Tuesday, April 25, 2006


And now another question from the fine folks of St. Paul:

2. What are the most important ways in which we can honor the female lineage, support the practice of women equally with that of men, and ensure balance of masculine and feminine dynamics in our practice?

I dunno about this one. On the one hand, Buddhism has historically always been about male/female equality. Buddha was one of the earliest religious teachers in India to accept women into his order — although with some restrictions in deference to the customs of his day. Dogen, in the chapter Raihai Tokuzui (Prostrating to the Attainment of the Marrow) in Shobogenzo says, "As regards attainment of the truth, both [men and women] attain the truth, and we should just profoundly revere every single person who has attained the Dharma. Do not discuss man and woman. This is one of Buddhism's finest Dharma-standards." And, "when [a person] practices the Buddha-Dharma and speaks the Buddha-Dharma, even if a girl of seven, she is just the guiding teacher of the four groups, and the benevolent father of all living beings. We should serve and venerate her as we do the buddha-tath├ągatas."

He also criticizes the then-current thinking among Buddhist monks that they must never set eyes upon a woman saying, "nowadays extremely stupid people look at women without having corrected the prejudice that women are objects of sexual greed. Disciples of the Buddha must not be like this. If whatever may become the object of sexual greed is to be hated, do not all men deserve to be hated too?"

So it's pretty clear that in Buddhism, women and men are viewed as equals. On the other hand, when you go out of your way to try and "ensure the balance of masculine and feminine dynamics" sometimes weird stuff happens. Like I saw one wanna-be "Master" who told his audience, with a twinkle in his eye, "Women don't really need to meditate. They have a natural spirituality." Yeah, Roshi, I'm sure you get a lotta nookie with that line. I also know of a SoCal-based "Master" who held special classes for the ladies. Just him and a room full of cute little seekers of the truth. Nice work if you can get it.

Now I'm sure this is not the sort of balance of dynamics the questioner had in mind. But even when you go the PC route and try to satisfy certain people's needs for the groups they think they belong to, to be acknowledged, you often end up spending a lot of time, effort & energy on what really amounts to nothing of very much importance.

In Dogen's view we don't even need to think in terms of male and female at all. Just treat all people with the same degree of respect & dignity and you don't need to get fussed over whether the masculine & feminine dynamics are properly balanced or not. It all comes naturally.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Getting back to the questions posed by the good people of St. Paul to your's truly... Question one reads: What are the most important ways to guard against abuse of power in the relationships that must develop between a teacher & students or within other sangha relationships?

A good question, it is, and a very hard one to answer. It's like asking, what would have been the best way for the German people of the 1940's to avoid following Hitler? Was Hitler bad or were the Germans bad? In other words, the relationship is complex and not ever one-sided. It takes 2 or more people to create this new beast we call a relationship. There are all kinds of guys out there even now who want to exterminate the Jews, or the Blacks, or the Whites or the American Imperialists or whoever. But the bad stuff really doesn't get going until a lot of people start following them. So, yeah, Hitler abused his power. But where did that power come from?

The abuse of power in sangha relationships works the same way. It's easy to point fingers at one single person, some spititual master gone bad, and say he's to blame. But this is never the only factor involved. At one point during my talk someone asked a question about what was my responsibility concerning the things I write & say. He was particularly worried about my tendancy to refer to certain things as "stupid." Since I can draw so many people to hear me speak, shouldn't I be more responsible than to call things that some people take to be sacred "stupid?" Of course I need to be careful what I say. But my only responsibility is to be 100% honest. It's like those cartoonists who parodied Mohammed. Are they responsible for the bizarre reactions those cartoons are said to have caused? I don't think so. The person who reacts is resposnible for his own actions. No one gets let off the hook. That ain't the way this universe wroks.

When you get to be a Zen Master, people are always quick to try and give you power. People try it with me constantly. I had a e-mail a couple weeks ago from some guy who desperately wanted me to show him the way to Enlightenment. Obviously he hadn't been reading what I write. But, be that as it may, what he wanted was to give me the power to bestow this thing called Enlightenment upon him.

