Monday, January 07, 2008


Get it? "Hara" is a Japanese word that refers to your belly and the lower part of your chest, about where your diaphragm is. Some Zen teachers tell you to "Keep your mind in your hara." I don't. Your mind pervades throughout your body and throughout the universe. It seems silly to try and imagine it being in one specific place. So there's that, and I'm in San Francisco. Haw!

Anyway, they say you're not a real writer unless you can come up with ten excuses not to write at any given moment. This I can do. I am the worst procrastinator in the world when it comes to writing. I will even write to avoid writing, as I am doing now.

I'm still here at the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and not in disguise. I've stopped shaving with a regular razor and now use an electric one to get that stubbly Don Johnson look. What an 80s reference! Kids, ask mom and dad who Don Johnson was. It's easier and your face feels less frigid with some stubble on it especially up here. What would Dogen say? Feel free to come up and say "hi." Just don't get insulted if I excuse myself to run upstairs and watch my KISS DVDs... I mean write my frikkin' new book.

SFZC is very interesting to me. It's very much a communal, monastic practice and not at all what I'm used to. Here I am, a transmitted Master, and I have no idea half the things they do here. I don't know the chants, I don't know when to bow, I'm not sure what order to leave the room, none of that stuff. Clueless. I just watch carefully and try to figure out what the heck's going on. A hint if you find yourself in a similar situation: Try to stand or sit in the middle. In most places, sitting on the end is best since everybody will have done what's gonna be done before your turn comes. But in Zen places sometimes the order suddenly reverses and, as the Bible tells us, "He who is last becomes first." So the middle is always the best spot to figure out what's going on.

It seems to me the bigger an organization gets the more need there is for rules and for hierarchy. You could not run an organization as big as SFZC the way we run things at my sitting groups. Couldn't be done. SFZC runs very efficiently and shows all the indications that they've overcome their well publicized past troubles and will endure for a very long time.

I think rules and institutional hierarchy have their place. But there are significant differences in how I run things. For example, they do a lovely morning service here every day and I have enjoyed participating in it very much. But in terms of practice it's not really necessary. There is no reason on Earth that chanting sutras is in any way particularly beneficial to Zen practice. But it is very beneficial to building a united community and maintaining an institution. If you're SFZC, these factors are vital to your continued existence. If you're just someone interested in Zen practice, they're not. Understand that -- and I think most of the folks here do -- and the chants and rituals are fine family fun and not at all a distraction. Still, a big group outing to the local ice cream parlor could be just as beneficial to your Zen practice, though considerably more fattening.

OK. Chanting sutras may be slightly better. But don't mistake it for real Zen practice. I see lots more people at the chanting services than in the zendo here and pretty much everywhere else I visit.

Just some quick reflections. Now I'm going to start my real work.



Will Sargent said...

No kidding. They have little slips of paper with the chants on them at the door, but it still doesn't help you very much unless you memorize them.

The interesting thing to me about SFZC is that they don't go into detail about zazen in the introductory sessions. They spend at least as much time detailing the correct way to hold hands, file in and out, bow, etc... but what about what happens after you sit down?

Me? I always end up thinking about sex. Go figure.

Mysterion said...

Brad sed: "Clueless."

Suzuki sed: "Beginner's Mind."

Myst sez: "Pure."

Brad said...

Will, after you sit down, you just sit. I never give much instruction about that either. That's kind of standard in Soto places. If you think about sex, let the thoughts about sex come (heh-heh, I said let thoughts about sex come) and let them go.

shrinkwrapped said...

"So the middle is always the best spot to figure out what's going on."

Ah, no wonder they call it The Middle Way.


Who's with me?

Blake said...

We do chanting in my Sangha before we meditate and they have books. I have only seen one dude who didn't need the book. There are times to bow and prostrate and all that shizzle. I just follow the people next to me since I haven't placed much stock in trying to memorize that stuff. It's a pretty good aerobic workout, though. But then when we sit, we sit. The instruction is, "try not to move too much."

Plaudertasche said...

I really like your attitude toward Zen and practice. As my teacher said once: the only thing that really matters is "how much do you really want to know". And if you are truly sincere about it you will get it.
It is not a matter of how "hard" and long you sit or loud you chant or what vows you took.
Note, it is not for the faint at heart,THAT knowing can be quiet disturbing to the reg. mind btw :)

I believe, a lot of people just think they want to know. And get hung up on all the gooey stuff that makes them feel good.
And by all means, there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel good. But don't mistaken that for the real Kahuna. If you believe that chanting and sitting your ass numb will get you to the real truth. You are mistaken.

