At the end of the Heart Sutra we chant Gya tei Gya tei.... -  which means together we go beyond, across the river, to the far Shore. The far shore in this context means Nirvana.

What we need to understand is that zazen is the entire ground; this shore, the far shore, the ground beneath the river.

Therefore do not stagnate in emptiness. Wear neither the mask of the self nor the mask of false equanimity. Just allow everything to flood through you, like light.



Book of Serenity, Case 91 (adapted)

Book of Serenity, Case 91(adapted)

The Case:

A person said to Master Nansen, “Heaven, Earth and the self have the same root. All things, including the self, are one person”

Nansen pointed to a flower and said, “These days, people see this flower as if in a dream”


In a lot of the koan stories, a person will state what they believe to be Buddhist doctrine, and the Master will respond in an apparently bizarre way: with laughter perhaps, or a non sequitur. Why?

Ordinarily, we start off with a belief, and then try to make our experience correspond with that belief. So, we may believe that everything is empty, and then try to discern that emptiness, as if our actual experience is a dream. Or, we may, idiotically, aspire to personal enlightenment, and then keep checking our experience as it is against what we believe it should be.

But what we need to understand is that Buddhism isn’t a matter of belief, but a matter of experience. The experience when our sense of self, our sense of separation, is cast off. Actual people - people like you - experience something and try to describe it. A picture, not a key, not a dogma.  But over time, the language fossilises into doctrine. We always need to say something from our actual experience. Then, and only then, there is expression.





If we see trees in a field, to the human eye, they are separate. However, their roots are completely entangled. So, if one of them is stricken, the others will support it, they will not let it fall.

In wide, open awareness, the mind flows into the body and so the body flows: into the ground, into the sky.

So all things are lifted up.




Book Of Serenity, Case 18 (adapted)

Book Of Serenity, Case 18 (adapted)

The Case:

A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”

Joshu said, “No.”

The monk said, “All beings have Buddha Nature, how come the dog doesn’t?”

Joshu said, “Karmic Nature”


This is the best known of all the koans. It’s the quintessential koan. And so, it exemplifies how we misunderstand these teaching fragments.

I don’t believe the monk is really asking about a dog, or a dung beetle, or any other random thing; he’s really asking about himself: does this dog have Buddha Nature?

And Joshu says no because the monk’s framework is confused. There isn’t a fixed thing called ‘monk’ and there isn’t a fixed thing called ‘Buddha nature’, one concealed within the other. Because there are no fixed and separate things at all, there is Buddha Nature.

In most translations, such as Cleary’s, the ‘karmic nature’ is that of the dog. My teacher would say that the ‘karmic nature’ is that of the monk. That is, it’s the monk’s karma to get confused and ask questions in this way. But I like to think that Joshu is saying that it’s our karmic nature - as teacher and student, as human beings- to keep getting tangled up like this, untangling ourselves or the other, or both, getting entangled again.. endless.


Posture Instructions: The Breath

My first teacher said that we should have a long, deep, complete exhalation, pushing our belly out as we press down, and a short natural inhalation. I am sorry to say that I believe these instructions to be completely mistaken.

Dogen said hardly anything about the breath. He just said to let a short breath be short and a long breath be long. At first glance, these instructions aren’t exactly comprehensive, but I think the import is clear: we shouldn’t try to control our breath.

Sometimes this is rendered as an instruction to just breathe naturally. Note the word. Not breathe normally, as you would when slumped over your computer, or slouching in a chair, but naturally.

Naturally for the zazen posture. When we are balanced, it is as if there is a vast cavern of breath inside us. There is nowhere it doesn’t reach. Sometimes it is breathing the bones of our pelvis. Sometimes our belly. Sometimes our intercostal muscles. Sometimes our clavicle. Sometimes our head. This natural breath breathes us, and as long as it does so, the body is no longer ‘the body’. It is no longer an object in our consciousness. It - everything - is free.




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