Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

February 25, 2024

The First Noble Truth

The Tao of Pooh complains that Buddhism seems too dire with all its talk of suffering. People who are hurting want to be free from suffering and understandably want to pursue happiness. Some may also be afraid that if they let suffering be, they may become overwhelmed by it.

Of course, skillful means that alleviate suffering are helpful in some situations. For example it is sometimes possible to shift our attitudes or behaviors and feel better.

But we can become overly focused on habitually avoiding pain, and then we close off our hearts and lose the good stuff too, like love and compassion. As Gibran writes, joy and sorrow are inseparable. Look deeply into joy and sorrow is there. Look deeply into sorrow and joy is there. That which causes grief once caused us great happiness. Grief is a form of love. Only the veil of time separates them.

Buddhism offers a path to be free in the deepest sense, to be free not from but amidst suffering, to be free to feel both joy AND sorrow. 

Yes, there’s joy too! But we don’t really need help dealing with joy. 

Photo by Sandra Raponi
We do need help caring for and looking deeply into our suffering. That’s why the first teaching Buddha offered after his awakening was, “Life includes suffering.” There is not only light; there is also shadow.

We may want to skip this teaching that life includes suffering. We might imagine that we can bypass looking deeply into our suffering and skip to the enlightenment part. We may chase mental states, seeking to be something other than what we are and running on the hamster wheel of self-improvement, ironically getting more self-involved and worn out. We may go into denial and repress our feelings. In this practice, our pain lingers under the surface of a mask that we wear. We may even judge ourselves and others when we feel unhappy, as if it is a failure of our practice. Ironically, the longing to escape pain is actually the greatest suffering. It can even take the form of suicidal ideation. 

Trungpa describes these strategies to avoid pain as the armor we wear, and it’s a heavy burden. We put on this armor imagining that we can separate ourselves from the causes and conditions that give rise to suffering in the world. Underlying this hope to protect ourselves is a belief in ourselves as separate entities, a "distorted view of reality, with each of us as selves at the center of their own universe, and everything else arrayed around us as our objects" which we try to manipulate for our own ends. "That leads to... anxiety about the preservation of the welfare of the self. All of this leads to greed, anger, fear, conflict, and general unhappiness" (Garfield).

We may try to gain control over anything that causes us suffering, but we just aren’t in control of many of the most important aspects of our lives. We did not choose when we were born, and we don’t get to avoid sickness, old age, death, and losing everything and everyone we love. The more we meditate, the more we see that we don't really have control over our thoughts and feelings either. As Trungpa says, “it’s completely hopeless.” This is why there are Buddhist books called The Wisdom of No Escape, Ending the Pursuit of Happiness, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, and If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will BreakMost of us need permission to simply feel our feelings and be whatever we are. Sangha is a safe place to have a broken heart. I wish it for you.

Why? Because when we turn toward the relative truth of suffering, toward what we think of as suffering, we find the absolute truth that there is no suffering. Buddhism is not so dire after all! 

One painful obstruction on the path is the delusive certainty that our life is Samsara and not Nirvana. Samsara is actually not separate from Nirvana. Indeed, get rid of Samsara, and there is no Nirvana. Get rid of the mud, and there is no lotus. Get rid of sorrow and there is no joy. Get rid of delusion and there is no enlightenment. Get rid of suffering and there is no compassion. Emptiness is exactly form. This very life is boundless.

We need encouragement and courage to look deeply into suffering with the eye of practice to see this for ourselves. We need to practice taking off our armor and opening our hearts. We practice opening our hearts while doing zazen. Practice does not mean believing our stories, getting caught up in them, and enacting them. It does not mean indulging self-reifying mental formations that might lead us to cause harm. Practicing zazen means sitting still, being quiet, and paying attention -- actually feeling all our sensations, including joy and pain, rather than getting wrapped up in our ideas. It means watching suffering arise and dissolve. It means watching senses of self come and go. Zazen is a great teacher, far better than philosophy. 

In zazen, rather than discovering any fixed essence in our suffering, we discover impermanence and flow. We also see that there is no innate, separate self to protect

Just like suffering, the self is made of nonself elements (water, wind, thoughts, feelings, etc.), all of which are constantly changing. We can let go of the relentless quest to control our experience and be the vastness unfolding. This is a practice of compassion: letting be. This is a practice of wisdom: looking deeply. This is a practice of vulnerability: opening to the thusness of our lives. 

In zazen, we become a refuge for ourselves and all beings. We discover an utterly reliable beauty, aliveness, and spaciousness that does not depend upon the content of our minds. This is the deepest form of liberation. This is the third and fourth noble truths realized: there is an end of suffering, and we find it right in the midst of suffering.

"When you understand the mind darkened by ignorance and see its real nature, then ignorance becomes identical to the enlightened nature" (Torei Enji). Turn around the light and shine it within, and the universe sings in our hearts. This is the most profoundly salvific Dharma.

May 23, 2023

Reflections on "The Diamond Sutra:" Beyond Is and Is Not

The Diamond Sutra is a profoundly important text in Mahayana Buddhism. Composed in India somewhere between the second and fifth century CE, The Diamond Sutra extols the bodhisattva vow to save all beings while claiming that there are no separate beings to save. How does one hold this paradox?

Zen embraces such paradoxes yet also asks us to leap beyond them. The Diamond Sutra offers a metaphorical nudge.

Here's an adapted and abridged translation, followed by some discussion.

The Diamond Sutra [translation by Mu Soeng]

Bodhisattva-mahasattvas should cherish one thought only: “When I attain perfect wisdom, I will liberate all sentient beings in every realm of the universe.”
 
Yet although immeasurable, innumerable, and unlimited beings have been liberated, truly no being has been liberated because no bodhisattva who is a true bodhisattva entertains such concepts as a self, a person, a being, or a living soul. Thus there are no sentient beings to be liberated and no self to attain perfect wisdom. If they cherish the idea of a dharma, they are still attached to a self, a person, a being, or a living soul. If they cherish the idea of no-dharma, they are attached to a self, a person, a being, or a living soul. Therefore, do not cherish the idea of a dharma nor that of a no-dharma.

The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is not. What are called dust particles are not dust particles. That is why they are merely dust particles. What is called true perception is indeed no-perception. This is what the Tathagata teaches as true perception.

