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?

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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

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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

“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 …

 

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Dec 112015
 
Cover of "Brush Mind"

Cover of “Brush Mind”

On the cover of the book a young black-haired beardless Kazuaki Tanahashi is vigorously swaying a monster-sized brush. Tanahashis “Brush Mind” has served me for almost two decades as an inexhaustible source of inspiration for my own education and work in Japanese calligraphy.

You can’t hide anything in a line

is just one quotation from the beginning chapter of “Brush Mind”. A sentence I am still exploring in its fathomless depth. You can’t hide anything. This is truly a Zen statement. No fake, no pretension, no want to be something else. This is it, nothing to hide.

A friend told me he once witnessed the late Abbott of Ryutakuji Zen Temple in Mishima performing the Morning Ceremony (a very formal daily event in every Zen Temple with lots of bowing, reading many Sutra and sounding the gongs) stark naked. I can hardly imagine which impression this demonstration of nothing to hide left on the young monks.

Kazuaki Tanahashi (source: Wikipedia)

Kazuaki Tanahashi (source: Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago I was lucky to see Kazuaki Tanahashi for the first time during a performance and film show at the Cologne Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst. Grey haired, with a long beard, now over 80 years old. The prototype of an old sage. His performance was of utmost simplicity and friendliness, such a pleasant contrast to some other calligraphy performances I have seen, where the artist tried to pretend a “Zen-Spirit” by many kinds of priggish behaviour.

Tanahashi just explained some basics with a good sense of humour, not the least bit disturbed by a constant noise level of people coming and going. Then he brushed two pieces in an effortless yet highly concentrated manner. It was like witnessing the promise of the younger man’s book fulfilled by the action of the old Master.

When I put my one-breath stroke next to his, I can see not only a gap of 30 years in life experience and Zen/Calligraphy praxis. I see, in embarrassing contrast to my own attempts, a line brushed by a person, who does not want to be anything else, who does not even care to draw a line nicely.

ichi2

Tanahashis “ichi” (right) next to my one-stroke calligraphy (left).

Just this, nothing to hide. In 30 years time, will I be able to brush so careless, selfless, without any refinement?

Refinement is my enemy

wrote Tanashi in “Brush Mind”. What is my slightly refined and maybe even a bit elegant stroke trying to hide? How to draw a single true line? The answer is also given by Kazuaki Tanahashi:

To do this, you have to be fearless.

All quotations from Kazuaki Tanahashi: Brush Mind, Parallax Press (revised edition, 1998).
Kazuaki Tanahashis webpage is http://www.brushmind.net/ .
The film I mentioned is the documentary “Painting Peace – The Art & Life of Kazuaki Tanahashi” by Babette M. VanLoo.
Kazuaki Tanahashis “one stroke” is rendered from my photography of his work on display after the performance. I assume all rights are with the artist, and very much hope he doesn’t mind I share this low quality/resolution copy in my blog.

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Nov 142015
 

Again so many of us got killed. By them. I read “Pray for Paris!” (or #PrayForParis) and shiver. I shiver because a religious point of view, probably a terribly misunderstood one, but yet a religious point of view, supported those latest terror attacks. Is it our religious point of view against theirs? At war?

We export weapons and wars and import refugees and terror (*). Everything what happens now has some cause in the past, in our past action. That is called karma in Buddhist terminology, and this is the reason why we focus so much on our actions right in this moment. What we do right now in this moment has an effect in the future.

So what shall we do? Buddhism offers some guidance by what is known as the “Noble Eightfold Path”. The first of the eight points in its original language reads samma-ditthi, which is often very unluckily translated as “Right View”. “Right View” implies there also exists the opposite, a “Wrong View”, and we should struggle for the “Right View”. And of course our view is the “Right View”, and theirs is a “Wrong View”. But this is not at all what the text intended to say …

The Pali word “ditthi” means view or opinion, and standing alone without a prefix generally designates a wrong view. “samma” can be translated as “whole”, “complete”. So samma-ditthi is the “whole view”, transporting the full picture, all points of view, the thing as it is, in all its aspects an facets. Not just my (of course) right view as opposed to their (of course) wrong view. All incomplete, single sided view is ditthi, just wrong.

This is hard to swallow, sometimes, when we feel so sure about right and wrong. But it does not mean we have to be indifferent, without compassion. Aujourd’hui, mon cœur est avec mes amis français.

(*) To avoid any possible misunderstanding here: by NO MEANS I want to indicate there is any connection between refugees and terror attacks, except that both occur for the same reasons: exporting wars and weapons!

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Nov 042015
 

Occasionally I read a bit in the blogs of other Zen people, with a strong preference for those who actively engage in teaching Zen(*). It is interesting to see that many Zen Centres and Dojos in the Western world fight similar problems, which are either gathering sufficient members to pay the rent, or a cancer-like growth towards business-oriented sect-like structure organised around a (dead or alive) leading figure, who is typically described as an “Enlightened Zen Master” (regardless of his or her actual educational background).

