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.’



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