Becoming McZen Teacher

After participating your first Sesshin, 5 days, 120 hours, where do you consider yourself? Already a “beginner”? Already on the Zen way? Already found your teacher and practice? I doubt.

I met my Zen teacher, with whom I worked for over 13 years, did almost 50 Sesshin, when I already was teaching Aikido at my own Dojo, offering regular Zen class (for which I mistakenly felt qualified after practicing half a decade with this or that group). It took me two or three Sesshin with this teacher to realise that I was actually a beginner, not an advanced student of any sorts. After five or six years close collaboration he made me his assistant, and after about 10 years we were teaching together.

Opening ceremony of my former Dojo near Aachen/Germany (June 2010).

More than twenty years after my first experience practicing Zazen I opened my Zen Dojo. The opening ceremony was conducted by my teacher, who gave the Dojo (and me) a Japanese name on that occasion. I received three bowls and a certificate from him that I am permitted to teach Zen and Hitsuzendo (Zen calligraphy). I remember, the first thing I did after officially becoming a “Zen teacher” was cooking noodles for all my guests.

I know who my teacher’s teacher was, and his teacher’s teacher. After parting from my teacher, I went to study with his senior colleague in Japan, Gensho Hozumi Roshi (who later “adopted” me in the Zen tradition and gave me the name “Genko”). Similar to this Zen lineage, I can draft where my late Aikido teacher came from, or my late Shakuhachi teacher. What I am doing at my Dojo is not some kind of home brew Yoga-Zen-Esoteric stuff, maybe after reading a few books or watching a few youtube videos, or spending some short (online) time with this or that self acclaimed “master”. It is totally transparent from where it all comes, and my addition is almost negligible.

Hozumi Roshi washing my feet (Kameoka/Japan).

I don’t much like social media, it keeps people away from meeting in person. But hiding my Dojo too well, I was convinced by my students, is no good idea either. So this blog exists, more or less, and a page on Instagram I occasionally update. Through this, I came about a (German language) advertisement with the title “Education: Zen-Teacher”. A program is offered, that for enormous 2.800 Euro qualifies one to teach Zen after 120-200 hours of training. Alas, not much can be found about the teacher’s qualification who is conducting the program, except that he calls himself “Sifu”, which is not quite any title known in the Zen world.

Why do such things exist? I am not interested in the particular case (that is why I even don’t provide a link here), or this or that person, if he or she exists, who invests such a great amount of cash. What interests me is the phenomenon as such.

For example, you would not find a similar advert for “becoming a violin teacher in 120-200 hours”, or “becoming a professor in quantum physics in 120-200 hours”. Why do some people believe, teaching Zen is such an easy skill to learn?

If you ask a seasoned Zen practitioner or head of a Dojo, he or she might probably even let you know that it is impossible to teach Zen at all. I tend to subscribe to that position, yet, with sufficient experience and empathy, you can be a certain help for dedicated people trying to discover their very own Zen way. Hopefully. At least, I can confirm that I benefited a lot form the guidance given by my teachers.

At a Sesshin with my student (Benediktushof Holzkirchen / Germany).

With my closest student I spent about 1.500-2.000 hours in total after she first entered my Dojo almost four years ago. If you’d ask her if she feels qualified to perform as a Zen teacher, she would probably laugh.

Do I myself feel qualified as a teacher, after almost 30 years of practice? Often I wonder. Possibly not so much. I consider myself as a borderline case: with a fascinating and profound practice to share, but very little pedagogical enthusiasm to drive someone else in a certain direction. The more you invest in your study with me, the more you might get back. But there is no “program” to join, nothing.

“There isn’t even a menu outside !” a passer-by complained after I opened my Dojo, probably mistaking it for an Asian restaurant. I like that: we don’t have a menu to order from. But you get a chance to learn how to prepare your very own Zen dish at our Dojo. It’s not McZen.

Amongst White Clouds

Imagine that hermits’ life, in a cave high up in the holy mountains amongst white clouds, silently meditating the days away. Nope. There is a nice documentary about hermits living in the Zhongnan Mountains of China called “Amongst White Clouds“. You can see them struggling with every day life, hard working most of the time.

Sandbags at our Dojo door.

It is possibly sobering to keep in mind there is no emergency exit from daily struggles and chores towards the clouds. Between Christmas and New Year our Dojo was in the danger of being flooded, once more. I had to quickly prepare sand-bags and learn how to access and interpret upstream and downstream gauge heights published by the authorities online to predict how close the danger really is. Not to talk about carrying everything of value up to the first floor. And back down before our first Zazen in the new year.

Water levels rising towards flood.

After this was over and I wanted to write a little bit about my experience, also in the face of a much more severe disaster which struck Japan just a few days ago, I found this blog was down. Once more. After setting up the technology behind it more than ten years ago, I had to (re-)learn what it means to have an (meanwhile outdated) “Theme” operating the page, why PHP 7.4 works with it (but costs lots of extra money for “extended support”, which I was not aware of) while PHP 8.0 did not work with the old “Theme”. Updating to a “Theme” which goes well with PHP 8.0 smashed the layout of my 100+ posts. In the process of fixing it, the whole blog seemed gone … with the backup software neither working with PHP 7.4 or 8.0 .

Just little things. I imagine, in the hermitage amongst white clouds the shovel or pick-axe breaks apart. And while trying to repair the tool, some cloths rupture, while the last needle is gone. I imagine the fire gone out during a cold and windy evening, and the last box of matches got wet. There is no escape.

