Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Purpose of This Blog

After experimenting around it has become clear to me that I should set forth what I will say and what I will not say. I will respond directly to matters relating to the Dharma which we can talk about as friends. I am not a teacher, and have not been since I retired many years ago. Please don't ask me anything that would be best addressed to your own master.


  1. Dear Aitken Roshi,

    Thank you for clarifying that. I would like to apologize for trying to stand so close (I must acknowledge a heavy case of transference even after many years).

    I tried a couple times to make it over with Nils--no luck (I feel a bit like emperor Wu, though I think Master Chih did get his point across in my case).


    Ted Biringer

  2. Dear Robert

    Thank you. You have to realize that a person of your stature (my teachers teacher) is hard, for a person of my stature, to 'buddy' up to. Yet I owe it to us to be respectful, look at my experience, strive to be honest and to avoid transference (thanks Ted).

    The world is white
    covered by late winter snow.

    Whether I participate in this practice or not is all up to me. I look around to find hints and clues and suddenly remember... Hakuin, How sad that people ignore the near and search for truth afar...

    In friendship

  3. Hello Roshi,

    I don't have any comments to make, but I thought you might like this picture of you, your wife and Zen Master Seung Sahn from the Seventies I think.
    You will have to page down and select the picture, I am not sure if you have a copy of this, but I thought I'd share it with you.

  4. Dear Roshi,

    Thank you for your willingness to speak with us through this format.

    Yours in the Dharma,


  5. This comment should perhaps not be publicly posted.

    On the acknowledgements page of Zen Master Raven, you write "thanks to Phil Vinson for a key suggestion." Phil, who is a good friend, can't remember what the key suggestion was and is naturally curious. When the book first was published both he and I wrote you about it but received no reply.

    Phil is recovering from surgery now, and I would like to bring him a gift to cheer him up--the unexpected and unlooked-for solution to the mystery of his "key suggestion." Would you say what it was?

  6. Dear Roshi,
    I would like to thank you for starting this blog and allowing all of us to communicate with you through this medium.
    Your presentation of the dharma is an ongoing inspiration. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Dear Aitken Roshi,

    How are you? I hope and trust all is well with you and yours. Please let us (those fortunate enough to share this venue with you) know if there is anything we can do for you (for a change).

    Please forgive the length of this post—and feel free to edit it or delete it altogether as you see fit. As this is a public written forum and not the dokusan room, I will stick to discursive, rather than presentational language.

    I was hoping you could share something on the role of Buddhist mythology in the modern world—as it relates to Dharma-transmission, especially in the West. In your wonderful book, The Gateless Barrier, you wrote something that made a significant and lasting impression on my own approach to the mythology of Zen.

    In a commentary on the Dharma-transmission from Shakyamuni to Mahakasyapa, where transmission occurred when Shakyamuni twirled a flower, you addressed and highlighted the difference between ‘historical fact’ and what you called “True religious practice”:

    “The story of the Buddha twirling a flower before his assembly, like the story of the baby Buddha taking seven steps in each of the cardinal directions , need not be taken literally. The first account of his transmitting the Dharma to Mahakasyapa is set forth in a sutra of Chinese origin that is dated A.D. 1036, fourteen hundred years after the Buddha’s time. This was the Sung period—a peak in the development of Chinese culture when great anthologies, encyclopedias, and directories were being produced. Myth, oral tradition, and sectarian justification all played a role in this codification. The fable of the Buddha twirling a flower filled a great need for connection with the founder, and it was picked up immediately and repeated like gospel. The “Four Principles” attributed to Bodhidharma were also formulated during the Sung period, some six hundred years after Bodhidharma’s time, using some of the same language attributed to the Buddha: “A special transmission outside tradition—not established on words or letters.” The Sung teachers were making important points with their myths.

    During World War II, I asked a Catholic priest who was interned with us, “What if it could be proved that Jesus never lived?” He replied, “It would destroy my faith.” That priest was very young at the time. I wonder what became of him, and what he might be saying on the subject now. Something a little different, I would suppose. I too was young at the time, but I felt there was something wrong with his answer. I still think so. I don’t believe it is very important whether Jesus and Buddha and Moses were historical figures. True religious practice is grounded in the nonhistorical fact of essential nature. “The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower,” “Pai-chang's Fox,” and all the other fabulous cases of Zen literature are your stories and mine, intimate accounts of our own personal nature and experience.”
    Robert Aitken Roshi, The Gateless Barrier, p.47

    I found it significant that you chose to address this issue in the context of Dharma-transmission. This helped me to accept the validity of the role of Dharma-transmission in the modern Zen community. While the ‘historical fact’ of an ‘unbroken lineage’ going back to Shakyamuni Buddha (or even to Eihei Dogen) is untenable, its ‘mythological truth’ can be understood to be as valid as ever.

