Author Archives: homerhanumat

Zen and the Refugee

An address given at an inter-faith service on behalf of refugees at Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington, KY, January 31, 2017.

Zen Buddhist people tend to shy away from settled statements of principle, so when we seek insight and direction on matters of justice we often take a cue from other religious traditions, especially the Desert monotheism of our Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends, whose unique and perhaps greatest contribution to humanity may be their insistence on the central place in salvation history of the marginalized—the poor, the weak, the stranger—and the determination of their prophets to hold the powerful to account for how they are treated.

But where it is poor in doctrine Zen is rich in images, not least in images of the refugee. In Mahayana literature the authentic practitioner is depicted as homeless, wandering in emptiness, finding no solid foundation—nothing material, nothing spiritual, nothing philosophical or conceptual, simply nothing—to rest on, lay claim to, build a wall around. In East Asia Zen monks and wander twice a year, Spring and Fall, depending entirely on the hospitality of others. The Zen seeker is compared to a bird taking shelter in the branches of a tree on a winter night, as in this old Zen poem:

Clouds sweep the eternal sky,
Nesting in the moon, the crane.
The cold clarity gets into her bones:
She cannot go to sleep.

But in our practice this state of wandering is balanced by a vivid sense, derived most likely from an old Chinese Buddhist school, of being birthed, in each moment, into a living network of relationships, a moment-world, if you like, of being fully welcomed and embraced by this tender, fragile, moment-world, of being showered with gifts of nature and of nurture that one has done nothing to deserve, and of being given responsibilities for which one did not sign any previous contract. And I tell you tonight, from the bottom of my heart, that to realize being-birthed into this moment world, and to take on the obligations entailed by that birth, is no burden. On the contrary: it is a liberation, and a joy.

We revere the refugee because she carries, in her body, the truth of our homeless existence in emptiness. But take with me the next step, beyond reverence: let us welcome her; let us embrace her. For in so doing we come forward precisely as that tender, fragile moment-world into which we are all, in this very moment, born.

Tonight the cold clarity gets into our bones. May we never go to sleep.

Avalokiteshvara: Fall Retreat, Lexington Zen Center

In the Fall retreat Daniela Myozen Osho proposed that we look into the story of Sul, who was a great disciple of the Zen Patriarch Ma-tsu. Here is part of Sul’s story, excerpted from Dropping Ashes on the Buddha.

Among the students of Great Zen Master Ma-tsu, there was a layman named Chang. This man was a very devout Buddhist who bowed and chanted sutras twice a day and paid frequent visits to the Zen master. He would always take along his little daughter Sul.

The little girl was even more devout than her father. She would join him every day for bowing and chanting, and looked forward with the greatest pleasure to seeing the Zen master. One day, during a visit, Ma-tsu said to her, “Since you are such a good girl, I will give you a present. My present is the words Kwan Shi Yin Pusal. You must repeat the Bodhisattva’s name over and over, as much as you can. Then you will find great happiness.”

After they came home, Sul’s father gave her a picture of the Bodhisattva to hang up on her wall. She spent many hours in front of it, chanting Kwan Shi Yin Pusal. Gradually she came to chant it all day long, wherever she was—while she was sewing, while washing clothes, cooking, eating, playing, even while she was sleeping. Her parents were very proud of her.

Several years passed and her friends had long since concluded that Sul was a little crazy. This didn’t affect her at all; she continued to chant all day long, wherever she was. One day she was washing clothes in the river, beating the dirt out of them with a stick. Suddenly the great bell from Ma-tsu’s temple rang. The sound of the stick and the sound of the bell became one; she felt as if the whole universe was dancing along with Kwan Shi Yin Pusal! And Kwan Shi Yin Pusal was the earth, the sky, the great bell from Ma-tsu’s temple, the dirty clothes which lay in a heap on the riverbank. She ran back home for joy, and never chanted Kwan Shi Yin Pusal again. …

As Sul grew up, she always kept a perfectly clear mind. Outside, her actions were ordinary actions; inside her mind was the mind of a Bodhisattva. Eventually she married and raised a large, happy family, all of whom were devout Buddhists. Many people came to her for help and teaching. She became known as a great Zen Master.

On day, when she was an old woman, her granddaughter died. She cried bitterly during the funeral and kept crying back at her home, as the visitors filed past to offer their condolences. Everyone was shocked. Soon they were whispering. Finally one of them went up to her and said, “You have attained the great enlightenment, you already understand that there is neither death nor life. Why are you crying? Why is your granddaughter a hindrance to your clear mind?”

Sul immediately stopped crying and said, “Do you understand how important my tears are? They are greater than all the sutras, all the words of the Patriarchs, and all possible ceremonies. When my granddaughter hears me crying, she will enter Nirvana.” Then she should to all the visitors, “Do you understand this?”

No one understood.

As we spent the day meditating in silence on this story as koan, we were all keenly aware that our friend Audrey Robinson, a founding member of the Lexington Zen Center, lay dying in her home after a ten-year struggle with colon cancer. As the silence deepened it became apparent that all three: Sul, Audrey and Avalokiteshvara—the Kwan Shi Yin to whom the young Sul prayed, the Bodhisattva of compassion who attained enlightenment by hearing the cries all suffering beings—were not separate from each other or from ourselves.

As a token of my own non-understanding, and in memory of Audrey, I offer this poem.


Hearing, you turn;
Turning, you meet your very self.
Even in the clear blue sky
Spring showers fall.

“A waterfall hangs in space”

Number 18 in Stonehouse’s Mountain Poems (translation by Red Pine):

My Zen hut rests upon rocks at the summit
clouds fly past and more clouds arrive
a waterfall hangs in space beyond the door
a mountain ridge rises like a wave in back
I draw three buddhas on a wall
I put a plum branch in a jar for incense
the fields down below might be level
but can’t match a mountain’s freedom from dust

Some notes on this poem:

  • Plum branch. In the introduction to his translation of Dogen’s “On the Plum Blossom”, Hubert Nearman says:

    The plum tree holds a particular place in Chinese culture, one that was transplanted into the culture of Japan. As the earliest blooming of all trees, it comes into flower in the latter part of winter and is therefore considered a harbinger of spring. In Buddhist contexts, it is used as a metaphor for Shakyamuni Buddha, who was considered the first to bring forth the blossoming of the Dharma, and whose blossoming has inspired others to seek and find the Way.

    By extension, the plum tree is also seen as a reference to one’s Master and, in his writings, Dogen frequently refers to his Master as an ‘Old Buddha’. Further, the plum blossom is used as a metaphor for the udumbara flower which Shakyamuni held aloft, His eyes atwinkle. Upon seeing this, His disciple Makakasho broke out into a smile in response to his spiritual recognition of True Nature.

  • I draw three buddhas. Red Pine says that these are most likely Amita, Shakyamuni and Maitreya, the “buddhas of the past present and future dispensations of the Dharma.”
  • A waterfall hangs in space beyond the door / a mountain ridge rises like a wave in back. Classical East Asian geomancy (about which I really should learn more) prefers that a temple be backed by a mountain and have a body of water in front. (I guess that’s why Furnace Mountain installed the lotus pond down hill from our temple.) Stonehouse’s first hermitage site near the summit of Hsiamushan had a stream in front, and for the second site (on the northern side, called Hsiawushan) he had to dig his own lotus pond in front of the hermitage. So perhaps this poem refers to the first site, although I don’t know if the stream actually came with a waterfall. Maybe this is just poetic exaggeration. Whatever their role in geomancy—something having to do with managing the flow of qi I believe—for a Zen hermit I imagine that the mountain in back could bring to mind a stable seat in consciousness and flowing water in front would recall encounter with the ever-changing Ten thousand Things. Or one might think (in Huayen terms) of mountain as Absolute, waterfall as Relative. Either way, the poet’s inversion of images—the waterfall perceived as fixed, the mountain as flowing—is quite interesting.

LZC Instructions for the Tenzo

The Lexington Zen Center has a book discussion group going this Spring: How to Cook Your Life, a translation of Eihei Dogen’s classic Instructions for the Tenzo, with commentary by Uchiyama Roshi, late Abbot of Antaiji. We will be meeting at the Common ground Coffee Shop on alternate Sundays, from 3-4 PM.

Thanks to all of the participants for a deep and rich discussion today!

Blythe, Jack and Tyson at today's book group.  Marlin was with us, too,  but had to leave a bit early.

Blythe, Jack and Tyson at today’s book group. Marlin was with us, too, but had to leave a bit early.

Reading Stonehouse

For about a year I have been reading The Moutain Poems of Stonehouse translated by Red Pine. Stonehouse (1272-1352 CE) was a Zen master who spent the final period of his life in a hermitage he built on the southern slopes of Hsiamushan, near Huchou in Southern China. The Korean monk Taego Pou visited Stonehouse sometime around 1347 and became his Dharma heir, thus transmitting formally to Korea the lineage that is carried on at Furnace Mountain.

A sample of his verses (#27 in the red Pine collection):

Who enters this gate who studies this teaching
has to be thorough and push to the end
still the empty body and reason remains
forget the thinking mind and the world disappears
cloud-draped trees form a landscape of white
the summit turns red as it bites the setting sun
the flag moves or is it the wind
it isn’t the wind or the flag

Seeing Peach Blossoms

At the June 2014 retreat at Furnace Mountain, we looked at Case 8 from the Kattoshu collection1. Here is how it begins:

Lingyuan Zhiqin of Fuzhou was enlightened upon seeing the blossoms of a peach tree. In a verse he said:

For thirty years I sought a sword master.
How many times haves leaves fallen and new buds appeared?
But ever since seeing the peach blossoms,
From then until now I have never doubted again!

As a preface to my own reflections upon the Case, I offer a few notes on terminology:

  • Thirty years. Probably means “a lifetime of practice”. In Zen literature we often hear the Master prescribe “thirty years more practice” when you don’t get it—a demand more or less to start all over at Square One.
  • Sword master. The translator Thomas Kirchner adds in a note: “’Sword master’ indicates a master of the Way, one who wields the sword of wisdom that cuts the root of delusion.” I see it that way, too.
  • Fallen leaves. This image is associated with some insight into emptiness, or a return to the Principle from which the conditioned world flows, i.e., in the system of the Five Ranks, this would be the “absolute state … the realm of emptiness, where there has never been a single thing”2. Some other references to fallen leaves (both I think addressing the temptation to think of this sort of experience as final):
    • A monk asked Yun Men, ‘How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?’ Yun Men said: ‘Body exposed in the golden wind.’3
    • Kegon Kyujo was a Dharma heir of Tozan. Kyujo was his personal name. One day a monk asked him: ‘What is it like when a person who has experienced the great realization returns to being deluded?’ The Master replied: ‘A broken mirror does not shed its light again. It would be difficult for a fallen blossom to climb back up on the tree.’4
  • New Buds. If we follow the symbolic structure of the imagery above, then “new buds” on the tree indicate the beginnings of a return from the absolute into the world of relative conditional experience.

We practice hard, and our first memorable opening typically is associated with emptiness: the leaves of conditional experience fallen away from the tree. We go on retreats, have some intense experience of this sort, and immediately begin to come down off of that experience. We might know intellectually—because we read it somewhere—that we aren’t supposed to get attached to emptiness. If we are the avid sort of Zen students who peeks at the notes in the back of Cleary’s translation of the Blue Cliff Record then we have learned to express it philosophically: the “highest” of the Five Ranks is mutual integration of the absolute and the relative: “subtly responding to myriad circumstances without falling into various existences.” We know that the emptiness experience isn’t It, that we can’t stay there. Still we hate to leave it, hate it when the new buds appear, dread the onset of yet another season of leaves. At some level we harbor a certain dualism: we long for the sword master who will teach us to cut off the conditioned world once and for all.

