A hundred and fifty years ago there lived a woman named Sono, whose devotion and purity of heart were respected far and wide. One day a fellow Buddhist, having made a long trip to see her, asked: “What can I do to put my heart at rest?” She said: “Every morning and every evening, and whenever anything happens to you, keep on saying: Thanks for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.” The man did as he was instructed, for a whole year, but his heart was still not at peace. He returned to Sono, crestfallen: “I’ve said your prayer over and over, and yet nothing in my life has changed; I’m still the same selfish person as before. What should I do now?” Sono immediately said: “Thanks for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.” On hearing these words, the man was able to open his spiritual eye, and returned home with a great joy.
This universal vow is the vow which the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara made, acting as representative of all Bodhisattvas. We are told of this in chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra. The term Bodhisattva means “Enlightened Being”. Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit) is better known to us as Kanzeon, Kannon, or Kwannon in Japanese, or also as Kuan Yin in Chinese. This being is known as the Bodhisattva of compassion. He hears the sound of the world, that is to say the sighs of the beings that are suffering, and he reacts to them. In the course of the Buddhist history this figure has changed it’s gender a few times; was temporarily depicted as woman and then again as man, or without explicit gender features. It is not a historical being that once really lived.
With this vow he made, Avalokiteshvara committed himself on not entering Nirvana, on renouncing the final liberation of reincarnations, as well as reaching Buddhahood until all sentient beings are led to liberation from suffering. This fundamental attitude is the great ideal in the Mahayana Buddhisme, to which also our Zen school belongs. By way of contrast the Hinayana Buddhisme, also called Theravada Buddhisme, emphasizes the individual liberation, the personal entering of Nirvana.
Each time when we start Zazen at our Dojo we recite the Heart Sutra, the Great Light Dharani, and at the end the Four Great Vows:
However innumerable all beings are, we vow to save them all
However inexhaustible delusions are, we vow to extinguish them all
However immeasurable Dharma teachings are, we vow to master them all
However endless the Buddha’s way is, we vow to follow it
These Four Great Vows are in their meaning identical with Avalokiteshvara’s vow. They are adapted to the feeling of us practicing humans to be still far away of Buddhahood. Out of this feeling, and being honest, it seems to us completely impossible to fulfill these vows. Nevertheless we repeat them over and over again. They are none other than the complete expression of our intrinsic Buddhanature. Whenever we recite these vows wholeheartedly, and decide to try to fulfill them as best as we can, at this moment we are none other than Buddha. To live this attitude, no matter what happens, without if, or when, means to be liberated from suffering, to be liberated from separation. This attitude lets us dissolve into the whole, lets us overcome the narrow and limited views of the individual and egoistic being. Exactly in this lies the immeasurable depth of these vows which we recite again and again. May our compassion extend over the whole universe and become deep as the ocean.
Konnichi wa – that’s how Japanese people greet each other in everyday language. Literally translated it means “Today”, or “This day”, and is equivalent to our Good Day or Hello. So Konnichi means today.
The expression “Buji” is much more difficult to translate. It is a combination of “Bu”, which means no, nothing, not, and is a synonym to our “Mu” and to the Chinese “Wu”. And “Ji” means activity, event, to do, to want and to exist. So Buji means: Nothing to do, no duty, nothing to attain, no wanting, or “No Doing”, like the Chinese Wu Wei. Here in the West Wu Wei is known from the Asian martial arts, like Kung Fu, Wing Tsun and Wushu, and also from Tai Chi and Qi Gong. To keep it simple I will write in the following text of No Doing.
In Konfucianisme and Taoisme in ancient China, as well as beyond, in all East-Asian culture, this No Doing was regarded to be a recommended attitude, or quality, of people with great responsibilities such as kings or emperors. In the Tao Te King appears this saying: “With No Doing, nothing remains undone.” We feel already that this No Doing does not at all mean that we should spend the day without moving in bed or on the couch. But if we can, without having any intention, without pursuing any goal, without wanting anything, just be aware of the present moment, then we can perceive what needs to be done right now. Have we finished the meal, the dishes are waiting to be washed. Is there a little or a big human child crying, it wants to be comforted. When dust has settled, we should clean. The founder of our Zen school, Rinzai Gigen Zenji Dai Osho, who passed away around 867 in ancient China, once said in one of his talks:
“As to Buddha Dharma, no artificial effort is necessary. Just be natural, don’t strive. Shitting, pissing, putting on clothes, eating food, and lying down when you are tired. Fools may laugh at me, but the wise understand.”