Il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux

Albert Camus

The other day we watched a movie where the main character earns his living as a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. I guess you have seen it. He seemed to have found his hermitage, a way of living, day after day, with a dirt job in the middle of a busy mega-city. The director Wim Wenders said in an interview, as blueprint for this character he had the late Leonard Cohen on his mind, cleaning the monastery toilets while living as a novice Zen monk at Mount Baldly.

From my own experience, I can confirm there is no need to travel to the other side of the world just to clean some exotic toilet. Yet, it is slightly more pleasant, and an aesthetically more satisfying experience to clean a Japanese toilet.

Do the hermits have toilets, high up amongst white clouds?

None, or Few ?

These days, due to unusual circumstances, I enjoy an abundance of spare time. Typically my schedule is packed and I cut sleep beyond healthy limits to accomplish all tasks planned for the day. That’s the way I learned through Zen practice, not wasting a second, and I took it for granted all my life. Maybe it is wrong.

Another Sunday without fixed schedule, and I can’t believe having more than twelve hours ahead I can do whatever I want. Last night I watched a movie and played Saxophone for three hours straight, it was wonderful. I have plenty of time to read and even write. Maybe later I will do a few hours calligraphy, or go for a walk. Or both. I enjoy the almost forgotten feeling of being fully awake, after long seven hours of sleep. Where have I been all these years?

Calligraphy by Oomori Sogen at our Dojo wall.

When we study Hitsuzendo (Zen Calligraphy) at our Dojo, we copy the calligraphy of my former teacher’s late teacher Oomori Sogen. Sometimes we wonder why this prominent Zen master preferred to chose words conjuring up the image of hermits living high up in the cloudy mountains, or find the world in a jar. Was it escapism, his desire to flee a hectic every day life?

I don’t think so. I believe he found something, some seclusion and silence amidst being involved with a hectic post-war Tokyo. Maybe that’s why, in spite of his accomplishments and fame, he had nothing more than a small training temple with just a few students.

It is no coincidence our own Dojo is on the verge of disappearing. I too feel much drawn towards some cloudy mountain or a small fisherman’s hut at a stormy seashore. As much as I occasionally do enjoy the company of inspiring people, most free and most happy I feel when I’m on my own.

Snapshot from the opening scene of “Tenzo” (1)

Far away from emperors and ministers

Deep in the mountain valley,
open your training place

To those who have the ability

Pass on Buddha’s teachings

Rujing Zenji (Dogen’s teacher in China)

 

For many years I felt the obligation to teach, to pass on what I had learned from my teachers, to share the gratitude I once received. “I can’t possibly keep all that locked away in my head, just for myself!” was my inspiration to open a Dojo, to offer Sesshin.

Yet, can I really dare to invite anyone to climb with me a steep mountain path, or walk along a stormy beach? “Join at your own risk” I used to think “I won’t stop and turn around to make sure you can follow!”. But that’s not fair. Shouldn’t I instead just come come back from time to time, to tell an enchanted and comfortable audience stories from mountain tops and stormy seashores, spread some old man’s gossip like so many “Zen Teachers” love to do these days? No, that sounds boring, a waste of time, mine and yours.

“You are no good teacher” some of my former students complained before they left, “you are not guiding us properly, not representing anything. We are better looking for a teacher who will take us by the hand and lead us!”. I fully agree.

My path might be too steep, too narrow, too windy to follow. Or too lazy, like today. Join at your own risk, but watch your step!

I met a man who lost his mind
In some lost place I had to find
“Follow me”, the wise man said
But he walked behind

Leonard Cohen – Teachers


(1) “Tenzo” (2019) directed by Katsuya Tomita: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10415754/ .

The Zen Guest

I drafted this text some years ago, when I had many more students at my Dojo and did most of the chores alone. For some reason I never published it. Now we are just a few and perform all tasks together.

What is your role within your group, your Sangha, your Dojo?

When you are new, arrive at the doorstep of a Dojo for the first time in your life, it is pretty clear. You are 初心者 “Shoshinsha”, a person with a fresh beginner’s mind. A 初心者 is nothing bad at all, not as the common English translation “beginner” might imply.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Don’t worry what the seniors or teacher at the Dojo might think of you. Never consider impressing them with some previously acquired wisdom from books or the internet. Just be polite and watch carefully, try your best to join in and all will be fine for the 初心者.

With time, to my experience, the beginners develop into two directions. Many of them are becoming the equivalent of a permanent guest. They arrive last minute, enjoy a clean Dojo and a prepared setting for their practice. They make use of every occasion for some small talk and enjoy “guiding” new members of the group. Usually they are very nice and friendly people and there is nothing wrong with them, except that I don’t really understand why they prefer to spend their leisure time at a Zen Dojo.

Some, few, soon realise it is not my task but their task to run the Dojo. To keep it clean, to bring flowers, to prepare everything for their practice. This realisation sooner or later results in the question

Can I help you?

My true and honest answer to this question is usually “No, not yet!”. Why do I say so? Why do I not explain what to do, and give the motivated 初心者 a task?

The reason is twofold: I simply have no time to name and explain the many many chores which are to perform in a Dojo. Instead, I demonstrate it myself, with my whole body and mind, every day. All you have to do to find out how you can help is: carefully watch me doing how and what I do, in which way and what order. And then do it, before I have to do it.

All I do at the Dojo I only do because there is no one who completed the task before me.

Assistant at a Sesshin with my former teacher at Haus Benedikt (Würzburg/Germany) in 2002.

