True Dharma “I”: 21st Century Zen from a 26th Century View

A deep thanks to Koun for his wholehearted, uncompromising effort to express his impersonal heart here in the last two posts.

I enjoyed having Koun guest blogging and hope that he’ll offer more in the future – like any time.

Or maybe he’ll do his own blog. Clearly, Koun has an important perspective that is not usually heard or seen in the blogging world and although reading blogs is not training in authentic practice, at least bloggers can serve by sharing information about it.

There is quite a lot of mental practice and misinformation in this cyber realm, after all, so a little variety is nice too from time to time.

Speaking of variety and whether what we’re doing in the US is “Zen” or a misappropriation of the term (see No Zen in the West for more), I received the beautiful catalog from Tassajara Zen Mountain Center this past week. Tassajara’s San Francisco Zen Center is in it’s 5oth year so the question of whether Zen has successfully been transmitted seems fitting.

In the fall and winter, Tassajara offers a couple 90-day practice periods that I understand are still pretty rigorous – so more power to ‘em for all of that. I might even apply to participate as a little retirement gift to my impersonal person, sometime in the next decade.

In their more public season, early May – mid September, the oldest Zen monastery in the West offers fifty-three retreats.  Imagine staffing and managing (and grunting out) fifty-three retreats in just over three months. I’m tired just thinking about it!

Imagine that in 500 years, a rather tormented reincarnate of Steve Heine (click here for his 2012 Dogen book) discovers this catalog and seeks to discern through careful historical procedures if authentic practice had been transmitted to what was then known as the US in 2012. He might classify the retreats, give a couple examples, and then calculate the percentage of that type (11% are just too hard to classify even in the 26th Century) – in reverse order of frequency, of course, so the drama could build:

Food: “Breakaway Cooking with Tea,” “Dragon Greens: A Cooking and Gardening Summer Solstice Celebration,” 6%

Nature: “The Nature of Zen,” “Wildflowers and Birds of Tassajara,” 8%

Zen: “Dogen Zenji’s Mountains and Waters Sutra” (this is one of two study weeks, descriptions on p. 57, the last page), “Presenting Suzuki Roshi’s Teachings,” 9%

Art (usually the written kind, usually paired with Zen): “Words under Words,” “Brush Mind,” 11%

Psychology and Zen (usually an adult adjustment disorder): “The Well-Fed Woman,” “True Person Retreat: Discovering the Life You’re Meant to Live,” 17%

Body: “Zen Mind, Zen Yoga,” “Breath of Fire, Breath of Peace: Breathing Practice in Zen and Yoga,” “Healing with Qigong and Zen,” 38%

Now don’t you think Steve’s incarnate would think, “Wow, that’s kinda curious!”

“Why would a 21st Century Zen Monastery offer only 9% of its sessions on Zen? Maybe they didn’t think Zen had much to offer,” Steve might think.

But he wouldn’t stop there – Steve would keep thinking. “Why would a Zen monastery bury the teaching of Dogen on the last page? Maybe ‘Zen’ as a commodity in the last remnants of state capitalism, could only sell when fused with other things, especially other ‘Eastern’ body practices, but other stuff too, like how to be comfortable in your own skin. Hmmmm. Maybe the people who came to those retreats were just really desperate for some kind of relief. Or maybe they were so into denial about the ecological and economic crisis about to unfold that they were just looking for a good time to escape and had exhausted the puny online archives (having watched everything on Netflix twice) available in that early day, so they desperately distracted themselves on themselves.

“Or just maybe there was an error in translation! Maybe they had confused ‘True Dharma Eye’ (as in essential What is It?) with True Dharma ‘I’ (as in obsessed with the self).”

Your speculation welcome as well, fellow 26th Centurions!

Zenshin Tim Buckley Dies: One Heartbeat, Ten Thousand Buddhas
Restraining the Nevertheless Deluded One: Vine of Obstacles Turns Two
Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • http://JustThis( alan

    I probably have no right to comment here but I will.
    One of the things that attracted me to Zen is (at least it appears to me this way) it’s stripped down, bare to the bones of “Just This”. Right now, how can I be intimate with this moment and see the whole of it?

    Help me here but is that not what Dogen points to in a lot of his writings.