The teaching of the Tathagata on the perfection of patience is really no perfection and therefore it is the perfection of patience. A bodhisattva should also practice generosity without dwelling on form. The reason he practices generosity is to benefit all beings. Practicing generosity while still depending on forms is like walking in the dark. Practicing generosity without depending on forms is like walking in the bright sunshine seeing all shapes and colors.

The past mind cannot be gotten hold of, the future mind cannot be gotten hold of, and the present mind cannot be gotten hold of. The dharma called the anuttara samyak sambodhi is at one with everything else. That is why it is called the perfect, unexcelled awakening. It is self-identical through the absences of a self, a person, a being, or a living soul, and that is why it is fully known as the totality of all the wholesome dharmas. And yet, no dharmas have been taught by the Tathagata. Such is merely a name. Thus they are called “wholesome dharmas.”

The true nature of the Dharma cannot be understood. No one can be conscious of it as an object. At the same time, no one should say that those who have set out on the path of the bodhisattva need to see all dharma in terms of their annihilation. Do not entertain any notion of the annihilation of dharmas.

So you should view this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; 
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Reflections:

The Diamond Sutra begins by celebrating the bodhisattva's vow to attain enlightenment and save all beings.

Many of us begin our practice aiming for the first part of the vow, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for ourselves. We initially imagine that we will rise above karma altogether like we are some sort of orb, impervious to of cause and effect. We picture ourselves as entirely separate, enlightened beings who are not susceptible to the vicissitudes of life. 

Over time, we see that this is not how we actually exist, and the gap between our expectations and our experience weighs on us. Liberation never looks the way we think it should. We may persist in our self-interested approach to practice, but for many of us, the second part of our vow to save all beings begins to feel appealing. Maybe focusing on saving others will help us open beyond this painful self-concern?

The vow to save all beings does touch our hearts. We realize that our immature notions of ourselves at the center of the universe are limiting and inaccurate. We expand our awareness and begin to serve something greater than ourselves. Altruism can feel good.

But dualistic ways of thinking persist. Practicing the precepts without the wisdom of nonself is inherently egocentric. We begin to formulate strategies to improve our "selves" and save “others.”  We might aim to cultivate generosity (or any of the six paramitas), but our motive for being generous is, ironically, self-improvement. We may get caught by a grandiose idea of being a bodhisattva, of being the one who saves other beings, or even of being a helper. It's quite a little ego booster. We identify as bodhisattvas in contrast to those who are the recipients of our charity. There is something condescending in our efforts. Our pride becomes their shame. With this identification as a fixer or helper can come a sense of superiority, aloofness, distance, sadness, and isolation. We are just painting the walls of our prison.

Seeing ourselves as bodhisattvas, we may also reify the idea of others who need to be saved. We may hope to resolve our own anxiety and pain by "fixing" other people's lives. We might find ourselves running ragged volunteering and cajoling others to join us. We may burn out after biting off more than we can chew. Or we may begin to think we are better than other people who we believe are doing less. Unfortunately, our lack of tolerance of suffering provides little solace. If we desire to help too much, others may play along and become our dependents. We may nourish our identity as helpers but disempower others by stealing their agency and even trying to replace their existing support networks. 

Despite our efforts, we eventually also see that there is no way to prevent all suffering in the world in any conventional sense. We all lose everything and everyone we love. It's our first noble truth. We may begin to feel like failures. Our hearts may break, then break open, for all the beings we cannot save, including ourselves. 

If we are honest, we may realize that we simply do not know how to save all beings. Our strategizing and directional efforts inevitably fail. If we can bear sitting with disillusionment, we may begin to see what underlies our struggle -- a conception of the self, of others, and of suffering as abiding, separate entities. 

When we are attached to ideas of ourselves, we act on behalf an imagined, enduring entity that does not actually exist. We long to protect this supposed entity, and we suffer when our self-concept is punctured by inevitable change. When we hope to fix others, as if there were other selves who could be brought to a separate, permanent state of salvation, we find that there is no such place. There is nothing substantial that we can attain for ourselves or for others. Everyone and everything is subject to change.

But our dualistic way of thinking is our basic operating system; we project independent substantiality into things. When we take our bodhisattva vow with integrity, one effect is that, like a mirror, it helps us see the dualistic operating system that undergirds suffering. 

But we still don't know what else to do. Should we just give up? 

What if we do give up trying to save all beings according to that dualistic framework? What would happen if we "give up the pursuit of happiness" (as if it were "out there" somewhere waiting) and choose instead to bear witness and be with things as they are without knowing in advance what to do? What might it look like to honor our bodhisattva vow to save all beings non-dualistically?

According to an ancient Chinese story, Layman Pang once fell in the mud. Ling Zhou, his daughter and a Zen adept in her own right, then threw herself down in the mud with him. When he asked her what on earth she was doing, she replied, "helping." Layman Pang laughed.

Ling Zhou did not reach down from above but simply joined in without knowing "the answer." Here there is no gap between self-and-other.

Did she save her father? Ling Zhou’s wisdom and her gift was her compassionate non-separation. Sometimes being "saved" means being free to be exactly as we are. 

Maybe saving does not need to look as we imagine. Maybe it doesn't always fit into our narrative of us fixing someone else's life. Maybe saving can be meeting on equal ground and just being "in it" together. Attention can be our guide, not imposed dualistic ideas. We can let go of our expectations for particular outcomes. We may find that sometimes, being together in the situation is not only enough but exactly right. Sometimes people don’t want to be fixed, and many problems can’t be solved. In such moments, we share Buddha’s sanctuary. We don’t need to escape people's pain by running away or by fixing them.

When my mother slowly degenerated with Alzheimer's, there was ultimately no fixing that could be done. Eventually, all my strategies failed. Not knowing what to do next, my role was to simply be with and love her. As she lost the use of language altogether, I still felt deeply connected with her. I could not stave off her disease, but our togetherness was of absolute value, quite beyond the scales of success or failure. Even when there's no cure, it's possible to heal.

This does not mean we are unresponsive. While suffering has no fixed essence, people still suffer, and as interwoven beings, our hearts may break. And, we can sometimes be of benefit. In allowing ourselves not to know what to do in advance and in openmindedly bearing witness to the entire situation, possibilities emerge that are often more appropriate than anything we can plan in advance. As Bernie Glassman says, "Healing cannot arise until we bear witness to the suffering," like Buddha leaving his protected childhood palace. We let the imagined walls between ourselves and others come down.

We meet on equal ground when we open beyond our dualistic ideas of self and other, saved and unsaved. We open beyond dualistic notions when we acknowledge but see through the senses of self that we think separate us from everything and everyone.

