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News of Soto Zen Buddhism: Teachings and Practice
Zen and Culture
By Rev. Gengo Akiba
Director, Soto Zen Buddhism North America Office
Sitting zazen as night gets late, still not sleepy;
I realize more and more that practicing the Way is best
done in mountain forests.
The sound of valley streams enters my ears; the
moonlight comes into my eyes.
Other than this, what other cares should I have?
To speak of “Zen and culture” is to enter such a vast
topic that it is easy to get in over our heads. It is a topic
that could easily fill a thick volume in a lecture series. In
writing this short article that is limited because of space
restrictions, I read several books on this theme of “Zen and
culture.” Difficult things were written in these books. Here,
I would like to write about the underlying issues
For a long time, I’ve resided among people, beyond
Writing with brush and inkstone has already been
Seeing flowers and hearing birds sing brings little
I don’t mind if people of this day and age laugh at my
lack of talent.
By putting “Zen” at the beginning, there is an abundance
of possibilities such as: “Zen and Chinese poetry,” or
painting, crafts, tea and flowers, gardens, architecture,
literature, Noh drama, kendo, theater, and so on. This
doesn’t only apply to Japanese culture. If you look
throughout the modern world for books with the title “Zen
and...,” you will find “Zen and Movies” or “Zen and
Painting,” or theater, poetry, sculpture, dance, and so forth,
including all general art forms. If the scope is widened,
there is “Zen and Politics,” or “Zen and Finance” or
education, medicine, physical exercise, science, physics,
biology, astronomy, war, and many other subjects. It is to
this extent that with the word “Zen” at the beginning, the
scope can become so wide that it includes everything.
If these poems are taken literally, then Dogen Zenji
can be thought of as being far away from cultural activity.
He was an extremely rare person who completely devoted
himself to shikan-taza and earnestly practiced only the
Buddha Way of Zen. But for myself, I feel my chest get
tight with emotion because Dogen Zenji had the scent of
“Zen and culture” more than any other person. The two
poems mentioned above are poems of exquisite purity and
clarity. Dogen Zenji straightforwardly expresses life in the
mountains with graceful, elegant words and furthermore
expresses precisely the basic principles of Zen. It even seems
as if poetry and Zen mind have become one. These poems
express Dogen Zenji’s noble severity, his intensity, and also
give us a taste of his lofty, yet intimate and warm character.
If we make such a list, this might even create a false
sense as if “Zen” holds a concrete position in civilization
and general culture, the manifestation of mankind’s
spiritual activity. When I come in contact with the words
“Zen and culture,” I think automatically of two of Dogen
Zenji's poems, from a set entitled “Six Verses on Dwelling
in the Mountains”:
person who is you is in essence unconditionally a Buddha
and yet regardless of this, the monastic life is to live just as a
human being.
Dogen Zenji’s feeling for words was that of a genius.
Another well-known poem of Dogen Zenji’s is:
In the spring, flowers,
In the summer, the cuckoo;
In autumn, the moon;
In winter, the snow is clear and cold.
This way of living is expressed as “everyday mind.” In a
narrow sense, through the manifestation of “everyday
mind,” the whole of everyday life activity can be called the
essence of “Zen culture.” In the words and actions of
Dogen Zenji, for example, and this would include his
calligraphy, there are cultural assets, the contents of which
we can take and take and they will never be exhausted. I
think that Dogen Zenji showed us the fundamental secret
of all the issues involved in the creativity of Zen culture.
Oyama Koryu Roshi comments on this poem: In
spring, a hundred flowers bloom and this gives beautiful
hues of color to the mountain fields. When summer comes,
the cuckoo brings a feeling of purity in the scorching heat.
The autumn sky is high and the color of the moon is
singularly beautiful. Seeing the snow in winter, the cold is
deeper, and the purity passes through and covers everything.
In a few words, Dogen Zenji poetically expresses the
principle of “the real nature of all things;” in other words
that all things including natural phenomena present the
Truth as-it-is. The way these short Japanese poems (tanka)
are composed is by aligning concrete images and then
taking up an irregular expression, thereby putting the
meaning of the poem perfectly in order.
Nevertheless, it isn’t the case that Zen culture is the
exclusive monopoly of Zen monks who live in a particular
kind of society. The essence of Zen extends in its actions and
influence across all of general culture and what people refer
to as “Zen culture” is one form or style that manifests in
culture and then is pointed at. The common characteristics
of that mode or form are: 1) asymmetry, 2) simplicity, 3)
age, 4) nature, 5) the subtle and profound, 6) freedom from
the everyday world, and 7) tranquility. The characteristics
of Zen culture are to always break out by oneself from
within, to deny perfection, and to have a structure that is
based on the idea that the form of present society is perfect.
Originally, “Zen” was a fusion of the Prajna Wisdom in
the Mahayana view of emptiness, the Kegon view of “things
influencing one another endlessly,” the teaching that “one
thing is everything,” and the Tendai teaching that “all
phenomenal things express the universal truth.” Zen was
systematized like this as the Way of Buddha. For one
person to always practice this system in everyday life, to
take the standpoint of manifesting this in life - what would
such a person’s spirit be like, somebody who was actually
practicing this? The substance of this spirit could be
identified as “Dwelling nowhere and fostering such a mind,”
the free activity of the spiritual function. To put it simply,
it is to live your life engendering a mind that is not
constrained and working diligently at this within all
activities. In actual terms, the easiest way to live this life is
in a monastery because the life there is set up to live this
way. The special characteristics of that way of life can be
summed up in three points: 1) simplicity, 2) directness, and
3) depth. This life is based on the teaching that essentially
all people are Buddhas. All living things - all sentient beings
- and all other things as well, including grass, trees,
mountains, and rivers are Buddha and this way of thinking
is complete within the monastery. The flesh-and-blood
Certainly this is an attractive culture for modern people.
Within Zen culture, there is included the potential for a
new culture that can bring about creativity, and it is only
natural perhaps that people would feel as if this is
something that they are looking for in this world of
excessive consumerism, the busyness of everyday life, and
always living exposed to the contradictions of modern
civilization. It can be said that within the elaborately
organized structure of modern culture the development of
Zen essence will allow the contradictions of human existence
in order that there can be a restoration of human nature.
The case that Zen makes for “coming from the self,
returning to the self,” which is nothing other than the
flexibility, toughness, purity and depth of human existence,
is provided in “the cultural creativity” that comes from the
spiritual activity that is based on Zen essence. I personally
believe that it is here on American soil that the flowers of
this creative culture will bloom.
The Artless Arts of Zen
Rev. John Daido Loori
Zen Mountain Monastery, Mt. Tremper, NY
Although Zen arts originally
emerged in a religious context in
China and Japan, they broke with all
forms of religious and secular art. Zen arts are not
representational or iconographic. They do not inspire faith
or facilitate liturgy or contemplation. They do not function
to deepen the devotees’ experience of religion. They are not
used in worship ceremonies or as a part of prayer. Their
only purpose is to point to the nature of reality. They
suggest a new way of seeing, and a new way of being that
cuts to the core of what it means to be human and fully
alive. Zen art, as sacred art, touches artists and audiences
deeply, expressing the ineffable, and helping to transform
the way we see ourselves in the world. As D.T. Suzuki said:
“The arts of Zen are not intended for utilitarian purposes,
or for purely aesthetic enjoyment, but are meant to train
the mind, indeed, to bring it into contact with ultimate
There is a clear sense of the presence of this quality in
Zen paintings and poetry. It is an essential component of
the martial arts. In the instant in which there is intent there
is expectation. Expectation is deadly because it disconnects
us from reality. When we get ahead of ourselves, we leave
the moment. No mind is living in the moment, without
preoccupation or projection. On the other hand, hesitancy
or deliberation will show in our art when we leave the
moment. Words in a poem will not flow. Notes from the
flute will lack smoothness. The flower arrangement will be
contrived rather than a natural reflection of nature herself.
The Zen circle of enlightenment painted by the monk
Torei Enji (1720-1792) embodies the quality of no mind.
Torei was one of Hakuin’s chief disciples. His Zen circle is
crude and closed, without the characteristic gap that Zen
circles usually have. It is uneven, thick in some places,
narrow in others, but bold and captivating. There is no
sense that it is forced or strained. There is a feeling of
emptiness and, simultaneously, of fullness and infinity. The
poem included with the painting says, “In heaven and
earth, I alone am the honored one.” These are the words
attributed to the Buddha at the time of his birth. They are
an expression of the realization of his unity with the totality
of the universe, where there is no subject or object, no self,
no other—where the moment fills all space and time. This
is no mind.
Zen practice and teachings intimately inform the arts of
Zen. They are reflected in a particular aesthetic unique to
Zen. Over time, different art historians and commentators
have attempted to define this aesthetic and its relationship
to its roots in Zen Buddhism.
Zazen, seated meditation, is the foundation of Zen arts.
In working with zazen, as the meditation process deepens, a
particular kind of chi or energy develops which ultimately
leads to a state called samadhi, the falling away of body and
mind. When this energy develops, absolute samadhi
becomes working samadhi, which functions in activity.
This is known as the functioning of “no mind,” one of the
characteristics of the Zen aesthetic.
In no mind there is no intent. The activity, whatever it may
be, is not forced or strained. The art just slips through the
intellectual filters, without conscious effort and without
planning. This functioning of no mind is sometimes called
the action of no action. This is the Taoist concept of wuwei: a continuous stream of spontaneity that emerges from
the rhythm of circumstances.
This “no mind” approach to the creation of art
ultimately led to a body of work that was devoid of the
usual characteristics found in sacred arts, such as perfection,
grace, formality, or holiness. The sacred arts of Zen do not
aspire to these ideals, but are instead imperfect and worldly.
It is through their ordinariness that they go beyond
perfection and holiness.
up a creative space that is filled with possibility. In
simplicity there is a touch of boundlessness. Nothing
limiting, like a cloudless sky. There is a dynamic that exists
in the relationship of form to space, or of sound to silence.
The moment the brush touches the blank canvas, the
empty space springs into activity and enters a dynamic
relationship with form. When the wooden block is struck
to call practitioners to the meditation hall, the sounds are
interspersed with silence of decreasing length.
The great Zen master Linji said, “Followers of the way,
if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords
with the teachings, never be misled by others. Whether you
are facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up
with, just kill it. If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha.”
This quality of simplicity is also experienced in the
execution of a work of art. Calligraphy is often produced in
a single stroke. Some zenga paintings are created, and haiku
is recited, like this one by Basho, in a single breath:
The word “kill” here is not literal. It means to put an
end to, or to cause to stop. That is, not to be controlled by
convention, precedent, or rules, but to express one’s
creative energy freely and spontaneously.
A garden butterfly
The baby crawls, it flies
She crawls, it flies.
When seen in paintings, this quality appears as irregularity,
crookedness, unevenness, or it may be seen as the shocking
or unusual turning of a phrase in a poem. Sometimes
called “the rule of no rule,” this characteristic reflects a
fundamental aspect of Zen teachings which is called
“teaching outside of patterns” or “action outside of patterns.”
Our lifestyles have become extremely complex. How
can we simplify our lives, reduce consumption, lower our
impact on the environment, do less harm to other living
things, reduce expenses, have fewer distractions, less
maintenance, more freedom and flexibility, and be able to
live in a way that is financially less demanding? These are
the questions that the simplicity of Zen can help to address.