There are plenty of people out there who are all too happy to accept such power. They train their students to have certain kinds of experineces which they then helpfully label for them as "steps on the path to Enlightenment." Once the student's racked up enough of these, the Master bestows his blessings and the student gets to lord it over on someone else. And so the cycle of sickness continues.

A good Zen teacher will toss the power you attempt to hand him right back at you like a hot potato. For the student this is extremely frustrating. When it happened to me, I hated it. Hated it. Wanted desprately to find someone who would take my power from me, so I could relax and let him take the blame for everything. I mean, how can you possibly know if you are progressing unless your teacher tells you you're progressing? How indeed? But the idea of "progress" is one of the things you need to give up. You will never progress. Not one bit. You will never reach Enlightenment. And if you do, you can be sure it's a scam.

Do you want the Great Master to give you Brownie Points? Cuz if you do, you just might get 'em. That's where the trouble starts...

The reason I never get involved with people who wanna give me power is that people like that are always such a pain in the ass. They want more and more and more all the time. And when you don't give them what they think they want, they get all huffy about it. Screw 'em, I say. Let 'em go bother someone else.

It might make a great story to go tell Oprah how you were just sitting there, minding your own business when some lousy Zen Master came along & started abusing power all over you. Oprah might buy it. But I wouldn't.

ANYWAY, one way to guard against abuse of power is to never give your own power away. If you find you have done so, try taking it back and see what happens. If it isn't given back freely, there may be something wrong.

It's very hard to give any sweeping generalizations that will cover all situations. Just remember, abusive relationships within a sangha are never one-sided. Also be aware that they take time and effort — from all parties involved — to develop. No one forces you to join a sangha and no one should ever make the slightest attempt to keep you from leaving one.

Be very aware of how you, yourself, contribute to such relationships. Never accept that you are the innocent victim of forces more powerful than yourself. No one is more powerful than you. You have created this universe. Take some responsibility for the things you have made.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


I was in St. Paul, Minnesota a couple weeks ago talking at the Clouds In Water Zen Center. They invited me because their previous "guiding teacher" was a naughty boy and got caught with his robes around his ankles when he was supposed to be being all spiritual. Tsk, tsk, tsk. The folks there are looking for a replacement and are auditioning prospective candidates.

As part of the process they developed a list of questions for potential candidates and I thought I'd address some of those here cuz they're kind of interesting. I'm not taking these in order. So we'll start with question #4. It's ungodly long and goes like this:

Our founding ancestors, the Dharma pioneers who brought this practice to the United States, trained rigorously in monasteries for many years. Their practice was evident in the strength, equinity and clarity that drew us to them. The Buddha's instructions to leave behind our involvements and live in a quiet place were probably meant more literally than we like to think. We are householders, lay students with activities in the community, coming to sesshin when it fits our schedule. Are we fooling ourselves? When is lay practice really practice?

Whoever wrote this obviously needs an editor. Plus I have never heard the word “equinity” before. But my Spell Check® recognizes it, so it must be real English.

Be that as it may, my answer to the first part of the question would be; Did they really? Did those Dharma pioneers all actually spend years and years in monasteries meditating and chanting from morning to night, getting smacked and shouted at every time they breached one of the bazillion persnickety rules about how to fold your napkin, which hand to hold your incense in, how to wipe your butt and all the rest of it?

We’ve grown up with a lot of romantic Hollywood fantasies about what the lives of these great Masters must have been like before they got here. We all know it was just like the flashback scenes in the old Kung Fu TV series with David Carrdine. But is that really anything like the truth? From what I’ve seen in Japan, this style of Zen training hasn’t existed since the Meiji Restoration (1868, for those of you who ain’t studied hist’ry) — and it was probably a rarity even then. The vast majority of Zen priests in Japan today have gone through, at best, a couple months of really rigorous training, after which they were turned loose to go and tend temples of their own. When they’re not running funeral services, they can usually be found puttering around the temple or sitting in the back room watching TV. And in a great many cases, they’ve even managed to avoid the Zen boot camp stuff. I took the official initiation into the Soto sect without ever having been to Eihei-ji except as a tourist, let alone doing any kind of intensive training there. It’s not at all uncommon.