    Your friend, the American-Korean scholar, Dr. Hee-Jin Kim, in his marvelous study of Dogen (which includes your crackling essay on Dogen’s Genjokoan), wrote:

    “If Zen has a universal element that transcends historical and cultural bounds, it should be nurtured here in the West with its own distinctive marks and imprints.”
    Kim, Hee-Jin, Eihei Dogen Mystical Realist, p. XXIX

    I have personally come to see a significant similarity between what you inferred as “mythological truth” and what Professor Kim means by “universal element.” In this way I saw how the orthodox or “exoteric” doctrine of Dharma-transmission contained (and maintained) a powerful mythological, or universal significance concerning the transmission of wisdom (prajna). For me, this ‘nonhistorical’ tradition (in its orthodox form) was best understood as a (discursive) revelation on how the enlightened wisdom (bodhi prajna) of Buddhas and Zen ancestors is evoked in (transmitted to) Zen students/practitioners by immersion in the Buddhadharma on the path of Zen (practice-realization under the guidance of Zen masters and tradition).

    I hasten to add that I also recognize that the exoteric or orthodox teachings can be beneficial in themselves (and are often necessary for beginners). However, as seems inevitable in religions and spiritual traditions of all forms, these teachings often become insisted upon as historical fact (as it is by many contemporary ‘Zen teachers’) rather than as metaphor, or mythological truth. In fact, in some ‘Zen’ circles it manifests as a kind of idolatry (or so it seems to me). As students of poetry (and Joseph Campbell) know, when this occurs it renders the transparency of the doctrine (or poem) opaque, and conceals the very reality that it is intended to reveal. Thus its enlightening potential actually becomes subverted into a barrier that is extremely difficult to cure.

    Your straight-talk on this issue quoted above is, unfortunately, a rare example in contemporary Zen literature. Modern Zen teachers seem to ignore the issue for the most part. Perhaps even more disheartening is the rarity with which 'wrong views' are openly challenged. Dogen’s articulate, often fierce denouncements, and Hakuin’s fierce, rarely articulate (Ha!) tirades about ‘false’ teachers and ‘wrong views’ are noticeably lacking these days—at least since Yasutani Roshi moved on to share his compassion in other realms.

    Acknowledging the difference between ‘historical fact’ and ‘mythological truth’ is, it seems to me, one of the hallmarks of Zen in the classic literature. Its earlier forms suggest that ‘vehement attacks’ were not necessary and that gentle reminders were enough. Yuanwu, the compiler of The Blue Cliff Record, offers a good example of how earlier masters handled discrepancies between “fact” and “truth” in mythology. In the first case of the Blue Cliff Record, Yuanwu notices just such a discrepancy and says:

    According to tradition, Master Chih died in the year 514, while Bodhidharma came to Liang in 520; since there is a seven year discrepancy, why is it said that the two met? This must be a mistake in the tradition. As to what is recorded in tradition, I will not discuss the matter now. All that’s important is to understand the gist of the matter.
    Yuanwu, Blue Cliff Record Case 1, Cleary & Cleary

    A hundred years after Yuanwu (who lived 1063-1135) Dogen made a similar point on the topic here (Dharma-transmission). While in China, Dogen noticed discrepancies in the lineage charts and Shugetsu about it.

    Shugetsu said, “Even if the dif-ference were great, we should just study that the buddhas of Unmon-zan mountain are like this. Why is Old Master Sakyamuni honored by others? He is an honored one because he realized the truth. Why is Great Master Unmon honored by others? He is an honored one because he realized the truth.” Dogen, hearing these words, had a little [clearer] understanding.
    Shobogenzo, Shisho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    Dogen’s “little clearer understanding” was further enhanced when his master reiterated Shugetsu’s instruction after a talk he gave on Dharma-Transmission. Dogen asked his master:

    “It was after Kasyapa Buddha had entered nirvana that Sakyamuni Buddha first appeared in the world and realized the truth. Furthermore, how could the buddhas of the Kalpa of Wisdom receive the Dharma from the buddhas of the Kalpa of Resplendence? What [do you think] of this principle?”
    Shobogenzo, Shisho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    Tendo Nyojo (Dogen’s master) offered his own presentation of Shugetsu’s understanding:

    “What you have just expressed is understanding [based on] listening to theories. It is the way of [bodhisattvas at] the ten sacred stages or the three clever stages. It is not the way [transmitted by] the Buddhist patriarchs from rightful successor to rightful successor. Our way, transmitted from buddha to buddha, is not like that. We have learned that Sakyamuni Buddha defi-nitely received the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha. We learn in practice that Kasyapa Buddha entered nirvana after Sakyamuni Buddha succeeded to the Dharma. If Sakyamuni Buddha did not receive the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha, he might be the same as a naturalistic non-Buddhist. Who then could believe in Sakyamuni Buddha? Because the succession has passed like this from buddha to buddha, and has arrived at the present, the individual buddhas are all authentic successors, and they are neither arranged in a line nor gathered in a group. We just learn that the succession passes from bud-dha to buddha like this. It need not be related to the measurements of kalpas and the measurements of lifetimes mentioned in the teaching of the Agamas. If we say that [the succession] was established solely by Sakyamuni Buddha, it has existed for little over two thousand years, [so] it is not old; and the successions [number] little more than forty, [so] they might be called recent. This Buddhist succession is not to be studied like that. We learn that Sakyamuni Buddha succeeded to the Dharma of Kasyapa Buddha, and we learn that Kasyapa Buddha succeeded to the Dharma of Sakyamuni Buddha. When we learn it like this, it is truly the succession of the Dharma of the buddhas and the patriarchs.”
    Shobogenzo, Shisho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    Wow! For a ‘discursive’ presentation, this is pure gold! It is no wonder that Dogen then relates:

    Then Dogen not only accepted, for the first time, the existence of Buddhist patriarchs’ succession of the Dharma, but also got rid of an old nest.
    Shobogenzo, Shisho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    Despite efforts by Dogen and his teacher to show that transmission has nothing to do with being “arranged in a line nor gathered in a group,” many continue to attach a kind of superstitious significance to physical “certificates” rather than the spiritual implication of transmission. Others perpetuate this by choosing not to challenge it—or so it seems to this unenlightened late-comer.

    The prevalence of this, specifically in regard to Dharma-transmission, combined with a lack of balancing criticism causes me to question the value of maintaining the tradition in the West. Yet, I am still convinced of some value in its orthodox form. Besides giving assurance to the Zen beginner, it offers some guidance to students/practitioners that have developed trust in a teacher but are unable to work with them by going to a teacher that has been given the trusted teacher’s sanction. But I digress…

    The true significance of Dharma-transmission is (in my muddled understanding) the transmission of wisdom (prajna) to wisdom. In reading Zen texts, including Dogen’s work, this perspective has offered some intriguing possibilities for grasping even some of the more ‘presentational’ aspects of Zen.

    For example, in one essay, Dogen explains transmission using the traditional story of Huineng. After reminding us that Huineng was never exposed to the “eternal teachings”, and yet he was “Suddenly illuminated” when he heard the Diamond Sutra being recited, he says:

    This is just the truth of Those who have wisdom, if they hear [the Dharma], Are able to believe and understand at once. This wisdom is neither learned from other people nor established by oneself: wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom… Wisdom is beyond intention and wisdom is beyond no intention. Wisdom is beyond consciousness and wisdom is beyond unconsciousness… The point is that although [the Sixth Patriarch] does not even know what the Buddha Dharma is… when he hears the Dharma, he makes light of his debt of gratitude and forgets his own body and; such things happen because the body-and-mind of those who have wisdom is already not their own. This is the state called able to believe and understand at once. No-one knows how many rounds of life-and-death [people] spend, even while possessing this wisdom, in futile dusty toil. They are like a stone enveloping a jewel, the jewel not knowing that it is enveloped by a stone, and the stone not knowing that it is enveloping a jewel. [When] a human being recognizes this [jewel], a human being seizes it. This is neither something that the jewel expecting nor something that the stone is awaiting: it does not require knowledge from the stone and it is beyond thinking by the jewel. In other words, a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom.
    Shobogenzo, Inmo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    Dogen’s words, “wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom”, seems to me, the very definition of Dharma-transmission. According to the Sutras, in its highest sense, wisdom (prajna) is Buddha-nature. ‘Transmitting’ and ‘receiving’ (like ordinary beings and Buddhas) are two aspects of one process. Thus wisdom transmits wisdom and is received by wisdom.

