Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Killing Time

"Killing Time" 11 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

In this miniature we have Yamamoto Roshi reading aloud from the crime blotter of a newspaper as he admonishes his students to not be killing time. He'd say "There is no murder worse than killing time."

This reminds me of my sweeties love of pursuing the obituaries. Obits' along with the crime blotter can be used as a reminder   "there is no murder worse than killing time."

There is work to do. Work requires energy. If we don't do the work, it won't get done. Zen is not about being lazy even though it can look like that from the outside. A bunch of sitters facing the wall, hour after hour. Yamamoto points to how even here this precious opportunity shouldn't be wasted.

I am happy. Happy to be writing here. I want to be careful and clear enough that a reader who does not have this book can still get a bit of the flavor. I also want to be respectful of Robert Aitken Roshi's writings. I feel it is important I not quote the book much at all. Any confusion or errors on this blog are mine alone and the result of my misunderstand and delusion.

I want to encourage you to get the book. It is really sweet and warm. Robert is retired now and is being supported by his community and sangha. Think of a book purchase as a small way of supporting him financially and if so moved, there is a "Financial Support" link on his blog.

Monday, March 30, 2009


"Doubt" 10 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

I've always had trouble with "doubt". It seems to have a bit of negation built into it. It is too bad that English words often have more than one meaning. Just say "I doubt it!" to in the middle of a conversation and see if it doesn't have negative effects.

Aitken Roshi uses "inquiry" to describe doubt and it seems so much more helpful or even closer to being intimate would be "wonder". Maybe all these words are synonyms for the feeling described by...

"At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully".

The torch of doubt and chaos, this is what the sage steers by.

Great Faith. Great Doubt. Great Effort. - The three qualities necessary for training.

Yesterday, it was cold and snowy here in Northern Idaho so I hibernated with computer and books catching up on reading and viewing. A twitter friend pointed me to a 4 part youtube video by Shinzen Young called Zero and One. (Highly recommended.) One of the nuggets that has stuck with me from this series was Shinzen's description of some term he was using as "highly technical and very specific". While I can't remember the exact term he was refering to, I can see where doubt or "Great Doubt" may also be describing something highly technical and very specific and I've missed it all this time.

How's that for doubt, inquiry and wonder? More research needed!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Liking Yourself

"Liking Yourself" 9 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

Here Aitken Roshi really pours on the encouragement. He admonishes us to find a good teacher, work together and trust yourself. Of these three, 'work together' is the most problematic for me. I live in Northern Idaho and my 'good' teacher is 421 miles away. This makes it a little tough for regular face to face meetings. Email seems the answer but that medium has its own problems. A couple of 7 day sesshins and one or two shorter retreats is all I can manage. Maybe I should listen up, take his advice and 'trust myself' that this is enough.

Let me say a little about this book. It is a hardback published in 2008 with an introduction by Nelson Foster. Get it at your local independent book seller. This is new and fresh material and reads very much like his earlier book Encouraging Words. Each chapter is only a paragraph long. Each of these is what Aitken Roshi calls a 'miniature', hence the title.

Each is physically miniature yet there is an invitation to dive in deeply. Explore each and find the warm wisdom and support offered by someone who walks the path and has lead many to "...uncover the unique one that has been there all along." Aitken Roshi's miniatures are so deceptively simple without being simplistic. This is his strong suit, speaking plainly and pointing to the nature of reality without any flashy academic or mysterious mumble jumbo. 

For me, these miniatures have a way of guiding me in turning the light around and shining it inward.

Thanks Robert.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Timeless

"The Timeless" 8 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master.

In this miniature, Aitken Roshi kicks it up a notch. In just 63 words, he point out the timeless nature of life, describes how we wake up in that timelessness, then explodes it all by pointing out that 'timelessness' and 'waking up' are just thoughts and here is the part that I love, Aitken Roshi admonishes us to "dismiss all concepts" and "dismiss all thoughts".

Don't know why this type of teaching resonates with me?

Uchiyama Roshi described thoughts as secretions of the mind. It is just what minds do, minds secrete thoughts. This fits my experience. Some minds are huge secretors (new word) and some not. Even an individual mind, like mine, sometimes has a diarrhea of secretions and sometime is dry of secretions. If we realize we control the secretions (thoughts) of the mind the same way we control our heart beating, then we have a chance.

By exercise and proper diet, the heart develops strength and capacity to ramp up to any exertion I throw at it. Low cholesterol keeps the pipes clear, cardio training slows the resting pulse. Indirectly these work together to act on the beating heart yet I still don't control it. In this same way we can only exert tiny bit of external pressure on the minds secretions. A sitting practice helps. Working with a teacher helps. Friends can help. What else helps?

