February 29, 2016

don't be a jerk image









Brad Warner has done a lot of good for Zen in the West. Most practitioners I talk with who are under 40-years-old found their way to Zen through Warner’s books, especially Hardcore Zen.

Warner has cultivated an image of being an irreverent iconoclastic, while ironically embracing orthodox Soto Zen, for example, by exhibiting reverence for Dōgen’s teaching, advocating no-goal zazen, and finding kensho and koan introspection either insignificant or not a part of Soto practice.

Unfortunately, since his first and best-selling Hardcore Zen (2003), Warner has turned a good share of his attention to writing about sex, porn, god, rebirth, vegetarianism and other attention-getting topics.

In his new book, Don’t Be A Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master (A Radical but Reverent Paraphrasing of Dōgen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye), Warner returns to the root of his Zen, his teacher Nishijima Roshi’s perspective on Dōgen’s teaching.

It is a welcome development.

In twenty-six chapters and 300 pages, Warner offers his paraphrases of twenty fascicles of Dōgen’s Shobogenzo, along with analysis of several translations, parsing the original words of Dōgen, and his own commentary. It is an impressive effort, both to present Dōgen in a contemporary, punkish voice and because of the manner in which Warner works – with diligence, integrity, and caution.

And, like other such efforts (i.e., in this regard, a student recently mentioned the rewrites of Shakespeare in modern English), it risks simplifying and missing the richness of the “original” (translated) text.

Yet one of the most frequently asked questions to those of us who teach with Dōgen’s works is “Why is Dōgen so fricking difficult?”

Warner’s Don’t Be A Jerk is an effort to address that question by providing an alternate, modern (irreverent) reading, and careful analysis that offers the reader the opportunity to see for ourselves.

An example? In Dōgen’s fascicle, “Not Doing Evil,” he wrotes, of course, about not doing evil, a tricky concept for those imbued with in the Islamic-Judeo-Christian heritage. So Warner substitutes “jerk” for “evil” and we get, “Even if the whole universe is nothing but a bunch of jerks doing all kinds of jerk-type things, there is still liberation in simply not being a jerk.”

It gets the point across.

But if something is so difficult to understand, why study Dōgen at all?

In Warner’s last chapter, “Dōgen’s Zen in the Twenty-first Century,” he writes, “To me Zen is a communal practice of individual deep inquiry.”

That says it well. For those of us who are engaged in Zen practice as inquiry, Dōgen provides deliciously subtle material to work on and off the cushion. To me it seems especially important in our times to openheartedly entangle ourselves with the ancient teaching, so that we’re not just practicing our contemporary pathology and calling that “Zen.”

I’d like to complement what Warner says about Zen and inquiry by adding that it is also the individual practice of individual insight. And the communal practice of communal insight. And the individual practice of communal insight.

“Communal insight” is especially important for the way we work together in koan introspection. In the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, for instance, we take up insight together, meeting teacher-and-student, face-to-face, even if we’re thousands of miles apart. Dōgen’s teaching works as well for this as any of the koans in the traditional Harada-Yasutani curriculum.

For example, in “Buddha Nature” Dōgen said, “Am I no-buddha-nature when buddha-nature begins aspiring for enlightenment? We immediately ask this, we immediately say it. We immediately make the columns ask it, we immediately ask the columns. We immediately make the buddha nature ask it.”

Instead of just reading this passage and reflecting on it with the frontal lobe, we take it up as a koan, and apply ourselves to it through traditional koan-introspection processes. In this case, the student is invited to “Make the columns ask, ask the columns” – to show it, not talk about. This way of working embodies the teaching in a way that I am convinced Dōgen would wholeheartedly affirm. That’s my opinion. 

And speaking of opinions, a word of caution:

When reading Warner (or Dōgen or anybody), it is important to sort the shit from the Shinola. In other words, Warner has a platform here to express his views on the meaning of Zen, koan, zazen, rebirth, and Dōgen’s teaching. He often does that in entertaining ways. However, as Warner himself says, Zen is about inquiry, not belief, so because Warner (or Dōgen or anybody) thinks this or that, the important work is to see it for ourselves in relationship and to “…put such a unitive awareness into practice in the midst of the revaluated world” (Dōgen, “Negotiating the Way”).

Congratulations and thank you, Brad Warner, for a fine Dogen dharma offering.