My impression of a lot of the Dharma pioneers who went overseas was not that they were trying to bring a rigorous practice to us poor heathens, but that in many cases they were among the few serious practitioners in their native land and they thought that by escaping from Japan they could found a more serious practice elsewhere. Yes, some of the guys who came over here did go through some pretty rough training. But even in those cases, it was hardly like our Hollywood-fueled notions. And, in any case, who gives a care? It's not their lives we should be worrying about, but our own.

The practice offered in Zen temples in the US is every bit as intense as most of what you can find in Japan, often more so. But a lot of what passes for "intense practice" — both here and in the Mysterious Orient — strikes me as kind of a joke. I'm not sure what anyone needs with that kind of "intensity." Far too often it's too removed from our dailiy lives to be of much practical use. What's really good about temples in America as opposed to those in Japan is that, in Zen centers in America, the opportunities for real practice are available for everyone. This is extremely rare in Japan — mainly because almost no one over there is interested.

Lay practice has been a vital part of Buddhism right from the beginning. It is more important now than ever before. I don’t really like the idea of people being “professional Buddhists.” Today’s society doesn’t have a place for that role. The means of financial support for professional monks that existed in the past are gone forever. A lot of the professional monks I’ve met were just leeches, mooching off their followers while they led a life of leisure under the guise that doing some bowing and chanting and talking a whole lot of trash once a week constituted a real gift to society. I have a lot more respect for people who actually work for a living.

When the writer of this question asks, “are we fooling ourselves,” the question is really, “shouldn’t we run away from this mundane work-a-day life into the beautiful romantic world of being a peaceful monk in a dreamy temple in the far off mountains?” If you cannot find the truth of your life right here, you will not find it anywhere else. There is no anywhere else.*

But you do need to commit to daily practice. You’re fooling yourself if you think that a week of intensive practice at a sesshin makes up for slacking off on your daily zazen for three or four months. The real practice is the practice you do each day, with no one around to force you to sit still. It’s much easier to do zazen when there’s someone standing over you with a stick in a temple than it is to forgo watching the Today Show every morning and David Letterman every night and get down to business at home.

* Those of you who were at my talk in St. Paul know that I was a lot more polite about this on stage than I am being here. That’s because I’m now far enough away that you cannot kick my ass.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Recently a guy named Gustav sent Gudo Nishijima a list of questions. He sent his answers out to several of his students. I thought you might enjoy seeing them. I have not rewritten these at all, so the funny grammar is still as I received it. Enjoy.

1. What is gained in Zazen?

What we gain in Zazen is the balance of the autonomic nervous system. In Shobogenzo Bendowa we can find the word "Jijuyo Zanmai," which Master Dogen indicates as criteria of Zazen. And the word separates into two parts, the one is Jiju and the other is Jiyo, therefore Jijuyo is a combination between Jiju and Jiyo. Jiju means to receive ourselves, and Jiyo means to utilize ourselves. Therefore we can interpret that Jiju suggests the fanction of the parasympathetic nervous system, and Jiyo suggests the function of the sympathetic nervous system. And furthermore Zanmai means the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system. Then we can understand that the Jijuyo Zanmai is just the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system, which the modern psychology and physiology teach us today.

2. What is Master Dogen's "flowers in space"?

The "flowers in space" is the title of the 43rd Chapter in Shobogenzo, and in the Chapter, Master Dogen explains that even though Buddhism insists that both intellectual consideration and concrete sensuous perception are not real, but at the same time Master Dogen insists that both the intellectual consideration as thesis, and the concrete sensuous perception as antithesis, are useful and necessary, because of utilizing those two fundamental criteria, we can understand reality on the basis of dialectic thinking utilizing the philosophy of act as the synthesis.