    As in Dogen’s famous passage, “when one side is illumined, the other side is darkened”, the ‘darkened’ aspect of Huineng (Buddha-nature) hears wisdom transmitted by wisdom (the Diamond Sutra) and is ‘illumined’ (his ‘ordinary’ aspect is not eradicated, of course, but simply ‘darkened’) and, as Dogen says, he is “able to believe and understand at once.”

    That is, it seems to me, Zen practice-enlightenment (at least ‘discursively’). When the Zen practitioner is exposed to and immersed in the wisdom transmitted by the wisdom (of Buddhas and Zen masters, texts, koans, etc.), the practitioners own innate wisdom is activated, or perhaps better; evoked.

    In the above passage, Dogen likens this to a jewel inside a rock. The jewel (wisdom) has been in the rock (human being) all along. The “rocks” realization of this, is simultaneous with the “jewels” already being embodied (When a human being recognizes this jewel, a human being seizes it). That is to say, “Dharma-transmission” can be understood (conceptually) as the activation of wisdom by wisdom.

    When reading Zen texts this way, the path of Zen is itself enlightened wisdom actualizing wisdom through practice-enlightenment. Thus, in “grasping” the point of a sutra, a koan, a sermon, or the rain against the window wisdom is realized, that is, transmission occurs. In Dogen’s words, “a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom.”

    Applying this to Zen doctrines can be quite fascinating and, I think, illuminating. For instance, Dogen’s teaching on “Buddhas alone, together with Buddhas” can be seen from an interesting perspective:

    The Buddha-Dharma cannot be known by people. For this reason, since ancient times, no common man has realized the Buddha-Dharma and no-one in the two vehicles has mastered the Buddha-Dharma. Because it is realized only by buddhas, we say that buddhas alone, together with buddhas, are directly able perfectly to realize it.”
    Shobogenzo, Yui-Butsu-Yo-Butsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

    Here, the Buddha-Dharma (wisdom) would be understood as transmitted by Buddha (wisdom) and realized by Buddha-nature (wisdom). The “common man” in this passage would be likened to the “rock” in Dogen’s earlier analogy. As soon as the jewel is revealed, the “rock” is already a “jewel”, the “common man” already “Buddha.”

    Studying Dogen in this light has resolved many complications for me. For instance, when Dogen says things like, “a lay person has never realized enlightenment,” we can see it with two levels of meaning here (‘historical’ and ‘mythological’). There is the ‘historical’ encourages the novice monk that has literally “left home”; and there is the ‘mythological’ which infers that ‘lay people’ who realize enlightenment are not-lay people—they are Buddha.

    While I would never presume to know what Dogen meant, I have personally found that this historical/mythological perspective can be quite inspirational when applied to many of his teachings; reading, precepts, meditation, koans, activity, expression, etc. Inspirational enough even to get this lazy merchant marine to a cushion almost every day for over twenty years now! Ha!

    Again, I apologize for the length of this post and ecourage you to simply delete it if you would rather.

    Thank you very much for your time, Roshi.


    Ted Biringer

  8. I wonder if you could say something, in a general way, about that awful feeling of insecurity, frustration, self-doubt, and "lostness" that can arise when ones koan answer (beyond Mu) is turned down. I know it's not a constructive response, but all that stuff comes up and is hard to deal with

  9. In my part of the world some people are talking about instituting moral, or ethical training for Zen students. That is specific training on these issues apart from the usual practices of zazen, working with koans, douksan reading and so on. I am deeply uncomfortable with this, and some of those in favour of it are people who's views I respect. You have been around a long time, and have a lot of experience. Do you have an opinion on this issue? Is it helpful in promoting the Dharma?

    Jim Hegarty

  10. Hi Roshi!

    What a buzz to find that we are fellow bloggers!
    I think it's great that you are experimenting with this form of communication, Roshi.