On a different note, I am sure a lot of people don' t "get" why you were ordained a Zen Master. You are so not the reg. Zen Master! But I think your teacher did us and you a great service by putting you into a robe....It's just not what most people think a master should look like :))
Hey they killed Jesus because he didn't fit the picture of a messiah back then. You think we are more ready now for one?
I am not saying your are a messiah, havens sake nooooo :)))
Just trying to make a point of the near-sidedness and righteousness of humans.

Thanks for sharing your ride!

David said...

wow, more people at chanting... that surprises me a bit! i thought more people would be into zazen.

i guess i'm projecting.

Mysterion said...

My politically incorrect take on chanting is thus:

The smaller (and fewer) chants done - except for zero - the more likely the group is to take on 'cult like' characteristics. In other words, if you do six or eight different chants, like some Shinshu groups I infrequently attend, then then the more 'Methodist' they seem to be. If you attend some smaller groups that do the same two chants without variation EVERY gathering, then the more 'Catholic' (e.g. Hail Mary, Our Father) they seem to be. Mind you, there is nothing 'wrong' with the catholic version, it just doesn't ring my bell.

Groups (Nichirin?) that ONLY chant say a "Nam-Myo-Ho-Renge-Kyo!" seem more like Hare Krishna to my failed perceptions. The reason I happen to remember a few brief 'formulas' rather than the entire sutra is simply that the mantra is the punchline of sutra.

e.g. Heart Sutra vs:



pooyan said...

Mysterion, I see you, but, where did your little dog go?

To stay on topic though, I am not a big fan of chants. It seems insincere for me. These-Aren't-My-Words... Why-Am-I-Repeating-Them... I also get reminded of a kind of B-movie Hypnosis sound to the whole thing. It gives me the jeebies a bit. Thats my prob though. I know its not meant as brain-washing, it just reminds me of it.
I would gladly skip the chanting stuff, and just sit, which is what I usually do.
I am sure lots of people did the chanting, and thats cool for them.

pooyan said...

Correction (...dig the whole chanting thing) (not did)

courtesy flush said...

Pooyan, I agree with you... sometimes the chanting strikes me as ritual for its own sake.

I'm guessing that it becomes comforting and uniting after a while. In the meantime I still feel kind of silly.

p.s.: Mysterion's got an interesting point about the variety of chants.

Mysterion said...

Blogger pooyan said...
"Mysterion, I see you, but, where did your little dog go?"

After flooding us with love for years, he went along to doggie nirbana. Anyone who says a doggie doesn't have a bodhi nature has just never been owned by a doggie like Saburo.

Shawn Hinton said...

We do some chanting at the Zen center I go to. I felt silly chanting words that I had no idea what the meanings were at first but then realized chanting can become a form of meditation as well as zazen. it can't replace Zazen practice, but it can compliment sitting practice. Of course I still feel silly doing it, butI go with the flow man.

Al Coleman said...

First I'd like to state that Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up are my two favorite Zen books.

Second, I have a question for Brad or anyone else who can answer it. Why is counting the breath so bad? I don't do it personally, but I know Suzuki Roshi taught the counting method. I honestly am not trying to start a debate, I just don't quite understand this aspect Zen. I've heard that once one becomes "one" with the counting that it is the same as "just sitting".

Third, what is everyone's opinion on Shikantaza's ability to devlop concentration? I know this isn't the point of Shikantaza, but does anyone think it is a side effect?

Thanks in advance.

David said...

I did a 3 month retreat in the Kwan Um Zen school, and there was a LOT of chanting... 45 mins in the morning, 30 mins at night, plus great vows at the end of the night.

On a retreat, chanting is a nice break from Zazen, but more importantly:

chanting does create a brotherhood (sister-) among the participants that is very energetic and special... if the chanting is done with the whole heart and mind concentrated.

It can be very powerful.

David said...

al coleman asked:

"Third, what is everyone's opinion on Shikantaza's ability to devlop concentration? I know this isn't the point of Shikantaza, but does anyone think it is a side effect? "

What do you experience? (That's all that matters...)

Mysterion said...

Shikantaza is the foundation of Budo (way of martial arts), e.g. Kendo, Kyudo, Judo, and to some extent Karatedo (way of the empty hand).

Especially in (my friend H. Watanabe's) Kendo, the 'winner' is decided before any motion whatsoever is perceived. (thus explaining that dent on my head).

Jinzang said...

Why is counting the breath so bad?

It's not. It's a good practice for beginners. But when your concentration gets better, it becomes a distraction and you should drop it.

what is everyone's opinion on Shikantaza's ability to devlop concentration?