This is how I learned. I watched my teacher, and whatever I realised he is doing, next time I tried to complete before he had a chance to perform the task by himself. Of course he often had to correct me, not by words, but just by redoing what I did in a wrong way. For me, that meant watching again and doing better next time. Occasionally he also had to stop me from doing something. Understanding when to do what from morning to night, especially during a Sesshin, is not a simple task which can be learned within one or two years.

Looking back at those student years, I feel a bit embarrassed, because I thought as an assistant I helped my teacher doing his work. In reality, as I realise now, he was taking the burden upon his shoulders to teach me. Instead of quickly performing all the tasks by himself, he had to carefully observe me trying my best efforts. Always ready to jump in or correct my wrongdoings early enough before the flow of a Sesshin or seminar was interrupted. I was a bit like a student at a driving school, imagining to help his driving teacher driving the car.

After ten years or so I was more or less running our Sesshin alone, my teacher was just present in the background. I admired his ability to withdraw, to let me take his seat (literally, we changed seats in the Zendo). “I arrive 14:30 by train, only bring tooth brush and pyjama!” was his usual announcement before Sesshin during our last two or three years we spent teaching together. The rest was upon me.

When I opened my Dojo and began running Sesshin completely on my own, that was just a small and natural next step. Nothing special. Although my teacher was not my teacher any more, and he was no longer present in the same room, his presence was imagined by me all the time. It was me, but yet at the same time still him running the seminar. I even imagined hearing his voice every now and then, warning me before I did the one or other mistake.

Consequently, the first ten years working without my former teacher were mostly learning to become free of his pervasive presence in all my doing. I never imagined this would be the most demanding and difficult exercise he left for me! And even today, there is hardly one class, one Sesshin where I do not mention or quote him.

Advertisement on a JR train in Japan (1)

How do I look these days upon those “guests” who arrive three minutes before we are supposed to be on our cushions? I do so with 表裏なし (omoteuranashi). It sounds a bit similar to the well known お持て成し (omotenashi), which is often translated as “hospitality”, yet the 表裏なし literally means “no front and back”. By showing openly everything from all sides I perform at the Dojo and during a Sesshin, I have no hidden back, no secret ways and hidden routines.

It is never too late, even for a long term guest, to begin watching carefully …

(1) Picture taken from https://tak-shonai.cocolog-nifty.com/crack/2016/04/post-643a.html (accessed on 5. August 2023). The coffee advertisement gets the etymological root of おもてなし (omotenashi) wrong by naming its source as 表裏なし, as the Japanese blog post points out.

You Must Leave

“You are like a shark” she said, her beautiful eyes filling with tears, “you can’t stop moving, or you’ll suffocate and die!”, half scared that I’m almost gone, half aware she can’t stop me anyway.「馬鹿いってんなよ!」was my pretty rude reply, purposely ignoring she understood too well what was going on.

Looking back, amongst the best I used to do was moving on before things turned bad, the worst staying for too long. Not just in the most troublesome and most joyful adventure of romantic encounters and exploring the heavens of mutual physical attraction.

I left my home-town, my childhood and teenage friends. I changed my subject of research, my field of expertise end eventually even my profession. I left teachers behind and cut off with anyone who was stealing my time or energy. I gave up believes and convictions, ways of looking at people and the world, stopped doing things I “always” used to do. Not because I wanted to, often not even because I decided to do so for the one or other good reason. Staying with what felt wrong gave me such physical and emotional discomfort that I almost couldn’t breathe. I had to move on … like a shark, who never stops moving. My wise friend with the beautiful eyes was probably right.

In Buddhism we often talk of “impermanence” (anicca in Pali, 無常, MUJO in Japanese). Intellectually understanding impermanence is no big deal: absolutely everything is always changing. Fully accepting this as the underlying structure of our whole life is yet a different challenge. Just for the ease of understanding, let’s stick with the Mating Game: “Stay as sweet as you are” (Nat “King” Cole), “Stay with me” (Sam Smith), “Don’t change on me” (Alan Jackson) sounds the plea of (mostly male) love-songs, not to anyone’s surprise followed by “Why did she have to leave me?” (The Temptations) and “Baby, please come back” (Eminem & 2Pac).

While scuttling around in the shallows of couple counseling, some more mainstream pop wisdom on accepting impermanence, “Let it be!” (The Beatles) and the Nobel Price awarded “Don’t think twice it’s all right” (Bob Dylan), is probably the better advice for soon to be (or far too often) broken hearts:

You’re the reason I’m a-traveling on (…)

Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word (…)

You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right

“Don’t Think Twice it’s All Right” (Bob Dylan)

When being in contact with the world, when enjoying sensual pleasures, craving for and eventually clinging to what is constantly changing can cause tremendous pain. The whole chain was explained many times and in various detail by the Buddha as Pratītyasamutpāda (dependent arising).

Sometimes, though, I doubt. I turn around to see again past friends, teachers or even a love I left behind for good, and almost always I deeply regret coming back. The most painful insight Buddhism and Thermodynamics have in common is that the Arrow of Time cannot be reversed. What we call 無常 (MUJO) within Japanese Zen is almost equivalent to the Second Law of Thermodynamics in modern Physics. Entropy tends to increase over time, with the most surprising and beautiful but ephemeral local exception we call “life”.

How should we live our life, embracing 無常? Where to cut the chain leading to suffering?

Bhikkhu A, possibly not enjoying the beauty of nature

I tend to disagree with my old friend A who became a Bhikkhu (monk) in the Theravada tradition many years ago. He decided to strictly follow his adopted believes and avoids contact with everything (and everyone) that might provide him with feeling and sensual pleasure.

