Sunday, November 30, 2008
My teacher, Gudo Nishijima, gave a talk in English at Dogen Sangha's Saturday zazen meeting in Tokyo yesterday. He doesn't give talks in English there so often now, but he agreed to give one yesterday as it coincided with his 89th birthday.
The theme of his talk was "What I Want to Do." He covered quite a few topics during the talk. Some of the things he spoke about were how Buddhism is different to idealism and materialism, his ideas about Western civilization and Buddhism, and whether Buddhism is a religion or not. He also talked about how he used to doubt if there really was something called "the truth", and how he thinks people should study the truth if they want to be happy. He also answered questions on Zazen practice and other topics for about 15 minutes at the end.
I recorded the talk on my digital recorder. Click here to download the audio file (about 22 Mb).
Btw, at the start of the lecture we recited "The Verse to Open the Sutras" in Japanese. That lasts about a minute. After that, Gudo Nishijima starts his talk in English.
And here’s a link to Nishijima Roshi's blog.
All the best,
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
- Master Dogen
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
A while ago I wrote about the Heart Sutra and something Buddhists refer to as“prajna” or "real wisdom". When I first heard Gudo Nishijima talking about prajna I found it hard to believe what he was saying. I’d never heard anyone talk about that kind of thing before, and I assumed something called “prajna” or "real wisdom" didn’t actually exist. But after a few years of going to Nishijima's talks I began to think that maybe what he was saying was true after all. His idea was that we develop some sort of intuition by practicing Zazen regularly, and that that intuition helps guide our actions and decisions so we don’t commit “wrong” actions or make “wrong” decisions. But Nishijima wasn’t talking about intuition as some kind of extraordinary ability we get from practicing Zazen. The way he described it, it was like a natural function we all have but most of us don’t work on or notice much.
Sometimes you can meet people in Buddhism who have strange ideas about extraordinary abilities they have. I spoke with a man recently who told me about a Buddhist teacher he studied with for 10 years. He described some things that happened at his former teacher's retreats. He said one time his teacher, a Buddhist nun, claimed some special power she had made a hurricane change course so it didn’t come to where they were doing their retreat. At another of her retreats, my friend said that he had been sick for the first few days of the retreat and had to stay in bed. He had some medicine in his bag, but didn't want to use it at the retreat. After a few days though, my friend started to take his medicine and began to feel better and walk around. When his teacher saw that, she declared to her students that her powers had helped cure my friend’s illness. When that happened, my friend finally decided to give up on his teacher because she was claiming things that weren't true. But he said some of her students believed the stories about hurricanes and miraculous cures.
I asked my friend why he joined in the first place. He said someone told him about that teacher's group, so he went along to one of her meetings. He said it was good at the beginning, but things started to change after a while. The teacher began to act differently and didn’t want people questioning her ideas or teachings. Later on money became more and more important to her. He told me that his ex-teacher still holds retreats now, but that it costs a lot to attend them. She also looks for donations of a few hundred dollars from anyone who attends.
Someone else I know told me that his first Zen teacher used to charge him 100 dollars an hour when he visited him to ask about Buddhism. My friend came to his senses after a while and stopped visiting that teacher and handing him the 100 bucks. But he was annoyed about what had happened, so he decided to check out the teacher’s background. His teacher had told him that he trained for several years with a well-known teacher at some temple in Asia, so my friend took the trouble to visit the temple to check out the teacher’s story. When my friend visited the temple he asked the monks if they knew his former teacher. But, you guessed it, no-one there had ever heard of the guy.
If you're interested in Buddhism, sometimes you can be unlucky enough to meet people who aren't what they claim to be or who are different from what they claim to be. In those situations, most people can figure out fairly fast that something isn’t right. But sometimes it can be hard to know. Those "teachers" usually know something about Buddhism, and if they know more than you know they'll use that to take advantage of you. Sometimes, there’ll be stuff on their website or whatever about how they studied with some famous teacher and practiced at some well-known temple in Asia or something like that. And if you meet them in person they’ll tell you the same thing. So it can be hard to know if they're lying, or exactly how much of what they’re saying is true. In my friend’s case, he was unhappy about being ripped off by his teacher so he went to some trouble to check out the teacher’s background. But most people probably wouldn't bother. They'll just accept what’s written on the website or what the teacher tells them as the truth. And even if you try to check out about a particular “teacher,” sometimes it can be hard to find out for sure.