    So it does bother me when I see “ZEN” dressed up like a Christmas Tree with all the bright and shiny things on it so people will be attracted to it. I have often told my wife when she is decorating our tree , ” let’s just leave it there with the little white lights. It’s so pretty that way.”

    Anyway, that’s my take on what you just said. Did I miss your point? Sometimes I don’t get what you are saying because sometimes I just don’t get it.


    • doshoport

      Hi Alan,

      No, I don’t think you missed my point although you’re making a slightly different one here.

      I am (and the future incarnate of the Dogen scholar Steve Heine might be) interested in the Zen and the art of (fill in the blank) phenomena that goes way back to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Why is it that people think that Zen can be learned and practiced by doing other things? Of course, if a person is already grounded in what Koun calls authentic practice … or is Zen just some old ineffable spirit thing.

      Way back in the early days of my education career there was a popular movement to help kids struggling with reading by first helping them bounce balls and balance things. There was a theory for it … but I forget. What the researched showed was that kids who practiced bouncing balls got good at bouncing balls . When they practiced reading they got good at reading. Kids who practice bouncing balls did not improve their reading.

      I suspect the research would generalize to spiritual practice.

      Good to hear from you,


  • Robyn

    I suspect it is because asking people to come and sit facing a wall for 7-10 hrs/day for a week just isn’t very glamorous and could be a bit of a hard sell. But if they come for a little yoga or gardening, they just might come back for the other thing. The sesshin at ZMM (in Mt. Tremper) where I usually sit facing the wall for 7-10 hrs/day almost always fill to capacity and have waiting lists, so someone, somewhere, is noticing something. I imagine Tassajara doesn’t lack for participants either.

    I loved Koun’s posts! I wanted to express my gratitude in the comment section but chickened out each time – feeling like I had nothing very interesting or eloquent to say, except “thank you”. Thank you to you too, for giving him that opportunity and forum to share his words.

    • doshoport

      Hi Robyn,

      Yes, I suppose that’s at least part of it … as I also tried to glibly say regarding the commodification of Zen. If that’s the reason, though, it seems like an arrogant manipulation – we’ll suck you in with a little yoga and maybe you’ll find the true way of Zen.

      I looked at the ZMM site too and they don’t have their summer schedule up yet but the winter-spring session is like it’s been for years – one or two Zen events a month and one or two art/Zen or other/Zen events. Quite a different balance. As you point out, ZMM offers a good deal of sesshin which are well attended and they require participants in their “other” workshops to participate in the Zen schedule.

      From digging around in the SFZ site, it looks like they offer about one sesshin (varying from five – seven days) about every three months, hosted by one of their three centers. I assume practice periods at Tassajara offer more.

      The data does say something but I’m not really sure what that is. Although I have my opinions, of course.


  • Bryan

    You wrote: ” Tassajara offers a couple 90-day practice periods that I understand are still pretty rigorous …”

    Perhaps someone from the 25th century would, instead, look up the daily schedule (which I found easily on-line). What is not said, is that the meals are eaten oryoki style. I understand that there are normally three 7-day sesshin/practice period but occasionally they have longer and shorter ones.

    3:50am Wake-up Bell
    4:20 Zazen/kinhin/zazen
    6:10 Morning Service, followed by breakfast in zendo
    7:55 Study
    9:00 Soji, dharma talk, or class
    10:00 Zazen
    11:20 Noon service, followed by lunch in zendo
    1:15pm Work
    4:15 Bathing and exercise
    5:50 Evening Service, followed by dinner in zendo
    7:30-9:00 Zazen/kinhin/zazen

    • doshoport

      Yeah, pretty rigorous. Thanks for looking it up on the 21st Century.

  • Koji Dreher


    I’m a former Tassajara/SFZC resident, having spent about 3 years at Tassajara both working in the summers and training in the winters. I think it’s important to outline the whole year round offering at Tassajara/SFZC and how they relate to each other. Tassajara was a hot springs resort in the late 1800s and was purchased by SFZC (which was still operating out of the SF Soto Zen Mission) in 1967. Part of the idea at the time of purchase was to continue running the resort as a means of income for the organization and also to not upset people that love visiting Tassajara by making it off limits to them.

