Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Day in the Life

I put a new article on a "talks" page I have on my website. It's about a day I went with Gudo Nishijima to a talk he was giving at a university in Tokyo. There's a link on the page to an mp3 file of Nishijima's talk that day, as well as a video clip (above) of Nishijima answering some questions. I was going to post it here, but that talks page is a bit bare, so I put the article there to make it look at least a bit more like a real website. Anyway, click here to read the article if you're interested.

And before we head into the new year, I'd like to thank anyone who's been reading my little blog here. I'd also like to say thanks to anyone who came to my zazen classes and retreats during 2009, and to you people who helped me during the year. I really appreciate it.

And as we say in Irish "Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh!!" (I know you'll guess what that means:-)


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gudo Nishijima's 90th Birthday

Today is Gudo Nishijima Roshi's 90th birthday. To mark the occasion we asked him to give a talk at our zazen class at the Young Buddhists Association in Tokyo yesterday. He agreed, and asked me what topic I'd like to hear him talk about. Seeing as it was his 90th birthday, I said it’d be nice to hear him talk about his own life.

We arranged to meet at his apartment around noon yesterday, and to take a taxi together to the meeting place. While we were in the taxi, he said he felt very happy to be celebrating his 90th birthday. He said so many things had happened in his life, but now that he had reached 90 he felt really happy.

We reached the Young Buddhists Association with time to spare. Nishijima had time for some tea and rice crackers before his talk. There was a good number of people there, with the room more or less full. During his talk, Nishijima spoke about his family and upbringing and what caused him to become interested in Buddhism. Then we had time for questions. The talk was scheduled to last an hour, but there were plenty of questions, so we ended up running well past the hour.

I made a video recording of Nishijima's talk. In the following clip, he talks about his first teacher, Master Kodo Sawaki.

After the talk we presented Nishijima with some gifts and cards from his students in Tokyo and overseas. He seemed very happy to receive them and thanked everybody.

Later on we held a small birthday party at an Indian restaurant. Now that I think of it, we forgot to arrange a birthday cake. But I don't think Nishijima cared. He seemed very happy.

All the best,


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Heart Sutra

Gudo Nishijima didn't do any chanting at his meetings or retreats. He preferred to just stick to zazen and afterwards give a talk and answer questions. Sometimes someone would ask why there was no chanting. Nishijima usually answered that he liked to follow Master Dogen’s ideas on Buddhism, and he felt Dogen didn’t particularly recommend us to chant as part of Buddhist practice. If he was pressed a bit on the subject, Nishijima would quote something or other Dogen wrote about chanting that indicated his preference for zazen. If you've read the Shobogenzo a bit you might have come across one or two passages on the subject.

But there are always exceptions. In Nishijima’s case, the exception to his chanting policy was the Heart Sutra. He used to chant this once each day after early morning zazen at his dojo. I was a bit surprised the first time I heard him chanting the Heart Sutra, because I'd listened to his opinion about chanting before. So afterwards I asked why he'd started to chant it. He told me that one time some Buddhist nuns stayed at his dojo for a while and they asked him if it would be okay to chant the Heart Sutra in the morning. He agreed, and so they started to chant it together at his dojo each morning after zazen. After the nuns left, Nishijima decided to keep chanting it each morning.

The Heart Sutra is a discussion between Gautama Buddha and his disciple Sariputra about something called prajna. Prajna is a Sanskrit word. The first part pra means “before” or “prior to”. The second part jna means “knowledge”. Nishijima usually translates prajna as “intuition”. A lot of people translate it as something like “real wisdom”. Whatever way you want to translate it, prajna is referring to something that’s completely different to what we normally consider to be knowledge or wisdom. We usually assume that we accumulate knowledge by studying or learning. But with prajna it’s a bit different. Buddhism says we develop prajna by practicing zazen. I know that sounds a bit strange, but that’s the Buddhist idea.

Another thing about prajna is that we don’t have any particular control over it. It’s either there or it's not. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it and sometimes we don’t. But if we get a few glimpses of it or experience it a few times we can get a feel for what it is. If we don't get a glimpse of it or notice it at all, it's a bit harder to believe such a thing actually exists.

