Zen in daily life

Zen teacher Dogen and the Soto approach to Zen

What is Zen

By zen master Prof. Masunaga Reiho

From Zen for Daily Living by Prof. Masunaga Reiho, Page 7, Shunjusha Pablishing Co., 1964.

[2. Zazen] [3. True-self] [4. Zen in Daily life] [5. Zen and Art]

1. The Meaning of Zen

Zen and its culture are unique to the East, and until recently the West knew little about them. Some Americans and Europeans who have learned of Zen have become deeply interested in it.

The interest stems possibly from Zens ability to communicate new life awareness. Western culture is oriented primarily toward Being; Eastern culture, toward non-Being. Being can be studied by objective logic. Non-Being must be existentially understood; it is the principle of absolute negation that enables one to loosen bonds and turn toward limitlessness.

This culture of non-Being developed in the Far East with the points of emphasis differing from country to country. In India it was pre dominantly intellectual and philosophical; in China, practical and down to earth; and in Japan, esthetic and emotional. Zen linked up with these various cultural characteristics as it spread. What then is Zen?

To define Zen is difficult. To define is to limit to make a neat conceptual package that abstracts from the whole and gives only part of the picture. This would not capture Zen, for it is rooted in our deepest life flow and deals with the facts of unfettered experience.

The non-conceptual nature of Zen is apparent in the catch phrases that became popular in Sung China. Zen trainees took their cues from such expressions as:

  1. No dependence on words and letters;
  2. A special transmission outside the classified teachings;
  3. Direct pointing to the mind of man; and
  4. Seeing the mind is becoming the Buddha.

Zen is not bound by the words and letters of the sutras and satras. It passes from mind to mind outside the classified and systematized doctrines. Systematizing the Buddhist scriptures was a characteristic of Chinese Buddhism. But Zen basically eluded systematization. It does not lean on the classified teachings. It concentrates on penetrating to the inherent nature of man, and this is called becoming the Buddha.

Of course, Zen does not dispense with words and letters altogether. It is merely not be enslaved by them. In fact, very few religions have produced as many fresh literary works as Zen. Much of the material, naturally enough, deals with awakening from the word-bound state. This experience does not lend itself to long discourses, so Zen expressions are usually epigrammatic and poetic. One of Ummons most famous sayings was: Every day is a good day. Hoen said: When one scoops up water, the moon is reflected in the hands. When one handles flowers, the scent soaks into the robe.

From the outset Zen emphasized human dignity. This is the dignity deriving not from the ego but from the "natural face" we all have. We gain vital freedom by becoming aware of this "natural face" and living in terms of it. Technically, this makes Zen a religion of immanence, but to stop here leaves only a concept "a pictured mochi (rice-cake)."

The important thing is the actual experiencing of Zen. Such an experience would contribute significantly toward allaying the anxieties of modern man, beset as he is with the deadening impact of mass communications and the mechanical life.

Because modern man needs some sort of conceptual guideline to start out with, an effort to put Zen in sharper focus may serve a purpose. In olden times some Zen masters responded to questions with: Zen is Zen. While terse and to the point, this definition hardly offers any help to modern seekers of Zen understanding. Therefore, I venture to define Zen tentatively as follows:Zen is a practice that helps man to penetrate to his true self through cross-legged sitting (zazen) and to vitalize this self in daily life.

This definition, of course, does not cover all of Zen. But it does include the important elements. The three basic points in the definition are:

  1. The practice of zazen,
  2. Penetrating to the true self, and
  3. Vitalizing the true self in daily life.

[1. The Meaning of Zen] [3. True-self] [4. Zen in Daily life] [5. Zen and Art]

2. Zazen

Zazen arose in ancient India. To escape the oppressive heat, Indian thinkers went into forests and hills. There they meditated under huge trees. If they stood, they tired; if they lay down, they fell asleep. So they adopted a method of cross-legged sitting with back straight.

The word Zen derives from dhyana, meaning, "to think." Human beings are a thinking animal. They are like a reed in their weakness, but they are the "thinking reed" of Pascal.

The word dhyana appears in the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. This was the form of zazen used by the Buddha, although his philosophic standpoint differed.