Different from his approach, I prefer to endure the craving as an integral part of human life in the face of impermanence, of fully being in contact with the world. Leonhard Cohen is probably right, there “Ain’t no cure for love”. Yet, by any means, it is crucial to avoid clinging to what one cannot get hold of anyway. “Always Let Me Go (Keith Jarret) is not just closer to my taste of music than any love song, it conveys a deep understanding of how to to deal with impermanence.

How to live a life, when everything is on the move and beyond our control anyway? Shouldn’t we just give up and let it flow? Why to engage with a certain practice or Way (道, DO)?

「転石苔を生ぜず」(てんせきこけをしょうぜず), a rolling stone gathers no moss) is a well known Japanese proverb, emphasizing you should stick with whatever you do for a long time to mature. Just jumping around makes you a jack of all trades, a beginner in thousand arts and subjects.

「歩々清風起」 (ほほせいふうおこる) is yet another Japanese proverb from the Zen tradition. It translates “Step after step, fresh wind arises”. A cool fresh breeze comes by itself, as long as you move on. For our Dojo’s art collection I recently acquired a beautiful scroll 「歩々清風起」written by my former teacher’s late teacher Oomori Sogen (大森曹玄).

Teaching Aikido, long ago and far away (Newspaper Article, 2003)

This calligraphy brings me to full circle of “should I leave or should I stay ?” Was I meant to becoming the stone collecting moss, or made for enjoying a fresh breeze while moving on? Is this even a contradiction, an either-or question?

I left my former Zen- and Calligraphy teacher more than a decade ago, after thirteen years of being his dedicated student, but I still practice in the tradition of his lineage, of the past masters Tesshu Yamaoka and Oomori Sogen. I will do so as long as I can hold a brush.

I left my first Aikido teacher after only 3 years, while I was still a University student, and the following decades I engaged with lots of different styles, martial arts and teachers. But I still practice Aikido in the style I first encountered, the Aikido of the late Kobayashi Hirokazu. I hope to one day exhaust my last breath while flying across the tatami.

I left many friends and lovers behind (and many more left me behind), but I never get tired exploring the fascinating miracle of being with someone who is not boring, who does not waste my time. We might even fall in love, without intention … but promise you will leave, not die!

Juliet: Wilt thou be gone? It is not near day;
It was the nightingale, and not the lark (…)

Romeo: It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. (…)
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act III Scene V

Zen Ken Sho – Sesshin Announcement

Next month (August 20-23, 2023) I will teach a 3 1/2 days Sesshin at Benediktushof Holzkirchen (near Wuerzburg/Germany). We will practise a combination of Zazen, Hitsuzendo (Zen-Calligraphy with brush and ink) and Aikiken (Aikido-based exercises with a wooden sword).

The combination of Zen-Meditation, Calligraphy and exercises with a sword was practised already by old masters like Musashi Miyamoto, Yamaoka Tesshu and Oomori Sogen (my former teacher’s teacher).

hitsuzendoI believe that silent meditation (even if it is dynamic and strong) improves a lot when practised in combination with creative art and physical exercise.

Through our art we can express ourselves, our Zen-experience, and eventually realise who we are. In the trace of ink we leave behind on the paper we can see our own character, our own Zen-mind.

Physical exercise is not just healthy and creating a good balance with the periods of sitting. Especially in martial arts we practise the unification of body and mind through our breathing. Decisiveness and social interaction play a stronger role than in the more solitary practise of Zazen.

Zen-Ken-Sho no Michi is a Zen-Way of exercise where we equally practise Zazen, Hitsuzendo and Aikiken.

A few places are still available, if you are interested please register for the Sesshin via Benediktushof Holzkirchen.

Brave New World

Oh wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world,
That has such people in’t.’

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1

The naive Miranda I was, with a vague idea of Artificial Intelligence not much beyond Weizenbaum’s ELIZA, and a very basic understanding about Neuronal Networks, the other day started a conversation on the Heart Sutra with ChatGPT (1), that somehow was washed ashore my secluded island.

The outcome is a dialogue I want to share below, unedited, in full length. The conclusion is left up to the reader.

My Question

Nattier argues the Heart Sutra is actually of Chinese origin. what arguments do researchers bring up to prove her assumption wrong?

Answer ChatGPT

Some scholars have disputed Nattier’s claim that the Heart Sutra is of Chinese origin. Here are a few of the arguments they have made:

  • The Heart Sutra is included in the Tibetan Buddhist canon, which suggests it was translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan rather than Chinese. The Sanskrit version of the sutra has also been found in the Dunhuang manuscripts, which supports the idea that it originated in India rather than China.
  • The Heart Sutra is part of the larger Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature, which is generally believed to have originated in India. While the Chinese did produce their own Perfection of Wisdom texts, these texts are different from the Indian versions and are not typically associated with the Heart Sutra.
  • Nattier’s argument is based on a comparison of the Heart Sutra with the Chinese Diamond Sutra. While there are similarities between the two texts, there are also significant differences, which suggest that the Heart Sutra was not simply a Chinese adaptation of the Diamond Sutra.
  • Other scholars have pointed out that the Heart Sutra was widely transmitted and studied in India before it was translated into Chinese. This suggests that the text was already well-known and valued in its original form, rather than being a new creation of Chinese Buddhism.

Overall, while Nattier’s argument is interesting and has prompted further research into the origins of the Heart Sutra, it remains a controversial hypothesis that is not widely accepted by the scholarly community.

