Open Access

Dharma Action Day

· Open Access, Photos, Sangha News

On Sunday, January 28, 2018 over 75 sangha members gathered to share and investigate ways to actively and intentionally channel our collective concern for our world into beneficial action. 

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Death as a Mirror for Living

· Open Access, Sangha News

The room was dim. About sixty bodies arranged themselves wall-to-wall in rows, eyes closed, supine on zabutons. Imagining themselves dead.

“How did you die?” intoned a voice. “How old were you when you died? Where were you when you died? Who was with you, or not, when you died?”

The questioner was Zen priest and chaplain Trudi Jinpu Hirsch-Abramson, who conducted the retreat Death & Dying: Using Death to Teach Us How to Live, on January 13 at Zen Mountain Monastery. What was most surprising about the weekend was the degree to which we did not talk about death—at least not about our fear of it—but about our lives.

“The prospect of death,” Hirsch-Abramson said, “can launch you into you.”

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Monastic Ordination and Enlightenment Vigil

· Open Access, Photos, Sangha News

On Sunday, December 10, Shugen Roshi officiated Tokudo, the full Monastic Ordination, for Shea Zuiko Ikusei Settimi. During the morning ceremony at the Monastery she received the kesa, zagu, monastic bowl and lineage chart as well as the monastic name Zuiko, which means “auspicious peace.”

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Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

Ask the One Who Knows

· Dharma Discourses, Open Access · ,

by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi

Gateless Gate Case 47

Doushuai’s Three Barriers

Main Case

Master Doushuai made three barriers to test his students.
To inquire after the truth, groping your way through the underbrush, is
  for the purpose of seeing your nature.  Here, now, where is your nature,
  Venerable Monk?
If you realize your own nature, you are certainly free from life and death.
  When your eyes are closed, how can you be free from life and death?
If you are free from life and death, you know where you will go. When the
  four elements are decomposed, where do you go?


If you can rightly give the three turning words here, you will be the master wherever you may be, and live up to the Dharma no matter how varied the circumstances. If, however, you are unable to give them, I warn you, you will get tired of the food you have bolted, and well-chewed food keeps hunger away.


This one instant, as it is, is an infinite number of kalpas
An infinite number of kalpas are at the same time this one instant.
If you see into this fact,
The True Self which is seeing has been seen into.

If you’re free from life and death you know where you will go. When the four elements are decomposed, where do you go? This is the question that human beings have likely been asking since the beginning of our creation. Having a life force, what happens when we die? In death, where do we go?

This question contains our desire and our understanding. There is ‘someone’ who wants ‘something,’ and the question is where does this ‘someone’ go? Most people want to continue through and beyond life, to not die. Anyone who has been in the presence of someone in the dying process knows how vivid and dynamic that sense of life is—of life energy, life spirit—within a person even as they’re actively dying, even if they’re not conscious or responsive. When the moment we call ‘death’ occurs, there certainly is something that changes to that felt sense of life in the person. Something that was there a moment ago seems unmistakably absent, seems to have departed. Having life, where does it go? The Buddha said it’s like a candle burning: moment-by-moment there is a flame. Is it the same flame in each moment? There’s a koan that asks, “When the flame on the altar is extinguished, where does the candlelight go?”

Shibiyama in his commentary on this koan says,

“What is this experience of seeing into one’s nature? It is to see into one’s original nature and to be awakened to the true self. When this is accomplished the student has transcended life and death.”


 Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

To transcend is to have seen through the nature of life and death. “When your eyes are closed, how can you be free from life and death?” The concern about death is never an abstraction but is about someone’s death: mine, yours, or that of someone we love. Shibayama says,

“Everyone in this world has to face this fundamental question. Most people give themselves up to the pressure of temporal affairs and blindly pass their days and nights. On some occasions, however, we may reflect on the ever-changing nature of human life. We will realize the inevitable limitations and restrictions of our everyday living. Once we realize this actual human situation we can no longer be indifferent but feel an urge to solve this fundamental problem. One has to see into their nature.”

In other words, it is my fundamental question to see into my nature; your fundamental question is to see into your nature. Master Doushuai’s question—Here, now, where is your nature?—is thus addressed to each one of us. Yet, we can make an effort to achieve a kind of indifference to the question, or we can seek peace by avoiding the question, ignoring this inevitable truth of all creatures.

Where do you go when the body dissolves? Is this even the correct question? The question certainly matches our ordinary way of thinking of things: “I am. I have life. I am a person. I have a self. It holds together from moment to moment, day by day. It seems to have a sense of coherence and continuity and permanence: where will it go?” From our ordinary perspective, the question makes a lot of sense even if we don’t know the answer. But is this question itself actually in accord with the real nature of things?

To be free of suffering we might think we simply need to avoid having suffering—that’s how we liberate ourselves. We avoid, or don’t create, or better manage the things in our life that create suffering; just be more in control. Human beings’ search for everlasting life, our reverence for youthfulness in our culture, the desire to stay young and not grow old or become frail or ill, our complaints as we get older, our disdain for old age; what is all of this expressing about our understanding of and peace with life and death?

The Buddha said there are five things that we should remember:

“I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to become sick; there is no escape from having ill health.
I am of the nature to die; there is no escape from my death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions; my actions and the result of my actions, my karma. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground upon which I stand.”

