On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

March 17, 2015

Notes on Meditation

Nyogen Senzaki (1876-1958)

Although the word “Zen” is derived from the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit dhyana, it is not the same as dhyana. Daito once said, “One may pass hours sitting in contemplation, but if he has no Zen, he is not my disciple.” On another occasion a student came to Kwan-Zan to receive personal guidance. Kwan-Zan asked him where he had studied Zen and under which master. When the student replied that he has studied under Jakushitsu of Yoken Monastery, Kwan Zan said, “Show me what you have learned.” The student’s answer was to sit cross-legged in silence, where upon Kwan-Zan shouted, “My monastery has too many stone Buddhas. We need no more. Got out, you good-for-nothing!”

Zen uses meditation as a means of entering Samadhi, but it does not deny the existence of other methods; however, it does insist that what is gained by the practice of Zazen must be applied practically in everyday life. The teachings of Zen warn constantly of falling into the trap of “quietism.”

When one devotes oneself to meditation, mental burdens, unnecessary worries, and wandering thoughts drop off one by one; life seems to run smoothly and pleasantly. A student may now depend on intuition to make decisions. As one acts on intuition, second thought, with its dualism, doubt, and hesitation, does not arise.

Consciousness is not an entity ruling the movements of the mind, but a focus of mental powers. When mental activities cease working in meditation, there is no focus. But the moment the five senses begin to work, the consciousness is alerted. It is precisely the same as when a person awakes from sleep.

Sometimes beginners in meditation speak about their dreams as though there was some connection between Zen realization and dreaming. Dreams, however, are a psychological phenomenon and have nothing to do with Zen.


A koan is a problem given by a teacher to a student for solution. The student must solve it primarily alone, although a teacher will occasionally give some help. To work upon a koan, you must be eager to solve it; to solve a koan, you must face it without thinking of it. The more you pound it in cognition, the more difficult it will be to obtain a solution. Two hands brought together produce a sound. What is the sound of one hand? This is a koan. If you think that there is no such sound, you are mistaken.

A Zen koan is nothing but nonsense to outsiders, but for a student of Zen it is a gate to enlightenment. Intellectual gymnastics, no matter how superior or refined, could never solve a koan; in fact, a koan is given to force the student beyond intellect. Do not work upon more than one koan at a time, and do not discuss a koan with any person other than your teacher. Just face the question without thinking about anything else. Without neglecting everyday duties, your every leisure moment should be spent exercising the mind with a koan.

Each koan is an expression of a person’s actual experience, directly from personal attainment. When you reach the same stage, you will express the same thing. Unless you attain realization for yourself, it is useless for philosophers or spiritual leaders to talk about noumenon, oneness, the absolute, God within you or any other empty name, which will only serve to lead you astray.

Unless you have faith in being enlightened in this life, you had better not study Zen at all. There are plenty of sects promising enlightenment after death.

Before you enter one of the gates of Zen, you must strip yourself of egoistic ideas. If you think you can reason out the final truth with your brain, why do you not do it? Once you begin your work in Zen, do not turn to the left nor to the right but keep going straight ahead.

Ekido’s Vows

Ekido, a Zen master of Japan, who lived in the nineteenth century, made the following vows: First, the cascade of life and death must be crossed over. (What is life, what is death? These questions must be answered) Until the dawn of such realization, I will not stop my meditation. Second, every hour of the day and night must be lived as the Buddhas and patriarchs lived. Their way is untransmissible and can be attained only by living. Third, wherever I am, whenever I live, I should not have any secondary thought for environment, favorable or adverse.

The average person does not know the true meaning of life and death, so they cling to life and are afraid of death. A Bodhisattva does not hold his body as his own, nor does he see mind and body as separate When he recognizes it by the senses, he calls it body; when he sees it by introspection, he names it mind. Most people cling to “their” thoughts, thus causing suffering in the world.

In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha said, “In case good men and women raise the desire for supreme enlightenment, they should keep their thoughts under control. If a Bodhisattva retains the thought of an ego, a person, a being, or a soul, he is no more a Bodhisattva.”

My logic can convince your reason, but I cannot overcome the inertia of your dualistic thinking. Your intellect may comprehend the oneness of all things, but your thinking, like a cascade, will continue to flow dually. You must cross this cascade once and for all to see for yourself the true emptiness of which Buddha said, “All that has form is an illusive existence. When it is perceived that all form is no-form, the Tathagata is recognized.”

“Every hour in the day and every hour in the night I will try to live as Buddhas and patriarchs lived.” Buddhism does not seek adherents. If you desire worldly fame in any form, then work for that instead of hiding yourself under the name of “Buddhist.” “Their way is untransmissible….” Live the life and you will know.

When Zen says, “Dharma was transmitted from a teacher to a disciple,” it means only that the disciple perceived enlightenment for himself, thereby “receiving the Lamp of Dharma.”

