Sans Traces

Noting another birthday, today it’s the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, born May 18, 1904 in Kanagawa Prefecture Japan, died December 4, 1971, San Francisco, CA.

His classic work, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind is an invaluable source of guidance for both beginning Buddhists (or those merely curious) and experienced dharma practitioners.  You can open it to any page and find a gem of insight, a pearl of wisdom.  Here is what I found on page 47:

Suzuki2016b2Most people have a double or triple notion in one activity. There is a saying, ‘To catch two birds with one stone.’ That is what people usually try to do. Because they want to catch too many birds they find it difficult to be concentrated on one activity, and they may end up not catching any birds at all! That kind of thinking always leaves its shadow on their activity. The shadow is not actually the thinking itself. Of course it is often necessary to think or prepare before we act. But right thinking does not leave any shadow. Thinking which leaves traces comes out of your relative confused mind. Relative mind is the mind which sets itself in relation to other things, thus limiting itself. It is this small mind which creates gaining ideas and leaves traces of itself.”

And so, it is the larger more spacious mind that we want to actualize.  This is what The Diamond Sutra is talking about, developing a mind that is apratishtita, a Sanskrit word that, as I have noted before, means “unsupported” or non-abiding.

In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”  If we catching birds, our mind is unsupported by the idea of birds, our thoughts are as open and wide as the sky.

A mind that does not dwell anywhere and leaves no trace.

Before the chapter, “No Trace” is over, on page 49, Suzuki says,

When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”

More posts concerning Shunryu Suzuki here.


The Meaning Lies in the Effort Itself

It seems that most folks took my Orson Welles story the other day good naturedly. He really did live for a while on Stanley Drive north of Hollywood Blvd, but I didn’t learn that until many years after he passed on.  When I thought about how I used to ride the bus right by there nearly every day, I engaged in some fantasying and Friday’s story was the end result. If anyone felt my deception bamboozled them unduly or unfairly, which I highly doubt, I apologize. It just seemed a very Wellesian way to celebrate the centennial of his birth.

Today, another birthday: Zen pioneer Shunryu Suzuki was born May 18, 1904. Like Welles, Suzuki has been a huge influence. I’ve mentioned him a number of times on the blog, and you can read it all by clicking on his name in the tag cloud on the left sidebar (in between Shantideva and sufferings).

Suzuki helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the West and the collection of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is a book of deep wisdom that anyone, Buddhist or not, can benefit from reading.

He valued simplicity, so I feel it is a very Suzukian way to celebrate his life and spirit by keeping my words to a minimum and focusing on his:

shunryu_suzuki3In our everyday life we are usually trying to do something, trying to change something into something else, or trying to attain something. Just this trying is already in itself an expression of our true nature. The meaning lies in the effort itself. We should find out the meaning of our effort before we attain something. So Dogen said, “We should attain enlightenment before we attain enlightenment.” It is not after attaining enlightenment that we find its true meaning. The trying to do something in itself is enlightenment. When we are in difficulty or distress, there we have enlightenment. When we are in defilement, there we should have composure. Usually we find it very difficult to live in the evanescence of life, but it is only within the evanescence of life that we can find the joy of eternal life.

By continuing your practice with this sort of understanding, you can improve yourself. But if you try to attain something without this understanding you cannot work on it properly. You lose yourself in the struggle for your goal; you achieve nothing; you just continue to suffer in your difficulties. But with right understanding you can make some progress. Then whatever you do, even though not perfect, will be based on your inmost nature, and little by little something will be achieved.”

From “Calmness” Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind


A Kick in the Pants

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of yourself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.



Some folks are keen on creating a Buddhism without ritual. They equate ritual with religion, even though Buddhism as it has existed for thousands of years can be either a religion or not a religion, depending on one’s point of view. And that is what the whole question of ritual boils down to – point of view, or more precisely, how one understands ritual and its relevance to our journey.

There are some Buddhist rituals I am not overly fond of, and my method of dealing with these rites is simply not perform them if I can help it, and then move on. Sometimes, though, I’m at a temple or a dharma center, and I feel it is necessary to be respectful and follow the principle of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I’ve found that even when forced to engage in some ritual I don’t like, I somehow manage to survive.

We perform rituals every day. Just the act of getting up from bed in the morning is ritualistic. Most of us have our own routine for this. Getting dressed, going to the restroom, making coffee or tea or breakfast, we usually have a certain procedure that we rarely alter. Sex is a ritual, and you don’t hear too many people complaining about it.

