When one of my granddaughters puts on a new dress or outfit she will often ask me, “Grandpa, do you like it?” I usually reply, “Turn around and let me see how you look.” Zazen is the practice of turning our attention around to see how we look, to see what is really going on in our thoughts and emotions.
In old western movies I remember hearing this line, “If you know what’s good for you Mister, you’ll turn that horse around and ride right back to where you came from.” Zazen is the practice of turning around the ox we are riding on and heading back to where we came from.
Upon arriving in China with the hope of introducing Zen, Bodhidharma had a very brief and baffling question and answer exchange with Emperor Wu of Liang concerning the teachings. Bodhidharma, realizing that the time was not yet ripe for introducing Zen, turned around and walked away, crossing the Yangtze River and heading north to finally settle at Shao-lin Monastery in northern China. It is here he turned around and faced the wall for nine years. Nine years of facing the wall with no questioning or answering, waiting for the appropriate time to ripen.
One day Master Tokusan came down to the dining room for lunch and was told by an arrogant young student of his that the lunch bell had not yet been rung, lunch was not ready, and why had he come down early? Surely Tokusan could see the pride in this young monk’s face who felt he had bested the old master. Tokusan turned around and returned to his room without saying a single word. Zazen is the practice of turning around, returning to our room without saying a word, awaiting the call of the bell.
In the song Turn Around by Malvina Reynolds, we hear these words, “Turn around and she’s two,Turn around and she’s four,Turn around and she’s a young girl going out of the door.” Time flies like an arrow from a bow and so Zen encourages us to take some time each day to turn around in zazen and shine the light of attention upon ourself to get our house in order before turning around once again and going out of the door.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 3/19/18
It Doesn’t Pass Here
Master Hogan was asked, “If someone is seeking an understanding of Buddha, what is the best path to doing so?” Hogan said, “It doesn’t pass here.”
This is direct pointing at its best. The path ends here, in this place.
Place is very important in Zen. Master Joshu and Master Hyakujo and many other Zen teachers were named after the places where their monasteries were located. Master and mountain share the same family name.
Seeing the morning star, Buddha was awakened, being awakened Buddha reached down and touched the earth. Sky and earth, the whole universe is the home of Buddha’s enlightenment.
In the Song of Zazen, Hakuin Zenji writes, “Nirvana is right here, before our eyes, this very place is the Lotus Land.” No need to seek somewhere else, no need to look for the best path, Nirvana is right here before your eyes.
In the sutra, Identity of Absolute and Relative, we are told, “If you do not see the Way you do not see it even as you walk on it.” Every footstep you take is the Way, your every footstep walks on it.
Often in Zen stories the master will ask, “Where have you come from?” or “Where are you going?” This is direct pointing to the fact that everything is taking place right here, the whole of life is right here and only here. It doesn’t pass here. To paraphrase Rumi, “Beyond the thoughts of coming and going there is a field. I’ll meet you here.”
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 3/15/18
Upon returning to Japan from China where he had experienced profound enlightenment under Master Ju-Ching, Dogen was asked what he had brought back from China, perhaps some new texts, sacred objects, or esoteric rituals. Dogen’s reply was, “My nose is vertical and my eyes are horizontal.” I have never read what others have to say about Dogen’s reply. Many years ago my first Zen teacher, during a private meeting, tapped me on the chest and said, “Charlie, read this book..”
“My nose is vertical and my eyes are horizontal” became the book I read over and over again. As I worked on these words it became clear that Dogen was pointing to the obvious, to something as plain as the nose on my face. In the koan collection, Blue Cliff Record, we read about Master Hyakujo reaching out and grabbing Baso’s nose and giving it a good twist! We are told that with this twist, Baso realized that the universe is not veiled; all activities lie open. He was able to see the obvious right in front of his face.
Zen realization enables one to see the face of a cabbage, the face of thunder and the face of loneliness Everything has a face, everything is facing. Bodhidharma sits facing the wall, and the wall stands facing Bodhidharma. When asked, “What is the teaching of the Buddha’s lifetime?” Master Ummon replies, “Preaching facing oneness.” Ummon is facing the whole world, facing everyone and everything, and the whole world, everyone and everything is facing Ummon. It is like old friends recognizing one another instantly after years of separation.