There is some basic reasoning that can help us comprehend the lack of a fixed, separate self. This is reasoning we can easily understand. From the perspective of time, there’s no fixed self, only change. The cells in our body are constantly dying and being replaced. So are our thoughts and values. More gradually changing aspects of ourselves may lead us to believe there is something abiding in the mix, but any amount of change undermines identity. Even yesterday’s and today’s “me" are not the same. And from perspective of space, there is no separate self because a self is made of non-self elements. We sometimes call this "dependent arising." We are water, earth, air, and sunlight. We are culturally inherited languages and practices of our ancestors. Remove these non-self elements, and nothing remains. There’s no innate or intrinsic self; every bit of us is borrowed and relational. The bubble is nothing without the water surrounding it. There is also not a unified self, just parts that can be broken down endlessly.

The same analysis applies to all beings. Thus there are no fixed, separate selves or essences anywhere. Therefore, "no dharmas have been taught by the Tathagata." No phenomena exist in an enduring or independent way. However, we really need to meditate to see this for ourselves. In looking closely, we begin to see that intrinsic essences are indeed unfindable, including our self.

We do not need to try to stop senses of self from arising. In fact, we need our senses of self to honor appropriate boundaries. We do not need to go to war with our shapeshifting ego. The moment we compassionately see senses of self as merely senses of self, they lose their grip on us. When we see that senses of self are actually shapeshifting, dependent arisings, we are less attached to them, and we suffer less as they change. We can simply witness senses of self as merely senses of self, and we are liberated from their grip.

However, The Diamond Sutra goes on to warn not to get stuck in the idea of “no self” or “no dharmas” either. The teaching of “no self” is just medicine to liberate us from the suffering and isolation caused by clinging to ideas of self and other. The idea of no self becomes a nihilistic hell cave when we cling to it. And in trying to annihilate the self, we create the notion of the self that needs to be annihilated! This circular argument could go on endlessly.

Zazen is the practice of leaping beyond the many and the one. When we see that self and other are "merely names" and that thoughts are merely thoughts, we are liberated from belief and disbelief. Even the notions of form and emptiness are nails hammered in the sky. 

Liberation is the practice-realization of things just as they are, which is truly beyond comprehension, beyond is and is not. Our mental models fail to capture what is. Ironically, this is profoundly liberating. We are no longer bound by our conceptions. We are entering the stream of life.

We can still use language to talk about this phenomenal world but with the recognition that language too is a dependent arising; names depend on provisional referents. Still, we operate in "conventional reality," which language helps us navigate. Even though there are not abiding essences anywhere, we use language to refer to shapeshifting phenomena that have no fixed, separate essences. The key is to wake up when we get lost in our conceptual maps. When we are lost in ideas and desires -- even the desire to help others -- we tend to suffer and cause harm, and the precepts help us wake up to what we are doing.

We all get lost sometimes. We so desperately want to be able to hang onto moments when we feel good about ourselves. We take pride in our accomplishments and in our mind's ability to comprehend reality. For a long time we may not be able to recognize thoughts as merely thoughts and senses of self as merely senses of self because of pride -- an attachment to positive senses of self. The inverse of this is shame when we make mistakes. As children, we were expected to know things and were perhaps embarrassed when we did not. We got bad grades in school. Interestingly, sometimes we believe shame even more readily than pride. But both are merely fleeting senses of self.

We are released from our attachment to intellectual pride and shame when we see that "the truth is ungraspable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is not.... The true nature of the Dharma cannot be understood." Our inability to conceptualize the true nature of reality is not a failure but simply accurate.

In opening beyond our conceptual maps, we see that our ideas of fixed essences were misleading. Even suffering has no fixed, separate essence. Pain is a flash of lightning in a summer cloud. Grief is a mask worn by love.

When we open to suffering just as it is, compassion, a non-dualistic acceptance of what is, reveals that even suffering is empty. Ironically, when we let go of the protective distance that we create between ourselves and our hearts -- when we let go of our idea of suffering as something separate -- it opens like a flower, and its imagined solidity dissolves. Beyond good and bad, just tears. 

In learning to tolerate our own suffering, we learn to tolerate others’. This releases us from the need to fix and allows us to bear witness with great compassion. In this way, emptiness -- things exactly as they are -- is a refuge for us all, one that we can share with all beings.

Like the self, suffering is no suffering. We merely call it suffering provisionally. This does not mean it is nothing or that we should slip into denial. Denial reifies whatever we are denying. We are invited to be intimate with whatever is.

When we look deeply, we find that everything is subtle, mysterious, and beyond description. This is our freedom.

So you should view this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; 
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

We may still wonder, how can we fulfill our bodhisattva vow to awaken and save all beings? I am reminded of a quote from Catcher in the Rye: "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." Bodhisattva practice does not make us special, and we don't need to be. Mary Oliver writes, "You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. / You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves." And as the late, great Tina Turner sang, "We don't need another hero." We just openly pay attention and offer an appropriate response, moment after moment. We may sit with a grieving friend, write a letter, attend a demonstration, offer incense, or even sweep the floor. Sometimes we get it wrong, atone, and begin again. A life of vow.

There's a story about Ryukon, the Japanese poet, zen master, and hermit. He lived in the mountains but would sometimes spend time with his family and play with the village children. One day a relative found him to ask for help. Ryukon's nephew, a teenage boy, was causing trouble. Ryokan agreed to see what he could do. So he went to stay at his brother's house where his nephew lived. After a few weeks, Ryokan decided to leave and go back to the mountain. He began to lace up his sandals, and the boy came into the room and sat across from him. Ryukon's hands were shaking with age, so the boy decided to help him with his sandals. As he knelt before Ryukon, tears from Ryukon's eyes landed on the boy's hands. When the boy saw the tears streaming down Ryokan’s face, he knew they were for him. From that moment, the boy completely changed.

Bearing witness without knowing in advance what we will do, we might bandage a child’s boo-boo, a child who stands before us with tears on her cheeks. This uncontrived response, which does not depend on the concept of self and other but which also does not negate the shimmering suchness of a child, is like "walking in the bright sunshine seeing all shapes and colors." Though without any separate, fixed essence, each intimate presence shines forth uniquely. We see the tears on her cheeks and hear her cry. We bandage her cut because it is simply the thing to do. We think, but we are not lost in our own ideas. We are awake with this child who, in this moment, is our life, this child of the universe. Caring for this one child is caring for the universe in the form of a child. There is no "other" anywhere. This may sound like a great mystical revelation, but it is just things as they are.

