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?


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.

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”.

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.”

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.

Dec 162016

More than half a year passed since my last entry to this blog (let aside seminar announcements). My Dojo keeps slowly growing and I spend significantly more time with off-line (or “real world”) Zen than what I have left for reading or writing. Zafu and brush and ink instead of keyboard and monitor is not bad, I guess.

Also I got a bit tired from trying to formulate a Zen-Buddhist point of view towards what happens in the world.

The poor and hopeless elect a billionaire for president who does not pay tax. The civilised part of the world bombs Aleppo to ashes (or closely watches). The shadow of fascism is growing within a free and democratic Europe and beyond. How could I dare to hope the wise man from India, who lived two and a half millennia ago, had an answer to all this, or at least a hint towards establishing a point of view?

Trying to formulate a point view, when my Russian facebook friend who trained at the same Zen temple like me flames against “The Muslim” whenever an uncivilised refugee commits a crime in Europe.
Trying to formulate a point of view when I read the prominent German Buddhist monk who trained at the same Zen temple like me is in pre-trial custody, being accused of sexually abusing refugee boys.

A Japanese proverb goes「一 隅 を 照 ら す」(ichigu o terasu) which can be translated to “shine in one corner”. The meaning is that at your very place or position you should give your very best.

Overstrained from almost accepting a global responsibility, or at least “understanding”, while neglecting what is next, what is right under my feet, 「一 隅 を 照 ら す」is a reminder and a relief at the same time.

My former teacher used to say “My protest, my social activity is to practice Zazen now, here on my zafu!”. I did not understand and not agree … shouldn’t we cancel Zazen class and go out on the street, protest, act, interfere? Is not this the very meaning of 「衆生無辺誓願度」(shujo muhen sei gan do)? These days maybe I begin to understand … which is my corner to brighten up?

Ah, tomorrow we have an event at our Dojo, I better should sleep now …

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!

Mar 202016

I started this blog five years ago, when I visited my friends and colleagues at Tohoku University in Sendai a few weeks after the horrible earthquake and tsunami. It was intended as a kind of public yet personal travel diary, which somehow survived and turned into an ongoing project. Said that, even five years and over 200 posts later, I am not sure if writing this Zen-blog isn’t a complete waste of time.

I, me and myslef

I, me and myslef

Recently I was asked why I write this blog in such a personal style, with so many “I”s and “me”s, instead of spreading the Dharma in a way which makes much better use of the classical literature. Well, with a few exceptions, I prefer to leave the exegesis of ancient Chinese and Japanese texts to the academic experts who have more background, time and skills to explain in modern language what some scholar wrote down one or two millennia ago. Yet, the many “I”s and “me”s deserve some more words …

One and a half decade ago the Japanese IT-Company I worked for promoted their revolutionary new mobile-phone with the slogan “I, Me and Myself”. I was put off by so much “selfishness” (as well as by the many “unnecessary” features which made more than five years later the first iPhone so popular). That was at a time nobody had any idea of smart-phones and only eccentrics were taking a “selfie”, a time hardly anyone was able to “post” something on the WorldWideWeb.

When our late Shakuhachi teacher asked all of his students to contribute to his organisation’s annual newsletter, he explicitly wanted us to write some personal account related to our practice. I felt ready to write up some clever seminal paper concerning, say, “Zen and the Shakuhachi” or alternatively to provide some calligraphic artwork. But a personal account of my struggles with that damn bamboo-stick, about my inability and frustration to produce anything coming close to “Music on the Japanese Bamboo Flute” after years of practice? Who could be interested to read that?

At this time I did not understand that Zen is about meeting myself. Not “MYSELF”, that big imagined “I”, a great fantasy about myself, playing someone I want to be in my or other’s eyes … but just meeting and befriending the ever-changing person I am. That is not a selfie-centred “I, Me, and Myself”. It is more a

Sorry, that’s just me … maybe not the “Zen-Master” you expected to meet?

Giving a personal account of my praxis (which I invite others to join at my Dojo) requires in the English language a frequent use of “I” and “me”.

Actually, I’d prefer to write such text in Japanese language, where instead of frequently using “I” and “me” the humble verb-form would indicate to the reader that I speak of my own insignificant actions and experiences. “坐禅修行をいただく参りました。” sounds incredibly more polite and adequate than the potentially boasting English equivalent “I came here to study Zazen.”, and the Japanese sentence is complete without any first person pronoun.

Maybe, when reading this blog, you just want to ignore all the “I” and “me”, as if they were nothing but a mere grammatical necessity of the English language?

Feb 222016

This blog became rather silent recently, and I have pretty good excuse for it: for the second time in my life, with a gap of 20 years, I am struggling to grow a Dojo while being father of a young baby. “Free time” is a rare gift for me these days, and I have to be careful how to spend it …

Said that, occasionally I read in the blogs of other Zen teachers. I find my reading most inspiring when their approach is not too far from mine, yet there is enough difference so I don’t always simply agree. I would, for example, never read the Zen blog of Donald Trump (no idea if he writes a Zen blog … probably not, in spite of thousands of google hits for “Zen and Donald Trump“). I guess I’d disagree all the time on everything he wrote, on obvious reasons, and there would be no lesson to be learnt for me.

Today I had again a quick look at Brad Warner’s blog. Half of what he writes usually does not interest me, since I am not into Japanese pop culture, Godzilla stuff and such. From the other half, I roughly half agree and half disagree. And most of the time I enjoy his writing, bringing things to the point. On the topic of how much time to spend on retreats, or even join monastic life for a certain longer period, Brad Warner wrote:

I mean, how are you gonna pay the bills and prepare yourself for life in this world if you’re just hanging out on a mountain somewhere staring at the walls all day with a bunch of other damaged/crazy people? (1)

So people who spend too much time in such settings can become too weak to survive without tremendous help from the rest of us. (2)

Yes. Those people are called “sodo bakka” (僧堂馬鹿) in Japanese, roughly translated as “Training Hall Idiots”. After spending too many years in the greenhouse of a monastic environment, they are perfectly adopted to function within, but rather helpless outside. Zen training does not follow the purpose of breeding sodo bakka.