Now we’ll sit together. In some zendos people sit facing one another, in other zendos people sit facing the wall. It doesn’t matter. Either way our practice of zazen is to sit facing ourself.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 3/7/18
Faces are important to people. There is a social media named Facebook. There is a TV show called Face The Nation. Faces appear in songs. Carole King longs to “…see your face at my door.” and Tony Bennett tells us to “…put on a happy face.” Faces appear in English idioms: a slap in the face, an about face, or falling flat on your face.
Faces also appear in the Zen world. An important Zen question is,, ” “What was your original face before your mother or father were born?” This is no ordinary question and it is no ordinary face. Master Lin-Chi says to each of us, “The true person of no rank is always going in and out the face of every one of you. Those who have not yet met this person, look, look!” The true person of no rank is an original person, an original person with an original face not given by mother or father.
You will not find this face in a book, not even a Zen book. You will not find this face in any ideas, images, or concepts you might construct, they will only be thoughts about the face. The intellect is not the mechanism for seeing your original face. You will not find this face in a mirror. There is no mirror.
You must see directly, immediately, with the unspoiled eyes of a child. Look, look!
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/26/18
No Time for Zen
Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Christian philosopher wrote, “To have no time for philosophy is to be a true philosopher.” I enjoy this statement so much. I think we can safely say, “To have no time for Zen is to be a true Zen practitioner.”
There are numerous and delightful stories concerning Zen students who in all earnestness ask the master questions about Zen. Without hesitation the master replies, “Oak tree in the garden” or “Sesame bun” or “Three pounds of flax.” An oak tree, sesame bun, or three pounds of flax has no time for Zen.
At other times the master replies, “Wash your bowls” or “Lower the flagpole” or “Go drink tea.” In other words, it is in everyday activities that we are alive. Being totally alive in the immediacy and intimacy of each activity, where is there any time for Zen?
From the Zen world we hear such phrases as “Just do it” or “Make nothing extra” or “Leave no traces”. These phrases are so easily repeated. They may roll off the tongue and lips as if they were our own words, without having any insight of our own. However, if one leaves no traces, makes nothing extra, and just does it; then where is there any time for Zen?
No time for Zen doesn’t mean no Zen. It points to a timeless Zen. During a private meeting with my first Zen teacher, she said, “Charlie, it says in the Bible, ‘In the beginning.’ When is the beginning?” She wasn’t asking for a reply or demonstration just for this special time in the private meeting room, she was pointing to a timeless Zen that is alive every moment of our daily lives.
In the movie The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings, “Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start.”
Zen is lived at the very beginning where nothing is known. This nothing known is the not knowing way of Zen. At the very beginning there is no movement of the past. This no movement is the Zen of no coming or going. At the very beginning, how can there be any time for Zen?
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/21/18
There is an old country-western song that expresses what is most important to me these days. It starts out like this, “Be honest with me dear whatever you do.” Honesty is not only the best policy, it is most important. Honesty does not confine us; it frees us. In his song “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, Bob Dylan sings, “To live outside the law you must be honest.”
Zen practice demands that we be honest so we can live genuine lives outside the law. Not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Zen is said to be a transmission outside scriptures; outside words and letters. Zen is the immediate expression and actualization of the perfection present in every person at every moment. It is lived naturally, spontaneously, and intimately. It cannot be learned, repeated, or passed on to others. This is emphasized in a Zen verse which says, “Do not draw another’s bow; do not ride another’s horse.” In other words, do not live a borrowed life.
The honesty of any act comes from the integrity of the person. The mature Zen practitioner finds no need to pretend or defend. There is a story of an old Zen master who visited a couple whose young child had just died. He was sitting with the couple and soon all three were weeping because of this tragic loss. A young monk, who had accompanied the master, approached him and said, “I thought at least you would be beyond such tears.” The master replied, “This is how I go beyond such tears.” To be honest is to be an intimate human being with no separation or movement away from sad feelings.