Since there is no self to awaken separate from the totality of wholesome dharmas, and since there are no separate dharmas anywhere (wholesome or otherwise), all beings are included in this moment. Indeed, all beings are included in each bow we make. Our forehead touches the floor. The earth holds us up. The air fills our lungs. The stars give shape to infinite space, which is nothing other than our mind, which is not separate from all beings. Each breath and each bow includes all beings throughout space and time. When we bow, we hold nothing back, and we are given the universe. We give ourselves away completely in this moment, and we are given everything in return. This is non-dualistic generosity in which giving is receiving and receiving is giving. Ultimately, there is no giver, no receiver, and no gift. We merely call it giving. With Avalokiteshvara as our guide, we open our bodhisattva heart as a refuge for all beings, and we let ourselves be held by all beings. Hearing the cries of the world, without knowing in advance what to do and without expectation of what the outcome will be, we each make our unique offering. As Bernie Glassman writes, each of us are one of Avaolokiteshvara's thousand hands responding to the cries of the world. Because there are no separate beings anywhere, all beings save all beings.

May 8, 2023

Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhism

Due to changing life and sangha circumstances, it is not uncommon that folks who have practiced in one Buddhist tradition find themselves practicing in a different tradition. Perhaps they move or their home sangha falls apart or their teacher moves away, and to continue practicing, they join a different group and tradition. Or perhaps you are considering practicing, have options, and are not sure which tradition to practice. While nothing can replace simply visiting a sangha to see whether the community seems healthy, it may be helpful to understand some basic similarities and differences in the three primary traditions. In this post I offer rough sketches of Theravada, Mahayana (specifically my tradition of Zen), and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism, which most closely adheres to the earliest Buddhist sutras, emphasizes the model of the arhat who attains enlightenment by following the 8 fold path. Meditation, the precepts, and the six paramitas are the vital practices. The ideal is monastic practice, but this tradition is also available to lay people often through classes and extended retreats.

Mahayana Buddhism is the second "turning of the wheel of Dharma" and, among adherents, is considered a natural development of the Buddha's original teachings. For example, the concept of nonself evolves into the teachings of dependent origination and the emptiness (lack of intrinsic essence) of all phenomena. Given interconnectedness, the bodhisattva practices to save not a separate self but all beings. This aspiration is modeled after Buddha, who taught for the remainder of his life after awakening.

Vajrayana is a form of Buddhism that developed in India and neighboring countries, perhaps most notably Tibet. Considered the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, Vajrayana offers tantric practices that emulate Buddha's enlightenment, particularly the identity of wisdom and compassion.

Broadly speaking, the first "stage" of practice in all three traditions is taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, vowing to honor the precepts, and practicing concentration or calm abiding.

Still, adventitious suffering based on a lack of alignment with our true nature persists; we project enduring selfhood where there is none (this is our ignorance) and thus experience intensified grasping and aversion (which are the primary forms of suffering). These 3 poisons of ignorance, grasping, and aversion block our innate compassion.

In the Theravada tradition, one progresses further down the path by cultivating loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity through meditative exercises, such as sending feelings of compassion to oneself and others. One might think during meditation, “May you be free of pain and sorrow. May you be well and happy.” Practitioners begins by sending compassion to friends and family. Then one sends compassion to people whom one might not be inclined to wish well, such as people who may have hurt us. Gradually, one learns to extend compassion to all beings. Practitioners also cultivate insight into the lack of an innate, unchanging self. In Vipassana meditation, one labels sensations and mental formations and notices their impermanence. This practice breaks our identification with such states, alleviating ignorance, grasping, and aversion.

In Zen, the teaching is that we are already Buddhas sitting on the bodhi seat. We just do not necessarily realize this. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen says, “All beings by nature are Buddha, as ice by nature is water.... This very body is the Buddha." In the Soto Zen tradition, we practice zazen (meditation) with this "great faith" that we are already Buddhas and therefore that whatever arises is Buddha nature manifesting. We give up looking outside of our experience for enlightenment, and we deepen our appreciation of things exactly as they are, regardless of the content of our minds. We don’t do zazen to become Buddhas; zazen is Buddha’s practice. We have faith that “Nirvana is right here, before our eyes," and "this very place is the Lotus Land" (Hakuin).

In addition to practicing with great faith, Zen encourages "great doubt.” Believing concepts and senses of self have fixed referents is the fundamental delusion inspiring painful grasping and aversion. In zazen, we practice "opening the hand of thought." We do not need to make this happen; awareness is its own action. Delusions are self-releasing. Our task is simply to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention. In this practice, wrecognize concepts and senses of self (even notions of emptiness and Buddhahood) as concepts and senses of self. In practice, we see that all mental formations come and go. Indeed, all phenomena are like a rainbow -- without any enduring substance and dependent on changing causes and conditions. Recognizing this alleviates ignorance, grasping, and aversion. There is no “thing” to reject or hold onto.

But even great faith and great doubt might be described as just ideas. Beyond is and is not, beyond affirmation and negation, this dream-life shape-shifts like clouds in the sky. Inspired by a deep feeling of interconnection as we open beyond self-concern, compassion moves us to respond to the cries of the world. Bodhisattvas dedicate themselves to actual people and everyday problems (including but not only our own) rather than any abstract notion of compassion. Awakening does not make us infallible gods. On the contrary, we see just how deluded and fallible we are. We make many mistakes in this life of vow, and we atone and start over again and again. We just do our best, moment after moment, to alleviate suffering, though there are no separate beings to save.

Some Zen traditions also offer koans to help us awaken to the dance of life. It is essential to study with a trained teacher in practicing koans -- one who has completed a koan curriculum themselves. We do not need to "work on" the koan but to allow the koan to express itself through us. Time and again, we move into the dark of no knowing, then trust what arises. In this practice, we come to see see through the eyes of the ancestral teachers. Our eyebrows are entangled. We embody and express the wisdom and compassion of the ancient masters. Thus the Dharma is transmitted.

The second stage in Vajrayana practice is "deity identification" or "guru devotion." In tantric practice (which requires a skillful teacher), practitioners identify with their deity's or guru's realization rather than with their small sense of self, "purifying" afflictive states into awareness itself. In the beginning of this practice, the deity or guru may seem external to oneself, but through practice, one realizes the awakened aspects of one's own mind. We might think of this as a development of the Mahayana teaching that we are already Buddhas; this tantric practice offers a skillful means of realizing this, just as koan practice does in the Zen tradition.