Luckily, most Buddhist teachers aren't like that, and if you look around a bit you can usually come across a decent teacher. It’s harder though if you find a teacher that feels right for you, and then later on you start to see the teacher in a different light. Then you’ve got to decide is it worth sticking with the teacher or should you give up and try going elsewhere. And that might be hard if the teacher is giving you the impression that if you stick around just a bit longer he’ll help you solve the “great mystery”.
There are a lot of reasons people who know something about Buddhism become like that. The obvious one is they want to become rich and/or famous. It’s nothing new. Back in the 13th century, the Japanese Zen Master Dogen wrote about people “who only use Buddhism as a bridge to fame and gain”. So even back in Dogen's time people were using Buddhism to get rich or famous. Another reason is that some people like to have power or control over others. It's nothing new either. But of course those things go against what Buddhism is about. Buddhism is about seeing reality as it is and living the best life we can. It’s not meant to be a business or a way to become famous or control people. But there'll always be people who don't see it that way.
I met Gudo Nishijima after I'd been living in Japan for a few years. I didn’t really know anything about Buddhism, but I’d been doing some Zazen at home and had gone to a one-day Zen retreat at a temple in Kyoto. Back then, the Internet wasn’t really around, and it was hard to find information on Zen groups. But someone I met at that one-day retreat told me about a book called “Zen Guide” that had information about Zen groups in Japan. I bought the book and started to check the places it had listed for Tokyo. I went along to a Zazen sitting at one temple it listed, but there wasn't an awful lot happening there. I checked out some other groups it mentioned too, but they all seemed to have closed down or the person who was teaching had left. One group the Zen Guide did mention was what it called the “Nishijima Group”. It described Nishijima as a “businessman-priest.” When I read that part I decided not to visit Nishijima’s group, because I'd no interest in learning Buddhism from a "businessman-priest". But after I'd called all the other places, the Nishijima group was the only place left I hadn’t tried. So I called up Nishijima and he told me to come to his next Zazen meeting, which I did.
That was about 12 years ago, and I’ve been studying with him since then. One thing about Nishijima is that he’s never asked me for money or donations. As far as I could see he paid for his Buddhist activities out of his own pocket. When he held 3-day retreats for his English students, he used to pay a lot of his own money each time to help cover the cost. His idea was to work a regular job and pay for his Buddhist activity himself. His first job was in the Japanese government. Later on he worked in a securities firm, and after that he worked as an advisor for a cosmetics company. He kept working there until he was 85.
Like I said, when I first heard Nishijima talk about “prajna” I doubted what he was saying. But I did wonder why an elderly Japanese man like Nishijima (he was 76 when I met him) would bother saying something like that if it wasn’t true. That’s one reason I kept going to his talks. I couldn't see any reason why he'd want to lie. Of course Nishijima isn't the only Buddhist teacher who talks about prajna. The Heart Sutra is based on it, and a lot of other Buddhist teachers will tell you about prajna too. Master Dogen wrote about prajna as well. In Shobogenzo, there’s a chapter called “Kokyo”in which he talks about “the eternal mirror”. It's not an easy chapter to understand, but the introduction to it from the Nishijima/Cross translation gives an idea what it's about:
The Eternal Mirror
Ko means "ancient" or "eternal" and kyo means "mirror," so kokyo means "the eternal mirror." And what "the eternal mirror" means is the question. In this chapter Master Dogen quoted Master Seppo Gison's words "When a foreigner comes in front of the mirror, the mirror reflects the foreigner." From these words we can understand the eternal mirror as a symbol of some human mental faculty. The eternal mirror suggests the importance of reflection, so we can suppose that the eternal mirror is a symbol of the intuitional faculty. In Buddhist philosophy, the intuition is called prajna, or real wisdom. Real wisdom in Buddhism means our human intuitional faculty on which all our decisions are based. Buddhism esteems this real wisdom more than reason or sense-perception. Our real wisdom is the basis for our decisions, and our decisions decide our life, so we can say that our real wisdom decides the course of our life. For this reason, it