Posts Tagged ‘Rinzai Zen’


“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”

At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.

As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.

I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation.  So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest.

I tell this story in part because I tend to dote on whatever my granddaughter says and does but mainly because Allegra’s spontaneous question exemplifies a quality common to children her age: the quality of radical innocence. Had she been a year or two older, I might have suspected a streak of mischief in her question or caught a hint of Grandpa-baiting, concocted to provoke an entertaining response. But the tone of her question was entirely neutral. Her inquiry was an expression of pure curiosity, free of judgment or critique. And it arose from a source unsullied by social conditioning.

In the Zen tradition,  that source goes by a variety of names, including “original nature,” “original face,” “true self,” “true nature,” “unborn buddha mind,” and, most often, “buddha-nature.” Whatever you choose to call it, this primal source of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity is considered to be our true essence and that of the world at large. “Buddha-nature,” Zen students chant in their morning service, “pervades the whole universe.” To be out of touch with one’s buddha-nature, as manifest in one’s “ordinary mind” and everyday activities, is to propagate delusion. To awaken to it, principally through seated meditation (zazen) but also through conducting an awakened, ethical life, is a central aim of Zen practice.

And how does one accomplish that purpose? In the Rinzai Zen tradition, a school sometimes dubbed “samurai Zen,” the practice of returning to one’s essence is likened to the swift, decisive action of a sword. In the iconography of Zen, that action is embodied in the figure of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who wields a flaming sword and represents wisdom cutting through delusion, time and again.

That revelatory action may occur in a micro-second, but its enabling external conditions include long hours of formal sitting—as many as ten a day during the retreats known as sesshin. Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, abbot of the Rinzai monastery Dai Bosatsu Zendo, describes this aspect of Zen practice as “the great deconstruction process of Zen,” in which “that small self, that constructed self, that imposter self” is exposed for what it is, and one’s “true self” is revealed. Grounded in silent, motionless sitting, the process is also one of active questioning:

Who am I? What is this? Questioning everything. That is the study we’re doing . . . Studying the self, relentlessly questioning, becomes an infinite regress—like that blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister.  . . no end to it.

By such means we “study the self,” as Zen master Eihei Dogen exhorted us to do. “Body and mind fall away,” and our “original face” comes into view.

In his poem “Innocence,” the 17th-century Anglican clergyman Thomas Traherne recalls his childhood, when “all within was pure and bright / No guilt did crush, nor fear invade / But all [his] soul was full of light.” And in his closing line, he declares that he “must become a child again.” Good luck with that, one’s seasoned mind replies. But to spend time with a three-year-old child is to be reminded that the state of radical innocence—one’s “true nature”—is more than a literary conceit or romantic ideal. It is a reality that one can witness, investigate, and with luck restore, whether serendipitously and in a moment’s time, or through the disciplined, arduous practice of zazen.

Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “Sanctity and Responsibility,” in Teachings by Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Zen Studies Society, 2016. Privately printed.

Photo: “Return to Innocence”

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  Dai Bosatsu Zendo      Meditation Hall

Dai Bosatsu Zendo
Meditation Hall

If your waking hours are anything like mine, many if not most are spent in attending to ordinary things. Although you might wish to be contemplating the meaning of life or encountering something out of the ordinary, groceries need to be bought and e-mails answered. Bills need to be paid. Whatever your spiritual aspirations, ordinary life assumes the foreground.

At first glance, Zen practice might seem a welcome escape from the daily round. At its deeper levels, Zen is indeed concerned with the alleviation of suffering, the cultivation of compassionate wisdom, and the “Great Matter” of life and death. Cloistered in their mountain monasteries or secluded in their urban centers, Zen masters and their disciples may appear to have risen above the quotidian fray and to have transcended the concerns of everyday life. (more…)

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Let us imagine that it’s a Friday afternoon, and you are driving on the New York State Thruway. You are in the passing lane, going seventy-five miles per hour. The car on your right is not slowing down, and the SUV behind you is fast approaching. You can see its emblazoned grill in your rearview mirror. You do not want to increase your speed, but the driver behind you is leaving you no choice.

