Vast Emptiness

1) This vast emptiness,
bears the illusion of the sacred,
but holds nothing holy.

2) This vast emptiness,
feeds the feast of moments,
presents nothing fixed.

3) This vast emptiness,
quenches a fire burning long
after fuel is exhausted.

4) This vast emptiness,
parts heaven and earth,
revealing only us.

5) Our laughter
startles crows,
hidden in plains
of high-grass.


The Fire of Zen


When Roshi mentioned to me that all else pales in comparison to the Fire of Zazen, I wondered whether he was ever married, had children, worked two jobs, struggled in a poor economy, fought a recession, lost a job, recieved a bullet. It seems that compared to the truely hot fire of this life, zazen is nothing but a cool breeze – A moment’s release – a deep breath. The crucible of our day-to-day lives it what shapes our practice, not moments sat in silence. Or was I bring to the forefront divisions that do not exist except through my perception?

Perhaps this is why Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who owned a teashop near the monastery. He highly praised her understanding of Zen, yet she never worked a koan, read a sutra or sat zazen – just a little old lady that worked in a teashop. His pupils were skeptical and refused to believe that this woman – this lay-person, this tea-seller – was deep in the ocean of Zen. And, being good little monk sheep, they would heed Hakuin’s advise and go to the teashop, chuckling, to see if this lady had something stronger than the tea she sold.

The woman saw them coming from far away. A little line of monks coming her way, not with an open mind for instruction, eyes open for Zen, or thirsting for tea. She could tell they had come to stomp through her ocean of Zen like children through a rain puddle. She saw them coming and would lead them behind a screen. 

The instant they followed her, she would strike them with a fire-poker. Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.

But I think that one solitary monk that did escape her beating did not by speed, stealth or strength. That one monk escaped the beating by entering with an open mind for a cup of tea. He probably sat down, quietly, sipping while the others nursed welts.

We feel the fire of Zen when we see that the flames don’t leap from our posture, our schools or our tradition. The flames leap directly from this life’s practice. It scorches our feet and singes our hair. Those flames lick our nose when we sit zazen. Those flames are always in our peripheral vision, just out of focus, just perceivable when we don’t set our eyes on them. 

But we control those flames when we enter the old lady’s teahouse with an open mind and clear eye. When we sit for just tea. Of course, it may take a few beatings with a fire-poker to see that lesson.


Nine out of ten Zen Buddhists agree,
Don’t seek wisdom from ladies selling tea.
When we visit, avoid the curtain,
Or lumps on the head will be certain.

The fire of Zen burns so bright,
Only when we look behind our sight.
Until then it is just like a cool breeze,
Punctuated by Amitabha’s sudden sneeze.

Three Monks Named Mu


This is the story of three little monks. Three little monks named Mu.
Three little monks stuck in a rut. Three little monks with nothing to do.
Backs so sore and feet asleep, robes a-tattered and minds still meek.
Three little monks left the temple. Three little monks who knew no better.



Up the way and around the bend, all routes taken without end.
Streets and alleys, paths and roads. Thoughts and feelings bear a heavy load.
Thoughts, feelings, forms and things. Staffs with rings! Oh these heavy things!
Footprints in snow. Where to go? Three little monks still did not know.



When one little monk, a monk named Mu, suddenly knew what to do.
She picked up her staff of oak, a battered straw hat and just like that
raised her small voice in song. Discursive and sweet, she kept the beat,
To the sound of a heart unbound. Rapturous and joyful was the sound.



The other two monks, both named Mu, were still at a loss of what to do.
This girl. This wisp. This flap of the breeze! While they could only cough or wheeze.
But another monk (named Mu by the way) thought he could also save the day.
By breathing deep, aloof and alone. This monk let out a low sorrowful moan…



The song of the sky! The moan of the deep! Into the last monk the song did seep!
Breathing in scent of airy sky and salty deep, one last heart picked up the beat!
With little to do or to say, this monk realized why he came out that day.
Not for money, food or alms in a basket. Not for smiles, bows or chants over a casket.



The last monk, a monk named Mu, picked up some wood to beat the measure
Clap! Clap! Clap! Each sound a breath, each beat a life, each clap a pleasure.
This last little monk joined the rest. This last little monk too passed the test!
With sweet song and mournful sound, and the steady earthy beat of the ground.

Somewhere in the windows above, came the cooing of a dove
At closer look, a different form it took and a deva’s voice the ground shook.
From hells far and wide, demons did adibe and sat silent, calming their mind.
At the graveyard nearby, a hungry ghost did sigh, her hunger, for once, silent inside.