is very natural for Master Dogen to explain the eternal mirror. At the same time, we must find another meaning of the eternal mirror, because Master Dogen also quoted other words of Master Seppo Gison, "Every monkey has the eternal mirror on its back." Therefore we can think that the eternal mirror means not only human real wisdom, but also some intuitional faculty of animals. So we must widen the meaning of the eternal mirror, and understand it as a symbol of the intuitional faculty which both human beings and animals have. Furthermore Master Seppo Gison said, "When the world is ten feet wide, the eternal mirror is ten feet wide. When the world is one foot wide, the eternal mirror is one foot wide." These words suggest the eternal mirror is the world itself. So we can say that the eternal mirror is not only a symbol of an individual faculty but is also something universal. From ancient times Buddhists have discussed the eternal mirror. In this chapter Master Dogen explains the meaning of the eternal mirror in Buddhism, quoting the words of ancient Buddhist masters.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Below is a link to an audio recording of a talk I had with my teacher Gudo Nishijima yesterday. It's an MP3 file that lasts around 18 minutes (4 megabytes).
In the first part, Nishijima Roshi talks about the difference between Buddhism and Western philosophies.
Then I asked a question about a story in chapter 20 "Kokyo" in Dogen's Shobogenzo (paragraph ). The story's about two Zen master's talking about what they call the "Eternal Mirror".
Next Nishijima talks about his theory on how doing Zazen relates to the autonomic nervous system.
After that I asked him where he thinks Buddhist intuition comes from.
In the last part he discusses his ideas on the Buddhist precepts.
Well, our talk went something like that anyway.
Click here to download.
Friday, July 25, 2008
I went to a talk in Tokyo last Saturday by my Zen teacher, Gudo Nishijima. Nishijima used to give regular lectures on Buddhism in Japanese and English at a number of places in Tokyo and other parts of Japan until he went into semi-retirement about five years ago. He stopped giving talks completely for a while, but some of his students asked him back to give one talk each month in Tokyo. His students in Osaka heard about it and asked him to give a talk each month in Osaka too. From what I saw on Saturday, he looked happy to be teaching again.
There were around 25-30 people there on Saturday. Mostly his Japanese students, with me and a couple of other non-Japanese guys there too. Here’s a summary of the talk, or as much of it as I could take notes on. Sorry if this post is a bit disjointed.
The talk was mostly about “action at the present moment.” He spoke about the difference between our action and our thinking and sense perception. In everyday life we tend to assume that the thoughts we have in our head are actually true in the real world. But that’s not necessarily the case. Even though we can think lots of things in our brain, those things don’t always turn out to be true in reality. An obvious example is when you think something is going to turn out one way, but it turns out differently. If you want to take it a bit further, if you look back at ancient times, people used to have a lot of strange ideas about the world, like the world was flat or the sun rotated around the earth, but science proved that reality was different to the way people thought it was.
It’s kind of a similar situation with sense perception. When we look at something or hear something, we get sense stimuli in our brain. But those stimuli aren’t always accurate. We sometimes find out later that the sense stimuli in our brain didn’t reflect the actual situation too well. Of course, the objects that we look at are real, but the sense stimuli in our brain are different from the actual objects themselves. The stimuli are our way of interpreting the objects that we look at or touch or whatever. In some cases our sense organs just aren’t equipped to pick up the total situation of what’s happening. So sometimes we just perceive things partially, not completely. You can get an idea of this if you compare your hearing function with a dog’s hearing function, or your sense of smell with a dog’s sense of smell. Compared to a dog, our sense perception equipment isn’t too great.
That’s kind of related to why Buddhism says our real life is based on action. Thinking and sense perception support our actions, but the most important thing is just to act. If you want to do something or change some situation in reality, you have to act. Just thinking about something or noticing sense perceptions of something won’t make any real difference in reality.
So is life based on thinking or sense perception, or is life based on action?