In the blog of the American Zen teacher Brad Warner I found a few wise words perfectly describing the approach our own small Dojo follows, so I want to quote them here:

I have no interest at all in starting yet another Zen megachurch or commercial meditation superstore.

I don’t want a thing that needs to grow, that needs to keep adding new members in order to survive, compelling us to try to convince people to come. I’d like to have a space available for people who are serious about practice, who already know that they need it. I do not want be forced to accept people who aren’t actually serious just because we need more butts on cushions and more dollar bills in the collection plate.

I do not have any interest in spending a single moment trying to teach someone about Zen who has been convinced to come […]. It’s because doing that is a complete waste of my time and theirs. Zen is not for people who have been convinced or sold on it. It can’t do any good at all for someone who has come for that reason.

Brad Warner, The Zen Gospel of Prosperity

Yet the one question remains: how to pay the Dojo’s rent? And since we are talking about “Zen in the West”, how to pay the Dojo’s heating? I might well continue month after month deciding to not yet cancel my Dojo’s contract…


(*) The others often show a certain tendency to get either lost in theoretical speculations (all the more when their education does not allow them to read the sources in their original language), or personal disputes with other Zen people, or both.

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Sep 292015
 

When I relocated my Zen Dojo to its current location I decided to do not much of advertisement. Just a plain and simple hand-woven web-pape, some information shared on facebook and continuing this blog. My wish was to be present at the Dojo, provide a good place for Zazen and studying Zen-arts and let interested people join my practice. And maybe bring some of my beloved and dearly missed Kyoto to this very German city …

A year and half later the Dojo’s regular income does not even cover half of its expenses. Is it due to my poor understanding of Zen and my limited teaching skills, the less than ideal location or the lack of any in the West oh so popular “traditional Japanese” costume- and ranking show with associated shaved-had black-robes catwalk? I don’t know.

wagamichi“Don’t worry, just go on!” was my former teacher’s advise I always followed. When he gave me teaching permission during the opening ceremony of my former Dojo near Aachen a couple of years ago he passed me on a calligraphy from his former teacher, Omori Sogen Roshi, saying 吾道一以貫之. I translate these wise words of Confucius as “Never give up following your Way!”

Well … easier brushed than done. I believe this calligraphy once must have had a brother or sister explaining “And your source of income will be …”. Alas, I never saw it. So I am afraid I have to close down my Dojo before long to avoid bankruptcy. The good news is, not too many dedicated students will be affected by the loss, and I will be free to move on … or to move back to my beloved home-town. Said that, I am not so sure where exactly it is located … maybe I just disappear, or better, gently fade away.

Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; `but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!


P.S.: Once more the end of a month passed and once more I decided not yet to cancel my Dojo’s contract.

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Sep 222015
 

This blog has not been updated for a while, I simply lack the time for writing.

Sometimes students skip class because they “have no time” for Zazen, and I usually reply “you always have 24 hours a day, it is your decision how to spend them!”. So maybe I should better write I decided to spend my time on other things than writing about Zen … but that sounds too much like having those 24 hours a day perfectly under my control.

Anyway, for the time being updates will come at low frequency (if at all).

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Jun 062015
 

The other day an occasional visitor to my Dojo (1) told me he recently read somewhere in the depth or shallows of the world wide web that I might not have a proper authorisation to teach Zen, since my former teacher did not receive “Dharma Transmission” from his own teacher, Omori Sogen Roshi. This made me smile, I wonder who first proposed the nonsense equation so popular in Western Zen which reads:

Dharma Transmission = Zen Master = Authorisation to Teach Zen.

Nevertheless, from this odd topic some very Zen-style dialogue developed. Our little conversation continued as follows:

“The only person who can authorise me to teach you is standing right in front of me!”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes! Who is that person who can authorise me to teach you?”

“Me !??”

“Show me that person standing in front of me! Now!

“…”

Since we haven’t met recently, very likely he decided I better not become his authorised teacher …

So, what about my former teacher?

My former teacher (bottom left) with Omori Sogen Roshi (right).

My former teacher (bottom left) with Omori Sogen Roshi (right).

He had permission from his teacher, Omori Sogen Roshi, to teach Zen, and he did so for 4 1/2 years at Kanozan Zen Center (鹿野山禅研修所) in Chiba prefecture. This Zen Centre (like many others in Japan and abroad) is not a training hall for monks. It is a place for lay people who do not aspire a clerical career and ranks, though they sincerely study and practice Zen (quite opposite to most “professional” monks in Japan who are forced by their father to continue a family tradition).