    My blog has been going for a little over a year now and has over 3000 subscribers. It's been a steep learning curve - oh my!

    One of the many things it's taught me is that to truly connect with others using this medium, we have to step down off the high seat. We have to stop preaching.

    Only simple, modest conversations will work.

    And yet blogging has great potential for spreading the Dharma - even if we sometimes have to teach indirectly. My students' responses to my secret life as a blogger range from "That's cool!" to "That's weird!"

    I send you a gassho and a warm hug from blogger to blogger

    (Mary Jaksch)

  11. Jim, isn't "the usual practices of zazen, working with koans, douksan reading and so on" ethical training? When I look closely, it looks like it to me. If by moral and ethical, you are referring to the precepts, I'd have to say that for me, my practice was more of a hobby till I dived into and started swimming with the precepts. Committing to that first step is scary, but come on in, the water is warm.

    I'm sure a lot more can be said.

    In friendship

  12. I read your post and remembered a koan somewhere, that asks, "Do you have a master or not?"

    - Damask

  13. dear aitken roshi,
    i would like to thank you for all your teaching which has been such a great help in my practice for more than 30 years. i did get to sit with you briefly at green gulch a few years back and express my gratitude but i feel compelled to share that with you once again. i'm now practicing with nyogen yeo roshi at hazy moon zen center so i am in good hands. you may recall that he was the last of maezumi roshi's successors. he has a great deal of respect for you and has mentioned to me how much he liked you when he met you years ago. i hope your health is good.
    in gassho,
    g.e. so tetsugen stinson

  14. I'm sorry. I didn't express myself clearly. I was talking about a proposal to institute some form of training in morals, or ethics outside of what one would usually find in the Diamond Sangha tradition/lineage. That includes working with the precepts. That is the way it was presented to me. A couple of times. It would be much better if someone who actually holds this view would put
    it forward as I am bound to do it badly. I understand that the argument goes like this.

    In the past, very experienced and enlightened Zen practitioners and teachers have done bad stuff.

    Even people in the direct lineage to the current day Diamond Sangha.

    Therefore traditional training does not adequately address morals and moral behavior.

    Therefore people need additional (new) training in this area.

    That is probably an overly simplified view, but that is how I understood it. I don't hold this view myself. I think/believe that an increasing openness, and flexibility of behavior would result from practice. Also, that this would entail a much less self centered and rule governed approach to dealing with situations. You could call this type of behaviour moral, or ethical.

    I do have a sense of disquiet about setting additional “rules” for behaviour, or determining what is and is not acceptable. This is a gut reaction. If you want to look at the proposal from a more logical stand point I believe it falls down. Like, who gets to say what is right and wrong? And, why not just leave that stuff to other traditions that have been doing it for a long time?

    I have gone on a bit trying to explain myself. The original reason for my question was to get another perspective on this. Not to engage in a debate. Maybe it was a stupid question anyway. As someone intimated. I am not sure how this site is meant to be used. Are discussion like this encouraged, or is it mainly for questions and answers? I am very aware that the traffic on this blog could easily get oppressive.

    Jim Hegarty

  15. Jim,

    I too am confused about Roshi's intent with his blog, even after his "explanation". I was reserved about my reply to you for exactly the same reasons as you. Yet how will we know if we don't try. My hope is that Roshi will jump in and say "that's crap" when we are not authentic and tell stories when moved. I feel he may not even want any questions. Just sharing. Anyway, this is how I'm approaching this till I hear otherwise.

    I feel the precepts cover it all. More training and study of the precepts is in my future. As far as more structure, I feel it helps those who are inclined to be supported by more structure. When we break our precepts, we still break our precepts. More rules won't help us then. (Some of us will break our precepts quite spectacularly.)

    The Three Treasures of Seattle, has also spent a bit of time this last season working on policy or stance on sexual activity and relations in the group. Some people are reassured by this. Now just speaking for me, none of this is for me. My work lies elsewhere and this other stuff is not a problem as long as mind doesn't take it up and play with it.

    It doesn't sound like this kind of structure is for you either. Let me project just a bit. I don't sense that you are a wild person acting in unskillful ways. You already know your path. More rules won't do you any more good. More rules or less rules, would you act differently? Then, why be hooked by this. This could be a great opportunity for us to look at the nature of mind.

    In friendship