of a “modern” who eschews all rituals when a close family member dies.  Tesshin was clear here – after a year his friend has never really recovered.  What he has really done is suppress his feelings.  There is no closure and thus no real healing.  Tesshin next mused that much of our modern life is like his friend.  In our attempt to be rational and modern we have turned our backs on the wisdom bequeathed over thousands of years of experience.  These rituals – whichever tradition they originate from – are gifts.  They allow us to mark the main stages of life, deal with trauma, and reconnect with others.  It is not surprising that alienation is such a big problem in today’s society.  We have disconnected ourselves from the wisdom of our past.


Tesshin wrapped up by reiterating the power of ritual in our lives.  He then reminded us that the rituals of death remind us that life is finite and that one should not waste our time.  This is the core of a spiritual practice.  Time is short, be awake!!


Buddha’s Dumbest Student

Monk Sweeping


Tesshin was called away this week due to a family emergency.  Below is one of the Sangha’s favorite talks he gave almost one year ago…

In this talk, Tesshin related the parable of Buddha’s dumbest student.  When Shakyamuni started his Sangha many different types of people were attracted.  Some were very academic, some were spiritual, and some were very physically active.  The story goes that one student in particular was quite – how shall we say it? – DENSE.  This student would come to every lecture, but in personal interview he would show no progress.  The Buddha would never lose patience because as a teacher it was his duty to utilize any and all methods to reach a student.  However, this student proved to be quite a challenge. 


Most teachers would have become frustrated and would have given up on this “stupid” student.  What is the point on spending so much time “dumbing down” lessons for someone who obviously lacks the intelligence to understand?  Like everything else in Buddhism – the surface observation is usually not the right one! 


After many attempts, Shakyamuni eventually tells the “dumbest” student to stop coming to lectures and to simply sweep out the temple.  At this, the monk states, “I can do that!”  So every day the “slowest” monk dutifully and carefully sweeps out the temple while all the “smart” monks are in listening to the master.  At this point, we should start thinking that there is a message here about masters and students!!  First, this “stupid” monk never gave up and became disgusted.  That is something!  Second, he had absolute faith in the master.  The master said sweep and he swept.  Would we have such faith in our teachers today?  Would we have become insulted if the master said that we should not come to the seminar – and even worse, we should be some servile janitor and clean out the temple?   Lastly, think about teachers today – would they “think outside the box” and try unconventional ideas to help a “different” type of student.  This is why Tesshin’s job of being a Zen teacher is so difficult.  How do you teach what cannot be taught or even put into words?


So what happened?  One day our “slow” student suddenly realized that there was no more dust left in the temple to sweep!  BANG!  Instant enlightenment – with a broom no less!  Why?  What happened?  This is Zen – that very moment is everything!  Dusting when there is no dust.   – Cleaning bowls which are already clean –  Your face before you were born!  The dumbest person in the room realized it while all the “geniuses” in the lecture hall continued to read books and hear lectures, but never got anywhere! 


This story reminded me about the sixth patriarch of Zen – Hui Neng who lived in southern China from 638 – 713 CE.  Here was a boy who was an uneducated peasant.  The story goes that he achieved awakening while hearing the Diamond sutra.  At this point, he presents himself to the the 5th patriarch – who immediately recognized the deep understanding and eventually made him the successor.  The story goes that the 5th patriarch had a poetry competition where the most accomplished monk would receive transmission. 

The senior monk presented the following …

The body is the wisdom-tree,

The mind is a bright mirror in a stand;

Take care to wipe it all the time,

And allow no dust to cling.


Then the “kitchen rat” stands up and presents …

Fundamentally no wisdom-tree exists,

Nor the stand of a mirror bright.

Since all is empty from the beginning,

Where can the dust alight


Ah, there we are, dusting where there is no dust!! 