Buddhism says our life is not just based on thinking or on perception. It says our life is based on what we do at the present moment. In other words life is based on action.
So what’s the connection between practicing Zazen and action?
When we do Zazen we enter what Nishijima refers to as “the balanced state”. The balanced state is a state where our body and mind are balanced with each other. If you’ve never done Zazen, an example of the balanced state might be how you feel when you’ve just done some kind of sport. After doing some sport, you probably won’t be thinking too much or perceiving things too strongly. It’s kind of like that when you do Zazen. And when we’re not thinking too much or perceiving things too strongly we can act naturally.
In Buddhism, this kind of natural action when our body and mind are balanced is very important. Because Buddhism says that natural action is “right” action. Nishijima calls it “action in accordance with the universal law” or “action in accordance with the rule of the universe”. Another word Buddhists use for “universal law” is “Dharma”. So if we practice Zazen everyday, our action should tend to be in accordance with the natural laws in the universe.
One important thing about “right action” is that it brings good or neutral consequences or effects. In other words, if you do a right action, you won’t be faced with bad effects as a result later on. And if you keep doing “right action” for a while, life starts to gradually get smoother. Because you no longer have to deal with some kind of bad or problematic situations as the result of some "wrong" action you did previously. And if you don’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with “bad stuff”, you can enjoy your life more and maybe enjoy your Zazen a bit more too.
So that’s the connection between Zazen and action. If you do Zazen regularly you might notice life starting to get a bit smoother or at least involving less hassle. The situation won’t be perfect of course, because even though we do Zazen there’ll bound to be times when we mess up for one reason or another. But overall things should improve.
At this point someone asked about the meaning of “the middle way”, which is what Buddhism is sometimes called. Nishijima’s answer was that “the middle way” is the middle between body and mind.
Next, someone asked Nishijima what reality is. Nishijima used the example of the sun.
He said something like:
"The sun rose in the eastern sky yesterday.
The sun rises in the eastern sky today.
I guess that the sun will rise in the eastern sky tomorrow.
This is what reality is. "
Someone asked about the difference between “right action” and other kinds of action.
Nishijima said that right action occurs when our body and mind are balanced, when we’re in the “balanced state”. He said he also considers the “balanced state” to be balance in our autonomic nervous system. When we do Zazen, our body and mind enter a state of balance with each other, and right action occurs naturally. Other kinds of action are done when we are not in the balanced state. Sometimes those kinds of action have undesirable consequences or effects.
Someone asked if thinking is the same as action. Nishijima said there’s a difference. Action is done with the entire body, while thinking is done with our brain cells. He said living means that our body is moving, thinking means that our brain cells are moving.
Near the end, he was asked to talk a bit more about the difference between action and thinking and sense perception. He said:
"What we think is not reality,
what we perceive (the sense stimuli) is not reality,
what we do (our action) is reality."
Someone then asked about doing things like watching movies or listening to music in the balanced state. Nishijima said that the balanced state is our ordinary state, so we can enjoy art, music, movies and so on in that state.
That was about it.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
There’s a show on in
The role of Dogen in the show is split between one actress and one actor. The actress is Chiaki Kuriyama. She plays Dogen as a youth. She’s well-known in
As part of his role, Hiroshi has to do Zazen on stage for 40 minutes! When he was asked what it felt like, he said “It’s a battle with wicked thoughts and drowsiness.” I know what he means.
Might be worth a look. I just wonder what Dogen would say?
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
It’s been a while since my last post. I won't bore you with reasons why I haven't been blogging for a while, just got a bit bogged down with some stuff.
One thing that kept me a bit busy for a while was preparing to come to
Another thing that happened me recently was I went to my first Zazen retreat ever outside
Even when I got to
So basically I hadn’t a clue about Buddhist groups or teachers
I’ve kind of gotten off the subject a little, but that was one reason I wanted to go to a retreat outside
By the way, when I was at the retreat there someone asked me what Nishijima's retreats in Japan were like. Basically, Nishijima liked to keep the retreats kind of simple and also follow his understanding of Dogen's way. So at the retreats we'd do Zazen, Nishijima would give four talks, we'd have meals in the traditional style, everyone would do 40 minutes of light work each morning, and we'd also have a good bit of free time. The Dogen Sangha retreat in September is still held in the same way that Nishijima followed, so if you're in Japan around that time it might be worth checking out.