From up-on-high and down below, from mountains grand and valleys low,
Hungry ghost and nosy neighbor, woodworker and unconcerned creator
Large and small and all in the middle. All gathered together to hear this riddle.
This sound. This song. This co-nun-o-drum. Was this the reason for all to come?



The reason was not a feeling of bliss, clarity of mind or even to just pass the time
The reason they were here became very clear. The answer. Oh! So very near.
Neither joy or pain, sunshine or rain. Or snow covering roads newly lain.
One to sing, one to mourn, one clap the beat, change soon accompanied such a feat…



The first monk, her song so fleeting, sprouted wings and flew off tweeting.
The second monk, his voice almost a growl, sprouted fur and began to howl.
The third monk, steady as a clock, sank to the earth as a moss covered rock.
A rock, a bird and mangy dog! No names, no fancy dress, all embody emptiness.



Each monk heard the song of Mu and then knew exactly what to do.
Three little monks with minds awake, singing Mu for benefit’s sake.
Do you know what to do when the song of Mu comes for you?
Beat sticks, sing a song or let out a mournful howl just as long?



So ends the vague tale of the monks with nothing to do.
To tell the tale sure was fun but I hope you didn’t plan on resolution.
Answers here , questions there, the sound of Mu floats everywhere.
When a bird visits a window’s ledge, a dog sniffs your garden’s hedge
Or when a rock’s jagged face brakes a brook’s gurgling pace.
Take a breath and say a prayer
Because the Song of Mu hangs dense in the air.


All images used with permission from LawrenceBarrow’s flickr account.

Zen Temple Promoting Same Sex Marriage in Japan

Shunkōin Temple is offering same sex marriages at their temple during the month of June as a celebration of Gay, Lesbian Pride Month. Shunkōin is a sub-temple in the Myōshinji temple complex (near Ryoanji Temple, the Golden Pavilion, and Ninaji Temple) in Kyoto, Japan. The temple was established in 1590 by Yoshiharu Horio and houses some interesting Christian artifacts from the Edo period (1603 to1867) when Christianity was systematically banned, and eliminated (read: murdered) by the Tokugawa shogunate.

According to their blog:

In 2000, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride month. Almost a decade later, on June 1st, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed June to be LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Pride month in the United States. Shunkoin Temple would like honor these decisions and to increase the understanding of gay and lesbian rights by promoting same-sex weddings at our temple during the month of June, 2011

Japan does not recognize same sex marriages as far as I can tell but they do allow its overseas nationals to marry same-sex foreign partners in countries where they are legal. 

Also check out the recent article on The Dharma Bums Temple where they provide welcome arms to the LGBT community.


Contemplation of Sutra as Practice ~ Jiken Anderson

Or “When you need a crowbar, use a crowbar.”

Thus have I heard—in some corners of the English-speaking Zen world: 

Study of the sutras is an obstacle to practice.  “Dogen said just sit,” it has been said, “so just sit.”   Our transmission is outside the sutras, not about letters or words.  And we know perfectly well what this means, right?

I do not know if this resistance to study and thought (and, concomitantly, to ritual) represents a traditional tendency in Japanese Zen or even a coherent reading of Dogen, or is a reflection of an uncritical embrace of the rhetoric of the Patriarchs of the ninth century, who rightly rejected the hegemonic and constipated piety of their own moment as counterproductive. 

I do know that we do things differently in the milieu of Tendai Buddhism among English-speakers.  And I have reason to think that a Tendai approach to practice and to the teachings offers a sensible, workable third path between two untenable positions: a nihilistic rejection of the sutras as Asian Puff from the Ancient Past Irrelevant to Us on one side; an eternalistic, uncritical, or fundamentalist veneration of the sutras as the Summum Bonum of the One True Faith and Mystical Wisdom Heritage on the other side. 

To get at what I am proposing, you need to have a handle on two interrelated concepts:  that of upaya or skillful means, and that of Buddha-garbha, or enlightened nature.  These are treated together in the Lotus Sutra, which is the central text of the Tendai tradition.  Buddha-garbha means that all beings, even you, have the potential to attain enlightenment and, further, will inevitably do so; upaya means that all the actions of the Buddhas, including the recorded texts of the sutras, are moments in which enlightened mind reaches out and meets deluded beings where they are, with whatever tool, trick, or gimmick is necessary. 

