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!


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.

All that Crap

My former Zen- and Calligraphy teacher often used to complain about the fact that Japanese musicians define world class in Western music, while we can’t even name three Japanese composers. Well, I could. Nevertheless, he had a valid point: the transmission of Western art, technology and culture to Japan has long been completed, while the typical Westerner knows little more than a superficial cliché about Japanese culture and arts.

Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects by James Tissot (1869)

I remember a particular trip on a local train from Fukushima to Aizu-Wakamatsu, when an elderly Japanese man approached me. After finding out I come from Germany, he very excitedly embarked on discussing the differences in the interpretation of a certain Beethoven concerto by various German conductors. He owned all the related records he said, and needless to say he knew much better about that subject than me (being just an amateur musician). Probably he missed his station, but I learned a lot about my countries classical music and contemporary ways of performing it. And I felt slightly embarrassed.

When I see Japanese style art made by Westerners on-line, it is usually either just a digitally modified copy&paste from some original artwork, or amateurish display on the very lowest level. My former teacher’s Enzo (Zen Circle) for example had been copied and photoshopped hundreds of times (see here and here).

Would you buy yourself a violin, take a few lessons and then try to sell your recordings on spotify? As “Authentic German Classical Music”? Probably not.

One of my first calligraphies, some 30 years ago long before I met my teacher. Just priceless crap.

Yet there are people out there who buy themselves brush and ink, take a few lessons (or not) and copy along Japanese or Chinese characters they can hardly read or write. No problem so far, before I met my teacher I did the same. And then they go ahead and post it on-line, with a price tag attached to it.

Probably a perfect example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, such action reveals a significant lack in understanding even the basics of a foreign culture they plan to make money with.

Before I sold my first piece of calligraphy, I had more than 20 years of practice (13 with my former teacher), a sheet of paper written by him endorsing me to teach what I had learned from him, and a name he kindly passed me down (道楽庵, Doraku-An). Yet still, I felt embarrassed offering my work for money.

There is a certain standard with each established art, and nowadays it is easy even for the beginner to figure out what a masterpiece could be, and what a minimum acceptable public performance would look or sound like.

Learning a traditional Japanese or Chinese art requires decades of dedicated practice and investment of a good deal of ones’ life-time (and financial resources). In case of doubt, please read Passagère du silence by Fabienne Verdier about the ten harsh years she spent in post culture revolution China studying traditional Chinese Calligraphy. By no means this is done with just a few years of training to acquire certain technical skills.

How can we Westerners become more familiar with Japanese art? Is there a chance to plant the seeds for a deeper and wider understanding? Or will we, generation after generation, just scratch the surface of being fascinated by what we experience as this strange culture? What progress can we observe so far during the past 150 years, after the first wave of Japonisme hit Europe? It is a shame!

Beware of Pushermen

Most things I know today I had learned from wise old men and crazy young girls. Their lessons were essentially on impermanence and letting go, sometimes accompanied by a good deal of self-inflicted suffering.

Young Girl, bit crazy (my photography/artwork)

The majority of Buddhist teachers I’ve met or read about were busy explaining. This and that, it is amazing. As if Buddhist studies could elevate the dedicated student into some state of wisdom beyond the very subject of his or her studies.

In a previous life while working in academia I enjoyed (quite to my own surprise) the obligation of teaching. Supporting dedicated and bright young folks in the process of shaping their mind and developing their personality was worth some effort, I believed. These students, coming from all over the world, had quite a path behind them before being ready (and admitted) to attend the lectures. And mostly they very well understood why they had decided to be right here right now, listening carefully. I was still young and crazy enough to believe I had something to pass on to my distinguished audience. I was their Pusherman of skills and knowledge.

Old Man, maybe wise (my ink painting)

These days, there is nothing I’d like to teach. If you come to my Dojo or Sesshin, you can simply join my practice. It is mostly on impermanence and letting go … the amount of suffering (or joy) you decide by yourself. Feel free to come without knowing and leave without having learned a thing.

