About Zen in general

How do you practice Zen?

I do not “practice”. I am Zen.

Let me explain. The word “practice” is widely used in certain Buddhist circles and normally understood first as seated meditation and second as following moral rules or the eight-fold path. In the early history of Zen this was different. Zen was not zazen, but “chan”, a state of meditative mind, and zen practice was rather instinctive than formal. That is why the second Chinese Patriarch could cut of a part of his body and Hui-neng could show his enlightened state of mind as an illiterate cook even before sitting. Being Zen therefore means to me being rooted so deeply in Zen that a certain attitude of mind is active or can be activated at any given time. At least until you have advanced Alzheimer’s or similar diseases, as what we consider a clear mind is dependent on the function of one’s brain.

What is your vision of an adapted form of practicing the Way today?

“Practicing the Way” is a formula that I ran into during my own last decade of translation work. Nowadays I am rather careful to adapt such words. There is not one way for all of us. On the contrary, each of us will practice his or her own way. So I do not have an answer for everyone. My suggestion simply derives from the examples that are given by so called zen masters of the past and by my own insight. One may let go of his prejudices and his attachments. Therefore it is necessary to see things from different perspectives without initially judging them. One’s own deep convictions and individual knowledge and experience can nevertheless lead to a clear attitude to certain topics.

Considering ethics I do not believe that they can be kept in rules, they are rather inborn. One finds out about the inner truth of events and relationships by letting go of his religious, cultural and legal codes. The basis of the Buddhist way is the opening of one’s mind, to expect the unexpected, to allow things to become possible that education and the rational mind have taught to be unearthly. That comes close to what I consider a free human being, and the zen mind is one of such freedom, as relative as it may be. It follows that it is unlikely for someone practicing such a way to be or stay rich in material terms. This is one of the simplest criteria to judge a teacher in the Buddhist tradition, although sometimes one who appears poor can be the owner of quite a fortune and some research maybe needed to find that out. If you have anything to spare, you share it with those in need (but do not simply trust any NGO). You will probably appear to others as more unattached – which does not mean less committed – than common people. In conflict situations you may be more courageous because you are less addicted to your life. So the only “practice” of Zen that counts is not seated meditation but the adaptation of the unattached mind in your daily dealings, especially with others. It is the difference between masturbation and giving someone else an orgasm.

This is the meaning of the Bodhisattva mind.

You may always return to seated meditation but by adapting the unattached mind in your daily routine detect a more useful way for yourself, others and your surroundings.

Sutras and Zen-masters

You translated and published many Mahayana-sutras, some of them quite unknown just as the Shrimala-Sutra or verses by Nâgârjunas disciple Âryadeva. Also Zen-masters of the ancient China and Japan, just as Musô Soseki (1275-1351), Zibo Zhenke (1543-1603) and Tôsui Unkei (1612?-1683). ….

Would you describe how you use these old buddhist writings? What is their relevance today? And what has to be done / do you do, to make them readable, to put them into modern language, without losing its sense? Can you tell us about the mentioned zen-monks?

To begin with Aryadeva who is better known as Kanadeva in the lineage of zen masters – I had to deal with that shithead for two reasons. One was commercial, the Dalai Lama taught about Aryadeva’s verses and I had the idea to provide them as a book (which really sold well at the event). Then I wanted to know how a guy who thought that all female pussies smell like fish could become a lineage holder. It is one hint that lineages don’t mean a thing to me. Of course anyone can go wrong in certain aspects, and zen teachers should generally be taken with a grain of salt when talking about sex. Anyway, it was worth dealing with one of the old teachers. With respect to the mind, he has of course something to say. I nevertheless appreciate that Zen has developed in the course of time.

The Shrimala Sutra is one with different Bodhisattva vows, they are more pregnant and practicable and less rigorous than those of the Brahmanet Sutra. It is also important – like the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra – to understand the idea of the Tathagathagarbha or Buddha-Nature. According to those sutras Buddhist academics derived in contrast to the anatman, the no-self, that is eternal and bliss, with the words of the sutra. It is interesting to know that there is a non-personal eternity in Buddhist thought, and it helps to counterbalance the nihilistic danger of nirvana.

Muso Soseki was a great poet and is an example of those zen monks who became politically involved, as advisers for emperors or, as in the case of the Shaolin monks, even as warriors. When you read Zibo Zhenke you might get the impression that he was one of the first brain scientists. He logically explained the way we think – and fool ourselves. With Menzan’s illustrated booklet about the monk Tosui you find an example of a monk adapting to the life of the homeless and beggars, not just as an experiment as some American zen monks like to do it today. You will understand the difference of the original and the copy if you read about Tosui’s life. So from each of them you can get inspiration, why not for example get involved in politics, as Muso was? Being unattached does not mean being uninvolved, it is rather a helpful prerequisite of real action that does not exhaust.

Most of those texts were already in a legible and simple language. My way of translating some of those masters is by reading what I can get and extract the best of it. I would of course appreciate if anyone finds the time to translate the whole of Muso’s work, for example, or if someone wants to sponsor a translator with knowledge of the old Asian languages to do so. My means are very limited. In the case of Dogen and others I decided to translate whole works.

Advise against several Buddhist-masters

On your blog, you advise against several Buddhist-teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Genpo Merzel, Bernard Glassmann. The reasons you give are lack of authorization, dilution, ownership, conduct, dependence to power, superstition, squandering and confusion[i].

A general question before I ask you about these specific points:

Where do you draw a line in between phonies and monks who commit an error?