Zen teaching and practice tends to be expressed very
directly, without excessive ornamentation. The design of a
typical Zen monastery reflects this. The space is sparse,
unobtrusive, and uncluttered. We see this in the simple flower
arrangement on the Buddhist altar, in the architecture of
the monastery’s buildings, in its gardens and pathways. We
also see it in the kind of food that is served and the way it is
served, as well as in the practitioners’ vestments. All of it
reflects a simplicity that allows our attention to be drawn to
that which is essential, stripping away the extra.
Another trait of the Zen aesthetic is “no rank.” Master
Linji, instructing his assembly, said, “In your lump of red
flesh is a true person without rank who is always going in
and out of your senses. Those who have not yet realized
this should look! Look!”
The true person of no rank cannot be measured or
gauged. There is a sense of being matured, seasoned, or
ripe. Inexperience and immaturity have vanished. In their
place appears a hardiness that comes with aging.
We hear this simplicity in the chanting during liturgy.
Chants are monochromatic and follow the deep drone of a
wooden drum. They tend to ground us, rather than lift us
to higher states of consciousness, the way that Gregorian
chants might do. The chanting has the sound of a heartbeat
or the pounding of the surf.
This quality is regarded as an important element in the
Zen concept of beauty, which first emerged in the Heian
period when the Japanese aesthetic of poetry was being
defined. No rank, or ordinariness, reflects a seasoning
wherein all weakness and frailty have been removed.
Sensuousness disappears and in its place surfaces a poverty
in which there is nothing superfluous.
This quality of simplicity or lack of complexity opens
New perspectives previously unseen appear and open up.
Where does it end? It’s endless. It is without boundaries.
That’s what makes the unknowable so wonderful and
pregnant with possibilities.
The late thirteenth-century Chinese painter Muchi’s
bird on an old pine is a manifestation of the quality of
mystery in the Zen aesthetic. With a few bold brushstrokes,
Muchi has created a timeless image. The crow is clearly the
nucleus of the painting. The surrounding space gives the
image openness and freedom. It clearly conveys a sense of
containing within itself the totality of being. The tiny dot
of the crow’s eye pulls you into the painting’s
Yamaoka Tesshu’s (1836-1888) dragon is an embodiment
of this quality. The dragon is a mysterious enlightened
being in Zen lore. Tesshu’s poem accompanying the
calligraphy reads: “Dragon—it feasts on sunlight and the
four seas.”
Despite its obvious profundity, the Zen aesthetic also
contains a certain playfulness in the way the teachings are
presented, perceived and transmitted. Zen embodies a wide
and unusual range of teaching methods, unique religious
expressions and a healthy ladleful of laughter, humor,
clowning and playfulness. Zen has always taken the liberty
of poking fun at itself and dispelling the legend of grim
austerity that people sometimes conjure up when they
think of Zen because of the intensive meditation that
accompanies it.
Whether we’re speaking of art, religion, or life, there
are always apparent edges beyond which we cannot see. As
Master Dogen says, “The limits of the knowable are
unknowable.” The process remains open. There is an
element of trust that must be functioning, a trust that when
the foot is thrust forward to take the next step, it will find
solid ground. There is always a little bit further than can be
In the paintings of Zen we see again and again the
monk Hotei, who traveled about carrying a bag of things
discarded by people to give as gifts to the children he
encountered along the way. He is often portrayed laughing
at falling leaves and delighting in all things. During his life,
people weren’t sure whether he was a sage or a madman.
In the Zen arts, this is reflected as implication rather
than naked exposure of the whole. From within that sense
of bottomlessness is born a sense of possibility and
discovery. That is the way life is. That is the way truth is. It
cannot be contained. It extends indefinitely and infinitely.
The characteristics we have been dealing with up to
this point are essentially palpable qualities. Still point, no
The quality of suchness is not limited to this non-dual
instant of merging alone. There is more to it than that. Zen
Master Yuanwu addressed the assembly, “If you want to
attain the matter of suchness, you must be a person of
suchness. Since you already are a person of suchness, why
raise concern about the matter of suchness?”
mind, simplicity, ordinariness, mystery, playfulness are
traits that can be seen in a picture, heard in a poem, or
perceived in a subject. There is, however, one other aspect
of the Zen arts that is less obvious. We must rely on our
intuitive faculties to become aware of it. It is suchness.
In the words of Zen Master Dogen, “There are those
who, being suchness, are inspired spontaneously. Once this
inspiration occurs, they give up what they have hitherto
been fascinated with, and hope to learn what they haven’t
yet learned and seek to realize what they haven’t yet
realized. Know that this is totally not the doing of the self.”
Suchness is not something added from outside. It is
being itself. It is in living life itself. It is the “isness” of a
thing, indeed, the isness of existence itself. Suchness is a
translation of the Sanskrit word tatha, sometimes used as
part of the term used to refer to the Buddha: Tathagata, the
“One Who Thus Comes.” It is expressed in the calligraphy
Thus! of Maezumi Roshi. It can be felt in Muchi’s
“Persimmons,” six simple fruits, no two alike, suspended in
space, and with an irrefutable sense of presence: Here we
Suchness, or thusness, is used in Zen literature to
suggest the ineffable: a truth, reality, or experience that is
impossible to express in words. It refers to the “that,”
“what,” or “it” that is self-evident and does not need
explanation. It is essentially being as it is, the all-inclusive
reality that is manifested as a sense of presence.
Thusness is the points of two arrows meeting in midair. It
is a quality of being that is nondual and does not fall into
either side.
To bring that sense of thusness into a painting, poem
or piece of music gives it a vitality that is easily experienced,
although difficult to pinpoint. It may be only an instant in
time, a moment out of the constant flow of life. But to
sense thusness and to be able to express it brings it into our
own reality, as in Basho’s haiku:
In the morning dew,
dirtied, cool,
a muddied melon
Once a monastic bid farewell to Zhaozhou. Zhaozhou
said, “Where are you going?”
The monastic said, “I will visit various places to study the
Zhaozhou held up the whisk and said, “Do not abide in
the place where there is a buddha. Pass by quickly the
place where there is no buddha. Upon meeting someone
three thousand miles away, do not misguide that person.”
Several hundred years later, Joyce Carol Oates
expressed thusness with a similar subject in her poem
A single pear in its ripeness this morning swollen ripe,
its texture rough rouged,
more demanding upon the eye than the tree
branching about it.
More demanding than the ornate grouping limbs
This holding up of the whisk points to the meeting
place where differences merge.
. . . . For the unified mind in accord with the Way
all self-centered striving ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish
and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are free from bondage;
nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
with no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination
are of no value.
In this world of Suchness,
there is neither self nor other-than-self.
of a hundred perfect trees.
Yet flawed, marked as with a fingernail,
a bird’s jabbing beak, the bruise of rot,
benign as a birth mark, a family blemish.
Still, its solitary stubborn weight, is a bugle,
a summoning of brass.
The pride of it subdues the orchard.
More astonishing than acres of trees, the army of ladders,
the worker’s stray shouts.
That first pear’s weight exceeds the season’s tonnage,
costly beyond estimation,
a prize, a riddle, a feast.
The process of discovery is the endless spring of
creativity, always bright, fresh and new, brimming with life.
Where it comes from is not too important. What matters is
that it’s already present in each one of us, waiting to be
uncovered. Ultimately, engaging the artless arts means to
see into one’s own heart and mind, and to bring to life that
which is realized.
As we begin to realize how to recognize suchness and
move with it, rather than opposing it, we enter a realm
of harmony with the flow of things and we’re able to
discover for ourselves the words of Master Jianzhi Sengcan:
Obey the nature of things [you own nature]
and you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage, the truth is hidden,
for everything is murky and unclear,
and the burdensome practice of judging
brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived
from distinctions and separations? . . . .
Excerpted from The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life
By John Daido Loori
Random House Publishing Group
© 2003 Dharma Communications Press
The Art of Buddhism
By Rev. Mauricio Yushin
(Translated into English by Mr. Carlo Geneletti)
apart as Afghanistan and Japan. How could one have the
presumption to master it?
There are very few people with the
kind of personal commitment to Buddhism and the vast
background in art history that is needed to understand
Buddhist art. I regret to say that I am not among those few.
I have been studying and practicing Buddhism for many
years, but I began exploring how Buddhism has expressed
itself in art only two or three years ago. I was – and still am
-- afraid that I would be unable to do justice to this vast
theme. Buddhist art encompasses twenty-five centuries of
history throughout much of the world, in countries as far
However, last year, my Christian brother, Father Carlo
de Filippi, asked me to take up this challenge, and,
recklessly, I accepted. It is now time to keep my word.
Perhaps I should conclude this brief preface with a
warning. I will look at Buddhist art not as a historian, but
as a Buddhist. Style will be examined here only as a tool
for religious expression. I will search for the ways through
which Buddhist art was able – when it was – to transmit
the message of the Buddha, silent and clear.
that springs from life.
This approach is of course not new. Painting, carving,
and writing, in prose and rhyme, are acts complete in
themselves but they are vehicles for meaning at the same
time. It does not matter what kind of meaning is being
transmitted. Meaning can belong to the sphere of the
profane but also to that of the sacred and the
transcendental. Art speaks to the spirit and the spirit is
nourished by the perception “of things not seen”1. Art can
be a bridge between the invisible and the spirit, between
understanding and the incomprehensible.
In addition, these stories, taken together, hammer home
a clear message. They paint in full colors the image of the
Universal Community, one of the critical concepts of
Buddhism, and the subject of many of his sermons. The
stories contained in the Jataka
tell in plain language the
lives of hundreds of manifestations of Buddha, as he
appeared in the shape of a king, a woman, a merchant, a
pariah, or even an animal, an elephant or an antelope. The
Community, or Communion, symbolized by the variety
and richness of the forms of life offered by India’s bountiful
nature in its vegetable, animal, human and superhuman
worlds, was the idealized subject of Buddhist art long
before the Buddha was represented in human form, and
stories bring this wealth up very clearly.
Early Buddhism
Buddha’s message is as fertile and luxuriant as life and
it is as multifarious and diverse as the cultures within which
it grew. To be able to transmit it effectively, early
Buddhism wove together form and content in a truly
original way. Nowhere is this clearer than in the five
hundred and forty-seven stories contained in the Jataka,
[Stories of the] Birth [of Buddha],2 which were completed
around the third century CE and count therefore among
the earliest examples of Buddhist art.3
These are then the two deep wells, the two most
important sources of inspiration of Indian Buddhist art: the
ideal Community, which is constituted by the whole
cosmos, and the invisible presence of Buddha’s spirit in
every life, be it real or imaginary, as the only vehicle or the
only way of salvation for all.
While the first instances of representation of the
Universal Community were in storytelling, and those
which followed soon after were in plastic arts, the type of
message they conveyed did not change that much. Soon
after the funerary monuments, which are the earliest extant
examples of Buddhist statuary art, there appeared the stone
bas-reliefs representing dozens of living forms: elephants,
peacocks, tigers, monkeys, gods, and kings with their
followings. In the midst of this teeming life, an empty
space, or a sign was usually included, to underline the fact
that it was impossible to constrain the formless into a
physical shape.
The form of storytelling is particularly suited to
Buddha’s teaching. It is both vital and vibrant and it
involves the listener actively in some kind of complicity.