Like I say, the theme of the Heart Sutra is prajna. Below is one part where the Buddha says that bodhisatvas rely on prajna. It’s a nice idea. To me it suggests that if you practice zazen everyday you can rely on prajna to help guide your actions. Mind you, it's not quite as simple as that, and sometimes we mess up, but the idea at least seems to be like that. Of course, the hard part is trying to rely on something you can't see, hear, touch, taste, smell, or even grasp mentally. But that's Buddhism for ya. Anyway, here's that part where the Buddha says bodhisatvas rely on prajna:

With nothing to attain,


rely on prajna-paramita,

and their minds are without hindrance.

They are without hindrance,

and therefore without fear.

Far apart from all confused dreams,

they dwell in nirvana.

All buddhas of the past, present and future

rely on prajna-paramita,

and attain full, complete realization.

Therefore, know that prajna-paramita

is the great transcendent mantra,

the great bright mantra,

the supreme mantra,

the unequalled balanced mantra,

that can eliminate all suffering,

and is real, not false.


- peter

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tale of the Two-eyed Monkey

I don't get as much time as I'd like to read books. Like a lot of people, I've plenty of books that I bought ages ago but haven't managed to read yet. Recently though, my older son and I have started reading books together for about 20 or 30 minutes before he goes to bed. He's still in elementary school, and until recently I used to read him children's books at bedtime. But nowadays he prefers to get his own books at the library and read them himself. So we sit beside each other in the evening reading our own books.

A few nights ago, my son asked me about a book I was reading at the time, called “Everyday Zen”. He asked if it was about Buddhism. I told him it was. Then he asked what Buddhism is about. Now, my son knows I teach some kind of zazen class, and he sees me doing zazen at home, and he even does some zazen himself once in a while, but this was the first time he ever asked about Buddhism as such. I was a bit surprised. I wasn't too sure what to tell him, but I figured he might like the story about the two-eyed monkey. It's a fairly well-known story in Zen Buddhism at least. Here it is :


Once there was a monkey with two-eyes who lived on an island. One day there was a terrible storm and the monkey got washed out to sea on a log. The monkey drifted on the log for weeks until he was washed ashore on another island far away from where he used to live. The monkey was hungry so he ran up to the edge of the jungle to look for food. At the edge of the jungle he saw another monkey. But the other monkey had only one eye, so the two-eyed monkey was very surprised. But when the other monkey saw the two-eyed monkey, the other monkey began laughing and howling. Then more and more monkeys came to see what was going on. All the monkeys who came had only one eye. When those one-eyed monkeys saw the two-eyed monkey they all started laughing and howling. They all pointed at the two-eyed monkey and said “Look, look, he's got two eyes! He's got two-eyes! Ha, ha, ha, ha...”


I wasn't so sure if my son would enjoy the story, but he seemed to think it was alright. After that, I also told him that what's important in Buddhism is not so much what we say, but what we actually do. I gave him the example of someone saying they're going to do their homework tomorrow, but when tomorrow comes they forget all about their homework and just watch TV instead. That made sense to him too, although I'm not sure he liked the example.

When he's older, if he asks me what Buddhism is about again, I'll probably tell him that in some ways Buddhism isn't really about “Buddhism” at all. It's just about being himself. So he doesn't have to worry about being a Buddhist, or a Christian, or a Hindu or things like that. He can just be himself all the time, and that's all he needs to do.

Of course, it's not always easy to be ourselves. Because we think maybe there's something wrong with us, or other people won't like us or we won't fit in and things like that. But one thing we can learn from Buddhism is that just to be ourselves is the best way. That's why we're here.



Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gudo Nishijima Doing Zazen

I visited my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima at his new place in Tokyo yesterday. It was around 2 pm when I arrived, and he was just starting to practice zazen. When he told me he was going to be doing some zazen, I asked if I could video him for part of it. He said okay, so I got out my camera and started recording.

Here's the video. It lasts about 8 minutes.

It was a very hot day, and there was no air conditioner in the room. He opened the window to cool the place down a bit. I think the heat was making him feel a bit sleepy, but he kept sitting anyway. His new apartment is very near one of the train stations on Tokyo's Yamanote line. It's a busy line with lots of trains going back and forth. The trains and station announcements got a bit noisy sometimes, but it was alright.