“I should have not have any secondary thought for environment.” Do not try to cling to pleasures. It is as impossible as attempting to capture sunshine in a box. Do not stop your tears. It will not help you to ask why you are sad. Avoid secondary thought. All things are transient, your happiness as well as your sorrow, and secondary thoughts will bring you nothing but suffering.

The bamboo shadows are sweeping the stairs
But no dust is stirred
The moonlight penetrates the depths of the pool,
But no trace is left in the water.


Emptiness is a term used in Buddhism that has caused considerable misunderstanding in Western minds. When a Buddhist speaks of emptiness, he does not intend it to signify the opposite of fullness, but rather that unconditional state in which there is nothing to be given and nothing to be received. Since it cannot be expressed in speech, it can only be hinted at in dialogue or referred to by use of the word “emptiness.”

Some students have advanced far enough in their meditation to empty their minds, but once they resume their normal activity, they are as unstable as before. In effect, they continue a condition of mind in which they recognize that there is nothing, not realizing that this in itself is a concrete, self-limiting state quite different from the “emptiness” of Buddhism.

True emptiness cannot be included or excluded. When you count your inhalations and exhalations, contending thoughts will gradually disappear, leaving no trace. Meditation? Emptiness? Realization? Buddha? Leave them all behind. Your everyday life will become calm and peaceful, making you less worried and less anxious. At a glance you won’t recognize your real self.


Karma is a Sanskrit noun derived from the verb Kar, meaning to do; in the objective sense it is Karman. Kamma and Kamman are the Pali equivalents. All states and conditions in this life are the direct results of previous actions, and each action in the present determines the fate of the future. Life is the working process of karman, the endless series of cause and effect.

In the Dhammapada, Buddha said, “All that is, is the result of thought, it is founded on thought, it is made of thought. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage. All that is, is the result of thought. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”

Buddhism teaches the way to emancipation and enlightenment, but Gautama Buddha never suggested that the way to perfection was easy or simple. Before he achieved his own enlightenment, he experienced tremendous difficulties. The natural tendency of every person is toward ease, comfort, and the “good” things of life, but if one wants to climb the upward path, one must toil hard. The aspiration for perfection must be accomplished by self-discipline. Deliverance is not to be attained by prayer, belief in creeds, nor initiation into secret orders or mysteries, but by leading an upright, worthy life. Purification is accomplished by being conscious of every thought, word, and act, and by the avoidance of evil out of respect for life.

To respect life is to practice the ordinary virtues, to be honest, to live cleanly, and to think purely, to be just and kind, to respect others and to live in peace with them, and to strive against ignorance.

Buddha is a state of mind, an intellectual and moral perfection. It means enlightenment: One who is truly enlightened is a Buddha. Buddha Shakyamuni attained buddhahood through his own efforts and declared that it was possible for anyone to do the same. By your own efforts you must find the inner treasure and see it for yourself.

Bodhi-Dharma once said, “If you wish to see the Buddha, you must look into your own inner nature; this nature is the Buddha himself. If you have not seen your own nature, what is the use of thinking of Buddha, or reciting Sutras, or fasting or keeping the precepts? By thinking of Buddha, your meritorious deed will bear fruit; by reciting the Sutras you may attain a bright intellect; by keeping the precepts, you may be born into the heavens; by practicing charity, you may be rewarded abundantly; but as to seeking the Buddha, you are far away.”

Nyogen Senzaki (1876-1958)

excerpted from Buddhism and Zen by Nyogen Senzaki and Ruth Strout McCandless 1953

Buddha Shakyamuni attained buddhahood through his own efforts and declared that it was possible for anyone to do the same. By your own efforts you must find the inner treasure and see it for yourself.

How much of what we know has been discovered first hand by us? If you are honest, most of what we know has been handed down by others and rarely questioned. Even the traditional teacher/student relationship often engenders a passivity; like baby birds with beaks open we wait for the next tidbit of understanding to arrive. How many encourage us to question things for ourselves? How many of us even know how to step back and see clearly?

Master Ekido made three vows for himself; he probably had the discipline to follow through with them. They are wonderful, but they were his vows. It was his practice that he had the discipline to come up with and see through. What challenges have we raised for ourselves?

The aspiration for perfection must be accomplished by self-discipline.

It is up to each of us has to come up with a way that works for us; something more than merely following well worn paths others have prescribed. Even if we choose to train with a teacher, we must keep our lights on. No going to sleep in spiritual practice, meditation or at the wheel of life.

There are many hints at what has helped others accomplish this goal of enlightenment, but what is going to be our key? What have we committed to on our own? What koan have we come up with for ourselves, our life koan?  These are questions it takes time and reflection to answer.  And no better time than the present.

May our minds be clear!


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