My Question

Hakuins comment on the heart sutra might lead to the conclusion that Hakuin misunderstood some of its concepts. Can you comment on this assumption?

Answer ChatGPT

Hakuin Ekaku was a prominent Zen master in Japan who is known for his extensive commentary on the Heart Sutra. While Hakuin’s commentary is highly regarded in the Zen tradition, some scholars have questioned whether he fully understood some of the concepts in the sutra.

One of the main points of the Heart Sutra is the teaching of emptiness (shunyata), which is the idea that all phenomena are devoid of inherent existence. This teaching is often misunderstood to mean that everything is simply an illusion or a void, but in fact it is meant to point to the interconnected and interdependent nature of all things.

Some scholars have argued that Hakuin may have misunderstood this concept of emptiness, and that his interpretation of the Heart Sutra may have been influenced by his background in Confucianism and the Japanese cultural context in which he lived. For example, Hakuin is known to have emphasized the importance of moral cultivation and ethical behavior, which some argue is a departure from the more radical non-dualism of the Heart Sutra.

That being said, it’s worth noting that interpretations of the Heart Sutra have varied widely over time and across different Buddhist traditions. While some scholars may take issue with Hakuin’s interpretation of the sutra, his commentary has been highly influential in the Zen tradition and has inspired many practitioners to deepen their understanding of emptiness and non-dualism.

Ultimately, the Heart Sutra is a complex and multi-layered text that can be understood in many different ways, and it’s up to each individual reader to engage with the text and draw their own conclusions.

My Question

It is usually assumed that in the heart sutra Kanjisai Bosatsu is lecturing about emptiness. Could it be a misunderstanding, and Kanjisai Bosatsu just appears there as an example for a bodhisattva?

Answer ChatGPT

The Heart Sutra is a complex text with many layers of meaning, and the identity of the speaker in the sutra is a subject of debate among scholars and practitioners. The speaker is traditionally identified as Avalokiteshvara, or Kanzeon in Japanese, who is an important bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. However, some scholars have questioned whether the speaker is actually meant to be taken as a literal figure or if they are a literary device used to convey the teachings of the sutra.

One interpretation of the speaker in the Heart Sutra is that they are a personification of the wisdom of emptiness, rather than a specific individual. In this view, the speaker is not meant to be taken as a literal figure, but rather as a way of expressing the teachings of the sutra in a vivid and engaging way.

Another possibility is that the speaker is a fictional character created by the author of the sutra to convey its teachings. This would not necessarily mean that the teachings of the sutra are any less valid or important, but it would suggest that the speaker is not a historical or literal figure.

Ultimately, the identity of the speaker in the Heart Sutra is a matter of interpretation and is open to debate. While traditional interpretations identify the speaker as Avalokiteshvara, it is also possible to see the speaker as a literary device or a personification of the teachings of the sutra.

My Question

In the book “The Ego Tunnel” Thomas Menzinger presents a concept of mind in terms of modern science. Yet the conclusions seems very well in accordance with the concept of mind presented in the Heart Sutra. Please comment on this.

Answer ChatGPT

Thomas Metzinger’s book “The Ego Tunnel” presents a modern scientific understanding of the nature of the mind and consciousness, based on research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology. While the Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that dates back many centuries, there are certainly similarities between the two in their description of the nature of the mind.

One of the key themes of the Heart Sutra is the concept of emptiness, which refers to the idea that all phenomena, including the mind, are devoid of inherent existence. This can be understood as a rejection of the idea of a permanent, fixed, or independent self or ego, which is also a central theme of Metzinger’s work.

Metzinger argues that the self is not a fixed or immutable entity, but rather a process that arises out of the dynamic interactions between various neural and cognitive processes. He refers to this as the “self-model theory of subjectivity”, which is based on the idea that the self is a virtual construct or “ego tunnel” that is generated by the brain.

This is similar to the concept of emptiness in the Heart Sutra, which suggests that the mind, and the self or ego that we perceive, are not fixed or permanent entities, but rather dependently arisen phenomena that are constantly changing and evolving.

While the Heart Sutra and Metzinger’s work may approach the concept of the mind and the self from different angles, they share a common perspective that the mind is not a fixed or permanent entity, but rather a constantly evolving process that arises out of various causes and conditions.

Ultimately, the concept of emptiness in the Heart Sutra and the self-model theory of subjectivity in “The Ego Tunnel” can both be seen as attempts to demystify the nature of the mind and to provide a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the self and consciousness.

My Question

Is it a correct assumption that the term “MU” (Emptiness) in the Heart Sutra is used synonymously to “YUME” (dream) in elder texts within the Prajnaparamita litereature from which the Heart Sutra was derived.

Answer ChatGPT

The term “mu” (空), which is commonly translated as “emptiness” or “voidness,” is a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism and is particularly important in the Prajnaparamita literature, which includes the Heart Sutra. While the term “mu” is not directly synonymous with the term “yume” (夢), which means “dream,” there are some similarities between the two concepts that can be seen as pointing to the same ultimate truth.

In the Prajnaparamita literature, the concept of emptiness refers to the idea that all phenomena, including the self, are empty of inherent or independent existence. This is similar to the idea of a dream in that a dream is a type of experience that is dependent on various causes and conditions, such as our previous experiences, memories, and the state of our brain and body. In this sense, a dream is “empty” in that it lacks a fixed or independent existence.

While the terms “mu” and “yume” are not identical, they both point to the same underlying truth of the emptiness of all phenomena. This is why the Heart Sutra and other Prajnaparamita texts use a variety of different metaphors and images to convey the concept of emptiness, including the image of a dream or a mirage.