The stories, told, memorized and told again over and over
spring from the same essential source but are never
identical. No story is repeated exactly, with the same words
and the same intonation, as another. Each story weaves its
way from its creator through the voice of the storyteller to
the heart of those who listen. By being recited, the stories of
the Jataka
were never dead words.
Also, oral transmission encourages the listeners to
participate. One must fill in the gaps in the story with one’s
own fantasy, one’s own memory of earlier hearings, and
bring every word heard back to one’s own personal
experience. The message is not standardized. It is intimately
individual. Think of what happens to us any time we hear
about the lilies of the field and of the fowls of the air4.
Thanks to the art of the evangelist, behind the hidden
meaning we perceive the unique and gratuitous splendor
Later, this shape began to be reproduced, and in the
shape of a Greek God. The masonry walls of the first
monasteries that were built in the North and Northwest of
India provided the wide surfaces needed for the first
paintings. The influence of Hellenism5 on Buddhist visual
arts became apparent in this period, between the second
and third century BC. It was as a result of this influence,
that the Buddha, “the light of the world that dispels the
contextual substance that it purports to communicate. The
reason is that it intends to transmit meanings that cannot
- describes it in
be conveyed by words or concepts. The sutra
these words: “teaching beyond doctrine and thinking”.
darkness of illusion” began to be shown in the midst of the
assembly of monks, dressed up in the traditional Indian
garb but looking like Apollo.
It must be kept in mind, however, that the statues of
the Buddha were not the portraits of Mr. 'Sakyamuni
Gautama. They represented the Dharma embodied in the
human form. Therefore, they were not statues (or
paintings) like all others. Their proportions, their
expressions, the features of their faces, and the emotions
they sought to instigate in the viewers expressed, when they
were successful, the transcendence by which they had been
inspired. In fact, there and then, artist and religious
devotee, art and religion began to overlap.
As a way of expression, intentional language is similar
to that used in parables – at least in those parables which
work through metaphor and paradox. Like these parables,
intentional language tries to stamp directly into readers’
and listeners’ minds meanings that are different from the
literal meanings of the words it employs. To give an example,
pay attention to what happens to us when we read: “Let the
dead bury their dead”. It is clear that this sentence does not
mean that those who officiate or participate in a burial
ceremony are actually dead, or that this ceremony is wrong
in some ways and should be called off. On the contrary,
this sentence raises another idea in the minds of the readers;
it contrasts those who give in to the inducements of this
world with those who have converted and turn towards the
life of the spirit, a life which is so free from the world that
there is “nowhere to lay their heads on”9. This contrast is
expressed by the verbal trick of calling “dead” the former,
alive as they may be from world’s point of view.
- - and the Lotus Sutra
The relation between faith and artistic inspiration,
between religious experience and symbolic communication
that had remained subtle and implicit in early Buddhism,
deepened, was clarified and was made explicit by the
- - 6. The Buddhism of the Great
development of Mahayana
Communion or the Great Vehicle placed great emphasis on
the essential unity of all lives and all phenomena, and, as a
result, underlined the critical role played by friendly
benevolence and mutual cooperation in men’s efforts
towards salvation. The impossibility of describing reality as
a whole, “from the outside”, coupled with the limits of
verbal expression when it addresses matters of the spirit,
inspired a very specific form of literature, one of the best –
but by no means the only – example of which is the Lotus
- 7.
or Saddharmapundarika
In the highest expressions of this art, form and content
overlap. Those who read these sutras
are affected – and
sometimes turned off – by the rhythm and timing of storytelling, the abundance of details, the endless repetitions, the
meticulous and painstaking lists of the bystanders and
participants in the assembly, of the types of tree, bushes
and herbs -- drenched by the only, tasteless, water of the
teaching – that constitute the material out of which these
- 10 are made. However, we would be wrong to assume
that this is all fluff and “form” and ignore it. If the only
thing we try to do is grasp the concept that we believe this
form is there to convey, entire sections of the sutra
into thin air. They melt away like snow in the sun. If I were
to put this idea in a somewhat stark language I would say
that since Buddha’s teaching does not consist in an idea, or
in a concept or in a particular doctrine, the writing that
conveys it must also shed all ideas, concepts and doctrines.
Which explains, in my eyes at least, the “fluff”.
Let’s look at this sutra.
The first important novelty
represented by this sutra as compared to earlier texts, was
that it was composed in a hybrid Sanskrit, when all earlier
- or, more probably, in maghadi,
were written in Pali
the ancient language of Bihar.
In addition to the use of a new language and, perhaps,
a new alphabet, this sutra,
like most of those belonging to
the Mahayana tradition, differs from the Buddhist
literature of earlier times for the wide use of a type of
language called “intentional”8. This language is very special
in that it aims to keep itself at a distance from the
To say it in another way: the entire body of Buddha’s
teaching aims at starting a process; not any process, to be
sure. A specific process in a specific way. But a process
nonetheless. Therefore, since the sutras
are tools with
which he pursues this aim, they too must contribute to start
that process, or to keep it alive, consolidate and strengthen it.
There is only another tradition in Buddhist art that
differs significantly from that which has just been
described: tantric art. Its critical difference is that it replaces
free allusion with a rigorously codified and symbolic
In these sutras
therefore, we would look in vain for the
information, or the concepts that we are accustomed to
finding in the sapiential texts of our culture. They are there
very seldom. What we must do is to read carefully, and
perceive attentively what is happening to us as we read.
Which is what we do - or should do— when we look
admiringly at a statue or a painting. The perception of their
meaning should not be veiled by arbitrary rational activity.
When I think about music, I cease to listen to it.
Since the sixth century CE, tantrums11 spread to
Buddhism from the Hind religious traditions, particularly
from Shiva’s and Vishnu’s. As is known, tantrums are a set
of religious practices whose main aim is to give power to
the spirit, the mind and the body. Initially, this approach
influenced the most popular forms of Buddhism only. The
poor and uneducated felt it could help them improve their
lives and protect them against wars, famines, diseases and
death. From tantrums they sought good health, rapid
recovery from illness, plentiful harvests, and safety against
physical harm.
- stands out in the Buddhist literature of
The Lotus Sutra
all times for its purest idealism coupled with its highest
artistic achievement. A good part of the Buddhists
aesthetics that developed in the course of the centuries took
their cue from or was inspired by this text, and particularly
by its novel and daring use of the intentional language
embedded in parables and hyperboles. Buddha’s eternal
and cosmic dimension is represented through a series of
special effects that dissolve time and space in the crowded
presence of every kind of living being, vegetable, animal
and supernatural. Attending Buddha’s assembly, we see the
mythical figures of the Hindu- culture: spirits, deities and
ghosts. They are shoulder to shoulder with princesses,
curious bystanders and great kings with their trains of
thousands of pages and servants accompanied by elephants
adorned with multicolored canopies. Then, nearer the
center of the scene appear the great disciples and the most
famous bodhisattvas. And the whole pack swishes through
thousands of galaxies and numberless universes over periods
of time of such an extension that hundreds of billion years
are like the batting of an eyelid compared to them.
Later on, tantrums began influencing the higher forms
of Buddhism too. Hence the power released by tantric
practices was no longer sought in order to satisfy material
needs. Instead, it was channeled towards contributing to
greater cooperation and mutual love among all living beings
on the path to the salvation that frees from pain and
- suffering. In doing this, Tantrism flowed into Mahayana
Buddhism and became Vajrayana Buddhism, the diamond
and lightning vehicle.12
Like all forms of Buddhism, tantrism moved through
space. From the 11th century onwards, it took roots
particularly in Tibet and Nepal. Before this, however,
thanks to the translations into Chinese of the main tantras,
completed already by the end of the 8th century, Vajrayana
spread throughout China and, from there, in the course of
the 9th century, into Japan, where it was called Shingon,
- Secret Doctrine. In China, this
True Word, or Mikkyo,
school, called Zhenyan disappeared in 845, the year of the
great persecution of Buddhism (and Christianity). In Japan,
on the contrary, it grew and prospered and is alive even
The imagination becomes so dazzled that the divine
dimension implicitly attributed to Buddha in this vast mise
en scéne becomes an unimportant detail. The immensity of
the phenomenal world represents the eternal and infinite,
and, therefore, the divine. It stands for and suggests
something beyond. The text conveys this sense of awe with a
subtle humor; never overwhelming like a scent, more like a
light fragrance.
13 are
The creation and visualization of the mandala
important tantric practices. The following quote from Kukai,
the Japanese monk who brought tantric/vajrayana
Buddhism from China to Japan conveys the idea that plastic
arts are irreplaceable tools in the process of transmission:
mind can be pierced by his steely sword”.
- Buddhism – but
Another typical practice of Vajarayana
of almost all Buddhist traditions as well, including
- Buddhism -- is the recitation of mantra19.
“The secret teachings of esoteric Buddhism are so
profound that they can be contained in no written word.
Only painting can reveal them”.14
The practice of reciting a particular type of mantra, the
- - also called “long mantra” is particularly relevant for
- - are in Sanskrit, and they tend to
the issue at hand. Dharani
be very long. What is interesting, however, is that, for
- - the meaning of the words is less important and
inspiring than the sounds and the music produced. For all
intents and purposes, they are exercises in magic. The
concentration needed to pronounce all the long, short and
medium syllables in their right length, in their right order
and with the right tone generates a very peculiar sense of
estrangement. Reciting it, one is likely to hear oneself and
the other participants pronounce these words and see one’s
- - as if from afar, as
hands holding the book with the dharani
if from outside oneself. The effect is very moving. Hearing,
- - is an
even from afar, a group of monks reciting a dharani
unforgettable experience. A friend of mine, who is very sane
and not easy to deceive, told me he took part in a meeting
on the shores of the Ganges, where a few thousand people
- - and, several times he felt he was being
practiced dharani
lifted up from the ground by the vibrations produced by
the voices reciting all round him.
The realization of, and through, the mandalas
knowing their meanings, and not only their precise
composition. This meaning, in turn, is expressed through
the artist’s inspiration. The mandala
can be made up of
thousands of symbolic figures, each of which can be
created in one of five different colors. They are meant to
represent the texture of the cosmos in its deepest aspects.
Each figure can “appear” in four different ways: in human
form; as a gesture or a typical action; as a symbolic attribute
– it could be a flower, a book, or a bud; and in the form of
syllables-seeds written in Sanskrit.
Yet once completed, the mandala
is sometimes destroyed.
The “destruction of the mandala” is a critical element in
the practices for initiation into Vajirajana
When the myriad figures made of sand are stirred and
muddled up, their contours disappear. There remains only
a simple heap of monochrome sand.
Nothing remains unchanged. Everything that is born
dies. If you try to catch beauty and hold it still, you are
poisoning life; you are taking the path that leads to
suffering and pain. The narrow path of freedom from pain
requires that you “open up your spirit’s hands wide”16
without holding onto and without possessing anything.
Buddhist Rituals
There is another form of art I would like to mention,
where execution, fruition and form completely overlap, as
- - It is the daily conduct of rites in all
they do in the dharani.
Buddhist traditions. As is known, they are not public
ceremonies. Indeed, they are not exhibitions in the normal
sense of this word. However, these ceremonies are a form of
performing art in which sound, action and form are tightly
interwoven. They are choreographies in which every gesture
and every sound is carefully studied, measured, and
performed with perfect timing by a group of meticulously
trained persons. Within the wide parameters of the
unchangeable rules of each ritual, there is interpretation,
and this brings the ritual back to life.