In Soto Zen, it is not so hard to get an official authorization – i.e. Shiho (Dharma-transmission). But the whole system is rather disputable, as it is not based on a master-disciple relation but on following the rules of the system. For example doing a 90 day ango in a temple. So how do you define lack of authorization?

Ownership is another criteria you bring up, it goes along with conduct and dependence to power – I guess you rather focused on excesses like collecting sport-cars, but the 3 mentioned criteria take also place in every « good » religion, owning a temple, clerical structures…

You reproach dilution mainly to those masters, who often go into societal matters. What is your criticism on theengaged Buddhism of people like Glassmann and Thich Nhat Hanh ? And why doesn’t Genpo Merzel does not figure on the “dilusion” list? With his “Big Mind®”-process, he promises that he can produce for his customers a Buddhist enlightenment experience in just a few short hours.

Monks committing an “error” – that is to be judged by the Vinaya, if the monks are ordained in a respective tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH) for example is, but no one is trying to get the twenty older monks together for a “Vinaya Kamma” – as demanded by the Palicanon – to reprimand him for the co-ownership of his institute in Waldbroel which is a violation of the monastic law. I just point that out because those monks insist on Buddhist rules, formulated thousands of years ago in the Palicanon or moderately renewed (but still rigorous) as in the case of TNH. They get beaten at their own game there, as well as when they present fake written authorizations. I do not believe that those are important, but they do and so do many of their followers. These are all ridiculous traps in which those teachers catch themselves.

As “phonies” I mainly criticize those who put on a show (of zazen in concentration camps, for example) and cannot let go of possessions (money, cars, houses, women etc.). Of course a guy like Genpo Merzel could also be included in the “dilution”-category. Those are just words to make someone think twice who is looking for a Buddhist tradition to meditate there, suck in their “practice” and frame of mind. Someone googling for orientation and running into my blog should get a free warning.

“Lack of authorization” is the lack of being an author. It was once said that a disciple has to top his master to become his follower. The question is what we would consider to be that “topping”. The first master – and it doesn’t matter if he’d only existed as a metaphor and never as a historical figure – is the Buddha. What he stands for in the Zen tradition is an enlightened mind that is able to let go of everything. The phonies do not let go, they accumulate, hoard, expand, they mainly follow the law of business as marketing people, managers and entrepreneurs do. This is not wrong in itself, but if you put them to the test and see if at the same time they could let go of everything, what will you find out? Of course, in that respect a lot of the old masters might have been phonies, too, we just do not know so much about them. But if you’d extract the best of Glassman or a Thich in a hundred years, you would still not get anything worth of Takuan’s or Ikkyu’s insights. The zen of those teachers I attack is diluted by their greed. In some cases, it is just greed for followers and worship. In the case of TNH his megalomania is obvious when he tries to advice US presidents by naive letters.


In one of your recent blog-inputs, you talk about vegetarianism. It seems to me that the wave of vegetarianism is taking over buddhism. I just read a book by Roland Rech[ii], today one of the most influential zen masters in Europe. Quiet contrary to his own master’s (Deshimaru) teaching and vision of life, he ends his book saying: « Becoming vegetarian is nothing else but the consequence of an enlarged vision of life ».

How do you see the question of nourishment in a Buddhist context?

Now I am glad that I have once refused to publish a text by Roland Rech. It is okay to have a strong opinion like “becoming a vegetarian … is the consequence of an enlarged vision of life”. How about a “modest” vision of life that views as as the tiny beings in the universe that we are? Our colon is made for the digestion of meat as well as vegetables and fruits. I recently got sick in Cambodia and was told that the village healers there recommend dog’s meat to get back on one’s feet. It was quite delicious and I was indeed strong again the following day. When I later returned to my regular room in Thailand the dog that lives by the hotel there started to accompany me while I was going to the beach with the baby of a friend. He was always walking besides the baby, as if to protect it from the traffic (there are often no sideways and you have to walk on the streets). When the baby stopped to play, the dog stopped, too. Thus he became my friend and was rewarded with treat. I guess that Rech’s definitions of a larger vision of life are narrower than mine.

Considering the Buddhist context of nutrition we can refer to the interpretation of Buddha’s last meal as consisting of pork meat. By excluding ten kinds of meat (snake and horse, e.g.) in the Palicanon it is also implied that others (like chicken, lamb, beef, pork) were part of a common meal of Buddhists, even monks, as they lived on the food donations of others. Theravada monks today are regularly seen eating meat. I do not say that one should stick to the old texts but it is not possible to insist on vegetarianism out of the Buddhist tradition. It is just a personal conviction. There are of course a lot of good reasons to reduce the intake of meat to a minimum. On the other hand, if one is not able to kill an animal without attachment one has never experienced the freedom of mind. Such a person is having “second thoughts”, differentiating and polarizing. If you are unattached, you can do what’s necessary. That is what Takuan called the life-giving sword or the non-killing in killing. Even Roland Rech would take antibiotics when seriously ill and thus kill life forms within his body to save his own life. If you want to practice vegetarianism, go on. Animals don’t care at all, only you do. They do not have your judgemental mind of discernment.

Publishing houses

Can you tell us about what is published in zen nowadays?

I have the impression, that big and medium-sized editors concentrate on some few bestsellers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama, and in addition to that they try hard to block the small ones who propose other authors and subjects. In France, for example, big publishing houses oblige bookstores that want to order one of their bestsellers, to buy also five or six of their other books.

On the other hand, it has never been so easy to put out a book, thanks to print-on-demand and E-books, that you do yourself. But their distribution seems to be rather difficult? How did you manage with Angkor?