Personally, I would love to have been in the room when the kitchen rat “put the hurt” on the senior monk with an obviously superior understanding of reality.  The story continues that the master understood that Hui Neng was the most accomplished, but was afraid to announce it to all the rest of the monks as there would have been an uproar (a bit of classism from our zen monks – if you ask me!)  As such, the master called Hui Neng at night and secretly transmitted to him and then sent him away to teach elsewhere.


Finally, there is a famous saying in Zen that if you meet the Buddha on the road – you should kill him.   Here Tesshin was reminding us with the parable of the “slow” monk that realization cannot be intellectually understood or learned – it must be “rediscovered” and experienced personally.  Even a teacher like Shakyamuni can only point at “it” –  he cannot teach it.  This is why Zen emphasizes time on the cushion and living moment to moment.  Yes!  It is possible to gain enlightenment by everyday activities.  Shakyamuni understood this and it is why he lovingly told the monk to sweep – he understood that the books and lectures were a distraction.  Tesshin wanted us to hear that message today and remind us that enlightenment is not a function of intellect –  it is a function of realization.  We all have this ability to realize as we are all human and sentient.  All that is needed is focus, hard work and faith.

The Many Masks of Zuigan



Tesshin used his talk this week to take us through the 12th case of the Mumonkan collection of Koans.  This case is unusual in that it does not follow the normal flow of a conversation between a master and a student or between masters, but rather is between a master and himself.  Below are the case, commentary, and verse…


Every day Zuigan used to call to himself, “MASTER!  MASTER!”

and would answer “Yes?”


“Awake! Awake!” he would cry,

and “Yes! Yes!” he would answer.


“From now onwards, do not be deceived by others!” 

“No, I will not!”


Mumon’s Commentary

The master, Zuigan, sells out and buys himself. He has a lot of puppets of gods and devils that he plays with. Why is this so? With one mask he asked, and with another he answered. With another mask he said, “Awake!” and another, “Don’t be cheated by others!”

If you adhere to any one of these, you are totally mistaken. If, however, you imitate Zuigan, then all these are no other than the fox’s disguises.


The Capping Verse

Those is search of the Way do not realize the existence and true nature of the self;

This is because they recognize only the relative mind,

Which is the origin of our eternal transmigration;

Foolish people take it for the true original self.


First, a bit of background on Zuigan.  He was active in China between 830-900 CE which would put him about 40 years after Lin-chi who founded the Rinzai school.  He appears in a number of koan collections including “Records of Serenity,” “Gateless Gate / Mumonkan,” and the Shobogenzo.  


So what is going on here?  Is Zuigan crazy to be talking to himself?   He calls out “Master! Master!”  so this must mean he is the student – right?  But then he answers the call himself – so that makes him a master – right?  We see this pattern over and over in Zen koans.  Is it “A” and it is “Not A”  If you think it is A, you are mistaken and if you think it is “not A” you have missed it.  So is Zuigan a Master? – “Mu!”  is he a student “Mu!”  So who is he?  This is what we must penetrate in this koan!


Tesshin commented that people understand themselves by compiling lists of attributes.  “I am a teacher, a man, a father…..”  However is this really who you are?   The world is fluid – things are always changing.  We try to create a solid persona, but it is like building a sand castle against the rising tide.  It just does not work.  We build our persona by wearing many masks in many different situations.  You may wear the mask of “manager” at work in order to get people to complete tasks.  You may wear the face of “mother” when interacting with your children.   Down deep, when alone, however, you may ask who am I really?  – if this is your question – then this koan is for you!  


This koan is famous and loved in Zen as it is so direct in its message.  We begin to see the futility of identifying with our masks.  As we meditate on the dropping our “ego masks” we begin to get a glimpse of what real liberation looks like.  Once we realize that these masks are not real – anything is possible in life!  We can break the old habits of our false personas.  We don’t need to act the same way every time because we believe it is expected.  We can act spontaneously!  