To enter the world of Zen is to enter the world of direct knowing beyond scriptures, words, letters, or definitions. I like to do Zen sitting early in the morning, about three o’clock. At that time, here in the mountains of southwest Virginia, the silence and stillness are palpable. This morning, as I was sitting, a light rain began falling and the thought came, “What could be more honest than the sound of rain?”
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/15/18
Zazen is sitting without friction, without resistance, or effort; the bodymind settling down naturally moving from “Attention!” to “At ease.” Settling down from discord to harmony. In his song “When the Ship Comes In”, Bob Dylan sings, “Like the stillness in the wind before the hurricane begins.”
This “stillness in the wind” is not stillness and wind. There is no separation; there is harmony. Zen speaks of this harmony as original naturalness or spontaneity. One’s actions are like a toy top spinning without wobbling; like a ballerina whose disciplined movements are filled with grace and beauty. Gutei too was filled with grace and beauty whenever he raised his finger. His movement in harmony with the whole universe; the whole universe in his movement. The whole universe including hurricanes.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/12/18
There is no place for pride in Zen. There is a Zen saying, “The man of great strength cannot lift his own legs and the enlightened woman speaks without moving her tongue or lips.” Where is there room here for boasting?
Zen tradition tells of its beautiful and humble beginning. The first Zen ancestor was Mahakasyapa. One day Lord Buddha was sitting quietly before those who had assembled to hear him speak. Without saying a word Buddha reached down, picked up a flower and held it up for all to see. Experiencing the unconceited beauty of this silent teaching beyond words Mahakasyapa was awakened and smiled. Naturally and effortlessly the mind flower blooms. How could there be any feeling of superiority?
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/8/18
Neither Sowing Nor Reaping
In my early days of Zen I was told to put a little steel in my spine, never take a backward step, sit like a mountain, leap like a tiger! In those days I sowed my wild Zen oats so to speak. These days I sit with the birds of the air who neither sow nor reap. I invite you to sit with me.
Most people live far away from themselves, moving this way and that way, looking for this substitution or that alternative, hoping to lose this or gain that. There is a constant movement away from oneself as one is. In the Zen world we often hear the Zen master asking the student, “Where have you come from?” or “Where are you going?” In other words what is the purpose of your constant movement?
Sitting together today can we slow down? Not move away from ourselves? Sit neither sowing nor reaping? In the song “High Water” Bob Dylan sings, “As great as you are, you’ll never be greater than yourself.” In case number 9 in the Mumonkan, Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in meditation for ten kalpas and could neither attain Buddhahood nor manifest the Buddha Dharma. Through our practice of zazen we realize that no matter how great we might become we will never be greater than we are. There is no reason to sow or reap. All is given. This is true humility. This is liberation.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/3/18
Who is That One?
Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of that one. Who is that one? Even Mu stands in awe of this question! Going, going, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond even Mu. A free fall right through the heart of Mu beyond not knowing to the utter inconceivability of that one. Without any doubt here is the soft gentle rain of endless blessings. The desert blooms.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 2/2/18
The Second-Hand of Zen
“Roll up the blinds.” “Lower the flag.” “Wash your bowls.” Zen is in the doing. Zen is life itself. It is not some parallel life, something added on to your life, not a substitute or alternative or option or something special. Zen is the work of this moment like the second hand of a clock crossing its appointed space. Tick, tick, tick.
Zen speaks of the appropriate time. When is the appropriate time? Tick, tick, tick. Rolling up blinds, lowering the flag, washing your bowls, do the activity needed moment by moment. No special knowledge is needed. Just take the medicine, no need to know how it works. Just light the flame, no need to know about combustion. What is it that cannot be learned or passed on? Tick, tick, tick.
Zen is like a shooting star, a flash of lightening, a clap of thunder. The moment is completely used up! No traces remain. Tick, tick, tick.