Angkor Verlag, my publishing house which is rather a small room, is just keeping me alive, providing a basic income. I am not interested to print anything that does not help people on the long run. I thus have rejected texts that were otherwise good when they insisted on reincarnation. Hypocrits who own millions and secretly work with either the CIA or the Communists while at the same time denying it, like the Dalai Lama or TNH, are of no interest to me. But the masses follow them because their words are soothing and lulling like those of our German chancellor Merkel, as well as they follow certain rules of manipulation and marketing. On the other hand I cannot see that rather unknown teachers who have sent me manuscripts are much better off. I once got new koan by a teacher and they were weaker than the old koan. Besides, who needs more of them? With contemporary teachers there is one big problem. Almost all publishers of Buddhist literature have some phonies in their backlist, and you can predict who will be the next one to run into a sex scandal. Anyway, a writer who doesn’t get published can arrange that by himself very easily nowadays, like through Amazon, and promote his book in forums and through buzz marketing. The need for publishers is diminishing.

Zen books today

Besides the usially dry and conservative books by contemporary Japanese Zen monks, editors focus on writings that combine Zen with other matters, such as psychology or business-leadership.

Why do contemporary western Zen monks and masters have such a hard time to get published?

Publishers normally try to make profit, I want to do the same of course but would give up my publishing efforts if there were too many compromises. Naturally, as a lot of the classics are published now, there is not so much to do for me in the Buddhist area as ten years before. If a zen master has to say something important today, it has to be on the level of the old masters at least. Normally a modern teacher would have to go much further than Secular Buddhism to adapt Zen to a modern world. The future of the world to me is a-religious, so every effort in Zen has to be stripped of Buddhism somehow. Therefore it was said that once you have understood there is no Buddha anymore. Almost no one exemplifies this. Any clerical, monastical and institutional Buddhism is doomed to fail.


You have a section of Japanese literature of the 20th and 21st century.

Would you like to talk a little about these books (or one of these books)?

Isn’t it strange that Zen was expressed in so many artistic ways, painting, theater, poetry but never really in prose? And why is zen-fiction books refused by the publishers today?

The section with Japanese literature started when I was running out of interesting zen texts. I read quite a lot of Japanese authors myself at that time with pleasure, like Yoko Ogawa, Haruki Murakami, Yasunari Kawabata. “Edition Nippon” is a program sponsored from Japan, I have to say that not all of the novels offered are to my taste. And they sell lousily in spite of good reviews. Nevertheless I cannot loose money with them and by editing the texts with others learn more about writing myself. There are indeed some titles that we could call zen fiction, published elsewhere, before I joined that program: Tsutomu Mizukami’s “Im Tempel der Wildgaense” (“The Temple of the Wild Geese”) and “Das Fest des Abraxas” by the Soto-monk Sokyu Genyu. Both are published in French, too. Sokyu is very top-heavy for a zen adept and not an easy read but prominent on Japanese TV. Let us not forget the crime novels of the late Janwillem van de Wetering who was heavily influenced by Zen.

It is mainly a question of quality.  I cannot raise hope in other authors to come to me with their Buddhist fiction. Still, recently Ruth Ozeki’s new novel “A Tale for the Time Being” was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Ozeki was ordained as a zen nun in 2010. A partly fictive novel based on real events that I like to recommend to your readers is “Dharma Brothers Kodo and Tokujo” by Arthur Braverman who once sat in Antaiji. It deals with the friendship of Kodo Sawaki and a Rinzai master whom I like to quote, with a dig at Roland Rech: “Animals are enlightened!” That is why a tiger can eat us without any remorse.

Please click on the subtitle icon to initiate English subs.

An (abbreviated) reply to “Brian Victoria” that I wrote on September 23rd 2014 which might not appear here:

Brian: “In truth, I had no doubt that you would embrace the violence-affirming wartime teachings of such Zen-related leaders as D.T. Suzuki, Omori Sogen, and Sawaki Kodo.”

I know that you became a persona non grata in Japan once, but I am now asking myself – considering your distorting logic (please read again: I embrace persons, not ideologies) – if you have ever studied with Saloth Sar.

“has ended up by finding excuses for killing . . . .” It’s hard to imagine that s.o. who does not kill needs excuses. What happened in the Mahayana is some input of common sense, thus it is indeed possible to say: “I abstain from killing if not in self-defense and defence of another person” – which is also the basis of common Western law. Of course nobody has to rephrase that, as in Zen – and therefore I quoted Pai-chang – we will be detached of dogma anyway and find a “truth” in ourselves, not in scriptures.

A funny thing about the Theravada school: Most soldiers in the Myanmar army have been novices for a couple of months in their life, as it is their tradition, but it obviously is no problem to turn them into soldiers. The army of Myanmar thus consists mainly of former robed Buddhists!

Finally, TNH is not a good example to me, the CIA has seen him active for Thich Tri Quang in Vietnam during the war, it was a militant clique, with the latter ocassionally “receiving afflux from the ARVN” (Army of the Repulic Vietnam, translation mine from the German Wiki). If I’d trust him, I’d suggest to rather compare him to Omori and Kodo, who had learned from their mistakes during the war, but I don’t (…)

(Surprising photo of TNH:


A reply to “Caodemarte” that I wrote on September 15th 2014, has not appeared here:

Caodemarte: What you say is TNH’s official “hagiography”. If you want to know how information about him – that contradicts this hagiography – is suppressed, just watch the “history”-link in his German and English Wikipedia-entries. It starts with Prof. Prebish’s question how s.o. who was not a zen-master in Vietnam can give “transmission” and ends with TNH’s co-ownership of “EIAB” in Waldbröl/Germany. You may know that according to the Vinaya (in which TNH has traditionally ordained) neither suicide (self-immolation) nor the possession of money or investment in real estate is permitted. [If s.o. argues for suicide citing Channa of the Majjhima- and Samyutta-Nikaya, he will probably end in sophistic rhetorics very similar to those that Brian attributes to Buddhist warmongers]. I believe the difference to a guy like Sawaki is that he openly talked about his past and his failures (though perhaps not taking responsibility enough) whereas certain other teachers advise their sangha to better not watch TV and read too much (except their own books, of course). I have found that the Vietnamese in exile are on the average not as fond of TNH as his “official” reputation might suggest and that there are not just a few who subscribe to the view that some Buddhist monks have “played into the hands of the Vietcong” in a tragic way.