3. What is the meaning of Dharma Transmission?

In Shobogenzo we can find the 16th Chapter, which is entitled "The Certificate of Succession." And in the Chapter Master Dogen describes the transmitting ceremony of Dharma. Therefore the "Transmission" means the transmission of Dharma, and Dharma means, the Buddhist truth, the Universe, a real act at the present moment, and Reality itself. Therefore we can interpret that the "Dharma Transmission" is giving the certificate of realizing Dharma from a Buddhist Master to his matured disciple.

4. What is a Zen Master?

I guess that the words "Zen Master" may be the translation of Japanese words "Zen Ji." Zen is the common between the two words and Shi means a teacher, therefore a Zen Master means a teacher of Zazen. But I think that we should be careful in thinking Zen. Because in Buddhism we sometimes find a strange fact, that the word Zen is sometimes used for representing a special meaning of something mystical. Such kinds of Buddhism use the word Zen to represent some kind of mystical but powerful entity. But I wonder whether in Buddhism such a kind of mystical entity exists, or not.

And Master Dogen hates such a kind of mysticism so strongly, and so in Shobogenzo he writes his opinion as follows in Shobogenzo. (Book 2, P. 62, L 12.) "People who do not learn this truth in practice speak randomly and mistakenly. They randomly call the right-Dharma-eye treasury and the fine mind of nirvana that have been authentically transmitted by the Buddhist patriarchs "the Zen Sect"; they call the ancestral Master "the Zen patriarch"; they call practitioners "Zen students" or "students of dhyana"; and some of them call themselves "the Zen schools." These are all twigs and leaves rooted in a distorted view. Those who randomly call themselves by the name "Zen Sect," which has never existed in India in the west or in eastern lands, from the past to the present, are demons out to destroy the Buddha's truth. They are the Buddhist patriarchs' uninvited enemies." Therefore we should be careful to use the word "Zen."

5. What is intuition?

Intuition is a mental ability, which has a function to decides a conclusion transcending mental consideration and sensuous perception. When the sympathetic nervous system is stronger, the intellectual consideration works well, and when the parasympathetic nervous system is stronger, the sensuous perception works well, but when the autonomic nervous system is balanced the ability of intuition works well directly.

6. What is our true original nature?

Generally speaking, it is usually impossible for us to know our true original nature, because it is just a simple fact at the present moment, and so it is usually impossible for us to grasp it at the present moment.

7. What is Buddha-nature?

In Chapter 22. of Shobogenzo entitled by "Bussho, or The Buddha-nature," Master Dogen describes as follows. (Book 2, P. 6, L. 1.) "If you want to know this Buddha-nature, remember, causes and circumstances as real time are just it." Therefore Buddha-nature does never exist in the past, and it does never exist in future, but it exists just only at the present moment. So we can think that Buddha-nature is Reality just at the present moment.

8. What is Heaven and Hell?

Heaven is a human supposition and Hell is also a human supposition. But when our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is just the Heaven, and when our autonomic nervous system is not balanced, it is just the Hell.

9. What is life and death?

When our heart has stopped, and if it doesn't move again, the state is called death, and when our heart is moving still without stopping is called life.

10. What is the meaning of the Buddhist idea of emptiness?

The true meaning of emptiness in Buddhism has been misunderstood for so many years as nothingness, or void. But if we have understood that Buddhism is a realistic philosophy, it is impossible for us to understand emptiness like that. In Buddhism emptiness is just "as it is." A cup is a cup. A cup never more than cup, or a cup is never less than cup.

11. What is better Zazen and worse Zazen?

There is no better Zazen, or worse Zazen. What is different from Zazen is wrong, and what is just Zazen is Zazen.

12. What is the eternal?

The eternity is just human idea, but the fact at the present moment is eternal, because it must be recorded as a fact at the present moment, and it can never be erased for ever.

