Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I'm coming to you tonight live from a rustic cabin in Spencertown, New York, about two and a half hours drive north of New York City in the middle of the vast wilderness that lies between New York and Montreal.

It's amazing how as soon as you get out of New York City suddenly all signs of human civilization disappear entirely. Well, OK. Maybe not entirely. But it's such a huge contrast. About an hour and a half out of town I had to pee like crazy. I was driving on the Taconic State Parkway and I swear to God there weren't even any gas stations to be found. Where did they all go? Where do people driving on the Taconic Parkway get gasoline? What is a Taconic anyway? Is that a condition of the parkway? "I'm sorry ma'am, but I'm afraid your parkway has become taconic."

Anyway, you will see that Sock Monkey is with me here. He ran off while I was in New York. Apparently -- and the people who found him told me this, I didn't make it up -- he was riding a mechanical bull. What a wild monkey! I lost him for about three days and I was actually pretty sad about it. I'm well aware he is an inanimate object. Even Sock Monkey himself admits this. But it's weird how attached you can get to a stuffed animal, especially when you've traveled so much with him.

I am returning to Montreal from five days in New York City where I did a book signing and a two-day retreat. People always ask stuff like, "How was the retreat?" And it's hard to answer. It was good. It was noisy, being as it was in the East Village with jackhammers jackhammering and sirens wailing. But I'm pretty much used to urban zazen these days and that's just what comes with the territory.

Some cool people showed up, which was cool. Nobody died. No one was seriously injured. I suppose if I were Genpo Roshi, I could have given them all enlightenment experiences. But I'm not. So I didn't. (Someone posted a link to a nice podcast that mentions Genpo disparagingly, but I can't find it anymore. Maybe you can post the link again?)

It's weird doing whatever it is I do. I do basically what my dad has done for the last twenty or so years, I'm a traveling salesman. My dad sells rubber chemicals. I sell books. But we do pretty much the same thing. We get in a car and we drive a long, long, long way to go talk to people. Funny how that works.

OK. I said I'd answer questions people sent in. So let's go.

After all your spot on observations about the dangers of "teachers" accepting money from students in return for teaching, I find it kind of amazing that you are now offering :

"As a way of making it feel a bit like readers are getting something for their money, I'm going to start answering more questions sent in from you folks out there. "

It's your call obviously, but it just seems like a bad idea.

I didn't press the donate button to get your attention, I just want you to keep doing your work.

This brings up a few issues. First off, I really didn't mean to directly associate the donation button with the answering of questions as if you could now pay me to answer stuff. I can see how it came off that way. I was being facetious though. I'm too scatterbrained to work out who sent questions and who sent donations and correlate the two anyway. So even if that was my goal I'd fail.

The idea of accepting money for teaching Zen is a bit more problematic. I've already said before that I tend to deal with my own conundrum in that area by regarding myself mainly as a writer. Writers get paid for writing. Well, they do if they're lucky, anyhow. I don't feel bad taking money for the things that I write. I don't feel bad getting paid for a lecture by someone who hires me to give a talk about my books. Since I write mainly about Buddhism, this makes my own position somewhat ambiguous. But I'm OK with that.

I don't believe it's a very good idea to be a Zen teacher for a living. But I really don't think it's wrong for Zen teachers to make a living being Zen teachers. The temptation to dumb down the teachings in order to get more butts in seats is very strong when it means the difference between paying the rent or getting evicted. You might even try a scheme where rich people pay you $50,000 to tell them they're enlightened.

That would be the very dark side of it. The somewhat less dark side of it is that by accepting money for teaching Zen, you send the message to students that they have a right to demand how Zen ought to be taught to them.

That being said, Zen teachers still need to eat and pay the rent and they should have a means to do that. If a person devotes their entire lives to Zen teaching, how are they going to make a living other than by accepting support from students? In and of itself there is nothing evil about that.

This is why I try as much as possible to keep the writer side separate from the teacher side. Though they do co-mingle. しょうがないな?

Next question:

I`ve been sitting for 3 years daily, and for one year I intensively focused on doing the first koan of my practice; "What am I?" It became really interesting but I had to quit it because I felt that energies in my body/mind were bit out of control. There was this vibrating spot that sometimes vibrated in my head. And it feels like it's not going to the right direction or something.

So nowadays I've been just sitting and focusing on the body and it feels good and grounding. But especially in stressful situations the focus point goes to head and starts vibrating with sounds.

What do you think about hara for example? I have always been told to focus on the hara, but I never learned how. I'm not sure what to do with focusing the mind.
Just sitting and feeling the body feels good and also slightly focusing on the lower back. Maybe just continue like that?

Shikantaza type zazen in it's purest form doesn't have any specific point of focus. I'm aware that lots of teachers tell you to concentrate on the hara or tanden, which basically means a spot just below your chest somewhere. But my teachers never taught that and I never did it.

When I sit, I really just sit. Wherever my awareness goes it just goes. The only thing deliberate I do is to keep making sure my posture is correct. I try not to consider things too much.

Dogen uses the words 無思料 (mushiryou) and 非思料 (hishiryou) to describe what should be done with the mind during zazen. 思料 (shiryou) is often translated in Zen books as "thinking." The modifiers 無 (mu) and 非 (hi) are different levels of denial. In Mike Cross and Nishijima Roshi's translation of Shobogenzo, 無思料 (mushiryou) is "not thinking" and 非思料 (hishiryou) is "different from thinking," as in absolutely different from thinking.

But any Japanese/English dictionary will tell you that 思料 (shiryou) is "consideration." Thinking is usually 考える (kangaeru). So I believe what Dogen was getting at wasn't that we should stop all thought and make our brains completely silent. He was saying something more like that we should avoid actively messing around with the various thoughts that pop into our heads.

Concentrating on the hara seems to me to be the opposite of that. It is a kind of deliberate consideration. You're considering your belly. Same with counting the breath. And it's especially same with using a koan. That, to me, seems to be absolutely without a doubt a form of consideration and definitely not at all what Dogen was talking about.

Phew! That was a lot more work than I thought it would be.

But keep sending your questions in to askbradwarner@hotmail.com and I'll do my best to answer them whether you make a donation or not.


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Anonymous said...

1 (2)

R said...

Hi lolli, if I make you feel bad I kind of feel good about it. I'll see what you have to say one day. Promise.

And ground zero - I see I've been defended earlier, but point to a mistake if you can.

[And 3:01 (and not 1:08) was a humorous remark in response to just what you are saying. (Has it been you then too?) Note the one before it. Are you working for Mysterion?]

Anonymous said...


I agree with many of your criticisms of Soto, but it seems ironic that you fail to recognise that many of those criticisms apply equally to Rinzai. It's Zen too, you know. ;-)

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