After leaving Japan for good, my former teacher went to Germany with the blessing (and support) of his teacher to live a poor life as a Zen- and Hitsuzendo (Zen-calligraphy) teacher.

We met in 1998, and after almost 12 years of intense practise under his guidance he gave me his permission to teach Zen and Hitsuzendo. Two years later it was the time for us to part ways.

Working side by side with my former teacher - Benediktushof 2011

Working side by side with my former teacher during a  Sesshin at Benediktushof (Germany) in 2011

And his missing “Dharma Transmission”?

In my understanding, Dharma Transmission is an ongoing process which starts the day one seriously begins to practice.

If our way of obtaining the Dharma leads us to value certification our paper, it will have less worth than toilet paper. True certification occurs only when we realize that the Dharma goes beyond attainment, that we are the True Self. But we tend to get caught up in things, forgetting that the Dharma isn’t something we receive from others. (2)

Neither my former teacher nor I had any ambition to train professional monks, that is, to act as the shike (head teacher) of a sodo (training hall for monks). Why should I have any interest in what the formal requirements for such a position, as defined by some Japanese authority, might be? (3)

I don’t properly know the ceremonies and Sutra required to, say, conduct a funeral, a memorial service or a Buddhist wedding ceremony, which is a good portion of the regular duties of a Zen monk. I don’t conduct Dokusan (one-to-one Koan study), and I don’t pretend to hold or bestow any clerical ranks. This stuff has little to no overlap with my interest in a day-to-day Zen practise. Therefore I decided a few years ago to avoid any misunderstandings by giving the Way of Zen I practice and share with others a name of its own (4).

What I do in my Dojo and Seminars is sharing what I developed out of my teachers’ lessons, and I do not care at all if they had permission from their teachers or within their system to give me any permission to teach. What counts for me is the fact that the person I gave permission to teach me, I trusted and I decided to study with for a long time, at some point said: go ahead, you may now teach what you have learned from me!

Is that enough for you to trust me as your teacher? Of course not! No authority, no qualification and no sheet of paper can do the task for you to thoroughly examine if you can trust me and do not waste your time studying with me. Who knows if I ever will say to you go ahead, you may now teach what you learned from me. All I promise is: you won’t get any certificate, any rank or any title from me. It’s all up to you!

(1) I prefer to avoid the term “student” for guests who visit my Dojo from time to time to practise with me.

(2) Shin’ichi Hisamatsu, Critical Sermons of the Zen Tradition: Hisamatsu’s Talks on Linji, Chapter 14

(3) A very detailed explanation concerning the regulations of the Soto sect is given by Muho (Part 1 and Part 2). For the formalities in Rinzai Zen a good description of the practice at Myoshinji can be found in: Jørn Borup,  Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism, Myōshinji, a living religion, Numen Book Series, Studies in the History of Religions (Volume 119), Leiden and Boston (2008), p.57 ff

(4) Nevertheless I keep friendly contacts to Japanese Rinzai Zen. Our Dojo is the official dependency of Shunko-In Zen Temple in Kyoto, since I very much appreciate the deputy head priest Taka Kawakami‘s open minded and modern approach towards Zen. Also I keep regular contact with Hozumi Roshi, the Zen Master who once ordained me and who is leading the Tekishinjuku outside Kameoka, the temple where I stay for some time whenever I come to Japan.

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May 232015
 
Keisaku

Keisaku

Wherever I go to practise Zazen I try to experience the Keisaku, when kindly offered by the Jikijitsu leading the meditation. It is a good experience to learn, and it gives me an impression of the character (and swordsman skills) of the person handling it.

Last year visiting Engakuji Temple in Kitakamakura for morning Zazen I should have been warned: either by the fierce expression in face of the monk carrying the stick, or by the fact his body sized as wide as tall. Politely choosing the place next to the entrance, I was the first one in the group having a chance to ask, and when the first blow came down on me I almost fell down from my cushion. The four strokes left two large blue-green-yellow bruises on my back for some weeks (and forced me to sleep on the side for a couple of nights). The monk’s other passion must be tameshigiri I concluded, the art of cutting objects into pieces with a katana.

A week after this experience I went to my “Home-Temple” in Kameoka. Knowing the old Master uses the Keisaku in a much lighter way, I challenged my colourful back once more. Two strokes came down precise but lightly, and while I changed to the other side with a feeling of relief and confidence, number three hit me on my head. BANG!

So much I was preconditioned by the 2 left – 2 right rhythm, that I completely ignored any other possibilities! Would that have occurred with master-swordsman-monk at Engakuji the week before, I seriously might not have survived my mistake.

Besides all the hype and big business happening around “Mindfulness” these days, I value the term in it’s meaning of an open awareness of what is happening right here, right now – instead of being preoccupied by concepts of what might happen next. At least, a bit more mindfulness might prevent me from some headache next time …

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