I am of the nature of these things. You are of the same nature, as was the Buddha. That means it’s built into our nature: it comes with life, it cannot be escaped, and should be remembered. Remembering doesn’t just mean to obsessively worry or be anxious about, but rather to contemplate, to reflect on, to motivate us to practice, and to see in the world around us.

When we trace our suffering back to the root, what do we find? This is the importance in our practice of simply sitting in a freely given state of vast wakefulness and stillness. As the Chinese master Chih-i taught, “to stop and see.” See what comes before you, one moment after the next and not to try and escape, realizing that you cannot escape. Try something new: try not escaping but turning in. Look closely, examine without moving your mind. When it becomes uncomfortable, stop and see, come closer. What is the discomfort? What is its nature? When you examine it closely? What do you find? Is there anything? Is there?

See what comes before you, one moment after the next and not to try and escape. Try something new: try not escaping but turning in. Look closely, examine without moving your mind. When it becomes uncomfortable, stop and see, come closer.


The Buddha way is the middle path. It is free of eternalism, the idea that there is something we call the self that lives forever; we might call it a soul. But it is also free of any annihilationist perspective, that death is just an extinguishing. When you blow out the candle where does the light go? The Buddha said both of those are not true, both are false understandings and cannot bring ultimate peace and joy. No old age and death, and no end to old age and death we chant in the Heart Sutra. There is no abiding self, separate and independent from the universe. And in the same moment, something is present that we call a person. What is the real truth?

An old master in his death poem said, “In coming, I have no abode; in leaving, I have no fixed direction. How is it ultimately? Here I am all the time.”

In “Here I am all the time,” who or what is this “I”? When the four elements are decomposed where do you go? Is this life all there is? Master Bankei taught, “When the time comes for you to die, just die” does that mean there is utter nonexistence? This moment arrives as it departs, complete, all encompassing. Our mind creates continuity, seamlessly stitching together each moment into an exquisite fabric. Our mind creates a sense of continuity so we can move gracefully, but we impute that there is someone that coheres and is holding it all together, someone that sits at the center of our universe, “the” universe. And when death occurs, this someone must go somewhere. Many Westerners just assume that rebirth in Buddhism means your essential self is reborn into another life. But the self is empty, so what is reborn? Moment to moment, what lives and dies? It’s not you, but it’s not not you. When the candle burns, is the flame the same or different?

This is why we practice, because the dualistic mind cannot resolve this. But we can know it directly, beyond knowing and understanding. That is seeing into our true nature; there is no essential self. Understanding this conceptually, some might think, “Well that means life doesn’t matter; it’s all meaningless.” Yet when we realize impermanence and see self-nature clearly, everything becomes deeply important. The sense of a solid and separate self is what gives rise to a perspective that can logically desecrate what is sacred, turn people into objects to throw away, defile what should not be defiled, and turn against oneself. From the illusion of the self comes that preoccupation with having and not having, winning and failing. When we’re freed from this, compassion naturally arises because the preoccupation and the fear dissolve; our self-clinging and self-attachment dissolve and compassion arises. Compassion arises because it’s always there, and it is naturally expansive and includes everyone.

Photo By Tim Ellis

Tibetan master Longchen Rabjam spoke of self-nature in this way:

“Uncontrived self-nature, utterly
unimaginable. It’s like the precious gem that comes from all spiritual mentors without any frame of reference and without depending on any changeable state. It is effortlessly fulfilling, since by its very nature it is excellent. If one examines it, it proves to be nonexistent. You cannot find it but if you let it be, it is supreme and its occurrence is sublime. There is no vacillation inwardly, no object to seek within. Sense objects form outwardly but there is no framework for elaborating on those objects. Names cannot contain it. Compassion not arising from or engaging in such objects and without identity, without self is not derived from anything else nor will it ever be. It abides timelessly.”

When the body dissolves, where will you go? We can certainly think of this as our mortal life, but we can also see it in terms of the life and death of aspects of our lives—a job, relationships, an identity, our possessions—that we’ve infused with a sense of self. The self that we imputed into this physical being we impute into everything, and then experience the world as a place of independent objects. From that way of seeing things there will always be conflict; it’s inherent in the view. We find many ways to address the conflict from within that view of separate autonomous bodies. We find ways to be patient and tolerant with each other and to make peace rather than conflict, and this is incredibly important because it can cross all religious, cultural and ethnic boundaries. But the Buddha said that any peace that is created is always precarious; it’s always subject to coming apart.

Think about this in terms of the conflicts and violence we’re witnessing. We see it in different countries, different causes, different groups of people. We see it formed around ideas of hatred, of bigotry, of violence, conflict and division. What is the self in hatred? What is the self in bigotry? The self exists for the purpose of fulfilling desires and trying to protect us; it’s a buffer. What does the self seek in hatred? What is the desire in that? What is it protecting us from? What sense of purpose does it give us? To examine this closely, we need to stop and see.