And stage three in Vajrayana practice might be described as "energy work" that cultivates insight into the emptiness of the deity or guru. Any identification with enlightenment is extra and must be left behind. This is reminiscent of the ancient teaching that when we cross the river samsara, we do not bring the raft with us on the "other shore." It also reminds us of the Zen teaching, "If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha." Of course this is not literal; it means that the Dharma is medicine for particular forms of suffering, and once we are free, we should no longer be attached to that medicine. That would become a burden for us.

While there are parallels between the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, there are also differences in terms of content, emphases, techniques, aesthetics, and in how the Dharma is presented. For example, in Zen, though we have our ox herding pictures describing developmental stages, we also explicitly acknowledge from day one that even the conceptual maps of the Dharma must be held lightly. A student once asked the Korean nun and teacher, Manseong Sunim, "How do I cultivate the Way of the Buddha?" "No cultivation," answered Manseong. "What about obtaining release from the cycle of birth and death?" the student persisted. "Who chains your birth and death?" Manseong replied. As Grace Schireson explains, "While there is awakening, we cannot self-consciously follow a map or a list of the right steps. The to-do list tends to pervert our practice into an idea of gain" and "chains us to desire" (Schireson, Zen Women, p. 134). From the perspective of great doubt, there’s no path, nowhere to go, nothing to attain, and nothing we can hold onto. Put affirmatively from the perspective of great faith, when we sit zazen, enlightenment is already present, and all the precepts are fulfilled. Practice is realization. Still, we must not imagine that this means we do not need to practice. That's just another idea. Practice requires great effort. It's just that the entire path is contained in this very moment of practice-enlightenment.

Though the technologies and descriptions of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana vary, the Lotus Sutra suggests there really is only "one vehicle," and any differences are merely matters of expedient (skillful) means. Why is there only one vehicle? Because it does not take us anywhere. We are already at the end of the path. We just need to realize this. Rest assured, all three traditions will challenge what we often hold most dear -- our often unconscious attachments to concepts and senses of self that undergird suffering. Many aspects of our traditions resonate with each other, and they fundamentally align in that we practice to actualize awakening in the world.

So why choose one tradition over the next? Perhaps it is simply a matter of trying them to see where we feel the deepest affinity with the Dharma, the teacher(s), and the sangha. Having said this, I do think it is important that once we choose a tradition, we follow through over the long haul if possible. While we can't control all circumstances and may need to find another teacher and sangha at some point, repeatedly bouncing from one tradition and teacher to another might be a way to avoid those practices and teachings that we find the most challenging, and that are also the most liberating.

April 11, 2023

A Reading of Dōgen's "Genjokoan," by Mike Fieleke

This is what Eihei Dōgen's "Genjokoan" expresses through me in just this moment. For a deeper dive, check out Realizing Genjokoan, by Shohaku Okumura, an explication to which I am indebted. You can also read Okumura's translation of "Genjokoan" on page 41 here.

Actualizing Fundamental Reality

According to Buddha's original teaching, we suffer, but with practice, we can wake up and realize Buddhahood. This is an expression of what Buddhists call "the relative truth," our storied experience in which we suffer, but if we behave skillfully and attain wisdom, we can conquer suffering. When we begin practice, it seems like the truth is in some way outside of our practice. We seek something other than what we believe we are. We seek to conquer suffering according to the Buddha's original teachings and imagine that some future self will attain realization.

The Heart Sutra counters with the "absolute truth" that there is no separate "thinghood" to be found, so there is ultimately "no suffering" to be conquered. Nothing exists separately with fixed essence. All things are impermanent and dependently arisen. Thus, the Heart Sutra teaches that "there is nothing to attain." We can "give up" our dualistic goals and let go of all dualistic notions. The teaching of emptiness is medicine to counter absolutism, wherein we mentally project fixed essences into things. If we become attached to our conceptions of things, then when things change (as they inevitably do because they have no fixed essences), we suffer more.

But we can also get addicted to the medicine, to the teaching of emptiness, and this becomes another burden for us. When we cross the river, we do not bring the raft with us. We need to go beyond affirmation and negation to see life exactly as it is. In other words, even the "no" of the Heart Sutra is dualistic if functioning in opposition to something outside itself. If we become attached to "no," we become nihilistic, actively denying the existence of forms. We might become attached to samadhi states of "oneness." Either way, we are not functioning freely, and we are ironically trapped in a dualistic view that sees duality in opposition to nonduality.

Because the Heart Sutra's initial statement (that emptiness is form and form is emptiness) appears dualistic -- as if form is something other than form, or as if form needs to be negated -- Dōgen writes in his own rendition of the Heart Sutra that "form is form and emptiness is emptiness," erasing a dualistic, intellectual comparison of form to something other than form.

The Heart Sutra also collapses dualistic intellectual comparisons of duality and nonduality by stating that "form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form." The addition of the word, "exactly," means that there is no duality at all. Emptiness is not a separate thing, contradiction, or idea but is exactly things as they are. There is actually no dichotomy between what is solid or real and what is empty or insubstantial. This is not to suggest a middle way between two poles. The poles themselves vanish and we are left with life just as it is. Dōgen emphasizes this leaping clear of all dualities, particularly distinct notions of emptiness and form and their associations with oneness and multiplicity, absolutism and negation.

Leap clear of the many and the one. Beyond yes and no, beyond affirmation and negation, and beyond duality and nonduality, cherry blossoms in the garden and dandelions in the yard.

When we aim in any direction at all, we are lost in delusion. To be deluded is to get lost in our conceptual maps and lose touch with things as they are. This is an opportunity to awaken to delusions as delusions.

As we sit still, shut up, and pay attention, the ten thousand things express themselves as our practice. Practice and realization are not two. 

When we see thoughts as thoughts, we wake up. When we attach to ideas about enlightenment, we fall out of alignment with the way things actually are. To get caught in ideas about enlightenment is delusion. Still, don't even get stuck in judgments about delusion, and don't aim for enlightenment as medicine for delusions. That's delusion within delusion. Let go of all compass points. Throw everything into the fire of practice.

The thought, "I am enlightened," is just a thought. There is nobody to attain enlightenment. Still, Buddha actualizes Buddha through our practice regardless of what we think. Waves do not obstruct the ocean.