On the topic of being a Zen-Monk in the context of a Western society I have not too much to say. Usually, people who put an emphasis on weather or not one is ordained, and if so, if s/he is a “lay person” or a “monk/nun” wearing black robes during Zazen anyway miss the point in Zen, not just in that aspect but as a whole. Zen praxis is not a costume play, or a way to compensate an unsatisfying career in daily life by ranks and titles after work.

Even more, I believe it is not so important how much time you spend on your cushion (and not at all in which cloths or imagined monastic rank), but how you spend it, and even more, how you spend the rest of your day.

handsIn my experience,  there are anyway just two types of Zen practitioners: those who care/d for their (or other’s) children, and those who don’t. Those who do, know what I’m talking about (in case they found the time to read until here … probably not). Those who don’t either have no children to care for for the one or other good reason, or have someone (a wife/husband, babysitter, nanny, childcare …) paid to take care of their kids.

It is incredibly hard for someone with kids to follow a regular Zen practice. Tell your partner you’re out for two hours to silently sit on a cushion, while he/she is supposed to feed and bring the little ones to bed after a hard day. Not just once a month, but say, twice a week. Or you leave home before dawn every day just to hurry to work after Zazen without having breakfast with your kids and getting them ready for school. What about leaving family for a week to go on a retreat?

It is on the other hand side really difficult to grasp the essence of Zen without the experience of seriously taking care for kids. I am aware this is a provoking statement, since “Traditional Zen Monks” don’t, at least for the longest time of Zen history. The idea of celibacy, in my eyes, was not so much introduced to improve practice. It was simply impossible in ancient India, 2500 years ago, to combine a family life with a thorough Buddhist practice (which, at these days but not today, required to leave home for good and join the community of beggars, the bikkhu). These days, in our modern society, we have the unique chance to combine the challenge of raising kids with a serious Zen practice. And both might well be of mutual support.

shadowWhat to learn while taking care for kids, in terms of Zen? Just to name a few: unconditional compassion, a 7/24 readiness to serve, full awareness all the time (especially with little ones exploring their world), not wasting time, not even 5 minutes (it might be your only ones in 24 hours), being “here and now” with a perfect “beginners mind”, otherwise you won’t understand and can’t enjoy what the little one is expecting from your interaction. It is the best lesson on impermanence, imperfection and not-self (anica, dukkha and anatta) I can imagine.

Said that, it is a hard training indeed. Sometimes it is actually so hard, that last year I was tempted to use a grandparents’ visit as an excuse to leave and “relax” a bit over Rohatsu Sesshin at “my” Japanese Zen Temple outside Kyoto (a very strict period of Zen training during winter time with the nickname “monks killer”). I didn’t give in and continued my “father’s practise”.

Though, does it mean all parents become enlightened Zen Masters, just by breeding?

I don’t think so. I’ve seen too many parents who don’t really “care”. Many buy their time out, and/or they more or less squeeze their little ones into a life full of fast-food, entertainment and satisfaction-by-consuming, or alternatively, into the treadmill of early-life performance-optimisation to acquire imagined necessary skills for a later career.

Possibly it is a hen-and-eg problem: without a certain Zen-like experience it is very hard to really “care” for kids. And without ever caring for kids, it is very difficult to have a real Zen experience.

What to do then? I am not sure if I should really recommend my approach of having two iterations on that issue. Mental strength does not grow the same amount and speed an ageing body weakens, so more often than I’d wish I experience there are limits of what one can handle, physically and financially. I may just encourage both, parents and non-parents, not to give up and not to waste their time on minor issues like “being a monk/nun” or “how many hours per day/week/month/year” to sit on a pillow.

If you have time, practice. And if you don’t, make this your practise.

(1) http://hardcorezen.info/retreats-are-important/4245
(2) http://hardcorezen.info/romance-monasticism-and-thich-naht-hanh/4253

Dec 272015
Battledore fair in Asakusa (2007).

Battledore fair in Asakusa (2007).

“What is the meaning of that doll?” I heard the American tourist asking a shop owner at Asakusa’s Hagoitaichi, and after looking into a puzzled face for a second or two, she decided “It must be some good luck charm, isn’t it? I buy one!”. After she left, the shop owner (still puzzled) asked his colleague “Meaning?”, and he replied “Meaning … 意味ですね。じゃ。。。意味は。。。意味じゃないかね。。。” (Meaning … Meaning. Hmmm … the meaning is … it has no meaning, or …).

Pig with a fence (my daughter about age 3)

Pig wit a fence (my daughter about age 3).

A few weeks ago I attended a calligraphy performance by the Japanese artist and Zen teacher Kazuaki Tanahshi in Cologne. A lady asked about the meaning of the Zen circle (Enso) being open at the bottom.


“Enso” brushed by my former teacher. Watch out for the pig’s escape!

Sometimes my students ask me the same question when we practice drawing the Enso at my Zen and Hitsuzendo Sesshin. I always reply (borrowing my daughter’s idea): “It is open, so the pig can escape!”.

When she was little, many years ago, my daughter used to draw “Pig with a fence”, a circle with a dot inside. Once seeing my former teacher’s beautiful Enso she complained “The pig is missing!” … and quickly concluded “No wonder, the fencing is open. It escaped!”.

Beware, when you ask for meaning in Zen, you might get some answer …