I found a piece in my German “Asso-Blog” that I want to share with you. After a brief introduction you will read – in English language – my answers to questions that were originally posted by different people in the “Ask a Teacher”-section of Zenforum International. Of course my answers enraged some teacher(s) and were only online for about 8 hours, before I got banned from the forum. Although the original questions are not always clear anymore, I hope you enjoy my thoughts.

[In light of the recent accusations against Joshu Sasaki, I will give my thoughts.]

Isn’t there a sila, a moral rule against indecent behaviour like fumbling and groping in the Buddhist teaching?

No, this rule is, according to its choice of words, written against adultery.

But isn’t Buddhism aimed at avoiding the suffering of others?

Buddhism is primarily focused on the ending of one’s own suffering. Some of the things named as suffering (birth, death, sickness, ageing) can usually not be avoided, it provides a means to end mental suffering under those conditions. The conditions themselves cannot be changed by following the dharma. Thus Buddhism knows that it is impossible to eradicate suffering from the world per se, but that each individual might change his and her frame of mind when facing events that usually cause suffering.

Therefore exercising the sila cannot end suffering because it does not provide the necessary calming of  differentiating thoughts. It is of course meant to help getting a better society, and thus most of the basic moral rules have long been put into law. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the Eightfold Path there is Right View which is based on an undefiled mind. This mind is an enlightened mind. Without awakening there is no Right Action.

Right action in zen amounts to the realization of the bodhi spirit that avoids bringing suffering to others, but be aware, the ethics of a Bodhisattva are much more complex than that of the Palicanon (obeying a rule of non-violent behavior could result in more harm to a girl who is raped in a public bus than defending her physically).

Would Right Action as being in accord with the sila still not confirm Right and Awakened Mind?

No it won’t. The awakened mind in Zen is one that is not attached, not even to any dogma or words. It knows that there is not only an exercise in non-killing (like in the sila) but also a necessary one in killing (e.g. for soldiers who protect us). It knows that some adultery may just end the suffering of a stagnant marriage and so forth. The one who just practices sila will not find this insight that transcends good and bad and even the categories of a law.

In the case of abuse the abused one will also not eliminate his or her suffering by following the sila but by realizing what I would call a transcendent state of mind in which the dualistic view behind the sila is indeed overcome. All stands and falls with the mindshattering experience that changes one’s course of life, thinking and behaviour. That is at least what Zen is about.

Can a guy like Joshu Sasaki be called awakened, given that the accusations against him are true?

An awakened man is still a fallible man. It is not the advances of a one hundred years old guy that speak against his awakening, it is the ignoring, downplaying or denying of his own needs that are behind them. An old man may still want sex. In most cases, nobody will share it with him. This is a sad fate, and one must not be ashamed to speak of it. A denial goes against Bodhidharma’s legendary saying “Open vastness, nothing sacred”.

It can be debated if it is possible to “fall out” of awakening, getting deluded again. I guess it is. At least dementia is showing us that the state of our brain decides how clearly we can view things. I cannot say if Sasaki has gone through significant brain changes but his behavior makes him an unfit teacher. You may still find insights in him when it comes to Zen, some wisdom that you may also acquire through his speeches and writing.

What we learn here is that the enlightened one is to be found within oneself, not outside. Today it is much easier not to meet teachers personally. Meditation is quickly learned. Of course in the Rinzai tradition there is a koan curriculum which usually cannot be done alone. When you see the problems you are facing as the real koan or barrier (and Sasaki has one to go through himself right now), you get to the point where it all relies on yourself.

The various scandals surrounding Buddhist teachers (and there are more in the Theravada tradition which are not as prominent because Theravada countries lack press freedom, and those involved are mostly male on both sides) have shown us that a zen master might just be a good or experienced teacher of koan study, meditation, rituals and the like. Do not look for an example of a lifestyle in him, you have to find your own way. If a teacher makes you uncomfortable, stand up and leave, trust your instincts. If his or her behavior is putting others at risk, take stronger means like involving the court.


That said, I remembered the story of a disciple who wanted to follow a homeless zen master. The master told him he couldn’t, it would be too tough. But the disciple insisted. Soon they became hungry and the master took leftovers of others out of a bin and munched on them. The disciple was on the verge of vomiting, when the teacher told him: “See, you can’t follow me.”

From such a story we derive our ideal of the master living an imitable life. But where are those masters nowadays? Another nub of this story is still valid. Why can’t a zen-adept do something that appears just too disgusting to common people? I sadly ask myself if there is really not one person in Joshu Sasaki’s community that can regularly give him a hand- or blowjob or whatever he needs (though I fear that a man of 105 years is probably impotent since decades and that his groping is a rather helpless cry for some other kind of erotic attention)? I imagine me sitting in front of an aged old female zen teacher, her grabbing my cock through my robe and making advances. Would the right thing to do not be to rub her to orgasm or putting my cock into her? It’s easier said than done, still I guess that else than a sex scandal is possible.

