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Doraku-An Zen-Dojo – Seminar Announcements and Incidental Remarks on Zen
Aug 082019
 

As a kid I loved to run around with Indian feathers on my head, a Sheriff’s star on my jacket … and of course I was a “Cowboy”, because that word sounded so cool. My name was Old Shatterhand-Winnetou and I remember I refused to come for dinner when not being called by that proper name.
Not much changed since than, I guess … I just exchanged the Indian-Cowboy-Sheriff crossover dress into some Japanese Kimono, and instead of having that Karl May heroes’ double-name I nowadays use some Japanese names given to me by my teachers. Well, I come for dinner on my own …

What remains the same is the absolute dedication in aspiring “to really be” and really live what impressed me as a kid, or now as an adult. I was as much a little Indian-Cowboy-Sherrif as any real Indian or Cowboy or Sheriff at age nine, maybe even more. Nowadays, my Japanese friends often mention my lifestyle is by far more Japanese then theirs … and after enough beer or sake “you seem to live more like my grand-grandfather”. Well, he probably didn’t write a blog …

Recently I followed a discussion concerning some celebrity who had the funny idea to call her collection of underwear according to her given name plus adding “ONO”, to make it sound “KIMONO”. The person in question seems to be free of any relation to Japan or (Japanese) culture or any knowledge about it. Possibly some PR agent made that suggestion explaining “Kimono” means something to wear (which is correct), and so she agreed. And of course she had her brand name trademarked.
Unbelievable the uproar in Japanese media that broke out, eventually urging the Major of Kyoto himself writing her a letter asking to not use the word Kimono for her underwear.

There was much talking about “cultural appropriation” in the context of that Kimono Scandal. But isn’t cultural appropriation only an issue, when an allegedly superior culture decorates itself with items from parts of the world to where it otherwise looks down to (or spends a few weeks of holiday, at most)?

Borrowing items, names, or a life-style from an equal or even superior culture can only be either “cultural learning and study”, or an act of total ignorance – which was probably the case in the concerned scandal.

Aiming towards Japan and Japanese culture, we can often see a weird mixture of admiration (“Samurai”, “Geisha”, “Zen-Master”) and totally gone wrong attempt to frame the one or other symbolic item within our Western context.

Just the other day I came across the advertisement of the German branch of a Japanese automotive manufacturer. The little film starts by some (possibly Western) person drawing an ENZO (Zen circle) with a big brush on the floor. All the setting, atmosphere and background gives a very strong impression of China, while the (German) text goes “In Japan we call it Enzo…”. The rest of the lyrics reveal a total misunderstanding of Zen and it’s prominent symbol Enzo by linking it to “perfection” (and the imagined perfection of the Enzo to the cars to be sold …).

I imagine none of the car manufacturer’s Japan Headquarter management had seen this advertisement before it went on-line in Germany. Will the head priest of Myoshinji write a letter, maybe? I don’t think so …

Said that, I believe there is only a very small step from that Enzo-car-advertisement or Kim’s Kimono to all those folks in Europe and the US who call themselves “Zen-Master” or “Roshi”, wearing fancy robes and names and don’t speak a word Japanese or fulfil any of the requirements to be called a “Master” or “Roshi” in Japan, the very place on earth they refer to with such masquerade.

While Japan perfectly incorporated Western culture, technology and lifestyle into it’s very Japanese Way, I believe we still have a long way to go before naturally living a Western way of Japanese culture.

It’s a joyful way, as far as I am concerned, with some tough lessons to learn. Cultural Learning literally costs a certain amount of blood, sweat and tears … other than Cultural Appropriation.

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Feb 232019
 

Recently I read on tricycle that “Roshi SoandSo” had passed away. I guess he was a fine guy, and probably a good Zen teacher. May he rest in peace, or be re-born, whatever he prefers.

Roshi SoandSo is a particular way of employing the term “Roshi” within Western Zen circles. Placed in front of the name makes it sound like an academic or cleric title, “Professor”, or “Abbot”. This practise is bluntly ignoring the common usage within the context of Japanese language, where a title or rank always follows a name: SoandSo Roshi, SoandSo Sensei, …

It is a practise dating back to the early days of Zen taking roots in the West, as documented in the very first issue of the “Wind Bells” from December 1961 (1).

While “Roshi” literally translated means “Old Teacher”, in a Japanese Zen-context it is exclusively used for those few outstanding Zen Priests who qualified as Shike: leaders of the Monks’ training hall.

There are numerous accounts of especially Soto Zen priests, who felt awkward or even embarrassed of being addressed as “Roshi” by their Western students. Shunryu Suzuki was just one of them.

Calling one’s Japanese Zen teacher (who might just be a well educated temple monk within the Japanese system) “Roshi” is one thing. Employing it to a Western Zen teacher is almost a pars pro toto for a Japanese Tradition Cult which serves nothing more than elevating the business (and probably ego) of Zen teachers in the US and Europe by means of fake titles.

Nothing wrong of course with giving the term “Roshi” a new meaning in the West! Why not call everyone who is adequately withered and who completed his or her Zen training in a sufficient way to teach  (according to our needs)  a “Roshi”? Well “in deference to perceived Japanese Zen tradition”,  as the Wikepedia article on “Roshi” states about usage of the title in Zen communities in the United States.

But that is exactly not what is going on with all these “Roshi SoandSo”.

“Zen institutions in the West have often attributed a mythic status to the title Roshi” reads the Wikipedia article , and continues  with harmful consequences.”

Google result for “Roshi” in Japanese (老師).

It is exactly this pretentious link to an imagined “mythic status” and “Japanese Zen tradition” coming along with the usage of “Roshi”, which simply makes it all a big hoax when stripping it off the Japanese monastic context.

I am not aware of anyone providing the title “Roshi” with a new and fresh meaning in the West (except maybe my former Zen teacher, who jokingly used to transcribe “Roshi” with the Japanese Characters 浪師, taking the first syllable from the word “Ronin” (浪人), which means a “Masterless Samurai”).

Not a single one of those Western “Roshi SoandSo” has the qualification to lead a Monks’ training hall in Japan, without any exception. And none of them re-defined his or her usage of the term “Roshi” in a new and genuine Western way.

(1) Wind Bells, Monthly Newsletter of the San Francisco Zen Center, Dec 2, 1961, p.1

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May 312018
 

I have once read, alas I forgot the reference (*), that amongst the first Westerners studying and translating Chinese Buddhist texts were quite a few lawyers. The reason for that interest is supposed to be a misunderstanding of the Chinese character 法 (Japanese pronunciation is “hou”), which usually translates “law”. The Western lawyers, versed in Roman Law, were probably hoping to discover another unknown ancient legal system.

Nowadays in Western Buddhism the Sanskrit Term “Dharma” is used to describe, for what in the Chinese writings the ambiguous character 法 was employed. I imagine the lawyers were confused, and they likely caused a certain confusion by their accidental contribution to introducing Buddhism in the West.

My experience with lawyers is: as soon as they get in the loop, things become incredibly cumbersome. Once a sufficiently easy and satisfying way to handle things is established, a lawyer can mess it all up. Legally correct, but very difficult to handle, inefficient and with loads of extra work on top.

Maybe you have heard that we got a new law in Europe which is very strictly regulating the handling of all data which can be related to a person, such as Name, Address, Email and so on. Even maintaining a simple list of subscribers to a blog like this, via a file of (self-registered) Email-Adresses stored somehow somewhere in the depth of the system, is likely against the new law. At least, as long as no difficult to handle, inefficient and with loads of extra work procedures are established.

I have simply no time and energy to learn about and implement such a procedure for this blog. Currently I count some 180+ subscribers, though I guess many, if not most of them, are bots and not a real person with a real interest to read here.

To my (maybe few) real readers I want to apologise: in order to avoid any (possibly expensive) conflict with the above mentioned law, I will erase all mail addresses from the database. In case you got a message about a new blog post every now and then, you won’t get any longer.

If you are really interested, please come here from time to time to see if there is something new …


(*) if you happen to know the source, please let me know!

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May 262018
 

The other night I dreamed participating an Aikido Seminar with my late teacher Kobayashi Hirokazu. Kobayashi Sensei passed away almost 20 years ago. As young students, my friends and me travelled across Europe on summer weekends to attend his seminars in France, Italy, Swiss, The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

Sometimes I dream of the one or other past teacher of mine, dreams of my former Zen teacher are usually nightmares with a relatively simple plot: I try doing my best in a certain situation and mess it up, he is silently standing just behind me, which I don’t realise until the chaos I produced is complete.

Kobayashi Sensei sitting next to me in real life, long time ago.

The dream of my late Aikido Teacher was quite different. Kobayashi Sensei was much elder than he looked last time I’ve seen him, almost how he might actually look if he lived on to the current day. And his technique, which I always considered as most elegant and perfect, had developed further: even more subtle, more efficient, more flowing and adopted to the physical capabilities of a very old man. I was fascinated to practise with him again. After waking up it did not feel like waking up from a dream, but more like the morning after coming back from an Aikido seminar: full of inspiration and motivation to practise and digest what I’ve just learned.

 

I am not superstitious, not outside Japan. Being trained as a scientist, I have several rational and sobering explanations for such a dream at hand. No, it was not the late Obi Wan advising Luke to use The Force and let go kind of thing … but that does not matter.

The other night I received a final Aikido lesson from my late teacher, どうもありがとうございました。

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Apr 032018
 

Some weeks ago I had a business trip to the city where I once studied, Aikido and Physics. My hotel happened to be across the street of the Aikido Dojo where I used to practise every day, in which I even lived for a couple of weeks before I found a flat, and where I experienced my first two years of regular Zazen practise.

The teacher I met again (1).

In the morning after checking out, I went to that Dojo. A class was running, and I stepped in. Last time I had been in this room was almost 30 years ago, but nothing had changed. I felt like coming here by time machine … and even the teacher looked the same, except his hair turned slightly grey. He did not recognise me, we lost contact after I finished my studies and left the town … or was it I changed too much? Yet he seemed to remember, after I told him my name and the year we last met, and I was happy to see his warm smile once more.

This encounter made me think how much I owe to my teachers … so many wise men took their time to introduce me to their art. Why did they do this? It cannot be for the little money I paid as a tuition fee.

Now I’m old, I have no specific one person I could call “My Teacher” any more.

Everything and everybody became my teacher … yet I feel increasingly grateful for the specific teachers I was allowed to work with. A communication which once started decades ago is still going on, without words, without meeting each other … a constant silent conversation with the ones living and the ones who already passed away.

Sometimes I have the impression I am a very bad teacher myself. I wonder if all my activities are slightly more than organising a pleasant pastime for occasional hobbyists. Yet my really great teachers shared their time and wisdom without judgement or expectation, just let me and everyone else share their practise.

Maybe “teaching” is just this: going your way, and let others join … I have to practice much harder teaching this way.

(1) Image source: screen-shot from http://aikido-oldenburg.de/ , the Dojo where I practised long time ago.

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Jan 282018
 

Zen cannot be understood, I often hear or read. It can only be experienced. Maybe it’s my earlier training in science that I enjoy “understanding” as a very deep sort of “experience”. And that listening to nice words and feeling good is often not related at all with understanding what has been said.

In my own attempts of teaching Zen, I realised that the orally spoken word is usually appreciated by my students, but not understood. Not in a kind of “deep experience”. It might be well due to my lack of rhetoric capacity, or too much of it. I felt a change was necessary … so I established a new rhythm in our Dojo, closely linking the Dharma Talk during our monthly Zazenkai with the calligraphy exercise at the Hitsuzenkai two weeks later. During the Dharma Talk I interpret some traditional Zen saying (usually within a contemporary daily life context), and half a month later we write it with brush and ink.

The more I study the old Buddhist scriptures, the more I appreciate the short (usually just a few characters) Zen Words. They really capture the essence of what the man who called himself “the one who just came along” (Tathagata) was teaching.

During the first round in January I jokingly said to my students:

Our Dojo is truly unique. After twelve months you will not only know and deeply understand twelve Zen words, you will also be able to read and write them in Japanese!

Our January study was on 一期一会. I won’t translate here, my students can read and write and explain what it means, I am confident they truly understood.

I’m much looking forward towards the coming months. Will we all master our challenge?

 

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Dec 292017
 

One or two blog posts a year is maybe a good frequency, avoiding a Zen blog becoming too blithering. Isn’t one pleasure of Zen that we do not need to say lots of words, but silently inter-act instead?

Beginning of December we had our Dojo’s year’s end party, and it was nice for everyone to meet in a less formal and relaxed atmosphere. End of the year also marks the end of my full-time engagement for the Dojo. A small group, modest fees and nothing much to sell on the “spiritual market” made it necessary for me to take up a regular full-time job again. The resulting change of schedule made first members cut ties with the Dojo shortly after. Was their going a long overdue and postponed step, or tribute to an overfull private schedule and the dependency of one’s own spiritual development on fixed days and hours … I will never know.

Year’s End Party at our Dojo.

Why why …? Isn’t a modest and frugal life on the Zen-Way possible after all? After decades of training and education, of sacrifice with strict teachers and dedicated study? Even Zen-people need to eat … when I emptied the donation box a few days after the party, I found somebody gave 15 cents. 15 cents to support your teacher and your Dojo. This is why.

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Sep 302017
 

This blog is not dead … not yet. Actually, I wrote a lot since my last post more than half a year ago. Drafts, thoughts, from every day life, my Dojo and experiences at Sesshin I taught. Nothing went on-line. No article reached a final stage worth being published. When I had to decide how to spend my time between “editing” or otherwise “living”, I decided for “living”, even if it was simply doing chores or sleeping after an exhausting day with the kid.

End of the day my endeavour trying to master a frugal life with teaching Zen and Zen-Art failed. There is no way, within our society, to rent a place, heat and light it and offer a regular schedule while ignoring economic boundaries. Too many nights after Zazen I went home with an empty stomach. Too many end-of-months I had to worry how to pay the next month’s rent. Too many letters from authorities claiming I either do not run a “real business” or my “business” is making too much money. Last year, the total win of my Dojo, calligraphy sales and Sesshin was little above 1000 Euro, for easily 1000 hours of work.

It does not matter. Better than any compromise in the way I’m teaching and practising Zen and Zen-Art is getting money from elsewhere. Selling books, claiming or offering (usually fake) ranks or titles or even offering a projection screen for someone’s dreams to meet a “Master” was never my thing. If my way of teaching does not attract enough people to make a living from it, I don’t care. I won’t change it. I’m not adopting my Zen-Way to any market requirements.

That would be a too easy exercise, by the way. I get a pretty detailed feed-back concerning the expectations of my students and participants of my Sesshin. Our “feed-back-culture” seems to invite everyone to offer his or her rating, from * to *****. I never asked for it, it came upon me like rain.

Me, playing the “impressive master” in the middle of flying swords during our last Sesshin.

Number one is the wish “to relax”. Funny enough, I never associated Zen-training with relaxation. It can be, sometimes, as a side-effect. A Zen-life is “relaxed”, on a very busy level of relaxation, though. But the Zen-training itself is NOT.

Number two is “being taken care of”. Well, yes, I take care. I provide the best schedule I can, prepare the best possible place for practise, offer the best teaching I’m able to give, 100%. But all this is nothing but to offer a chance. I don’t carry anyone through the exercise, it is not intended as an “all inclusive” tour to the Zen-Wonderland. All responsibility, step by step, stays with you!

Number three is “learning a lot/gaining insights”. The Zen-Way is long and steep, and often straight down-hill. What do you expect from a few days Sesshin, from a short introduction to Zen-Calligraphy? From two or three years coming to the Dojo once a week. This is just scratching the surface, as pleasant or overwhelming the experience might feel. Real learning requires some real engagement, over a long sustained period. Maybe a decade or two, at least.

Number four is learning from an “impressive master”. Last Sesshin a talented photographer took some pictures of us. I laughed, I can imagine now why someone might wish to see in me an “impressive master”. Maybe I have to give up wearing my beloved Japanese-style cloths while teaching, in jeans and t-shirt the same person would actually look … like me.

Number five is that “title thing”. Every now and then this topic comes up, which titles do I have, what do I offer? “Are you a real Zen-Master?” I’ve been asked last Sesshin. My reply “I’m just me, maybe not even that.” seemed not to satisfy everyone.

Now take 1-5 and put a weekend-seminar / 3 months programme together satisfying all these requirements. Easy, or? It’s not “Zen”, but who cares, in times where everything is called “Zen”.

Result of google-search for “Zen”.

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Feb 132017
 

According to Buddhist psychology, one of the three malicious fires burning in our soul is delusion (the other two are greed and aversion). The process of extinguishing these fires is called Nirvana, often misunderstood as a kind of Buddhist heaven. No, Nirvana is not a place to reach somewhere out there, one far day, it is our internal fire fighter in action.

As a child I grew up in a somewhat rough environment. My way back home from school went through a residential area of railway workers. Railway workers, at that time (and maybe still today), were a tough type of human being, and so were their plenty of kids. Quickly mastering the hands-on lesson on avoiding conflicts with others who were usually taller and always more than one was inevitable to survive this daily running the gauntlet.

A particular game those hooligan kids loved to play was catching me and asking simple questions, like, “what is 2 plus 2 ?”. If I answered “four” I got slapped, and they asked again, indicating the “right” answer was some other number. Unless you subdued to their truth, there was no escape. It was a sheer demonstration of power by not just defining what is true, but by making you confirm some obvious nonsense just because they forced you to do so.

Small crowd (left) vs. huge crowd (right).

I am sure those boys never read Orwell’s 1984, they had no idea the terror of making you admit that “two plus two makes five” was described long before they were born.

Extinguishing the fire of delusion, seeing things as they are is a fundamental exercise. As a Physicist with some training in Quantum Mechanics I had a few footnotes to share concerning things as they are in relation to my process of observing them, but this is a totally different story. Most facts of our every day world, say, a statement about the number of people in a crowd, can unambiguously be determined as either true or false.

We wrote “This Is!” during our Hitsuzendo class.

If someone insists on calling the obviously false statement as true, he is nothing but fuelling the fire of delusion. Either he tries to avoid seeing things as they are, preferring to watch self-fabricated fantasy bubbles instead. Or, he wants to wield power on others by forcing them to bow to some obviously false views. Or both.

In any case, trading the truth for some self-made alternative facts is eventually a first class invitation for suffering. My own suffering, and the suffering of those who have to deal with or endure me.

Last week we wrote 如是 (“NYOZE”) during our Dojo’s Hitsuzendo (Zen-Calligraphy) class. The Japanese “NYOZE”  is hard to translate, maybe “This Is!” might be a not so bad match.

At the end of the class I said to my students: “This is a political statement! Don’t believe Zen has nothing to say about politics.”

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Jan 092017
 

I’ll be leading a Zen-Ken-Sho Sesshin at Benediktushof Holzkirchen (Bavaria/Germany) February 21st-24th 2017. If you want to spend some days practising Zazen, Hitsuzendo (Zen-Calligraphy) and Aikiken (exercise with wooden sword), a few places are still available!

More information on the Sesshin can be found in the German language section of my blog. In case you don’t read/speak German but have interest in the seminar, please send me an e-mail!

Registration for the Sesshin is directly via Benediktushof (link to German website).

Zen-Ken-Sho Sesshin at Benediktushof.

Zen-Ken-Sho Sesshin at Benediktushof.

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