There is actually very little in human society that isn’t ritual. Rituals serve to connect us to one another; they help strengthen community, link individuals with society. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once suggested that when a society loses its capacity for ritual, it begins to disintegrate, and he said there is a constant need to invent new rituals to keep societies moving forward.

Even in those Buddhist groups striving to create dharma sans ritual, when they meet, they generally follow some set format. If they ring the bell to signify the time to begin meditation, that’s a ritual.

I’m not crazy about doing full-body prostrations, but I do like bowing. You know, the little half-bows with palms pressed together. To bow to another is not necessarily saying that person is superior to you. When two people bow to each other, it’s a sign of respective equality.

A teacher of mine once suggested that one could view bowing as a way to touch the spirit of Bodhisattva Fukyo (“The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged”) in the Lotus Sutra. One day, Fukyo went around and bowed to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.” People thought he was strange and a mob beat him, almost to death. Yet, as a result of his sincerity in performing this personal ritual, he extended his life span by two-hundred-ten-thousand-million billions of years and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo eventually became his followers.

It’s a myth, but it has a rather obvious point. Fukyo saw that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the nature to become a buddha. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” Fukyo represents the true spirit of the bodhisattva, and his ritual is one we should all perform in daily life, the ritualpractice of treating others with respect.

Bowing to statues and objects may be a slightly different matter, but here is Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s take on that subject:

[When] you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”


Ghoulies and Ghosties . . .

And long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night! It’s Halloween once again. Funny how it always comes on October 31st, isn’t it?

Now, as you may or may not know, the word Halloween comes from Old English and means ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’, referring to the eve before All Hallows Day or The Feast of All Saints. Well, somehow over the centuries, Halloween became associated with things very much unholy: ghouls, ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and all the rest.

In 2011, I was able to take this shot of Big Jerome, the ghost of E. Hollywood Blvd. He must be a hungry ghost because he usually makes his appearances near Thai restaurants.

Here’s some more etymology for you, the word ‘ghost’ comes from High German geist or ‘spirit’ and is related to the Sanskrit word heda, ‘anger.’ The concept of a ghost is based on the idea that a person’s spirit exists separately from his or her body. This is not exactly how Buddhism sees things, but nonetheless we have plenty of specters floating around the Buddhist world and they are called “hungry ghosts.” Actually, they are not quite “ghosts” because they are only half-dead, but why nit-pick.

Hungry ghosts can be found in folklore from every corner of Asia. They are usually described as having mummified skin, withered limbs, extended stomachs, long thin necks, and sometimes they breathe fire.

Hungry ghosts are hungry for life, but for some reason they are not capable of experiencing it completely. The unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) they feel is the misery of being only half-alive.

12th Century Japanese painting on a scroll, depicting one of the Buddha’s disciples, Ananda being confronted by a hungry ghost.

In Tibet, “hungry ghosts” (Sanskrit: pretas) exist in their own realm on the Wheel of Becoming (Bhavacakra). In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it says “At the same time a soft yellow light of the hungry ghosts realm shines before you, penetrating your heart in parallel with the wisdom light. Do not indulge in it! Abandon clinging and longing!” Indeed, you don’t want to mess with the hungry ghost realm.

In Japanese Buddhism they have gaki, spirits who are cursed with insatiable desires, and jikininki, man-eating ghosts, hungrier than anyone in the Donner party.

Hungry ghosts can be understood metaphorically, of course.  They represent a life-condition in which one is never satisfied, subject to constant craving. A person in such a state is miserable, and their misery stems from looking for satisfaction from things outside of their own lives. When we have realized inner-contentment, and are satisfied with the knowledge of our true nature, there is no need to look anywhere for peace, satisfaction, happiness, for we understand that it is always present within us. All we need to do is tap into it.

Here’s what Shunryu Suzuki had to say about this in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

When we express our true nature, we are human beings. When we do not, we do not know what we are. We are not an animal, because we walk on two legs. We are something different from an animal, but what are we? We may be a ghost; we do not know what to call ourselves. Such a creature does not actually exist. It is a delusion. We are not a human being anymore, but we do exist . . .

If something exists, it has its own true nature, its Buddha nature. In the Pari-nirvana Sutra, Buddha says, “Everything has Buddha nature,” but Dogen reads it in this way: “Everything is Buddha nature.” There is a difference. If you say, “Everything has Buddha nature,” it means Buddha nature is in each existence, so Buddha nature and each existence are different. But when you say, “Everything is Buddha nature,” it means everything is Buddha nature itself. When there is no Buddha nature, there is nothing at all. Something apart from Buddha nature is just a delusion. It may exist in your mind, but such things actually do not exist.