It's difficult, because there's nothing to grab onto with shikantaza. That's why it's better to start with the breath IMHO. But when you understand what shikantaza's about, then, yes, it's a great practice to develop concentration.

Roman G. said...

It seems to me that chanting serves as a reminder of deeper teachings. I read the Dalai Lama's "Essence of The Heart Sutra" and chanting the Heart Sutra serves keeps the teaching fresh in my mind.

And, yeah, I always end up thinking about sex in sangha, too. (And it doesn't help that Joanna has a nice smile and a perfect butt.)

Mysterion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mysterion said...

Is Zazen work? Samue

It's nice to 'change cultures' when sitting. My wife is bringing me a set of samue to try. (Not cotton or linen. Mine are of Taimayama hemp fiber died in indigo and, no doubt, a size too small). But her heart is in the right place.

NOTE TO SELF: the 14th is Saburo's 49th day. In our Buddhist tradition, the 49th day after death represents the terminus of seven weeks of mourning. Family and friends come together to perform death rites for the benefit of the deceased. On this final day of mourning we reflect upon the memory of the little lost one and offers prayers so that he may have a peaceful passage into the next life.

Samue-san said...

missing LINK

Rapsody in Indigo said...

San Francisco Bay Blues

dave said...

Good point about chanting building community. Went to a Soto Zen group for awhile at UBC where there was no chanting, just sitting facing the wall, and very slow kinhin. Maybe it was kind of a "Zen for Beginners" kind of thing, but after awhile it seemed a bit academic, somehow. Also went to the Rinzai (Joshu Sasaki Roshi) group here--sitting facing into the room, fast kinhin, and a lot more chanting. Much stronger sense of community. I liked it, even though I'd normally run a mile any time someone starts in on chanting--tried Kundalini Yoga briefly to support partner; never again, never again....bwwhaaaa!

For me, I've always found keeping my mind in my hara very helpful, especially when I was still practicing Karate regularly. It seems to be a fairly effective way of realizing how one's mind pervades one's whole body and the universe. It certainly improved my Karate, although that just means that I didn't suck nearly as badly as I did before.

Okay, okay, it's time to get my sorry, Guinness-bloated arse back on the mat and maybe even back into the dojo--Brad, if you're still considering moving, come up to Vancouver--we need you here. I'm sure we can find ways to help you avoid writing your book.

Smoggyrob said...

Hi everyone:

Our sangha's support of shikantaza over counting breaths for beginners has always struck me as 'might as well roll up your sleeves and not do it.' I wouldn't call us big fans of chants (we sometimes do one or two short ones), but I think that they can be enjoyable and bonding. The discussion in our sangha is centered on whether to to chant in Japanese (boo) or English (yay).

A good line: 'I like sitting Soto style facing the wall -- I'm less distracted by the dharma-babes.'

We're sitting at Hill Street Center this Saturday, January 12, 2008, at 0945. If you're in or around Los Angeles, come join us. We don't bite, we lick.


sitzender Drache said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sitzender Drache said...


dave said...

Wow! You guys have dharma babes? Everyone up here tends to look like an Anglican vicar!

dood said...

much like Nishijima's take on the physiological benefits of zazen - my take on chanting is the excersize / lung benefits. i learned in kundalini yoga that vibrations in your chest/hara are of great benefit...

plus my solo singing voice isn't beneficial to anything...

take care,

Plaudertasche said...

Sitzender Drache Are you in Germany or the US? Is that your Website?
Love it that Brad made it to Germany already :))

Rich said...

Brad says:
"Some Zen teachers tell you to "Keep your mind in your hara." I don't. Your mind pervades throughout your body and throughout the universe. It seems silly to try and imagine it being in one specific place."

For a Zen Master like you who didn't use that technique in the first place, it might sound silly. But for someone like me who has used this technique from the get go, it's a good place to start. Now that I'm more serious about practice this hara is growing into the whole universe.

so, it's just a teaching technique, OK?

Anonymous said...

Chanting is also useful as a tool to see your mind is. Droning along until you hitch up—it happens inevitably—and snap! you’re in the moment, but dammit separating self that screwed up from other that is chanting merrily along.

Anonymous said...

"There is no reason on Earth that chanting sutras is in any way particularly beneficial to Zen practice."

The same is true for Zazen. Really.

DaBeiSyin said...

i love sfzc. I just started going there too. Chanting is just as good as meditation when combined with meditation. Have an open mind. Embrace all things. I am scared of making mistakes too.
But they don't know me so I can pretend to be clueless and I am not a famous zen writer, so no one knows I practiced zen starting in 1998. Well .. now they know... oops. LOL