Archive for March, 2015

Hearing this simply perceive the source!
Make no criterion: if you do not see the way,
You do not see it even as you walk on it.
When you walk the way, you draw no nearer, progress no farther:
Who fails to see this is mountains and rivers away.
Listen, those who would pierce this subtle matter,
Do not waste your time by night or day!

These are the last seven verses of the Sandokai. We will be looking at the meaning for each of us in these very simple yet profound words. Shohaku Okumura goes on to write in his book, Living by Vow, about the importance of these last verses as we use them in our practice and in our daily lives.

All doctrines, theories, and descriptions using words and concepts are distorted images of reality from our own point of view. When we realize this, even a distorted copy can be useful. However, if we mistake the distorted map for the true reality, we stray, making up our own standards of judgment (page 247).[1]

“Making up our own standards of judgment” would often put us outside of what we know about Zen Buddhism and the way of life prescribed in its teachings and precepts. It will bring our focus into the material and physical worlds and out of the world beyond things and thoughts and the precepts by which we live our lives as Buddhists.

He goes on to write:

By just sitting and letting go of thought, we can be within reality. Just sitting allows us to put our entire being on the ground of reality. But usually we make up our own standards and create our distorted version of reality. Therefore, we need to constantly practice letting go. When we place ourselves on the ground of reality, we will find the path we need to walk. Otherwise, we will be lost in the map made by our minds (page 247-48).[2]

So instead of letting our idle minds, fears, and distortions of reality control our life let us focus on the words of the Sandokai and remember that even when we are on the path we may “fail to see this.” So how about ensuring that you sit daily to help “ground” yourself even if it is only 10 minutes. Then each day you will get closer and closer to piercing “this subtle matter.” Closer to finding your way into peace, love, and compassion. Closer to living the life of the Buddha and those teachers and followers who have been able to “perceive the source.” And through that perception make this life a grand experiment where we “walk the talk” and “talk the talk” and “live the talk.”

What a beautiful life that would be. What a wonderful world that would be. So let’s try it each day, moment by moment, why not? What have we got to lose—fear, anxiety, greed, ego, illness, and anger? “Do not waste your time by night or day” on those things.—Let’s make our life “moment by moment” one filled with love for the dharma and all its myriad things both visible and invisible “without making any criteria” and your life will be transformed. Without preferences you might say—simply perceive the source.” Then move toward it with each step. Good luck with that!

“Who fails to see this is mountains and rivers away.”


In gassho,



[1] Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow, A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

[2] Ibid.

PHOTO: http://listeningwiththeeye.squarespace.com/galleries/color/craggy-gardens.jpg

Read Full Post »

Each thing has its own being which is not different
From its place and function.
The relative fits the absolute as a box and its lid.
The absolute meets the relative like two arrow points that touch high in the air.

Once again Shohaku Okumura shares his insight in his book Living by Vow, on these lines:
“Each thing has its own being which is not different from its place and function.”

“We have a responsibility to accept this unique body and mind and put it to use. To fulfill the potential of this body and mind, we have to find an appropriate situation and embrace it as our own life, as our own work (page 245).”[1]

Today would be a great day to think about your potential and how you are using or not using “this unique body and mind” that you have been given. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Because you are alive everything is possible.” What possibilities are being revealed to us today? Are we using all of our skills, talents, and knowledge to do what we have been sent here to do?

As a Unity minister I spent many days creating affirmations for my congregants to use daily in their lives. This is one that I have used for many years: I am open and receptive to receive my good in health, wealth, and happiness to do the things I have come here to do.

I found that sometimes I would wake up with these questions in mind, “What have I been born for, why am I here, what’s this life all about anyway?” And off and on during the day I found myself pondering those questions until one day I wrote the previous affirmation to help find the answer to those questions. The affirmation inspires me to: Do what will keep me healthy in mind, body, and spirit. To have enough money to do the things that I have come here to do. And to be happy!

I still say it daily and find that I continue to be guided to see the simple things in my life that I am led to do. Helping an elderly person lift something heavy in the grocery store, consoling a friend after the loss of a loved one, or something as simple as letting a car go in front of me in a long line of traffic. It may sound way too simple but it follows Okumura’s words, “to find an appropriate situation and embrace it as our own life, as our own work.” Just as a “box and its lid” fit tightly into one vessel. The work does not have to be designing a spaceship to Mars or curing cancer, but simple acts of kindness can do things for that person that you may not ever have expected or will ever find out about. And that’s the best part!