In another blog entry I recently called those who feel abused but do nothing than blame  in letters and over the internet are at fault, too. Their fault lies not only in not using appropriate means to stop someone (esp. jurisdiction) but also in not being able to imagine how to comfort the needs of an old teacher. Eating leftovers may be considered different from so personal as sex, but how far can someone who really freed his mind actually go? Remember that the student in zen should become better than his teacher.

I believe there are just too few who have broken through the wall …

Unafraid or not – leaving with a stinking fart – into no-cushion.

Death poems of zen masters have been a surprise to many in the past. It seemed that the prediction of a certain day or moment of dying had to do with the enlightened mind of a teacher. In the West it became common to understand a Buddhist path as a good preparation for dying. Some teachers even have initiated hospices.

Looking closer at phrases like “dying on a cushion” or “view your life from the grave” I wondered if anyone can really prepare for a one time event, the final moment where there is no coming back. I don’t think so. Anything that is happening before is still living, even when it is without hope, under a “terminal illness”. The chansonnier Jacques Dutronc once said: “Life is a fatal disease which is sexually transmittable.” That sums it up. Even the cancer patient will not know if he won’t be overrun by a car or die of a stroke instead of the predicted renal failure and ileus. Dogen pointed out that each state has its own truth and that they do not really mix.  So as long as we live, we live, and if we are dying, we indeed did so from the beginning.

The preparation for death that was highlighted in the samurai culture which went hand in hand especially with the Rinzai zen tradition had one goal: to prepare for those precious moments in life where one could fearlessly face any barrier or opponent. If anyone claims that he is free of the fear of death, I ask him: “How can you be sure?” Instead, our focus should be on the moments where one is needed to speak up and stand up, even if it means risking one’s life. It is nothing more than a constant awareness of the fate that awaits anyone and cannot be changed, whatever preparation one might have taken. What can be changed are the outcomes of such moments.

Therefore I recommend not to waste much time with commercial offers that want you to prepare for the unknown. Rather fit yourself for those situations where the common person ducks and covers, hides, silences and runs away. In a current discussion about the “sexual abuse” by the old monk Joshu Sasaki in the US I was reminded of the strange conformity with which all the recent similar cases in Germany were handled. There was a lot of anger voiced through the internet, but none of the abused had the guts to go to court and do efficiently against their crooked teachers, i.e. to take legal action. In some instances prominent Buddhist associations have done their part to advise against it. Being a pussy is the opposite of having “died on a cushion” or “viewing one’s life from a grave”. I will dug deeper into that special case.

There are many opportunities in your life to write death poems, at the real end of it you might have filled a whole book with them.

Ethnic Buddhism


Much trouble that Buddhism stirs in the West stems from what I call “Ethnic Buddhism”. Those who adept to it (not always consciously) attach to the special characteristics of a Tibetan, Japanese or whatever country’s Buddhism. They are then easily convinced that initiation into ceremonies like “Kalachakra” (done by the Dalai Lama e.g. in Switzerland for a mass of people at the same time) or “Phowa” (where you might get into contact with the dead) is necessary and, of course, has to be paid for. The zen fraction, traveling from one sesshin to the next, is not much better, and to have a say there you better bring up some enlightenment or certification (also at the same time some do not hesitate to quote that “zazen is good for nothing” or you do not meditate to reach any goal). Another ethnic element is the recitation, often in languages that the adepts do not speak (but beware, it gets more ridiculous if you translate them, as Shasta Abbey has, and publish a whole liturgy that comes in books like the hymnbooks in church). You may think twice before you follow a guy who opposed the CIA (Thich Nhat Hanh) and lets his nuns wear Vietnamese shawls, or one who worked hand in hand with the CIA (Dalai Lama) and who travels with bodyguards and in armored cars  although claiming to know that he will die “at about 90” . So what is Buddhist practice about, someone asked in a forum?

It is about dropping addictions and overcoming barriers. Developing helping hands and brains. Accepting sorrow and pain (and thus, for example, abbreviating the “steps of remorse”). Cutting unhealthy relationships. Sharing possession. Realizing responsible (though maybe uncommon) sexuality. Searching for constructive work. It is active, not passive.

Shenhui (670-762), dharma-heir of Huineng an an apologet of sudden enlightenment, once answered to the question what sitting in meditation is: “To teach people to sit … is to obstruct bodhi (i.e. enlightenment). When I say ‘sit’ now, [I mean that] ‘sitting’ is for thoughts not to be activated. When I say ‘meditation’ now, [I mean that] ‘meditation’ is to see the fundamental nature. Therefore, I do not teach people to have their bodies sit and their minds abide in entrance into concentration. If it were correct to declare such a teaching, then Vimalkirti would not have scolded Shariputra for sitting in meditation.”*

Don’t be surprised that Shenhui’s lineage did not survive long, it was just too original. (But the old masters didn’t care, Fayun (d. 766) answered to the question if the Buddha’s teaching had been transmitted to him: “I have a sandalwood image of the Buddha to which I pay reverence.”)  In old zen we find the reason why it is possible to be ‘enlightened’ without any study of the Palicanon or any formal meditation, why so many non-Buddhists come to similar conclusions as zen masters. What then was ‘wisdom’ for the old zen masters? “When the mind does not activate on the basis of the eye’s perception of form, this is fundamental wisdom. … If realization [of the transcendence of body and mind] were not first, then knowing and perception would be completely defiled. Know clearly that the autonomous [spontaneity of] knowing and perception is attained after that realization and is called successive wisdom.”** So to be wise one has to realize transcendent first, than he/she will spontaneously know and perceive. Look for yourself if the agents of Ethnic Buddhism have done so.