November 20, 2017










In this look at Brad Warner’s new book, It Came From Beyond Zen: More Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master, I’m going to focus just on one issue – kōan. But for decorum sake, let’s start with this:

Brad Warner has done a lot of good for Zen in the West. Most practitioners I talk with who are under 40-years-old found their way to Zen through Warner’s books, especially Hardcore ZenWarner has cultivated an image of being an irreverent iconoclastic, while ironically embracing orthodox Sōtō Zen,  for example, by exhibiting reverence for Dōgen’s teaching, advocating no-goal zazen, and finding kensho and koan introspection either insignificant or not a part of Sōtō practice.

That’s what I said about Warner’s previous book, Don’t Be A Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master (A Radical but Reverent Paraphrasing of Dōgen’s Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). Read the whole review here. All that still applies.

Warner’s new book, It Came From Beyond Zen, is more of the same – a practitioner’s helpful contribution to Dōgen studies. It includes a careful review of what the old boy (Dōgen, that is, not the 53-year-old Warner) said, paraphrased with phrases like “What’s yours, bro?” thrown in, and a generous review of other translations. The chapters include commentary by Warner, as well.

As I said, Warner’s near full-on embrace of post-Meiji Sōtō orthodoxy, especially regarding kōan, is what I’ll dig into here in some detail, responding point-by-point to Warner. But he’s right, the cross talk between kōan Zen practitioners and nonkōan Zen practitioners tends not to be fruitful. People tend to take this issue as intensely personal. Click here for my recent post about my history with Dōgen and kōan Zen.

Nevertheless, as I said, Warner writes,

“There is a lot of cross talk in Zen circles, about whether Dōgen practiced and taught what folks these days call ‘kōan Zen.'”

Kōan Zen has developed a lot since Dōgen’s time, so I don’t know anyone who thinks that Dōgen practiced or taught kōan Zen like it’s practiced and taught in our post-Hakuin world (as if there was one thing that really existed now or then called “kōan Zen”). Dōgen had received transmission from a Rinzai line before he went to China, but we have even less information about what their actual practice was and if they engaged in kōan introspection.

However, it doesn’t seem that Dōgen had any set curriculum and may have had a more panoramic approach to kōan, rather than Dahui’s key phrase method, as Steven Heine (Like Cats and Dogs: Contesting the Mu Koan in Zen Buddhism – my review hereand Taigen Leighton (Just This Is It, p. 12) have argued. The panoramic approach, though, is a series of key-phrases, so in actual practice the distinction falls apart.

Stepping back and looking at the whole body of Dōgen’s work, it seems to me that what he was doing was subtle and nuanced and doesn’t fit neatly into today’s kōan or nonkōan (or panoramic and key phrase) hardening of the categories. What’s interesting to me and my ilk is the incredible kōan playfulness, creativity, and integration that Dōgen manifested in his writing, seemingly without limit. It’s really inspiring. And that’s the main reason I enter the forest of thorns here about Dōgen and kōan – he provides kōan practitioners with such inspiration that I want to point his work out rather than have it hidden under the “zazen-only” bushel basket.

Granted, Dōgen said a lot and so it is possible to pull together a poison blossoms bouquet for both kōan Zen and nonkōan Zen. But what was Dōgen’s practice and what does that say about cultivating verification today? I find myself still interested in those questions even though I’ve been researching them on and off the cushion for forty years, as well as writing about it here for almost ten years. Warner’s view provides me with an opportunity to summarize some of that (just follow the many links for more).

That said, I think we in Sōtō Zen make way too much of Dōgen. Afterall, he is long dead and wasn’t God or the lord Jesus but a person like us, a self-proclaimed broken-wooden ladle. In addition, if we’re going to make a big deal out of dead people, there have been a lot of great Zen teachers in China, Japan, and Korea (at least). And Rujing, one of Dōgen’s primary teachers, gave instruction for how to engage the mu kōan (click here), as did Dogen (click here), which would have been kinda silly if no one they were talking to was doing it. Finally, Dōgen’s immediate successors, at least through Keizan, practiced, woke up, and taught through kōan (click here and/or click here).

In my view, the kōan innovation is one of the most generous and illuminating developments in meditation practice in fifteen hundred years or so. And Hakuin and his close successors were incredible spiritual geniuses. So even if Dōgen really did teach that zazen MUST be a kōan-free zone, well, so what?

Warner continues,

“This is the kind of Zen [kōan Zen] in which your teacher gives you a tricky question like, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ or ‘If a tree falls on a mime does he make a sound?’ and you meditate on it. Then you’re supposed to go to your master and present your answer.”

Ok, “If a tree falls on a mime does he make a sound?” – I like! A wonderful found kōan!