“Gimmick” is not too strong a word for this method:  in chapter four of the Lotus Sutra, for instance, we see an analogy made between the teaching situation of the Buddha and the disciple to that of an employer (hilariously in my view) tricking a man into shoveling shit for decades in order for him to feel better about himself and, ultimately, attain something that was already his from the start.  One might say upaya is about mitigating stupidity, specifically the stupidity of deluded beings who do not see their own inherent dignity and divinity, the stupidity of avoidance.  Upaya is the means by which Buddha-garbha is realized; Buddha-garbha is the rationale for upaya. 

Buddha Shakyamuni is credited in the Lotus Sutra (chapter two this time) with coming on out and describing this situational pedagogy:

“The Tathagathas save all living beings
With innumerable expedients.
The cause all living beings to enter the Way
To the wisdom-without-asravas of the Buddha.
Anyone who hears the Dharma
Will not fail to become a Buddha.
Every Buddha vows at the outset:

‘I will cause all beings
To attain the same enlightenment
That I attained.’

The future Buddhas will expound many thousands
Of Myriads of millions of teachings
For just one purpose,
That is, for the purpose of revealing the One Vehicle.”  Lotus Sutra p. 43.

And the One Vehicle, or Ekayana, is the Buddha-Vehicle (Buddha-yana):  the doctrine that all beings, here described as those who hears the Dharma, inherently have the potential to Buddhahood, with no exceptions, and that Buddhist practice amounts to eliminating defilements and drawing forth or manifesting from oneself enlightened qualities.  This is about the Buddha within. 

The purpose of the written Teaching is to give a pointer or, if you like, to create a situation or context in which one might have some insight into this.  It is a poke, a prod.  Brook Ziporyn describes it as being like the punchline to a joke:  first a context is established, and then undercut with a surprise that transforms the context.  The transmission is not in or of the words anymore than the laughter a good joke provokes is identical to the words of the joke.  This is not about making meaning, or having a meaningful life; this is not a semiotic or semantic game.  It is, in short, about practice.

There is a way in which the question of whether the claims made in sutras are objectively true or false is irrelevant.  Consider the hyperbole:  does it really matter how many kotis of nayutas of kalpas passed before the sky stopped spontaneously showering mandarava blossoms?  Only to such a one who seeks to understand Stravinsky or Bartok by measuring the mass and volume of a symphonic score.  No:  the written text is itself a series of upaya, or gimmicks, just as a piece of music is constructed serially to kick you here, caress you there, and achieve (if successful) a particular affective impact on the observer

Can the orchestration Stravinsky devised for the Rite of Spring be proven true or false?  No, but it can be understood nonverbally, transmitted outside the “words” or notes, if taken on its own terms and in an appreciative attitude.  This means stop jibbering your overconfident jabber and listen to the music, open up to it, let it work on you.   Another analogy:  if you are trapped in a cage, and someone offers you a crowbar with which to work your way out, does it matter if the crowbar is “true” or “false”?

The rest of the prescribed practices in post-Ekayana Buddhism, inclusive of Japanese Zen streams, are also upaya.  There is nothing singularly special about the effective but arbitrary practice of sitting on a zafu staring at a wall until your hips heroically turn arthritic.  That, too, is a device, something that works in a particular way under particular conditions.  Chanting?  A device.  Walking in the woods with an open heart?  The same, and just as authentic.  In short, quit worrying and contemplate the teaching in a meditative spirit, just the same as washing the dishes or shoveling the shit.  In all seriousness, why not?  Who are you to avoid the dirty work? 

This is the truth, not a lie:  this literature reaches people because it directs attention to a fundamental reality of our situation, in any situation.  With an open mind, you may also get in on it.  Namo Buddhaya!

“Those who do not study the Dharma
Cannot understand it.
You have already realized

The fact that the Buddhas, the World-Teachers, employ expedients,
According to the capacities of all living beings.
Know that, when you remove your doubts,
And when you have great joy,
You will become Buddhas!”
Lotus Sutra, pp. 49-50

Works Cited and Suggested

  • Murano, Senchu (trans).  The Lotus Sutra.  Tokyo, Japan:  Nichiren Shu Shimbun, 1974.
  • Ng Yu-Kwan.  T’ien-t’ai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika.  Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press:  1993.
  • Swanson, Paul L.  Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy.  Berkeley, CA:  Asian Humanities Press, 1989.
  • Ziporyn, Brook.  Being and Ambiguity: Philosophical Experiments with Tiantai Buddhism.  Chicago, IL: Open Court Publications, 2004.

Other Upaya:

Jikan Anderson leads the Great River Ekayana Sangha in Arlington, Virginia.  Find more of his material at DC tendai. Follow him on twitter under the handle @JikanAnderson.

