Friday, May 20, 2011


Attainment too is emptiness
Heart Sutra

Rinzai Zen emphasizes the importance of kensho or satori, that is, a sudden awakening after an intense and often bitter spiritual struggle. According to Hakuin, father of the Rinzai tradition that has survived today, kensho is the touchstone of authentic Zen practice.

Rinzai Zen uses koans that are designed to bring doubt to such a pitch that one ultimately breaks out of the cocoon of dualistic understanding. The process can be very painful. One could even call it “extreme meditation”. Shibayama puts it this way:
One has to be prepared to risk his life and, even then, satori may not be accessible. Zen has been described since the olden days as the way for only a handful of geniuses.
A Flower Does not Talk
(Hakuin's tough love attitude has been passed on to his Rinzai heirs, and not without his unfortunate elitism.)

Looking beyond the fact that Rinzai poses as superior to other practices that lack its machismo, there are other questions one might raise about its placing so much emphasis on attaining kensho, the most salient being: how can kensho simultaneously be an awakening and an experience that can purportedly be authenticated by a master as “shallow” or “deep”? Is awakening measurable and, if so, where is one mind then?

But also, although koans are interesting practice tools, awakening is not exclusively about transcending conceptual understanding. Suffering is everywhere ready to be transcended in many different guises. Is it necessary to tease out doubt so ruthlessly with koans?

Finally, does awakening need to come as a shock to “revive us from the abyss of unconsciousness” (Shibayama) or is living awake a gradual unfolding of what we already are?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Form is emptiness,
emptiness is form

form is not other than emptiness;

emptiness is not other than form.

~ Prajnaparamita (The Heart Sutra)

There are no essences, experiences or insights that capture what is: form is emptiness.

But emptiness is not nothing; for then it would be something other than what is, or its negation. And it is not: emptiness is no other than form.

Emptiness and form are flip sides of the same coin. They are what is, ever-present but never anywhere in particular. This cannot be grasped by the mind because being cannot be known as being. Only thoughts can be known.

This is the challenge of being awake: to be without knowing it.

One tries to negate thoughts by thinking not this, not that... as in MU! Or as in the Heart Sutra's“No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body mind: no color, sound, smell, taste, touch or what the mind takes hold of”. Still, thoughts keep splitting the mind off from itself, reproducing separation from being, constantly knowing. Practicing like this is a blood bath of cutting without the mind ever cutting into itself.

But practice can be as painless as surrender. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom goes: om gate gate paragate paramsamgate bodhi svaha. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone way beyond! One awakens, not via words or thoughts or even compassion, but by going through the gateless gate of one's heartmind opening to what is.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

awakening mind

Just as the lotus, born of mud,
is not tainted thereby,
So the lotus of the Buddha
preserves the realization of voidness.
~ Vimalakirti Sutra

The iconography associated with awakened mind can be violent, depicting angry-looking spirits that bare their teeth while holding up the skulls of various enemies they've slain, or sword-wielding warriors mounted on animalsa lion, bull or elephantemerging victorious from battle.

A typical symbol of awakening is Manjushri, the bodhisattva of discriminating wisdom. Although his name is translated roughly as gentle glory, he encourages aspirants to transcend duality by cutting through it and is often depicted with a shining sword in his right hand. In my practice center, we place a handsome statue of him on the altar to inspire aspirants during sesshin. I can assure you, there is nothing gentle about it.

Though cutting metaphors effectively convey the incisive nature of a clear and determined mind, they symbolize a top-down virile approach to awakening. Over-reliance on this approach can shut down the mind rather than open it like the lotus. It is good to remember that the lotus is the classic pedestal of enlightened deities.