In China, dhyana was rendered as shii-shu (thinking practice) in the Old Translation (pre-Hsuan-tsang) and as Joryo (tranquil thinking) in the New Translation (Hsuan-tsang and after).

Joryo means calming the mind and thinking of ultimate truth. Sitting cross-legged, the Buddhist trainee considered the true meaning of the world and of human existence.

In zazen the important point is to harmonize body, breathing, and mind. The half or full paryanka posture is used. Exhaling and inhaling settle to a calm rhythm. Breathing plays a vital role; in India it is called prana, or life. To harmonize the mind is to dissolve the t perplexities and delusions that disturb our minds.

There is an orthodox and a simplified form of zazen. In the orthodox method the right foot rests on the left thigh, and the left foot on the right thigh. The left hand is placed in the right hand with palm upward. The thumbs touch and the right hand in turn rests on the left foot. The trainee sits upright on a thick cushion, leaning neither forward nor backward or from side to side. This method is described by Dogen in Fukanzazengi and by Keizan in Zazenyojinki. English translations of both are included in my Soto Approach to Zen.

In the simplified form the right foot only is put on the left thigh. The Test is the same as in the orthodox method. But even the simplified form may present some difficulties for the average Westerner. Young Japanese have trouble with it, too.

Upon completion of zazen the hands are placed over the chest with the right hand clasping the left fist A slow walk follows in half step with one breath for each step. This procedure-called Kinhin (canka in Pali) - helps to keep the mind calm and relieve the stiffness in the legs.

In zazen nothing is sought, not even enlightenment Bodhidharma called it the non-seeking practice. But the results are substantial. Repeatedly practiced zazen seems to invigorate the involuntary nervous system. It strengthens the solar plexus. Some Japanese psychologists have credited zazen with

  1. facilitating recovery from some illnesses,
  2. strengthening spiritual resources and lessening neuroticism,
  3. changing mental attitudes to eliminate bad habits,
  4. restraining destructive impulses,
  5. developing greater insight into situations, and
  6. fostering freedom from anxiety.

Results of recent scientific experiments indicate that zazen also reduces the modulation of brain waves. Zazen, in short, prepares the body and mind for the next stage of vital activity.

[1. The Meaning of Zen] [2. Zazen] [4. Zen in Daily life] [5. Zen and Art]

3. True-self

Basic problems return to the self. It is the key to penetrating the nature of truth. The Indian Upanishads, which established the philosophy of Atman, said: All cosmos is this Atman. In Western philosophy, too, the nature of the self has fascinated thinkers. Man is the weakest reed in nature, said Pascal, but he is a thinking reed.

Rikushozan, who taught the philosophy of One Mind, said: The cosmos is my mind. My mind is the cosmos. In the depth of minds we recognize the cosmic spirit that breaks out of narrow consciousness and works naturally. We cannot doubt that the self is a thinking reed.

The self, as we ordinarily know it, is where time and space cross. In the West the conditioned self is usually accepted as it appears from the standpoint of Being. The conditioned and instinctive come with it. In the East, with its emphasis on non-Being, the conditioned self tends to be downgraded. The East would awaken to the natural and purify the instinctive.

The conditioned self includes many discrepancies and impurities. This is the self that Buddhism found unacceptable, noting that all things have no selfhood. It means that there is no fixed substance anywhere and no reason to cling to it. To postulate such a substance is the ordinary view.

The unifying element in this stream of consciousness is provisionally called the self. There is no soul without this body. Truth emerges when we can empty ourselves while observing things. To observe without dogmatic bias lies at the base of the scientific spirit. Science can flourish only so far as it stays clear of narrow dogmas, and strive for systems free from contradictions.

The idea that all things have no selfhood was supported by the Buddhist teachings of mutual dependence and impermanence. It ripened into the ideas of Buddhahood in the Mahanirvana Sutra and of the Tathagata-garba in the Srimala Sutra.

In Hinayana Buddhism, Sarvastivadin considered the mind as stained from the standpoint of realism, while Mahasanghika considered it pure from the standpoint of idealism. Mahasanghika returned to Mahayana Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism is a progressive movement that tries to return to the basic spirit of the Buddha in accord with the age. Mahayana scriptures see the mind of man as essentially pure. This is especially true in the Mahanirvana Sutra, which teaches that all beings have Buddha-nature and points to the inherent Buddha mind in everyone.