The Demon of Zen


A demon sits in meditation
    while angels sing.
A battle lasting lifetimes,
   expressed in a moment
that is

Whether a monster sitting zazen under a bridge or an angel singing in the clouds; the practice is the same.  A moment is still a moment, despite appearances and preconceptions.  Don’t let the frown and horned visage of a demon deter you or let the soft sounds of an angelic voice distract you; both emanate from the same source.  When you sit with others you sit with numerous demons and angels, monsters and heros; diverse but all equal when they walk through the doors of practice.  Layers peel away to the essence beneath.  Neither good nor bad; evil or virtuous.  Just open, naked and luminous.  Both glorious and sad.

Painting “Demon Meditating” by  Jan Zaremba (his book)

The Ghosts of Zen

Zen training is an organic process where each deconstructed portion of our lives is an integral element of the whole practice.  Each aspect of our training, whether it is intellectual or creative, pragmatic or mystical, ritualized or informal, will form seemlessly into the elegant whole of our experience.  “Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind, in walking.” To say that one or the other aspect does not exist or even attempting to form delineations cause the wheels of prajna to slip and the carriage of bodhichitta to shudder.  There is a systematic coordination of elements in our practice that transcends the appearant rutts in the road.  Our life is our practice.  Our mistakes and triumphs share the core.

Whether in shikantaza; intellectually pouring over sutras or pounding on the door of a koan, we are engaged in an active, evolving and powerful practice.  As students of “the Way” we sit unaware of this and our teachers may be equally blind to the reality (although we generally presuppose that they aren’t).  What begins to limit us is that the mind desires a point of reference.  A stable, immutable fact. 

This is the way.  That is not true.  God.  No God.  The Absolute.  Pragmatism.  

A sutra.  A posture.  A quote.  A method. 

Each are lines drawn in the sand, washed away with each morning’s tide only to be ernestly scribbled back in again.  Better to walk where the ocean meets the sand – in equanimity.  No footsteps before and none trailing after.  Neither coming nor going, we then move in the direction that it is in front of us…

But the discussion continues.  While the fire subsides, embers smolder, providing an impetus to continue practice.  From those coals we can expect a wonderful bloom but falter again when the summer’s wildfires rage across the horizon of our practice.  It can happen this year, the next or 20 years from now.  It isn’t spring forever…the fire in the legs spreads to the heart.

We are each the stumbling beginner, the poor novice and clueless initiate.  Walking into that sacred practice space we shoulder a heavy load, more pack-mule than human.  Settling into practice we loosen that load and straighten our posture.  The fire of practice burns through us but provides opportunity to grow.  We sit with the ghosts of yesterday’s practice.  Insubstantial as the mist but clinging to our ankles and riding our shoulders. 


The runaway train of samsara


Before compassion can be expressed for others, it must be expressed for yourself.  You must be able to forgive and engage your own shortcomings else they will manifest in every interaction you have.  That is karma.  Not obvious during the pleasant moments of this life but as soon as things become tangled and samsara tightens its grasp; you will fall back into those bad patterns like an addiction.  Hungrily puffing away at delusions and filling ourselves with the smoke of ignorance,  we desperately try to change samsara rather than ourselves.  Meanwhile every hurried, fearful and hacking breath just brings the coils around tighter.  Like waving away clouds of cigarette smoke; fanning away at samsara only brings about momentary aleviation of suffering.

Similarly, zazen doesn’t break the coils of samsara.  There is no actionable goal in Zen practice;  just one giant exhale followed by relief but it can quickly tighten up again.  But with each breath we expereince wisdom and clarity.  The wisdom that comes from zazen is an encompassing compassion for our own faults followed by forgiveness.  It isn’t the realization of some divine, universal conductor that is driving this runaway train and it isn’t a nihilistic laying of ourselves upon the tracks.  It is just us taking control of the train by releasing just a little bit of that control and letting it run at its own speed and pace.  There is no need to feed the engine anymore.  We allow ourselves and samsara to just be.  No train to drive and no tracks to lay.  Just along for the ride.

We manifest some divine conductor to placate our own ego in a faulty attempt to quell our own fear.  Ego masquerading as a god.  When we grovel at the feet of our god; when we beg for forgiveness or plead for hope; we are begging our own ego to release us and for our own fears to comfort us.  Ego will never release us and fear provides no comfort.  It serves no purpose but to tighten the coils around our own neck.  Each breath in zazen loosens a coil.  Slowly each breath releases the grasp of samsara not by changing it but by accepting that it has always been there.  It never had a grasp.  We choke ourselves until we pass out and then awaken and call it enightenment.

There is no-one to release us.  No-one that binds us.