Photo by Michael Chizen Brown, MRO

I was reading an article recently about a town in Germany that had a tomb of one of Hitler’s deputies in its cemetery. Every year, to the great displeasure of the community, hundreds of neo-Nazis would come to hold a march to commemorate the Nazi officer. For years the community gathered to protest, and then they decided to try something new. They turned the protest into what they called “The Most Involuntary Walkathon.” The townspeople contributed money for every step that each neo-Nazi took in the march. The money was then collected and given to an organization that helped people who wanted to leave a neo-Nazi community, to defect. So rather than going out to protest, they went out to cheer them on. They had signs along the way letting them know how much money they were raising to fight Nazism. At the end of the march a large sign which read, “Congratulations on helping to defeat yourself, and thank you for your contribution to the anti-Nazi cause!”

Studies have been done on nonviolent responses to conflicts like this one. They found that when nonviolence was used as a principal measure to try to affect change in a conflict, it was twice as effective and worked much more quickly. Nonviolence also attracts more allies then violence. Think of all the heroes of the civil rights movement who actually trained in nonviolence as a discipline. It’s not easy to not be violent in the presence of violence, to not hate in the presence of hatred. It’s hard not to do that.

Don’t we see that within our own mind? What nonviolence does in the presence of hatred and violence and bigotry is to expose it. Whereas when violence meets violence, it gets all confused between antagonist and victim; violent retaliation becomes the next violence to retaliate against. When we resolve things violently, the karma of that continues on and on. There have been times in our history when it seemed violence was needed to stop a greater harm. These are difficult choices. To not respond to anger with anger, but rather skillful compassion, takes tremendous discipline. So we practice to strengthen wisdom, compassion, and our skillfulness.

To create peace together requires tremendous discipline, individually and as a community. That’s a Sangha. It’s what we vow to do every day here as a monastic, practicing community. The Bodhisattva Vows compel us to do this in the world together as a Mahasangha: to bring that measure of discipline, wakefulness, commitment, patience, and courage into the lives we share with all beings. It is the most difficult thing we can do in our lives. It is the most important thing we can do in our lives. It is our basic nature.

When the four elements are decomposed, where do you go?

Master Ikyu offers us this:

I won’t die,

I won’t go anywhere,

I’ll be here.

But don’t ask me for anything,

I won’t answer.

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Roshi is the Head of the Mountains and River Order and the Abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City.

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Look Again, and Again

· Editorial, Open Access · ,

by Suzanne Taikyo Gilman

Looking around at the people and things which come into our orbit, we can be easily misled. The seeing mind is dynamic, complex, and can be affected by a gnawing hunger for lunch, a yearning for praise or even a craving for peace and justice, filling our minds with opinions and judgements. A wide range of feelings rise up when right and wrong becomes solidified. From within this familiar ground, we can find refuge in the Dharma teachings of “View,” the theme of this issue of Mountain Record.

Starting with the Buddha’s teachings on Right View, the first aspect of the Noble Eight-fold Path, we explore the Mahayana teachings of the ultimate view—the emptiness of all forms and phenomena—from several teacher’s perspectives. As Shugen Roshi offers in his discourse, our view is shaped by our constant positioning of self, which limits our experience of what is real. When we take into account the components of Right View—the karma we struggle with, the impermanence we’d rather avoid seeing—we can begin releasing ourselves from fear and aversion, seeing through the cherished opinions we usually take for real. As Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche says, all duality gives fodder for deluded views, and yet these waves of confusion “are the expressive power of the view. They are not separate from the view.”

How does a practice of direct experience help us navigate the minefield of right and wrong? Dharma teacher Pema Chodron explores creative ways of breaking down the walls of ‘otherness.’ Writings by ancient Ch’an Masters point directly to the qualities of an awakened mind, qualities we are reminded are innate—our true nature—and always available to us even in our delusion. Several authors investigate aspects of life where our view can change radically—be it through love as writes James Baldwin, through exploration of the tensions of embedded racism and bigotry that Beth Loffreda writes about, or in dismantling old habitual ways of being as told in Sangha Reflections stories.

Each of us, in our wholehearted practice, can experience this opening up as we look at our minds and then look still again. Myotai Sensei writes that this is the life-changing exploration which is never really finished; like turning on a light in a dark room, it’s still the same physical space but something has radically changed.

With willingness, we look carefully and look again, strengthening and clarifying with wisdom and compassion, seeing how our lives can be of benefit to all in this aching world.


Suzanne Taikyo Gilman
Mountain Record Editor

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Right View Comes First

· Open Access, Uncategorized · ,

by The Buddha


Monks, right view comes first. And how does right view come first? One understands wrong view as wrong view and right view as right view: this is one’s right view.

And what is wrong view? There is nothing given, nothing sacrificed, nothing offered; there is no fruit or result of good and bad actions; there is no this world, no other world; there is no mother, no father; there are no beings spontaneously reborn; there are in the world no ascetics and brahmins of right conduct and right practice who, having realized this world and the other world for themselves by direct knowledge, make them known to others. This is wrong view.

And what is right view? Right view, I say, is twofold: there is right view that is affected by influxes, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions; and there is right view that is noble, free of influxes, supramundane, a factor of the path.

And what is right view that is subject to the influxes, partaking merit, ripening in the acquisitions? There is what is given, sacrificed, and offered; there is fruit and result of good and bad actions; there is this world and the other world; there is mother and father; there are beings spontaneously reborn; there are in the world ascetics and brahmins of right conduct and right practice who, having realized this world and the other world for themselves by direct knowledge, make them known to others. This is right view that is subject to the influxes, partaking of merit, ripening in the acquisitions.

 Photo By IIP Photo Archive

Photo By IIP Photo Archive

And what is right view that is noble, free of influxes, supramundane, a factor of the path? The wisdom, the faculty of wisdom, the power of wisdom, the investigation-of-states enlightenment factor, the path factor of right view in one whose mind is noble, whose mind is without influxes, who possesses the noble path and is developing the noble path: this is the right view that is noble, free of influxes, supramundane, a factor of the path.

One makes an effort to abandon wrong view and to enter upon right view: this is one’s right effort. Mindfully one abandons wrong view, mindfully one enters upon and abides in right view: this is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three states run and circle around right view, that is, right view, right effort, and right mindfulness.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in New York City and, after finishing a BA and a PhD in philosophy, received full ordination in Sri Lanka in 1973. In 1988, he was appointed editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka and has written, edited, and translated a number of Buddhist texts.

From The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Copyright ©2016 by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Used by permission of Wisdom Publications, Somerville, MA.

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Photo By Tomošius

Open Letter

· Open Access · ,

by Beth Loffreda


Many years ago, in the late 1980s, I attended a university in the south, very white, highly segregated. I had a friend, a young white man, more aware and more well-educated than me in things that mattered, who took a class in African American history taught by a well-known black civil rights leader. My friend acknowledged—with astonished, lacerating shame—that there was a moment in class when the pressure of his own racial identity became so unbearable to him that he found himself imagining shouting nigger at the professor. This was a whiteness inside him he had not before come in contact with—had been cushioned from. Cushioned, in that paradoxical fashion of whiteness, by the very fact that he was white and thus did not need to know it

My friend also told me that one day during class, the professor looked out the window—it was a first-floor classroom and the large windows were only a few feet above the ground—and saw an African American woman he knew, another professor, of literature. He leaped out the window to greet her, left the class behind. Riding the wave of the white students, racial hostility and shame, right out the window.

At least, that’s how my friend described that moment. But what did he, or I, know really, beyond our own projections? That classroom was for my friend a theater of endless self-contradictory projection—anger at the teacher and then an envious, mournful resentment that he had left—the peculiar, roiling emotional machinations of whiteness, of the particular kind of whiteness I wish to think about here: well-meaning whiteness, whiteness that means no harm, that thinks it has it mostly figured out. I’ve reconstructed that classroom as my own theater too here, for my own purposes, a curiosity about what happens when the projections turn back inward. Which is another way of saying that when the cushioning is removed, you realize it’s a mess in there, in the white mind. Which is a start.

I didn’t know how to think about these things in college; at that time, I only knew that I wanted to. I went to graduate school. In graduate school, in the 1990s, it turned out that “race” was something you needed to know about. I do not mean to imply that this was an unsalutary development. It was a hugely powerful development in my own education. I feel that most of my education has come from books and the small but remarkable group of teachers who have been their interlocutors. In graduate school, the books stripped off that cushioning and in its place gave me a chastening, freeing distance. The usefulness of temporarily exiting my own confused and cushioned mind. I could offer a long list here of the books that did this; a list that I try still to convert on a regular basis into syllabi for the classes I teach. Maybe most powerful for me was the experience of reading the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, for they taught me in a sustained way that white liberals like myself were a problem. The ones who think they mean no harm. And are a problem still, for many reasons, including their feeling that their good intentions inoculate themselves against racial self-awareness.

Photo By The Big Lunch

Photo By The Big Lunch

It was good then, that in the ‘90s “race” was something you needed to know about. But it has had its other effects. In the academic world today it is possible to encounter smart white people who feel the presence of people of color is optional, since they already know “race.” Whiteness is resilient that way.

Another effect of this period was that white people began to praise each other for talking about race. It was brave to write about it. But saying it is brave to write about one’s whiteness is not unlike saying it is brave to live inside a house. White people are often so defensive on the subject of race because to be white is to feel a certain—perhaps unsought, perhaps uncultivated, but still palpable if you look for it—sense of unmistakenness. There has been a test you didn’t even have to take and you got the answers right (points subtracted for certain errors—your mistaken desire, perhaps—but still. You did well). White people don’t like to be mistaken. They would prefer not to take any more tests. They passed! And when they write about race, they would like you to give them an A for effort. Because they were brave.

One way, if you are white, to take note of your whiteness is to pay attention if you feel a little p.o.’ed, a little restricted, when asked to think if your race matters to what you write or read or think; or when asked to consider that your writing about race has a content that you have not sufficiently considered. That your effort alone is not enough. It is not that I know for certain that race always matters. I’m honestly not sure how to calibrate this. But it may matter more often than a white writer thinks, and it may matter in ways she doesn’t realize.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that it is important, valuable, for white people to write about race. But not because it is brave. Let us reserve that term for more truly dangerous endeavors. Saying it is brave makes it special, optional, and somehow unchallengable. When it could instead be unremarkable, a matter of course. Not easy, mind you. Hard. But not brave.

For many well-intentioned white people, writing or talking about race is hard, but not in the way I want to mean this word. It is hard for us because there is the feeling, back there in your mind, that there might be a skeleton in the closet you don’t know about, or one you don’t remember. That you said or wrote or did something that someone will use against you. I feel that fear raised up in the back of my mind as I write this. What can I be accused of? It’s there. Many white people react to that question with defensiveness or fear, which are both forms of avoiding the truth. Because there is a skeleton in the closet. There is something to be accused of. Because you are white. And you grew up in a racist country. And there was a moment, or many moments, maybe even whole decades of earlier life, when you didn’t sufficiently transcend those conditions. You have been wrong.

So what? This is the wrapper that must come off, unremarkably, as a matter of course. What I mean by hard is something different. What is difficult is the education you must commit to as a white person, the long and necessary education. A long and necessary education whose primary condition is that it never ends. You are never finished.

In a book I wrote about the murder of a young gay man in the town where I live, I tried to counter the blanketing whiteness of the town by counterposing some voices of color against the comfortably unaware voices of some of my white interview subjects. A white colleague told me that was a predictable move. It was a move, of course, a use. I didn’t worry too much about this, in the sense that I mainly tried to do it well and stay alert for mistakes. This is obvious: it seemed worse to leave some subjects out because to “use” them would be “a move.” This orchestration might not have been “natural” to me as a writer; but unnaturalness, unnatural engagement, was the best I could do at the time. I believed, still do, that whiteness was part of what made so many of the white people in my town react in certain ways to the murder, a reaction that became the dominantly reported reaction, because they were white. I also believed it might be useful to at least somewhat dislodge this dominant reporting. Did I use people of color to do this? Yes I did. I interviewed people of color because I reckoned they knew things I didn’t know, things that weren’t optional to know. I wanted the point of view to not settle in a single body. I wanted people to hear themselves, to hear people other than themselves— I wanted the book to do that for everyone. It was all moves. It was writing.

You try hard not to make mistakes, you accept that you will make them. You try, if you are white, to not use “race” as yet another open field for your endless and praise-hungry self-assertion. You don’t run people out of the room when you don’t get an A. In one way the question is what writing is for. I don’t have an original answer to this. I write and read so that I can finally think; and I write and read to hope that it might be possible for me to construct a vantage point on what I don’t yet know how to know. These two things do not feel like separate endeavors. Is it impossibly idealist for me to believe that when I read, say, Richard Bruce Nugent, I both am and am not myself, as he is both himself and not? Not a transcendence, but a chance to halfway get out of one’s own mess of a mind in order to get back in. You don’t write to get clean. Writing’s not hygiene. But I write in the hope that writing clears some room for something else.

Beth Loffreda teaches creative writing and American Studies at the University of Wyoming.  She is the author of Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder.

From The Racial Imaginary: Writers On Race In the Life of the Mind. Copyright © 2016 by Max King Cap, Beth Loffreda, Claudia Rankine.  Used with permission of Fence Books and Beth Loffreda.

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Photo by Michael Levine-Clark

Ma-tsu’s White and Black

· Dharma Discourses, Open Access · ,

by Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei

Book of Equanimity, Case 6

Ma-tsu’s White and Black

A Stage Whisper:

Where you can’t open your mouth, a tongueless person can speak; where you lift your feet without rising, a legless person can walk. If you fall within their range and die at the phrase, how can you have any freedom? When the four mountains all oppress you, how can you penetrate to freedom?

Main Case:

A monastic asked Great Master Ma-tsu, “Apart from the four propositions and beyond the hundred negations, please directly point out the meaning of living Buddhism.” Ma-tsu said, “I’m tired today and can’t explain for you. Go ask Zhizhang.”

The monastic asked Zhizhang; Zhizhang said, “Why don’t you ask the teacher?”

The monastic said, “The teacher told me to come ask you.” Zhizhang said, “I have a headache today and can’t explain for you. Ask Brother Hai.”

The monastic asked Hai, who said, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand.”

The monastic related all this back to Ma-tsu. Ma-tsu said, “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.”


Medicine working as illness—

It is mirrored in the past sages.

Illness working as medicine—

Sure, but who is it?

White head, black head—capable heirs of the house. Statement or no statement—

the ability to cut off the flow. Clearly sitting,

cutting off the road of speech and explanation.

Laughable is the old ancient awl at Vaisali.

This is one of the “Nanto“ koans, a variety of koan that is traditionally classified as difficult to pass through. Nanto koans demand a raw and wide presentation, and will be alive with a student for a student’s whole life, never settling into the comfort zone. This koan of Ma-tsu deals with the issue of existence itself. It takes up the basic matter of life and death—not just our physical death in the future—but also that undermining and ongoing sense of our present insubstantiality, the sense one can have of not being able to quite grasp a continuous self. It sends us looking for our life, bouncing off our ideas and formulations, right along with this earnest monk.

Recognizing the emptiness of the human condition, Zen is a practical process to “resolve the absence,” with a built-in imperative not to be seduced into secondary or superficial projects. We’re all familiar, killingly familiar, with the projects that temporarily allay our anxiety but fail to address, much less adequately or ultimately relieve, the underlying existential crisis that eventually drives many to religious practice. The process of engaging the practice could be considered an allegiance to this great matter, rather than sliding off into despair. To travel the heart of the koan with this monk, we have to take that first step into practice, into allowing that we care about the living of this life, and will live that caring completely. For the monk, the first step was to ask.

The four propositions he refers to are a standard Buddhist analysis of the possibilities of the nature of reality. The first proposition is existence. The second is nonexistence. The third is both, and the fourth is neither. The hundred negations are the various ways that you can take up each of those possibilities and turn, negate, obviate, and transform it. A sutra says, “Existence is slandered by exaggeration. Nonexistence is slandered by underestimation. Both existence and nonexistence is slandered by contradiction. Neither existence nor nonexistence is slandered by intellectual fabrication. If you abandon these four propositions, the hundred negations are spontaneously wiped out.”

Huang Po said, “If you want to understand directly and immediately, everything is not it. If you say you understand clearly and thoroughly, nothing is not it. Looking at it the other way around, without abandoning the four propositions or the hundred negations, where is the meaning of living Buddhism not clear?”

So, is everything, everywhere “it”? But if we understand “everything everywhere” the ideas become a form of idolatry that flattens the heart. If we say “nothing, no way, nowhere,” the apathy that follows the idea also flattens the heart. We’re still left with “What is the living meaning of an awakened life?” Is there a life that is clear, that’s not deluded, that’s not simply a series of compromises and crises? If that life is possible, does that mean there is an independent self, or not?

David Loy, Buddhist scholar and social critic, asks:

How shall we understand anatta “non-self,” that strange Buddhist teaching which denies the self we take for granted in our everyday lives…Today we must relate the anatta doctrine to what we know (or think we know) about the self and the way that self relates to its world…We can use the psychoanalytic understanding of repression to help us understand anatta, and vice-versa. Then anatta implies that our primary repression is not sexual wishes (as Freud thought), nor even death fears (as many existential psychologists think) but awareness of non-self—the intuition that “I am not real”—which we become conscious of…as a sense of lack infecting our empty sunya core. Buddhism analyzes the sense of self into sets of impersonal psycho-physical phenomena whose interaction creates the illusion of self-consciousness—that consciousness is the attribute of the self. The death-repression emphasized by existential psychology transforms the Oedipal complex into what Norman Brown calls an Oedipal project: the attempt to become the father of oneself i.e. one’s own origin…Buddhism merely shifts the emphasis: the Oedipal project is the attempt of the developing sense of self to attain autonomy, the quest to deny one’s groundlessness by becoming one’s own ground.

We can see how subtle issues of confidence and self-trust are within a tradition that recognizes anatta. Trusting oneself involves much more than trusting one’s pathology. So what is it? Loy again: “Self-consciousness is not something ‘self-existing’ but a mental construct, and more like the surface of the sea: dependent on unknown depths that it cannot grasp because it is a manifestation of them.”

A friend and I were talking as we walked on the beach, stopping now and then to stare dumbly out at the water. The light was riding around like diamonds on the low waves. I remembered this image and blurted out, “There’s a teaching in Buddhism that our consciousness is like the surface of the sea.” She surprised me with this exuberant response, “That’s right! Why do we think the things we do? Why do I think what I think and you think what you think? Suddenly I’ll be thinking about pineapples!”

Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

Photo By Bill Kando Johnston, MRO

Consciousness is trying to grasp oneself by virtue of the surface of the sea. The problem arises when this conditioned consciousness wants to ground itself—to make itself real. If the sense of self is an always insecure construct, its efforts to realize itself will be attempts to objectify itself in some fashion. The ego-self is this never-ending project to objectify oneself.

The endlessness of the project is also important to taste: when the teaching points to ceaseless practice, it is a response to and liberation of this never-ending project to objectify oneself. Our dukkha (suffering or anxiety) projects, the projects of the dissatisfied mind, whether they’re laudable or laughable, all fail. This seems a major part of the challenge of maturity: we recognize that whether we’re being good, being successful, being powerful, whether we’re having stuff or love or pleasure, whether we’re doing right or doing nothing, all of it is shadowed by this ultimate lack of ultimacy. It is easy as we get older and the disappointments mount up to climb into a pit of sadness, or to just lose touch with how to generate any energy to begin anything with trust.

The consequence of the perpetual failure (of the ego to reify itself) is that the sense of self has, as its inescapable shadow, a sense of lack, which it always tries to escape…We experience this deep sense of lack as the persistent feeling that “there is something wrong with me…The problem with our objectifications is that no object can ever satisfy if it’s not really an object we want.

My brother collects lighters. My friend is a team person; she loves Florida State University. Maybe we collect silence, treasure the dharma, trust trees. Regardless of the object, though, whether it’s material abundance or spiritual ideologies, to the extent that it’s objectified, it will fail us. The bottom will drop out. This is why it becomes so compelling to clarify what’s going on—that failing hurts so much. Democracy will fail, Zen will fail. Love won’t work, and the enlightened examples won’t do either. The breadth of the failure is utterly scathing. Over and over again we get the idea going, and then feel it short-sheet us. Whether the pain is sharp or deep or just annoying, we’re apt to feel betrayed by the way it keeps happening, constantly conspiring toward collapse.

When we don’t understand what is actually motivating us—because what we think we want is only a symptom of something else (our desire to become real, which is essentially a spiritual yearning)—we end up compulsive…Any truly satisfactory resolution of this situation must address the root problem, my lack of self. This can lead to an awakening that transforms my lack from such a festering anxiety into a ‘empty source of creativity. The self’s sense of separation from the world motivates me to try to secure myself within it, but the only authentic solution is the essentially spiritual realization that I am not other than it.