Be embodied. Stay awake to the sensations of this body, which inherently include the myriad dharmas. The crow's caw is not outside ourselves. It penetrates the entire universe; it penetrates this body-and-mind.

Sometimes we see particular waves and lose sight of the ocean. When we see only our concepts, the ocean appears two dimensional. Sometimes we see the vastness and depth of the ocean and do not see particular waves. And sometimes we see through the waves into the vastness. When we open beyond concepts to the aliveness of the moment, suchness appears as infinite depth and detail. There is no fixed view that we can or should preserve. Sometimes life appears this way, sometimes that way. Awakening does not depend on the particular content of our mind.

Look deeply into the self and see that there is no separate, fixed self. The self is literally made of non-self elements, just like an eye. The eye is made of water and other non-eye elements. The eye also does not function independently but depends on the objects it sees, the light that enters the retina, and the brain that creates images. The eye cannot function without the existence of all beings. Vision is a dependent arising. Similarly, we do not exist alone or independently. We are the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the culturally inherited languages we speak. More broadly, students are the teacher's life. The child is the parent's life. All beings reside in our hearts and make up our lives. We are relation itself.

Body-and-mind and the bodies-and-minds of others drop away when we realize the suchness of body-and-mind. There is openness at the center of everything. Thoroughly examining this body-and-mind is shikantaza.

Impermanence is life. This is the place of non-abiding. Wake up into the dream.

We express the dream by sitting, standing, walking, and lying down, by washing dishes, eating when we are hungry, and laughing and crying.

When we seek the truth, we get lost in conceptual maps. What we seek is already here.

All things only move relative to each other. The boat moves relative to the shore, and the shore moves relative to the boat. Things exist relationally, and there is no center. The absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth. Still, we often project selfhood into things. 

Enduring selfhood and fixed essences are mirages. There is only change. We therefore lose everything and everyone we love. Firewood becomes ash.

Though it has no fixed essence, nonetheless, firewood is exactly firewood. The firewood exists because there was a tree, and it also has the potential to become ash. The present moment therefore includes the fruit of the past and seed of the future. All time is included in this moment. Still, the present moment is completely independent.

In the narrative sense, each moment is a consequence of endless causes and conditions that precede it, and each moment gives rise to future moments through cause and effect. This recognition of cause-effect allows us make decisions that alleviate suffering for all beings. And, the past and future can be found no place but here. The firewood that became ash no longer exists.

Life is paradoxical. It may seem like contradictions are mutually exclusive, but that is a shallow understanding of life-and-death.

Dōgen contradicts traditional Buddhist notions of reincarnation. Birth is exactly birth, and death is exactly death. Birth is a distinct moment of time. Death is a distinct moment of time. There is no consistent, enduring entity that is born and that later dies. There is no consistent, enduring entity that dies and that is later reborn.

Each phenomenon is a provisional dharma position, exactly thus. When there is fire, there is only burning. When the fire is gone, there is only ash. We tell stories to connect past and future, but there is only one moment. Where could anything go? Still, by the time we finish saying the word "now," it has vanished. As such, this moment is ungraspable. 

Birds sing early in the spring. Leaves rot in the garden. Hunger is simply hunger. Being full is simply being full. Hunger is not being full, and being full is not hunger. Our practice actualizes what is, here and now. When it is time to live, just live. When it is time to die, just die. What is?

Everything is dependently originated, like the moon in the water. The reflection of the moon is not separate from the water. The moon is not the first cause. The water is not the first cause. Each depends on the other to create the moon's reflection. The two are thoroughly integrated. Thus they are not one, not two, both one and two.

The moon is also a dependent arising. The moon reflects the sun's light. This goes on endlessly. Nothing exists with its own separate essence; everything is born of endless causes and conditions and exists as interwoven relations. 

The watery moon is soaked through to its bone-white eye, and the water is thoroughly penetrated by moonlight. Nonetheless, each phenomenon also exists individually, just like you and me. As Shunryu Suzuki said, "Our life is not only plural but singular. Each one of us is both dependent and independent" (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). Though we are completely interwoven, dependent arisings, we also exist as autonomous beings. Suzuki calls this "independency." We try to pin down reality in either-or thinking, but reality does not comply.

Though we are finite beings, we are also inseparable from boundless reality. The moonlight shines through all the dewdrops in the grass. Look into your own heart-mind. What do you see?

Enlightenment is not a "thing." Nor is there any separate self to be enlightened. There is just this boundless moment unfolding as practice. 

Delusion is inherently without substance and cannot hinder the functioning of the universe. Duality is no hindrance to nonduality. Though we have different names, separate, fixed selfhood is a mirage. Enlightenment permeates the entire universe no matter what we believe. It does not depend on the content of our minds. Life is always exactly thus, whether we experience it as "delusion" or "enlightenment."

Each person is boundless. Each dharma is infinitely deep. We find the entire universe in a cup of tea. The tea leaves contain sunlight, earth, and air, and the water contains rivers, lakes, and oceans. Yet it is also still just a cup of tea. "Everything in itself is boundlessness; boundlessness is all things" (James Ford's translation of the Heart Sutra). Reality manifests the vastness of awareness. 

When the dharma has not yet fully penetrated body and mind, one thinks, one is already filled with it. When we rely too much on thoughts, we keep turning toward these conceptual maps for answers. We take senses of self as real and interpret our thoughts as referring to absolute reality. We think we have it all figured out, but we cannot hear the wind in the pines.

When the dharma completely pervades us, we see that there is nothing we can hold onto, that there are no fixed essences anywhere. The more we open our heart-mind, the more we realize that we cannot fathom what is. We are limited in what we can comprehend. We do not attain omniscience. We are human beings. The incomprehensible Dharma is inexhaustible.

Though the universe is infinitely vast and infinitely small, we live in particular contexts and are born out of specific causes and conditions. Sometimes our practice is vast and seems to include the sounds of the world. Sometimes our practice is small and is focused on just this breath. Our practice is to investigate this moment completely, regardless of its content. Even in just this breath, we find worlds without end.

We are all dependent arisings, dependent on our environments to survive. Our function and place depend on our relationships. We cannot and do not exist alone. Without the water, the fish cannot swim, and without the sky, the bird cannot fly. The fish's fins are the entire ocean, and the bird's wings are the entire sky. Each step we take spins the globe and moves mountains.

