May 252016

During my last Sesshin I seriously wondered whether I should reduce my talking to ten percent or less of what I usually do. I don’t want to disturb. I also don’t want to produce a comfy sound-scape to doze away. Yet, I feel obliged to provide some oral support and explanation for my students (and paying customers).

Sit down and shut up!

does not work out for most of us. Not as a way to study Zen.

I guess the first teacher I regularly practised Zazen with must have felt similar. Day after day it was just me and him in the Dojo for morning Zazen. After we finished sitting, he opened his notebook and read a phrase to me. I don’t remember any of the words, but I very well remember how cheap and superficial I found those words compared with our endeavour to silently sit together every morning for an hour and half. At times I hoped he would simply stop that and turn into The Silent Master, at times I got so angry about what I expected to come after Zazen was over that it spoiled my whole efforts.

I imagine, sometimes my students might feel similar, might he just shut up, PLEASE!

At other times, I feel, not enough explaining and supporting words is simply arrogant, if not disguising a lack of knowledge on the teachers side. For example, when we recite the Hannya Shingyo, usually I am asked (for good reason) “What does those words mean?”.

I could reply “Don’t ask, simply recite, this is Zen and one day you will understand!” Obviously, this is nonsense.

I could simply refer to the German translation I printed on the backside … though, honestly, it reads like a Dada text composed by Kurt Schwitters.

Or I could start explaining what the Hannya Shingyo actually is, a summary of Mahayana Buddhism presented as a revolutionary comment in the context of elder strata of Buddhist understanding. So probably this context has to be laid out first, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the concept of Dependent Arising. The standpoint from which all that is actually denied and yet summarised in the radically new idea of Mu/Ku. And last but not least, how and why the concept of Bodhisattva is introduced. That would become a lecture series for the academic winter term, I’m sure … yet sparing the recent discussion whether or not the Hannya Shingyo is of Chinese origin.

How much and what to say in the context of a four days Sesshin or half day Zazenkai? Nothing? Just a few words? Or at least an abstract of a possible introduction to what ideas stand behind the words we recite each morning and evening?

On a regular Sesshin we also practise Hitsuzendo (Zen-calligraphy) and Aikiken (Aikido exercise with the wooden sword). How much or how few has to be said about these, beyond mere technical aspects?

Just copy&paste, just imitate my movements? I believe that would be a waste of time … no understanding comes from writing Chinese characters with brush and ink if the characters themselves are not deeply studied. And the revolutionary concept of Aikiken turning the traditional Kenjutsu upside down and converting it into an Art of Peace is hardly ever realised by just waving a wooden stick.

I see it as my challenge to convey all that with as few words as possible. Hopefully fewer and fewer words year after year. Please be patient with me if my talking is going on your nerves!