Buddha-nature is the ground for becoming the Buddha: it is the Religiositat of humanity and the true humanity. Faith in Buddha- nature provides the basis for enlightenment and the ultimate ground of human dignity.

In the Srimala Sutra the term used is the Tathagata-garba. It means the womb enclosing the Tathagata. All beings are said to be wrapped in the deep mind-wisdom of the Tathagata. This is called shosozo (enveloping storehouse). The mind-wisdom of the Tathagata is covered by the delusions and desires of all being. This is called ompuzo (hidden storehouse). Many Buddhists generally consider the latter as Buddha-nature. Actually the former seems closer to the truth.

Buddha-nature is the true self that manifests itself when we lose ordinary selfhood. It is the inherent self (Eigenes Selbst) of existential philosophy. To penetrate to the true self is to gain enlightenment (Satori).

In Zen some schools emphasize Satori, and others give it less weight. The Rinzai School is an example of the former; the Soto School, an example of the latter. Rinzai Zen courts Satori by reflecting on the Koan during zazen. Soto Zen does not set Satori and practice apart; it considers them self-identical. The former is convenient for the beginner, but one misstep can turn it into a gradualist sort of Zen. Soto Zen is suited for more experienced Zen trainees. But here again, a misstep can lead easily to a form of naturalism.

Dogen, who transmitted Soto-Zen to Japan, deepened the Buddha- nature concept in his essay on the subject. He did not accept the usual interpretation of the passage in the Mahanirvana sutra: All beings inherently have Buddha-nature. He read it: All beings are Buddha- nature. Dogen thus made Buddha-nature the ground of all existences and the origin of all values. All existences, he said, are the self-expression of Buddha-nature.

From this basic standpoint, Dogen extensively discussed the ideas of u-bussho (Buddha-nature as Being), mu-bussho (Buddha-nature as non- Being), ku-bussho (Buddha-nature as emptiness), setsu-bussho (Buddha-nature as expression), mujo-bussho (Buddha-nature as impermanence), and gyo-bussho (Buddha-nature as practice).

U-bussho considers all existences as Buddha-nature. Mu-bussho is the ground of form. Ku-bussho is the Buddha-nature transcending both Being and non-Being. Setsu-bussho takes all things in themselves as self-expressions of Buddha-nature. Mujo-bussho is the ever-flowing development of Buddha-nature itself. Gyo-bussho is the bodily practice of Buddha-nature.

[1. The Meaning of Zen] [2. Zazen] [3. True-self] [5. Zen and Art]

4. Zen in Daily life

Faith without practice lacks strength. As evidenced by such catch phrases as no dependence on words and letters and a special transmission outside the classified teachings, Zen stresses practice. The two basic forms of Zen practice are zazen and daily activity. Soto Zen especially puts strong emphasis on thorough practice in daily life, Zen practice centers on:

  1. Living every moment to the fullest.

    Engo said: In living we express full function in dying we express full function. The absolute present comes alive. When we function fully, we are vitally free. John Dewey also saw this and attributed immeasurable value to the complete experience in art and living.

    Dewey' views on the use of posture reflexes as a mechanism for change may be appropriate here. In his Introduction to Dr. F.M. Alexander's The Use of The Self, Dewey stated that a man's posture, especially the way he holds his head, enables him to take possession of his own potentialities and move from conditioned enslavement into a means of vital freedom. It is interesting that Aldous Huxley, one of the best-known Western admirers of Zen, once studied with Dr. Alexander.

  2. Transcending dualism and using it freely.

    Vimalakirti talked about the non-dualistic and this is where Zen resides. So long as we cling to dualism, we face conflict and anxiety. The perfect way, Sosan said, is not difficult. Just drop discrimination. Clear and bright is the world when we neither hate nor love.

    Dualistic tension between hate and love, right and wrong, good and evil makes the human being prey to rigid dogma. He cannot move freely.