    The income generated during the Tassajara guest season goes a long way to support training in the winter there, and also at the other two SFZC temples. Originally there were no summer retreats, and over the past 15 years or so there have been more and more retreats each year. From my perspective there seems to be two reasons for this, one is that the retreats attract folks with *some* kind of interest in this thing called spirituality or well being practices. Which might make a nicer practice atmosphere than posibility of hunters and rowdies, who occasionally come through. The other reason is obvious, money. Retreats bring in more money. When I was a student at Tassajara that was a source of shame for me. *Real* religious people don’t do things for money, they don’t compromise the *true* and *authentic* teachings. It was plain to see that when there was a yoga retreat we had a full house and we tried to so something like “Teachings of Suzuki Roshi” folks were less interested. So a genre develops called the “Zen and…” retreat for broader appeal.

    Now what’s the benefit of this? Well, there is the odd chance that a well groomed, well off yogi comes and falls in love with zazen. I think that actually happens from time to time. Here’s what aspect of this set up is important to me. I grew up in a blue collar family in King City, Ca. Just over the hills from Tassajara. I dropped out of high school, got fired from every video store, coffee shop, and record store that hired me, I didn’t fit in anywhere, and with no money, no education, no skills, I was able to enter Tassajara summer as a working student at 20 years old and carve out a pretty beautiful life for myself. I got to be a cook, an accountant, work in a bookstore, build things, fix roofs, wire new cabins for electricity. Not only that, I got to hang out with zen teachers, sit sesshin, use oryoki, train as a doan, train as a priest, do these traditional practice periods and watch my relationship to the world transform, watch my self image transform.

    I understand the discomfort around all the “Zen and…” retreats. At first glance its an embarrassment to Guardians of True Dharma (band name?). I’ve complained about those retreats at every opportunity (I was even immortalized on the Dangerous Harvests blog for it). Now, I’d like to offer a deep bow of gratitude to the yogis, birdwatchers, and NVCers who’ve supported my training without knowing it. And to SFZC for giving them what they want in order to give me what I needed.


    • doshoport

      Thank you, Koji.


  • desiree

    How would adult adjustment disorder be filed in the DSM XIV? …

    I imagine in 500 years a lithe blonde model with short hair has just finished walking the runway for fashion week in Paris and then returns home. A cycling copy of poems about the seasons weather in Austria, that was circulating on the mass transit, has been picked up and perused. The exquisite authenic reincarnation of S. Heine is about to walk in the door to his multi-family condo, when (s)he recalls that s(h)e forgot to grade 10 student essays on the “Essential Dogen” ch. 8.2 ‘What is This. ~ L.U.V, this moment. and wholeheartedness’, due to losing track of time in the lovely poems written by contemporaries. SH cooly calls up his friends currently staying at Tassajara and asks if they can put up 12 people for 2 weeks – if he cuts then in on the mad tuition he’s getting. Field trip!

    SH comes into class for the start of the work week, Bright and early wednesday morning. The trip is announced and everyone accepts unbounded. All neccesary schedules are miraculously free, due to Siri – the spying/talking/potential fun catching scheduling device iphoneZ, Being such a world renowned scholar, of emminent opinion,

  • desiree

    Who could refuse? Everyone completely forgets about the papers that were supposed to be graded and thanks the stars for this awesome experience to come. Class is dismissed early (to the chagrin of all the students that calculated theyre paying like $500 a pop for those things. SH takes the week b4 next class and thoughfully comments on the papers. Essays are no longer graded in numbers or letter, but by valued words. A transcript is a collection of this words printed out algorithmically as a word balloon – larger bolder words, written horizontally left to right (the orientation of the words will vary by culture and country of origin), being most stastically prevalent. Some words are in foreign languages – as everyone now speaks at least two fluently. The courses taken appear on a different sheet in a neater order, arranged by category, the concentrations coming first and last.

    In a breath, during the last day of the short Tassajara retreat, the essays are ripped to shreds in a purification-impermanence ceremony. SH sheds four tears – one at the corner of each eye.

    Mr. Heine, please forgive me the liberty, as I havent the pleasure to yet be acquainted with you for such speculation.

  • desiree

    On being buried in the back…its just a graduate course, sometimes undergrads sit in on them.

  • Desiree

    Hi Dosho -

    You may be surprised to hear that I requested and received the guest season guidebook, also known as a work of art according to the artists. I was hesitant about asking for a copy because:

    A. Works of art usually have a monetary(green-backs) value.
    B. The way they phrase potential visits of recipients of the work of art make it sound like attendance is imminent, this season, now. Which may be the case for people living close by (in mind or body), but the situation may be different for those living far away.