The bird and fish exist relationally. The fish's life is the ocean. The bird's life is the sky. But it is also the case that the ocean's life is the fish, and the sky's life is the bird. A teacher's life is her students, and the students' life is their teacher. Our senses constitute reality, and reality constitutes our senses. All beings are mutually and relationally conditioned. Though each being exists individually, all beings have no separate existence. Practice-enlightenment is life itself, manifesting as practice-enlightenment. 

Though we cannot know the entire universe and only realize the sensory-world as it is constituted in our practice, still we can investigate the great matter endlessly, and our life is boundless.

We do not need to know everything to begin practicing Zen. Our practice is realizing this particular place and our particular activity, actualizing fundamental reality. This sensory-world is enlightenment. Eighty percent is one hundred percent. One percent is exactly one hundred percent. And yet, this practice is never finished.

Vigorously investigate what is. The ten thousand things manifest as you. Still, we do not possess what is. It cannot be possessed. The past cannot become the present. Ash cannot become firewood. We cannot capture the spring breeze in a bottle. 

Practice-enlightenment is not merely arising now. It is also vanishing, becoming, and non-arising. Have you ever lived outside this present moment? Accordingly, when walking, just walk.

Reality is like the taste of water in your mouth. It includes and is beyond conceptions. We actualize reality by devoting ourselves entirely to what we are doing here and now. For us there is no other place.

Boundaries fall away. The earth and the foot together give rise to walking. Mastery of the Buddha Dharma does not depend upon intellectual comprehension. Life awakens to life through our practice.

We can only know our consciousness till now. Therefore, even this very moment is unknowable by our discriminating minds. Use language freely and open to things as they are. But getting stuck in views is like closing our fist in a bottle and getting trapped. As Okumura says, "open the hand of thought" and enlightenment is actualized by all beings.

We can't see our own eyeballs, and there is no mirror anywhere. Even when we have ideas about enlightenment or attain special states of consciousness, we cannot hold onto them. We cannot hold onto anything. Everything goes its own way. 

Zen Master Bao-che was practicing zazen. A monk asked, "Why do we need to practice to realize Buddha nature if everything already is Buddha nature?"

Bao-che answered, "It is possible to be deluded. If Buddha nature is just an idea for you, you have not realized the Way."

The monk asked, "If I do not understand it, tell me, in what way does enlightenment permeate all beings throughout space and time?" Bao-che just continued to practice.

Did the monk understand?

Practice-realization is the transmission of the Buddha Dharma. When we practice, enlightenment is already present. If we think we understand and therefore do not need to practice, we lose our way. 

Though the timeless wind is unknowable, it is utterly reliable. Waving the fan actualizes the timeless wind. The timeless wind carries golden flowers across the sky and brings forth the fragrance of spring.

March 17, 2023

Mu: Wielding Manjushri's Sword

Chaozhou Ts'ung-shen was a Chinese Chan (or Zen) master and a Dharma successor of Nanchüan.

According to Case 19 of the Gateless Gate, as a young student, Chaozhou (or Joshu in Japanese) "asked his teacher, Nanchüan, ‘What is the Way,’ and Nanchüan replied, ‘Ordinary mind is Way.’ Chaozhou asked how he should move toward it. Nanchüan answered, 'If you try to move toward it, you go away from it.' Chaozhou said, 'But if we do not try, how do we know that it is the Way?' Nanchüan replied, ‘The Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing: knowing is illusion, not-knowing is blank emptiness. If you really attain to the Way, it is like vast emptiness – limitless and boundless. How, then, can there be a right and wrong in the Way?' At these words, Chaozhou was enlightened.”


After forty years of training with Nanchüan, Chaozhou wandered throughout China and studied with other Zen masters for another twenty years, deepening his insight. At the age of eighty, he began teaching until his death when he was 120 years old (or so the story goes).


As a teacher, his dharma is both perfectly direct and deceptively simple. He instructed gently and quietly, but in very precise and profound ways. Twelve koans in the Blue Cliff Record and five in The Gateless Gate concern Chaozhou – by far the most often cited teacher, with good reason.


In case 7 of the Gateless Gate, “A new monk asked Chaozhou to teach him. Chaozhou asked, ‘Have you eaten your meal?’ The monk replied, ‘Yes, I have.’ Chaozhou said, ‘Then go wash your bowl.’”


In case 37, “A monk asked Chaozhou, ‘What is the meaning of Bodhidharma's coming from the west?’ Chaozhou said, ‘The cypress tree in the courtyard.’"


And in Case 2 of the Blue Cliff Record, Chaozhou taught, “'The great way isn’t difficult if you don’t pick and choose. As soon as I speak, you’ll think, That’s picking and choosing, or That’s clear. But I don’t identify with clarity. Can you live like that?’ A student asked, ‘If you don’t identify with clarity, what do you live by?’ ‘I don’t know,’ Chaozhou answered. ‘If you don’t know, why do you say that you don’t identify with clarity?’ ‘It is enough to ask the question. Make your bow and step back.’"


Of course, the most famous koan involving Chaozhou is Case 1 from the Gateless Gate: “Chaozhou’s Dog.” 


Wumen Hukai, a Linji Zen master who lived in 13th century China, compiled the Gateless Gate koan collection and offered comments and verses on the cases. As a young monk, Wumen is said to struggled with Chaozhou’s dog for six years before he broke through. As the koan that opened the Way for him, he passed it along to us – our gateless barrier.


Please note the tenacity in both Chaozhou’s eighty years of study with teachers and in Wumen’s six years on one case. It reminds us of Bodhidharma staring at the wall for nine years when he came to China. These great teachers exerted great effort examining the gateless barrier over many years to realize freedom.


And that is at the heart of things, isn’t it. We aren’t just playing with riddles here. We are not dedicating ourselves to the Way to feel a bit less stress. If that were the goal, we can get massages. Most fundamentally, we have heard that Buddha was deeply enlightened and, together with all beings, he attained the Way. We have heard that he conquered suffering. We come to practice because we have heard that we too have Buddha nature, and we long to see this for ourselves. We long to be free.


We are not alone in this longing. Our Zen history is replete with stories of people of great determination seeking the Way. Many of these stories include nameless monks who bravely lay their hearts bare and make themselves vulnerable in asking questions of their teachers.


According to the first case of the Gateless Gate, “A monk asked Chaozhou, ‘Has the dog Buddha nature or not?’ Chaozhou answered, ‘Mu.’”