It’s worth noting, however, that the concept of emptiness in the Heart Sutra and other Prajnaparamita texts is not meant to suggest that the world or the self is illusory or nonexistent, but rather that our conventional way of perceiving and understanding the world is limited and incomplete. The concept of emptiness is meant to lead to a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of reality that transcends our conventional, dualistic ways of thinking.

My Question

In the Heart Sutra the term “Prajna Paramita” is often translated as “Perfection of Wisdom”. Could it be a mistranslation, and the correct reading would be “param-ita”, translating as “reached the other shore”. In this reading, Hannya Haramita (prajna param-ita) could be translated as “reached the other shore of wisdom”, or “transcended wisdom”. Please comment.

Answer ChatGPT

The term “Prajna Paramita” (般若波羅蜜) is a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism and is commonly translated as “Perfection of Wisdom” or “Transcendent Wisdom.” While the term “paramita” (波羅蜜) does mean “perfection,” it can also be translated as “reached the other shore,” as you noted.

In this sense, “Prajna Paramita” can be understood as referring to the wisdom that has reached the other shore, or the wisdom that transcends our conventional, dualistic ways of thinking. This is the type of wisdom that is needed to fully understand and appreciate the concept of emptiness, which is central to the Heart Sutra.

The idea that “Prajna Paramita” can be translated as “transcendent wisdom” is not a new one, and some scholars and practitioners do prefer this translation over “Perfection of Wisdom.” However, both translations are widely used and accepted within the Buddhist tradition, and the choice of translation often depends on the context and the specific interpretation of the text.

In the context of the Heart Sutra, the term “Prajna Paramita” is typically understood as referring to the highest form of wisdom, which is the wisdom that understands the true nature of reality and is able to see through the illusory nature of our conventional experience. This type of wisdom is considered essential for achieving enlightenment, and the Heart Sutra is seen as a powerful tool for cultivating and developing this wisdom.

My Question

Said said, parami-ta and param-ita do have a different meaning, don’t you agree?

Answer ChatGPT

Yes, you are correct that the words “paramita” and “param-ita” have different meanings. “Paramita” (波羅蜜) means “perfection” or “completeness,” while “param-ita” (波羅蜜多) means “arrived at the other shore” or “crossed over.” These are distinct terms with different meanings in the original Sanskrit language.

The term “Prajna Paramita” (般若波羅蜜) in the Heart Sutra uses the word “paramita” (波羅蜜) to refer to the “perfection” or “completeness” of wisdom. This is a widely accepted translation that has been used for centuries in the Buddhist tradition. However, as I mentioned in my previous response, some scholars and practitioners do prefer to translate “Prajna Paramita” as “Transcendent Wisdom,” which would suggest a different meaning for the term “paramita” than the more traditional translation of “perfection.”

In summary, while “paramita” and “param-ita” are distinct terms with different meanings in the original language, the use of “paramita” in the term “Prajna Paramita” in the Heart Sutra is widely understood and accepted as referring to the “perfection” or “completeness” of wisdom.

My Question

The closing mantra of the Heart Sutra “gate gate param gate …” can be translated as “arrive arrived at the other shore …”. Does this not strongly speak for the reading “param-ita” with the translation of “reaching the other shore” as well?

Answer ChatGPT

Yes, you are correct that the closing mantra of the Heart Sutra, “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha,” can be translated as “gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!” Another possible translation of the mantra is “gone, gone, gone to the other shore, attained the other shore having never left, all hail!”

The phrase “paragate” (पारगते) in the mantra can be understood as meaning “gone to the other shore,” and it is often interpreted in the context of the Heart Sutra as referring to the attainment of enlightenment, or the crossing over to the other shore of suffering and delusion.

Given the use of the term “paragate” in the closing mantra, it is possible to interpret “Prajna Paramita” as “reached the other shore of wisdom” or “transcended wisdom,” as you suggested in your earlier question. However, it is important to note that the traditional interpretation of “Prajna Paramita” as “Perfection of Wisdom” is also widely accepted and has been used for centuries in the Buddhist tradition.

Ultimately, the meaning of the Heart Sutra and its key terms, including “Prajna Paramita,” is open to interpretation and may depend on the specific context and perspective of the interpreter.

My Question

Before you said “The term “mu” (空), which is commonly translated as “emptiness” or “voidness,” “. The Chinese character “空” you quoted is not, as you said, “mu”. It is pronounced “ku”. The character “mu” is written 無.

Answer ChatGPT

I apologize for my mistake. You are correct that the Chinese character I previously referred to as “mu” is actually pronounced “ku” and written as “空” in Chinese. The character “mu” is written as “無” in Chinese and is commonly translated as “not,” “nothingness,” or “emptiness” in the context of the Heart Sutra and other Buddhist texts.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention, and I apologize for any confusion my error may have caused.

My Question

In the Heart Sutra both characters “mu” (無) and “ku” (空) are frequently used. They seem to appear like synonymous in that context standing for “not,” “nothingness,” or “emptiness”. Yet there may be a slight yet distinctive difference between both which must not be neglected. Can you comment?

Answer ChatGPT

Yes, you are correct that both the characters “mu” (無) and “ku” (空) are used frequently in the Heart Sutra and are often translated as “not,” “nothingness,” or “emptiness.” While they can be used synonymously in certain contexts, there is also a subtle difference in their meanings that is important to consider.

In general, “mu” (無) is often translated as “nothingness” or “not having” and is associated with the concept of negation or absence. In contrast, “ku” (空) is often translated as “emptiness” and is associated with the idea of openness or spaciousness.

Within the context of the Heart Sutra, “mu” (無) is often used to negate concepts such as form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness, suggesting that they are empty of inherent or independent existence. “Ku” (空), on the other hand, is used to describe the nature of emptiness itself, which is said to be empty of intrinsic nature or essence.

In other words, “mu” (無) is used to negate or deny the inherent existence of phenomena, while “ku” (空) is used to describe the non-inherent nature of emptiness itself.

While the distinction between “mu” (無) and “ku” (空) may seem subtle, it is an important one to consider when interpreting the Heart Sutra and its use of these terms.

My Question

Above you said “Nattier’s argument is based on a comparison of the Heart Sutra with the Chinese Diamond Sutra.” I guess this is wrong. Nattier’s argument is actually based on a comparison of the Heart Sutra with the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. The core part of the Heart Sutra is almost identical with the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra. Please comment on this.

Answer ChatGPT

Thank you for the correction. You are correct that Nattier’s argument is based on a comparison of the Heart Sutra with the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra, also known as the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines. This is one of the longer versions of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, which are a group of Mahayana Buddhist texts that explore the concept of “perfection of wisdom” and the nature of emptiness.

Nattier’s research found that the core of the Heart Sutra is very similar to the corresponding section in the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines, which suggests that the Heart Sutra may have been derived from this longer sutra. The Heart Sutra is much shorter and more concise than the Perfection of Wisdom in 25,000 lines, and it presents the same concepts in a more condensed form. Nattier argues that this condensation was done deliberately in order to create a more accessible text for laypeople and to emphasize the essential teachings of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.

It’s worth noting that the Diamond Sutra, another important Mahayana Buddhist text, is also related to the Prajnaparamita Sutras and explores many of the same concepts as the Heart Sutra. While the Diamond Sutra is not the primary focus of Nattier’s argument, it is still an important text to consider when studying the development of Mahayana Buddhism and the concept of emptiness.

(1) Chat GPT Feb 13 Version, https://chat.openai.com/ acessed on Feb 18th, 2023 .

No Open Bills

My former Zen- and Calligraphy teacher used to describe teaching students as throwing a boomerang: one day, all the effort will pay off and come back to you. That said, he was not naive enough to expect a guaranteed return of investment: “maybe, coming back the boomerang will just hit your head” he used to add.

A slightly different point of view had the Master who taught me Aikido: he used to emphasize that he doesn’t have any disciples, because it causes too much trouble. All he gives us, he used to say, are the pearls. It is our job alone to make a necklace out of it.

Teaching Hitsuzendo (photography courtesy of G.A. Stinner).

From this background it may be understood why I hesitate to call those who study Zen and Hitsuzendo (Zen-Calligraphy) with me “my students”. I prefer seeing them as my Companions on The Way, never sure how far ahead or behind my own footsteps might be.

And I hate open bills, hidden contracts and unspoken obligations of any kind.

Whenever someone leaves the Dojo and crosses the doorstep, we are even. No obligation, no burden, nothing to pay back. No boomerang expected to return one day. That is the reason why I charge even my dearest and most beloved “students” a monthly fee: they pay for the lesson they receive, and no obligation to “pay back” remains whatsoever.

I used to study certain Japanese Arts under the so called Iemoto (家元,) system, where the Grandmaster of his (family owned) art/business passes on his wisdom under well defined conditions for a well defined amount of cash. You will never be free, never “own” what you have learned. All you can hope for is to climb the ranks, pay even more money and (if things work well) one day win your own students to charge. In the West, we call such system “franchise”, nothing I want to be associated with.

Doing my own thing (photography courtesy of G.A. Stinner).

To be very honest, I have always shared great sympathy for those men and women doing “their own thing” living alone in an (imagined) cave high up in some (imagined) mountain. Why caring fore someone else who fancies to follow my (imagined) footprints?

It may well be a certain mercy for my younger self. The one, who had the unlikely luck to meet the right elder one at the right time in his life.

The gratefulness for all those who threw their boomerang, just to be hit by me on their head.

Just watch, do !

So much talk about “transmission”, and often it refers to some certificate, some kind of ceremony maybe. At night by candlelight, in privacy with your master. In daytime with hundreds of eminent participants. By un-witnessed last words on the master’s death-bed or posthumously disclosed private notes. By somebody who never was your teacher or by someone who appeared in your dreams. Why not, it is not a driving license, not a medical doctor’s certificate. Call it what you want, who cares?

A young Kuwahara Kokugyo with Omori Sogen (1981).
Kuwahara Kokugyo with a younger me (2006).

The strength of a rope is determined by the length its individual threads do overlap. The longer the overlap, the stronger the rope. Learning takes time, ten to fifteen years at least, no matter which art you study. If the individual threads don’t overlap for a sufficient length, the rope will rupture.

I firmly believe “transmission” is an ongoing process, not a one time event, nothing to “have”. It is lasting over years and decades and possibly never ending during one’s lifetime. The question to ask is not “do you have transmission?”, but “are you in a process of receiving/passing on transmission?”

A young student with me (2022, photography curtsey of G.A. Stinner).

For generations we contribute in braiding our rope by turning our lifelong work into one overlapping thread. The rope began long before us, and if we work on transmission with determination, hopefully it will continue long after we are gone.

“Ridiculous!”, you might say, “you cannot simply deny a tradition of transmission going back to the Buddha himself !”. Well, have you been there? Did you meet anyone who was? Something happened back then, over 2500 years ago. Something still continues.