    I have many questions & comments regarding your analysis, which you attribute to Steve. Unless you two collaborated? The questions include, but are not limited to:
    Why did you reclassify the categories?
    Which are the ones that are too hard to classify in your view?
    Why do you say that only 9% of the sessions are “on Zen” when 53% (over half) have “Zen” in the title; and all classes are led by teachers(1 if not 2) of heavy Zen training, making them classes “in zen” if not “of Zen?”

    I count 47 retreats. This is my view, but I may be persuaded differently if I knew there were people who enjoyed attending the same retreat twice in a row (as opposed to attending the same retreat year-after-year with alternate teachers). I think the retreats that are offered multiple times have different significance. Though this is just minutiae (of the kind that describes features of a fingerprint).

    I think the fundamental question here is not “Why would a 21st Century Zen Monastery offer only 9% of its sessions on Zen?” but, “Why would the future incarnate be analyzing this history IN the current place and time?”

    Note: Dogen is also on pg. 26.

    Reference for Official Categories, in order (5 not 6):
    Body and Mind
    Spiritual Practice
    Creative Expression
    Mindful Living
    Engaging Earth

    How would you change the official categories to incorporate your viewpoint?

    There are additional questions of interest that may arise if a critical analysis of the book was undertaken. There are also additional questions concerning the likeness of SFZC to other Zen centers throughout space and time, and how the growth and development of this zen center compares and contrasts to those centers. Final questions would be brought up in order to “judge” the schedule in-contest with other schedules. In order to analyze the incarnations potential analisation – further information would be needed concerning experience with exact zen centers (and guest schedules) within the lifetime in question. Also, has the incarnate been monastic or lay from life to life?

    I would like to submit queries of concern in the line of thought presented: Conjecture of the changing of boundaries of the state of the US “what was then known as the US “? and, Purporting of eminent “ecological and economic crisis”? The second question is of more concern than the first – as the boundaries of states are arbitrary (I assume perhaps fresh-handedly).

    Hopefully I’ve provided a clear catalogue :)


    • Desiree

      From link:
      “German usage: “Oeuvre-Katalog” or “Werkverzeichnis”


  • Austin Keith

    Dear Dosho,

    It’s taken me a couple of weeks (months?) to respond to this post. I felt like Koji did a good job and I couldn’t really add anything. Something does chew at me though, and it’s this:

    Why speak through Steve Heines? What would Steve Heines, or any other non-monastic, know about Dogen’s Zen? Penn State, Komozawa, University of Florida- these offer about .1 percent of “Zen”teachings, by my estimate, though, I only attended PSU. A lot of mouths flapping, for sure.

    I thought this “Zen” school was completely about learning about “Zen” without practicing “Zen,” that even insentient beings have buddha nature, and can expound Buddha nature, like the valley streams and mountain colors which speak, with the Buddha’s long broad tongue, the 84, 000,000 verses, illuminating boundless dharma gates for numberless beings?

    And did you know that your possible retirement gift is actually a prerequisite for novice ordination here? Actually, you need two practice periods at Zenshinji and about 5 years of residency to ordain in the SFZC lineage (not hard and fast rules, as to allow teachers to meet their students needs, but it does seem the norm-at least in my personal experience- I’m here to try and fulfill that commitment).

    I felt the need to speak up; we share this cyber realm; my intention is to say what is true, helpful, and timely.

    I don’t know if this is helpful.

    just a blue-rakusu home leaver,

    • doshoport

      Hi Austin,

      I was speaking through an imagined Steve just for fun. That’s my imagination, of course, and take responsibility for these weird posts too.

      Sure, everything speaks the dharma and you might see this as a call for those with such an incredible resource like Tassajara to use it fully and to creatively express the Zen dharma through Zen too. Maybe Zen is yoga but it is certainly Zen too.

      If you all are bringing it forth creatively and fully and I’m missing it … well, who am I to niggle and why worry about a old guy in the swamps of Minnesota anyway?

      I do know about the SF training requirements and respect that aspect which I tried to highlight in the post as well. My monastic time was vital to me.

      Peace to you and yours,