Mu means “has not,” “without,” or more simply, “no” – a shocking response to this monk who was perhaps seeking consolation in a moment of doubt.

We read in Living Vow's dedication that “Buddha nature pervades the whole universe” and Hakuin writes that “all beings by nature are Buddha.” Why would Chaozhou answer “no”? We all have the capacity to be enlightened to our true nature and to be liberated just like Buddha, do we not? Isn’t that why we are here?

I find it helpful to begin with koans by reflecting on where the people in the story may be coming from. It helps me understand what the case is about. So first, the monk asks, “Has the dog Buddha nature or not?” What is he really wondering?


Though we feel differently now, dogs then were generally considered filthy creatures. The monk therefore might be asking: “does even a filthy rat have Buddha nature?” But again, why ask such a question? There is likely something deeper that he wants to know. The monk might really be asking, “does even someone as unworthy as me have Buddha nature?” He might be thinking, “I am told that we all have this salvific Buddha nature, so what is it? Does it really include every being in the world? Does it include my shame and broken heart? Am I too of the essence of enlightenment, because I sure don’t feel like it.” 


Or maybe he is saying, “I have the nature of enlightenment, but I am special! Does a filthy being like that lazy monk across the courtyard actually share in this Buddha nature with me? How about the murderer in the prison yard? Can Buddha nature really include those that I detest?”


Either way, there is a painful sense of separateness.


In another context when asked the exact same question, Chaozhou answered, “yes.” But one teaching does not fit all circumstances. This is why we consider dokusan, meetings with the teacher, private. The teaching you receive in dokusan is meant for you in that precise moment alone.


Still, koans have an archetypal quality. On some basic level, we all have our inner monk asking similar questions.


So Chaozhou is meeting his student where he is. And this student’s question is likely based in some amount of self-centeredness. Okumora states (in Living Vow's liturgy), “No matter how hard we practice, our motivation for practice is always based in some amount of self-centeredness.” In a relative sense, this is true. We begin practicing because we want to suffer less. We want to feel better. We want enlightenment for ourselves. And maybe we question whether we are worthy. Or maybe we think we alone are worthy. Two sides of one coin.


So this monk may be caught in the relative truth of separate beings. And this monk is lost in ideas about Buddha nature and needs to wake up from this dream.


This “no” is Manjushri’s sword of wisdom cutting through delusions. Enlightenment is not as we think; nor is it otherwise.


Will the monk take up this sword and “cut off the mind road?” This does not mean stopping thinking but realizing the origin of thoughts. We call this practice “great doubt."


In his comment on Chaozhou’s dog, Wumen wrote:

“For the practice of Zen it is imperative that you pass through the barrier set up by the Ancestral Teachers. For subtle realization it is of the utmost importance that you cut off the mind road. If you do not pass the barrier of the ancestors, if you do not cut off the mind road, then you are a ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.


“What is the barrier of the ancestral Teachers? It is just this one word ‘Mu’ – the one barrier of our faith. We call it the Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition. When you pass through this barrier, you will not only interview Chaozhou intimately, you will walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage – the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears. Won’t that be fulfilling? Is there anyone who would not want to pass this barrier?


“So, then, make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles concentrate on this one word ‘Mu.’ Day and night, keep digging into it. Don’t consider it to be nothingness. Don’t think in terms of ‘has’ and ‘has not.’ It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t.


“Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past. Inside and outside become one. You’re like a mute person who has had a dream; you know it for yourself alone.


“Suddenly Mu breaks open. The heavens are astonished, the earth is shaken. It is as though you have snatched the great sword of General Kuan. When you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. When you meet Bodhidharma, you kill Bodhidharma. At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom. In the Six Worlds and the Four Modes of Birth, you enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play.


“How, then, should you work with it? Exhaust all you life energy on this one word ‘Mu.’ If you do not falter, then it’s done! A single spark lights your Dharma candle.”


And Wemen’s Verse:

“Dog, buddha nature–

the full presentation of the whole;

with a bit of 'has' or 'has not'

body is lost, life is lost.”


It is best to establish stable sitting before taking up mu. We begin by counting or following our breath to help establish concentration. Please do not try to rush through this practice. Indeed, this practice is enough for a lifetime. There is no other place we are trying to get. We are just deepening our realization of what we actually are.


Having developed concentration, in consultation with a Zen teacher, we might let go of the breath as an object of concentration and just sit still, be quiet, and pay attention to whatever arises. We call this practice shikantaza.


Unless a koan has been assigned to you in dokusan by your teacher, please continue with your practice. And please only practice koans with a Zen teacher who has completed a koan curriculum with an authorized koan teacher and who has received authorization to teach (transmission). But if mu calls to you, you may ask about it in dokusan with such a teacher. Working with koans is not inherently better than breath work or shikantaza. But for some, koans do have special power for the Way.


What might sitting with "Chaozhou's Dog" look like? We might sit for a few minutes coming into the body and breath before breathing out “mu.” Then we might drop our focus on the breath and just sit with that single word.


As Wumen says, “with your three hundred and sixty bones and joints and your eighty-four thousand hair follicles, concentrate on this one word ‘Mu.’ Day and night, keep digging into it…. Exhaust all your life energy on this one word ‘Mu.’”


You may notice that you want to understand mu. When we begin practicing, we imagine that “knowing” what Buddha nature is will enlighten us. We seek mu with our thoughts. We may need to exhaust ourselves. For some of us, this can take years. We are rather stubborn.


We might remember that when Chaozhou was asked, “what do you live by?” he simply answered, “I don’t know.” When Bodhidharma was asked who he was, he replied, “I don’t know.” And when Chaozhou himself asked his teacher how to practice the Way without knowing what the Way is, Nanchüan responded, “the Way does not belong to knowing or not-knowing.”


The way does not exclude knowing, but knowledge is not enough. Has a dog Buddha nature or not? If you think you know the answer, ask yourself again, do I really know what Buddha nature is? Do I know what I am?


We may answer, “I don’t know,” but in the dokusan room, this is not enough. Time and again we are expected to respond. We must actualize the Way, neither lost in knowing nor in not knowing. We have swallowed a red-hot iron ball.


You may want to give up. Sometimes feelings of unworthiness and frustration arise. But as Hakuin wrote in his Song of Zazen, "Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up." Recall our ancestors staring at the gateless barrier year after year, and throw yourself back into the furnace of practice. Give yourself completely to mu, and, together with all beings, "at the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom."