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.


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 .
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


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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May 082015

I was born 20 years and a few months after the Second World War ended. Probably I would not sit here today and write a Zen-blog, if you did not come over to free our country from my grandparents generation’s murderous system.

Thank you! Merci! Спасибо!

The Red Flag on the German Reichstag, 1945.

The Red Flag on the German Reichstag, 1945.

Said that … maybe I would exactly sit here and write a Zen blog, in case Hitler’s fascist regime survived. One of the shocking discoveries I made while deeper getting into Japanese Zen and Martial Arts was, how much mutual sympathy between Nazi leaders and Japanese traditionalists existed – far beyond a military ally of the so called “axis powers”.

The mutual understanding of the German and Japanese culture circles (Kulturkreis) is comprehensive and sincere. Its further consolidation is a fundamental condition for the leadership in the worldwide battle, in which both befriended nations are involved, and for a new world order, which exclusively can be established through a close collaboration of both nations.

The German-Japanese friendship is far beyond politics and military a deep-rooted communion, which is based upon an unshakable ideological and cultural basis, and therefore determined to last for a long time.

Hiroshi Oshima, Japanese ambassador in Berlin, July 1943 (1)

I get a cold shiver not only reading these lines, but also when German martial artists today naively talk or write about “traditional Japanese”, referring to a system which was forcefully created before and during the Second World War as a fascist and militarist ideology from shinto and samurai roots (not to forget the support of certain Buddhist scholars, but this is another discussion …). Don’t some of us live out their desire to follow (or play) Führer by putting on ancient Japanese cloths, swinging a sword and shouting commands with a harsh military voice?

“Don’t put your hand so straight on the saya!”, my former (American) Iaido teacher scolded me, “standing like this with a sword is a fascist posture!”. I wish, all of us being interested or deeply involved in Japanese (martial) arts would be so considerate, avoiding a possibly naive re-import of neofascist rituals in the disguise of a misunderstood Asian tradition.

At least this effort we owe to those who risked or sacrificed their life to free our country!

(1) Quoted from the foreword of the 2nd edition of the photography book by Younosuke Nattori: Gross Japan (Dai Nippon), Karl Specht Verlag, 1942 (my English rendering of the German text).

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Mar 312015

Registration for my next Zen-Ken-Sho Sesshin at Benediktushof Holzkirchen (July 19-22) is open, and usually I get the one or other question in advance how I split the time between Zazen, Aikiken (Aikido exercise with the wooden sword, bokken) and Hitsuzendo (Zen-calligraphy).

Is it too many hours sitting for me? Do we write long enough? Too much physical exercise?

I want to reply “Come and see, join in! No one will force you beyond your limits!”

In his recent blog post the American Zen-Punk Brad Warner (also teaching at Benediktushof from time to time) address this issue with “Zen plus Something” seminars:

Now if you sign up for a “Zen and Yoga” or “Zen and Calligraphy” or “Zen and Skeeball” or “Zen and whatever” retreat at some places I’ve spent time at, what you’ll get will be a lot of yoga or calligraphy or skeeball and a small amount of (almost always optional) Zen. Meditation centers generally know that actual meditation is a tough sell and often minimize or very nearly eliminate actual sitting from the schedule.

Really? I had no idea … except for the 13 years I worked with my former Zen and Hitsuzendo teacher, and later during my visits to Japan, I never attended any other Zen Sesshin. I have no idea how others do it … just a little bit of optional sitting, does that make sense?

My Zafu (pillow for Zazen) at Tekishinjuku in Kameoka.

My Zafu (pillow for Zazen) at Tekishinjuku in Kameoka.

In my own experience (which I do not intend to generalise for everybody), Zazen, the practise of sitting meditation, is something which cannot be replaced by any other exercise, and for sure not by reading books or washing dishes. It is a really good investment of time and energy to overcome the many kinds of initial difficulties, and develop a strong and sustained Zazen practise. This provides a really good foundation for exercising the many kinds of Zen-Arts, including reading books and washing dishes.