*(in “Seeing through Zen” by John McRae, Berkeley 2003, p. 54, a book which has some flaws in overlooking the findings of what McRae calls ‘Proto-Chan’ and I see as the real early chan, described by Jeffrey Broughton, and in overlooking the martial arts tradition in Chinese Chan temples like the Shaolin where monks could actually be armored, see the studies of Meir Shahar)

** (dito, p. 89)



I am in the zen lineage of Bodhidharma, Huineng, Huang-po,  Chao-chou, Vimalakirti, Muso Soseki, Bankei, Bassui, Shantideva, Dogen, Shrimala, Suzuki Shosan, Ikkyu, Zibo Zhenke, Takuan, Tsung-mi,  Yamamoto, Hakuin,  the Shaolin and many others. If you ask how that can be, I answer that any lineage is imaginary. I have studied a few official ones , and in quite a lot you will find missing links, quotation marks, unclear dates of births and deaths etc. On the other hand zen adepts often recite their ancestor’s lineage down to the Shakyamuni Buddha, including some guys that most of them have never much heard about. When I translated Aryadeva’s Catushataka, I stopped doing that. He is known as Kanadeva in the row of Patriarchs and was a disciple of the famous Nagarjuna.  Can you believe that he was so dumb to only know the female’s sex organs as horribly stinking flesh? I’d rather recite the name’s of Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller now.

A bigger problem is the decline of lineages. To give an example, there is much deep wisdom in what was taught by Shunryu Suzuki. One of his dharma heirs, Richard Baker, became known for affairs with his female students. One of Baker’s dharma heirs, Reb Anderson, once found a corpse, went back to “meditate” over it and took a revolver nearby, not telling the police about it. Later he was mugged near his zen center, retrieved the unloaded revolver and chased his perpetrator down the street. One main assistant of Suzuki Roshi, Kobun Chino, drowned while trying to safe his daughter who had fallen from a dock, knowing that he could not swim himself. One of his  “heirs”, Vanja Palmers, called the intake of psychedelics “close to his heart”.

Some teachers make the wrong choice when appointing their dharma heirs. But if a student does not succeed in surpassing his master, it may not only be detected in his teaching but through his life style. The USA have succeeded in winning another war against Japan by slowly eradicating the wisdom of Japanese zen masters that were sent there in the last century. If you believe running a commercial bakery is the same as dunking your belongings in a sea (Layman Pang) or meditating in a former concentration camp equals dealing with a pleasure girl (Ikkyu) you may also fantasize that a beetle may outrun a tiger.

Good to know that the whole lineage business was a late invention, for the disciple of Bodhidharma it was necessary to cut off one arm instead of taking any vow, i.e. parroting formula. In a tradition that knew of advice like “When you meet the Buddha, kill him!” there is hardly any place for sticking to the adoration of certain individuals as you will find it in modern dojos. It may be different with the teacher you meet personally. I myself am pretty happy that I have not met Dogen in flesh and blood, he might just have scared me away by insisting on the superiority of monks. Better to extract the best of old masters through their writings. Nowadays, with all the printed material and the internet, you will thus find a wiser teaching than ever was possible before. If you still miss some eye contact, you may prepare by studying with experts for mimic, first, like with Paul Ekman. Afterwards you may know even when the Dalai Lama fools you.

There are currently two prominent fractions in Buddhism when it comes to the question of life after death. One is leaving the answer open, like some of the teachers in the Dogen Zenji tradition (“just be prepared to do your zazen”), for others like the Tibetans it is fundamental for their concept of the reborn tulkus and dalai lamas. You will rarely find a Buddhist who definitely denies reincarnation. The reason mainly lies in the concept of a mind to which someone awakens which is not his but “universal”. Even those Buddhists who are aware of the Buddha’s (correcting) teachings of the atman (self!) as eternal and pure in sutras like the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana regularly miss that there is no “re” in dropping one’s ego, that the insight given in the nonsubstantiality and impermanence of the “I” that leads us through our earthly existence does not include any coming back of anything personal or individual, as all those features are “empty” (shunyata). What is eternal, naturally is free of impermanent features, so the nature of beings is that of an eternal Buddhanature that is not dependent on an individual biography and character flaws. The effects of deeds will not be directed on a certain rebirth that accumulates a personal, individual karma, but follow a rather chaotic way in accord with a thermodynamic law which states that energy within an isolated system is neither created nor destroyed. Thus it is impossible to know a deceased through certain tests and discern him as a former dalai lama, as it is only the energy that survives and the individual characteristics do not, otherwise their nature would not be of emptiness (in Buddhist terms it would actually be the unenlightened who returns and not the awakened one …).