However, Warner’s trivializing portrayal of kōan Zen exists only in Warner’s mind. I hope. Kōan Zen is not about meditating on a kōan, referred to by Warner elsewhere as that “Rinzai thinkee thing,” but about being the kōan, doing the thinking, not thinking, non thinking thing. And Warner’s notion that kōan Zen is like elementary school where the student is called to the front of the room and put on the spot for “the answer” is a feeling that people sometimes have but isn’t the actual work.

Here’s somebody (John Tarrant) who knows about kōan Zen describing what it’s about:

“The method of immersing yourself in a great question is more ancient than Buddhism and seems to arise naturally in some people when they turn to spiritual things. It is a method that faces human ignorance squarely and at the same time has faith that remedy for suffering exists, and that a sincere effort will reveal that remedy…. Over and over again, [kōan] Zen is not about having the answer but about moving in the darkness of what is unknown and uncertain and trusting both your moves and the darkness that opens as you enter it.”

Briefly put, kōan introspection is for people that are driven to investigate the essential questions of life and death in relationship with someone who is also doing that investigation.

For you visual learners, here’s Hakuin’s “Blind Men Crossing a Bridge” (thanks, Robert L.) that gives a wonderful illustration of the process:


Warner continues,

“Dōgen did not teach this sort of ‘kōan Zen.’ Period. End of debate. Forever.”

On this we can agree. Nobody taught or teaches Warner’s parody of kōan introspection, including Dōgen.

Warner continues,

“Dōgen … wrote very extensively about what kind of Zen he did practice and teach. He is abundantly clear about it, especially in his essay “Fukanzazengi” … there is nothing in that or, indeed, in any of Dōgen’s writing in which he recommends that anyone sit and contemplate a kōan and then try to answer it for their teacher.”

I beg to differ. We know that Dōgen was a great kōanizer (click here), reframing monastic life from the kitchen to the toilet in terms of kōan. Did he leave zazen out? Well, no, in my view, he didn’t.

Right in the “Fukanzazengi” (“Universal Recommendations for Zazen”), despite what Warner believes, Dōgen defines zazen as the “kōan realized.” Click here. Further, when Dōgen taught what he saw as Buddha’s zazen in the “Fukanzazengi” and several other places, he used the “thinking, not-thinking, non- thinking kōan.” Remember, it’s not about meditating on something but about being it.

Still, is it the case that Dōgen never recommended working with the traditional kōans? No, it isn’t. Take this, for example:

“Good gentleman, when you meet a teacher, first ask for one case of a kōan story, and just keep it in mind and study it diligently (Eiheikoroku, Hogo 14).”

Notably, Dōgen didn’t say “…just keep it in mind EXCEPT in zazen.” He just didn’t.

In addition, Dōgen frequently used the expression “sit quietly and look into…” something. Like this:

“I only ask that students sit quietly and look into the beginning and end of this body as it truly is. The body, limbs, hair, and skin come from the two drops of father’s semen and mother’s blood; when the breath ceases, they separate and decay in the mountains and fields, eventually turning into mud and earth. What do you have to cling to as your body? (Record of Things Heard, IV, 3)”

Dōgen in this example isn’t using standard kōan from a curriculum, but instead, seeing kōan everywhere. This kind of questioning, sometimes mistaken as rhetorical, fills the Shobogenzo and Eiheikoroku. The questions function much like checking questions in the Harada-Yasutani kōan curriculum. Here’s an example that riffs with the “hanging-from-a-branch-by-your-teeth kōan from the Shobogenzo in “The Meaning of Bodhidharma’s Coming from India:”

“Now, quietly examine the words ‘What if you are hanging by your teeth from a tree branch on a one-thousand-foot cliff?’ What is you? …Let me ask you: what is the size of one thousand feet? …What are the teeth? …But is hanging in emptiness the same as hanging from a tree by your teeth?”

If you’ve got an eye for kōan, I think you’ll see what Dōgen is doing in these examples. In my experience, once questions like these are taken up in earnest, they seamlessly permeate the thinking/not thinking/non thinking play of zazen as well as everyday life. Therefore, it seems unlikely to me that when Dōgen said “sit” and “question” he meant EXCEPT when you are sitting zen in zazen – which he himself said has nothing to do with sitting or lying down (“Fukanzazengi”).

Moving along, is it consistent with the evidence to say that Dōgen never assigned a kōan or invited a dharma presentation? No, it isn’t. However, in the records that we have from Dōgen he is usually talking to a group, so he doesn’t give a lot of individual instructions or ask for individual dharma presentations. Even in Dōgen’s Eiheikoroku, unlike most Zen masters’ records, very few students appear. Kinda odd.