He kept sitting after I stopped recording. I wanted to do some zazen too, but I couldn't see another zafu there. So I folded up a jacket I had in my bag and did zazen on that until he finished.

After zazen we had a cup of tea and a chat. A few people have asked me if he was okay after his recent house move. He's 89 now, and not as mobile as he used to be. And if you watch the video you'll notice that he hasn't completely recovered from a back injury he suffered a few years ago when he fell at his zazen dojo. When I asked how he was feeling, though, he said he was alright, although he noticed he was getting older day by day. While we were chatting he mentioned he gave a lecture last Saturday to some of his Japanese students in Tokyo. Overall he seemed to be doing pretty well.

I left at about 4:30. He told me the telephone company were due to come to his apartment later on to help set up his computer for email and the internet. He sounded like he was looking forward to getting his blog and email going again.

Hope you enjoy the video.

All the best,

Monday, June 1, 2009

Dharma Nature

I just finished reading a short chapter titled "The Dharma Nature" in Dogen's Shobogenzo. It's chapter 54 in Book 3 of the Nishijima/Cross English translation. ( you can download book 3 here)

"Buddha Nature" is a phrase you come across a lot in Buddhism, but Dogen's the only person I've read so far who talks about Dharma Nature. In the intro to the Nishijima/Cross translation, they explain Dharma Nature as meaning the "essence of the universe", which makes it a pretty big deal. Here's the full intro:

The Dharma-nature

Ho means Dharma, that is the Buddha's teaching, or the Universe itself. Sho means essence, or nature. So hossho means the Dharma-nature, or the essence of the Universe. Needless to say, we are living in the Universe. Therefore what the Universe means is one of the most important philosophical problems in our life. Some people insist that the Universe is something spiritual. Others insist that the Universe is something material. But from the Buddhist standpoint, the Universe is neither spiritual nor material, but something real. It is, however, very difficult to express the Universe as something real using words, because reality usually transcends explanation with words. Master Dogen undertook this difficult task, in order to express the nature of the Universe, in this chapter.


It's one of those chapters you don't hear about so often, but it's a nice one nonetheless. Worth a look if you're interested in that kind of thing.



Friday, May 22, 2009

Child Abuse

I grew up near a town called Galway in the west of Ireland. Galway is well-known for its tourist attractions, and has some nice beaches and plenty of sightseeing spots nearby. One of the nicer parts of Galway is a place named Salthill which is popular for its beaches and nightlife. I spent a lot of time around Salthill when I was growing up, and had a girlfriend out that way for a few years. We were too young to go into bars or nightclubs, so we spent a lot time hanging around with not much to do.

One person I met while I was hanging around Salthill was a guy named Tom. He didn't live with his parents. Instead he stayed at an "industrial school" in Salthill. Industrial schools were mostly run by priests, and were set up to care for orphans or children who couldn't live with their mother or father for some reason. The idea was that the children could live under the care of priests at the schools, and also learn a trade or skill of some sort that could help them find a job when they were old enough to leave.

The industrial school Tom stayed at was run by priests from an order named the Christian Brothers. When I first heard it was run by priests I thought that it must be an okay place. But Tom used to tell us stories about some things that went on there. He made it sound like an awful place. The Christian Brothers were well known in Ireland for being strict disciplinarians, but the stories Tom told about the behavior of some priests seemed to go far beyond just strict discipline. When I heard some of his stories I used to think that he was making them up, and that a priest would never do some of the things he mentioned. But later on I found out that Tom was telling the truth about what was going on in the school, and that people who thought like I did were completely wrong.

Back in those days, priests were beyond reproach in Irish society. To make an accusation of wrong-doing against a priest was a very serious thing, and it would be hard to get anyone to believe you if you did. So anyone who made an accusation against a priest or religious person would likely be accused of lying.