In case anyone else is interested, here's a copy of the daily schedule from one of Nishijima's Zazen retreats (click on the "Zazen Retreat Schedule" link underneath if you want to see the original version). It's much the same schedule for the current Dogen Sangha retreats too, except an extra day.
One more thing. At that retreat in France I was chatting to someone who told me she'd just started doing Zazen a couple of months ago, but that the very first time she did zazen she felt like it was the thing for her. I told her I felt the same way when I first did zazen too, although I never expected to be still doing it years later.
Friday, April 18, 2008
Buddhism started off in India about 2,500 years ago. It was begun by a man named Gautama who was the son of the king of a small kingdom. Gautama had a very comfortable life as the son of the king. But he eventually began to wonder about “the meaning of life” and whether there was any kind of real truth. When he was 29 he decided to leave his family and his home to try to find some kind of truth. Gautama visited different teachers and tried different methods that they told him would help him. But after about seven years he reached a point where he'd became very thin and frail, and he began to wonder if there might not be a better way to find some kind of truth.
He left the small group of ascetics he was practicing with and started to eat and drink properly again. He also began to consider about what might be a better way to find the truth. At that time, he recalled an experience he had sitting under a tree as a teenager. He remembered the good feeling he had when he was just sitting under the tree. So he decided to try that kind of sitting again. He found a nice tree near a river bank, and began to sit under the tree in the cross-legged posture. This time, though, he just sat there without any particular aim. He wasn’t thinking about mantras or enlightenment or things like that. He just sat there in the cross-legged posture.
The story goes that one morning while he was sitting under the tree, Gautama saw a star in the morning sky and was awakened. After that he devoted his life to teaching other people what he had discovered. The basis for what Gautama Buddha taught people was the simple sitting that he had done under the tree. Gradually more people joined him and Buddhism slowly spread.
One of the places that Buddhism spread to was China. In those days, the main link between India and China was the Silk Road, which was a series of routes connecting East and West Asia. The early Buddhist monks made there way along the Silk Road and eventually reached China. It’s impossible to know exactly when Buddhism arrived in China, but it seems to have arrived there by around the second century AD. Some Chinese people who heard about Buddhism went to India to learn more. These people then translated some of the sutras they came across in India into Chinese.
So some Chinese people were already familiar with Buddhist ideas by the time the legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma is said to have arrived there around the fifth or sixth century. Bodhidharma is traditionally considered to be the transmitter of “Zen” Buddhism to China. He emphasized the importance of the simple sitting practice that Gautama Buddha used to do. There are a lot of legends surrounding Bodhidharma, although it’s impossible to know how accurate they are. One legend is that Bodhidharma spent nine years doing zazen at a cave in Northern China. This made the early Chinese Buddhists more aware of the importance of zazen. Up to the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival, the people teaching Buddhism in China had focused on Buddhist sutras and ideas, and not placed a great emphasis on the sitting practice. So when the Chinese saw the monk Bodhidharma doing this sitting practice so often, they thought it must be some kind of special Buddhist sect. So they gave it the name “Chan” (or “Zen”) Buddhism. “Chan” is a Chinese word that means “meditation”. But for Bodhidharma it was just Buddhism.
People were still doing that simple sitting practice 700 years later when a Japanese monk named Dogen arrived in China looking for a teacher. Dogen had studied Buddhism in Japan with the Tendai Sect and the Rinzai Sect prior to going to China. But he wasn’t satisfied with the Buddhism that he was learning in Japan. He felt that he needed to meet a true teacher to find out what Buddhism was really about. So Dogen decided to travel to China to search for a teacher.
But when Dogen got to China he was a little disappointed. Most of the temples he visited belonged to masters in the Rinzai sect. So Dogen ended up encountering the same kind of Buddhist teachers that he’d met in Japan. He travelled around China for two years but still couldn’t meet a teacher who could help him. He was just about to give up his search, when he met an old monk who told him to visit a temple called Keitoku-ji. A new abbot, Master Tendo Nyojo, had just been installed at Keitoku-ji, and the old monk told Dogen that Master Tendo Nyojo might be the teacher he was looking for.
