February 16, 2019

Kenshō and makyō are the flavor of the week in these parts, so this post aims at addressing some issues about kenshō and makyō, especially if they’re the same or different.

The theme first came up in a manuscript I’ve been reviewing (Rick McDaniels’ forthcoming The Story of Zen), then in conversation with the my ever wonderful wife and teaching partner, Tetsugan, and now I see a discussion of kenshō and makyō on a Zen Facebook group that I keep an eye on. Looking at my calendar, coming up soon is a meeting with a student who had a powerful makyō in a recent sesshin and believed it to be an awakening.

What are Kenshō and Makyō?

First, though, we better define our terms. Kenshō (見性) means seeing [true] nature or essence. Synonyms include “enlightenment,” “awakening,” and “verification.” Wúmén, in his comment to the mu kōan, refers to it as “mysterious, subtle comprehension” (妙悟要). (1) It is an abrupt embodiment of nonduality. I’ve written often about kenshō, so will emphasize makyō here. For more, though, see this post: Hakuin’s Advice for How to Attain Kenshō.

The two characters for makyō (魔境) mean demon/magic and boundary/place/condition. For a simple translation, I like “magic land,” although there is a category of these experiences for which “demon land” seems more fitting. Makyō experiences are common, so much so that almost every meditator who practices intensively will experience them. They vary widely and include various visual, auditory, and somatic altered sense experiences or hallucinations (as in “a perception in the absence of external stimulus that has qualities of real perception”). See this old post by the ever youthful James Myōūn Ford Rōshi for a nice riff on makyō.

Kapleau Rōshi, in an excellent section on makyō in Zen: Dawn in the West, expands the category, “Makyō also come disguised as psychological states:  resentment, envy, or euphoria.” (2) He points out that they occur most commonly in the middle of seven-day sesshin, after there is some concentration, but in the boundary before stable concentration occurs. He says, “When after three full days of sitting, the upper levels of the mind have been quieted and stilled, all manner of images and sensations, the residue of past experiences, bubble up into consciousness, not unlike dreams.”

The makyō I’ve experienced include the sense that my hands in the zazen mudra were huge (a persistent one early on), faces in the wall I sat facing (a particularly beautiful Avalokiteshvara), and the piercing song of a bird coming from the far side of a lake perhaps three miles away. And also many dreams, especially during sesshin, where there’s a sense of the ancient. One, for example, of sitting in a jade-colored circular zendo, surrounded by senior monks, and Katagiri Rōshi slowly walking by.

Likewise, Rick McDaniel notes, “It is not unusual for people engaged in prolonged meditation to have visions. During the sesshin in which he experience his ‘little bit of light,’ Robert Aitken [Rōshi] had a vision of himself seated on the stone floor of an ancient temple with tall monks circumambulating him and chanting sutras.” (3)

One of my favorite magic land tales comes, again, from Kapleau Rōshi. When he was training at Hōshinji, the head monk approached him and said, “During sesshin you were acting out a very strange makyō, one I’ve never seen before. In the middle of a round of sitting you would suddenly reach out with one arm as if to grab something and draw it toward you, and then do the same with the other arm…. Do you remember that makyō?”

Kapleau Rōshi responded, “Yes, I do. I was going through the aisles of a large American supermarket, helping myself to steaks, eggs, cheese and other things not served here in the monastery.”

Shakyamuni Buddha, though, the guy reputed to have had the greatest enlightenment, also seems to have had the greatest makyō. In his enlightenment story, alluring dancing lovers approached, he was threatened by massive armies, and then there was Mara, seemingly orchestrating this whole hallucinatory array.

What To Do About Magic Land Experiences

First, it is important to identify them as such, and call them by their true name – not “heaven,” “hell,” or heaven forbid, “awakening.” For this, you may well need a clear-eyed teacher. Indeed, one of the most important functions for a teacher with students wholeheartedly engaged in the cultivating-verification project, is clarity about kenshō and makyō, and skillful means to support students in compassionately greeting these magic land visitations, and for sending them on their way.

A word of warning: the longer we cling to magic land experiences, the more difficult it becomes to get over them and move on with our life and practice. The spiritual fascination that arises from magic land can be toxic and disabling.

Kapleau Rōshi said, “More than anything else you need faith – faith in yourself, in your practice, and in your teacher. If you are working on a kōan, involve yourself in it so completely that ‘you’ disappear and only the kōan remains. Do this and the makyō will dissolve like ice under hot water.”

Is Kenshō Makyō?

Given that the experience of the two are so different, it might seem to be a strange question. However, in much of contemporary Sōtō Zen, this appears to be the common view. Although it seems so now, I don’t remember Katagiri Rōshi ever saying that kenshō was makyō. It simply isn’t what I learned from thirteen years of apprenticeship under his guidance. For example, when I went to him to share an experience I now understand as an early, initial kenshō, he smiled broadly and said, “Great!” And he went on to talk about applying the experience to daily life. In the same vein, in Returning to Silence, Katagiri Rōshi wrote, “The experience of enlightenment is important for us, but it is not enough. Again and again that enlightenment must become more profound, until it penetrates our skin, muscle, and bone.” (4)

All experiences, of course, are of one and the same nature. Kenshō and makyō are equally empty. Attainment and nonattainment, too, are equally empty. Katagiri Rōshi’s comment on this is good to keep in mind: “The sound of chanting and the sound of farting are of one and the same nature. However, they also each have their own virtuous qualities.”

A virtuous quality of magic land is in how it reveals that the world is vast and wide and so dependent on our fleeting perspectives. One virtuous quality of kenshō is that when we experientially verify the truth of the nondual buddhadharma, we have a toe-hold in cultivating verification in a much different way than before kenshō. In other words, we can now practice enlightenment rather than delusion.

What about getting attached to kenshō? It is an important issue. And the kōan introspection system is specifically designed to compel us to release our grip on any set position, including attachment to kenshō. This is an enormously important difference between just-sitting Zen and kōan-introspection Zen. I say this with respect for just-sitting Zen, a system that I trained in for thirteen years and received authorization to teach. Now, from the perspective of an authorized kōan introspection teacher, I recommend that if you are interested in kenshō (or wonder if you’ve already experienced kenshō), find a kōan introspection teacher. Just-sitting teachers, generally speaking, do not have the optimal set of tools in their tool kits to help you practice/cultivate your taste of enlightenment/verification, especially outside of the monastic milieu.

So awakening and magic land are of the same and one nature and they are different. If someone thinks they are only the same, I doubt that they’ve experienced kenshō. Indeed, we learn from the story of Shakyamuni Buddha, and then through all the Zen ancestors (except, perhaps some of the Sōtō ancestors in twentieth century Japan), that makyō is an obstacle, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horrific, seldom neutral, that needs to be passed through on the road to awakening, but these experiences are not the same thing as awakening.

This view is also supported by classical perspectives on the buddhadharma, where the difference between “yogic direct perception” (yogipratyakṣa, 定觀知, aka, kenshō) which “…is devoid of conceptual construction, … because it is nonconceptual and thus ‘vivid’ or ‘distinct’,” and hallucinations was emphasized, for example, in the Yogacara:

“Why is meditatively induced perception true and reliable? How does a meditator’s yogic perception differ from the hallucinations of the deranged, since both of them presume they have a vivid cognition of an object? The reason, Dharmakīrti maintains, is that the objects of yogic knowledge are “true” or “real,” whereas hallucinations are “false” or “unreal” objects. The only true objects of yogic knowledge offered by Dharmakīrti are the Four Noble Truths: that is, the perception of these truths is true and reliable because they enable one to reach the goal of enlightenment, not because they involve a perception of an ultimate substance.” (5)

Kenshō experiences are just like this – an affirmation of suffering, cause, cessation, and path. And likewise, imv, equating kenshō with makyō undermines the Four Noble Truths.


Those who say kenshō is makyō would presumably rewrite Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment story. Instead of sitting through a fantastic series of magic lands, and then at dawn, looking up, seeing the morning star and saying, “I, together with the great earth and living beings, simultaneously attain the way,” would have him say, “Dude. I am separate from everything and, shit, it’s all delusion that doesn’t attain the way. It’s all makyō, man. Wanna go to the bar?” 

If you think kenshō is makyō, you might consider the possibility that this thought itself is makyō.

(1) Wúmén, No Gate Gate (Wúménguān), “Case 1.” Trs., by the author. 

(2) Philip Kapleau, Zen: Dawn in the West, p. 96-99. All Kapleau Rōshi quotes are from this section.

(3) Richard McDaniel, The Story of Zen, unpublished manuscript.

(4) Dainin Katagiri, Returning to Silence, p. 108. This is the only book published in Katagiri Rōshi’s lifetime and so the only manuscript he went through and approved. The other books attributed to him are excellent, but, imv, should be read with some caution as to whether the views are his or the editors.

(5) See Robert E. Buswell Jr., Donald S.Lopez Jr., The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, entry for “yogipratyakṣa.”

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. 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 Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

January 22, 2018

Dosho_s Kindle for Mac 2 - The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin 2The road passes among cresting mountains,
Winding through thickets and vines;
The border of the Wu state ends at the river edge,
Soaring beyond, the serried peaks of Yueh.
(painting, “Eaglehead Peak,” and poem by Hakuin)

I find Hakuin’s teaching so powerful because of his uncluttered clarity, a direct expression of the heart of Mahayana Buddhism. I’d paraphrase it like this: in order to carry living beings across the flood, realize kenshō. Clarify kenshō until it’s limpid. Help others.