When this is done, what is done, is This.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 1/28/18
The Intimate Life of Zen
Everything helps me to be intimate. Everything accepted gladly in that deep down abandoned joy of no distance. This no distance is intimacy. Like breathing in and breathing out that does not come or go. Sit down and find out for yourself. Breathing in there is no coming. Breathing out there is no going. IT does not come, IT does not go. The song “Bella Notte” says, “Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes…” the stars are in your eyes too. Here prose turns to poetry and poetry to song that invites you to dance! Hakiun’s “Song of Zazen” reminds us that “…singing and dancing are the voice of the Dharma.” Here the wooden man begins to sing and the stone woman gets up to dance! This is the movement of the deep down joy of no distance. This is the intimate life of Zen.
Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi 1/21/18
When we sit we have no goals. We simply sit straight and tall, solid and still, like a mountain or like a great tree with deep roots- at one with the good earth. The poet Robert Frost said:
Earth’s the right place for love;
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better
Buddha sat down on the good earth, under a deeply rooted tree and did not move until he saw the morning star in the eastern sky and was awakened. Earth’s the right place for awakening too. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
But the physical posture of zazen isn’t all there is to just sitting. We know that clouds often come and go around a mountain; that leaves quiver and branches bend in the wind while the tree trunk stands firm.
Like this, we know that though we sit straight and tall, solid and still, thoughts do come and go and though outwardly we may look solid and still, inwardly our emotions can leave us shaken, bent, and fragmented.
Thoughts do come and go. The important thing is not to invite them in or if they do arrive uninvited not to strike up a conversation with them.
If we do not try to hold on to them like some old friend or try to push them away like some old nuisance, they will go as naturally as they come.
They are like the wind that comes and goes. It is true that sometimes they may be only a breeze but at other times they may be of hurricane force. If a hurricane comes, we have to just sit out the storm.
Along with thoughts, emotions also come and go. In fact, if we are really aware we will notice that it is usually thought that triggers our emotions. Our approach is not to try and hold on to our emotions or try to push them away.
But emotions are stickier than thoughts. Even after the thoughts are gone, the emotions seem to stick with us. These emotions may be mild or severe. Sometimes we may experience a storm of emotions.
But if we do not add fuel to the fire, they will burn themselves out. Again, we have to just sit out the storm.
So when you sit- sit straight and tall, solid and still. Thoughts will come and go. Do not chase after them or try to chase them away. Emotions will come and go.
Do not add any fuel to their fire. Just remain awake and alert, fully present. Aware of what is happening right here and now- aware of the whole of it.
When You Hear A Dog Bark
Sensaki Sensei asked, “When you hear a dog bark, do you think of your own dog?” This is an interesting question. Why does he ask it? What is he asking? And what will you do with his question?
You have to look and see for yourself. What do you do when you hear a dog bark? You might think of your own dog. Or you might think how much you dislike barking dogs.
Or you might think of how inconsiderate your neighbor is to go off to work and leave the barking dog in the back yard for you to listen to all day.
Reactions to hearing the dog can be many and the branching out of these thoughts can multiply. The chain reaction begins- 1,000 blossoms!
Sensaki is inviting us to see our endless commentaries, descriptions, and interpretations. If we aren’t aware of these we are likely to fall into the trap of experiencing the present moment through the fog of thought.
Do we really hear the dog barking or do we hear our thinking about the dog barking? Why do we have to comment on everything?
Why do we have to always evaluate, judge, compare, and offer our two cents? Our own barking! Is it possible to listen without thought intruding?
I really appreciate Sensaki’s question. Hearing a dog bark, he asks, “Do you think of your own dog?” My sister has seven dogs!
I visited her recently and marveled at how much care and affection she gives to each one, how well she knows and understands each one. To her, each dog is precious. When you hear a dog bark, do you think of your own dog?
When there is real attention to life, when we give real care and affection to each moment, when each moment is precious then the mind is still, quiet, awake, full of wonder, and thought need not intrude.
Then there is real intimacy- do you hear the dog barking or do you hear yourself? This is the experience of non-duality. It is an experience of your own essential nature that is one with the essential nature of the universe.
Now the thinking self or separate self dissolves into the original world where all the morning stars sing together and the sons and daughters of God shout for joy.
Ellen calls this the open range where we don’t fence anything in or out. Now we can get on our horse (or ox) and ride off into the wide-open spaces.