In the next part Okumura writes:

Shitou says that phenomena and principle, difference and unity, should meet like the arrows. Our practice is to actualize this relationship between difference and unity in each situation. For example, we cannot live by ourselves. We are part of a community, and yet no matter where I live, I am I. I cannot be another person, and yet to be a member of a community I have to transcend “I am I” and see the situation of the whole community (page 246).[2]

And so there is me, myself, and I. Along with this reality there are others that live on this planet with whom we have to function on a daily basis. People in our families, at work, in our communities and more. Each different and yet the same, with dreams, wishes, and aspirations for themselves and their families. As a Buddhist I feel drawn to being a part of this planet with all of its intricacies and challenges to endeavor to make it just a little bit better for all those who happen to pass my way, whether on purpose or by accident. As our eyes may meet in a quick glance I smile and you smile back and we have joined like “two arrow points that touch high in the air.”

In gassho,



[1] Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow, A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

[2] Ibid.

Read Full Post »

Light is also darkness, but do not move with it as darkness.
Darkness is light; do not see it as light.
Light and darkness are not one, not two,
Like the foot before and the food behind in walking

Again Shohaku Okamura describes the light and darkness thus in his book Living by Vow (2012): “Light and darkness are always together. We cannot understand our life through only one aspect (page 241).”[1]

Remember the line says, “Light and darkness are not one, not two, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.” When we try to make this differentiation or discriminate between the two we give power and focus to one or the other.

Sekkei Harada in his beautiful book Unfathomable Depths (2014) writes:

“Nowadays, the word discrimination has a bad connotation, but discrimination against certain things or other people is not the sense meant here. Difference simply exists, so it is not possible to say that differences are truly good or bad, or to make comparisons. What this means is that in the face of the utter distinction of each of the myriad dharmas, all thoughts and illusions come apart and disappear (page 121).”[2]

As in life there are dark moments and light moments in juxtaposition on all planes: mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological and we use our thoughts and actions to discriminate between them. And eventually they all “come apart and disappear.”

It is how we see these juxtapositions of life that make us who we are and make our lives what they are. We use discrimination to put life into neat columns of good and bad, light and dark, up and down. And that just makes life more complex because how do we know what is really good or bad since the word itself holds no power or life.

If someone brings you a delicious cake for your birthday and you enjoy a piece or two that is good! If you eat the entire cake yourself and it makes you sick, that is bad. So is the word “cake” inherently good or bad? Who’s to say? When we use our power of “discrimination” which column would we put the cake in?

If I ruminate over that situation long enough I might just decide to make a change for the better (never eat a whole cake again by myself). Does that make the word “ruminate” bad or good? Did the word have weight and measure and life? If we used our power of “discrimination” here which column would we put the word “cake” in now: good or bad?

Harada again writes some powerful ideas:

“When we use the words “good” or “bad,” we tend to think that there actually is something “good” or something “bad.” But there is no difference with regard to things themselves. We use words to discriminate, but within things themselves, there is neither good nor bad, like nor dislike, beautiful nor ugly. These judgments are only within our minds. Things themselves do not change (page 167).”[3]

That is not to say that we need to totally get rid of “discrimination” from our lives that could be dangerous as well. If we can’t discriminate between good food and spoiled food we could get very sick. If we can’t discriminate between healthy relationships and unhealthy ones we could be in trouble as well. And so…we have “light and darkness” not one and not two.

Okamura goes on to write:

“[Shitou] He shows us that differentiation between darkness and light is just another kind of discrimination. He discriminates between these two and then integrates them. This is a very practical wisdom, free from both discrimination and nondiscrimination. It is a more natural function of our life (page 244)”[4]

It is not easy to decipher these four lines. So I recommend that you contemplate them and discover how and what they mean to you and how they appear in your life.

Our lives are so much better when we give up our demands and preferences and our ideas of good and bad and just live in the moment fully and lovingly and let go of our addictions and our grasping and groping at life as we try desperately to keep it from slipping away.