The monastic asks, “Apart from the four propositions and the hundred negations, please point out to me directly the meaning of living Buddhism.” Wansong comments on this, “Everywhere they call this a question in the mouth of a shackle; but Ma-tsu wasn’t flustered—he just said, ‘I’m too tired to tell you today. Go ask Zhizhang.’ He spared his own eyebrows and pierced that monastic’s nose.”

When Buddhist teachers explain too much it’s said that their eyebrows fall out. When a student’s nose is pierced, it’s like when a small ring is placed in the nose of a large ox, enabling a farmer to move it around with ease. Here, with few words and no explanation, Ma-tsu moves the monastic away from his expected path. “I’m too tired” is not what a teacher is “supposed” to be or say; what creates a teacher is the fact of teaching. Is this teaching, or excusing himself? That lumbering ox may be led around by whatever idea forms right at this point. This is where it’s so important to pay attention to what we project, what we assume is happening when we don’t get the response we anticipate: whether the koan is from the formal collections, or from daily life.

Zhizhang, too, “fit in the groove without contrivance” when he responded to the monastic, “Why don’t you ask the teacher?” The monastic still didn’t open his eyes; he said, “The teacher told me to come to you. ” Zhizhang said, “I’ve got a headache today. I can’t explain for you. Go ask Brother Hai.” The monastic asked Hai, who said, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand. ”

Wansong’s comment on this is telling: “I thought it was Houbai (the thief), but here is even Houhei (who robbed Houbai by trickery).” In other words, Hai steals the illusion from this monastic, but the monastic thinks nothing has happened. He doesn’t even know the thief is in the house. There’s this incredible compassionate activity meeting this monastic at his every turn, and still he is unable to recognize it, much less feel and be moved by it. Sound familiar? So much of spiritual practice involves waking up to some ongoing kindness or rightness that we’ve somehow ignored for days or even years, and then practicing the regret at what we feel we’ve kind of wasted, letting the humility of that transform into vow. This can be really hard when we realize that others around us got it right away, or much earlier, while we bumbled on with our self-absorption blinding us. This monastic doesn’t have that challenge yet; he’s still got the blinders on securely.

He completes the circle by returning to Ma-tsu, and recounting his journey. Ma-tsu responds, “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.’’ The comment says, “This statement kills everyone in the world with doubt.’’ There’s a surface interpretation of this that we can look at first, just to get it out of the way. Zang, in saying “I have a headache,” takes up a thing—the headache—revealing the whole thing through one thing. Therefore, his head is white. Hai, who says, “When I come this far, after all I don’t understand,” takes up nothing, not knowing, non-separation, the absolute. His head is black, where no distinctions can be discerned. However, with this kind of analysis we are still left with the resounding “So what?” How does this speak to the issue at all? The hundred negations and four propositions gone, wordless, we face this life directly.

Photo By Alex Fernandez, MRO

Photo By Alex Fernandez, MRO

Wansong helps open this up: “I say four in the morning, three at night—they are glad or mad without reason. ” Explanations don’t reach this point. The neat aligning of “Ah, that’s an answer from the absolute; that’s an answer from the relative” doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. About “Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black,” he says “a duck’s head is green, a crane’s head is red” blowing the color-scheme metaphor on absolute and relative out of the water entirely.

What is the reality of living Buddhism? “The ten-shadowed spiritual horse stands south of the ocean, the five-colored auspicious unicorn walks north of the sky. People everywhere, don’t depend on a fox spirit.” This is a repeat of the advice we can’t seem to hear often enough: don’t let it become tricky. Don’t think it’s something contrived that you have to figure out, look up in the back of the book: what does white mean? What is really being revealed here? A Zen koan is not something to memorize and have in your pocket as a reference.

Ernest Becker in The Birth and Death of Meaning expresses much the same point using some interesting language: “Idolatry occurs whenever we try to become real by completely identifying with something in the world as the source of our power. The problem of life is how to grow out of our idolatries: Human beings believe either in God or in idols. There is no third course open, for God is the only object who is not a concrete object. God is abstract necessity, the unconditioned, and this is liberating rather than opposing or confining, even though we submit our energies to it. Humanity achieves its highest freedom when its energies are allied with the unconditioned cosmic process.”

Ma-tsu’s koan takes up the implications for basic self-trust within groundlessness. For many American Buddhists it seems that the moment God enters the sentence, a kind of shut-down occurs. “I don’t believe in that. Been there; done that. It didn’t work. Don’t like it. It scares me. It’s going to get stupid.” We just stop hearing in a deep way. Loy comments, “The touchstone of authentic spirituality is not whether one believes in God but whether one believes in and works to ground one’s energies in what Becker calls the unconditioned cosmic process.” Grounding the mystery of being in one’s own life is practicing one’s own life. It’s an ineffable trust that can thoroughly change how we live and love this life.

“Zang’s head is white, Hai’s head is black.’’ There’s a footnote to this line that says, “Investigate for thirty more years.” It’s not accomplished in a weekend, or even in a thousand centuries. When is it finished? When does it begin? An old friend once changed my sense of what’s possible just by saying “I’ll never finish loving you.” To discern this life, we need to practice this life. Is this apart from the world? Is this the world itself? Is it neither? Is it both?

Putting aside all that, who will realize the living meaning of an awakened life?