This attitude of No doing stands in sharp contrast to the values that are honored within our society. From early childhood on we are told to pursue goals, to educate and optimize ourselves, to make “something” out of our lives, to attain material wealth and to be esteemed by the society. And through all this striving we lose ourselves and become separated from our inner source. Not that we really could separate from it. It brings us forth all the time and is ever present within us as the primary origin. But we lose sight of it, lose our connection with it and become unaware of our origin. This “making something out of our lives” is like putting legs to a snake, or like putting another hat on our hat. Where then do we come from? Are we not completely and fully alive as we are? Can a blade of grass, can the sun, can a rose make more out of itself? Because they are 100% what they are, through this fact they are unique, unrepeatable and wonderful. It is a great mistake to think that with us humans it is a different story. Were not all of us born all by itself? Didn’t we grow up all by itself, developed from baby to child, from child to teenager, from teenager to adult, without being able to do anything toward or against it? Are we not, as diverse and imperfect as we are, absolutely complete and perfect? Why have we lost confidence in this incomprehensible, not understandable something, or better nothing (MU), which creates us, the world, and the boundless universe with unfathomable wisdom.
Only a human, who has emptied himself of all inner noise, of all wanting, of all judgment, attainment and avoidance, can wholeheartedly react to the world. Had Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, an inner agenda, a plan, or an intension to help all sentient beings in their suffering – never ever would he be able to hear their sighing and to spontaneously react out of his compassion. Indeed – only with No Doing nothing remains undone.
To conclude I would like to point out the spontaneous, lighthearted easiness and elegance with which the artist wrote this calligraphy, completely in harmony with the meaning of the words.
This quotation is part of a sentence that supposedly Confucius himself had said around 290 before Christ in ancient China: “The way is near, but we seek it far away; the work is easy, but we seek the difficulties.”
The Way, Dao in Chinese, Dô in Japanese, can be interpreted in different ways. Most commonly it is understood to be the Way from A to B along the edge of the forest, or through the gauge or so. It also bears the meaning of the course of our life on which we are on the Way. Any proceeding development can be understood as Way. And so our Zen practice, our training is also called Way. The word Dôjo is composed of Dô = Way, and Jo = place; so the Dôjo is the location where practice takes place. This applies not only for places where Zen is practiced, but also for some other Ways of practice, especially Far Eastern martial arts like Judo, Karate and Aikido. Also we often use the word Zendo, which is an abbreviation of Zen Dôjo.
So, this Way of ours is supposed to be near. We don’t need to seek it far away. We don’t need to fly to Japan to practice Zen. Most likely we can easily agree to this. But Zen has put the words of Confucius even more concretely and says: The Way lies under your feet! Wherever we are, whatever we do, it is none other than the Way, our Way, our development, our proceeding, our practice. We don’t need to fly to Japan, not even to travel to the Dôjo, not even to leave the house.
If we look from this fundamental point of view, all humans, in a even deeper sense all manifestations, are on the Way, ceaselessly developing and changing. If we ask about the goal of this Way, in other words, if we look for the goal in a distance, we go wrong. Not anywhere else than where we are at the time the Way fulfills itself every moment. Have we returned to the origin and source of our being, we are completely at home and present in the Here and Now. Then we experience what is described in the Zen story “The bull and the herdsman” at the ninth step, the one before the last.:
“Already the herdsman has spent all the powers of his heart and went all the Ways to the end.
Even the clearest awakening does not surpass being blind and deaf.
The way which he had come, ended under his straw sandals.
No bird sings. Red flowers bloom in splendid confusion.”
Translated quotation from the book: Der Ochs und sein Hirte, Günther Neske Verlag
Being blind and deaf, which are praised here, of course do not mean the ordinary way of not being able to see and hear. They mean to be freed of the greed for gain and the fear of loss, to be freed from the opinions about Good and Bad that stand up against each other like spears on the battlefield. Or even more essentially: Buji – No doing! If we are not there yet, we have to spend all might of our heart, have to practice, have to search around, have to come to the Dôjo to practice with the others, and maybe even have to fly to Japan, until the endless Way ends under our feet, until we arrive at where we are right now.