The harmony of the parts, their unspeakable beauty, the
precision and the symmetric balance of these compositions
make it a unique form of art, and, at the same time, the
graphic expression of the worldview of what, for the lack of
a better term, I would call cosmo-theist idealism. In this
worldview, infinitely graceful and deeply serene figures
coexist with beings of awesome power. The Shingon School
teaches: “Taste the serene dignity of the Mahavairocana
because the deepest part of your heart is in communion
with him. Fear the severe expression of the irate face of the
Motionless18 because something in your life and in your
If one must classify these performances, one would say
India the living and unmediated form of the Way, found
the ground already prepared by the Middle Way proposed by
- Nagarjuna,
with its deep awareness of the emptiness and
impermanence of every form of life and every phenomenon.
that they belong in the theater. It is total theater. Moment
by moment, every gesture, every sound (bell, voice, drum,
kettledrum, cymbal) merge with style, rhythm and the
smell of incense, to form a living, and therefore, moving,
mandala, that transforms itself, lives and changes under our
own eyes, ears and noses. If and when these moments of
artistic religiosity become show and exhibition, they die.
The purpose for which they are re-enacted dies with them.
However, the cultural ground where the new school -called Chan in China and Zen in Japan -- took its first
steps and grew to adulthood, was steeped in Confucianism
and Taoism. The a-religious essentiality of Zen resonated
with the misanthropic naturalism of Taoism. Given over to
reading the book of nature, Taoism supported and
followed the course of nature without harming anyone.
Therefore, in the 8th century, the first Chan monks who
tried to express the ineffable they perceived in their daily
lives, through painting and rhyming, borrowed the forms
and the ambience of the idealized life of the Tao hermits and
added to them, in a manner of speaking, the sense of the
emptiness and transience of life. In the new aesthetic canon
that emerged from this contamination, the Taoist hermits,
the mythical sennin20 , and nature were taken as the models.
A Few Thoughts on Emptiness, Religion, and Art
I believe that emptiness is a critical dimension of
inspiration for Buddhist art. To explain why let me remind
that emptiness is not nothing and can either describe an
absence or constitute the inner quality of fullness, or both.
In the 5th century BC, this ambivalent nature of
emptiness was underscored by the great Indian grammarian
Using formulae to describe the morphology, syntax
and phonetics of Sanskrit, Panini
noted that the words
“without prefix” convey a meaning that is different from
what it would be if the prefix were there and concluded
that this absence had a value. It was the birthday of zero,
not as “nothing”, but as the value of emptiness.
Many of the artists who created these paintings in China
ink and the poets who wrote comments on them were
Chan monks. Having steadfastly practiced zazen21 for
many – even thirty or forty – years, they had dropped away
body and mind and were living their most inner life,
without interference from mental constructions. They had
a direct and lucid experience of true life and of the infinite
potentiality of emptiness. Their art derived from this
religious experience, and therefore did not contain “sacred”
or “devotional” images. Sanctity and devotion were the
language spoken by very humble subjects– a stone or a grass
tuft –as if lost in a vast empty space, like the mysterious
beginning of life in the immensity of the cosmos.
- Five hundred years later, Nagarjuna,
founded the first
Buddhist philosophical school, identified with unthought
emptiness, 'sunya
in Sanskrit, the Middle Way that Buddha
had taught in Varanasi
, in his first sermon. Parenthetically,
in the 7th century, this very word, 'sunya,
with the circular
sign that represented it came to the West under the Arab
word sifr where it changed its name into zephirum first and
into zero afterwards and finally.
It was essentially thanks to Nagarjuna’s school, called
or the Middle Way that Buddhism avoided
the risk of assimilation when, in his long travel towards the
East, it met the great Chinese culture in the 1st century
CE. Buddhism could have easily melted into the sea that
had, or thought to have, fathomed the deepest recesses of
the human soul. However, Shakyamuni’s offer was too
original and innovative to allow itself to be closed in and
smothered by old religious forms. So, in the 4th century, it
freed itself from the fetters of syncretism. As a result, when,
in the 6th century, Bodhidharma, brought to China from
Sometimes, the figures represented in these paintings
were still Indian in origin: the most famous bodhisattva or
Bodhidharma himself. But they were completely
metamorphosed. Their traits were apparently coarse, their
beards and hair unkempt and their sullen, almost angry
countenance expressed stability, strength and mystery.
Other times we see cheerful vagabonds jeering at the moon
or heaping up dead leaves with twig brooms. The dragon,
which is a symbol for the living mystery, can be glimpsed
through the edges of fog banks or while it peeps from the
dark bottom of a cave.
1 “Now
Since the 13th century, this simple and straight art made
its appearance in Japan. As it had been in China, the finest
artists were Chan – Zen in Japanese – monks. Their style
was characterized by the essentiality and the absolute
individuality of the stroke. Their subjects, essentially drawn
from nature, clearly gave off a subtle sense of poignancy
and melancholy at time fleeting away: a petal falling off
from the corolla, the outline of a far away mountain
becoming indistinct, a bird’s flight more intuited than seen.
The most delicate and sensitive streak of Japanese culture
understood and reproduced this sense and these images
2 It
faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things
not seen”. Hebrew 11,1
is an indicator of their vitality that one should find them in very farflung lands, and centuries later than when they were composed.
Herodotus had read at least some of them, and they contain an early
version of Solomon’s verdict (Jataka
546). We find echoes of them in
Aesop’s fables, in La Fontaine’s Fables and in Chaucer’s The Canterbury
Tales. Many of the tales told in the Jatakas
found their way in the
- - Mahabharata,
in the Panchatantra and in the Ramayana.
Even the Lotus
a fundamental Buddhist text whose first draft was completed by
the first century BC., said that one of the ways Buddha taught his
disciples was through the Jataka.
For the record, more than half of these stories were produced in the
world of Hindu- asceticism, but were modified in the course of the
centuries and through innumerable retelling, have become vehicles for
the message of the Buddha, the bodhisattva par excellence.
4 "Behold
the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor
gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not
much better than they? 6:27 Which of you by taking thought can add
one cubit unto his stature? 6:28 And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do
they spin.” Matthew, 6; 26,28
From the 15th century onwards, aesthetic refinement
has permeated the Japanese intellectual elites and has
contributed to the birth of those methods for personal
realization that is based on the beauty of the gestures and
the harmony of forms. This has given rise to a sort of lay
religiosity, in that it has religious origins, but it expresses
them according to secular aesthetic canons. The art of
serving tea, Ikebana22, calligraphy, No theatre, architecture
and interior decoration are the visible expressions of the
penetration in Japan of the aesthetics born of Buddhism.
But it is important to underline that this aesthetics was
critically different from that of the period immediately
preceding it -- that is before the 13th to 15th century -- in
its religious significance.
Alexander the Great conquered Bactriana (Uzbekistan and Northern
Afghanistan), Sogdiana (Southern Afghanistan and South-Western Pakistan)
and Northwest India in 326, and left behind a cultural mix. It has often been
stated that the first images of Buddha were only Hellenistic. However,
statues found in Southern India in a different style, suggest that there
were two different schools of Buddhist art. It may be added that this
latter school in turn influenced Buddhist art in Thailand, Burma, China,
Korea and Japan. See M. Anesaki, Buddhist art in its relation to Buddhist
ideals. Houghton Miffin and Co. Boston and New York, 1915, page 12.
6 The new Buddhism, as Mahayana has also been called, started in
earnest after the second century BC.
7 Literally:
8 In
The absence of clear religious symbols and of images
taken from the pantheon of a religion, ceased to belong to a
form of art that prefers to suggest than to say explicitly, to
imply the divine without bringing it on stage. Little by
little, this changed, slowly but unfalteringly. The sparrow,
the flower, the portrait of the ascetic, became the true
subject of art. Religious figures, bodhisattvas and gods came
back again, but as subjects of a sort of Mannerism. It may
be beautiful; but, without the inexpressible something that
created it, it does not move us any longer. The fertilization
of lay aesthetic sensitivity through the art born of
Buddhism had a very positive impact on Japanese society as
a whole, but this was the beginning of the end of art of Zen
as a religious expression.
the sutra of the white lotus of the good law.
- Sanskrit, sandhabhasa.
Matthew 8,20
In particular, the Lotus Sutra and the Vimalakirti Sutra or Vimalakirti
' sutra.
11 This
12 In
term derives from Sanskrit tantra, which means web.
Sanskrit, vajra means both diamond and lighting.
According to the Monnier Williams dictionary, mandala
means circle.
However, mandala
rice”. Therefore, it means content and essence. And la means the form
which surrounds it. mandala
can therefore be translated as “the circle
which surrounds the essence” or “the essence of enlightenment in its
manifest perfection”.
P. Cornu, Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Bouddhisme, Édition du
Seuil, Paris 2001.
etymological origin is the same of the Latin for “mind”, “comment”,
“memento.” It is also found in Nordic (English and German) words.
Man, for instance, is “he who thinks”. Since the suffix tra means
“protection”, “cover”, some translate mantra as “protection of the mind”.
E. Conze (see: Buddhist Wisdom Books, George Allen & Unwin, London
1975), defines mantra this way: “ The mantra are verbal formulae that
produce miracles if pronounced”.
This is true in particular for the two basic mandala
of the Shingon
- mandala, which symbolizes the unitary whole of
school: the Garbahdhatu
the myriad forms appearing in the universe in all eternity, including
- mandala, which represents the
mental forms; and the Vajradhatu
essential nature, or Buddha nature, that suffuse every being.
16 Quoted
- - Roshi,
from Uchiyama Kosho
former abbot of Antaiji.
17 In
Japanese, Dainichi Nyorai, the Buddha Great Sun or Great Light.
18 In
- the terrifying aspect of Mahavairocana.
Japanese Fudo,
The word here in Japanese because it is better known in this language.
The Chinese equivalent, in Pinyin transliteration, is xian.
21 In Chinese, zuochan, the practice brought to China by Bodhidharma,
which consists simply in sitting facing the wall, motionless and in silence.
The word mantra means “tool for thought” of mati, “thought”, and
the verb man, which means “to think”, “to believe”, “to imagine”, “ to
suppose”. From this root comes the word manas, “intellect”. Its
Literally: “life-flower”.
Sumié and Me
By Mrs. Ryusetsu Kokuzo of Taiyoji,
Waipahu Soto Zen Temple, Hawaii
My first encounter with Sumié (ink
brush painting) was a painting of one
piece of bamboo that included a knot
in the bamboo and a small branch with many leaves on it.
It was in a high school art class. I don’t know why, but I
still remember the painting. Then, I had the opportunity to
get married and at the same time that I was dreaming of
going to France, I went instead to live in a temple in Long
Beach, California.
northern Tohoku dialect. While raising three children, I
felt uplifted by continuing to draw by beloved Sumié.
Looking back, it feels as if I spent this time with absorbed
interest in sumie.