That’s also one level of meaning in the above poem.

In our day, one prevailing teaching in Zen is about “non gaining mind” and that to aspire to realize kenshō is a mistake. Meanwhile, as we learn from studying the Abhidharma or our own minds, intention is an omnipresent mental factor. So much of what is taught about non gaining puts students in a paralyzing double-bind.

This was not Hakuin’s approach. Refreshingly, he strongly advocates for realizing kenshō. In this post, I’ll follow up on the first of the above three steps, how to attain kenshō, using mostly Hakuin’s words, but note too that what he’s saying is in alignment with much of the greater Zen tradition, before and after his time, including my own experience and a bunch of other contemporary Zen students and teachers who have kenshōed. What’s different for Hakuin is his emphasis on post-kenshō training. More about that in subsequent posts.

If you are interested in kenshō, you would do well to attend closely to Hakuin’s advice. For those of you studying Complete Poison Blossoms in a Thicket of Thorn (CPB) along with these blog posts, see especially:

7. Informal Talk on the Seventh Night of the Seventh Lunar Month
8. Ascending the Teaching Seat (Jōdō) on the Ninth Day [of the Ninth Month]
and Supplement Two: “Gudō’s Lingering Radiance” (the last several paragraphs)

Pre steps to kenshō

To begin, there are a number of small steps that a practitioner ordinarily must take before kenshōing. These steps involve entering the practice, developing a teacher-student relationship, and learning basic skills in meditation. Then, like Hakuin said, “If you would cleanse yourself of the calamity and suffering of birth and death, you must arouse a strong faith that is fierce and courageous in the extreme” (CBP #4).

Specifically, an intense faith that the big problems of this life, the fundamental issues, are resolvable, that they have been resolved by the Buddha and many people through the ages in multiple lines of lineage coming through to today, that it is possible for you yourself too to resolve as well, and that the path of resolution is through taking refuge in buddha, dharma, and sangha and arousing the way-seeking mind.

In our Zen way, this seeking is actualized through turning the light of awareness around and meeting the self.  Hakuin said, “If you can encounter this One Person, at that instant you ascend into marvelous awakening…. If you manage to run into this fellow, s/he will be a far greater treasure than any you have known, more precious than even the most fabulous sword. When you encounter them, heaven and earth lose all their color, the brightness of the sun and moon are swallowed up” (CPB #8).

This is no small thing. And how an ordinary, suspicious, cynical, ornery person like most of us can come to this place is a mystery. Usually, the circumstances that lead to throwing ourselves intensively into practice seem like grace, a sublime coincidence, and involve some mix of encountering dharma literature and/or meeting a teacher just at the right time, just when we are in a particularly desperate place. I think of the young James Myoun Ford Roshi working in a bookstore in Oakland, CA. One day he mailed a paper letter (this was way, way back in time) with his Zen questions to Robert Aitken. The same day, if memory serves, John Tarrant came in the store to buy a book and they got to talking….

Stumbling into fierce faith and great determination, though, aren’t sufficient. Hakuin asks, “How to find such an elusive creature [as this One Person]” (CPB #8)?

Another essential element is to then arouse a questioning mind, the way seeking mind, also known as great doubt. “What is this life?” “How does one meet up with the [Buddha] of one’s own mind?” “Who is the One Person?” In contemporary kōan introspection, a student will usually be guided to take up the “mu kōan” at this point or perhaps, “Who hears?”

And then the most important ingredient

Once a student takes up a question, then they must “…seek singlemindedly throughout the twenty-four hours of the day, both waking and sleeping” (CPB #7).

The spirit of singleminded (aka, wholehearted) practice runs contrary to much of our culture, including the meditation subculture now developing, where what’s emphasized is leading a balanced life – breathing, smiling, and using meditation to be more effective and enjoying over-the-top lives. Nothing wrong with any of that, except that if you are interested in awakening and helping others to awakening, such a spirit just won’t do.

What will do? Wholehearted practice.

Wholehearted practice is not about getting some special state of mind. Wholehearted practice requires that we keep the vow to benefit all beings warm in our breast pocket as we throw ourselves completing into the now. As Ikkyu put it:

raging in the now hungry for it
crows rattle the air no dust

Hakuin excavates the process further: “Bore in no matter what you are doing, bore deeper and deeper until you completely exhaust all your resources and run completely out of words. When you have exhausted all your resources and are at a total and utter loss, the fellow will unexpectedly appear. When you run into [the One Person] without warning, and only then, you will experience a joy of unprecedented depth and intensity. You will soar like the phoenix when it breaks free of the golden net, like the crane that is liberated from its pen” (CPB #8).

In “Gudō’s Lingering Radiance,” Hakuin describes the process for student and teacher like this: “This kōan [,the sound of one hand,] is like an iron stake. It drives [you] into a corner. [You] must gnaw away at it from all sides. Hold it up and examine it from every angle. No matter how much [you] suffer, no matter how tired [you] become, even if [you] seem to be on the brink of death, [you] will get no help from me at all. [You must] exhaust all your skills, run out of words and rational means.”

How much time does it take?

James Myoun Ford Roshi recently wrote, “I’ve observed movement of the heart, actual changes in how one encounters life that can be associated with Zen meditation – if one sits at a minimum about half an hour a day, most days.”

He goes on to add occasional retreats, checking in with a spiritual director (aka, a Zen teacher), dharma study, and koan introspection.

In my view, James’ suggested minimum is right for a “movement of the heart, actual changes in how one encounters life.” They are sufficient to enter the Zen path, but not enough for most people to kenshō as clear as the palm of your hand, the standard Hakuin uses six times in CPB. In my experience, for most people, a clear kenshō usually takes considerably more than that. I recommend an hour a day of zazen and at least 20 days of sesshin a year. Maybe I’m just a slow learner and work with slow learners (no offense intended).

But I also I think of the old Zen sound bite, “Little shout, little echo; big shout, big echo.”

You might ask, “For how long? How long must I shout?”

There is no guarantee. Some people kenshō quickly, some even during their first sesshin. Some take several years. I’ve known one person who devoted himself to mu for forty years. He stayed with it through many changes in life, including about a decade in monastic practice and years of psychotherapy, until he finally kenshōed as clear as the palm of his hand.

Caution: Hakuin said, “That is not the moment to relax your efforts. The more you attain, the greater you must strive. The deeper you enter, the greater must be your devotion to your practice. Such is the meaning of ‘the koan that is never completed’ [miryō kōan]” (CPB #147).

But there is something important that is missing in setting minimum standards or expectations like this in terms of how much time is necessary. It is also about how a practitioner practices on the cushion and off. A focussed, wholehearted sitting of thirty minutes is much more to the point than an hour of “withered sitting,” a phrase Hakuin uses disparagingly eleven times in CBP.

Remember, wholehearted practice arises from the altruistic aspiration to awaken in order to help others awaken. Its impact is extreme. Preferences for things like sleep and food fall away. Barriers like hating pain and longing for pleasure, drop off, much more than we imagined possible when we began.

When a question really begins to cook in us, throwing ourselves into it is not a matter of being macho or of discipline, dogma, or technique. It is about living through the heart’s innermost request. And a sincere eagerness to do whatever it takes arises spontaneously from this heart.

It also doesn’t depend on lifestyle. Whether you are living at home or in a monastery, intensive practice is possible. Some lifestyles may be more supportive of wholehearted practice than others, but when the true heart is stirred and barriers arise, we call out from the depths of this heart, “Barrier welcome!”


Dōshō 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 Rōshi and inka shomei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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January 7, 2018

Painting, "Bridge," by Hakuin
Painting, “Bridge,” by Hakuin

In my last post, Who Is This Hakuin Guy?, I gave some background for Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴, 1686 – 1768) and the record of his teachings, the recently published Complete Poison Blossoms from a Thicket of Thorn: The Zen Records of Hakuin Ekaku, translated by Norman Waddell. Like most radical reformulators of the buddhadharma (e.g., Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Huineng, Dōgen, etc.), Hakuin saw himself as holding true to the essence of the Zen way, rearticulating that essence, and innovating a method for its attainment. In this post, I want to give an overview of what Hakuin taught, especially about kenshō,  hopefully holding it up as a mirror for our times.

By the way, kenshō (見性) means “seeing [true] nature or essence.”

Hakuin freely and refreshingly stresses the importance of kenshō. In his long verse, “78. Instructions to the Assembly at the Opening of a Lecture Meeting on the Lotus Sutra,” the primary source for this post, Hakuin begins with these two lines:

“Anyone who seeks to master the Buddha’s Way/Must begin by attaining a kenshō of total clarity.”

If you are so inclined, you can read more about kenshō over at James Myōun Ford Roshi’s Monkey Mind, especially, “What is Enlightenment: Zen & the Nature of Awakening.”

The importance of kenshō

Speaking of James Myōun Ford Roshi, he recently wrote, “As I see it first and foremost Zen is about awakening.”

It’s fair to say that not all Zen folks agree about that primacy of kenshō. For example, in a recent exchange of views, another Zen priest and teacher from one of the large Sōtō centers described the attitude of his institution as “rabidly anti-kenshō.”