Of course this is not in line with the Pali Canon’s teachings of hells and animal realms in which one could fall when doing, speaking or even thinking wrong. One might cynically answer that those teachings were given to a rather dumb audience, as traditional Buddhists believe it is important to whom the Buddha spoke (well if it was, you could forget about studying the Pali Canon at all because he surely never spoke to you). In this blog, the Pali Canon is considered to be a work of  literature (with facets of fiction and fairy tale) which one has to understand by historical-critical exegesis and metaphorically. Metaphorical understanding does not mean that you project something into the Pali Canon that cannot have been there, as recently a monk Sujato did when asking Buddhists to support same sex marriage but insisting that it would exclude minors – whereas in Shakyamuni’s lifetime the marriage of (what we consider today as) children was as normal as much later in the times of  a certain Mohammed and even during the Khmer empire in Angkor. Interpreting scriptures does not justify enforcing modern views in an historical incorrect way. If you stick to a literal understanding and want to transmit it over the course of time, contradictions like the one above are common. Shakyamuni has just not spoken of many topics that dominate discussions today, be it sexual abuse, the internet, stem cell research or organ donation. The answer has to be given by your “own” freed mind, not by quoting out-of-date data. A Buddha’s achievement lies in providing a way of detachment from greed, hate and illusions, i.e. from suffering. This way means awakening to a higher wisdom, in the detection of a universal mind. Anything that a historical Shakyamuni said in terms of marriage (condemning adultery which for not just a few people is the beginning of relief), eating (snakes are not a common dish in Europe), sleeping (on the ground is practiced until today widely in Asia, although the same people who seem to follow a precept there do not hesitate to outsmart customers the other day in their market booths) , ordination (not allowed for effeminate homosexuals, the Pandika) etc. are limited views developed at a certain place in a certain time.

Linking an old understanding with a modern topic: If you want to know where the ethical dilemma of an attachment to reincarnation lies, just ask a Buddhist if he/she is an organ donator. You will be surprised to see how many Buddhists do not accept brain death as the end of their conscious life, as there may be a subtle consciousness living on that is able to somehow feel and suffer wherefore no organs should be taken. Once again, those adepts mix up the empty, non-substantial features of their person that they somehow secretly just value too much and wish to survive instead of “giving up” to the universal mind that knows no suffering.

One argument given by religious people helps manifesting the real power of zen ethics (here I have to add that a lot of prominent “masters” believed in reincarnation – but they were all linked to institutionalized Buddhism, wearing robes and ranks). It is the conviction that in a limited life without any afterlife, justice (as implied in rebirth according to karma or Last Judgment) would not be done and chaos and immorality would rule the world. Not only does this view contradict scientific findings of an instinctive moral, it also reveals a moral insecurity of those religious people – they simply do not trust their own instincts and ask for an artificial code to show them the way. Actually, they project from themselves onto others. The history of our world religions, all equipped with a much similar set of ethical rules, discloses how wrong they are. There is no doubt that artificial commandments have not made mankind any better, on the contrary. To me it seems that they help to disturb people’s minds, just look at the hypocritical justifications of violence by rabbis and ulamas nowadays. The people who cannot trust their moral instincts are those you cannot trust. Remember this when you are in doubt next time, and see if I’m right. Of course, this is just another rule, so beware of exceptions.

It is crucial to understand that “justice” is not done by nature itself and men have to fight for it. It cannot be delayed, the consolation that people look for in a life after death is the hope of the helpless. The crooks of our world, when you ask them, will either not believe in a judgment after life or, being part of institutionalized and classic religion, trust in the forgiveness of a god. So rejecting rebirth (resurrection etc.) does not only root a person in its natural moral abilities (without any intellectual superstructure), it also requires full responsibility, e.g. for bringing people to justice as well as making one’s remains available to those in need. No one who believes he has “dropped body-and-mind” (a popular saying in the Dogen tradition) and cannot be an organ donator has dropped anything than a clear mind.

Recently I was (once again) banned without warning from a website called Zenforuminternational, probably due to criticizing a certain robed “Nonin” (one more example for the decline of the Suzuki Roshi lineage) for having denied Daito Kokushi the status of a zen teacher. You may follow this thread here. “Nonin” on the other hand named TNH as an authorized teacher although Zen (Thien) died out hundreds of years ago in Vietnam (according to Nguyen, Zen in Medieval Vietnam) and this crooked guy did things like bestowing the title “dharmacarya” on a former chairman of the German Buddhist Union, not without receiving a multi-digit donation of Deutschmarks from him.

The Zenforuminternational is run with the help of some so called lineaged and certified zen teachers. Their tolerance is low, as one can expect, because they are part of a religious organisation, in that case the Soto school. This school has one huge dogma created by Dogen Zenji, which “Nonin” put like this: “Practice and realization are one and the same, so awakening and zazen practice are not two.” It is the dumb repetition of rhetorics that often manifests the lack of understanding of those practitioners. Because it also goes the other way round: Awakening and daily deeds are not two! Only then have you arrived at the core of zen when you no longer separate a ritual of seated meditation from your doings, and that happens when zazen is not just sitting (requiring a certain posture) but a state of the nonjudgemental, nonattached mind. Whatever (physical) posture you are in, you are “practicing”, you are “realizing”. This is the point where you detect false teachers. Their zazen becomes a compulsion neurosis, they just can’t let go. Beware! If you cannot handle your zazen freely, where is your nonattachment? A teacher who misleads you is the one who has “not arrived”, i.e. that he has not gotten the understanding that an awakened one is free to let go of anything, even sitting meditation.  (This does not reject training monasteries etc. that offer rigorous zazen for those who are interested – because there is nothing wrong in doing excessive sesshin as long as you are not addicted to it.) Let’s see how some masters in the past have said it. Even if they themselves taught zazen and stuck to it, they knew. False teachers on the other hand will deny.