The many questions Dōgen asked, though, can be seen as invitations to pick up a kōan. And occasionally Dōgen does address an individual student. Here’s one example of assigning a kōan:

“‘This mind itself is Buddha.’ Student [Ryo]Nen, understand this clearly (Eiheikoroku, Hogo 9).”

In this case, it sounds like Dōgen is assigning one of his principal woman students, Ryonen, a kōan. Curiously, it is a related kōan to “not mind, not Buddha, not a thing,” that Dahui, supposedly Dōgen’s nemesis, assigned to one of his principal woman students, Miaotou (see the wonderful work of Miriam Levering on this – click here).

Again, note that Dōgen doesn’t say, “Understand this clearly. But, oh, yeah, not in zazen – I really mean it. Do not think about this kōan in zazen! Ever. Whatever you do, do NOT be the mind-is-Buddha in zazen. Just don’t do it!”

And, finally, in terms of asking for a dharma presentation, how about this?

“‘Right now, monks, is there someone who has attained it?’

At that time a monk arose and made prostrations. Dōgen said: ‘This is what it is, only it’s not yet there.’

The monk asked, ‘What is there to attain?’

Dōgen said: ‘Truly I know that you have not attained it’

Then Dōgen said: ‘How is the person who has attained?’ After a pause Dōgen said: ‘Body and mind are upright and direct, the voice is strong.’ (Eiheikoruku, 72).”

So Dōgen did call people out sometimes. And the above passage might even get you to wondering if Dōgen was really a personal-enlightenment hater as the post-Meiji Sōtō orthodoxy would lead one to believe. But I’ll leave that for another day. Or you can click here.

In sum, it seems to me that Dōgen certainly taught some kind of kōan Zen. I’d describe it as just-sitting, broken-wooden ladle, panoramic, shape-shifting, key-phrase, actualizing-the-fundamental-point kōan Zen.

And like I said in my review of Warner’s last book,

When reading Warner (or Dōgen or anybody), it is important to sort the shit from the Shinola. In other words, Warner has a platform to express his views on the meaning of Zen, kōan, zazen, rebirth, and Dōgen’s teaching. He often does that in entertaining ways. However, as Warner himself says, Zen is about inquiry, not belief, so because Warner (or Dōgen or anybody) thinks this or that, the important work is to see it for ourselves in relationship and to “…put such a unitive awareness into practice in the midst of the revaluated world” (Dōgen, Negotiating the Way).


IMG_1047Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Osho. Dōshō also teaches with the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, an internet-based Zen community. Dōshō received dharma transmission from Dainin Katagiri Roshi and inka shomei from James Myōun Ford Roshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

March 26, 2011


Here’s a letter from Koun Franz, an American Zen priest living in Japan, copied from a teacher listserve with permission:
I have been to a number of temples since the first earthquake and tsunami (here in Kumamoto and in Nagasaki), and each of those temples is doing amazing work to raise funds for disaster relief.  They collect money (a lot) from supporting families; they are currently doing extended 1-week or 2-week takuhatsu tours to gather funds; and in one case in Nagasaki, they went all over town and bought up all the mochi and sent it up north (because so many people don’t have water, rice is not an option).  
What I have mostly heard from the beginning is that the best way people can help is to simply send money to support those organizations best equipped to offer relief.  One thing I hear at every temple is the frustration that it is still not clear how best to help in other ways.  
After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, people could enter the city and volunteer very soon after the event; to my understanding, this case is quite different.  And as soon as the general population does get the go-ahead to step in and help with their own hands, they will go, priest and lay alike.  I know numerous temples (and individuals) which are clearing their schedules in anticipation of that moment. 
I absolutely agree that it is important to know how the leaders at Shumucho intend to use the money channeled directly through them. If 30% for long-term rebuilding is an offensive notion, then there are many other organizations through which to support relief efforts (my family has donated through local organizations, for expediency).
But I would add that (1) there seems to be no issue of transparency here, and (2) there are many, many laypeople who, no doubt, are very pleased to know that the money is being distributed in such ways (after all, they, too, can choose to donate to other organizations in addition to Soto-shu).

I will also add that not all temples will be rebuilt. I know one young monk whose temple was completely demolished–both he and his teacher share the attitude that the history of that temple came to an end on the day of the tsunami. They will both seek a new future elsewhere.

My deep appreciation and respect to all of you who have offered support for the efforts, regardless of how you have chosen to do it. The road ahead is long and hard.


August 27, 2010

Thanks to Al’s suggestion in the comments to my last post, I listened to my old friend, Jisho Warner, speak about enlightenment on my drive to work this morning.