This expression “Chisoku” is of utmost importance in Zen. It is composed of two Kanji (Chinese characters), which we can clearly see in this calligraphy. The character above to the right is Chi = knowledge, or to know; and the lower one on the left side is Soku = enough, sufficient. So, the meaning is to know that there is enough. There is enough of everything, sufficient, more than sufficient, more than enough. The statement of this fact goes completely against our endless human discontentment. If things would go according to this discontentment, it would never be enough. Even when we have achieved what we had wished for, the next wish follows immediately, and we want more and something better.
This attitude of modesty, like so much in Zen can be traced back to the ancient Daoism in China. In the Tao Te Ching the word Zhisu, Chinese for Chisoku, appears two times, namely in the chapters 33 and 44. I quote from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching into English:
“If you realize that you have enough (Chisoku), you are truly rich.”
“Be content with what you have (Chisoku), rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
When we hear that there is enough of everything, we may think mainly of food, money, space to live, of friends, of things that we need and have to make efforts to get. But how about illnesses, limitations, boredom, pain, whether physical or emotional, hunger, loneliness and all those things that we feel we don’t need, that we feel we could live without. Our selfishness, our egoism strictly holds on to the opinion that we only need those features which are pleasant and which grant our survival. Because our egoism obscures and fogs our view, we have great difficulties to realize that nothing in this universe is superfluous, that everything is needed and has its purpose, which may be hidden from our understanding. If we scale down all our pretensions, all our claims toward life to Zero, only then we can realize and experience that there is enough of everything. Only then we can gratefully accept life – exactly as it is – as a gift.
This calligraphy is written freely. Below I added the print version of it so that we can see how the calligrapher converted the classical Ideograms into a dynamic, lively and intuitively written piece of art. The one stroke to the right means One – Ichi in Japanese. And Nyo means absolute, or the absolute; like in the dedication to the Heart Sutra: Buddha Shakyamuni Nyorai. So, we could translate this calligraphy literally and awkwardly as: One Absolute. But this Absolute is so absolute, that it cannot be One, even less Two. It is indefinite, that is to say without beginning, without an end, pervading everything, not graspable, timeless, everlasting, not existing, and yet it brings forth all forms. In Zen we call it Mu.
But enough now with this intellectual smarty talk. How can we arrive at being completely dissolved in this absolute, at feeling One with it. In our Koan training we are told to become one with the Koan, with the situation that appears in it, in order to find a solution to it. And in our everyday life as well we are advised to become one with the circumstances in order to be able to react adequately. And sometimes, only all to seldom, there are these moments in our lives when „everything is all right“, as we might say. These are moments in which there is no inner resistance against the circumstances, as they are right at that moment. Moments in which we can leave ourselves to the situation, without being intoxicated; in which we are carried by life, in accordance with the universe, and are aware with a sense of happiness, that everything is as it is. But if there stirs the slightest critical thought, the tiniest discontentment, even just with ourselves, this state is lost, and we find ourselves again in the well known feeling of „not yet“, paradise is still far away. Usually we see the cause of this in the circumstances not being as they should be, or in ourselves not being so advanced in our development as we hoped for. After years of practice, of Zen training, we become aware of the fact, that it is not the circumstances that hinder us from being one with. As long as we try to bend the circumstances to our likes, as long we are battling them, and therefore separated from them. Only when we have given up trying to change the world can we become one with it, can we accept and enjoy it as it is. This inner attitude is often seen as fatalistic and therefore gets criticized. But this critic is very superficial and shallow. When we accept the circumstances as they are right now, that does not mean that we cannot be active and change whatever needs to be changed. Let’s say we sit at the table after a nice dinner and we notice the dishes, dirty as they are, still standing on the table. We can talk about them, or be annoyed, discuss how we could avoid this, or even try to find the guilty person who would have to clean them. But we also could simply accept them, become one with them, and as a natural response could bring the dishes to the kitchen and wash them. What might be easy for us with the dishes, can be quite difficult in other situations. Our stubborn self-will is almost limitless. The conviction that we are entitled to have the universe, the world, the circumstances, as well as ourselves as we like it is hard to uproot. To extinguish the base of this egoism is our practice. It cannot be done in an instance. To drill and grind patiently is necessary. Repetition, repetition, repetition, and again and again the change between Zazen, Sesshin and our everyday life, in which our contemplation and insight has to be proven, are our never ending practice on the way.
Once our self-will has ceased, once we have died the great death, once immersed into the absolute, we share the experience of the herdsman taming the ox on the next to last step of his development:
Done is what had to be done, and all ways are completed.