In the forum I mentioned two books of Buddhologists, McRae’s “Seeing through Zen” which provides a taste of the hagiography (myths and their meaning) but is not about earliest chan, wherefore I recommend Broughton’s “Bodhidharma Anthology”. In the writings of early chan-adepts neither sila (rules for moral behaviour) nor sitting meditation were central. When sitting meditation comes into play, it was always a means to set the mind straight. In Buddhism means like that are called upaya, they may be replaced by others or dropped in the course of one’s life. That is why Bodhidharma did accept his disciple after he had cut off his arm, not after he had sit sesshin, and why Huineng was confirmed a dharma heir after having been an illiterate cook, not after having studied sutras and done shikantaza.  Remember that due to zen hagiography the core of zen was transmitted by the Buddha holding up a flower and Mahakashyapa smiling (again: not through sitting meditation). If you ask where the “nine years of zazen in front of a wall” of Bodhidharma come in, just look for the connecting element of many of those myths. It is surely not the sitting but the effort, the ability to neglect comfort in search for a higher “truth”, or let’s better call it: wisdom. Therefore it should be the “nine years” that we emphasize, not the sitting.

Today zazen has often become a means to make the mind intolerant and blindsided. Just compare the late insights of really enlightened masters like Hsu Yun: “Chan does not mean sitting in meditation. The so called zen hall and the so called zen sitting are only given to those who in this age of decadence face adamant obstacles.” (Lu K’uan Yü, Ch’an and Zen Teaching, 1970). Or Enni Bennen (1202-1282) from the Yang-chi lineage of Lin-chi. He considered Bodhidharma as a “self-awakened”, zazen and the pointing to one’s own mind were two methods that appeared only after self-awakening (see “A Zen Reader”, Berkeley 1996). Or Daito Kokushi (1282-1334): “One could suppose that the ‘heart Buddha’ is only known through sitting meditation. This is wrong. Yungchia taught: ‘Walking is zen, sitting is zen.’ If you move the body or not, it is in peace.” Or Tetsugen Doko (1630-1682): “During daily practice I do not know anything about ‘sinking’ (zazen). When I am hungry, I eat, when I am tired, I go to sleep.” Do you get the slight but crucial difference to what was said by some teachers and adepts in the Zenforum?

Of course, quotes are often taken out of a context. The same goes for Dogen’s “Zazen and awakening are one”, just combine it with “Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way. Each, abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness.” (taken from the Shobogenzo-chapter “Sansuikyo”). If what mountains and waters do is complete and awakened, you are able to do zazen by living your natural life, while you sit in a movie theater or a bar or while you are shopping. Dogen and other masters have given us two kinds of wisdom. One is for those in need of a formalized training method, the other one is “higher wisdom” which can obviously not be understood by teachers who do only quote what supports their ritualized life. Enlightened zen masters always find a way to hint to “higher wisdom”, and it is a shame when certain teachers diminish Dogen Zenji or great men like Pai-chang by seeing only the upholders of a monastery tradition  in them. Those teachers just don’t get that Dogen, Pai-chang, Hsu Yun etc. were or would have been (most probably) able to “let go” of even their priestly attachment, which is a requirement of the masters and not present in most of today’s lineage holders.

I myself had an “awakening” experience, i.e. one that significantly changed the course of my life and my mind’s frame, without previous zazen. I was a religious person at that time, at the age of 19, a Christian, and I had started doing martial arts and have heard of the zen or rather taoist koan “If you want to find wisdom, do not search for it”. Suddenly this wisdom opened my eyes and I understood when walking through the woods and having a kind of flashlight vision. Only then did I decide to dig deeper into Taoism, then found Zen, then began sitting meditation, reading the (zen) canon etc. Throughout the history of Buddhism, starting with Shakyamuni himself, self-awakening without a personal teacher was common. And as we see in the examples given in (hagiographic) zen tradition, there were always other prominent figures who made the big leap without zazen. Or those who became enlightened by reading a sutra, like Tsung-mi. Or those who founded most prominent zen traditions without any dharma transmission, like Chinul did in Korea. Because the big leap is one of the mind. For me, the main turning point was before zazen as a certain posture.

Nowadays, as I said in the forum but couldn’t explain more explicitly, I believe that there are persons with “obstacles” (to quote Hsu Yun) who will find a good training method in zazen. Others will not need it to become unattached and nonjudgmental. If you meet persons who are but have never followed Buddhism or Zen, you will know. What this means is not obvious when you retreat and sit quietly with a peer pressure group of the same rhetorics as yours. If you are unattached and nonjudgemental will be proven for example when you run a zenforum where posters contradict you. When your colleagues at work find your opinions, habits, morals and “practice” ridiculous. When you leave an astonishing beautiful woman to your greedy pal who just feels so great having you beaten in what he believes to be a competition. When you have a front tooth of a poor pleasure girl fixed instead of fucking here a month long. When you speak up frankly where others duck. In other words, when you make a difference because you dare, you are able to take the risk (esp. of losing status, property, health and life), you follow your instincts and are not hindered by dogma or second thoughts, you act out of your freed mind. There will always be situations where (while in no need to stand out in daily life) it will come natural to you to act as nonconformist. Because nonconformist is often simply what others will call your being unattached. Unattached is not uninterested and uninvolved, it is being free from the thought “I can’t do this, I am supposed to act like that, it would be a shame to …” It means dropping fear. It is not the fear of spiders or mice, it is the fear of being considered outrageous, unadapted, foolish, even within your own “zen circle”.

Teachers who cannot understand that a life without sitting meditation can be a zen (chan) life have not seen through. They slander Bodhidharma, Huineng, Ikkyu, Hsu Yun, Taisen Deshimaru (whose only dharma heir dropped zazen completely) and even Kodo Sawaki whose favourite nun was one who never did zazen but sewed robes. This is where you might miss “by a hairbreadth”. As you can detect from the moral handicaps of established teachers (“Nonin’s” for example was Dainin Katagiri who indulged in sex with female disciples) excessive zazen, sticking to sila as a code of conduct or taking Bodhisattva vows has probably no significant effect on refining your humanity.