Now, synonyms for kenshō include awakening, enlightenment, and satori. And the “buddh” in Buddhism means “awake,” so we Buddhists might call ourselves “Awake-ists.” If only it rolled off the tongue….

In any case, and whatever it’s called, I find it really surprising that a Buddhist group would be rabidly anti it.

As is often the case, support for contemporary predilections of Sōtō practitioners is found in the words of the thirteenth century founder of the Sōtō lineage in Japan, Dōgen. Sure enough, he had an issue with the word “kenshō.” “Seeing into mind and seeing into essence,” he wrote in his “Mountain and Rivers Sutra,” “is the activity of people outside the way.”

What Dōgen seemed to be saying here is that if you think you have some experience that reveals “mind” or “essence” as a thing, you are off to see the wizard, skipping along the yellow brick road of delusion. Of course, our Zen way is about intimacy and identity action, or as he expressed it kōanically, “Green mountains are always walking.”

Fair enough.

Now, I’d like to note that when it comes to words, Dōgen was quite a nitpicker. He also didn’t like the word “Zen,” but we still use that word widely, so why not “kenshō?” I’m wondering if those that are rabidly anti-kenshō are against the word, as Dōgen was, or against what it represents – awakening – which Dōgen wasn’t.

For me, experiences of awakening have been central to my Zen process. And so I find Hakuin’s emphasis so clear, and, yes, supportive of my predilections. In my view, the word that we use to describe the experience is not so important. How about respectfully hearing Dōgen’s concern about the possible misuse of the word “kenshō” and then moving on?

Which is what I’d like to do in this post. Although, clearly, after forty years of Dōgen study, I’m finding that challenging! Still, I’ll keep working on it during this year of Wild Fox Zen blog Hakuin focus.

Back to Hakuin

His first line opening his lecture on the Lotus Sutra Hakuin says, “Anyone who seeks to master the Buddha’s Way,” has a couple significant points. First, this Way is wide open – “Anyone.” You don’t have to be a Zen marine, really smart, or really healthy in every way. The important first point is this: “Anyone.”

Second, Hakuin implicitly recognizes that there are a variety of motivations for practice, including health, well-being, favorable rebirth, and personal effectiveness. In other passages in the Complete Poison Blossoms, Hakuin affirms and works with these and many other motivations. But here Hakuin is talking to is those who want to master the Buddha Way, the process of awakening.

If you are so motivated to master the Buddha Way, then Hakuin argues that you “…must begin by attaining a kenshō of total clarity.” How could you be a master of awakening if you’ve not experienced an awakening? But it’s not just any awakening that Hakuin recommends but a “kenshō of total clarity.”

Kenshō experiences, abrupt embodiments of nonduality, come with a wide-variety of characteristics, including special effects that can confuse and distract us from the heart of the matter – the intimate knowledge of self-and-other – and obscure the clarity that we-and-the-world itself are at once lacking in any abiding substance, and we-and-the-world are one within the great play of interaction, interdependence, and interpenetration.

Finally, also implicit in this passage is Hakuin’s predilection that kenshō is the beginning of the Buddha Way, not the end. To “… think experiencing kenshō is enough,” he writes, is “… a great fraud.”

It’s also important to note that kenshō is a part of our human inheritance and is really quite common, therefore, it makes sense to position kenshō in the beginning of the life of practice. That said, however, not everyone who diligently practices experiences kenshō, at least not in the time frame that they prefer. This also is an important topic that I’m going to kick down the road to future posts.

In future posts, I’ll also address Hakuin’s view of how to realize kenshō. For now, I’ll just note that one of the great virtues of working with a kōan teacher, is that after kenshō, there is a brilliant system for culling, clarifying, and cultivating verification.

Post kenshō practice

Hakuin continues,

“When it is as clear as a fruit lying in your hand/Crack the secret ciphers of the Eastern Mountain”

So, “a fruit lying in your hand,” gives us a sense of how clear “clear” is. It’s really obvious. “How could I have missed that I have a mango in my hand? Amazing!”

Waddell notes that “Secret ciphers or ‘passwords’ (angō-rei) originally referred to secret passwords used by soldiers in wartime; here it means potent kōans, generally.”

And it’s quite nice that, in English, “cipher” also means “zero.” And so we have here a found kōan – “quickly, crack zero!”

“Eastern Mountain” is a specific reference that Hakuin seems to mean more generally, to paraphrase Waddell, as Zen utterances of marvellous efficacy. Hakuin lists eight kōans, secret ciphers, that are fitting for post-kenshō practice, including “Huang-lung planting vegetables by the zazen seat.” I’ll return to this kōan soon.

Then after you’ve passed through these post-kensho kōan, Hakuin encourages us to take up a couple sutras as secret ciphers, specifically the Lotus and Vimalakirti sutras. This is really creative! “I have always lamented Zen’s ignorance of the sutras,” writes Hakuin, “Monks plodding ahead aimlessly like blind donkeys.”

Hakuin continues, “Unless you grasp their meaning, even with kenshō/You will fall unawares into the abyss of emptiness.” And on the other hand, “And if you read the scriptures without having kenshō/You’re only a parrot imitating someone else’s speech.”

Again, realizing emptiness, another way of languaging kenshō, is just the first step. If we get stuck there, “squatting inside attainment,” we will be sick through and through. “Bodhisattvas of superior capacity,” Hakuin writes, “dwell in the dusty realm of differentiation, constantly carrying out their practice amid an infinite variety of distinctions.”

Vowing to share kenshō with others

And now we come to the heart of Hakuin’s contribution to our Zen way.

“I want you [people] to keep the ancients’ practice in mind,” says Hakuin in his Lotus Sutra introduction, “While spurring the vow-wheel on to save living beings.”

Hakuin came this realization at age forty-two while reading the Lotus Sutra’s chapter on “Skillful Means.” As Waddell notes it in Wild Ivy: The Spiritual Autobiography of Zen Master Hakuin, “In that chapter, the Buddha reveals to his disciple Shariputra the true nature of the Mahayana Bodhisattva, whose own enlightenment is but the first step in [their] career of assisting others to attain theirs.” 

Cracking the secret ciphers of the ancients, and then repaying our great debt of gratitude by aiding others are equal, mutually reinforcing aspects of post-kenshō training. One of Hakuin’s outstanding contributions to our practice is the visceral way he connects the heart of the way, the altruistic vow to save all beings, beginning with our first steps on the path, resolving to realize kenshō, realizing kenshō, and then working through difficult-to-pass kōans in order to share awakening with others. Thus the Bodhisattva Vows, beginning with “Beings are numberless; I vow to free them,” are made incredibly concrete.


Dōshō 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 Rōshi and inka shomei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. He is the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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June 26, 2015

Old album_6 Eko HashimotoThe friendly-looking monk in the photo is Hashimoto Eko Roshi (1890-1965).

In about 1948, the young Katagiri Roshi heard Hashimoto Roshi say, “Sit down, become Buddha.”

Katagiri, then a new monk at Eiheiji, previously a failure in kamikaze school (he couldn’t get the training glider to fly straight toward the target) and a champion marathon runner, soon participated in his first Rohatsu sesshin. He determined to sit in full lotus no matter what, and even when he passed out and was dragged out of the zendo and thrown into the snow, he came to, and came back into the zendo, pulling his legs into full lotus.

Many years later, Katagiri Roshi reported how “Sit down, become Buddha,” had penetrated his heart and motivated him to throw himself into zazen wholeheartedly. Like really wholeheartedly, sitting down, becoming Buddha.

Hashimoto Roshi was one of the most important 20th Century Soto Zen teachers, and part of the Dogen revival movement that included Sawaki Kodo Roshi (branching into the Uchiyama and Deshimaru lines) and Kishizaza Ian Roshi (Suzuki Roshi’s dharma teacher).

Hashimoto Roshi was also a clear voice in the zazen-as-a-koan-free zone interpretation of Dogen’s teaching.

One of the themes that I’ve been working through in this blog for the last few years is that both just-sitting and koan introspection Zen are really about the same fundamental point and that the differences between the two approaches are often overstated for Japanese sectarian purposes that can now be released as Zen enters the global arena. I’ve argued, for example, that for Dogen, koan introspection and just-sitting were one and the same practice, that the version of just-sitting advocated by the narrative of the post-Meiji Soto orthodoxy often lacks wisdom teeth, and that verifying the truth of the buddhadharma for oneself (aka, kensho or satori) is vitally important.

In this post, I look at the sayings of three central figures in the post-Meiji Soto orthodoxy, Hashimoto Roshi, Sawaki Roshi, and Bokusan Roshi. I’ll suggest that these old teachers used koan and advocated for kensho while saying that they didn’t. In other words, the difference between their just-sitting approach and koan introspection was largely semantic and a question of emphasis.

First, Hashimoto Roshi’s statement, “Sit down, become Buddha,” is a fine example of a koan and Katagiri Roshi’s approach to it, embodying it fully, is a fine (and, yes, zealous) example of how to be the koan.

Some American apologists for the post-Meiji Soto orthodoxy insist that teachers like Katagiri Roshi and Hashimoto Roshi didn’t use koans in their teaching or claim, “Of course, there are koans in Soto Zen, but just not in zazen.”