Awake! Awake!”  Realize the truth – Zuigan calls out to himself.  Do you see it?  Do you see it?  This is the challenge of Zen.  It is the constant question we ask.  Can you see reality for what it is?  We are confronted with this question when we meditate in Zazen, when we work, when we eat.  It is always there.  Even Zuigan tests himself constantly to make sure he has not become complacent.  Has he forgotten?  Does he still understand?  Awake!  Remember reality for what it is!!


Tesshin next moved onto a very moving story which really hits at the fluidity of our personas.  The story starts out with a starving chicken walking along a lake.  A fox jumps out ready to eat the chicken.  The chicken begs the fox not to eat him, but rather to give him a bite to eat.  The fox figures, “Why not – let me fatten up the chicken and then eat him later!”  The fox proceeds to nurse the chicken back to health.  


Later the chicken is out by the lake again and the fox secretly follows in order to attack.  “Now is my big chance!” – he thinks.  Just when he is about to attack the chicken turns to him and introduces a sick duck.  “Mr. Duck, here is the kind fox I was talking about.  He helped me and he will probably help you!”  The fox thought, “Wow!  nobody ever called me kind in the past.  Well, what the heck – I can fatten both of these guys up and then have a ready supply of food for the winter.”  So the fox did just that.  


A few weeks later the chicken and the duck were walking by the lake and again the fox followed in the shadows figuring now is the time for that promised meal!  The chicken and duck came across a small and weak bunny.  The duck and chicken start going on about the kindest fox in the world.  At that moment a fearsome wolf jumps out ready to eat all three.  Suddenly at the last second the fox jumps between the three small animals and the big wolf and fights it off.  (Wow!  in all the world, that last animal one would expect to do this is a fox!!)  However, in the process the fox is mortally wounded and dies.  The chicken, bunny, and duck are grief struck and bury the fox while considering the possibility that the fox was really some sort of divine spirit.  


What is especially moving in this story is how the identity of the fox changed as people treated him differently.  This is especially relevant for all of us in today’s society.  What we are reacting to are simply people’s masks – it is not their true nature.  If we change the way we treat people, perhaps they will begin to change the way they act.  Tesshin encouraged us to keep this in mind as we deal with people in our everyday life. 

Zen Labor



Tesshin opened his talk this week speaking about the three main pillars of Rinzai Zen which include seated meditation (Zazen), Koan study, and “Samu” or labor.  This week Tesshin wanted to delve into Samu specifically as we have not really discussed it much in the past.  


From Wikipedia, Samu is defined as “physical work that is done with mindfulness as a simple, practical, and spiritual practice.”  This is typically seen as cooking, working in the garden, and general maintenance.  A common parable in Zen which really captures the centrality of Samu is “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” 


Tesshin next described life in a Zen temple.  When one first arrives as a student, they are not allowed to touch anything.  The novice is considered inexperienced – and to be frank – the monks are worried that they may actually break something.  Once the student has gained some familiarity with the temple and its routine, work can then be assigned.  Typically the first job is something menial like cleaning the toilets.  However, we must remember that EVERYTHING in a Zen temple is an opportunity to teach.  The toilets are assigned because it is right there where the student first encounters resistance of the mind.  Many students see menial or unpleasant work as an insult or something which must be borne in order to get to the “good stuff.”  Tesshin was clear – the toilets are the good stuff of Zen!  At his temple, Tesshin personally cleans the toilets as the last thing before closing a retreat.  It reminds him about Samu and that every job is another chance to work with the mind.    


Tesshin next described the role of the Tenzo – or cook – in a Zen temple.  Why would the cook be considered the most important job in a temple, except maybe for the Abbot?  Traditionally the Tenzo is seen to care and protect the practice of all the other monks.  Also, a Tenzo with an undisciplined mind will produce subpar food – and this will become clear immediately.  In other words, the Abbot can “fake” realization, but the Tenzo cannot – as everyone will taste it right away!!  Tesshin then related a story when his teacher – Ban Roshi – first asked him to prepare the Miso soup (a big deal in a temple!)  Tesshin’s mind raced with excitement and worry – would the master approve of his offering….  Of course, Tesshin’s mind was reflected in the soup and the master called it the WORST miso soup he ever tasted!  This was yet another loving teaching of Ban Roshi – food does not lie – it clearly reflected the chaos in Tesshin’s mind.  This is why the kitchen is so sacred in Zen temples and the Tenzo is so prized!