Dogen had already been to Keitoku-ji temple once. But at that time there was a different abbot there. So Dogen went to Keitoku-ji temple and met Master Tendo Nyojo. When Dogen met Tendo Nyojo he was sure that he'd found the teacher he’d been searching for. Dogen stayed in China for two more years to study with Tendo Nyojo, and then returned to Japan.
The main thing Dogen learned from Master Tendo Nyojo was that just sitting in zazen is Buddhism itself. Master Tendo Nyojo used the phrase shikantaza to explain this to Master Dogen.
Nowadays, shikantaza is a well-known phrase in Zen Buddhism. It's made up of four Chinese characters 只管打坐. These characters are usually translated by dividing them into pairs.
The first pair is 只管 (shi-kan).
This means: nothing but / earnestly / entirely / single-mindedly.
The second pair is 打坐 (ta-za).
This means: to do sitting.
So the four characters in shi-kan-ta-za together mean:
nothing but to do sitting,
earnestly to do sitting,
entirely to do sitting,
single-mindedly to do sitting.
Take your pick.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
In my last couple of posts, I wrote about "non-thinking" and sitting in an upright posture. This post relates to both of those. It's about a Japanese expression shin-jin-datsu-raku which the Zen monk Dogen used to describe what happens when we practice zazen. Dogen first heard the expression from his teacher, Tendo Nyojo, when he visited China from Japan in the 13th century to meet a true teacher.
The usual English translation for shin-jin-datsu-raku is "dropping body and mind" or "body and mind drop off". Here's the meaning of the four Chinese characters (身心脱落) that make up shin-jin-datsu-raku:
shin (身) means "body"
jin (心) means "mind"
datsu (脱) means "shed"
raku (落) means "drop" or "let fall"
So shin-jin-datsu-raku literally means "body & mind are shed and fall". But the characters for datsu and raku go together, and mean "drop off". So shin-jin-datsu-raku is usually translated something like "body & mind drop off".
"Body & mind drop off" is a confusing expression. It's easy to think it means that when you do zazen your body and mind actually drop off and all that's left is some kind of "spirit". But that doesn't happen.
So what does "body & mind drop off" mean? My teacher Gudo Nishijima interprets it as meaning that when we do zazen our mind gets less active and our perception of our body sensations gets less active. So we're not actively considering things or perceiving things. Of course, we're sitting there with our eyes are open and we can see the wall and hear sounds, but we're not thinking about them. Our consciousness is clear and quiet. Master Dogen described this as "body & mind drop off".
One thing about "body & mind drop off" is that it happens naturally, without us having control over it. We do zazen and try to sit upright. When we're sitting, our thinking might quieten down and our sense perceptions might quieten down, and then we feel like our consciousness is clearer. We might not reach a point where our mind is completely blank and our senses have gone completely quiet, but we can feel like they're quieter than when we first sat down.
Nishijima uses the idea of +/- zero to describe what happens when we do zazen. When we first sit down our mind might be really active or we might be really conscious of our senses. And we can swing back and forth between a state where we're thinking a lot (a "+" state) and a state where we're really conscious of our senses (a "-" state). That can continue throughout our zazen. But at some point, our thoughts may slow down and our bodily sensations may ease off. At that time, there's not too much activity in our head and we're just sitting there. That's the kind of "zero" state.
Zazen is not about thinking. Zazen is a kind of action. You sit on a cushion and try to keep your back straight. It's a very simple action and a very pure action. There's not an awful lot going on when you're doing it. You're just sitting there. But you can notice your thoughts and notice your posture too. And after a while that consciousness of thoughts and of posture subsides and you sit there without much going on in your head. And when you get up from zazen you might feel a bit different from when you started. People who do zazen refer to that feeling as "balanced". It's a nice feeling. And if you practice zazen regularly, that feeling might stay with you for a good part of the day.
But you don't have to take my word for it. If you do zazen for a while you'll see for yourself.