What is Truly Important?



Tesshin used his talk this week to challenge us with thinking about what is really important in life.  He used the example of Steve Jobs.  Jobs was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2003.  What would you do if you received such a dire prognosis and only had a short time to live?  Most people would want to focus on the “important stuff.”  Perhaps that would be spending more time with family.  Perhaps it would be crossing off items from the “bucket list.”  Apparently Jobs chose to spend the end of his life in a Japanese Zen monastery!


Why would Jobs, who had every resource known to man, “waste” his final days in a monastery?!  Is he crazy?   To understand why he would do this, Tesshin reminded us that we have to first understand the purpose of Zen meditation.  In Zazen, we are not trying to escape life and problems, but to directly engage with them.  Zazen is the active elimination of “mental garbage” – namely all the delusions and misunderstandings we carry around which separate us from what is real in our life.  Looking at it this way, it makes total sense that if you only have a few moments left to live, you would want to really get good at focusing on what life actually is.  


So exactly what is going on in a Zen monastery?  What was Jobs actually doing there?  Tesshin was clear – Jobs, and all of us, are looking to understand our true nature through the practice of Zazen.  This is the core of Zen training.  But what is our true nature …       


What is your true face?

What was your face before you were born?

What was Buddhism before Buddha Shakyamuni was born?


Our meditation practice is about stripping away all the external characteristics to get at our true nature?   But what is left after all this stripping?  How do we do this and how do we know when we really arrive at knowledge of our true selves?


Tesshin offered a sort of “short cut” to get us started on this path.  He suggested that we look at this like an FBI investigation.  He gave this example…

Q:  Who am I?

A:  Well I am a hard worker

Q:  When did I realize that?

A:  When I got my first job after college

Q:  Who were you before that?

A:  Well, I was always a smart person

Q:  When did I realize that?

A:  In Jr. High School when teachers started praising me

Q:  Who were you before that? 


And so on and so on – there is no end to this Q&A until you realize that none of these characteristics get out your true nature.  Tesshin also reminded us that we cannot even depend on our body and the breath as our true nature.  Who were you before you were born?  At this point, all we can say is “Mu” and then the training really begins.  Tesshin’s short cut does not bring us to the finish line – it merely gets us to the starting block a bit faster!  


Tesshin wrapped up by musing about how some people become serious about training only when a crisis arises.  It is said in Zen that …

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost

The time to practice is now.  We must not wait.  We must practice like there is no time left to us!


Our Justifications



Tesshin used his talk this week to muse on how we use our minds to rationalize our behaviors and actions.  Everyone from the most deluded person to the most accomplished master does this.  In fact, most of us are so good at justifying our behavior that we do not even realize we are doing it.  How does this behavior-justification fit into a life and practice which is dedicated to seeing reality as it really is?  This struggle is especially pertinent to our Zen practice, as delusion is the main impediment to enlightenment.


This past week saw the release of memoirs from James Comey – the former US FBI director.  Tesshin noted how Comey spent much of the book trying to justify his past behaviors.  It almost seemed that the main purpose of the book was to ensure that everyone thought better of him and considered him a virtuous government servant.  Tesshin reminded the group about the futility of this desire.  He reminded us of the truism that if everyone agrees with you, you are probably wrong – and if everyone disagrees with you, you are still probably wrong.  As such, you should not look to others for affirmation.  If you are seeing clearly and are not deluded, then you will know where you stand.  Whether or not you support the current president, it is fair to say that Comey failed to achieve his aim with this book as both the democrats and republicans still dislike him.


Tesshin next explained our tendency to rationalize from an evolutionary point of view.  It turns out that our brains have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years and have physically become wired to justify all kinds of negative behaviors.  Why would this be so?  To exist in prehistoric times, humanity had to be pretty violent.  We wiped out whole species and even killed neighboring tribes.  From an evolutionary point of view, if we suffered terrible guilt over every mammoth we killed, there would not be many humans left alive today. 


Tesshin then wondered out loud how Buddhist teachers and leaders deal with this situation.  He wondered out loud how many of his own decisions regarding the practice are based on a desire to look accomplished or enlightened to students and other teachers.  This is a risk for anyone in a place of authority or who has reached any milestone of accomplishment.  His answer to the challenge was practice, of course, and a commitment to radical honesty.  He cautioned us that this does not come automatically and requires diligent attention.  This is why we sit and why we struggle to master the mind.


Finally, Tesshin wrapped up his talk with a brief thank you to the Universalist Church for hosting us.  He reminded us to be generous with our support of their congregation as they have been so generous with us.

