Posts tagged ‘Zen’

A Spiritual Almanack- April: Blossom

Hexagram 1: Heaven (The Creative Principle)

A flower opens to the sun; our hearts open to the universe.

The rising sun radiates energy throughout the sky, filling the space below the heavens and covering the earth, its heat penetrating all things, quickening them into life and nourishing their development. Whatever the light touches it illuminates and clarifies, exposing hidden shadows, just as the energy of our consciousness – our awareness, thoughts and feelings – illuminate and clarify everything within and without.

Commentary On The Symbol:

The creative principle acts with vitality and persistence.

In correspondence with this

The cultivated person stays vital without ceasing.

Heaven covers everything on earth, and originates all creatures. It is a single flow of energy, continuously circulating, never ceasing, moving forward endlessly and inexhaustibly. The way of the creative is constant change and transformation, allowing each being to evolve into its own nature and opening a path to its true destiny.

The creative, Heaven, is the ultimate of health, vitality and strength, and is the source of our own health and soundness. If we follow the Way of Heaven, we are in harmony with nature, and can adapt to the changes we face, knowing when to move forward and when to stop, when to seize the moment and when to let the moment pass by. Adapting correctly to all change, we find a way that is prosperous and smooth, the obstacles we encounter do not block us, and our path reveals itself in time, each footstep and each decision opening new vistas, new possibilities.

A lily produced in spring is a marvel of creativity. It embodies the ultimate unfolding of yang, the true positive energy of creation. When positive energy is born, all things cannot help but blossom. They are all in process, are transforming and happening, are flowing events rather than fixed and solid objects.

Someone asked Chan Master Wen-Yen,

What is the fundamental idea of Buddhism?”

The Master answered,

When Spring comes, the grass turns green of itself.”

The rain falls, clouds disperse, the sun emerges, and all forms develop of themselves. To follow the way of Heaven is to actualise Tao in your daily life, to interfuse the sacred and mundane in your own body, mind and spirit. This opens the doors of perception, as it did for William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower


The energy that opens the flower wakes you in the morning. The quality of strength in people is this same primal creative energy of heaven. This energy comes spontaneously to everything from nature, is strong but has no need of force. It is bright and lucid, illuminating everything like the sun at midday. When it appears the earth is covered with growth, the world is filled with golden flowers.

Her name was Shidie Lin, she was seventeen months old and at one month her mother had abandoned her at the steps of an orphanage. The passport picture they sent us showed a sad, perplexed little girl. Did we want to adopt her? Having waited for six frustrating years, there was no hesitation, no matter how deep her sadness. She was healthy and needed a home, no more to be said. They delivered her to our hotel room, a scrawny, tight-jawed, bowl-legged tyke with dozens of ugly mosquito bites on her legs, and a strangely-shaped head. What had we taken on? Six months later, she has blossomed into a smiling, bonny, round-faced, straight-legged toddler who loves life. Love, human warmth, food and security have made her bloom. We call her Lily.

Yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli writes,

As the sun opens the flowers delicately, unfolding them little by little, so the yoga exercises and breathing open the body during a slow and careful training. When the body is open, the heart is open.

Yoga gives us openness and flexibility of mind and body, and opens our spirit, so that we feel the relationship between heaven, earth and all sentient beings. This feeling of oneness and unity gives us a sense of connectedness to all creation, so that we never feel alone. The asanas help develop a core strength that gives us an inner confidence and centeredness that allows us to blossom into our true self without fear and doubt.

The Brihad Devata says: ‘All that exists is born from the sun’. The ancient yoga exercise, Salute To The Sun (surya namaskar) puts us in touch with the universal energy of the cosmos. The harmonious pattern of postures united in circular movements flowing into each other are part of a whole, just as a petal is part of a flower. Traditionally the sequence is performed at dawn facing east towards the rising sun so that in raising our hands upwards we offer the sun and the universe a respectful salute. The golden warmth of the sun is received by our hearts and welcomed with great love and thanks.

We need to open ourselves to the light so that we can learn to trust ourselves and the universe. As the Mundaka Upanishad says:

The Lord of Love shines in everyone’s heart. When we are wise and see the Lord of Love in all living things, we lose ourselves in the service of all and find ultimate peace and joy. With truth, meditation, self-control and discipline, we can find ourselves in this state of joy and see the inner spirit, our real essence, shining in our hearts.

Every day the sun rises to say “You are alive – enjoy it!” and every night when you go to bed, reflect on how wonderful it is just to be alive, to breathe and feel the joy of existence itself.

April 1, 2016 at 11:11 am Leave a comment


I am the secret of silence and the wisdom of the wise. Bhagavad Gita, Ch.10


Hexagram 24: RETURN (FU)



Short days; long nights;
The earth is silent;
Rest in the darkness.

At this time of year the yang energy is renewing itself; it is fragile and needs rest, nurturing and protection. This is a time to examine yourself, refine yourself, cultivate your virtue and master your mind, waiting for the right time to act in the days to come.

Lao Tzu said,

Attain utter emptiness;
Maintain the deepest stillness,
While all creatures rise and fall,
I silently watch their return.


Silence is sacred; silence is our refuge; silence is our peace. Modern life is an assault of sound, a blast of brute noise designed to grab our attention and hold it entranced by sound so that we can be sold things we don’t need. TV commercials, muzak, the constant background hum of cars, trains and planes all distract us away from our inner peace.

Remember that the core of yoga is silence. When you can find that silent space within and stay in it, then you are in tune with yourself and the world: safe, secure and at home within your own skin. In this state you have no need to worry about the quality of your asana positions, or to wonder how someone else is getting along, or to fret about your work or other activities. You merely are. Existence itself is knowledge and bliss wrapped up in one, and you are that – you are one with all.

The earth, too, is silent in January, the generative power sunk deep within the ground. No birds sing, no insects buzz, and life sleeps in hibernation.

In Taoist alchemy this dead of winter represents the utmost quiescence, when real knowledge can emerge from primal emptiness. The alchemists call this the Living Midnight or Lead meets Winter, since winter followed by spring is like midnight followed by dawn, when the culmination of the cold dark yin energy is followed by the rising of the hot light yang energy. Slowly the yang energy emerges from its long winter sleep resting in the ground, and the potential for new life begins again.

It is a turning point in the year’s cycle. When things proceed to the extreme of the deepest darkness, they naturally alternate to the opposite: the dimmest light returns. This is a law of Nature. The time of darkness passes. The winter solstice brings back the banished light. And just as light returns, so we too must also return to our inner light. In the depths of our being we must seek the self, the one, our essence or origin- that ascending force of life.


Prime Minister Pei Hsiu brought his written interpretation of Chan Buddhism for his master Huang Po to read. Huang Po accepted the text but put it aside without opening it, and remained silent. Pei Hsiu waited patiently for the words of his master, but Huang Po stayed silent. His silence lasted for a very long time. It filled the space between the two men and began to fill the entire hall. When the silence seemed loud enough to burst, Huang Po leaned towards the Prime Minister and said sofly, “Understand?”

Consider the meaning of this silence against the words rumbling on this page.

When practicing asanas, or doing Tai Chi Chuan, we enter this meditative state of silence and in that quietness we are able to find our true selves, the inner essence, the kernel of who we really are.

The Person who in movement finds rest, and who understands that movement grows from stillness and rest, sees the light, and finds peace in all his actions. Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 4.

In Chinese the word for mind is hsin, which means the mind/heart. It can literally mean kernel or essence. Mind in a state of quiescence is similar to Christian innocence, the primal mind of humanity before the fruit of knowledge was eaten. To find this mind is to see your original face before you were born.

One secret of a successful life is to find a way to extend this silence into the other parts of life, into the busyness of life away from the yoga mat , where the stresses and conflicts of mundane existence can easily drag us away from our inner peace. Finding inner peace and maintaining inner peace are two separate practices.


Silence is a place of great power. When we find those fleeting moments of silence our meditation can then undo our bodies from the inside, in subtle ways that the asanas cannot reach. The silent state of meditation is a healing state, providing a balance and harmony to all of our existence.

Periods of silence within a relationship indicate trust, love and peace – those moments when we have no need to talk, and are just able to accept the other person as they are – without criticism, judgement or withdrawal.