Tesshin continued the discussion on labor by relating a story about his visit to Tenryu-ji temple in Kyoto during his recent tour of Japan.  This is a famous temple and Tesshin personally knew the Abbot.  The idea was to show his traveling companions an authentic Rinzai temple – specifically the meditation halls, statues, and other religious artifacts.  However, all the abbot was interested in sharing were the gardens he personally tended.  Why would this be so?  It is because the garden is the abbot’s Samu.  It was what had significance for his own practice!  We spend so much of our lives in labor that it makes sense that this is where we can really practice.  It is in labor that we can confront our mind and understand our delusions.  Tesshin was clear here – labor is our best opportunity to practice wisdom.  The abbot wanted to show Tesshin his realization, which was his Samu, which was the garden.


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by announcing that we would have an opportunity to “labor like the abbot of Tenryu-ji!”  Yorktown Zen is sponsoring a plot in the Yorktown Garden of Hope.  Here the group will have the opportunity to tend crops with all the produce being donated to charity.  Tesshin reminded us that this will be a great opportunity to strengthen our practice and do some good for the community.



Lastly, the group decided to meditate outside in the beautiful spring weather.  Below is a picture Tesshin…



Tools of the Trade



Tesshin was back from Japan this week.  One observation he wanted to share with us are the statues of Manjushri which commonly guard the entrance of Zen temples.  Manjushri is the Bodhisattva of wisdom.  A Bodhisattva in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an accomplished being who delays their entry into nirvana in order to help all other sentient beings achieve awakening.  Many Japanese and especially western tourists see these statues as representing warrior daemons that protect the temple and monks from outsiders.  Tesshin reminded us that this could not be further from the truth!


So why would an accomplished being dedicated to saving all beings wield a sword – a recognized instrument of violence?  One clue that Manjushri is not meant to scare away “infidels” is what is in his other hand – a scroll containing the Dharma or the codification of all wisdom.  (I would like to believe that in Zen this scroll would be BLANK!!)   


Here Tesshin was very clear.  Manjushri is holding “Tools of the Trade” for awakening.  The scroll is pretty obvious.  The Dharma is our guide for alleviating suffering.  We can think of the Dharma as the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-fold Path, etc.  The sword is a symbol to remind us to cut away all of our delusions.   So the sword is not an instrument of vengeance used on others in violence.  It is used only on ourselves.  But why a sword and not something more peaceful like a “dust whisk” to remove delusions.  It is because the removal of delusions is critical and is not to be taken lightly.  We do not casually remove delusions – this is a matter of life and death and we must be constantly reminded of this fact.   So, these statues are put out in front of the temple, not to protect it from others, but to clearly tell everyone what is going on INSIDE the temple.  The monks are working with wisdom and simultaneously training their mind by constantly cutting out distractions.  Tesshin then asked – is this not what we do every time we sit down on the cushion?  We work with the mind – constantly eliminating distractions, fantasies, thoughts, etc.  


Tesshin then explained that Zen is not the only tradition which focuses on contemplation, wisdom, and the removal of distraction.  It so happens that right next to his temple sits a Carmelite nunnery.  Tesshin has known these nuns for decades as they were already cloistered when Tetsugyuji temple was established.  While the theology and traditions are quite different, it is striking how much the Carmelite nuns and Zen monks share in practical practices for mental discipline, contemplation, and focus.  In fact, Tesshin mentioned that this group of Japanese women joined the nunnery as the felt that modern Buddhism in Japan has become too casual and “indulgent.”  Tesshin mentioned that he gained a lot of inspiration from these spiritual sisters in the early days of his temple.