In gassho,



[1] Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow, A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

[2] Harada, S. (2014) Unfathomable Depths Drawing Wisdom for Today from a Classical Zen Poem. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

[3] Ibid.

[4] Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow, A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

Read Full Post »

Contemplative engagement with a text. Fantastic piece to help you and your students engage with your writing, their writing, and the writing of others. I Hope you’ll check it out and share it with your students, faculty, and anyone else you think will enjoy reading it.  In gassho, Shokai

Read Full Post »

The four elements return to their true nature as a child to its mother.

Fire is hot, water is wet, wind moves and the earth is dense.

Eye and form, ear and sound, Nose and smell, tongue and taste…the sweet and sour.

Each independent of the other like leaves that come from the same root;

And though leaves and root must go back to the source,

Both root and leaves have their own uses.

These passages can be translated as being not the physical elements of fire, wind, water, and earth as such. Shohaku Okumura in his book Living by Vow elaborates on their true meaning for us.

For example, fire represents body heat; wind symbolizes breathing and moving; water denotes blood, tears, or other bodily liquids; and earth suggests bones, nails, hair, and other solids. In addition to these four, Mahayana Buddhism considers ku, which means “emptiness” or “space,” the fifth gross element. In Chinese, space and emptiness are represented by the same character, which means “sky.” Everything occupies space, so space is, in a sense, another element (pages 234-5).[1]

We live, as the name of the sutra says, in the world of the relative and the world of the absolute. And not only do we live in it but as Okumura says we “are” it. There is no separation of our physical bodies and the entire world even to the great big sky. He suggests that we should free ourselves from “words” and transcend them and look to the “middle waying and yangy.”

The symbol of yin and yang is a great example of this, he says. They oppose, they intermingle, and they merge. There is a black dot in the middle of the white, and a white dot in the middle of the black. Thus the symbol illustrates separation, and merging, and oneness, and difference, masculine and feminine, and yet all working together to create the whole.

He says, “This circle is called the “great ultimate.” It is the source in “Sandokai (page 238).”[2]

And yet we live our lives in a “dualistic” way, focused on separation, differences, likes and dislikes. We are encouraged when we come to Zen and learn to sit zazen to drop the duality and merge into the emptiness of the sky. Doing this can help us in many ways from relieving the body of tension and stress, calming the monkey mind and bringing it to quiet and stillness, and freeing the body from physical pain. Not that we focus on doing these things or try to make them happen, it is just a result of the body and mind becoming one with quiet, stillness and emptiness.

Even the heart knows the stillness within the body. After the lub/dub sounds of the heart valves pushing the blood through the heart into the arteries in a healthy person the sounds disappear.

If a stethoscope is placed over the brachial artery in the antecubital fossa in a normal person (without arterial disease), no sound should be audible.[3] What a great illustration of the place to be when sitting in the silence. Our body instinctively knows what to do without us doing a thing.

As I was writing this blog I was led to sit for a short period and at the end of my sit the words to this chant began to sing in my head. We used to chant this simple little song each week at Unity Church before we began the meditation.

In the silence there is a sacred place, a secret meeting place, Love is there. In the silence where every color blends, and every rainbow ends, Good is there.   In the light now you find that you know peace of mind. In the silence your path is paved in gold, and all your dreams unfold; Love is there, Peace is there, Truth is there, God is there.”

What a beautiful illustration of the Sandokai, whether you believe in a god or not, the chant worked. It brought everyone into stillness and into a deeper meditation than some thought possible.

For most this process of stillness occurs after much time spent in zazen. It does not occur over night. It is not something to get stressed about. You need not spend time wondering why your monkey mind is still raging, comparing yourself to others in the group, or trying to make something happen. It is simply coming to sit—with no goals in mind except sitting.

I know that sounds crazy and it probably is. But the sky does not try to be the sky, it just is. The rainbow does not try to be a rainbow it just is. The moon and the sun do not try to be moon and sun. The sun does not wish to be the moon and vice versa. They all just “be” it.

You too can just be the four elements and the emptiness and the rainbow and the stillness whenever and wherever you are. In fact you are already it…there is nothing to search for. Just be it and watch what happens in your life without any work from you at all.

In gassho,



[1] Okumura, S. (2012) Living by Vow, A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts. Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korotkoff_sounds

Read Full Post »