Very slowly, though, the truth about what was going on in the industrial schools and similar institutions throughout Ireland started to come out. A lot of stories about child abuse in those places began to surface. It become clear that thousands of children had suffered abuse. The Irish government set up a commission to investigate what had happened. The commission took 10 years to report on their investigation. They finally published their report yesterday. You can read more about the report here. Here's the summary of what they found out. Their findings showed that the extent of child abuse was much worse than anyone had ever imagined.

Since the report was published, there's been a surge in calls to a helpline set up for victims of abuse at those institutions. It's clear that a lot more people were abused, but didn't or couldn't report it until now. It's also likely that such kind of child abuse has been going on for many, many years. We're only finding out about some of it now.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beginner's mind retreat

We held a 3-day zazen retreat last week at Tokei-in temple in Shizuoka, Japan. I was leading a retreat for the first time, so I was a bit nervous about how it was going to turn out. Thankfully, things worked out better than I expected. 18 people came, and there was a nice mix of different nationalities.

A lot of people who came were doing a zazen retreat for the first time. One or two people were even trying zazen for the first time. I thought that some of the zazen periods might be a bit hard for some people, but everyone seemed to get through them okay. There was a nice atmosphere at the retreat too. It may have been because a lot of people were doing a retreat for the first time and concentrating on the basics, including me in some ways. One person who was trying zazen for the first time told me she decided to come to the retreat when she heard about it from her friend. She didn't really know anything about zazen or Buddhism, but wanted to check it out anyway. At the end of the retreat she told me she figured having no particular ideas or expectations about what the retreat was going to be like was probably the best way for her. She said she could just accept it all as it was.

I learned a lot by "leading" the retreat. I'd seen Gudo Nishijima hold retreats there before and give talks and so on, but I never really knew how much it involved from his side. He used to put a lot of effort into his talks and into answering people's questions and the other things he did there. Going back on the train to Tokyo with him after some of his retreats I used to notice how exhausted he was. I can understand where he was coming from a bit better now. It was nice to lead the retreat and I enjoyed giving the talks, but I realized it requires plenty of energy too.

On the last day we had a general discussion about the retreat in which everyone gave their impressions or some feedback about the retreat. Most people seemed happy enough with the way it went. One or two people mentioned it might be good to incorporate some stretching exercises into the retreat. That's a fair point, and is something for me to work on for next time. I also got a few emails with some feedback after the retreat. Here's part of an email from someone who was doing a zazen retreat for the first time :

...The discussion on the last day about full and half lotus also reminded me of my tendency to sometimes think "if only..." in regard to my sitting. When I first started sitting at home I used to sit on a pile of sweatshirts. If I was having problems settling I would sometimes think things would be different if only I had a zafu. So I made a zafu. And to be honest, it's a bit more convenient but that's about it. So I started thinking about the fantastic balance I would have if only I could sit full lotus... and so it goes on :-)

So it was good to be reminded that I shouldn't get frustrated chasing some imagined perfect state that only exists in my imagination. Just sit without expectation and accept that my legs are a bit wonky sometimes.

Thanks again to everyone who came to the retreat, and to the people who inquired but didn't make it this time. Hope we can do it again next year.



Friday, March 20, 2009

Golden Week 3-Day Zazen Retreat

“Golden Week” is the name the Japanese give to a week around the beginning of May that’s got three or four national holidays in a row. It’s a nice week as almost everyone’s off work and school, and the weather's usually good. The only problem with golden week is that a lot of places you might want to visit, like Kyoto, are packed with tourists. The airports are real busy as well, as a lot of people use the week to head overseas. Airline prices rocket up around then too, so it’s not such a good time to go anywhere by air. One good place to visit in golden week, though, is Tokyo. The streets and trains aren’t half as busy as normal and you can get to a lot of places without any hassle. Just don’t even think of going to Tokyo Disneyland.

Another nice place to visit around then is Shizuoka, which, incidentally, is where I’ll be holding a 3-day zazen retreat in May. The last time I did a retreat in Shizuoka in May was in 1996. I’d just started going to Gudo Nishijima’s Saturday Zazen meetings a few months earlier, and someone there had told me about a retreat Nishijima was going to be holding sometime in May. I asked Nishijima about the retreat, and he said I could go along as his “guest”. It turned out the May retreat was for employees of the cosmetics company he used to work at. He held four retreats for the company each year, as well as an English retreat for his foreign students and one for his Japanese students.