Tesshin next told a story about his own delusions.  When he was a Japanese monk, his teacher once asked him what faith tradition he came from and why he turned towards Buddhism.  Tesshin explained that he did not like the hypocrisy and corruption in the Western religious traditions.  The wise teacher laughed and “bonked” Tessin on the head and said that is the most stupid reason for turning away from a wisdom tradition covering thousands of years of teaching.  It is just another form of delusion to think that one faith is a better road to realization than another.  They all have something to teach.  As such, Tesshin started reading the Western Bible again – this time with fresh eyes!  What Tesshin began to realize is that there is wisdom everywhere in the world – if you can cut out your delusions, fantasies, preconceptions – in other words, if you can cut your ego away and see reality as it really is.  Tesshin reminded us that this is the real lesson of Zen – not the history – not the Sutras – not the lineages  – but raw reality!  This reality can be apprehended in Zen, in a Carmelite nunnery, or in a mosque.  It can be apprehended everywhere because the apprehension is in YOUR mind – not in a building or a tradition.


Tesshin wrapped up by saying he was happy to be back with us and encouraged all of us to strengthen our meditation practice.

Bodhidharma’s Beard

Bodhidharma's Beard


Tesshin used his talk this week to cover the fourth case in the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate) collection of koans.


The Case:

Wakun complained when he saw a picture of the bearded Bodhidharma:  `Why hasn’t that fellow a beard?’ 


Mumon’s comment:

If you want to study Zen, you must it with your heart. When you attain realization, it must be true realization. You yourself must have the face of the great Bodhidharma to see him. Just once such glimpse will be enough. But if you say you met him, you never saw him at all.


The Verse:

One should not discuss a dream

In front of a simpleton.

Why has Bodhidharma no beard?

What an absurd question!


So what does this mean?  Tesshin first gave us a bit of background so that we could understand this koan better.  First, the term “barbarian” simply means that a person is a foreigner.  Bodhidharma is traditionally understood as a traveling monk from India who came to China and established Zen Buddhism.  Next, Bodhidharma’s beard was his “trademark” and every image we have of him has this prominent and bushy beard.  Wakun would definitely have known this!  This serves as a hint.  Everyone knew he had a beard, so why does Wakun state that he does not have one – and what does this have to do with realization?  You may notice that this koan is very short and to the point – the bearded monk has no beard – figure it out!  This is very much in keeping with the way Zen started in China.  


Tesshin explained that this Koan is trying to get you out of your everyday phenomenal or “relative” understanding of reality and get you to think in more spiritual or “absolute” way.  So there is a phenomena where Bodhidharma always has a beard – but this is not his essence.  We can test this by simply imagining that we cut off his beard.  So do we not have the sage anymore? – of course not! – it is just one of many relative phenomena we use to contingently describe Bodhidharma.  So what is his essence??  Ah, that is the question isn’t it!  Tesshin tried to help us by using the analogy of the dual nature of light.  Sometimes it exhibits the phenomena of a particle and sometimes it acts as a wave.  So what is the essence of light?  In quantum theory, the minute we try to answer that question the true essence of light disappears and we are left with only a particle or wave and not the truth.  Sounds a lot like our bearded barbarian!!


Let’s see if Mumon’s commentary can help us…

“If you want to study Zen, you must it with your heart.”

This as meaning that this is not going to be easy or trivial – well if you have studied koans, you already know this.


“When you attain realization, it must be true realization.”

This means that your first answer is probably going to be wrong – try again!  Again, this is not easy.


“You yourself must have the face of the great Bodhidharma to see him. Just once such glimpse will be enough.”

Ah!  Now here there is something interesting!!  You must have his face!!  There is no separation between you and the sage!  Your face is his face.  There is no separation, no faces, and no beards.  In fact, this whole question about beards is beside the point!!  As in the previous example, there is no particle and no wave – there is just light.  This is where we must work with all of heart to gain true realization.


