Who Knows?


Traveling has always been part of my life. My mother said that I already talked about leaving home from a very young age. And I count myself lucky that Buddhism is such a mobile religion: it seems to have enjoyed migrating from one country to another throughout the ages. In our modern times this is perhaps even more evident. At a VESAK conference in Vietnam that I attended two years ago, there were several thousand participants and they came from no fewer than one hundred different countries.

In the good old days, Kanzeon Sangha was a travelling circus without a fixed location, and Zen River’s international orientation is still greatly indebted to Genpo Roshi’s sesshin tours. When I received ordination in the US, he actually pointed out to me that even our dress code is multicultural. The O-kesa (outer robe) is of Indian origin, the long-sleeved black kuromo is Chinese, and the white kimono and jubon are Japanese – and underneath we may wear a T-shirt from our local department store!

Some time ago I was invited to participate in a seminar at a newly-established Chinese temple in Utrecht. As I was introducing myself, I looked into the faces of the audience and couldn’t help but laugh. It must have been such a funny sight: a Dutch guy in Japanese garb speaking English to a Chinese audience! And when I mentioned this, they all laughed too! I openly wondered, “Who am I?” And I found a fitting variation on Bodhidharma’s famous answer “I don’t know”. I said, “Who knows?”

When we travel, we get to know other people and other customs; it is in the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey. But we also get other perspectives on ourselves. While living in the US, I started to see through some deeply ingrained Dutch conditioning that I hadn’t been conscious of before. And later, while living in Japan, I came to note certain American conditioning that had grown on me over the years in the US. And now, during adventures in China and other Asian countries, my Japanese conditioning becomes more and more obvious!

A few weeks ago, it struck me again. While talking with our new Chinese friends in Utrecht, I suddenly wondered: who is it they are looking at? Not the one I know, that’s for sure. And what a blessing that is! In the scriptures, it is often said that our life is the life of everyone and everything. So why not admit this and fully enjoy it! I told my friends that the Zen River property looks very Dutch from the outside but very Japanese on the inside; and that our intercommunication is American but that my heart is really Chinese. It brought tears to my eyes. Who knows?


Bodhisattva Pioneers

Buddhism is still young in the West and I often think of us as bodhisattva pioneers. Most of us started practice relatively late in life, well beyond the time when learning quickly by heart and body was easy. So there is a lot of catching up to do. This can sometimes feel overwhelming because not only are we pioneers, Buddhist practice itself is in a pioneering phase. To train the mind and to free oneself from deeply ingrained personal, social and cultural conditioning in order to appreciate this life to the full, has always been challenging. But perhaps it is even more challenging for us today. Not only are we pioneers in our personal lives, but also “guinea pigs” for a future dharma.

A lot depends on how far we wish to go, of course. Can we dare allow practice to transform our life into something new? And, may it someday be possible for the whole world to be transformed? According to a quote ascribed to the great historian Toynbee, “The coming of Buddhism to the West may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century.” Could that be true? Many of us feel like we are responding to a call that goes far beyond this life. And as our practice matures, so does our understanding of what Buddhist practice actually entails and how it could possibly benefit future generations. Altogether, this makes our practice an experiment that requires close attention.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed here at Zen River is that the development of what I call the “inner” temple seems to influence the development of the “outer” temple, and vice versa. With the inner temple I mean our vision and training program; in other words the way we explore the basic principles of Buddhism and go about the details of meditation, koan practice, dokusan, ritual, scriptural study and social action; the way we view the roles of teachers and students, monks and lay people, resident and non-resident sangha members; and how we develop and maintain connections with the local community and with other teachers and students, centers and temples, here and abroad.

With the outer temple I mean the physical location and the building and grounds, as well as the various rooms, each with their specific functions and furnishings; the altars and statues, the zafus and zabutons; the robes, bells, and drums; books and magazines; pots and pans, stoves and refrigerators; computers and phones, newsletters and mailing lists, sewing and washing machines, bedding, cloth lines and irons, boilers, lamps and miles of electric wire; cars, lawn mower, shovels and wheelbarrows, flowers, paint brushes, drills, hammers and screwdrivers. Obviously, bodhisattva pioneers have their work cut out for them! Happily, there are enough jobs to go around, and the inner temple and outer temple seem to develop simultaneously.


Mindfulness and Mindlessness

In Zen we learn to focus on the practical details of our life while maintaining a view that goes beyond self and other, even beyond birth and death. To develop a balance between these two perspectives, it seems best to shift our attention regularly from one to the other until we can hold them both together.

One could say that for addressing the details we need to be mindful and focus, and for addressing the grand vision we need to empty our mind of any special focus and open up. Training in mindfulness is very popular right now, so perhaps it is time to promote “mindlessness.”

In his meditation manuals Dogen Zenji is extremely precise in the details of posture, breath and mental focus, yet he also urges us to drop off body and mind — in other words, to completely forget ourselves and realise our unfathomable Buddha nature. Apparently, one goes with the other.

It is interesting to look at the other training elements in a similar manner. For example, in ritual we follow Soto School directives and these are so meticulous that we may get stuck there and forget their function. But when we really bow, chant and eat the way it is described, we have a rare chance to join all ancestors of past, present and future, and this can give our life a completely new meaning.

The same is true for studying the scriptures. As members of the White Plum, we focus on certain texts more than others; yet these texts seem only to gain in relevance and clarity if we learn to appreciate them against the broad background of Buddhist literature throughout the ages without any sectarian bias.

As for Bodhisattva activity, it is obvious that the vows are highly inspirational, but to towards what? If our actions are not directed precisely at whatever comes to hand, we miss the point. Again, it seems that without the greater picture we cannot really see priorities and get lost in details. On the other hand we can also get lost in the greater picture and forget to take care of what really needs doing at this very moment.

For me, the balance between mindful and mind-empty, between the smaller and the greater picture, has become a very important factor in developing a suitable training curriculum.

It also means, though, that I sometimes get confused when the evening soup looks like the night sky and the night sky looks like the evening soup.

Is Delusion Not Enlightenment?


The principle of non-dualism plays a big role in Zen Buddhism. Our human tendency is to see things dualistically, to divide things into parts that never come together. And the practice of Zen, like many other spiritual traditions, helps us to break through this destructive pattern. The most basic form of dualism is to separate self from other, and that implies that there is a substantial self, a substantial other, and a substantial gap between the two. According to the Buddha, this topsy-turvy view is the source of all suffering.

Buddhist teaching is primarily remedial, and many old masters articulate the non-dual nature of our life. They exclaim that there is essentially no difference between sentient beings and Buddhas, and even that delusion is enlightenment. Unfortunately, these statements are sometimes used dualistically, as if they were articles of faith, and this perpetuates the problem. If we get attached to “delusion is enlightenment”, we can forget that delusion is also not enlightenment

A master once said that the only difference between Buddhas and sentient beings is that sentient beings believe there is a difference. And however much Buddha we are, we also happen to be sentient beings this time round, so it is definitely a good idea to be aware of both sides. In fact, cultivating this awareness is our primary inspiration for practice.

Maybe that’s why Maezumi Roshi used to say “I’d rather be deluded.”

Finding Our Place


If we want to find our proper place in the grand scheme of things, we first have to get a sense of the grand scheme of things. In other words, if we wish our life to really fall into place, we need to go far beyond our usual conception of what this life is. Fortunately this is not difficult to do: we just need to find the time to sit still and look in. And then, if we have the courage to go beyond what we are familiar with, it turns out that this life is, in fact, the life of everyone and everything. From that vantage point, it is so much easier to discover what our function really is and how we might take responsibility for it. In my own experience, finding one’s true role in life is the most wonderful thing.

So it would be best if we were willing to regularly switch our focus from our individual life to our universal life and then back again. We can so easily get lost in either the smaller or the greater picture. This means that in our practice we are first responsible for the cultivation of our own life but, as we are also members of a community, we must also bear responsibility for the cultivation of that community. This pattern expands in ever-wider circles. How about “our” practice in The Netherlands, in Europe, and beyond? Next week, we will welcome a large group of Chinese monks and lay-people here and they may just see us as “Western” Buddhists. If so, we are suddenly responsible for Buddhist practice in the West.

Of course, each one of us can have his or her own highly individual Dharma function, yet simultaneously we all have something to offer towards the cultivation of the Dharma throughout space and time. As far as I can see, there is plenty of work for all of us.


Entering the Inconceivable


Fusatsu is a beautiful ceremony that can be highly transformative. We start with repenting for past actions that we admit were often dictated by a very conditioned and limited understanding of our life situation. Next, we ask for the help of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and renew our bodhisattva vows. Through these vows we enter a world that often seems inconceivable. Yet this transcendent world is exactly the one that we need to become familiar with if we want to live our life to the full.

The ceremony involves a lot of bows; and when you really give yourself to them the world of the inconceivable may suddenly dawn upon you. When you bow, all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas bow; in fact, the whole universe bows. And when you chant the vows, countless Buddhas and bodhisattvas chant those vows. Can you take that in? If you do, even the most mundane activity, like working in the garden, preparing food, dusting a table, or saying hello to someone, becomes transcendent activity.

In some ways, we’re never alone anymore. We can enter the world of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas any time. We only need to shed our ideas about ourselves and pay close attention. It’s helpful, too, to be reminded of the inconceivable now and then. So we do this ceremony regularly to not miss out on what is really going on in this life and to remember who is actually living it.

Dharma Survival Project

Many people feel a biological need to procreate. In fact, the desire to have children almost goes unquestioned. By nature we value life and would like to see our existence continued in future generations. Simultaneously, some of us seem to feel a deeply rooted desire to procreate the dharma; to make sure that the dharma stays alive and kicking beyond our life-span. Without babies being born, no dharma could survive into the future; and without the dharma, future generations wouldn’t so easily have a chance to awaken to their innate wisdom – which would be a shame.

So, to paraphrase JFK’s famous line, we may ask ourselves not only what the dharma can do for us, but also what we can do for the dharma. In fact, if we were ever looking for an honorable cause, here is one. The procreation of the dharma requires parental love, energy and patience, and also places where it can grow up; where all the basic elements of training – meditation, study, ritual and bodhisattva activity – can be addressed in a conducive setting, and then be carried into the world. In that sense, Zen River is dharma survival project, and anyone who wants to join is welcome.

Studying What Mind?


There is nothing outside the mind, so how can we study the mind? It’s like, we have eyes to see, but our eyes cannot see themselves directly; there just isn’t enough distance. So in a way, we cannot really study our own mind. When we talk about “study”, we usually think in terms of subject and object; there is a subject that studies and an object that is being studied. Then what happens in between we call perception. Needless to say, this is a wonderful ability that works fine for all kinds of practical purposes but not for studying the mind itself. How can we study what we truly are when we cannot make a separation? How can we study what we cannot see, hear, or define, something that our senses fail to observe? We can even wonder whether this mind actually exists or not! What mind are we studying? We use it all the time, but what is it? And if we don’t know our very own mind, how can we allow it to function properly?

This conundrum seems to me to be the best rationale for meditation. In zazen we can behold the mind by turning away from all objects of observation and going beyond dualistic notions. Something happens when we do that. Suddenly subject and object, inside and outside, cannot be distinguished anymore. All forms we perceive are recognized as temporary appearances without any substance. This gives room for what is essentially non-empty to spring forth – the nature of mind itself, which is joyous, pure, everlasting, and all-inclusive. These four characteristics, or “dharma seals”, are not dependent on any condition. We do not need to create them. In a way, these seals do not even need to be cultivated; they are already fully operational. We just need to de-cultivate our tendency to ignore them. When we recognize them within ourselves, all of our observations come from a completely different perspective and we begin to live a new life.

The Miracle of Being Here


Surprisingly, direct insight into emptiness doesn’t leave us feeling empty but actually quite fulfilled. When we realize that things have no everlasting substance, they can appear more vividly in this moment. In fact, only in the present can we experience our lives fully. This very moment is where emptiness and form meet head-on.

In the First Mode of Meditation, we primarily look at forms in all their various sizes, colours, and textures. In the Second Mode, we turn our focus toward emptiness, the indefinable realm where all forms come from and return to. In the Third Mode, we examine the world of forms again; but now we start to see that forms themselves consist of emptiness, and that emptiness functions as a never fading essence that permits forms to function freely.

In the art of painting you first learn how to render objects accurately, a vase, an apple, or a tree. Then you learn how to paint the space in-between and around these forms so they start to connect with each other. Yet at some point you have to see that objects themselves are imbued with space. When you put an apple on a table, the space it occupies is not gone. And if your painting doesn’t show that, you fail to do the apple justice; your painting won’t express its alive quality.

For Cezanne, this was a major concern. His apples and mountains look as if they are caught in the mysterious process of becoming. You actually see them slowly emerging out of emptiness and taking shape right in front of you. They appear somewhat unfinished, as if their future is still wide-open. And this makes them vividly alive. It obviously takes training to become a good painter; and for us, it also takes training to see that we are all continuously involved in creating and being created.

Here I am, but how come I am here, at this junction of space and time? What a miracle it is! And, what will happen next?

Path & Principles

The Zen River library now houses a separate shelf, ‘P&P’ (Path & Principles) for works from great masters which provide an overview of the Buddhist path and its basic principles. This is a reflection of my wish to engage in more extensive research on the stages of development that many of us seem to go through in practice. Stages of development and the importance of gradual cultivation often seem to be undervalued in modern expressions of the Zen tradition, perhaps because Zen champions the timeless experience of our true nature and the direct expression of it in our actions. This bias also may have come about because the Zen school emerged at a time when scriptural knowledge was common amongst practitioners and expertise could almost be taken for granted. However, we are now in a very different situation, of course, and we may need a little help. Studying how the mind operates and transforms over time with practice, and how that development can affect our lives, are just as important today. This issue is close to my heart since the ongoing daily program at Zen River, along with the option of long­term residential training, allow students to dive into a curriculum that covers all aspects of training.

Some of us may already be familiar with Yasutani Roshi’s writings, the ‘Five Varieties of Zen’ (as presented in Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau) and The Eight Beliefs of Buddhism (Zen River Anthology 1), which provide a somewhat linear structure for practice. Also, Hoofprints of the Ox and The Way to Buddhahood by the Chinese masters Sheng Yen and Yin Shun, and The Compass of Zen by the Korean master Seung Sahn, are very helpful books. Yet new translations from the Tibetan tradition may be the richest sources for overviews of ‘P&P’. I’ve been surprised to discover that certain Tibetan texts are standard study material in contemporary Chinese Ch’an training temples, including Tsongkhapa’s famous, Lam Rim Chen Mo (‘The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment’). Two young Chinese monks who recently visited Zen River, as well as many others whom I’ve met during my visits to Asia, have emphatically confirmed this. Personally, I am a little more acquainted with Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation and the brilliant contemporary commentary by Ringu Tulku, The Path to Buddhahood. But the recently published three­volume treatise, The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma by Chögyam Trungpa, seems to me to belong to a class in itself.

Most of these books articulate different levels of practice based on the aspiration and karmic circumstances of the practitioner. But Trungpa Rinpoche’s formulation of how the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantric paths of practice interact seems to be the clearest. [With some reservation, the Tibetan term Tantra may be replaced with the terms Buddhayana, Saijojo, or Supreme Vehicle to align with Zen terminology.] Rather than simply seeing these three categories as different approaches or levels of practice, or as phases of historical development, Trungpa Rinpoche beautifully describes Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tantra as completely interdependent components of practice, comparing them to the foundation, walls, and roof of a building. From this view, well­rounded practice includes all three paths: the path of individual liberation (Hinayana), the bodhisattva path of wisdom and compassion (Mahayana), and the path of indestructible wakefulness (Tantra or Buddhayana). We are encouraged to revisit each one of them regularly!

This perspective on practice shows a striking similarity with the Four Modes of Meditation we’ve developed at Zen River. In the first and second Modes respectively, we deal primarily with phenomena and emptiness, the relative and absolute sides of reality. Then in the third and fourth Modes we return to the world of phenomena which now lights up with perfect information on how to respond to situations—like a box and its lid or two arrows meeting in mid­air. Yet when it comes to the fourth Mode, action in the world of form, we are bound to make mistakes because the world of form happens never to be quite perfect. Moreover, habitual patterns run deep and can easily take over again. So gradual cultivation is called for. We need to train in trusting our intuition and developing skills to really manifest our insights. Meanwhile, we may also discover that the foundation of our building is weaker than we thought, or that parts of it are begging for renovation. Trungpa Rinpoche exhorts us: ‘Never forget the Hinayana!’ So a life on the Buddha’s path is really a spiral that includes all three aspects of training, over and over again. Then we can each live and appreciate our life on ever more profound levels.