Zen Without Words



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


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


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


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


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


What is the Secret?



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


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


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


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

How do you know?

Japanese Fountain

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


Our discriminating mind is always present judging our progress …

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Tesshin compared our practice to a common Japanese saying…

          “Three years into a rock”

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

What Eye Do You Use?

stock photo of eye


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The Cracker

Tree on Cracker BW


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

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

And then he told us a story….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awakening



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


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


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

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


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

The Party



Abbot Paul was in Washington this week to meet with several leaders of industry, primarily technology, to discuss the plight of the underprivileged in America and the role of technology in alleviating their suffering. As we face the loss of approximately 10 million jobs in the US in the next few decades to the artificial intelligence revolution (aka the second machine age, mechanization, smart machines, machine learning), Abbot Paul is attempting to bring heads of competing industries together to deal with the problem of the diminishing job market by proposing a technology-based solution, similar in scope to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the period of the Great Depression in America.

During a roundtable discussion during this conference, one prominent individual got up and stated: “it is not the lack of opportunity that is the problem in this country but the power gap in the US as <1% of our population controls >50% of the wealth”.  Most people in the group agreed with this one individual and acknowledged his point of view but he wouldn’t let it go.

But what is the Buddhist point of view of this gap, and furthermore, what is the Buddhist reaction to such behavior on the part of this one individual? From a Buddhist’s point of view all beings have the capacity to become enlightened; however the path to enlightenment is different for everyone. Some people are strong, some are weak, some are smart, and some are not so smart. The only thing we all share in common is that we are all on the same path to alleviate suffering and delusion.
To illustrate his point Abbot Paul then told us a story:

Japanese monastic life is rather primitive in that the monks endure a lack of comforts we take for granted such as indoor plumbing and running water.  It is especially difficult in the winter months in Japan as the temples have no central heating except for small personal kerosene heaters.  During one particular winter in Japan, Teshin developed pneumonia and to recover he was advised to return to the United States. So after the Japanese New Year he returned to the US as he had received an invitation to teach at the Julliard School in NY. A Julliard employee was kind enough to offer to share her apartment with Teshin during the 3 months he taught at the school during his recuperation. Her name was Lynn. When Teshin asked her what she did at Julliard, she replied that she was a fund-raiser and had the easiest job in the world.  She explained, “I go to fancy parties and when asked what I do, I say I raise money for the Julliard school”. Inevitably, the wealthy party-goers then exclaim “Oh, can we help?”

Now a 10 million dollar contribution to the Julliard School comes with a ‘thank you’ package which includes a catered meal at the Lincoln Center for 200 guests and a private concert by the Julliard students and other performers. One particular wealthy patron had a daughter who asked her father for a 10 million dollar check so she could invite her friends to such a party and Lynn was assigned to help with the arrangements.  Now apparently there are certain rules in high society that include sending out a ‘save a date’ reminder 2 months before such an event followed by a hand-calligraphed invitation 2 weeks before such an event. Apparently the daughter was having difficulty providing a complete list of invitees to the event. The 2 month mark before the event was drawing close and as the time neared the woman was becoming frantic, asking Lynn if she had sent out the list of invitations to which Lynn replied “No, the list is still incomplete” as it was short 10 names. At exactly the 3 week mark before the event the woman became contentious with Lynn, “the doilies have to be the right color”, “the wine has to be exactly this vintage year” and as the days prior to the event grew shorter the woman became more and more agitated. Finally the day of the party arrived. The woman came early to the event to review the table settings and the wine and found that the cutlery was not correctly set on the tables and the wine vintage was a year off at which point she totally fell apart. To put it simply, the woman had a mental breakdown and had to be taken into psychiatric care.  The upshot was that the party never occurred.

And so the moral of the story is two-fold:
1) The powerful and privileged are not immune to a delusional vision of the world and thus do not escape suffering.
2) Spiritual enlightenment is where we need to put our focus and not in the frivolities of the world and the wish to fulfill such desires; true happiness can be found in our cushion, our zafu regardless of who we are or our material resources.


Transcribed by Debra B. Kessler from notes taken during the Dharma talk delivered by Abbot Paul on December 2, 2017

The Bell


As we approach the New Year, Abbot Paul reminded us that we have an opportunity to slow down and reflect on what it means to end something and begin something. In Japan, Zen Buddhists approach the New Year differently than the typical New Year’s Eve celebrations in America.

Bonshō (Japanese: 梵鐘, Buddhist bells), also known as tsurigane (釣り鐘, hanging bells) or ōgane (大鐘, great bells) are large bells found in Buddhist temples throughout Japan, used to summon the monks to prayer and to demarcate periods of time. Rather than containing a clapper, bonshō are struck from the outside using either a handheld mallet or a beam suspended on ropes. At each monastery in Japan on New Year’s Eve, the monks take turns slowly ringing these gigantic bells exactly 108 times and the bells from miles away all ringing at once give the appearance of the bells communicating with each other across great distances and time. Then at exactly one minute before midnight on New Year’s Eve, the monks traditionally slurp Soba noodles noisily and continue slurping into the New Year until 1 minute after midnight in an effort to connect the past year with the future.  And the number 108, ie, the number of times the bells are rung, in some traditions, represents the number of lives lived in the evolution of the Higher Self, our God within.

The New Year period is of special significance in that it offers us the opportunity for deep contemplation of what we are doing with our lives. In particular, the New Year symbolizes a chance for rebirth. It is said that most cells in our body (with the exception of neurons) are capable of regenerating although some cells (such as our red blood cells or the cells that line our digestive track) turn over more rapidly than others. As humans, given this constant cell turnover, who we are today biologically is not who we will be in the future. Given this constant turnover, we, as humans, are given a unique opportunity to decide who we want to be in the future.

In the West, we pride ourselves on the feeling that through will power alone we can change our lives. However, in the East, it is the belief that true behavior modification takes the form of the three R’s, ie, rules, rituals, and routine. And those with more sand at the top of the hourglass have more chance at improvement and more opportunity to evolve into something marvelous compared with those whose sands are running out.

There is a simple formula to life: in life you pay for everything and the later in life you pay, the greater the cost. The longer we wait to make changes, the harder it is at the end. So we need to put the process of change into action NOW. In order to be whoever we want to be we need to take control of our lives. That message is the true blessing of this season of light.  So as we imagine listening to the bells tolling at midnight on New Year’s Eve throughout Japan, the evening gatha comes to mind…

“Let me respectfully remind you

Life and death are of supreme importance

Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost

Each of us should strive to awaken…


Take heed. Do not squander your life.”

Transcribed by Debra B. Kessler from notes taken during the Dharma talk delivered by Abbot Paul on December 16, 2017