Most of the people at the company retreat I went to were, you guessed it, folks that worked at the cosmetics company. But Nishijima had an arrangement with the company that meant he could invite up to 6 people as his guests too. Going as a guest was a great deal, as it meant I could attend for free. I’d never been to any kind of Buddhist retreat before that and didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be alright. There were 3 other foreigners there as Nishijima’s guests too, and they filled me on what to do during the retreat. The schedule wasn’t so full of zazen either, which made it good for someone like me who was just starting off.

One of the main things I remember about that retreat was hearing a bird singing outside the zendo while we were all in doing zazen. It was a bird that the Japanese call the “uguisu”. The dictionary I have translates “uguisu” as the (Japanese) nightingale. The uguisu sings a very long and distinctive song that goes on and on and on. And just around May is the season when it’s looking for a mate (or at least the one I heard was), so that guy sang and sang right through zazen. I’d heard the uguisu singing before but never really noticed it, but whatever it was about sitting on my zafu in the zendo there, I could hear it loud and clear. I’m pretty sure everyone else could too. So that’s my little memory of my first ever Buddhist retreat. (Now, wasn’t that nice?)

Another thing I remember about that retreat was sitting on the same platform as Nishijima when I was doing zazen. In the zendo there you sit on kind of wooden platforms (I don’t know if that’s the right word) that are about 50 centimeters off the ground. Each platform is big enough for two or three people to sit on for zazen. Anyway, for some reason or other I was put on the same platform as Nishijima. I’d just started doing zazen regularly about 4 months previously, so I was really nervous about having to sit on the same platform like that. Luckily there was another foreign guy there, called Herve, and he sat in the middle between me and Nishijima so I could kind of hide a bit. Not that Nishijima cared of course, but you know how it is when you’re just starting like that. You feel like you should be doing it exactly “right”. Anyway, after I while I relaxed a bit and realized it wasn’t so bad sitting on the same platform with Nishijima, and it didn’t matter much about my funny posture.

Anyway, one reason I’m telling you all this is that this year I’ll be holding a retreat for the first time at Tokei-in temple in Shizuoka for three days in golden week. Tokei-in is the same temple that Gudo Nishijima used to hold his retreats at. So if you’ll be in Japan around golden week and want to spend a few days at a Buddhist temple, then why not drag yourself along to Tokei-in for our little retreat. Anyone interested is welcome. The dates and times and other details are below. Email me at if you need more information.

3-Day Zazen Retreat in Shizuoka
- May 3 to 5, 2009 -

We will hold a three-day Zazen Retreat, Zazen practice and lectures on Buddhism, at a temple in Shizuoka City from May 3 to May 5, 2009. Instructions and lectures will be given in English. Anyone interested is invited to attend and participate in the full, but not exhausting, schedule of Zazen practice, lectures, and meals taken in the traditional style. Beginners are welcome. The quiet, tea-covered hills surrounding the temple provide a pleasant setting for a brief taste of Buddhist life.

Dates: From Sunday, May 3 at 1 p.m. to Tuesday, May 5, at 2 p.m.

Place: Tokei-in (a Soto school temple)
Address: 1840 Hatori, Shizuoka City, 421-12. Phone: 0542-78-9724

Lectures: There will be four lectures during the retreat. The lectures will focus on the teachings of Zen Master Dogen, who introduced Buddhism to Japan from China in the 13th century.

Cost: 10,000 yen excluding transportation fare.

Clothes: Comfortable clothing is recommended for practicing Zazen.

Deadline: Registration will be accepted by email ( up to Thursday April 23rd, 2009.

Transportation and directions to the temple:

Shizuoka is about 180 km west of Tokyo, 1 hour or so from Tokyo by Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train). A single one-way ticket costs 5,670 yen. The easiest way to reach the temple is by taxi from the north exit of Shizuoka station. Tell the driver "Hatori no Tokei-in." Participants should plan to arrive by 12 o'clock.