Kawai Sensei’s style of Sumié drew on the Maruyama
Shijo School and was based on sketching from nature. It
was very easy to understand and the color of the ink (sumi)
was very clear and deep. Let me quote a little from him,
“Pure Sumié comes from the harmony created between
white and black. The objective is not to duplicate figures or
flowers and so on.” “Song is to sing, painting is to draw,
and Zen is to sit. And so, no matter how many books a
person may read about art history or aesthetics, anatomy or
drawing in perspective, it isn’t possible to teach drawing. It
is to be awakened through drawing.” This deeply impressed
me and I understood that the most I could teach was
We wanted to bring people into the temple. To that
end, the thing I could do was teach drawing. Without the
least delay, I began a drawing class for children and a Sumié
class for adults. I didn’t have the confidence to teach
Sumié, so I quickly looked for a teacher. In Los Angeles,
there was the Kawai Art School. There was also a gallery
attached to the school and a man named Kawai Toshio
(Bokusetsu), who was a master artist, taught Sumié. Right
away, I knocked on his door and asked to be his student.
At the beginning, I commuted to his classes in LA and later
to Gardena and while continuing to study I also taught. At
that time, I was unable to drive a car and so my husband
took me to class and came back when it was over to pick
me up. Kawai Sensei was from Miyagi Prefecture in Japan
and once I found out we were from the same area I felt
reassured. He gave me a sense of peace of mind and I felt
nostalgia and amusement at his unique way of speaking the
With regard to the attitude one has when drawing
Sumié, Kawai Sensei strictly taught me the posture, the way
to breathe, putting the body’s center in the tanden (lower
abdomen), and so forth. Even now, I teach beginners this
way of painting. Originally, Sumié was influenced by Zen.
There was an emphasis on natural posture, getting rid of
unnecessary things, and it was thought good to draw
concisely with an economy of brush strokes. So as a
painting and sumi. These sentences are taken from a book
called The Hidden Charms of Lines, “My hope is before
drawing, that I become one with the object and then draw
from intuition. In other words, not to draw with lines that
are corrected or thought out. Lines that are born from
intuition are precise and infinitely deep. And then, I think
there is a lot that speaks to the heart of the person looking
at the painting. Or, later seeing the painting as a whole,
there may be a mistake. However, by catching hold of the
feeling honestly, you can draw healthy lines. I don’t say
that healthy lines are in essence always superior to sick
lines. All I can say is only that is accurate. And then, instead
of drawing something intricately, it will appear with a
higher level of feeling and also will actually appear that way.
Lines do not speak only of the contours; they must be a
quest for the very core of the thing. Fine artists gaze deeply
at things and then must be able to capture what they see in
precise lines. In order to understand this matter, it is
necessary to train only at mastering the essence of beauty.”
member of a Soto Zen family, I felt it was easy to adapt to
this way of teaching. While it was difficult, I continued to
want to draw near Sensei’s realm. I’ve always liked the
expression “Continuation is power.” It is now about thirty
five years since I began to draw Sumié.
Six years ago, my husband was transferred to Hawaii
and I began to make pottery. Here was one more thing that
I completely absorbed myself in. I forgot myself making
ceramics to the extent that I neglected Sumié. Rebuking myself
for this, I took up the challenge of painting landscapes. I
tried painting waterfalls. While teaching in a classroom, it
occurred to me that there was a good feeling if a painting
was finished in such a way that importance was given to the
first impression, the tension we feel when we see something
for the first time. Then painting it in a short time, I felt it
was important to stop the brush with a feeling of
something lacking. I thought that the result isn’t necessarily
good because a painting took longer to do and that it is
possible to work too carefully and be too concerned about
details. If a painting is done quickly, then the color is good
and clear and the hazy aspect of the ink also comes out
well. This is to paint non-stop in one sitting.
Landscape was the drawing theme that I was least skillful
at. However, it has now become a pleasure to draw
landscapes and the world of drawing has become a little
wider. By continuing to repeat something over and over,
we will get the hang of even those things that are difficult
for us to do. I am realizing the meaning of “To teach is to
Here, I would like to quote a few words from Fujita
Tsuguharu Sensei, a master painter who developed a
unique combination of fine-hair brushes used in oil
Rainbow Falls, Hiro, Hawaii
Deep Mountains
My Zazen Notebook (17)
With regard to our actual zazen, the result is nearly
decided even before we get up “on the stage”. When we
sit down on a sitting cushion (zafu), with what attitude
are you facing zazen? Isn’t there some expectation
lurking in your mind that you will get something in
exchange for practicing zazen? How deeply do you
understand that zazen is not a means to attain
something? In order that we can sit zazen so that just
sitting zazen can itself be nothing to attain, it is
necessary that we carefully check to see if this is the
case so that we can purify in advance our attitude in
taking up zazen.
Rev. Issho Fujita
Fragmentary Thought XXV
“Zazen in which nothing is gained”
In Shobogenzo Zuimonki, there are the words “When
you sit upright with no idea of something to gain or
something to realize, then immediately this is the Way of
the Ancestors.” This is to state decisively that “You mustn’t
practice zazen with any idea of gaining something or
realizing something. This would be to split zazen in two
and having any idea of gaining something while practicing
zazen is absolutely not the Way of Buddha.” I think that
this expression “nothing to gain” is the most important
keyword in understanding Dogen Zenji’s teaching about
zazen. For me, this concept ranks with “sitting upright” as
being of equal importance in Zen practice. I have already
written my observations on this in Fragmentary Thought
“Zazen Only.” Here I would like to take up several topics
that I did not touch upon:
3. Dogen Zenji said, “Let go of it and it fills your
hands; it isn’t a question of one or many.” Sawaki
Kodo Roshi said, “We lose what is sought for. There is
the wealth of ‘not-seeking’.” The instant we grasp
what we think we have gotten, we lose our freedom.
So in fact, it is an illusion to think we will become
wealthy by means of what we acquire. Zazen isn’t
“wealth through gain” but studying and tasting for
ourselves the teaching of the “wealth of not seeking.”
1. “Do zazen without gaining mind,” this is not a
matter of reaching a state of mind that is called
“nothing to gain.” If this were the case, then this
would be nothing other than attempting to add it to
zazen and it would become of a practice of “gaining
something.” Shouldn’t it be said that zazen in which
both “nothing to gain” and “something to gain” have
both been forgotten entirely is the state of “nothing to
gain”? So “nothing to gain” is really another word for
zazen (zazen is nothing to attain) and it is not a goal
we have in mind when sitting in zazen.
4. In order for us to be able to sit upright in zazen
without gaining mind, we must foster a certain
conviction within ourselves. If we do not, then no
matter how much we shout in a big voice “Nothing to
gain, nothing to realize”, it will be limited to just a
slogan at best and the contents of our actual zazen will
tend to be an extension of the usual “gaining mind.”
This conviction is “Right now, no matter what the
circumstances may be, there is no need to add anything
and no need to remove anything. The ‘present’ has
nothing lacking and nothing extra. It is absolutely
perfect as it is. It is perfect and faultless with nothing
lacking and this is precisely why the present can attain
the present here as the present. To try by means of
your own speculation and plans to do something about
the present so that it is something else is nothing more
than a useless escape. You are missing the present and
only floating in the air because you want to escape.”
This is nothing other than the deep insight into the
true nature of the present and ourselves. I think it can
be said that upright sitting with no gaining mind is the
concrete form of absolute acceptance that embraces all
2. It is important that we must keep close watch so
that in our practice of nothing-to-gain zazen we do
not mix into zazen elements of practice that change
zazen from “nothing to gain” to “something to gain.”
More than anything else, this is first of all a
fundamental attitude for those people who take on the
practice of zazen and it is a matter of even before we
begin to practice. Wouldn’t it be all right to say that
the quality of zazen is in fact dependent on this
attitude we have even before we begin practicing zazen?
things as they are in here and now. Behind this, there
must be the understanding that the present is perfect
and absolute regardless of what we think about it and
the “faith” that we can completely surrender ourselves
unconditionally to the present. It is when zazen is backed
with this “faith-understanding” that it becomes possible
to do just sitting without seeking anything and without
bringing in any objectives or intentions, something
that is extremely pure but not easy to do. How, then,
can we cultivate this understanding and faith?
Movement that doesn’t know stillness is blind
movement. However, if it is stillness without
movement, then it is a dead thing. A hand that only
grasps and doesn’t know how to let go is restricted
continuously by the thing it is holding. That said, if
there is a fear of grasping things, then the function of
the hand is not fulfilled. To forget returning to the
source and only stay outside is to wander. However, to
quit going outside and stay at the source is to stagnate.
Stillness and activity, grasping and letting go, returning
and learning, when these directly opposed activities are
working together harmoniously, then free and unrestricted
movement unfolds. Furthermore, within movement
there is stillness and within stillness there is movement.
To leave is to return…it is possible that there is a higher
state where both can be totally unified. As in this
example, the relation of between “no gaining-mind”
zazen based on “faith/understanding” about the absolute
perfection of the present moment (where the present
settles in the present) and squarely looking at the
problem of the present and grappling with the change are
independent to each other. But it is necessary within a
person’s life as a human to simultaneously harmonize
those two in an interlocking way. The deepening of zazen
prepares penetrating insight into social problems, in
the manner that the work of taking on actual problems
makes us keenly feel the need for more and more
zazen, we must carefully study the way in which the
path of coming and going will develop so that the two
activities can mutually give energy to each other.
5. Here, in the time we call the “present” there are
currently conditions around us that include injustice
and evil, poverty and war, violence and oppression,
discrimination, and so on, conditions that we must
address and change. To say that the present is absolutely
perfect within upright sitting in which there is nothing
gained does not mean that it is all right to close your
eye to the situation indulging yourself by feeling good
nor is it acceptable to approve of the present situation
as being good, praising it as good, and thinking that
there is no need to change it. Making all sorts of effort,
it is necessary to change such a situation. We mustn’t
use upright sitting with no gaining mind as an excuse
not to make an effort. To the contrary, we must be
active in correctly leading the effort to make actual
change. We must practice in such a way. More often
than not, it happens that because the people who
participate in movements to do real change are twisted
and turned about by their inconclusive principles and
ideals so that they are not in touch with the crucial
reality, their attachment to their self-centered sloppy
acknowledgements of reality, by bringing forward their
own individual chaotic feelings (greed, anger,
prejudice, and so forth) and acting on them, that
finally they end up causing these social movements to
become deadlocked.
In present-day America, the topic of “engaged
Buddhism” is frequently discussed and I have been
inspired by this in various ways. To sit in zazen is itself
certainly one social movement already and it is an
expression of one’s attitude in relation to society. For
that reason, it is possible to have the opinion that to
practice zazen is enough and any more than that is to
transgress the sphere of a religious person. Yet, of
those people who practice zazen, how many of them
see the practice of zazen in the context of social
criticism or criticism of civilization? Isn’t it rather that
they see zazen as a psychological method to adapt well
to the current social system?
I think that it is precisely those people confronting
such situations where complicated problems are
entangled who must temporarily pause and clearly let
go of those earnest problems and concerns that they
must do something about, and then from that vantage
point perceive the reality as it is. They need to foster
the power to deeply see through the whole thing.
It is certain that the practice of zazen with nothing
to gain is not a social movement that tries to bring
about direct resolutions to social problems by means
of that practice. If someone did think this way, then
zazen would end up being sorcery. Zazen is only zazen,
nothing more and nothing less. However, if the sense
of tension is lost between the practice of zazen and the
realities of society that are full of contradictions, then
there is a great danger that zazen falls into a
conservative activity just as if you were to shut yourself
up in a silkworm’s cocoon. We must acknowledge
that in the past this very thing has happened and we
can now see similar indications here and there.
in modern speech). This means that this sort of zazen
is not a practice based on a transition model moving
from imperfection to perfection. Rather, it is a practice
based on a “deepening model” (perfection→perfection)
in which the originally perfect “present’ is more and
more deeply verified at your own position here, right
now. What is here referred to as “the absolute
perfection of the present” is generally referred to in
Buddhism as “The real form of all things” (The
different forms of all things as they are is the form of
true sameness or equality) or “The world in all its
totality is never hidden” (The myriad things that
clearly appear in front of us are themselves the
complete appearance of the original Self). Dogen Zenji
expressed this as “the Genjo-koan.” This is a word
which expresses the teaching of the absolute nature of
facticity, regardless of whether we believe it or don’t
believe it, or whether we practice or don’t practice, or
our own personal circumstances. And so, it is not
something “distant” that we attain after all the human
effort involving faith and practice. Rather, it is the
other way around, that faith and practice are already
the human activity within this reality and so it is
something “intimate” or “close.”
We mustn’t simply understand the “perfect nature
of the present” in a bland, monotonous way and
thereby jump to the conclusion that it’s all right to
accept the way things are and the maintenance of the
status quo on the pretext that everything is all right as
it is. To not insert your own convenience and preferences
and to accept the way things are no matter what is
completely different to accept and maintain the
present with the secret intention to utilize it for one’s
own convenience. “The perfection of the present
moment” does not teach us to indulge in the present
nor is it to say that there is no problem either with
society or us. Regardless of your discriminations,
expectations, and hopes, it is clear that it isn’t possible
for the present to be anything else, including all of the
contradictions in society as well as your own suffering
and anguish. This is related to the solemn nature of
the present.
Nevertheless, as long as we live weighed down by
our thoughts and emotions, it will not really be
possible to have faith in this “absolutely perfect present.”
“Thoughts” and “emotions” are not self-contained and
so for that reason we are always and at all times
creating the sense that in terms of the present there is
something lacking or something extra. So, we inevitably
perceive that the present is always insufficient and
imperfect and we end up constantly viewing the
present with the doubt “Is it really okay like this?” We
cannot live peacefully in the present nor can the self
settle down. With regard to all endeavors, we try to
make them perfect. By making this effort a little at a
time, or in a burst, we live in the imperfect present by
counting on sometime getting a hold of “perfection.”
What develops there is continuing to live your life
constantly “either wanting something or fearing
something” (the fear that you will not get what you
want or the fear of losing what you have obtained).
Sadly enough, however, no matter how much we
6. Usually, when we think of “practice” in a commonsense sort of way, it is thought to be a means of
somehow changing your present imperfect self and the
effort involved in ultimately reaching your perfect self.
However, as it says at the beginning of Dogen Zenji’s
Fukan-zazengi, “The Way is originally perfect and all
pervading. How could it be dependent upon practice
and realization?” Originally, the Way of Buddha is
such that there is nothing that must be added, and
furthermore, it is also not a matter of ending in an
impasse with the way things are. There is no need at
all to do anything. (Uchiyama Kosho Roshi’s version
manipulate or extend “thoughts” and “emotions”, it
will not be possible to reach the absolute perfection of
the present.
above-mentioned criticisms are aimed at this sort of
understanding of zazen.
However, zazen where there is nothing to gain is
essentially likened to “a dragon that has reached the water,
like a tiger that has entered the mountain.” (Fukanzazengi) If this kind of lively enthusiasm and impetus does
not fill the body and mind, then this sort of zazen will not
be manifested. In non-gaining zazen, the importance is
placed on the way one is, moment by moment, rather that
what will be gained as the ultimate result. In other words,
it is a question of process rather than output and so, each
moment is important in the same way, each moment
cannot be neglected. It is because it is “nothing to gain’
that “continual diligence” is asked for. Where there isn’t
“continual diligence,” the mind quickly succumbs to
“gaining mind” or laziness or negligence and upright
sitting which is poised not to gain anything will crumble.
So, the practice in which there is no gaining mind is the
purest and simplest thing and is never simple. To the
contrary, it can be said that there is nothing more difficult.
7. The reality of “the true form of all things,” “the
world in all its totality has never been hidden,” and
“the Genjo koan” cannot be grasped with either
thought or emotion. The struggle (end-gaining mind)
itself to grasp such things prevents us from directly
experiencing this open secret. It is only when we are
just sitting, having let go of pursuing all of the
imaginary ideas we have constructed in our head about
“perfection” that it is possible to encounter the present
which from the beginning has essentially had nothing
extra and nothing lacking. For this reason, the
expression “the true form of things” simultaneously
indicates “reality” as well as the problem or theme we
must practice and verify.
Letting go of this gaining-mind, it is an absolute
requirement for the self to be able to open itself and
surrender completely to the present and for the present
to be able to permeate the self with an unlimited
abundance. To say “permeate” doesn’t mean that
something new is tacked on. It simply becomes clear
that there is the lively, animated self inter-connected
with all beings. Zazen isn’t a process of aiming at
getting something, but a practice of how to let the self
be present now, which is a completely different practice
in quality and dimension. “Nothing to gain” can be
said to be an expression which helps clarify that zazen
is not an activity that is involved in gaining something
as a result. It is not for “having”, but for “being”.
The time spent sitting with nothing to gain and nothing
to realize may seem to be wasteful in market terms because
nothing is produced at all. However, as I wrote earlier, it is
there that the self can meet the absolute perfection of the
present. It will permeate the self and so there is no greater
gift than this for the self.
Zazen is not something for an idle person who has
turned his or her back on the world. It is something that
can be recommended to all people regardless of whether
they are from the West or the East, regardless of gender or
age. I think there is an urgent need for people to practice
this sort of zazen and moreover to become people who can
accurately and clearly explain this to other people.
8. When we hear that zazen “is only sitting still
without seeking anything,” surely there are some who
think “What?! Such a simple thing! It’s a waste of time
and energy to do that. To put value in such a passive
and escapist thing is only something an idle person
who has given up life in the world would do.”
“Nothing to gain” can, in other words, be thought of
as a condition where there is completely no challenge
or worth, and so, such a person might tend to indulge
themselves in a way that their zazen becomes “like a
cat sunning itself on the veranda.” It may be that the
(Note: I have written above about the “absolutely perfect
present.” There is no obstacle in that prefect present
moment continuously arising to the next perfect present
moment. Within perfection of the moment, there is
included the power of hidden vigor that can bring forth the
next perfect moment. It isn’t that it moves to the next
thing because it is imperfect, but rather because it is perfect
it is always being renewed).
The 28th Chapter of Shobogenzo:
The Bodhisattva’s Four Embracing Actions
generous act without any expectation of personal gain,
although rewards for the action are not important to that
person, the person does receive a reward. If the person has
even the slightest expectation of any reward, however, the
action is defiled and the person definitely is not rewarded.
What strange logic!
Lecture (7)
Rev. Shohaku Okumura
Director, Soto Zen Buddhism International Center
(Edited by Rev. Shoryu Bradley)
Kongyu (Jap. Koyu), who lived in Jin (Shin) Dynasty
China, met a person on the road who was carrying a basket
on his shoulder that contained a captured tortoise. Kongyu,
seeing that the poor tortoise was suffering, aroused a
compassionate heart and gave the person some money for
the tortoise. When Kongyu released it to the river, the
tortoise turned its head to the left to look back at Kongyu
in a gesture of gratitude as it headed to its home. Many
years later, Kongyu became the governor of the region in
which he released the tortoise. As was the custom, shortly
after being installed to the position, Kongyu designed the
governor’s official stamp. The stamp was to bear the head
of a tortoise, but the finished image inexplicably showed
the tortoise with its head turned to the left. Kongyu had the
stamp remade three times, but each time the head of the
tortoise was turned in the same way. Then he remembered
that the tortoise he released many years before had looked
back to him three times, turning its head to the left. He
realized that he had become governor as a result of the
tortoise’s aid and protection.
[Beneficial Action]
Transformation of human consciousness
Beneficial action is simply creating skillful means to benefit
living beings, whether they are noble or humble. For
example, we care for the near and distant future of others,
and use skillful means to benefit them. We should take pity
on a cornered tortoise and care for a sick sparrow. When
we see this tortoise or sparrow, we try to help them without
expecting any reward. We are motivated solely by
beneficial action itself.
Among the Four Embracing Actions, dana (offering)
is the foundation of all four practices. Loving speech is an
offering that uses language, and beneficial action is a form
of offering using body and mind. Identity action is a
method we can use to make our offerings acceptable to
Another story about Yangbao (Yoho) of the Later Han
Dynasty (Gokan) contains a similar theme. When he was
nine years old, Yangbao found a sick sparrow on the
ground that was being attacked by ants. Yangbao took the
bird home, and after nursing it back to health he release it.
Later when Yangbao was an adult, the sparrow came to him
in a dream. It appeared to him in the form of a yellowrobed boy offering four white rings. According to the story,
Yangbao’s family enjoyed prosperity for four generations as
a result of the sparrow’s protection.
Bird and Tortoise
In this section Dogen introduces two examples of
beneficial actions that are directed towards small living
beings. He shows that these helping activities arise solely
from a compassionate heart rather than a calculating mind,
emphasizing that a beneficial action should be performed
for its own sake. According to Dogen, beneficial actions will
return to those who perform them without any expectation
of reward. So here is a paradox: when a person performs a
beneficial action without expecting any reward, that person
receives some benefit in return for that action. However, if
a person helps others with some expectation of a reward,
such actions essentially become a means of barter, therefore
producing no reward. According to Dogen, actions can be
either defiled or pure, depending upon the motivation of
the person performing them. If a person performs a
In order to present the Buddhist teaching of beneficial
action more understandably to Japanese people, Dogen
Zenji used such stories from Chinese classic literature
because they were well known among the educated people
of his day. There are many such tales to be found in
Chinese as well as Japanese classic story collections.
otherwise suffering from the loss of family members or
possessions. For that reason I asked that any money raised
from the sale of the book composed of my Heart Sutra
lectures be offered to help needy people in Kobe. The
Catholic study group members donated the money through
their church in Kobe, and although the amount of money
donated must have been small, I nonetheless was very
happy that I could make even a tiny offering to the people
in Kobe.
From the Perspective of the Tortoise and the Sparrow
As I wrote in the section of this series about dana
(offering), throughout my life my position has been more
similar to the tortoise’s and the sparrow’s in these stories
rather than the position of the people who helped them.
Since I became a monk as a young university student and
then entered directly into a monastic life at Antaiji, for
much of my life I have had no particular skill or knowledge
with which to help others. I had some knowledge of
Buddhism and some experience of zazen, but these things
were not useful in helping others until I became a mature
practitioner, many years later. I also had no money to offer
to needy people; in fact, I was often in need of help myself.
An ignorant person may think that if we benefit others too
much, our own benefit will be excluded. This is not the case.
Beneficial action is the whole of Dharma; it benefits both self
and others widely.
When I was young, I traveled quite a lot, crossing the
USA twice. Soon after I first came to this country in 1975,
I made a cross-country car trip with several friends. After
driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, we made our
way across the USA by way of the South and then headed
north to Massachusetts. During my second cross-country
trip, I traveled from San Francisco to Boston by
Greyhound Bus. During both of those trips I never had to
stay at a hotel. I always stayed with someone who offered
food and shelter to “the traveling monk with no money”. I
also did a lot of hitchhiking in the 70’s.
Friends and Enemies
When we vow to adopt beneficial action as a bodhisattva
practice, we must try to do what is best for all living beings
without discriminating between noble or humble, rich or
poor, friends or enemies.
The Buddha said in Dhammapada, “Through hatred,
hatreds are never appeased; through non-hatred are hatreds
always appeased – and this is a law eternal.”
Jesus Christ said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You
shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to
you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute
you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven;
for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and
sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if
you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
(Matthew 5/43-46)
In Japan, for many years I lived on offerings I received
from takuhatsu (Buddhist begging). Thousands of people
gave support to me with out expecting anything in return.
They did not even know who I was or what I was doing;
they made offerings simply because I was wearing Buddhist
robes. Since I could not offer anything in return directly
helpful to those people, I have been trying to be gentle and
kind to others in order to pay back some tiny part of my
debt to the many people that helped me.
Jesus said that we should our love enemies; to love
families, relatives, and friends is a matter of course. In
Buddhism, our ability to love our enemies determines our
ability to be bodhisattvas.
While I was living in Kyoto I did takuhatsu in Kobe
several times a year. At that time I was giving on-going
lectures on the Shobogenzo and Heart Sutra to a Catholic
study group. Members of that group transcribed the Heart
Sutra lectures and made a book from that material after I
revised it. The book was completed in 1995, the year an
earthquake in Kobe killed several thousand people. I was in
Minneapolis at the time, and I was certain that many of
the people who gave me offerings were killed, injured, or
Buddha’s teaching and Christ’s teaching are the same on
this point. Can we carry out these teachings? Of course it is
usually very difficult or seemingly impossible for us to do
so. In fact, if we can love someone, that person is not our
enemy; people become our enemies because we cannot love
all beings. Shakyamuni Buddha could not help his clan
from being conquered by the strong neighboring kingdom,
Kosala. Christ was crucified. Gandhi was assassinated.
Dogen had to leave the capital of Japan to live deep in the
them. So each of us must transform our consciousness and
go beyond discriminations between friends and enemies.
Buddha and Christ were people who could make that
transformation. There have been other people who could do
so as well, such as India’s Mahatma Gandhi. Dogen Zenji
taught in the Shishobo that we should act in accordance
with what is best for the sake of all beings. To do this, we
must act without concern for whether people are noble or
humble, whether they are someone we love or a stranger,
or even whether they are considered to be our friends or
our enemies.
Buddhist teachings emphasize seeing all things equally,
without greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance. Buddha’s wisdom,
prajna, is the wisdom beyond discrimination that sees the
emptiness and equality of all things. To see this reality is the
goal of all the various styles of Buddhist meditation. In our
meditation practice we can become one with prajna, but it
is very difficult to realize such wisdom in our daily lives.
Bodhisattva Never-Disparaging
In the Lotus Sutra there is a chapter called “Bodhisattva
Never-Disparaging”. This chapter is the story about a
bodhisattva who made prostrations to everyone he met
saying, “I will never disparage you because in the future
you will attain Buddhahood.” Other monks and lay people
were arguing about Buddhist teachings, each trying to
prove their own understanding was best. But the
bodhisattva Never-Disparaging did not study systems of
doctrine or meditation; he just walked the streets and made
prostrations to whomever he met, saying he would never
disparage them because they would someday become a
Buddha. But those arguing did not like this bodhisattva
because he would not choose sides in arguments; he said he
respected everyone involved in any argument since all were
bodhisattvas. From the perspective of the people arguing
and fighting, a person who respected all points of view in
their conflicts could not be a friend. Sometimes people even
beat or threw stones at Bodhisattva Never-Disparaging, but
as long as he lived he did not stop his practice of honoring
everyone he met.
Shortly after September 11th in 2001, I had a chance to
read a Japanese scholar’s article about the person who
assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. According to the author,
the person was a Hindu fundamentalist who thought he
had good reason to kill Gandhi. In the assassin’s mind, if
his family members were attacked and killed, justice
demanded that he carry out revenge. But Gandhi forbade
Hindu people to carry out such revenge, asking them to
forgive their enemies. But because this was contrary to the
assassin’s concept of justice, he killed Gandhi. When the
American government responded to the 9-11 tragedy with
military action, I remembered this article. When I learned
that the majority of American people supported the
government’s decision to use military force in seeking
revenge, I felt they were supporting the same concept of
justice held by the assassin of Ganghi.
Many of my American Buddhist friends were against the
war. In San Francisco where I lived at that time, thousands
of people demonstrated against the war, and some of them
were arrested. I admired them but they were in a minority;
on almost every block of each street we saw a sign saying,
“God bless America.” I wondered if that God was the same
God of Jesus Christ, the God whom Jesus taught wishes us
to love our enemies. To me, the signs saying “God bless
America” seemed to refer to a guardian god of the nation, a
type of god that almost all countries have. Of course,
Japanese Buddhists did something similar during World
War II. During that time, Buddhism was used for
nationalist means in persuading young people to fight for
Japan in the war.
According to the story, when the bodhisattva NeverDisparaging was dying he was able to see the reality of all
beings, even though he had never studied any system of
Buddhist teachings. He accepted, upheld, and expounded
this reality and attained eternal life. People who had
despised him became his followers.
Human History
Throughout actual human history, things have been
difficult for people who have taught us to go beyond
discriminations between friends and enemies and to love
uncle’s orphaned children as part of our family). After
hearing these things, I had some negative feelings about the
USA. I did not see US soldiers in Japan on many occasions,
but when I did see them, I was afraid.
How can we transform our consciousness and go beyond
this sense of separation from other human beings? This is
an especially important question at this time in human
history. As a result of developments in science, technology,
transportation and communication, the world of human
beings has become one community. People from different
racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds must
communicate and interact with each other. Unless we find
some common ground, one on which people can live
knowing they are connected to each other, humans beings
will not be able to live together peacefully.
When I entered elementary school, our principal told us
that Japan had a very difficult time after losing the war.
People were hungry but they were saved from starvation by
food and other aid offered by the USA. He also said that we
needed to study and work hard to restore the prosperity we
had before the War. I was taught that the USA had brought
democracy to Japan and that all good things such as
electronics, science, technology, movies, and music came from
the USA. The USA was the great teacher of democracy and
of scientific and technological civilization; it seemed like a
paradise of materialistic culture. So, my view of the USA
became confused. Later I also learned that from the end of
the 19th century until the end of World War II, Japan did
terrible things to other Asian countries such as Korea and
China. As I studied history, my fear turned to sadness.
Many people from many spiritual traditions have put
forth much effort into this area. In my case, I have been
practicing zazen and sharing Buddhist teachings with
American people for many years. Even though my activity
is limited, my hope is that I can contribute at least a small
drop into this stream of transformation that aims to
change the consciousness of human beings.
When I became a teenager, my view of the USA took
another twist. During the Vietnam War, some Japanese
newspapers presented American military action as imperialist
activity that was close to being the enemy of humanity.
Newspaper cartoons depicted President Johnson’s face as
the face of a demon.
I am from Japan, and for me the USA has been a special
country. Japan and the USA are the only two countries I
have lived in. I was born three years after World War II
ended, and in my parents’ time Japan and the USA were
enemies. The first time I ever heard anything about the
USA was when I was probably four or five years old. It was
raining and my mother and some neighborhood women
were idly talking beneath the eaves of a house. I was
running around in the rain and one of the women said to
me, “Don’t run around in the rain, you might lose your
hair.” That was near the time the US government had
performed a nuclear experiment in the Bikini Islands. A
Japanese fishing boat, the Daigo Fukuryumaru, was exposed
to nuclear radiation that eventually killed one of the boat’s
crewmembers and made many others sick. In Japan the ash
from nuclear weapons was called “shi-no-hai” (ash of
death). It was probably on that occasion, the time the
woman said, “you might lose your hair”, that I first heard
that Japan had fought and lost a war against the USA. My
family had been merchants in Osaka for several
generations, but in just one night in March of 1945 we lost
all of our family wealth during a US Air Force bombing. I
also heard that my uncle was killed during the war and that
his wife had died with TB (my parents raised one of my
When I began practicing at Antaiji in the late 60’s, I met
some Americans from my own generation. Those people,
who were so-called “hippies”, were the first American
people I had actually met. I found that many of them were
not so different from me; they were just ordinary human
beings. They had the same questions I had and were trying
to find the answers to those questions. In fact, very good
friendships, ones that continue to this day, developed
between some of those Americans and me.
In 1975, I went to Massachusetts to live and to create a
small Zen community. There I again found that American
people are not so different from Japanese people. Some
were extremely kind and friendly and some were not so
kind. Of course, I found many cultural differences between
Japanese and American people, but overall I saw that we are
all simply human beings who must live through many
different conditions in this life; sometimes those conditions
are happy and sometimes they are not so happy.
you arrive in the country of Lu, be careful not to disparage
its people even though you will be the governor.”
I found that the views I held in Japan before I had been
in the USA reflected only partial truths; my views of this
country and its people did not contain a complete
perspective. My knowledge, understanding, and experiences
of the USA and its people are still limited because I have
being living only in Buddhist communities since I have
been here. Seeing that my views were limited and distorted
enabled me to let go of my preconceptions of other
nations. In addition to studying our own history and
culture and the cultures of other countries, living and
working with people from other countries is the best way
to go beyond our stereotypes.
Zhougong sent his son to a neighboring country that
was a dependent of his own more powerful county. He told
his son that even though his son would be governor, he
should not miss any opportunity to meet and listen to any
wise people of Lu.
Thirty years have passed since I went to Massachusetts,
and I now practice in a small Zen Buddhist sangha with
Americans as well as people from other countries. My
zazen practice and study of Buddhist teachings have helped
me in my effort to go beyond my fixed views of others,
views that are a product of my limited karmic
consciousness. This small broadening of my own
perspective is a source of hope for me. My hope is that we
will make a transformation of consciousness and let go of
our prejudices against those who differ from us according
to national origin, race, religion, and other characteristics.
It is interesting that this chapter of Shobogenzo was
written in the 5th month of 1243. This was two months
before Dogen Zenji and his assembly moved from the then
capital city of Kyoto into the deeply remote mountains of
Echizen. Their move to establish a new monastery appears to
have been very abrupt. If the move had been well planned, I
think the monks would have first found a suitable location
and built their new temple before relocating. Yet Dogen’s
assembly lived at the new temple location for more than a
year before the construction of the new building for
Diabutsuji (later named Eiheiji) was completed in the fall
of 1245. During this interim time the monks lived in two
tiny temples without a sodo (monks’ hall) or dharma hall;
Dogen did not even have a place to give formal dharma
discourses. During this time he focused on writing fascicles
of the Shobogenzo, completing 33 chapters.
Therefore, we should equally benefit friends and foes alike; we
should benefit self and others alike. Because beneficial actions
never regress, if we attain such a mind we can perform
beneficial action even for grass, trees, wind, and water. We
should strive solely to help ignorant beings.
In an ancient era, a man, who tied up his hair three times
while he took a bath and who stopped eating three times in
the space of one meal, solely intended to benefit others. He
never withheld truths from people of other countries.
Scholars think Dogen and his assembly were forced to
make a fast move to Echizen when Koshoji came under
attack by Mt. Hiei’s soldier monks of the Tendai School. It
was around this time that Dogen wrote the fascicle Shisobo.
So Dogen was likely not living in a peaceful environment
when he wrote of the Four Embracing Actions of Bodhisattva
Practice. At this time, the Japanese Buddhist establishment
was trying to oppress Dogen’s newly introduced Chinese style
of Zen Buddhism. It was in this condition of great conflict
that Dogen Zenji wrote, “Therefore, we should equally benefit
friends and foes alike; we should benefit self and others alike.”
This example is from the Chinese classic Shiji (Jap
.Shiki). When the lord Zhougong (Shuko) sent his son to
govern the country of Lu (Ro), his son came to say
farewell. At that time Zhougong admonished him saying,
“I am a son of King Wen (Bun), the younger brother of King
Wu (Bu), and the uncle of King Cheng (Jo), and I
therefore am not a person of humble birth. Yet I tied up my
hair three times while bathing and stopped eating three times
in the space of one meal in order to meet with gentlemen
[who wished to offer me their opinions in person]. I am
fearful that we will lose wise people in this country; when
commentary, traditionally attributed to Nagarjuna, on the
25,000-line Prajna-paramita-sutra.
A line in the sutra reads,
“At that time, the World Honored One spread his lion seat
and, sitting with legs crossed, straightening his body and
binding his thoughts before him, entered into the king of
samadhis samadhi, in which all samadhis are included.” The
commentary on this line in the Treatise extols the spiritual
advantages of cross-legged sitting and goes on to explain that
this samadhi is first among samadhis because it is “freely
able to take innumerable dharmas as its object.”
One of the reasons Dogen moved from Kyoto so
abruptly was to avoid conflict with the established religious
institution. When we study the background of Shishobo, we
can more clearly understand the significance of these words
of Dogen:
Because beneficial actions never regress, if we attain such a
mind we can perform Beneficial Action even for grass, trees,
wind, and water. We should strive solely to help ignorant beings.
This was Dogen’s faith and wish. He did not think it
meaningful to fight against the religious establishment;
rather, he practiced the Bodhisattva Vow to help all beings
that suffer within the cycle of transmigration in samsara.
His enemies, the Tendai monks who held religious and
political power, were not excluded from his vow.
Dogen’s own comments here focus especially on the
practice of sitting with legs crossed (kekkafu za 結跏趺坐;
Sanskrit paryaca),
, the posture sometimes known as the “lotus
position” (Sanskrit padmasana). This practice, he associates
with a famous teaching he attributes to his Chinese master,
Rujing 如淨, that the study of Zen is “just sitting,” (shikan
taza 祗管打坐) with “body and mind sloughed off” (shinjin
datsuraku 身心脱落). Through this association, Dogen is able
to claim that sitting with legs crossed is itself the king of
samadhis, is itself the complete practice and teaching of the
Buddha, is itself the spiritual lineage of the first Zen ancestor,
Bodhidharma. The emphasis on such claims makes this short
text one of the more important sources for understanding
Dogen’s approach to zazen practice.
Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma
Book 66
The King of Samadhis Samadhi
Zanmai o zanmai
Translated by Carl Bielefeldt
The present translation is based on the edition in
Kawamura Kodo 河村孝道, ed., Dogen zenji zenshu 道元禅
師全集,vol. 2, pp. 177-181. More detailed annotation on
the text accompanies the translation appearing on the Soto
Zen Text Project website:
Other English translations of this fascicle can be found in
Nishiyama and Stevens, Shobogenzo (1977); Yokoi, The Shobogenzo (1986); and Tanahashi, Beyond Thinking (2004).
This work was composed early in 1244 at Kippoji 吉
峰寺, the monastery where Dogen taught in the period
from his arrival in Echizen (present-day Fukui prefecture)
till the opening of Daibutsuji 大佛寺 (later renamed Eiheiji
永平寺). The text appears as number 66 in the seventyfive-fascicle redaction of the Shobogenzo, as well as number
10 in the so-called “secret,” (himitsu 秘密) twenty-eight
facscicle redaction held at Eiheiji.
Abruptly transcending the entire realm, to be greatly
honored within the quarters of the buddhas and ancestorsthis is sitting with legs crossed. Trampling the heads of the
outsiders and the minions of Mara, to be the one here
within the halls of the buddhas and ancestors-this is sitting
with legs crossed. To transcend the limit of the limits of the
buddhas and ancestors is just this one dharma. Therefore, the
buddhas and ancestors engage in it, without any further task.
The notion of a samadhi (i.e., state of mental
concentration) that is the king of samadhis (Sanskrit
samadhi-raja-samadhi) occurs with some frequency throughout
the Buddhist literature, without consistent reference to a
specific spiritual practice or state of mind. Dogen’s essay
here draws on a passage from the famous Treatise on the Great
Perfection of Wisdom (Chinese Dazhidu lun 大智度論), a
The Buddha Shakyamuni addressed the great assembly,
When sitting with legs crossed,
Body and mind realizing samadhi,
One’s majesty, the multitudes respect,
Like the sun illumining the world.
Removed, the lethargy clouding the mind,
The body light, without pain or fatigue;
The awareness similarly light and easy,
One sits calmly, like the dragon coiled.
King Mara is startled and fearful
On seeing depicted [one] sitting with legs crossed,
How much more [on seeing] one who realizes the
Sitting calmly without stirring.3
We should realize that there is a vast difference between
the entire realm of sitting and other entire realms. Clarifying
this principle, we confirm the aspiration, the practice, the
bodhi, and the nirvana of the buddhas and ancestors. We
should investigate: at the very moment we are sitting, is the
entire realm vertical? Is it horizontal? At the very moment
we are sitting, what about that sitting? Is it a flip? Is it
“brisk and lively” ? Is it thinking? Is it not thinking? Is it
making? Is it without making? Are we sitting within
sitting? Are we sitting within body and mind? Are we
sitting having sloughed off “within sitting,” “within body
and mind,” and so on? We should investigate one
thousand points, ten thousand points, such as these. “We
should do the sitting with legs crossed of the body; we
should do the sitting with legs crossed of the mind; we
should do the sitting with legs crossed of the body and
mind sloughed off.”1
Thus, King Mara is startled and frightened to perceive
the depiction of [someone] sitting with legs crossed _ how
much more [someone] actually sitting with legs crossed; the
virtue cannot be fully reckoned. This being the case, the
merit of our ordinary sitting is measureless.
My former master, the old buddha, said,
“Studying Zen is body and mind sloughed off. You
get it only by just sitting; you don’t need to burn
incense, make prostrations, recollect the buddha,
practice repentence, or look at scripture.”2
The Buddha Shakyamuni addressed the great assembly
Therefore, [the Buddha] sits with legs crossed.
Further, the Thus Come One, the World
Honored One, instructs his disciples that they
should sit like this. Factions of the outsiders seek
the way while always keeping a leg raised, or seek
the way while always standing, or seek the way
with their legs on their shoulders. Thus, their
minds are crazed, sinking in the sea of falsity, and
their bodies are ill at ease. Therefore, the Buddha
instructs his disciples to sit with legs crossed, to sit
with mind upright. Why? Because, when the body
is upright, the mind is easily corrected. When
one’s body is sitting upright, the mind will not
slacken. With straightforward mind and correct
attention, one fastens thought in front of one. If
the mind wanders, if the body leans, one controls
them and brings them back. Wishing to realize
samadhi, wishing to enter samadhi, one collects
the multiple wandering thoughts, the multiple
distractions. Training in this way, he realizes and
enters the king of samadhis samadhi.
For the last four or five hundred years, clearly my
former master is the only one who has plucked out the eye
of the buddhas and ancestors, who sits within the eye of
the buddhas and ancestors. There are few of equal stature
in the land of Chinasthana [i.e, China]. It is rare to have
clarified that sitting is the buddha dharma, that the
buddha dharma is sitting. Even if [some] realize sitting as
the buddha dharma, they have not understood sitting as
sitting _ let alone maintained the buddha dharma as the
buddha dharma.
This being the case, there is the sitting of the mind,
which is not the same as the sitting of the body. There is
the sitting of the body, which is not the same as the sitting
of the mind. There is the sitting of the body and mind
sloughed off, which is not the same as the sitting of the
body and mind sloughed off. To be like this is the
accordance of practice and understanding of the buddhas
and ancestors. We should maintain this thought, idea, and
perception; we should investigate this mind, mentation,
and consciousness.
Upon coming from the west, the First Ancestor, the
worthy Bodhidharma, passed nine autumns in seated
meditation with legs crossed facing a wall at Shaolin
monastery at Shaoshi Peak. Thereafter, his head and eyes
have filled the world of the land of Chinasthana till now.
The vital artery of the First Ancestor is just sitting with legs
crossed. Prior to the First Ancestor’s coming from the west,
beings in the eastern lands had not known sitting with legs
crossed; after the ancestral master came from the west, they
knew it. Therefore, for one life or ten thousand lives,
grasping the tail and taking the head, without leaving the
“grove,” just sitting with legs crossed day and night,
without other business _ this is the king of samadhis
Clearly we know that sitting with legs crossed is the king
of samadhis samadhi, is realization and entrance. All the
samadhis are the attendants of this king samadhi. Sitting
with legs crossed is upright body, is upright mind, is upright
body and mind, is upright buddha and ancestor, is upright
practice and realization, is upright head, is upright vital
Now crossing the legs of the human skin, flesh, bones,
and marrow, one crosses the legs of the king of samadhis
samadhi. The World Honored One always maintains
sitting with legs crossed; and to the disciples he correctly
transmits sitting with legs crossed; and to the humans and
gods he teaches sitting with legs crossed. The mind seal
correctly transmitted by the seven buddhas is this.5
The Buddha Shakyamuni, sitting with legs crossed under
the bodhi tree, passed fifty small kalpas, passed sixty kalpas,
passed countless kalpas. Sitting with legs crossed for
twenty-one days, sitting cross-legged for one time _ this is
turning the wheel of the wondrous dharma; this is the
buddha’s proselytizing of a lifetime. here is nothing lacking.
This is the yellow roll and vermillion spindle. The buddha
seeing the buddha is this time. This is precisely the time
when beings attain buddhahood.6
Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma
The King of Samadhis Samadhi
Number 66
Presented to the assembly fifteenth day, second month,
second year of Kangen (kinoe-tatsu) [i.e., 1244], at
Kippo hermitage, region of Etsu
4. The expression “vital artery” is regularly used by Dogen
to indicate the authentic lineage of the buddhas and Zen
1. The questions, “is it thinking,” and “is it making,”
doubtless allude to two of Dogen’s favorite koan about
zazen practice: Weiyan’s “thinking of not thinking,” and
Mazu’s “figuring to make a buddha.” His discussion of
them can be found in the Shobogenzo zazen shin (“Lancet
of Meditation”).
5. The seven buddhas are the standard set of ancient
buddhas up to and including Shakyamuni.
6. The expression “yellow roll and vermillion spindle” refers
to a roll of text; hence, a scripture or, by extension, the
teachings of the buddha.
2. Dogen’s source for this saying, versions of which appear
elsewhere in his writings, is unknown.
7. The expression “grasping the tail and taking the head”
means “from head to tail,” or “from beginning to end,”
“through and through.” The term “grove” here refers to
the Zen monastery.
3. This and the following quotation reflect a passage in
the Dazhidu lun (“Treatise on the Great Perfection of
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Correction: On page 6 of Dharma Eye No. 17, it was noted that Jakkoji is located in Muenster, Germany.
Jakkoji is located in Schonboken, Germany.

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