“But if you say you met him, you never saw him at all.”

And of course, the final warning from Mumon.  If there is no separation then how could you ever see him?  Do you see it?  What is your face before you were born?  How could you see it?  Particle or Wave – one cannot take a measurement!  It is really all the same question!


The verse poetically reinforces the point.

   One should not discuss a dream

   In front of a simpleton.

   Why has Bodhidharma no beard?

   What an absurd question!


There is no book or article we can read which will give us this answer.  Even reading a description like this is probably a distraction.  One must realize this truth through practice.   Adding words only muddies the water. 

Who Are You?



Tesshin spent the previous week in Detroit, Michigan leading a training session for GM and the United Auto Workers.  Before the sessions began, Tesshin was driving around looking for something to eat.  While lost in thoughts, he suddenly came to a checkpoint which cheerily announced “Welcome to Canada!”  (For those who do not know the area, Detroit is only 2 miles from Windsor, Canada)  Whoh!  how did this happen?  And there is was –  BANG!  reality took Tesshin out of his wandering thoughts.  He was at the border with a big Canadian flag staring down at him.


Now unlike us, who would have been upset at having to go through the hassle of a checkpoint, explain an innocent error, and waste a bunch of time, Tesshin realized there was a “teachable point” in this situation.  The realization of the border crossing is like the experience of realizing a Koan.  When you finally get it – you get it – and it is so simple.  Here is the border – it is a border – and I am HERE.  This is “suchness” – it is reality – plain and simple.  It is moments like this where the story in our heads falls away and we come face to face with the reality of a situation.  


Tesshin next asked the question, “How do we ever know where we truly are and who we truly are?”  For many of us, there is an internal narrative we tell ourselves, but is this real?  This story is the “ego” repeating over and over again – “Here I am!  Here I am!”  It is a desperate shout – almost like if it is not reasserted every minute it will disappear.  This is why time on the cushion is so challenging!  The ego keeps throwing thoughts up and distracting us – it is reminding us that it will not go away without a fight!  Even an accomplished Zen master is not immune!  Our challenge, according to Tesshin, is to recognize the ego, its story, and its constant monologue and realize that the story is not reality.  Our practice is to train the mind to quiet down so that we can get out of our own way and see reality for what it really is.  This could be as simple as realizing that we just drove to Canada instead of the Indian buffet we intended.


So who are we really and where are we?  The ego narrative tells us a story and the attachment to this story blinds us to reality.  You may think you are the greatest person in the world.  You may identify with a high-powered job or with the fact that your child just got accepted into Harvard.  On the other hand, your narrative could be negative.  You think you are a failure or even an evil person.  This relationship fell apart because I am a terrible person and nobody would ever love me.  The ego does not care – it simply needs a story which it can shout out to the world to assert its existence.  The key thing is that these stories are just that – stories!  They are not real and they do not help. 


Tesshin recounted his time training in Japan.  Monks are always in turmoil about their spiritual attainment.  (Yes, even monks have ego!)  It is a tradition in Zen that the teacher “knocks” the student out of their “ego games” with Koans, shouts, or even bonks on the head – if necessary!  Tesshin commented that his teacher, Ban Roshi, ( was very conscientious on this.  However, what happens when the teacher disappears?  Then what?  This is a key message in our practice – a teacher can only take you part of the way.  You must finish the journey yourself.  This is why we train!  If we can master the mind, then we can quiet the ego and really understand what is going on around us.  We will not need to depend on anyone and will truly be in control of our own fate.