Most of the participants will be traveling to Shizuoka together from Tokyo. We will meet at 9.30 am on May 3 outside the outer ticket gate at the Yaesu Central Entrance (Yaesu-Chuo-Guchi) of JR Tokyo station, and then travel by the Tokaido-Shinkansen Hikari No. 467 train, leaving Tokyo station at 10:03 and stopping at Shizuoka at 11:06. You are welcome to join this group.

If you are going directly to Shizuoka, you can meet with the group coming from Tokyo outside the ticket barrier at the North Entrance at Shizuoka station at around 11:10.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Happy Paddy's Day!

My memory of Saint Patrick's Day in Galway was doing the guard of honor for the parade in the rain with the FCA. It wasn't much fun standing around all morning getting wet, but we got to see the majorettes up close and later on we were given a free lunch in Lydon's restaurant, which was a big deal for most of us.

A few years later I was living in New York and went to see the massive parade on fifth avenue over there. I ended up staying out most of the night speaking in my Irish accent (from the bits I remember). Paddy's Day in Galway was never the same again.

Hope you enjoyed it!


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pedaling Buddha

I recorded part of a chat I had with Gudo Nishijima recently about the difference between doing zazen regularly and not doing it regularly (or not doing it at all even). Nishijima thinks doing zazen regularly is the most important part of Buddhism. Doing it everyday helps us stay "balanced". He compared doing zazen to riding a bike. If we keep pedaling we keep our balance and the bike keeping moving, but if we stop pedaling we end up losing our balance and falling off.

I asked him some other things too, like what he thinks "Buddha" is.

You can download the mp3 file here (lasts about 6 minutes).

Now I'd better go and get a new bike,


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Looking at a Picture

Shobogenzo is the title of a well-known book by a Japanese monk named Master Dogen. Dogen wrote many texts on Buddhism, but Shobogenzo is regarded as his most important. It’s a collection of lectures Dogen gave during his life. It can be a difficult book to read, though, because in Shobogenzo Dogen is trying to describe reality with words. It’s not an easy thing to do, so some parts are hard to understand because he doesn’t write things the way we’re used to. If you read Shobogenzo you’ll find places where you don’t have a clue what Dogen is trying to say –at least, I don’t anyway. When that happens though I just keep reading through the passage, and after a while there’s usually a bit that’s not too hard to understand.

One interesting thing about Shobogenzo is that it was kept more or less secret for several hundred years after Dogen died. One reason for this was that Dogen's ideas were very ahead of his time, so the priests who followed Dogen figured it best to keep the book hidden away in Dogen's old temple called Eihei-ji. The first time it was published was the start of the 19th century, which was about 600 years after Dogen had died. That's a long time. Even then it took another hundred years or so before it began to attract attention from anyone other than a small number of priests in Japan. I think one reason it took so long for Shobogenzo to be published was that some of the stuff Dogen wrote must have seemed pretty strange, even to Buddhists. There are also parts where he criticizes people that he felt were misrepresenting Buddhism, which was probably a dangerous thing to do in medieval Japan.

I used to wonder about the point of reading the Shobogenzo when it was hard to understand a lot of what was written. I asked Gudo Nishijima about whether he thought it was important to understand everything in the Shobogenzo when you read it. He said “No, no. Reading Shobogenzo is like looking at a picture. When we’re reading a particular chapter or paragraph some parts stick out and make an impression, while other parts don’t. But it’s good to just read it anyway.” I stopped worrying about how well I understood the Shobogenzo after that.

Not all the chapters in Shobogenzo are difficult to understand, but some of them definitely are. That's maybe one reason people might buy a copy of Shobogenzo Book 1 (the first 21 chapters), but then won’t bother to read Books 2, 3, or 4. It takes a bit of effort to read some of those chapters. I can understand that. At the same time, though, if you're interested in Buddhism it's a pity not to try to read the rest of it. Some of the later chapters are shorter and easier to understand.

My own way of reading Shobogenzo is to pretty simple. I just start at Chapter 1 in Book 1 and read the chapters one after the other. Sometimes I hit a chapter that I get bogged down in and it can take me few weeks to finish it. That happened me recently with a chapter titled “Bussho” (The Buddha Nature). Bussho is the first chapter of Book 2 in the Nishijima/Cross translation, and it’s a hard one to understand. But I decided to just stick with reading it and eventually managed to finish it, even though a lot of it went right over my head.