“Sit down, become Buddha,” however, was intended for zazen. Hashimoto Roshi strongly encouraged the monks at Eiheiji to “sit down” in zazen and “become Buddha” on the cushion. Katagiri Roshi followed his instruction and focussed his zazen to this very practice of enlightenment.

I wonder what Hashimoto Roshi thought a koan was if “Sit down, become Buddha” wasn’t one for him. It’s curious how a great teacher like Hashimoto Roshi might have started out with the premise, “We don’t do koans,” but then taught a koan for the practice of just sitting – exactly what Dogen did, by the way (e.g., used koan to teach just sitting).

Second, Sawaki Kodo Roshi (1880-1965) in his recent Commentary of the Song of Awakening, writes, “When zazen is strong, suddenly at one stroke you realize the zen of the Buddha. That is to say, you grasp that you are Buddha.”

This example compliments the “Sit down, become Buddha” koan of Hashimoto Roshi and the similarity between what both of these masters’ sayings and Matsu’s koan “This very mind is Buddha” (Gateless Barrier, Case 30) is striking. Sawaki Roshi’s utterance, however, more clearly emphasizes a particular quality of zazen, strong sitting, that brings forth the identity of practitioner and Buddha: “You grasp that you are Buddha.”

In the koan-introspection tradition, the experience Sawaki Roshi encourages might be regarded as kensho, and could provide the basis for successive koan training while also illuminating what just-sitting is really about.

My third example of relatively recent Soto masters using a koan while saying they didn’t comes from Nishiari Bokusan Roshi (1821-1910). In his commentary on Dogen’s Genjokoan he says this:

“When the old teachers presented their essential teaching, they each had one phrase that none of their predecessors had chosen, and on which they based their teaching. With this phrase they penetrated a whole lifetime. Teachers in the past did not have two phrases. Therefore, that one phrase expressed their Dharmakaya [i.e., “truth body’]. For example, the “One Bright Jewel” of Xuansha, the “Cypress Tree” of Zhaozou, and “This very mind is Buddha” of Mazu are all words of iron never spoken by anyone before. With one phrase they thrust forward the suchness of the cosmos, and set in motion the same wheel of dharma as the Buddha. The same thing can be said of Dogen. He sees straight through the world of the ten directions as Genjokoan, which are his words of iron. When this phrase is cracked, the ninety-five fascicles appear here and there as branches of it. For that reason, the lifetime teaching of Dogen is all in the one phrase, Genjokoan.”

When one phrase is cracked, the truth body of Dogen and all the fascicles of the Shobogenzo are cracked. Crack one, crack all. Cut one, cut all. The resonance with what he’s saying here and the koan reformer Dahui’s punchline method, taking up a keyword like the mu koan and breaking through (kensho-ing), is unmistakable.  Punchlines would also be “One Bright Jewel,” any of Bokusan’s other examples, or, according to Bokusan, Dogen’s Genjokoan. Clearly, Bokusan draws an exact comparison between the koans of the great masters and Dogen’s Genjokoan.

A proponent of the post-Meiji Soto Orthodoxy, though, might again protest, “Yeah, but Bokusan certainly doesn’t say to sit with Genjokoan in zazen.”

Perhaps not, but Bokusan does give very mu-like koan instructions for working Genjokoan, “Then what in the world isGenjokoan‘? First of all, you should get it right down in your hara. This cannot be done solely by thinking.”

Sounds an awful lot like the instructions for sitting zazen with mu.

And yet, in the same work, Bokusan derides koan introspection:

“When you do zazen, you should become zazen thoroughly. There is no need to bring in the koans. If you work on koans during zazen, the koan becomes the master and zazen becomes the attendant. Thus zazen is no longer zazen. To abide at ease in steadfast non-thinking is the bull’s-eye of zazen. Other schools aside, the dharma descendants of Dogen Zenji should study Dogen Zenji’s Buddha dharma.”

To think that in koan introspection, the koan is the master and zazen is the attendant, is a profound misunderstanding of koan introspection.

Hashimoto Roshi, Sawaki Roshi, and Bokusan Roshi, great teachers though they were, may not have realized that what they were teaching and koan introspection were one and the same, nor that there descriptions of really sitting or really genjokoan-ing could also be called “kensho-ing.” The main difference between their teachings cited here and the koan introspection narrative lies in how in koan introspection a process is offered for unfolding an initial realization. That just-sitting Zen, and none of these teachers, as far as I know, offers such thing, in my view, is not something to boast about.

Nevertheless, in terms of koan and kensho, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, I’d say, it’s a duck.

Katagiri Roshi thought that now was the time, and that the West might be the place, to return to the Zen of the 6th Ancestor, before the split into the Rinzai and Soto lineages. I agree. Let’s move beyond sectarian posturing in our global dharma dialogue, celebrate our commonalities, and support each other in this great work.

July 13, 2020

In 2009, I had the pleasure of teaching at what is now the Zen Life & Meditation Center in Chicago. After the teaching event, the teachers, Robert Joshin Althouse and June Ryushin Tanoue, graciously invited several other local Zen teachers over for dinner. The group included a couple of mysterious figures from Daiyuzenji Rinzai Zen Temple, So’zan Miller and Meidō Moore. I say “mysterious,” because neither I nor the Zen folks I hung out with had anything more than scant knowledge of the Omori Rinzai Zen lineage in the US.

My sense of So’zan Miller and Meidō Moore was that these were grounded, well-trained, and like-minded practitioners. So’zan, at one point, mentioned that Meidō, then in his early 40’s, would be starting a Rinzai Zen monastery in rural Wisconsin. I remember thinking that he was just the guy for the job.

Scroll ahead just a little more than a decade and you’ll find that Meidō Rōshi has established Korinji, a satellite group in Madison, written two books – The Rinzai Zen Way: A Guide to Practice and the forthcoming Hidden Zen: Practices for Sudden Awakening & Embodied Realization (now available for pre-order here)  hosts the best Zen page on Facebook (Rinzai Zen Discussion), and widely teaches Zen and martial arts. And that list is quite abbreviated. Indeed, Meidō is a person with a broad and impressive skill set (see Bright Forest Forge at Etsy, for example), not limited to traditional Rinzai Zen practice.

The Omori Rinzai Zen lineage, hidden no more, is a branch of the Inzan line of modern Rinzai Zen. Daiun Harada Rōshi, in whose lineage I am a sixth generation successor, received inka shomei from Dokutan Sosan Rōshi in the other main Rinzai branch, the Takuju line. “Inzan” and “Takuju” are the names of two of the successors of Hakuin Zenji’s successor, Gasan Jitō Zenji, whose lineages have continued to the present day. What’s the difference between their two lines?

“Inzan and Takuju had completely different personalities. Inzan was vigorous, very dynamic; Takuju was meticulous, very careful in his study. And thus two koan systems developed, having the characteristics of each teacher: one very dynamic, and one system requiring you to be very meticulous in examining all elements of each point of a koan.” (1)

The Omori lineage is a branch of the Inzan line and emphasizes art and body practice.  The Korinji website summarizes the focal point of the Omori lineage as “…the unity of Zen-ken-sho: literally, Zen, the Sword (martial arts or physical culture), and the Brush (fine arts).”

This emphasis on martial arts and the fine arts, although present in varying degrees in most other Zen lineages, is probably the most distinctive feature of the Omori line.

Critique of Zen in the West

Meidō Rōshi is a critic of some aspects of Zen in the West, especially regarding how many lineages have jettisoned their traditional collection of training tools for psycho-physical embodiment in favor of modernity, and so are left with a merely psychological teaching and practice. “Zen in the head,” in other words, but not the awesome presence of active buddhas.

Meidō Rōshi writes,

“But whatever the origins of this modern approach (and whatever beliefs one may have about what happens when we die), this at least must be stated: in the Rinzai Zen view, a purely psychological realization is mostly conceptual and so inevitably shallow. It is a mirage, lacking sufficient power to cut the roots of ignorance in a lasting manner. More bluntly: it is not the awakening of Zen and is unworthy of comparison with the profound attainment for which the great Zen masters labored so exhaustively. The fruition of Zen practice must be experienced as a wholly psycho-physical transformation of the human being, causing not only experiential change within the mind but also visible change in the body.” (1)

Some who’ve simplified Zen or attempted to eliminate “cultural elements” that are off-putting or perplexing to modern Western people might respond that Americanizing was necessary to bring Zen into Western culture in this time. Still, it could be counter-argued that the Boomer generation of Zen teachers, with more than a tinge of Western cultural arrogance, have often not fully respected the integrity of the training tool kit they inherited from their teachers, and so were quick to blur things up. Too much emptiness, so to speak. Meidō Rōshi seems to be compensating for that.

Which begs the question: are there enough interested practitioners in a full collection of methods, ensconced in pre-modern Japanese culture, for the Omori lineage to continue? Time will tell. Meidō Rōshi acknowledges what I’ve also seen: “Persons willing to undergo the truly arduous path of lifelong Zen training are becoming even less common than in the past.”

Two entries: principle and practice

A sidebar from Bodhidharma’s Two Entrances:

“Now, in entering the path there are many roads. To summarize them, they reduce to two types. The first is entrance by principle, and the second, entrance by practice.” (2)

Dōgen (1200-1253), founder of the Japanese Sōtō lineage, was all about principle (理  or “inner pattern”). Pick up the Shobogenzo almost anywhere and you get the inner pattern through a firehose. The downside of inner-pattern focus is that it can become ideology, lacking in skillful means to help beings actualize it.

Dàhuì (1089–1163), a seminal teacher in the Chinese Línjì lineage, was clearly a practice guy (行, practice, doing, religious acts, deeds, or exercises, aka, method). He focused on refining a method for helping people realize kenshō by arousing Great Doubt, gaining energy for the way, and skillfully employing the keyword (e.g., mu). Throughout his career Dàhuì seems to have continued this inquiry, modifying his teaching practice based on experience.

The downside of the focus on method is that everything can become a tool. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes the sound of the han is just the sound of the han.

Principle and practice, then, are two entries. One of them isn’t better than the other. Think two foci in intimate dialogue. Some of the great teachers were inclined to emphasize one of the gates more than the other, due to their personal proclivities, and the needs of the times.

Meidō Rōshi, in my view, is a method teacher and says this about principle and method (creatively collapsing the distinction):

“It is naturally incumbent upon Zen teachers in each generation to maintain the core principles of practice, while also seeking innovative ways to present the teachings in a manner matching the needs of contemporary people (whether that is by according with current conditions or decisively challenging them). Yet principles are transmitted using methods and forms, and the process of adaptation and transformation is most successfully accomplished when allowed to happen organically” (emphasis added).


Hidden Zen is a different kind of Zen book. Most Zen books talk about Zen or unpack the Zen narrative. Hidden Zen offers detailed instruction for how to do Zen. Indeed, perhaps due to Meidō Rōshi’s extensive experience teaching aikidō, he presents sometimes complex practices in a step-by-step and easily followed manner with the ease of a master teacher.

“I should say, though,” Meidō Rōshi writes, “that this book is not titled Hidden Zen because these instructions are intentionally concealed or stamped as secret; in most instances this is not the case. Rather, they are simply things that one is not likely to encounter as an observer, a casual practitioner, or outside the circle of a committed teacher-student relationship.”

Hidden Zen has dozens of exercises divided into two parts – “Direct Pointing” and “Internal Energetic Cultivation.” “Direct Pointing” includes “Spreading Out the Vision,” “Bowing,” “Walking in a Fearful Place,” and “Silent A-Un Breathing.” “Internal Energetic Cultivation” include exercises like “Radiating Vital Energy,” “Basic Tanden Soku (breathing),” and “Fukushiki Kokyu (abdominal breathing),” and the best description of Hakuin’s “Nanso No Ho Practice (soft-butter method)” in print.

Some of these methods are hardwired within the forms of the training hall and others unpack the inner dynamic of practices that often are not explicitly taught.

Meidō Rōshi notes that, “Within both the Soto and Rinzai schools there are in fact many different teaching lines, and these often preserve rather varied—and incredibly interesting—practice material reflecting the histories and interests of lineage ancestors.”

Indeed, a similar book could be written that unpacks the inner workings of the forms of traditional Sōtō Zen, although most lineages in the US have modified and abbreviated these forms, as mentioned above, inadvertently and often unknowingly squeezing out the deep and ancient intelligence that the training forms embody.

Shunryū Suzuki Rōshi is reported to have said, “If I come back here twenty years after my death, you will all be Lutherans.”

He was partly right. Fifty years after his death, many Western Zen priests are Lutherans in Zen robes.

Frosting on the Hidden Cake

Hidden Zen culminates and closes with two especially vivid sections. The first is “Approaching Koan through the Body,” where Meidō Rōshi unpacks Mumon’s (Chinese, Wúmén) classic instructions for how to fully embody the mu koan, beginning with “Arouse your entire body with its three hundred and sixty bones and joints and its eighty-four thousand pores of the skin.”

Meidō writes: “In these first few precious words, Mumon sums up the situation completely and presents the core of koan practice freely, hiding nothing at all. To work with this practice of penetrating the wato (keyword) ‘Mu’ you must use your whole being. ‘Three hundred and sixty bones and joints’ and ‘eighty-four thousand pores of the skin’ taken together means your entire body-mind.

“What does this mean practically? It is that one must unify the whole body-mind with the wato. Joining with the koan in samadhi, exhaling the wato ‘Mu’ with each breath through the whole body and down into the tanden, and causing it thus to ride upon the radiating energetic currents that permeate the body, this ‘Mu’ must be encountered within and digested by means of every fiber of one’s flesh and bone. There is a common instruction given in this regard that one should put the wato or koan in one’s belly and work on it there. But even more than these words for beginners, we should say that the koan must eventually come alive within one’s entire frame through tanden soku: the bodily way of breathing ‘Mu’ with one’s whole being that causes it to percolate through the entire body-mind.”

The second is the “Conclusion: Kyosei’s Voice of the Raindrops” from a teisho given at Korinji:

“Sometimes students ask me about direct pointing in Zen. People ask me to point something out, to cause them to have an experience. I’ve actually received requests like that a few times by email: ‘Can you make me have kensho?’

“But I wish people had more confidence. They don’t know that they are the direct pointing. They don’t recognize that the holy one who reveals the truth and the bodhisattva who works endlessly, lifetime after lifetime, to benefit beings isn’t out there in the rain. They don’t recognize that the original face of Zen isn’t attached to someone else’s head.”

Meidō Rōshi has written a powerful how-to-do Zen book. I suggest, though, that if you are interested in Zen training, that you don’t mistakenly believe you can learn it from a book, even such a fine book. Find a teacher. Meidō Rōshi, for instance. And don’t waste time.

(1)Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman, On Zen Practice, 84.

(2) All Meidō Rōshi quotations are from Hidden Zen: Practices for Sudden Awakening and Embodied Realization, by Meido Moore Rōshi, (Shambhala, 2020).

(3) The Bodhidharma Anthology, “Two Entrances,” trans., Jeffrey L. Broughton, 9.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. 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 Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

May 31, 2020

Kenshō: Seeing Nature

Let’s get right down to it

Break through is a must if you want to verify the truth of this one great life and not just take others’ words for it, hiding behind the Buddha’s robes, as it were. Or hiding inside your own robes. Hiding in the bells and smells of Zen orthodoxy. Or spending a dharma career trying to talk others into believing that non-enlightenment is really enlightenment. Exhausting!

Rather than just do a little bit of good for a short period of time, the aspiring bodhisattva vows to profoundly benefit living beings by helping them awaken. As I said above, for this, break through is a must. You can’t help beings break through unless you’ve done it your-nonself. Then, in addition to the exquisite joy that comes from doing what can be done with this life, blabbing on about it might just flow from your heart.

A more typical message – in contrast to saying break through is a must – was exemplified in a dharma talk I recently heard from a teacher in one of the large Sōtō centers in America. The speaker said that because aspiring to awaken is a desire like any other desire, and that awakening doesn’t come when we want it, and when some people awaken and others do not, it creates an unsettling power dynamic in the community, they do not emphasize break through at all in their community, and instead emphasize how we’re all already Buddhas.

First, if you cannot tell the difference between the desire for fame and gain and aspiring to awaken for the benefit of all living beings, I’d suggest attending to these feelings with more subtle mindfulness, and see what you find.

Just because you can quote Sawaki Rōshi doesn’t make it true.

And, yes, there are issues that arise when we focus on kenshō, but if Buddhism stops being about awakening, what’s the point? We have psychotherapy, secular mindfulness, pharmacology, Netflix, and many other things to help people feel better, so if Zen practice is not about awakening, and instead is about becoming a “ceremonial technician,” for example, the end of Zen is near at hand. And appropriately so.

Don’t throw awakening out with the bathwater!

In contrast, here is the attitude that Dàhuì recommends:

“I vow that this mind of mine will be firm and will never retrogress. Relying on the protection of the buddhas, I will meet a good teacher, at a single word from them forget life-death, realize unexcelled perfect awakening, and perpetuate the wisdom-life of the buddhas, in order to repay my debt of enormous gratitude to the buddhas.” (1)

So refreshing!

Dàhuì himself made this additional vow:

“I would rather substitute this body of mine for that of all sentient beings and undergo sufferings in the hells than ever with my words compromise the buddhadharma [by bending to accommodate] customary etiquette and in the process blinding everyone [i.e., what I am about to say to you is not a case of bending to accommodate your feelings].” (2)

Well, I’ve totally jumped the gun of this post, placing the cart in front of the horse. To paraphrase the translators’ bracketed clarification, what I’ve said to you is not a case of bending to accommodate your feelings. But I grew up with in-depth training in Northern Minnesota nice, which means I’ve just got to add, “Sorry about that.”

Before this kenshō rant, I should have said that this is the ninth of ten posts in this series, so now, after the horse left the barn nearly six-hundred words ago, I’ll share the usual series introduction and disclaimer:

In the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjuétranslators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe offer nine themes, motifs, that emerge in the letters about how to do keyword practice (話頭 huàtóu, Japanese, watō). I’ve been sharing them on the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training for students working with keywords (e.g., mu), and I’ll also be sharing them here for others who might be interested. Close study of an ancient text can help both students and teachers notice details of the method and refresh their practice spirit. If you are working with a keyword with another teacher, consult with them, of course, and rely on their guidance.