I said God damn, God damn The Pusher man

You know the dealer, the dealer is a man
With the love grass in his hand
Oh but the pusher is a monster

Steppenwolf, The Pusher

Not being that monster of a pusher of knowledge and wisdom is my intention. More the dealer of letting go, with nothing but impermanence in my hand.

You know, I’ve seen a lot of people walkin’ ’round
With tombstones in their eyes
But the pusher don’t care

The pusher man or woman wants to make you a follower, a believer. He or she carries the promise of future salvation, of fame and titles. He and only he owns the right believe and correct understanding. Whatever. And while you follow her footsteps, year after year, she will eat your heart and blurr your mind and fire up your pride and your believe in status and achievements. He don’t care.

Really, there is nothing to achieve, and nothing to understand.



Farewell my Friends

Herbert Achternbusch (1938-2022)

Recently the Bavarian multi-artist Herbert Achternbusch passed away at age 83. With his eccentric films and his books he was the emotional polar star of my chaotic late teenage years. He shaped and sharpened my mixed emotions towards our both “homeland” Bavaria. And probably he was the first one introducing me to a Zen way of approaching life, with his famous Koan “You have no chance, but make use of it! (Du hast keine Chance, aber nutze sie!)”.

So many of my adolescent and young adult period heroes and teachers have already passed away. Getting elder, far beyond half-time of life, I find myself more and more in conversation with the friends and teachers who are no more, learning from the dead. Practising Shakuhachi I sometimes listen to old tape recordings of the lessons I took with my late teacher. I hear him playing his flute, listen to his breath. I hear his voice when giving some of the rare and short explanations. I imagine my understanding of what my late teachers wanted to share with me slowly grows over the years, and I feel guilty for my ignorance at younger age.

Besides my very straightforward approach successfully completing school and studying Physics, Philosophy and Computer Science, I always felt strong inclination towards the arts and artists. Towards those who do not fit in, who do not subscribe to the generally accepted explanations and solutions. Those who made up their own minds and went their own ways, no matter what. Hanging around with eccentric folks, yet leaving the party before dawn because I had to be fit for Math and Physics lectures describes my life style during my student years.

I remember night long discussions at the kitchen table of our shared flat, talking through all that is in life and death and beyond. My point of view, heavily biased by an increasing understanding of science, was seldom appreciated. We all wished to have water with a memory, stones with healing spirits, talking trees and magic realities beyond this one of the notoriously untidy kitchen in front of our eyes. Just I could not believe it, because I knew better. Still, I loved and envied my friends, who obviously could believe

German Empire flags next to a flagsof the Italian Peace Movement, red heart balloons at the stairs of Reichstag

Now, half a life later, I see those once magic people again. The same minds untouched by reasoning and science, but with a firm believe that reality concerning Covid-19 is whatever their intuition tells them. The same patterns of argumentation, a similar energy in fighting for their own reality of whatever life is. These days I do not envy them any longer. I feel terribly sad that what was once making my life rich and colourful, had become a danse macabre, a display of sheer ignorance in the face of a very real and very much superable pandemic. They dance and sing and shout shoulder on shoulder with those fascists, who abuse the current situation and the naivety of ageing paradise birds for their very own agenda.

Mourning those who passed away and mourning those who turned away is characterising those difficult days. When in the end, you realise your friends and teachers who gave you so much are either dead or behaving stupid: you have no chance, but make use of it.

Needless to Say

I received some unexpected and unwanted endorsement for my post from April 2020 on the Covid-19 situation. So I believe I should write an update on the subject. Almost two years back in time, with less then one million confirmed cases worldwide and expected 10+ years for the development of a vaccine I strongly advocated for continuing our every day life.