In silent meditation, we put to rest our worries and cares, but meditation is not the ultimate answer. It is only a raft to get us to the distant shore:

The Master Huai-Jang asked Ma-Tsu, “Why do you sit all day in meditation?” Ma-Tsu answered, “I want to become a Buddha.” Hearing this, the Master picked up a brick and started rubbing it on a stone. “What are you doing?” asked Ma-Tsu. “I am polishing this brick to make a mirror.” “How can you make a mirror by rubbing a brick?” Ma-Tsu asked. “How can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?”

In the end we must return to the activity of life, to the crossroads and the marketplace, and share with others the insights and power we have discovered in meditation:


Barechested and barefooted he comes into the marketplace.
Muddy and covered in dust – how broadly he grins!
Without resorting to magical powers,
Withered trees begin to bloom.


In the end silence brings us closer to our true nature and to God. It is in that silence that we can be present in the moment.

When we observe our breath we can find silence and stillness at that lovely pause at the end of the in-breath and before the breath turns at the end of the out-breath. These pauses, if we let them, can be our entry into the eternal.

December 31, 2015 at 11:03 pm Leave a comment

A gun to the head is wordless teaching

It’s amazing how two things that have no obvious relationship to each other can be brought into an insightful and meaningful relationship. For example, today I understood about certain Zen practices by reading a story about life in Auschwitz.

The Auschwitz incident is from Primo Levi’s recollections from Auschwitz, Moments Of Reprieve. This collection has a chapter about a German criminal at Auschwitz named Eddy who he calls The Juggler. Levi explains how he had a piece of paper and a pencil stub hidden on him, and one day on work duty in a cellar, he sat down to try to write a letter home. This was forbidden – the paper, the pencil, the act of writing home, all of it. Engrossed in his writing Levi was unaware that Eddy, a sub Kapo (or foreman), was sitting there watching him write.

Here is how Levi describes it; ‘I hadn’t reckoned with Eddy’s noiseless step. I noticed him only when he was already watching me. Instinctively – or, rather, stupidly, – I opened my fingers. The pencil fell, but the sheet of paper descended slowly to the ground, swaying like a dead leaf. Eddy lunged to pick it up, then slammed me to the ground with a violent slap. But there: as I write the sentence today, and as I am typing the word “slap”. I realise that I am lying, or at least transmitting biased emotions and information to the reader. Eddy was not a brute; he did not mean to punish me or make me suffer.’

Now here is the bit that interests me in relation to Zen slaps and shouts:

‘A slap inflicted in the camp had a very different significance from what it might have here among us in today’s here and now. Precisely: it had a meaning: it was simply another way of expressing oneself. In that context it meant roughly “Watch out, you’ve really made a big mistake this time, you’re endangering your life, maybe without realising it, and you’re endangering mine as well. ” But between Eddy, a German thief and juggler, and me, a young inexperienced Italian , flustered and confused , such a speech would have been useless, not understood (if nothing else because of language problems) , out of tune, and much too roundabout.

For this very reason, punches and slaps passed among us as daily language, and we soon learned to distinguish  meaningful blows from the others inflicted out of savagery, to create pain and humiliation, and which often resulted in death. A slap like Eddy’s was akin to the friendly smack you give a dog, or the whack you administer to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition. Nothing more in short than a nonverbal communication. ‘

It struck me that Eddy’s slap, like the punches and blows that Levi describes, are akin to the shouts and blows from a staff that I’ve read about as part of Zen training for monks in meditation.  In the meditation hall, where speech is a distraction, and where the monks are being taught not to rely on speech, I can see how shouts and blows would deliver a nonverbal message that would convey a lot of meaning to the monk on the receiving end.

I know these Zen blows are intended to rouse monks dozing off in meditation, or are meant to give a shock to the meditator, leading to ‘sudden’ enlightenment, but I can see that a master just wouldn’t want to verbally explain why a monk was screwing up, and so just smacks him with a stick to say ‘wake up’. And wake up means both stop falling asleep and also become enlightened.