Tesshin used this week’s talk to expound on a fundamental part of our practice – namely Zazen and the simple act of breathing.  The first thing Zen students are taught is to follow the breath during seated meditation. (Zazen)  Why is this?  First, every sentient being has the breath!  Being mindful of this simple action ties us to every other living being and reminds us that we are not separated from the totality of life.  Second, the breath is an accurate reflection of your state of mind.  For instance, if you are agitated, the breath will be shallow and rapid.  On the other hand, if you are mentally focused, it will be deep and strong.  Lastly, the breath is something we have partial conscious control of.  We can choose control it, observe it directly, or let go and allow it to take its own path.  There is a lot of wisdom contained in the breath – which is why it is so critical to practice!


So what does Zen mean by “following the breath” if there is no-self?  Whose breath is being observed and by whom?  Tesshin normally states that in breath practice, one must join with the breath!    We cannot force ourselves to control the breath like a drill sergeant barking orders at a “raw meditation recruit.”  You are observing the breath from inside the breath!  It is one thing – you and the breath.  So by following the breath, Tesshin means nothing more than following yourself – your mind, body, and soul.  The breath is central to everything.  


So how should we breathe when in Zazen?  First, one needs to understand where the breath comes from.  In our normal hectic world, we breathe from the top of our chest.  This causes rapid and shallow breathing.  How can we have a settled mind when our breathing is rushed and shallow?  Instead we must breathe from our core or “Hara” in Japanese.  This is the region a few inches below your navel.  The idea is to take slow deep breaths from the hara and then slowly release them.  When doing this correctly, you should feel your lower stomach fill on the inhale and flatten on the exhale.  At this point, one of the female students made an observation that women are always taught to pull in the stomach to appear thinner.  Tesshin agreed about this “peer pressure” and emphasized that “sucking in the gut” is not useful in Zazen.  In essence, we need to “let it all hang out.”  In other words, we need to be real and authentic and not be concerned with what others are thinking.  Tesshin likened proper Zazen breathing to how a dog breathes while sleeping.  Sleeping dogs take large, slow, deep breaths – they really do not care who is looking at them or how they appear.


So where to begin?  In your next sitting session, try taking a few deep breaths at the beginning.  This may allow you to enter a slower and deeper pattern.  Another suggestion would be to place your hands on your abdomen and check to see if it is rising and falling as you breathe?  In Zen practice, we hold our hands in a mudra which naturally brings awareness to the hara.  One can hold the mudra by placing the right hand on the right thigh and then place the left hand within the right hand with the thumbs touching. 



The “Cosmic Mudra” commonly used in Zazen practice


Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us that deep breathing clears the mind and allows us to start releasing all of the garbage in our subconscious mind.  He encouraged us to be patient but persistent in our practice.


A review a Zazen and breathing can be found on the Home Practice guide of the website.



This week’s title image sourced from

You are Life and Death



Tesshin started his talk this week by recounting how he brought his children to a farm stand so that they could “adopt” some pet chicks.  The idea was to teach the children the responsibility for caring for another living being.  The children were very excited and named each chick and then played with them for the entire day.  After a day or two, the children got bored with the chicks and went on to other things.  On the fourth day, Tesshin noticed that one of the chicks had died due to lack of food and water.  He gathered up the children and showed them the dead chick.  What is the lesson here?  Of all the children, his eight year daughter cried but then had a realization.  She was a part of the cycle of life and death.  Her actions could cause life or death and that she was not separated from the death of the chick.  According to Tesshin, this is the moment of opening and the moment of realization for his daughter!


Tesshin was born Jewish and he celebrates Passover with his family.  In the Jewish tradition, during the Seder ceremony, there is the parable of the Four Sons.  There is the Wise, Evil, Simple, and Infant sons.  The main difference between the wise and evil sons is how they inquire about Passover ceremony …

“What is the meaning of this ceremony WE do?”

While the evil son asks…

“What is the meaning of this ceremony YOU do?”

Do you see the difference?  The second question exposes the evil nature of the second son because he separates himself from everything and everyone.  In Buddhism, we believe this separation is the greatest delusion and one of the key sources of suffering.  When we say there is no “self” it is this disconnection from everything that we are trying to get at.  It is a reminder that one is not really separate from the world around us.  Like when Tesshin’s daughter realized that she was part of the cycle of life and death and that her actions mattered.  “Non Duality” stopped becoming an intellectual concept and became REAL for her.