Thich Nhat Hanh is in Old Path, White Clouds, said "This is because that is. This is not because that is not. This is born because that is born. This dies because that dies. This is the wonderful law of dependent co-arising that I have discovered in my mediation." So it is with the secreting mind.

Aitken Roshi encourages us to dismiss thoughts with "not this, not this, not this" over and over without end.

Don't pick your minds secretions and play with them. This is no more healthy or helpful than picking up your bowels secretions and playing with them. (Aitken Roshi didn't say this, I did. He wouldn't be so crude.)

If you are reading here, you really should consider getting Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master. It is a sweet book, each chapter or 'miniature' is only a paragraph yet is packed with how-to and encouragement. I bet you'd see different things than I do. It is a bit funny that he writes 63 words and I create this with 412 words. Thanks Roshi.


Friday, March 27, 2009


"Vows" 7 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master.

This miniature points to how in all times practitioners are just me. Same struggles with confusion, same work on the cushion, same practice of being skillful and sometimes slipping. In fact we sit on our cushion together, the whole universe together.

Sound pretty?

Well Aitken Roshi admonishes us to get up off our cushions and work with vows. It is not spelled out completely what is meant by vows but for me my vows are my precepts and the Shiku Seigan Mon (Vows of a Bodhisattva). Wow, what a huge challenge.

A big part of my challenge with my vows is keeping them in my attention. Skillful life is directly proportional to the focus of attention. How skillfully and on what I place my attention either actualizes my vows or if I'm lucky enough to catch it, I get a pointer on where I can work and practice so as to do better next time.

When I know better I'll do better. This has alway been my experience.

To paraphrase Aitken Roshi, now it is your turn. What is your plan to save the many beings?   

Thursday, March 26, 2009


"Lucky" 6 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master.

In this miniature, Aitken Roshi uses two aphorisms. One to point out how precious this existence is and the second to kick us in the butt as a form of encouragement to hunker down in our practice and be responsible for our own advancing or back-sliding.

I see a parallel with Uchiyama Roshi's "Seven Points of Practice", particularly with point 5.

1. Study and practice the buddhadharma only for the sake of the buddhadharma, not for the sake of emotions or worldly ideas.

2. Zazen ( sitting meditation) is our truest and most venerable teacher.

3. Zazen must work concretely in our daily lives as the two practices (vows and repentance), the three minds (magnanimous mind, nurturing mind, and joyful mind), and as the realization of the saying , " Gaining is delusion, losing is enlightenment. "

4. Live by vow and root it deeply.

5. Realizing that development and backsliding are your responsibility alone, endeavor to practice and develop.

6. Sit silently for 10 years, then for ten years more, and then for another ten years.

7. Cooperate with one another, and aim to create a place where sincere practitioners can practice without trouble.

- Uchiyama Roshi (1975)
I have this printed on one of my HipsterPDA cards and refer to it often. It is a form of encouragement. Seems to me that Aitken Roshi is providing this same kind of encouragement. Miniatures are his 'points of practice'.

My word for today is encouragement. Encouragement everywhere. May the fruits of your practice bring you encouragement.

I'm encouraged by the response I've gotten here and for the comments. Being new to 'Blogger', I'm moderating comments but can't figure out how to set things so an approved commenter doesn't have to have their future comments individually moderated. Tips anyone?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


"Therapy" 5 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master.

I was with my dharma friends this last Saturday and I was moved to share that I see all my views and ideas as crap! Yes crap! I felt strongly about that and had plenty of examples and felt righteous because I even remember a sutra or two that sort of say that ideas and views are crap! Any ways the group was somewhat resistant to this and that even spurred me on more.

It all came crashing down when someone was so kind as to point out that even the view that my views and ideas are crap! is a view that is crap! Hearing that in the moment brought me up a little short and warm smile grew on my face. Drop all that and come back to the present. It sort of felt like the floor falling away or "stepping off a hundred foot pole". I still see were my views are not helpful but I'm less fervant about how crap! they are. (I see now crap! is too loose of a term. Delusional and sometimes bordering on stupidity would be more accurate.)

This miniature is about therapy. Many linage holders and leaders in Robert's tradition are therapists. I try and not hold that against them but it does seem odd to me. Robert is not nor was ever a therapist. He seems to point to therapy in a slightly different sense that traditional Western psychotherapy yet maybe he includes it. Letting go of attachment to body and mind, where is there a need for therapy? (See above!)