Mill Poem:

My old eyes preferred

The hundreds of white flowers

To these lost golf balls

Bonnie Myotai Treace Sensei is the founder of Hermitage Heart and the Bodies of Water Society. The first Dharma heir of John Daido Loori Roshi, she lived and taught at Zen Mountain Monastery and Fire Lotus Temple for over 20 years. Author, activist and Zen teacher, she shares her time between Gristmill Hermitage in Garrison, New York, and Ashville, NC.

From Empty Branches: A Season of Zen Teachings, Published by Millstone Press, copyright ©2016 Bonnie Myotai Treace. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Photo by Henry Fernando

Sangha Reflections on View

· Open Access, Sangha Reflections · ,


When my son was born 20 years ago, I became very afraid of flying on air planes. It was not just a case of the jitters but more like curl-up-in-a-ball-and-miss-your- flight terror. While it is certainly possible to live a happy, fulfilling life without getting on an airplane, I started to doubt that I was re ally living from a place of clarity with this fear looming in the background. There was something just so off about how it ruled my behavior and, about nine months ago, my dis comfort with its constriction was becoming unbearable.

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The wilds of Poetry

· Open Access, Reviews · ,

Media Review
Adventures in Mind and Landscape

by David Hinton
Shambhala Publications
Review by Peter Pitzele

A single word runs like a fissure through the short essays that introduce us to the poets collected by David Hinton in The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures in Mind and Landscape: “contact”. These poets, Hinton demonstrates, share a set of common philosophical assumptions that derive from the Taoist-Ch’an tradition, his field of expertise. That tradition entered the slipstream of American culture after the Second World War and affected the diverse fields of dance, theater, music, ceramics, the visual arts, philosophy, and poetry. Hinton traces the threads of influence and affinities among his selected poets, all of whom were wrestling with the American language to demonstrate into what he refers to again and again as “contact.” That is, the direct experience of the world unmediated by thought and interpretation.

In order to frame a context for this selection of poets and their poetry, Hinton describes the pictographic tradition of Chinese which, through its imagery, partook of the very world to which it responded. This ancient, unabstracted language made direct contact tangible because within its system, no first person singular divided the world into a subject and an object. No prepositions locate things, no tenses break up time, no specific word sequence must be observed. A line of Chinese poetry floats in simultaneous zones of possible order. Its very flexibility makes possible an interflowing “contact” between poet and world, world and poet. This is a poetry, Hinton says, of “mind rewilded, thought moving with the motion of natural process—and so, identity wholly integrated into the Cosmos is seen as an ongoing process of transformation.”  

In this sense, the terms “wild” or “rewilded” become Hinton’s cohering philosophical motif. Each poet demonstrates a different kind of temper and language, subject and method, but each is situated in a wild space outside of the normative conventions, and grammatical constraints, of the subject-object dualisms of traditional poetry. For example:


each thing, as it’s


out of




smoldering, bud!

Almost every poem in this collection forces me to discard the critical approaches to poetry that I learned many years ago. Sensitivities to tone and rhythm, the traditions of versification, the use of words that play upon allusion and etymology, in short the entire critical apparatus by which poems have been “understood” by critics and academics for the past 100 years, means nothing to the poets of this wild school.

From The Wilds of Poetry

Who are we and where are we are the most profound questions possible, really, for at the deepest level they allow no answer. They simply pose the unsayable reality of contact, which is all question and all mystery—a moment in which the mind’s orienting certainties fail, even the certainty of self-identity, leaving one open to the experience of sheer immediacy.

—David Hinton

But if exegesis belongs to the very set of conventions this wild poetry seeks to escape, then how do we talk about particular poems to one another? I found myself struggling to appreciate many of these selections. There is a liberating moment when Hinton says of Charles Olson that “however interesting such poetry is theoretically, it is often quite simply boring to read.” I was relieved to hear this because this was my experience, and not just of Olson. Are there criteria of judgment beyond like or not like, engaged or bored?

Whatever their individual qualities, the poets in this volume gain significance by virtue of the compelling context of “contact” that Hinton creates for them. There is no doubt that this book fuses more deeply for me the practice of poetry and the practice of meditation. I am reminded that even in the ancient pictographic forms, the poetic language was limited in what it could convey of the experience of awakening. They were simply fingers pointing to the moon.

I believe there is another experimental and iconoclastic body of American poetry that needs to be read along with Hinton’s ‘wild men;’ the poetry written by women. One could not do better than read Alicia Ostriker’s landmark book Stealing the Language, The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America. She introduces us to poets and poetry every bit as convention-defying as that of the men represented by Hinton. Though no Taoist-Ch’an tradition informed these new voices, women shaped poetry to express the wilds of the body and the heart’s brave capacity for rage and compassion. They, too, wanted and found a language of “contact.”

So to whom might this volume be particularly recommended? I expect that Hinton hopes it will give poets, perhaps those with some experience of Taoist-Ch’an practices, a sense of a diverse, living, and home-grown experiment from which they can draw courage and example. That is what it has meant to me. Hinton himself is one such poet (his first volume of poetry is due to be published in February of 2018). The Wilds of Poetry in one respect sets a table for his own further emergence as a poet and to give context for the adventure of reading his contributions as well.


Peter Pitzele is a sangha member living in New Paltz, NY.

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