Clearest awakening does not differ from being blind and deaf.
The way he once came has ended under his straw sandals.
No bird sings. Red flowers bloom in glorious splendor.
Great courage is necessary to become like dead ashes, to die once the great death. But only so we can become aware of the absolute, immerse in it, become one with it. To a certain degree we can intellectually understand the meaning of these words. The exhausting practice and the experience, our own becoming One, are of a completely different existentially shattering power. Finally arrived at home, there is nothing left to do. Wondrously life lives itself.
Death and life – not one not two;
sun, moon and stars;
trees, grasses and flowers;
mountains, valleys and rivers;
humans, animals and viruses;
All are blessed
The word Sesshin is used in Zen cireles for a period of time in which the
practice of Zazen (sitting meditation) is conducted as the main occupation of the participants.
Sesshin can last something between 1 and 10 days, and the hours of Zazen
practice during a Sesshin day can vary between 8 and 16 hours.
The word Sesshin literally means:
Se = to touch, to get in close contact;
Shin = our heart-spirit (our original, true being).
So Sesshin means to make
the utmost effort to get in close contact, to become aware of our innermost
true being. This true being, our heart spirit, is always within us. From there
we are alive, from there our heart is beating and our liver is functioning.
And from there our senses perceive, and from there our compassion arises.
These vital abilities we usually take so much for granted, that we ignore
them. We are much more interested in what we perceive and whether we
like it or not. And the daily battle we fight to get what we like, and to avoid
what we don’t like lets us forget about our most inner being. When we are
able to return to this inner home, all struggles are forgotten. And we will be
able to enter again daily life – renewed, refreshed and with a sense of
unshakable trust in our self, that is to say, in our true being, that has
nothing to do with what we have learned at school and during our
To overcome our intense fascination for the play with our likes and dislikes
strict discipline is asked for, Therefore Sesshin is always strict and
demanding in discipline. Zazen practice is nothing else than the effort
needed to get away from our entangled mind, which circles around the
qualities of the circumstances we live in, and which tries to get control of
them to our advantage, again and again. When we return to our true being,
we learn to accept things and circumstances as they are. We learn not to
fight against what is, but to live in harmony with the universe and
ourselves. Zazen means to ignore our thoughts and follow our breath deep
into our unconscious. Down there, well protected from our attempt to
consciously control everything, lies this treasure, the well, from which our lives
spring. In itself it is everlasting, serene, and seemingly empty – but full
Mountain is Mountain, Water is Water
When we start to practice Zen as beginners, it is completely natural for us that a mountain is a mountain, and water is simply water. With time, if we conscientiously continue to practice and our insight into the real nature of the universe deepens, we come to the view that a mountain is not really a mountain. It looks like a mountain, we call it a mountain, but in its true nature it is “empty”, has no real existence. The ordinary, relative view on phenomena gets joined by an absolute view, in which things appear as empty, as just perceived forms, just like a film on a screen, or a Fatamorgana. In the course of our practice we switch constantly back and forth between these two views, until with time a holistic vision takes over which embraces and combines both aspects. Then we can agree from our deepest heart, and with profound understanding to:
MOUNTAIN IS MOUNTAIN – WATER IS WATER!
Everlasting Pure Wind
There is a Zen saying:
A cool wind blows softly through our mind – no matter what happens.
No matter what happens – a cool wind blows softly through our mind.
This “wind”, what is it? We know the Kôan of the flag that moves with the wind. The monks discuss whether it is the wind that moves the flag, or whether it is the flag that moves with the wind. The master tells them: “It is your mind that moves!” Basically neither the wind, nor the flag, nor the mind moves. This “basically” is the everlasting pure wind, which brings forth the countless phenomena in a wonderful and mysterious way. It blows without blowing. It blows through us and through the whole universe and moves all things, without beginning – without end. When we surrender completely to its blowing, everything is all right as it is. Then a cool wind blows softly through our mind – no matter what happens.
White Clouds fluat, float
The clouds in the sky! Constantly they are changing, moving and they stay ungraspable, and without solid substance. Sometimes they are lovely, but sometimes they are dark and seem to be threatening, or even dangerous. We advice the beginners in Zen to treat their thoughts like clouds; to let them come and let them go, without doing anything with them. Here the clouds stand as a metaphor for our thoughts, our opinions, our judgments, our ideas, our hopes and wishes, and our illusions. Ceaselessly they float through the empty sky of our consciousness. It requires much practice to just let them come and let them go. Often they appear to be fascinating and interesting, and we are tempted to interfere with them, to pursue and further develop them. When we are able to let it be, and to stay patiently and persistently with our breath, then they calm down. Then we become stable and firm, and get into a deeply rooted calmness and composure. This state is called Samadhi.