It seems to me that Eddy’s slap and a master’s blow with a stick have a great similarity. The difference is that Levi’s silent lesson was one that saved him from possible death, allowing him to survive Auschwitz, while a monk’s lesson is one that enhances his life, especially his spiritual life.

When people sit down to meditate, they often get up after a short time complaining about pain in their legs. Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama, author of that wonderful book, Opening The Hand Of Thought, had a remedy for that. He said just imagine that there was someone standing behind you with a gun aimed at your head, and if you were to get up he would fire. He said this kept people sitting for much longer! This really has nothing to do with Primo Levi but I always liked this idea and so I have added it here for my pleasure.

March 21, 2014 at 12:15 am Leave a comment

There is Nothing In The World That Is Hidden

Studying ancient writings means to study our lives.
Thomas Wright

I’ve just been reading a wonderful book called How to Cook Your Life. It’s not a cook book, although it does deal with the job of a cook in Zen temples, a job called the Tenzo. The book is made up of a short essay called Instructions For The Zen Cook by the great Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200- 1253) and a commentary on that work by a contemporary Zen master Kosho Uchiyama Roshi (1912-1998). Uchiyama wrote an excellent book about zazen (zen meditation) called Opening The Hand Of Thought.

What is so great about this book? What’s great about it is how it deals with the levels of life and practice, and manages to show how the obvious and the subtle are both existing and interpenetrating each other at the same time. So on the surface the book may describe how the Tenzo manages his task of feeding the Zen Community, while at the same time the book explains how by viewing these tasks in the right way they become the essence of the Tenzo’s practice of Buddhism. He feeds and nourishes the bodies of others while he spiritually feeds himself.

When he was a young monk, Dogen went to China to study Ch’an (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. He arrived in China in April 1223, but couldn’t disembark immediately so had to stay on the ship. One day in May an elderly monk came on board to buy mushrooms from Japanese merchants on board. Dogen invited him to tea, and the two talked.

The monk explained that he was 61 years old, and had been a monk for 40 years. He had recently been made Tenzo at his monastery, and wanted to make a noodle soup to celebrate May 5th, a festival day. However, he had no mushrooms for the soup and so had walked the 14 miles to the port to buy them. Dogen asked him to stay and continue talking, but the Tenzo insisted that he had to go back that night to prepare the soup for tomorrow. A 28 mile walk to buy mushrooms.

Dogen asked, “Why, when you are so old, do you do the hard work of a Tenzo? Why don’t you spend your time practicing zazen (meditation) or studying koans? Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a Tenzo?”

The old man laughed and remarked, “My good friend from abroad! You do not yet understand what practise is all about, nor do you know the meaning of characters (Chinese writing).”

When Dogen heard these words he was taken aback and felt greatly ashamed. So he asked, “What are characters and what is practice? “

The monk replied, “ If you do not deceive yourself about this problem, you will be a man of the Way. “ Dogen admits that he had no idea what the monk was talking about.

In July Dogen was at Mt. Ayuwang, and the Tenzo came to visit him. Dogen asked him about their earlier discussion. The Tenzo said,
“A person who studies characters must know just what characters are, and one intending to practice the Way must understand what practice is.”

Dogen asked, “What are characters?”
The monk said, “one, two, three, four, five.”
“And what is practice?”
“There is nothing in the world that is hidden.”

Kosho Uchiyama in his commentary on this story, gives us a version in contemporary dialogue:

What are characters?
This, that and the other; in other words- everything!
What is practice?
Everything you encounter in your life is practice.

He then explains what the old monk was conveying to young Dogen:

In living this life day by day, we encounter innumerable things and situations, and when we try to search for some fixed truth about them, we always fail. This is because the truth of life is found in each and every activity. Life is not a thing which is substantial or fixed; rather, it is our everyday activity. There is no way to see life outside of the vivid functioning of our every activity.

Meaning does not lie in any particular thing or in any particular practice, but in everything we do and everything that happens to us. This is our life. It is what we do and what happens to us. This was how the Tenzo looked on his life and how he fulfilled his job.

Kosho Uchiyama adds that the spirit running through Dogen’s text is that we must function with a clear mind and true sincerity in the actual situation in which we find ourselves, and not in one we have fabricated in our minds.

June 12, 2009 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.