Jisho makes a number of important points in a subtle and clearly-thought-through manner. She is a master of the fine distinction. Click here for her talk.

Jisho says that the notion of enlightenment that is popular in classical Zen literature – one great experience that forever transforms everything – is naive and simplistic.

I agree. I’ve only met one person who claimed to have such a once-and-for-all enlightenment and I only partly believed him.

One of her main points is about the notion of “having” the true dharma eye, which she uses as a synonym for “enlightened.” The true dharma eye is not some thing that some one can have, says Jisho.

I agree, of course, although “The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower” koan, does have the Buddha saying, “I have the treasury of the true dharma eye … and I now entrust it to Mahakaysapa.”

Nevertheless, truth and delusion are intimates, constantly hopping along. A moment of enlightened action and one is a sage. A moment of stupid action and one is stupid. The 6th Ancestor said something like that.

In a very personal way, this issue came up again this summer on one of the Zen teacher listserves when one teacher whose teacher has had a long string of sexual relationships with women students said that his teacher (wow, that’s confusing!) had the true dharma eye, despite his behavior.

One might wonder if a person of great practice is subject to the law of karma.

Oh, my goodness, yes. No one is apart as this situation attests.

Yet some of us yearn for full and complete release and freedom from (or within) this swirling world for the benefit of all the many beings. And some of us – perhaps all of us in our more jaded moments – are interested only in steadily walking along – at most.

After all, if enlightenment isn’t going to magically solve all of our problems and finally clear our complexion too and if we’re still going to be karmically responsible for our actions, then, you might ask, what is it good for anyway and why bother?

Well, for starters, verifying the dharma and unfolding enlightenment in daily life is one way to live a vital and meaningful life, freeing everyone together while slobbering along through what Mumon calls “a thousand mistakes, ten thousand mistakes.”

One or two more points on this for now.

Perhaps because of my cross training (koan and shikantaza) I think I see a couple things here that some of my friends who’ve trained only in one or the other field don’t.

First, the term that’s used in koan Zen for breakthrough, “kensho” (literally, seeing nature), has a very specific referent. However, those with shikantaza training tend to use the term to nebulously refer to a large variety of dharma experiences of all types – spiritual excrescence, samadhi, and insight.

And indeed, there are a great many experiences that a diligent practitioner might have that seem to be breakthroughs. For example, we might see warm and fuzzy lights rolling through the zendo. This isn’t a kensho but an excrescence. 

We might breakthrough into a deep, wide and stable heart that fills the universe. This isn’t kensho but probably a state of calm abiding. 

We might have dharma insights about impermanence and nonself and compassion. These also are probably not kensho (or not necessarily) but might still be important and verify an aspect of dharma truth. Bits and pieces of the true dharma eye.

This seems to be one of the sources of miscommunication amongst us – we’re not really talking about the same thingee.

“Kensho” in koan Zen is quite precisely operationalized as having seen Mu and then passed through the checking questions and a bunch more koans. I won’t say what it is, of course, because it’s really important to see it for yourself (and not because I want to jerk you around as a Soto priest recently said about koan teachers).

Of all the realizations that one might have, for over a thousand years in some lineages, this one has been held up as the barrier of the Ancestral teachers. And indeed, it is powerful and important. This one among the many insights is regarded as a pivotal realization because this one among the many is a fulcrum in the sense that it “…supplies capability for action” (one of the dictionary definitions). 

The realization of Mu is embedded in shikantaza Zen as well as koan Zen, of course, hidden in the wide open. 

Seeing Mu and then according the circumstances is what the early steps in the koan process are all about. Following Mu, there is a constant call for the application of the realization in much the same way that carefully attending to the details of the forms of practice in shikantaza Zen call for the actual practice of enlightenment.

In koan Zen, one call to practice enlightenment comes through verbal prompts in the privacy of the dokusan room.

In shikantaza Zen, one call to practice enlightenment comes through the directions of how to sit, walk, stand and lie down. In many cases, it is just such an action that demonstrates the koan. 

And that leaves me wondering, for instance, what is the koan for which the most fitting response is to gassho precisely when entering the zendo?

I’ll leave that aside for now. 

The other point that’s on my mind is that sincere shikantaza practitioners may have already seen Mu … without knowing it. 

Very pure, I suppose, but also kind of a waste because the experience isn’t culled out for ongoing practice verification.

My advice is that if you want to accord with kensho and practice it (not just dump it into the dust bin of nice memories), work with a teacher qualified in such things.

Follow Us!

Browse Our Archives