So it goes, year after year in a lifetime of practice. We filter each moment through its relationship to what came before and what comes after, and this filtering creates the very cycle from which we long to leap free.

Blossoms are a brief moment between the bud and the leaf, the very epitome of the transitory. But one day Lingyuan actually saw them, without the filter, saw them complete in that moment.

What’s so compelling about a blossom, for a classical Zen author, is that what makes it so short-lived is precisely the completeness of its expression, its utter unfolded-ness. Nothing expends its inner energies so thoroughly, is so blown open, so exposed, and so vulnerable as a blossom. It has arisen so very quickly, and will fade so very soon. But the fullness of its unfolding renders complete the moment that it occupies. It fully covers the ground on which it stands.

You could say that the absolute is fully expressed in this all-out, to-the-tips expression of the relative. Better yet, you could simply see the peach blossoms.

The Japanese Master Bankei Yotaku describes his decisive realization as follows:

Gradually my illness reached a critical point, and for a full seven days I was unable to swallow any food and could get nothing down apart from some thin rice gruel. Because of this, I realized I was on the verge of death. ‘Ah well,’ I said to myself, ‘there’s nothing to be done.’ But really I had no particular regret other than the thought that I was going to die without realizing my long-cherished desire.

Just then, I had a strange sensation I my throat, and when I spit against the wall, I noticed the sputum had congealed into a jet-black lump like a soapberry, rolling down the surface. After that, the inside of my chest felt curiously refreshed, and that’ when it suddenly struck me: ‘Everything is perfectly managed with the Unborn, and because up till today I couldn’t see this, I’ve just been uselessly knocking myself out!’ Finally I saw the mistake I’d been making!

My spirit felt now felt clear and buoyant, my appetite returned … . After that, I gradually got well again and have lived to this day. So I realized my cherished desire after all, and explained things to my other too before she passed away5.

In a memoir of Bankei, his disciple Mozan Soin, apparently dissatisfied with the aesthetic quality of the sputum incident, rewrote it to conform more closely to literary conventions for enlightenment experience:

One morning he went outside to wash his face. The aroma of the plum blossoms reached his nostrils and his feeling of doubt suddenly left him, like a pail whose bottom has dropped out. Immediately he was healed of his ailment6.

How fortunate it is that each moment—regardless of whatever aesthetic value we may assign to it—unfolds with the same energy of a blossom, presenting us with the same opportunity to see it covering its own ground. (Sputum-like moments are, after all, relatively abundant.)

My tendency is to come in on things a bit late, so I offer the following verse in response to Lingyuan:

Peach blossoms fall, removing all doubts:
Not a petal is out of place!
So lifting my pack, homeward I wend—
Gentle, gentle with every step.

  1. Entangling Vines: A Classic Collection of Zen Koans, tr. Thomas Yuho Kirchner. Wisdom Publications, 2013.
  2. The Blue Cliff Record, translated by Thomas and J.C. Cleary, Shambhala Publications, 2005. The quotation is found in the notes, in the section on “Traditional Teaching Devices”.
  3. Case 27, Blue Cliff Record.
  4. From Dogen’s essay Daigo, Great Enlightenment. Translation by Hubert Nearman. See:
  5. Bankei Zen, translated by Peter Haskel. Grove Press, 1984. See page 13.
  6. Quoted in Zen Buddhism: A History, Volume 2, by Heinrich Dumoulin. World Wisdom, Inc., 2005. See page 312.

May Retreat, Furnace Mountain

On Failing Case 87 of the Blue Cliff Record

Master Dae Gak is unwell.
He sends me out to gather fragrant grasses;
I come back with the rain and fallen leaves.
Together we pass the night over the wood-stove in the drafty hermitage;
in the bent tin cup between us—the Ancestors’ Meaning.

One More Try at Case 87

Wind blows down the wooded path;
Crow calls—“Who is this that hears it?”
Mountains rise, one after another.
Mind sweeps mind.

Nothing in the universe is not oneself.