So when you sit each day take a good look at how your mind works, what thoughts are doing to the direct, immediate, innocent, and intimate experience of life.
When we clearly see what thought is up to, then something happens all on its own and the mind becomes still, quiet, alert, full of wonder, and intimacy awakens.
Of course I’m not denying the importance of thought- that would be absurd. But thought divides, separates, it turns forms into things. Thought is a step back from the direct experience of life. Thought cannot experience the innocence and intimacy of wholeness.
Recently, at the end of a Zen retreat, a woman commented that in the deep stillness of meditation she heard a goose honking as it flew over the zendo.
Her eyes filled with tears as she said, “It was just so beautiful. It was like my whole life was worth it just to hear that goose.”
What is the quality of mind that the sound of a goose can bring tears to the eyes? You have to find out for yourself.
But surely such a mind is innocent, intimate, new, fresh, vital, sensitive, and alive. Such a mind is free and so capable of experiencing tenderness, affection, and real love.
Limitless Dimension Human Being
This morning I was up at 5:00 a.m. doing some paperwork. I was in the living room, the window blinds were open, and it was dark outside. Up the road the streetlight was on.
Time passed, the sun rose, day broke, and the streetlight shut off automatically. The light of the sun was now everywhere. There was no need for any artificial light! This made me think of Soen Roshi’s phrase, “Limitless dimension human being.”
Here at New River Zen Community we don’t use the term “enlightenment” very often. We talk about seeing into our essential nature or original nature. But tonight I want to use the term enlightenment.
For me the experience of enlightenment means to see radiant light everywhere, to realize that there is no need for artificial light. It is to open your Zen eye and look! It is to open your Zen body and feel!
To see radiant light is to see the trees and mountains as if for the first time. To feel with a body that is open is to experience the clear and subtle touch of a summer breeze on the skin or the warmth of a human hug in greeting or farewell.
With the bodymind open we hear celestial hymns in a birdsong, the chirping of crickets, or the silence of clouds. It is also to see, hear, and feel the pain and longing of people who have been neglected and forgotten and to respond from a heart that is open.
You are not separate from the universe. You are not separate from the sacred. You are limitless dimension human being!
Don’t think that Zen is just the ending of thought or simply the deconstruction of thought. This is Zen blankness- it is to have a dragon’s head and a snake’s tail! It is not the real thing. Zen is opening the bodymind to an experience of cosmic proportions. It is limitless dimension human being!
Ellen often reminds us that among human beings there are wise ones and fools and that to do Zen we must be willing to be the fool. Zen is not for those who think they have everything figured out.
I remember years ago going to dokusan with Roshi Bernie Glassman. He often told me, “Go deeper.” Again and again I went back to him and he simply said, “Go deeper.”
T o do Zen you must be willing to learn (and unlearn!). You must be teachable. You must acknowledge that there are more possibilities in life then what you’ve experienced. You must be willing to go deeper.
To go deeper you need to bring energy to your sitting. You need to bring great attention and awareness. Roshi Janet Richardson often encourages her students to, “Sit strongly!” Sit straight and tall, silent and still, like a great oak tree or Mt. Fuji.
When you sit like this energy naturally gathers- energy needed to push open the doors and windows of perception, to soften our hardness of heart, to peel off layer after layer of our thick skin.
This energy allows us to go deeper- see deeper, feel deeper, hear deeper. This energy nourishes limitless dimension human being!
If you are working on MU go deeper. Dig deeper and deeper into MU until you come out the other side into the light of day where no artificial light is needed!
If you are attending to breathing go deeper. This means come closer and closer to the breath until there is only breathing.
This breathing is subtle and refined, moving deeply in and out, intimate life creating breathing- the universe breathing. This is limitless dimension human being.
If you are just sitting then be absolutely still, absolutely silent, rock solid. Sit with confidence and joy completely open to the boundless world of possibilities.
With this depth of sitting energy gathers, the sun rises, day breaks, and there is no need for any artificial light! You realize that you have always been limitless dimension human being.
-Charles Shinkai Birx, Roshi