  3. Respecting the physical

    Buddhism essentially denies any dualism between body and mind. Yet most Buddhist teachings tend to stress mind and consciousness. Dogen, however, held that such emphasis abstracted the human being. To gain the Way, he said, make use of your body. A faith rejecting the body becomes sterile and meaningless.

  4. Enlarging awareness.

    The nuclear and space age that we live in encourages the vigorous progress of science. But man has increasingly become obsessed with science and machines and lost touch with his essential humanity. Zen works to check this estrangement and restore intensity of awareness. If we know ourselves at all times, truth is where we stand, Rinzai said. Each morning Zuigan called: The Self! The Self!Yes, yes, he answered. He also said: Don't ever let others condition you.

  5. Releasing natural altruistic action.

    Dogen called such action benevolence and considered it a universal law benefiting oneself and others. Prof. Pitirim A. Sorokin uses the term creative altruism and sees it as a key to reconstructing man. This is reflected in the title of an important work edited by him: Forms and Techniques of Altruistic and Spiritual Growth. Non egoism and creativity go together. Creative altruism and the Bodhisattva vow are one. And this current flows through Zen as it does through the rest of Mahayana Buddhism.

  6. Increasing serenity and effectiveness in daily life - Zazen in a quiet room carries over into daily life. Rinzai said: If hungry, eat; if tired, sleep. Daily life offers no perplexities. It is relieving your self when needed, putting on clothes, and eating food. And when tired, it is stretching out to sleep. In an increasingly mechanized world the brain often works overtime in unproductive grooves. Day-to-day pressures bring neurosis, anxiety, and various complexes. The joy of living the moment fades, and despair closes in. To many sensitive individuals today, life has gone stale. They may find in Zen a clue to a fresher approach to life. To follow up the clue will require the courage to overthrow the tyranny of learned responses. Zen serenity and real living stem from recognizing things for what they are.

The standpoint of a fully functioning Zen man was expressed by Fuke:

  • Let him come from the bright side, And I will dispose of him on that side;
  • Let him come from the dark side, And I will dispose of him on that side;
  • Let him come from every possible direction, And I will dispose of him like a whirlwind;
  • Let him come from the sky, And I will dispose of him like a flail.

The Zen master thus lives serenely and sensitively in vital freedom no matter what comes.

In the Hekiganroku, there is a passage that shows vitaworking: We meet strength with weakness, softness, with severity. Dogen clearly saw the need for harnessing this vitality to social action. In GenjoKoan he said: To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. To he enlightened by all things is to be free from attachment to the body and mind of one's self and others. It means wiping out even attachment to Satori. Wiping out attachment to Satori, we must enter into actual society.

Here is the essence not only of Zen but also of all religions that aim at clarifying the self. It is the process of living by dying-of shedding egoistic delusion and finding our "natural face." This is Satori-the awakening-but we should not stop there. Others must be helped toward Satori: toward an enlightenment that stems not from self-power but from openness to all things. Unbound even by enlightenment, we must participate actively in the ongoing world and work in vital freedom.

[1. The Meaning of Zen] [2. Zazen] [3. True-self] [4. Zen in Daily life]

5. Zen and Art

In the Kamakura period, Eisai and several other Zen masters brought Rinzai Zen to Japan. This Zen offered spiritual support to the warrior class and helped establish bushido, a warrior code unique to Japan. The warrior's approach to life had much in common with Zen. Both stressed the transcending of life and death; both esteemed courage, resoluteness, simplicity, and austerity. Disciplined action was characteristic of both warriors and Zen priests. Such leaders as Tokimune and Tokiyori were influenced by Zen masters from China.

During the war years at the end of the Kamakura period, the Zen monks were responsible for preserving Japanese education and culture. Among other things the monks taught the common people the Zen influenced Confucianism of Shushi. The bulk of the material published at that time dealt with Zen-often Zen sayings and verses. Zen monks became associated with the ability to read foreign documents.

The Zen monks also developed the Ashikaga School and the terakoya (monastery classes). They set up libraries containing Zen and Confucian works. An example of such a library is the Kanazawa Bunko. Some of these ventures were of considerable size. The Ashikaga School, for example, with Zen priests as principals, once had 3,000 students.