13. What is the meaning of Master Dogen's "Bodaisatta Shishobo? Could you please comment on the four principles of a Bodaisatta's social relations?

Shobogenzo has the Chapter 45 which is called "BODAISATTA-SHISHOBO, or Four Elements of a Bodhisattva's Social Relations." They are "First is free giving. Second is kind speech. Third is helpful conduct. Fourth is cooperation."
1) Free giving: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is impossible for our stinginess to occur, and if something is not necessary for us to keep, there is no reason for us to refuse giving it to others.
2) Kind speech: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is very natural for us to be polite to others, and if others receive our politeness, the others might be happy.
3) Helpful conduct: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it will be happy for us to help others, and if others have receive our kind help, they will feel very happy.
4) Cooperation: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, we are always cooperative in the common job, and what we want to accomplish will be accomplished much more faster.

14. What does it mean that life is only one breath?

Our life exists always just at the present moment, and the length of the present moment is always the shortest time, and actually thinking the present moment is much more shorter that our one breath. Therefore we can say that our life is always much shorter than the length of our breath.

15. When should we break the precepts?

We should never break the precepts at all, but sometimes we can not avoid our mistake. But don't worry about the facts that you have broken the Buddhist precepts. Because it is completely impossible for you to come back to the past for correcting your mistakes at all. Therefore the best, which you can do, is just to throw away your mistakes in the past, and to do the best just at the present moment.

16. Where will you be in 100 years from now?

Not so long, but when I died in a few years, everything will become nothing including me, and I will take a rest forever.

17. How can we understand ourselves?

I think that it is impossible for us to understand ourselves.

18. What can we understand with words, and what can we not understand with

We can understand everything, but at the same time, our understandings can never touch Reality.

19. Is it possible to teach Zen?

It is possible for us to teach Zazen, but it is necessary for everyone to practice Zazen by himself or herself.

20. Does Zazen have a goal?

Zazen has a goal. The goal of Zazen is to practice Zazen itself.

21. Where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?

I think that such kinds of questions might be beyond all human beings' ability.

22. How can we let go of fame and profit?

When our autonomic nervous system has become balanced, it seems to be so boring for us to pursue fame and profit, and we can find much more valuable objects to pursue, that is the Truth.

23. Could you please tell me more about the city you were in Manchuria and your time there during the war? What was the name of the city?

In was called Songo in Japanese at that time, and it was in the north-west district of Manchuria near the Amur. It was just a military city for Japanese army. But at that time fortunately there was no fighting in that district, and so we are just guarding the district.

24. Could you please tell me more about how it was to return to Japan after the war?

In June in 1945, I was ordered to move to Himeji City in Japan for guarding Japan itself, and so I travelled along the eastern coast of Korea in rather dangerous situations, and I met the end of war in Himeji City in Japan.

25. How can Zazen help us be happy?

It is just the happiest condition to practice Zazen itself.

26. How can we practice Zazen in our daily chores?

After moving to my new residence, where I am living now, I have begun cooking by myself, and so I have found the fact clearly that even my cooking in my daily life has also characteristics of acts, therefore it can be also a kind of Buddhist efforts, of course, even though I am practicing Zazen two times a day everyday.

27. What is truth?

Reality is the Truth. Therefore the Universe is also the Truth.

28. What are some of your favourite quotes from the Shobogenzo, and why?

For example, "It is just moment by moment of red mind, upon which we rely solely." (Shobogenzo Book 1, P. 211. L. 1.) The red mind suggests sincere mind, and this is a description of Master Dogen's daily life.

29. How can a Zen Master help a student?

A Buddhist Master can help his student in teaching Buddhist philosophy, in guiding daily life, in practicing Zazen together, and in transmitting Buddhist Dharma.

30. In your life, how have you noticed that Zazen is actually practically

I have become a little better than before.

With best wishes Gudo Wafu Nishijima