Thursday, April 15, 2010

3-Day Zen Retreat In Golden Week

I’ll be holding a Zen meditation retreat at Tokei-in temple on the outskirts of Shizuoka City from May 1 to 3. The retreat is in English and is suitable for beginners. The cost including meals and accommodation is 10,000 yen. So if you'll be in Japan around then and are interested in spending a few days at a temple and trying some Zen meditation, feel free to come along.

There’s some more information at:



Sunday, March 28, 2010

Where Science and Buddhism Meet

A friend sent me links to a couple of videos that look at similarities between what Buddhism and science say about reality. The videos are two parts of a video called "Where Science and Buddhism Meet".

When I first became interested in Buddhism, I used to think that science and Buddhism were far apart in what they say about the world. To me Buddhism was a kind of religion, and I assumed it said things about reality that were different to what science says. After checking it out for a few years I began to see that Buddhism and science weren't that far apart after all. I gradually figured out Buddhism is mainly about understanding reality, and anything about the world that is scientifically proven is okay by Buddhism. In that way, Buddhism doesn't set itself up to conflict with science. The big difference between them though is that Buddhism says there are some things about reality that science hasn't discovered yet, and maybe never will. So in some ways, Buddhism considers itself ahead of science as far as understanding the universe goes.

A big difference between Buddhism and science is the approach they take to studying reality. Buddhism places a big emphasis on understanding the world based on our own experience. So the things Buddhism say about reality are based on what people have experienced for themselves. For example, Buddhism says that the universe is "one" and that everything is "interconnected". This is because after practicing Buddhism for a while, you can start to feel that things are interconnected in a real way. Science takes a different approach. It tries to understand reality by gathering knowledge about the world, and making observations and proving theories based on the knowledge. In that sense, science and Buddhism are looking at reality from different dimensions. Buddhism looks at reality from the dimension of our own experience, while science looks at the world based on the scientific knowledge that's been accumulated so far. It's hard to know if either way is going to give a perfect answer, but I think that the more science finds out about the world, the better Buddhism starts to sound. Because what seems to be happening now is that as scientific knowledge increases, in some areas the scientific viewpoint is approaching the same viewpoint as Buddhism. And that makes the Buddhists think, "See, we were saying that all along, but no-one would listen!"

I was surprised by some of the parallels that came up in the video. One thing it looks at is Einstein's theory about "Spooky Action at a Distance", which is a lot like something that Buddhists notice. The video doesn't get into too much detail about the various similarities, but it's definitely worth a look if you've an interest in this kind of thing.

One idea that comes up that I found a bit hard to agree with, though, is where he seems to be saying that we can somehow control reality by using our mind. This isn't the way I understand Buddhism, but maybe I've misunderstood that part. I was thinking about this the other day, and it reminded me of a part on one of Neil Young's live albums where the rain starts to pour down during an outdoor concert he's doing. Neil tells the audience, "Maybe if we yell real loud, we can stop this rain!" And everybody starts shouting "No rain! No rain! No rain!" Unfortunately, it didn't work so well, and Neil had to play on in the rain. Mind you, if that kind of thing did work, I know we'd have been shouting it almost everyday when I was growing up.

Anyway, here are the videos. They're both about 10 minutes long.



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.