Today, we count more than 320 million cases and mourn 5,5 million casualties. We have learnt a lesson on hygiene (which includes wearing masks and social distancing), and we have the (in my understanding back then totally unexpected) fantastic achievement of modern science: a vaccine proved to be efficient and with very limited side effects, with 9.550 million doses administered worldwide. on January 13, 2022

Death is sure, sooner or later. Old age not guaranteed, but sickness can be cured and even better prevented in a highly efficient way by modern medicine, ideally combined with a healthy lifestyle. Preventing the spread of infectious disease was also a concern in Buddha’s original community. He strictly did not allow people with leprosy, consumption or other infectious diseases to join his Sangha.

So many people are unable or unwilling to cope with the complexity of life. We wish to have it simple, predictable. And if it is good, we want it to last. But life is different. It just is so, no matter how much we want to have it different.

Education might help to grasp some basics of the world as it is. For example, understanding non-linearity, or at least, exponential growth. But there is a certain amount of work required to digest these concepts. And the outcome might not be, what we wish for. The easy way out is believing in magic and occultism.

“Occultism in the metaphysics of the dunces (Okkultismus ist die Metaphysik der dummen Kerle)” is a famous quote by T.W. Adorno. These days we can see them walking the streets with posters in their hands. We can hear them talking nonsense in microphones. And we see them behaving in a manner which is supporting the spread of Covid-19.

In a democracy it is the right of everyone, regardless of his or her education and background, to go out on the street and tell the world whatever you wish or believe is true. You can protest against the government, the rain, shout for the sun, or, publicly deny old age sickness and death. I think it is a great achievement of our time we are allowed (and obviously able) to do so. I am by no means against this freedom, and in my younger days, I did make use of it a lot (the world outside did take little notice).

As soon as it comes to joining a community, be it a Buddhist Sangha, a sports training or the random assembly of guests in a restaurant, needless to say, we share responsibility for each other. Human social life just works like this: in a group I join I cannot make the rules all by myself. No matter weather or not I have the mental or emotional capacity to understand what is going on and why.

From Buddha’s point of view, not joining a group when I might be infectious is the minimum requirement. Doing all we can to be less likely infectious, and to suffer less and thus become a lesser burden for others when catching an infectious disease should be a natural extension of this rule for any compassionate human being.

Our Dojo and Sangha is strictly closed to everyone who prefers to not agree on sharing responsibility for each other.

A Busy Year

I didn’t have much motivation to write, but mostly I have been too busy this pandemic year. Always within the framework of ever changing safety regulations, our work at the Dojo was as intense as never before the past 18 months. While almost all the members quit, one after another, I slowly realised that the quality of Zen practice does not depend on the number of students, but on their dedication.

Our Dojo’s wall

Had I had the intention to present Zen to everyone who happened to find the way through our Dojo door, this recent experience made me change my mind. It is a waste of time to work with people who do not really throw themselves into Zen practice, who see the time we share at the Dojo as an optional pastime besides other entertainment.

We copied the brushwork of my former teacher’s late teacher Omori Sogen Roshi three times a week. We worked our way through the Heart Sutra round after round, translating it character by character, and we read new and ancient commentaries as well as numerous research papers to achieve a certain level of understanding, or at least, a higher level of being puzzled. We deciphered, admired and discussed calligraphy works by old masters arriving at our Dojo from Japan week after week. And we sat many hours on our cushions, in complete silence. It was good.

During a Sesshin break at Benediktushof.
(Photography courtesy of Dr. Uwe Christoffer)

During last week’s Sesshin at Benediktushof Holzkirchen in Bavaria I talked (again) about the Ox Herding Pictures (十牛図). While speaking, I realised once more that all the struggles the young shepherd experienced while searching and taming the Ox were indeed mandatory for his later awakening. If somebody brought him the ox on a cord, nicely tamed and maybe with a comfortable saddle to ride home, there would never be any awakening.

My teaching for far too long was driven by the effort to present a tame ox, by helping my students up and by taking care they have a most comfortable ride. By this, I took them all chance to experience hardship, to learn by themselves. Studying Zen means to overcome obstacles. A teacher’s job is not to help and carry his student across hindrances, but to place obstacles in their way to make them grow by themselves. How could I not have understood this, for so many years?

