Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year-Crossing Noodles and Zazen

Japan more or less shuts down for the first few days of the New Year. Most businesses are closed and people tend to stay home and take it easy.

It's traditional to visit a shrine or temple in the first few days of the year here to pray for happiness or whatever it is you hope for in the coming year. Most people still do that, so the temples and shrines get very crowded around this time. Tonight, New Year's Eve, is the busiest night of the year for most temples and shrines. Thousands of people will be lining up at some of the temples, waiting to get in their prayer first thing in 2009. It's considered a fun thing to do, and for a lot of people it'll be the only time they'll visit a temple all year.

Another tradition is to eat traditional food called "osechi-ryori" during the first few days of the New Year. Osechi-ryori is only eaten around this time of the year and the shops usually don't sell it any other time. My wife went to the supermarket earlier today to buy an "osechi set", but they were all sold out. So it's no osechi-ryori for us this time.

The traditional food for New Year's Eve is "toshi-koshi soba". "Toshi" means "year", "koshi" means something like "cross over" and soba are buckwheat noodles. My English translation is "year-crossing noodles", although that web site link translates it as "end the old year and enter the new year soba noodles". As you can guess from that name, Japanese people eat them on New Years Eve to mark the end of the old year and the start of a new one. They're also made longer than normal noodles to signify leading a long life. We managed to pick up some of those today, so we'll be having "year-crossing noodles" and tempura tonight.

The other thing I'm hoping to do later is some "year-crossing zazen". I'll probably start around 11.40 and continue to around twenty past midnight.

One other thing that happens over here on New Year's Eve is the temples all ring their bells 108 times around midnight. Usually we can hear the bells from our house.

Hope you have a good New Year's Eve wherever you are, and thanks for reading my little blog.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Nishijima-Cross Shobogenzo translation online

I just read on Mike Cross's blog "Treasury of the Eye of True Sitting" that Book One of the Nishijima-Cross Shobogenzo translation is available online from the Numata Centre website.

Sounds like Books 2-4 will be online as well in the future. Good news.



Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gudo Nishijima Roshi's 89th Birthday Lecture - What I Want To Do

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

One Person's Zazen

"Remember, even if the countless buddhas in ten directions, as numerous as the sands of the Ganges, tried with all their power and all their Buddha-wisdom to calculate or comprehend the merit of one person's Zazen, they could not even get close."

- Master Dogen

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Man of the Moment

"Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place," - Nelson Mandela

Well done Barrack!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Eternal Mirror

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:

[20] KOKYO

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.


- Peter

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Gudo Nishijima on Buddhism, realism, intuition, and precepts

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 [139]). 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

Right Action

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

The Adventures of Dogen

There’s a show on in Tokyo at the moment called “The Adventures of Dogen”. It’s a musical based on the life of a 13th-century Japanese monk Dogen. Dogen is famous in Japan for establishing the Soto Zen sect here.

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 Japan and appeared in the movie Kill Bill. Another well-known Japanese actor named Hiroshi Abe plays the older Dogen. That’s Chiaki and Hiroshi in the photo with their wigs on.

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.

Anyway, the show is being held in Theatre Cocoon at Bunkamura in Shibuya. Looks like the cheapest seats (called "Cocoon seats" by the way) are 5,000 yen.

Might be worth a look. I just wonder what Dogen would say?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer in Japan and Zazen retreats

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 Japan for the summer with my family, where I'm writing this from. It was nice to get back here for a while, although I'm still getting used to the heat.

Another thing that happened me recently was I went to my first Zazen retreat ever outside Japan (in France in May). I'd been to a good few retreats in Japan with Gudo Nishijima, but never to one outside Japan before. One reason I've only been to retreats in Japan is that there were no Buddhist groups around when I was growing up (I lived in Ireland and we was mostly all Catholics). Another reason was there was just no information about Buddhism anywhere when I was younger. It was long before the Internet, and the only Buddhist book I remember seeing in our local bookstore was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was the first Zen book I ever read. It wasn't a bad book, but didn't tell me an awful lot about Zen Buddhism.

Even when I got to Japan, it took me a while to check out Buddhism. What eventually got me hooked was a one-day Zazen retreat I did at a temple in Kyoto. When I did zazen there I felt like I'd found something I wanted to check out more. Later on I moved to Tokyo and was lucky enough to come across Gudo Nishijima.

So basically I hadn’t a clue about Buddhist groups or teachers even when I was practicing with Nishijima’s group. I remember one time a guy at one of Nishijima’s talks in Tokyo gave me a copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s famous book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” He looked surprised when I told him I'd never heard of Shunryu Suzuki. I read the book but didn’t think an awful lot about it. Not to say it’s not a good book, I just wasn’t really interested in Buddhist books then. I was just trying to learn whatever I could from Nishijima. Probably the fact that some guy I didn't know just handed me the book made me a bit uneasy about reading it too. I think I felt it could be like one of those books the Hare Krishnas hand out. Of course, I found out later I was wrong. In fact, the guy who gave me the book used to carry a supply of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” books around with him in a satchel. He told me his way of spreading Buddhism was presenting a copy of Suzuki's book to people.

I’ve kind of gotten off the subject a little, but that was one reason I wanted to go to a retreat outside Japan - to see if there was much difference between the Zen retreats I'd been to with Gudo Nishijima and a retreat overseas. Obviously, I did notice some differences at the retreat in France, but the zazen wasn't too different.

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.

Read this document on Scribd: Zazen Retreat Schedule

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.