As well as reading Shobogenzo cover to cover like that, sometimes I just pick out a chapter at random and read it through. That’s kind of a hit and miss way I suppose, but it can be easier to read some chapters like that.

The Shobogenzo translation I read is by Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross. It's made up of four volumes. Each volume has about 25 chapters. You can download volume 1 and 2 from the Numata Center website. It sounds like they’ll eventually have volumes 3 and 4 on there for downloading as well. There are other English translations of the Shobogenzo out there too, but the Nishijima/Cross version is the only one I’m familiar with.

The best known chapters in Shobogenzo are probably Bendowa (chapter 1) and Genjo Koan (ch. 3). Bussho (chapter 22), the chapter I was stuck on for a while, is also considered an “important” chapter. For me though, just about any of the chapters in Shobogenzo are worth reading, because you can pick up some point or idea Dogen had about Buddhism from any chapter. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to read the whole 95 chapters if you can. That way you get a better understanding of what Dogen was about. It’s also something you can brag about to your friends or mention down at your local zen group. It’ll be sure to increase your street cred (at least a little).

Having said all that, here are just a few chapters in Shobogenzo that aren't among the best known ones, but which are worth a bit of a read:

1. Raihai-Tokuzui [Prostrating to Attainment of the Marrow] -- Chapter 8 (Book 1)
In this one, Dogen gives us his take on the equality of men, women, and children in Buddhism. He says we should respect anyone who has got the Buddhist truth, regardless of whether that person is a man, a woman or a child. Nowadays Dogen’s idea doesn’t seem so strange, but it probably would’ve sounded pretty radical at many Buddhist temples in medieval Japan. Here’s an excerpt (from the Nishijima/Cross translation):

Again in Japan, there is one particularly laughable institution. This is either called a ‘sanctuary’ or called a “place for practicing the truth of the Great Vehicle” where bhiksunis (nuns) and other women are not allowed to enter.

2. Gyoji [Pure Conduct and Observance] -- Chapter 30 (Book 2)
Buddhism is based on action. In this chapter Dogen quotes lots of examples of the action of Buddhist masters down through the centuries. It’s a fairly straightforward chapter to read. It’s an encouraging one for anyone practicing zazen on a regular basis. Nishijima told me it’s one of his favorites:

Master Chokei Eryo was a venerable patriarch in the order of Seppo. Going back and forth between Seppo and Gensa, he learned in practice for a small matter of twenty-nine years, In those years and months he sat through twenty round cushions. People today who love Zazen cite Chokei as an excellent example of an adorable ancient – many adore him, but few equal him.

3. Butsudo [The Buddhist Truth] – Chapter 49 (Book 3)
In this chapter Dogen says that there is only one Buddhism – the Buddhism established by Gautama Buddha in India. Dogen disapproved of using words like “Zen” Buddhism, or of describing different sects like the “Rinzai sect” or “Soto sect.” Nowadays, some people make a big deal about differences between various types of Buddhism. But as far as Dogen was concerned true Buddhism is just the Buddhism of Gautama Buddha:

Do not concede that the Buddha-Dharma might even exist among people who claim to be the “Zen Sect”. Who has invented the name “Zen Sect”? None of the buddhas and ancestral masters has ever used the name “Zen Sect”. Remember, the name “Zen Sect” has been devised by devils and demons.

4. Zanmai-o-zanmai [The Samadhi That is King of Samadhis] – Chapter 72 (Book 3)
The word "samadhi" means the "balanced state of body and mind". In daily life, there are lots of times when we might feel "balanced", like after a long walk or a jog or doing some activity. But in this one, Dogen says the balanced state we feel when we do zazen is the best one. So Dogen described zazen as the king of the samadhis:

My late Master, the eternal Buddha, says, ‘To practice Zazen is to get free of body and mind. Just to sit is to have attainment from the beginning. It is not necessary to burn incense, to do prostrations, to recite the Buddha’s name, to confess, or to read sutras.’