Theme 8: You must “break through” or “pass through” the keyword

This breaking through or passing through leads to a state wherein you don’t have to ask anything of anybody—you know for yourself:

Letter #29.3: “Also, if your mind is agitated, just lift to awareness the keyword of ‘dog has no buddha-nature’ [i.e., wu/mu/no 無]. The words of the buddhas, the words of the ancestors, the words of the old monks of all the regions have myriad differences; but, if you can break through this word mu 無, you’ll break through all of them at the very same time, without having to ask anyone anything. If you intently ask questions of other people about the words of the buddhas, about the words of the ancestors, and about the words of the old monks of all the regions, then in endless aeons you’ll never attain awakening! (3)


Breaking through all the words and teachings of the buddhas and ancestors in one stroke? Possible. And the only one way to find out if you’ve done it is to find a teacher that’s done rigorous training and check your understanding. Probably, you’ve (at best) knocked a hole in the wall. However, if you are really clear, like clear-as-Shakyamuni clear, why not inquire of others, and play together with the dharma mud ball?

Some of the practitioners I’ve met who have come to me reporting a previous kenshō, actually have. And a fair number, the majority, have mistaken samadhi or boon experiences for kenshō. Others seem to have had a glimpse of true nature, but it’s become a calcified part of their identity, and so putting it to use in ongoing practice verification to benefit others, takes some time and skillful practice.

But despite what Dàhuì seems to be saying from this extract about not needing to ask anyone anything, the full text and annotations makes it clear that he is addressing another issue – instead of doing the practice of lifting the keyword, Secretariat Drafter Lü, to whom letter #29 is addressed, was inquiring about traveling around asking questions of various teachers, depleting his energy for the Way. In that context, Dàhuì encourages him to do diligent keyword practice and see for himself.

Just like old Dōgen said, “Why abandon your own sitting place, disrespectfully wandering through another country’s dust? If you make one mistaken step, you miss the crossing over that is in your face.” (4)

Traveling around with straw sandals, or via Zoom, in order to collect an impressive bevy of stories, “Teachers I’ve Asked About the Dharma,” is a waste of precious time. Focus! Only doing diligent practice will open up awakening, not the number of hours you log on Facebook or Twitter either! And with awakening, personally knowing the truth of the buddhadharma, rather than relying on the words of others, no matter how venerable they might be, such that you can truly be of service to the many beings wandering in life-death.

In other words, asking a well-trained and clear-eyed teacher about the dharma ain’t going to magically awaken you.


Unless and until you do the work and suddenly are ready, like the persimmon that goes SPLAT! Working with a teacher, breaking through, verifying your kenshō in face-to-face meetings, and benefiting others is the Way.

Secretariat Drafter Lü might be the type of guy (yes, they’re almost always guys), who after a dharma talk begin a “question” with, “Well, Katagiri/Suzuki/Uchiyama/Maezumi (etc.) Rōshi once said, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Where does this end?

(1) The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pǔjué, “1.4: Shows the mental work necessary to extinguish habit-energy from past lives,” trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe. Modified.

(2) Op. cit.,  “7.1: Dahui certifies Li’s awakening.”

(3) Op. cit., “Introduction: Recurring Motifs in Huatou Practice.”

(4) Eihei Dōgen, “Fukanzazengi,” (“General Advice for the Zazen Ceremony”), trans. Dosho Port.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. 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 Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

April 24, 2020


“When you truly understand this fundamental principle you will not be anxious about your life and death. You will then attain a steadfast mind and be happy in your daily life. Even though heaven and earth were turned upside down, you would have no fear. And if an atom bomb went off, you would not quake in terror.”  – Yasutani Rōshi (1)

When I read those words in 1977, they seemed so outrageous that I immediately sought out a teacher, and became a Zen student.

In this fourth post in the series, I’ll present and then briefly comment on Dàhuì’s third theme, “You must assume a stance of composure.” In addition, I’ll fill in some background on how Dàhuì cultivated the keyword method with his first student who realized kenshō, significantly, the nun Miàodào. 

First, the usual series introduction and disclaimer:

In the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pujue, translators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe offer nine themes, motifs, that emerge in the letters about how to do keyword practice (話頭 huàtóu, Japanese, watō). I’ve been sharing them on the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training for students working with keywords, and I’ll also be sharing them here for others who might be interested. Close study of an ancient text can help both students and teachers notice details of the method and refresh their practice spirit. If you are working with a keyword with another teacher, consult with them, of course, and rely primarily on their guidance.

Two entries: principal and practice

A sidebar from Bodhidharma’s Two Entrances:

“Now, in entering the path there are many roads. To summarize them, they reduce to two types. The first is entrance by principle and the second entrance by practice.”

Dōgen was all about principle (理  or “inner pattern”). Pick up the Shobogenzo almost anywhere and you get the inner pattern through a firehose. Dàhuì was clearly a practice guy (行, practice, doing, religious acts, deeds, or exercises, aka, method). He focussed on a refining a method for helping people realize kenshō by arousing Great Doubt and skillfully employing the keyword (e.g., mu). Throughout his career he seems to have continued this inquiry, modifying his teaching practice based on experience.

So principal and practice are two entries. One of them isn’t better than the other. Think two foci in intimate dialogue. Some of the great teachers were more inclined toward one of the gates than the other, due to their personal proclivities, and the needs of the times.

A woman does it again (and gets little credit)

It might help at this point in this series to offer a little more context about the development of the keyword method. I mentioned in a past post that Dàhuì was uncommonly devoted to householder and women practitioners. In fact, early in his career, he refined his keyword method with a nun, Miàodào, who first studied under the Cáodòng (Japanese, Sōtō) master, Zhēnxiē Qīngliăo (1088-1151; Japanese, Shinketsu Seiryō, aka Choro Seiryō, an ancestor in the Sōtō lineage that continues today).

In fact, Miàodào left a summer retreat with Qīngliăo – a really big deal – in order to train with Dàhuì. The fact that Dàhuì accepted a run-away nun reflects his characteristic lack of concern with being polite. He even made a vow, “Even if this body of mine is pulverized into minute atoms, I will never compromise the buddhadharma to accommodate customary etiquette.”

Turns out that Miàodào is the one person from whom we have recorded teachings translated into English (as far as I know) that studied with both Qīngliăo and Dàhuì. She said that she learned from Qīngliăo, also an inner-pattern type, that enlightenment was not an event. She learned from Dàhuì that, indeed, it was. This distinction is still present in the just-sitting and kōan introspection circles today. And both, of course, are correct. Again, rather than right and wrong, think two foci in intimate dialogue.

When Miàodào left the practice period with Qīngliăo, she joined a group of 70 practitioners, meeting one-to-one with Dàhuì twice every day. And even though Dàhuì had been teaching with intensity for several years, Miàodào was the first to realize kenshō. 

Here’s Dàhuì talking about his work with Miàodào:

“I raised [for her] Mazu’s ‘It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not a thing’ and instructed her to look at it. Moreover, I gave her an explanation: ‘You must not take it as a statement of truth. You must not take it to be something you do not need to do anything about. Do not take it as a flint-struck spark or a lightning flash. Do not try to divine the meaning of it. Do not try to figure it out from the context in which I brought it up. ‘It is not the mind, it is not the Buddha, it is not a thing;’ after all, what is it?

“…One day…she got a moment of joy. She soon wanted to come to spit out [her understanding]. I saw that she wanted to open her mouth and shouted ‘Ho!’ and said: ‘Wrong! Get out!’

“Why? Because I saw that what she had was not the real thing. For her heels had not touched earth. In this kind of moment, even though she had a moment of joy, as it says in the [canonical] teachings, ‘in front there is no new realization, and if one goes back, one has lost the old residence.’

“The old cave hole had already been torn down by me, but in front of her there was no dewelling to live in. When one reaches this point, for the first time there is no gate through which to advance or retreat.

“After a while she came again, bowed, and said: ‘I really do have entrance.’

“You could say that I coddled her like a beloved child. I stopped blocking her path and opened up a path in front of her. I asked her: ‘It is not mind, it is not a Buddha, it is not a thing. How do you understand this?’

“[She] said: ‘I only understand this way.’

“Before the sound of her words had died out, I said: ‘You added in an extra “only understand this way.’

“She suddenly understood. In the several years since I became a head seat and took up teaching, she was the first [of my students] to succeed in investigating Chan.”

Here’s Miriam Levering commenting on this:

“The very earliest example of Dàhuì’s [keyword] practice instruction in general and of his standard instructions in particular is thus this set of instructions to Miàodào. Miàodào’s success with these instructions must have been significant in confirming what became Dàhuì’s characteristic approach to teaching.” (2)

Miàodào eventually became one of Dàhuì’s dharma successors. And Dàhuì’s keyword innovation – honed through his work with Miàodào, and her diligent work with Dàhuì – swept through the Zen world faster than scholars can track it, like the proverbial arrow flying past Korea, and still stands as one of the greatest innovations in meditation practice since Buddha Shakyamuni.

You can thank a woman for that too.