As the SUV draws closer, you feel your heart rate increasing, your anger arising. You can’t see the driver in your mirror, but you can well imagine him: an aggressive, insensitive lout, with no concern for anyone but himself. As you reluctantly speed up and move over, an epithet comes to mind, and you let it slip from your lips. It is not a nice word, but it gives you satisfaction.

Moments later, the SUV passes on your left, and you see that the driver is not a lout at all but a petite, professional-looking woman in her thirties, who is keeping her eyes on the road, apparently unaware of your distress. And a few minutes later, after she and her SUV have long since disappeared, you realize that your anger, too, has disappeared and your clarity of mind is slowly returning. It is as if a veil, through which you were viewing the world, has gradually been lifted. (more…)

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In the Rinzai Zen tradition, the first interview between student and teacher is an auspicious formal occasion. The required attire includes not only a robe but also the white booties known as tabi, which cover the feet and ankles. Tabi are fastened with hooks and eyes located on the inside of the ankle.  For Westerners they are difficult to manage, even on the best of days.

On the morning of my own first interview with Jiro Osho Fernando Afable at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, a formal Rinzai monastery, I forgot all about my tabi. They were nestled like sleeping rabbits in the sleeves of my robe. As I prepared to leave for my interview, a senior monk noticed my oversight. He gestured sternly toward my feet, and I took his point.

Unfortunately, there are no chairs in a Japanese zendo. Rather than hunker on a cushion, I stood on one foot, then the other, as I struggled to put on my tabi. At one point, I hopped; at another, I nearly fell over. It must have taken me three minutes to marshal my partially hooked tabi into a semblance of order.  Meanwhile, the senior monk was summoning every bit of his Zen discipline to keep a straight face. I suspect that he told the story to his fellow monks later on.

Embarrassing though it was, my awkwardness was not unusual. Ceremonial forms abound in Japanese Zen, and to the uninitiated Westerner they often feel as alien as they are compelling. From the relatively simple protocol known as jukai, in which a lay practitioner “receives the precepts,” to the high theater of shitsugo, in which a seasoned priest receives the title of roshi, public ceremonies acknowledge the practitioner’s deepening insight. And even on ordinary days, when nothing special is being recognized, celebrated, or commemorated, a sense of ceremony permeates the zendo. It can be seen in the bows and heard in the bells. It can be smelled in the incense. For the Western lay practitioner, this pervasive atmosphere of ceremony presents a challenge to the skeptical mind as well as the reluctant body. How much Asian ceremony should be included in a Western lay practice? How much is essential?

In addressing those questions, it is important to remember that Asian ceremonial forms, as used in Zen, exist primarily to support the practice of mindfulness. Pressing the palms together and bowing to one’s teacher, for example, is a way of expressing gratitude and respect. But it is also a way of knowing that one is expressing gratitude and respect and a way of cultivating those states of mind. For those prepared to embrace them, the bows, chants, prostrations, and other elements of traditional Zen can become as integral to the practice as awareness of breath and posture.

For those who are not, however, there is another way of integrating a sense of ceremony into one’s daily life. It is well described by Brother Joseph Keenan (1932-1999), who taught religion at La Salle University and was also a master of the Japanese tea ceremony:

The making of a bed, the folding of laundry, walking down stairs, driving a car to work — instead of racing through these actions with the mind-set of simply getting them done, savor them as present moments which contain hidden riches, and do them in the most beautiful way. Do them not from egotistical motives of self-fulfillment, but rather as gifts to the world that express to those you meet that you really want to present the best to them. In this approach to life even in today’s world . . . the niggling details of the daily grind can become moments of joy, moments filled with sweet nectar to be savored rather than tension-filled tasks. With this sort of attention to mundane actions, you can open yourself and others to a greater awareness of what is around you in the here and now.*

Although Brother Keenan is speaking of the tea ceremony, his description applies equally to a committed lay practice. In such a practice, each mundane task becomes an occasion for ceremonial regard. Each is an end in itself, not a means to a practical end. Each is an act of giving.


* Brother Joseph Keenan, “Tea for All Nations: The Japanese Tea Ceremony”


See also http://www.phillytea.org/about.html

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