The social welfare efforts of Zen were financed partly by commerce. The Zen monks played a role in trade between Japan and China; the Tenryuji and Shokokuji ships are an example of their enterprise. The profits from this trade went toward rebuilding temples and training priests as well as toward general social welfare.

In the arts Zen infused with architecture, sculpture, painting; calligraphy, gardening, tea ceremony, flower-arrangement, Noh, Yokyoku, Renga, and Haiku. The characteristics of this Zen art have often been discussed. One scholar, for example, finds seven basic characteristics. I believe, though, that four are probably enough-simplicity, profundity, creativity, and vitality. These happen to be characteristics of Zen itself as well as Zen art.

The Zen monks spurned luxury and simplified what they wore and ate. This is evident even today in the Zen monastery life. But this simplicity is far from superficial; it is firmly anchored in depth.

While emphasizing practice, Zen does not ignore philosophy. The philosophic ties are primarily with some of the most profound ideas in Buddhism-with Sunyata of the Prajnaparamita sutra, with mutual interdependence of the Avatamsaka sutra, and with Buddha-nature of the Mahaparinirvana sutra.

Zen was transmitted from mind to mind and from personality to personality. But if master and disciple are merely equal, the spirit of Zen dwindles. If the disciple is the same as the master, the Hekiganroku says, the value of the master decreases by half. The disciple shows his gratitude to the master by transcending him. Herrigel calls this climbing on the shoulders of the teacher.

The essential transmission then may be creativity. The following lines from Keizan are pertinent here:

  • The body of Sakya is still warm;
  • The faint smile of Ka'syapa retains its freshness...
  • To let us know the unchanging by a flower gesture, And to teach us eternity in a smile.

Zen vitality is full functioning in life based on zazen. Activity rather than passivity characterize Zen. Creativity and vitality are closely related; their rareness in combination constitutes a major modern problem.

How do these four characteristics-simplicity, profundity, creativity, and vitality-show up in Zen art? The best way to find out, of course, is to go to the works themselves. But some indicators may be helpful.

The sumie of Sesshu and the tea ceremony room give the feel of simplicity. Another example is Mokkes painting of persimmons. Profundity animates the Noh plays of Zeami and the Haiku of Basho. The frog-leap-pond Haiku - one of the masterpieces of Basho - may provide an especially good insight into what is meant here. Creativity emerges strongly in the gardens of Muso and the calligraphy of Ryokan. They clearly transcended their masters style. Sesshu also serves as an example here; he learned his technique from Josetsu and Shubun in Japan and Kakei in China, but his final landscapes were incomparably his own. Vitality shimmers through the calligraphy of Hakuin and Ikkyu. Their calligraphy overflows form without violating it. Vitality is also evident in the vigor and free flow of all Zen art.

In Japan such sports as Judo, Kendo, and Karate contain overtones of Zen. They are forms of martial art, emphasizing disciplined behavior, expert-beginner relationship, and intensive training. The training results in tourney actions embodying full functioning and vital freedom.

A Japanese development of Karate is called Shorinji kempo. The followers of this form consider Bodhidharma as the founder. The story has it that one day some bandits attacked the Shorinji to plunder clothing and food. The Zen monks there, having no swords or other weapons, defended themselves with their bare hands. The techniques they used are said to be the basis of present-day Shorinji kempo.

Relaxed activity is effective not only in Judo, Kendo, and Karate, but also in other sports. Athletes in less traditional sports have found merits in Zen discipline. Recently in Japan, a number of baseball players have taken up zazen.

Zen's potential for enhancing effectiveness has also, at another level, drawn the keen interest of scientists. The psychotherapists especially have investigated Zen practices. C. G. Jung's Foreword to D. T. Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism is one evidence of this interest, and it underlines the similarity between his individuation process and Zen awakening. Karen Homey and Erich Fromm are other well-known figures in psychotherapy whose interest in Zen surpasses the merely curious. Recent studies of Zen training have included electroencephalograms of monks in zazen. The brain waves indicated extreme calm a few minutes after the start of zazen.

In this way, Zen is stirring up wider interest. It is not limited to Japanese art and culture. Scientists both in East and West, if their goal is human wholeness, are looking to Zen for some old but still valid answers.