Have a look at Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴, 1686–1769), who during his lifetime inherited nothing more than the low rank of Daiichi-Za, yet becoming “one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism (…) regarded as the reviver of the Rinzai school.” (1)

If your goal in life is collecting papers and titles, go for it. Who cares? It is your life. If you wonder “What is The Way, how to receive and pass on transmission?”, find a good teacher, watch closely, then do!

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hakuin_Ekaku

Pushing the Donkey

One example of duḥkha listed by the Buddha is “association with the unbeloved”. If I was more educated in English literature and had known “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes” by Robert Louis Stevenson, I would possibly not have agreed to the holiday I just returned from. Also the slightly cheesy movie Antoinette dans les Cévennes could have warned me, if I had not heard about it just three days before I put a saddle on a donkey for the first time.

By six, we began to load the donkey; and ten minutes after, my hopes were in the dust.

“Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes” by Robert Louis Stevenson

There is generally nothing wrong with donkeys or hiking with a donkey. Donkeys were domesticated long before horses, and have been used as means of transport for at least 6000 years. Yet there is something specific with the psyche of a donkey which is hard to decipher for us humans. After the trip, the donkey master told me “we try to understand the donkeys’ psychology our whole life long, but we fail”. Possibly this is because donkeys shared 6000 years of co-evelution with us, perfectly enabling them to read our minds and identify our week points without fail, while disguising their own intentions in amazing variations of play-acting.

I experienced “our” donkey as blessed with the soul of a highly intelligent, yet incredibly lazy and unbelievably hoggish stubborn five years old kid. Imagine you try to motivate such kid to get up from the sofa, stop eating and carry your luggage through the French Alps for seven days. A kid of 400 kg weight, enormous strength and a rather short-term memory concerning any action-consequence logic.

Opposite to a stubborn kid, it is impossible with our limited human force to move a donkey who is determined to stand, or stop a donkey who is determined to move. And the donkey is very well aware of this fact. The only thing that worked out was me walking behind the donkey whilst applying exactly the style of “communication” with the animal the donkey master had previously (to the horror and dismay of our little daughter) demonstrated to me. Sparing details, a strong kiai and the ability to efficiently use my body weight from decades of Aikido training came in quite handy. The donkey appeared to remember my determination to keep him going for a certain time-span, from a few minutes up to half an hour. Then I had to convince him again that the journey goes on, together with him. In case I walked in front just holding the rope, our donkey made unmistakably clear I have no chance to pull him. If he wished so, we could walk. Usually he preferred to stand still and watch me pulling, or started eating. As soon as he sensed I am going to walk towards his back, he began to move.

The donkey (not moving) and me

It is now impossible to push from behind and at the same time lead from the front. If I have to be behind and pushing with fierce determination, I cannot walk ahead, scout the way and lead up- and downhill the often steep and narrow mountain paths. I cannot spot suitable places to rest, make sure the path is safe and wide enough for the loaded donkey to pass, or that we are still on the way we planned to go.

One who is busy pushing and making sure things are moving cannot simultaneously scout and lead. And who walks ahead finding the path must rely on the rest of the crew following without the necessity of wasting time and energy with pushing from behind. As I mentioned before, in Zen training I prefer not to act as a pusher. Actually, I hate pushing, donkeys as well as students. What I prefer is scouting a way and trying to walk it first, find a safe path and good places to rest. What I am not interested in is pushing from behind to make sure everyone is coming my way. I guess, this attitude totally disqualifies me as a donkey master.

A snapped donkey does not move, no chance (source unknown).

Said all that, I sense a certain momentum to contradict my kitchen psychology concerning donkeys and ways to make them go by alternatively employing loving kindness. Occasionally when the path ahead promised to become a bit unpleasant while the fresh green on the roadside looked even more oh so tasty, I had to become louder than usual to demonstrate our friend my unshakable determination we are going to move NOW.

This was the very moment when the donkey huggers came. With a fierce look towards me she approached the donkey and began softly talking to him while affectionately petting his head or putting the arm around his neck. Yes, she was sure that the lazy five years old big eater can be convinced by sweet words to stop snacking and instead start progressing with his heavy chore. Not. Fortunately not, since in case the half ton load starts moving, the bags extending on both sides will inevitably end the sweet rendez-vous by pushing the donkey whisperer down the hill (I experienced that painful encounter with the load more than once). So instead of just shouting to the donkey, I also had to shout towards the fearless lover of beast “stay away, it is dangerous!”. If you have to push, inevitably you will be interfered (and hated) by those who decided it is their holy duty to stand by those who need to be pushed. And you have to push them as well, to prevent further harm. Needless to say, the donkey exploited such welcome event to engage once more into eating.

Maybe I was a total failure with the donkey you might think now. Maybe I was too fierce, or not strict enough. From time to time I thought so as well. A few episodes convinced me otherwise. Once going downhill with the donkey at quite a speed (he was happy moving because his donkey-friend had just passed by with his group and was not far ahead of us) I fell and lost the rope. The donkey stopped, immediately. He did not step on me, nor did he take his chance to run away towards his friend. He just waited for me to get up.

Also I learned from the donkey master that if you are too strict with your donkey he will snap and completely stop moving, no matter what. The last few days of our trip when in the early morning I went to get the donkey from his meadow, I just had to call him and he happily came over to me. Yet I won’t go as far to say I started to like him. The trip meant a certain load of dukkha for me, through association with the unbeloved I had to push for seven days. I am sure our donkey was fully aware of that, but I have still no idea whatever he was thinking of me.