(Finally) Theme 3: You must assume a stance of “composure”

Broughton and Watanabe: “The mental attitude required in general for [keyword] practice is composure. Letters of Dàhuì … stipulates that twenty-four hours a day the student is to “make themself composed.” The [keyword] practitioner is to be calm, quiet, leisurely, composed, and unhurried:”

Letter #20.2: “If you want to make suffering and joy indistinguishable, simply do not ‘rouse yourself to engird mind’ or ’employ your mind to quell delusive thought.’ Twenty-four hours a day make yourself ‘composed.’ If suddenly habit-energy from past births arises, don’t apply mental exertion to hold it in check. Merely, in the state where the habit-energy arises, keep your eye on the [keyword]: ‘Does even a dog have buddha-nature? No [wu 無].’ At just that moment [wu 無] will be ‘like a single snowflake atop a red-hot stove.’” (4)


1. “If you want to make suffering and joy indistinguishable,” that is, not to be tossed away by the 10,000 things, and see the unfolding of the buddhadharma through each and everything.

2. Practicing composure is really quite subtle in the manner that Dàhuì presents it with a couple near enemies. First, let’s look at the phrase that’s translated “composure.” It is made up of five ideograms (放教蕩蕩地), and includes the senses of being calm and poised, unbridled, unfettered, and grounded.

These five characters could be literally be translated like this: “let go of making the ground flutter.”

That is, be composed. How? In English, we might say “make yourself composed,” but the composure that Dahui is advocating is a form of nondoing, letting go of making the ground flutter.

Now about the near enemies. Dàhuì’s instruction first says “…do not rouse yourself to engird mind,” that is, do not encircle the thought/feeling of the moment with the keyword in order to contain or control what’s arising. The keyword can and usually is first employed to repress what’s happening so that the student might appear composed. Dàhuì, however, is encouraging the keyword student to be really composed. To let go of making the ground flutter. Don’t neglect this point!

Dàhuì also instructs, “Do not employ your mind to quell delusive thought.” Mu, for example, can be employed to quell disturbing thought/feeling. And it works! A wonderful discovery when a student begins diligent practice with a keyword and finds a new tool for their toolbox. And then the futility of the strategy sinks in.

Dàhuì describes this futility like this: “Even if their minds are temporarily ‘parked,’ it’s like grass with a stone pressing down on it—before you know it, it’s growing again.” (5)

Instead, a very important skill is to bring the keyword into the thought/feeling. Enfuse the thought/feeling with the keyword in the very place in the body mind where the thought/feeling is arising. Yes, let go of the focus on the tanden and even the hara.

“At just that moment [wu 無] will be ‘like a single snowflake atop a red-hot stove.’”

Notably, it is the keyword that evaporates! What happens to the thought/feeling – the red-hot stove? Investigate!

This post began with Yasutani Rōshi stressing how the mind post-kenshō is composed. Dàhuì emphasized that to realize kenshō, the mind must be composed. This kind of composure, letting go of making the ground flutter, is good at the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end.

(1) The Three Pillars of Zen, Rōshi Philip Kapleau, 86-87.

(2) The material on Miàodào and Dàhuì is from “Miao-tao and Her Teacher Ta-hui,” Miriam Levering, https://www.douban.com/group/topic/34099801/.

(3)  The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pujue, 58:4: Smashes perverse teachers.

(4) Ibid., “Introduction: Recurring Motifs in Huatou Practice,” trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe.

(5) Ibid., “10.4: Fu has violated Dahui’s directive to avoid perverse teachings.”

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. 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 Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

April 10, 2020

Sushi in a Bamboo Hat and Clogs

Some years ago, a Zen teacher was leading a sesshin for Catholic monastics. In the thick of third day, within the challenges of waking up early, sitting after sitting, rounds of the awakening stick, and vigorous face-to-face meetings, one of the brothers said, “Roshi, in our tradition, we rest in the silence of prayer, and let God work in us. Why is Zen so difficult?”

The Roshi responded, “In our tradition, we believe that God has already done the work.”

This is the spirit of all the ancient teachers in the Zen tradition: you have to do it on your own.

In the recent translation of The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pujue, translators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe offer nine themes, motifs that emerge in the letters about how to do keyword practice (話頭 huàtóu, Japanese, watō).

I recently began sharing these with students on the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support for Zen Training, particularly for students working on their first, break-through keyword. I’ll edit and expanded these posts and share here for others. (This, by the way, is the second in the series on the teaching of Dàhuì; see The Most Revered and Most Reviled Zen Master Ever for the first post).

In this post, I’ll share the first theme that Broughton and Watanabe identify in Dàhuì’s Letters, offer their examples of the theme in excerpts from Dàhuì‘s Letters, and add a couple comments. Specifically, I’ll address what it is that must be done on your own, and then look at what on your own means.

Theme 1: You Have To Do It On Your Own

Broughton and Watanabe summarize: “The practitioner cannot get awakening from anybody else. It must be accomplished on one’s own. Letters of Dàhuì speaks often of self-confidence, awakening on one’s own, and so forth.”

Letter #31.2: “The buddhas and [ancestors] have not a single teaching to give to people. All that is necessary is for the person on duty to have confidence on their own, give assent on their own, see on their own, awaken on their own.”

Letter #14.5: “The hilt of this sword lies only in the hand of the person on duty. You can’t have someone else do it for you. You must do it yourself. If you stake your life on it, you’ll be ready to set about doing it. If you’re not yet capable of staking your life on it, just keep pressing hard at the point where the uncertainty [aka doubt] is not yet smashed. Suddenly you’ll be ready to stake your life on one throw—done!” (1)

Do what?

The it that Dàhuì refers to here is to break birth-death mind. It isn’t primarily about stillness, or to sit in a specific pose. (2) The birth-death mind is the mind of dualism, the mind of gain and loss, I and thou. To break the birth-death mind is to see true nature (kenshō), to realize that there is truly nothing to get.

Doing it on your own will probably require an existential crisis. You might not feel good about your separate self while in the thick of the work. Keyword practice might illuminate and temporarily exacerbate your desperation, competition, and self-judgement. And there is no guarantee. So some Zen teachers these days discourage students from aiming at breaking the birth-death mind.

Dàhuì might say that this is like “jumping into the water to preempt the boat’s capsizing!” (3)

Importantly, it is not getting some special experience. Breaking the birth-death mind breaks the mind of having something to attain. “The person on duty right now,” wrote Dàhuì, “is naked, neat and tidy—there is nothing for them to grasp at.” (4)

God has already done the work.

On your own?

The keyboard is under your fingertips. The hilt of the sword of wisdom is in your hands.

Perhaps it seems obvious – you have to do it on your own – but you might investigate that sense that it is obvious. Is it really? This is especially important for those who’ve long struggled with a keyword without breaking the birth-death mind. Investigating the possibility that you are deferring responsibility in some clever way just might be crucial to your process.

One way to defer responsibility, to hide behind other-power, is to believe that someone (Buddha, God, the teacher) will magically do it for you. “If I could only be closer to the teacher! Then I’d break the birth-death mind! But now, I just do not have enough energy.”

Another way to defer responsibility for breaking the birth-death mind, also common these days, is to believe that the method will save you. As a student recently put it, “If I just return to the keyword again and again, isn’t that enough?” With this attitude, the practitioner may well do the method in a rote kind of way, full of faith in other-power, rather than taking full responsibility and applying energy with due diligence.

Dàhuì challenges these deferrals of responsibility. Now is the time. Here is the place.

A related issue is about where this practice takes place. Dàhuì’s medium for communication is letters, of course, not in-person work. In our time, I bet he’d be all over online platforms. In his many letters to householders he encourages diligent practice, and although the householders sometime mention wanting to practice directly with Dàhuì, he seldom suggests that this is necessary. Instead, he focuses on guiding people right where they are. Right in the lives that people have, without over emphasizing his role, or the monastery, and thereby encourages “you have to do it on your own.”

On your own and together

Working with your teacher, the ancestral teachers, the community near and far, all the many irksome beings, etc, doing it on your own does not negate them. After all, it is in supportive letters to students that Dàhuì tells them to do it on their own. Standing on your two feet also means realizing true connection.

Next up

Theme 2: You must generate a singular sensation of uncertainty.

(1) The Letters of Chan Master Dàhuì Pujue, “Introduction: Recurring Motifs in Huatou Practice,” translators Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe.

(2) “Breaking birth-death mind” (生死心破) is rendered by Broughton and Watanabe as “smashing the mind of samsara.”

(3) Op. cit., “2.4: Intellectual brilliance is an obstruction to one’s attaining realization.”

(4) Op. cit., “2.6: Also quotes an ancient worthy’s words to cut off intellectual understanding and kudzu-verbiage.”

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. 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 Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.


April 6, 2020

Dàhuì Pujue

Now that I’ve completed the manuscript edits for The Record of Empty Hall: One Hundred Classic Koans, the section of The Record of Xutang with his unexcelled capping phrases, translated and with comments by yours truly (coming to you in early 2021 from Shambhala), I’m back to doing some dharma study not directly related that project or to what I’m teaching on Vine of Obstacles or for Nebraska Zen Center.

What fell in my cyber lap is a newish (2017) version of The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue, translated by Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe. The translation also includes annotations from three sources – a great joy for a Zen geek like myself. The most quoted is by the extraordinary Rinzai scholar-monk Mujaku Dōchū (1653-1744), from the Japanese tradition, and the commentary that he worked on for decades, Pearl in a Wicker Basket.

In addition, Broughton and Watanabe offer selections from Notes on the Letters by the great Korean Sŏn master Chin’gak Hyesim (1178–1234), as well as another Korean source, Notes on Plucking Out Difficulties from the Letters, by an anonymous Korean monk.