Got my cholesterol test results back today. Low Lousy (LDL), low Healthy (HDL) and low total cholesterol. Mostly good. Any one have tips on how to bring up HDL's?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Tangled Web

Today some random notes.
  • I'm enjoying this new Zen blog. So far separating my posts on Zen from my other blog feels nice.
  • Went to my doctor yesterday and was told that I was healthy. I was surprised by that. I had been telling myself that I was not healthy and in fact I was about to check out. The mind is a funny thing. One odd bit of information (one high blood pressure reading) and a couple of funny sensations in the body (neck muscle twitching) leads to confusion and delusion.
  • There is a retreat/sesshin coming up in a couple of weeks and I'm enrolled! Branching Moon a seven day residential retreat on the Puget Sound with Jack Duffy and Seattle's Three Treasures Sangha of the Pacific Northwest .
  • Today, in "Miniatures of a Zen Master" 4/200 Robert points to how easy it is to be duped by our "self-concerns". The small me which happens to be the loudest voice in my head. Funny how the small me is loud and Big Mind is silent. I guess not so funny, more like sad. Look at the world and the effects are plain and oh so sad usually.
  • What would the world be if the roles of small me and Big Mind were switched? Genpo Merzel claims to have a method for doing this. Even though all my conservative Zen friends poo-poo Genpo Merzel's Big Mind process, I'm fascinated.
How are my small "self-concerns" getting in the way of actualizing what is real? Can I even identify all of these "self-concerns" without letting any slip through?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Buddha's Birthday

"Buddha's Birthday" 3 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master.

I had intended not to quote Robert here and yet in this chapter he shows how words can be like Manjushri's sword of wisdom. It cuts away delusion, aversion and longing, to reveal understanding, equanimity and compassion.

"Once a year on the Buddha's birthday we overtly share our promises to restore our own original innocence. Once a moment we share them by example." Robert Aitken

The second part of this speaks to me more than the first. I'm not much for ceremonies and commemorative rituals and I don't discriminate between those that are Buddhist, social or familial. The second part of this quote by Robert points to why. So rarely is it pointed out that the reason for ceremony and ritual is not for the party and presents but to remind us that in this very moment our being is the expression of life. The life that the ceremony and ritual are attempting to point us towards.

My question is do you need ceremony and ritual or can you jump start to the moment by moment expression of life?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Virtue of Distraction

"The Virtue of Distraction" 2 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master.

Here Robert points out that we can be thankful for our discursive thoughts as long as we use them as a reminder. A reminder for what? He hints at a process of waking up to our true compassionate nature within the distraction of our own thoughts. Sweet.

For other writers this is probably obvious. Something about the process of forming sentences, putting them in a certain order and knowing that there is an audience, makes life a little clearer. This morning I read the chapter referred to above, sat my usual zazen, reread the chapter and yet writing here is what clarified the morning for me.

This chapter uses "thoughts" as distractions and I wonder if "talk" could be substituted. Can I use talk as a reminder to wake up to my compassionate nature? Is talk just thoughts verbalized out loud rather than silently? Can I treat talking as a practice opportunity?

A small group of my friends meet every Saturday morning to discuss life. We use a book as a pretense for this and call it a "Zen Book Club". (Not exactly, but pretty close.) This week the discussion evolved to a familiar place. This place can be described as "Talk, Talk, Talk - what hell is it good for" (sung to the tune of the 70's hit "War"). Talking seems so distracting, it seems to lead nowhere, it seems so pointless, it seems to confuse, it seems to be the antithesis of zazen. So there is a leaning towards giving up on it.

I'll admit to having these feelings too, from time to time, just not now. How about you? Talk, what the hell is it good for?

Saturday, March 21, 2009


I got Robert Aitken's book Miniature of a Zen Master yesterday and looked at the first chapter on intimacy.

To give you an flavor of the book, it is like his earlier book Encouraging Words. He has organized the chapters to be one one paragraph long but there are 200 of them.

Anyways, today he hits on intimacy. It is your practice he says. It is your realization he says. How do this hit you?

Intimacy is just the practice and realization of Zen. Where have we heard this before?

Robert introduces us to a metaphor involving an abstract branch of mathematics. He uses a term new to me, "coterminal". I looked it up and was pleasantly surprised by the geekiness of the term.
In category theory, an abstract branch of mathematics, an initial object of a category C is an object I in C such that for every object X in C, there exists precisely one morphism IX.... Initial objects are also called coterminal, and terminal objects are also called final.

If an object is both initial and terminal, it is called a zero object or null object.

Initial objects are called coterminal and terminal ones are called final. Robert is pointing out that intimacy is not and initial state that becomes something else. It is the field of practice and realization.