Joshu’s Bowl



Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the 7th Koan of the Mumonkan…  


A monk said to Jõshû, “I have just entered this monastery.

Please teach me.”

“Have you eaten your rice porridge?” asked Jõshû.

“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.

“Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Jõshû.

With this the monk gained insight.


A common interpretation of this Koan is that we should always be in the present and mindful of our everyday activities.  While this is good advice, Tesshin challenged us to dig deeper into this Koan.  The Gateless Gate is more than superficial advice.  It goes to the core of our practice.  


To get at the core of this Koan, Tesshin pointed out that we need a bit of background on Joshu and monastic life he experienced.  Briefly, Joshu was a Chan(Zen) master practicing in China who lived from 778-897 CE.  During this time, novices had to work many years with junior teachers before they would ever have access to a master like Joshu.  


This is our first clue in this case.  How does a novice monk get to address the master?  We could be stubborn, and assume it was “luck.”  But why would we treasure a Koan based on luck??  As such, we must assume that this monk is not so junior, but rather already has quite a bit of attainment.  If this is true, Joshu must have a deeper message for this senior monk than simply eating rice porridge and cleaning his bowl.  That is our second clue!  Also, why would such simple advice produce Kensho? (awakening)  — our third clue!


Again, we have to again understand monastic life to get at this.  Meals in monasteries are not simply a meal, but a liturgy which focuses on and strengthens practice and understanding.  In Japanese monasteries the formal meal is called Oryoki and are quite elaborate.  During this ceremonial meal, bowls and utensils are carefully laid out, food is consumed, and bowls are cleaned.  In other words, the meal can never finish without clean bowls.  So, how could Joshu tell the monk to clean his bowls if they are already clean??  These are the “Turning words” of this Koan!  Stop and think for a second ….  What does it mean to wash a bowl which must have already been washed?


We can look at Mumon’s commentary …


“When he opens his mouth, Jõshû shows his gallbladder. He displays his heart and liver.”


This means that Joshu is expressing the raw truth.  He is not playing with words or exchanging simple chit-chat.  Again, this clues us in that there is more going on here than the simple injunction of “being present in this moment.”


In case you missed it above, Mumon continues…


Endeavoring to interpret clearly, 

You retard your attainment.

Don’t you know that flame is fire?

Your rice has long been cooked


Yes, we know flame is fire and rice has long been cooked.  This is the “bonk on the head” telling us to look deeper than the obvious.


So how can we wash an already clean bowl?  Ah, now we begin to see that we have a Koan here and not a fortune cookie!!  Only now are we truly prepared to enter this Koan.


Tesshin took us through this today not to instruct us on how to penetrate this Koan, but rather to show us how to prepare for a Koan.  It was a precious teaching that will save us many hours of useless thinking.  It also drives home the point that one cannot do Koan training from the Internet!  If one is going to really do this, one needs a qualified teacher!

Comedy as Truth



Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the recent HBO documentary entitled “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.”  Our teacher’s first exposure to the comedy of Garry Shandling was when he was in Japan.  During this time, homesick westerners ran an informal video exchange club.  Each person would receive a box of VCR tapes which they would send on to another person in the group when they were finished watching.  This was before streaming on the internet, so this “AV Club” was the most efficient way for people in a foreign land to get access to US television programs.


Most of the documentary focused on Shandling’s career and the many comics he mentored throughout his career.  Tesshin, however, wanted to emphasize how Garry used his art form as a way to get in touch with his life and understand reality.   It was noteworthy when Shandling stated that “Comedy is Truth.”  Tesshin wanted us to understand that the comic did not mean that the art form of comedy exposed the truth for the audience, rather performing the art was truth in and of itself for the comic.  It is the same for us.  Practice does not prepare us to understand the truth – practice IS the truth. 


Throughout the documentary, people talked about the bravery needed to be a standup comic.  What type of bravery are they referring to?  Tesshin answered by saying that it is the bravery of seeing yourself as you really are.  As a comic, you might go up on stage and “bomb” or “kill it.”  The question is whether you are brave enough to try?  Are you brave enough to find out who you really are?  Are you brave enough to find out what is real?  What about us?


I think a review posted on IMDB says it best …

“…Watching The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling allows one to realize, through Garry’s humor and being, that we’re not as alone in the world as we thought. At our cores, we all want to be our true selves, and often don’t know, or never find out, how to live truth. The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling teaches us Garry’s method, one that can be adopted by anyone, that staying true to yourself, trusting your instincts, and being your true self, are the closest we can ever come to truth and happiness…”


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that wisdom comes from the most unlikely places.  He also suggested that we watch the documentary when it airs again on HBO.

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.