Dàhuì’s teaching had a particularly powerful and long-lasting effect on Korean Sŏn, so it is especially fitting to include these annotations.

As I work through the text, I plan to blog about it, similar to how I maligned Hakuin’s teaching, but maybe not for a whole year as I did in that series. We’ll see how it goes. First up will be a series of nine posts on the nine themes that Broughton and Watanabe identify in the letters, directed to householders, by the way, who are working with keywords (Chinese, huàtóu, Japanese, watō) like mu in order to have an initial awakening.

For example, the first theme, “you have to do it on your own,” brings up some current issues like the difference between in-person vs. remote work (letters in Dàhuì’s world). Pretty darn fitting for this pandemic world.

And speaking of the pandemic, I find that the fruit of dharma study, reconnecting with deep sanity, incredibly refreshing, even if it is about a controversial figure, and not everybody is always behaving in the most awakened manner. That’s especially the case when dharma study is backed with zazen and engagement.

A bit of background on the controversial Dàhuì

Few if any figures in Zen history have elicited as much admiration and antipathy as Dàhuì (1089–1163). He trained rigorously with several Cáodòng teachers, Línjì teachers in the Huanglong line, and then finally with Yuánwù Kèqín, of The Blue Cliff Record fame, in the Yangqi line.

Dàhuì is reputed to have had eighteen great awakenings and innumerable small awakenings. Here is the report of one of his great awakenings:

Yuánwù said, ‘Once I asked [Wǔzǔ Fǎyǎn], “What about ‘being’ words and ‘nonbeing’ words which are like a wisteria vine clinging to a tree?”

Wǔzǔ said, ‘You cannot describe it, you cannot depict it.’

I asked further, ‘Suppose the tree falls and the vines die—what then?’

Wǔzǔ said, ‘How important their companionship is to them.’”

The minute I [Dàhuì] heard him raise this, I understood. I said, “I got it!”

Yuánwù said, “I am only afraid that you have not yet become able to pass through the [kōans].”

I said, “Please raise them.”

Yuánwù then raised a series of [kōans]. I cut through them in two or three revolutions. It was like setting out on a trip in a time of great peace—when you get on the road you encounter nothing to stop you.

Yuánwù said, ‘Now you know that I have not deceived you.’” (1)

Additional verifications for Yuánwù’s authorization of Dàhuì comes in the first letter in The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue. Vice Minister Ceng shares this: “I received a letter from your teacher, old Master Yuánwù. He praised you [Dàhuì] by saying that, even though you were a follower who came to him a little late in the day [at age 37], your attainment was singularly magnificent.” (2)

As a teacher, Dàhuì strongly emphasized the keyword method for realizing kenshō and harshly criticized, not always skillfully, the silent illumination practices of some folks within the Cáodòng lineage. For more, see Just Sit or Wake Up? A Tale of Two Old Teachers.

A scholar who focussed much of her career on Dàhuì, Miriam L. Levering, writes, “Dàhuì comes across as a brilliant, clear, inspiring teacher with a deep grasp of Chan practice as lived every day and an extraordinary gift for relating Buddhist philosophy and psychology to ordinary mental and emotional experiences.” (3)

The haters

In a moment, we’ll get to one of the all-time biggest Dàhuì haters, another most-revered Zen master, Dōgen. But Dōgen was not hating singularly. Dàhuì, after all, was sent into exile a couple times so those in imperial circles must also have been among the haters. In addition, Dàhuì made enemies in Cáodòng circles by being too upfront with his criticisms in a very unZen way.

First, this:

“In 1141 the official Li Hanlao, a longtime friend, wrote about the impression Dàhuì made on those who knew him in an inscription (ji) for Mount Jing to commemorate the opening of the new dormitory:

‘The master is the twentieth generation grandson of Línjì. His Way is broad, and those whom it attracts are myriad. His gate is steep, and those who climb it find it difficult [to live up to his strict standards]. His instructions hit the mark, and those who are enlightened under him feel close to him. His discussions are lofty, and those who listen are amazed. But, there are also people who become frightened and disconcerted by his lofty talk. Among his contemporaries, those who doubt him criticize and slander him. I know that there is gossip, defamation, and suspicion circulating about the master and cannot but feel enraged by this.'” (4)

“Enraged” and right there in an inscription for a dormitory! In addition, “gossip, defamation, and suspicion” – kinda odd for a dormitory plaque praising your teacher. What was going on that prompted Li Hanlao to lay that out there like that? I don’t know, but sounds like something someone would say in a passive-aggressive way on social media, and after pushing “send,” regret it.

Among those who were still defaming Dàhuì about one hundred years later was Dōgen. Yup. The founding Sōtō ancestor. Early in his career, though, Dōgen had praised Dàhuì thusly:

“Once Zen master [Dàhuì] had a swelling on his buttocks [apparently hemorrhoids]. A doctor took a look at it and said it was critical. [Dàhuì] asked, ‘Is it so serious that I might die?’

The doctor replied, ‘Possibly.’

[Dàhuì] said, ‘Well, I am going to die anyway, so I shall practice zazen that much harder.’

He pushed himself to sit and, eventually the swelling broke and went away. The mind of this ancient master was like this. When he got sick, he sat zazen all the more. Students of today, despite being well, don’t let up practicing zazen!'” (5)

Disclaimer: Neither the author nor anyone at Patheos (as far as I know) has actually undertaken this practice, nor do we recommend sitting on your hemorrhoids until they burst. Do not try this at home.

Anyway, later on, Dōgen had a much less flattering appraisal of Dàhuì, especially in “Self Realization Samadhi” (“Jishō zanmai”自證三昧) where he launches into a five-page rant, I believe it is the longest of the many rants in Shōbōgenzō, about what a faker Dàhuì was, how he shopped around for transmission, was seen as a total one-chopstick job by every teacher he ever had, and never really had a final awakening.

Here’s just a bit of Dōgen’s summary:

“But from beginning to end, [Dàhuì] did not seem to have a unique point of understanding. He did not show any point of understanding in his own lectures or talks. Know that the recorder of his words mentioned that he had had divine enlightenment or dharma of great ease and bliss, but did not admit that he had actually had realization. Do not take him seriously. He was merely a student. If we take up Yuánwù’s words and examine senior monk [Dàhuì], we see that he did not have wisdom close to that of his teacher and he did not have wisdom equal to his teacher. Furthermore, it seems that he had never dreamed of wisdom beyond his teacher. Thus, know that [Dàhuì] had less than half the capacity of his teacher. He only memorized lines from the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Shurangama Sutra and spoke about them. He was not yet the bones and marrow of buddha ancestors. (6)

Notably, Yuánwù, who Dōgen praises highly, seemed to have disagreed. Yuánwù gave Dàhuì transmission, after all, and regarded his “attainment was singularly magnificent,” if Yuánwù was a great teacher, as Dogen acknowledges, Dōgen, who didn’t know Dàhuì, seems to be just mouthing sectarianism. Gossip, defamation, and suspicion!

Even the great Dōgen, of course, had his issues, and here he reinterprets Dàhuì’s biography in a blatantly self-and-his-lineage serving way.

The whole five pages in “Self Realization Samadhi” is also notable in that Dōgen focuses his Dàhuì take-down on Dàhuì’s alleged lack of awakening, something that many in contemporary Sōtō Zen do not regard as important, and they support that misunderstanding by selectively citing Dōgen. Some argue that Dōgen didn’t have a definitive awakening. If he hadn’t, or if awakening wasn’t important for Dōgen, why go on for five pages? And Dōgen never even mentions Dàhuì’s most important contribution – culling out and highlighting the keyword method.


Love him or hate him, Dàhuì’s teaching had legs. Every kōan student for the last 1,000 years that received and embodied mu, owes him a debt of gratitude.

For a concise summary of his contributions, I turn to Miriam L. Levering:

“Dàhuì formulated and popularized the form of [kōan] study called “looking into and observing a saying,” the saying being a word, sentence, or phrase that crystallizes a specifically chosen [kōan] problem. This method of [kōan] study is sometimes called “inspecting the [keyword],” or in Chinese, kan huàtóu. This method of [kōan] study remained at the heart of most Chinese Chan training not only for the rest of the Song dynasty but also for all the succeeding centuries in China, Korea, and Japan.” (7)

(1) Steven Heine, ed., Zen Masters, “Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163): The Image Created by His Stories about Himself and by His Teaching Style,” Miriam L. Levering, 104.

(2) The Letters of Chan Master Dahui Pujue, trans. Jeffrey L. Broughton and Elise Yoko Watanabe.

(3) Levering, op cit., 111.

(4) Levering, op cit., 110.

(5) Shōbōgenzō Zuimonki, trans. Shohaku Okumura, 187.

(6) Eihei Dōgen, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi, 704.

(7) Levering, op cit., 91.

Dōshō Port began practicing Zen in 1977 and now co-teaches at the Nebraska Zen Center with his wife, Tetsugan Zummach Ōshō. 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 Rōshi and inka shōmei from James Myōun Ford Rōshi in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. Dōshō’s translation and commentary on The Record of Empty Hall is due out in early 2021 (Shambhala). He is also the author of Keep Me In Your Heart a While: The Haunting Zen of Dainin Katagiri.

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