On a much deeper level, all phenomena, that which we perceive with our senses as reality, can be seen as clouds, coming and going, moved by the “Everlasting Pure Wind”. Everything is impermanent, everything is changing, and nothing lasts forever. The Diamond Sutra ends with the following beautiful verse, which expresses in a poetic way this vista:
So I tell you:
All composite things are like a dream,
a fantasy, a bubble and a shadow,
are like a dewdrop, and a flash of lightning.
They are thus to be regarded.
– And so you should
Think in this way of all this fleeting world:
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
a dewdrop, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.
Fundamentally not a thing exists
Normally we are convinced that the world, and also the sun, the stars and the moon exist, because we perceive them with our senses. But if we look at this in a honest, sober and accurate way, we have to admit: All we have at first is just this perception; we see, hear, taste, smell and feel. Only in a second step we interpret what we perceive and call it, following the common consensus, a tree, or a car, or whatever. Only with this step the perception becomes a “thing”. It becomes so to speak independent, different and apart from other “things”, or perceptions, and also from the perceiver. In deep Samadhi, in the depth of our own unconscious, we can become One with the surrounding, the situation, the “things” that are around us. In this state the perception, what is perceived, and the perceiver cannot longer be differentiated. Anybody who has made this experience of being One, knows about the deep feeling of “coming home”, which arises within ourselves at that moment; knows about the recovery that comes with it. Within this absolute connectedness with the boundless universe, and all the phenomena that arise in it, actually “not a thing” exists. Whether we human beings know it or not: Our heart deeply longs for this being in the good hands of the absolute connectedness.
Nichi nichi kore kôjitsu
Every day is a good day
Master Unmon said to his disciples, “I do not ask anything about your spriritual condition before the fifteenth day of the month, but tell me something about it after the fifteenth day of the month.” Nobody answered. So Master Unmon geve the answer for us all: “Every day is a good day.”
On the fifteenth day of the month, according to the lunar calendar, there is a full moon, which implies clear enlightenment. “After the fifteenth day of the month” means after such realization.
As for “Every day is a good day”, many are deceived by “good” and think that good is the opposite of bad. Thus, many think that “good day” means happy, beautiful day. Unmon, however, did not mean it that way. Unmon’s “good day” is far more profound. He was pointing to right here, right now, unprecedented, unrepeatable, absolute day. A good Kôan for us all is: “What kind of day is this?”
I would like to add my own comment here. From the enlightened point of view, from the absolute point of view, every single moment is as it is, and cannot be otherwise; and every day is as it is, and cannot be otherwise. No matter how we perceive the day – as boring, rainy, awful, splendid, happy or sad a.s.o. – we cannot escape it’s suchness. To fully accept each moment, to fully accept each day as it is, this is the key to “every day is a good day”. Things are as they are, and so are the moments and the days. This “as they are”, or “as it is”, means in itself “good”, far beyond good or bad. Zen practice is the practice of radical acceptance.
The Master (Rinzai) addressed the monks, saying: “Followers of the Way, as to Buddha-Dharma, no artificial effort is necessary. Just be natural, don’t strive (*Buji).
Shitting, pissing, putting on clothes,
Eating food, and lying down when tired.
Fools may laugh at me, but the wise understand.
A man of old said:
If you seek something outside yourself,
you are a great fool.”
*Buji: Nothing to do, to be free from contrivances, to be all done. He or she, who has nothing to do, is the noble human being.
From the translator’s notes:
Bu means no, or negation. JI is event, matter, action, phenomena, affair, or thing. Literally Buji means to negate all Ji.(…) When we completely realize the true nature of the universe, what seems to be Ji is, in fact, none other than Buji. There is nothing to do, no matter how hard we try. From a slightly different perspective, the closest English word to Buji is now, or as-it -is. Right now, can you improve now-ness, or as-it-is-ness? Of course not. At this moment, can you or your circumstances be otherwise? When you understand that the present moment is all there is, you have no choice but to come to a radical acceptance, and it is this radical acceptanc which is none other than true peace and composure. Buji means to be one with suchness, the unconditional nature of “let it be”, with nothing wanting, nothing superfluous.