Today, we see all around us the effects of this separation.  We see this when we judge others without trying to understand and help.  We see this when we stop listening to people we disagree with.  We see this when we attempt to “signal our virtue” with simple slogans rather than digging into the complicated issues of the day.  Lastly, we see this when we simply abandon challenges and look for ease and pleasure.  Our practice is one of enlightenment or coming face to face with reality.  It is never about what “YOU out there” think, rather it is about what WE must do together in the single unified world we inhabit to alleviate suffering of all beings.    Your actions matter – and they can have huge effects on others.  Evil is tuning your eyes away and thinking that this is someone else’s problem.


Tesshin wrapped up by wishing everyone a happy Easter and Passover.

The Gate

The Gate


Tesshin opened his talk this week with a parable…  


A muscular samurai approaches a Zen master to ask for wisdom on Heaven and Hell.  

The master asks, “What is it to you?”  

(Remember a master never asks a casual question – it is always loaded with meaning)   

The warrior responds that he wants to get into heaven. 

(Does he even know what that means?)  

To which the master responds, “You are ugly and smell – you will never get into heaven!”  

(This is the master lovingly ‘bonking’ the swordsman on the head – do you see it?)

The samurai is not used to someone talking to him like this and becomes very angry.

(Attached to his story of greatness) 

Without thinking he pulls out his sword and is ready to smite the master. 

The master calmly comments, “Now the gates of hell are open to you!”  

The samurai instantly understands and bows deeply.  

(He got it, do you?)  

In the same calm voice, the master says, “Now the gates of heaven are open to you. 


Do you understand what just happened?  The warrior had to make a choice.  It is a choice we all really have to make.  What do we value?  On the one hand, we have our status and accomplishments – namely our story which we will do anything to protect.  On the other hand we have spiritual understanding.  In the parable we have this wrinkled old man standing in front of a mighty samurai – brave beyond belief due to his mastery of reality.  With endless love for all beings he simply “states it as it is.”  If you cling to your story the gates of hell will open up to you.  The warrior is stuck – he has hit a barrier to understanding which the old master knocks down with a single sentence.  Who is the more powerful one here? 


Commonly in Zen temples, there is a gate called the “Mon.”  A new student arrives at the temple gate and announces his desire to know the truth.  Immediately, the gate is closed to him and he is told to go away.  Remember, nothing is done in the training for capricious reasons.  The young student does not know it yet, but the training has already begun!  Is this gate a real barrier?  Is there anything intrinsic in that gate at that time which is preventing the student from knowing suchness?  It is just a gate, after all – wood and metal.  Here is the first test of Zen.  Can you distinguish a physical barrier from a spiritual barrier?  Many students fail and leave the temple before the waiting period is over.  They falsely believe that the something is being withheld.  How sad!


Tesshin reminded us that the real barriers to spiritual understanding are in your own mind and not “out there” in the physical world.  The temple gate is nothing and can never keep you out if you understand!  The barriers are what we bring to practice.  It is interesting that the first set of koans which we study is called the Mumonkan or “Gateless Gate.”  So what is a gateless gate?  How can nothing be the greatest barrier to understanding?  How can nothing be greater than a wall constructed of mile thick concrete?  Mu is nothingness – so what is holding you back???   The “gate” manifests when you cannot sit down to practice.  What stopped you?  The “gate” manifests when you “buy into” your own story.  You know better!  For the samurai the gate manifested when he became enraged at the seeming disrespect of the master.  He changed, can you?


Tesshin wrapped up by saying that in practice there is no barrier because there is nothing in practice which is outside of your own mind.  The challenges and blockages are in your own mind and only you can transcend them – and when you do the gates of heaven will be open to you as well.