Technical Issues (solved)

Beginning of this year this blog was made inaccessible by a failed automated WordPress update. My provider was less than willing to help, a few phone-calls and mails later I gave up dealing with their hotline.

Now I’m trying my best to repair things by hand, which is not made easier by a recent PHP update breaking some WP functions and plugins.

At least the database seems uncorrupted, so I’m optimistic nothing is really lost. Said that, I already felt a certain relief this blog might be gone for ever… the past year I was anyway too busy to write anything here. My Zen practice just doesn’t seem to happen much on-line recently, I prefer spending my time in the Dojo.

Edit (15. Feb): After seven days of silence, three days after I brought this blog back on-line with considerable effort and a fortunately survived old back-up, the ionos support contacted me again. They realised the blog was back, asked if they can close the ticket now and offered me a 30 Euro compensation. Wow. The first money ever I made with running this blog!

Left means Death

When I was young, more than half a life ago, I was into white water kayaking. It was great fun heading down the river when we made it the right way around the rocks and hydraulics. Reading the river beforehand was a must, since often right means fun and left means death. We enjoyed life these days, but thinking back, I must say we were not much attached to it.

Me about 18 years old having fun.

“Awesome, I almost drowned!” were the breathless words a friend shouted in excitement after we pulled him out last second from his boat which was squeezed by the current underneath a big boulder. Growing old was not a perspective, but a worry, if at all.

April 2020. Suddenly we all have time, at home. Plenty of time.

Not all of us, though. Some are much busier than before, and they cannot enjoy the safety and quietness of a temporary hermits’ life. We clap our hands for them and keep them working for us, underpaid.

About 0,1 per mill of the world population are infected by the new Sars-CoV-2 virus as of today, with 46,413 deaths so far (1).

“Of the roughly 150,000 people who die each day across the globe, about two thirds—100,000 per day—die of age-related causes” (2). on April 1, 2020

Enough statistics. Although I seriously wonder why these figures let me (a trained scientist) come to so much different conclusions than most of my peers.

Death is guaranteed, sickness very likely and old age a mercy. That is what Buddha called “dukkha”. We all have to die, unavoidably, sooner or later. The meaning of our life, if we want to define such thing, is to pass on what we have to the living, to those having a few days or years more to spend on earth after we are gone. The meaning of our life is to ever let it go, give it away freely (and this, if anything, is my understanding of “rebirth”).

Now the world decided to shut down. To stop passing on their knowledge to the next generation, to interrupt the stream of wisdom flowing from the old to the young. The world decided to take away a young generation their summer, their school’s end, their start into job or studies. To put a hold to their, and our future. To keep them confined at home, deprived of all meaningful experience.

The world decided to take a generation of young grandchildren their maybe last chance to spend time with granny and grandpa, months of exchange lost during a most formative period of their life.

It is not about fun and pleasure we have to postpone for a few weeks to save millions of lives (save for how long … weeks, months, maybe a year or two?). A life cannot be saved. It can only be spent.

This is the big illusion within the current crisis.

Inevitably we will die. And if we did not live in vein, something will be passed on. Clinging to life, my little existence, for the price of stopping the stream of human life on earth – what a selfish endeavour!

What happens now, these days, I am sure, will not enter history books as a world-wide unified act of seclusion to save millions of lives. It will be remembered as a suicide in fear of death. Or, from a Buddhist point of view: a childish attempt to deny impermanence and ignore dukkha.

Month after month the young generation protested Friday for Friday for a global change, the future of coming generations and life on earth – and not much happened. Now our last few old and possibly sick years on earth are in danger (given we get infected, with a probability of about 1% or less to die), and we shut all down in no time.

While I stay at home, as I’m supposed to, I hope this madness will end soon. We all have to die. So please, let us care about those who will be living a bit longer than us! This is true compassion.

(1) April 1st, 2020