Just practising calligraphy, sword, yoga … whatever during a “Zen plus X” seminar, but skipping Zazen, is what my former teacher called “eating the foam but not drinking the beer”.

Brad Warner wrote that during his Zen Retreats participants usually practise three and a half hours Zazen per day, which in his eyes is “the perfect amount of sitting for both beginners and long-time practitioners”.

In my Sesshin we practise four hours Zazen per day, but twice 25 minutes are (really!) optional. In between we have two longer sessions for Hitsuzendo, followed by Aikiken. A short and simple tea-ceremony (sarei) in the morning, Aiki-Taiso (physical exercises similar to Qi Gong) and Sutra chanting twice a day. Plus (optional) private interview with me in the afternoon and (not optional) one hour Zen-Style working period (samu) for the house. This is quite a lot, so we start early in the morning.

Still I get the impression the participants of my Sesshin are suffering from too many breaks, too much leisure time, sleep too long and go to bed too early. Well, not all of them … when during the breaks most enjoy a coffee, do a walk, rest in their room or spend time and money in the book-shop, occasionally the one or other comes to help me: preparing and cleaning the Zendo, folding newspaper for calligraphy or sorting and throwing the many sheets of paper we wrote is a never ending Zen-exercise. And suddenly the day is full, 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. with no more breaks or leisure time. This is what I call advanced practise …this is the way I studied with my teacher how to conduct a Sesshin: no break, not a minute free time all day long and half of the night. Well, except for a coffee after lunch, maybe …

“Do you also teach advanced seminars?” participants of my Sesshin occasionally ask. “Yes, sure!” I reply, “during the breaks!”.

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Mar 142015
Prince William psing as Toyotomi Hideysoshi during his recent visit in Japan

Prince William posing as Toyotomi Hideysoshi during his recent visit in Japan

UFFF-UFFF-UAGHHH … every now and then I can hear such weird noise outside my Dojo. What sounds like a mating deer or an asthmatic angry dog usually turns out to be the utterance of some post-adolescent male, to all appearances belonging to the species homo sapiens.

How comes a wooden signpost with Japanese characters next to the entrance and a calligraphy and a flower in the otherwise empty window can trigger this kind of acoustic degeneration?

During my stays in Japan I witnessed a variety of inept behaviour by guests being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar culture, not just a few of such stunts performed by myself. Though with a specific kind of people, a Japanese environment seems to provoke the production of a sound-scape and actions which might be inspired by a previous overconsumption of certain Asian martial art films.

I speculate that the mixture of feeling illiterate and helpless like a kid in the face of an unintelligible language and culture, together with the onset of megalomania fuelled by the host’s (never before in such way experienced) politeness motivates the uncontrolled release of accumulated prejudice.

The Polish President, being asked to climb down a chair

The Polish President, being asked to climb down the chair of the speaker of Japan’s Diet

It is more than just a bit disturbing to read the Polish President Bronisław Komorowski called his national-security adviser “Shogun” during a photo shooting in the Japanese parliament, just minutes before he mounted the chair of the speaker of Japan’s Diet.

Japan provides such an excellent environment for us to experience and learn new things – or to make a complete fool out of ourselves. This is one reason why I decided (beyond my private preference for Japanese aesthetics) to maintain a distinct “Japanese Style” at my Dojo. The place teaches by itself, a first lesson might well be to take off your shoes …

The socks belonging to the Japanese actress Hana Moyu (left), who showed typical Japanese hospitality (momotenashi) by not asking Prince William to take off his shoes before stepping on tatami

The tabi (socks) belonging to the Japanese actress Hana Moyu (right), who showed typical Japanese hospitality (omotenashi) by not asking Prince William to take off his shoes (left) before stepping on the tatami



P.S.: In defence of Prince William who was seemingly not being prepared by the most competent advisers for his Japan trip, I want to add that he was very well received. Especially his visit to the tortured Tohoku region and (on his special request arranged) exchange with victims of the 3.11 disaster triggered some very positive resonance in the Japanese media.

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