The Zazen of the Mahayana – A Talk by Leland Shields (April 6, 2024) – Sesshin Day 5

Posted by on Apr 9, 2024 in Zen Talks | Comments Off on The Zazen of the Mahayana – A Talk by Leland Shields (April 6, 2024) – Sesshin Day 5

For all of us children of wealthy homes wandering among the poor, let’s return to Hakuin’s, “Song of Zazen,”

Tuesday we left off on this verse:

Lost on dark paths of ignorance,

we wander through the Six Worlds;

from dark path to dark path we wander —

when shall we be freed from birth and death?

Hakuin then changes course without answering when or if we will be freed– he turns instead to zazen.

Oh, the zazen of the Mahayana!

To this the highest praise!

Devotion, repentance, training,

The many Paramitas —

all have their source in zazen.

Those who try zazen even once

wipe away beginningless crimes.

Where are all the dark paths then?

The Pure Land itself is near.

The Paramitas are enumerated in lists of 6 or 10 virtues or qualities, with the word “Paramitas” translated as “perfections” from Sanskrit. The six Paramitas are giving (dana), skillful action (doing no harm), forbearance (patience), effort (vigor), concentration, and wisdom. In the one passage we are told that repentance, training, and practicing perfection of virtue have their source in zazen.

With ordinary understanding, this would imply training to progress or learn something, and perfecting to improve over time. There is no denial of the perfections, and no denial of the value of the training we came today to enjoy. But trying zazen once wipes away beginningless crimes – there is no time to train, no time to perfect. Any confusion that arises in this seeming inconsistency is the point, calling us to turn about.

Our perceived need to wipe away beginningless crimes can often become a barrier. I am defiled, and so cannot rest until purified. I cannot fix the past, and yet feel remorse for harm I’ve done and regret about the choices I made. But by sitting zazen, nothing of past, present, and future has changed, and yet beginningless crimes have been wiped away. Again, the contradiction is the point. We can’t untangle this with an ordinary sense of time or ourselves.

A cooper’s hawk kills a pigeon in the garden. Pure or defiled? A shock of feathers lay in a circle under the bamboo. Is the bamboo garden pure or defiled? A crow feasts on the remains. Pure or defiled?

The Pure Land is very near indeed. This is no mystery to us. We know the breath without thought of breath, and the legs crossed under us for their own sake. There are no dark paths, no paths at all when sitting while sitting, and walking while walking.

Listening now is zazen, listening now is trying zazen once, and listening now is the totality of practice. No need to search anywhere else.

Returning to “The Song of Zazen”:

Those who hear this truth even once

and listen with a grateful heart,

treasuring it, revering it,

gain blessings without end.

Now, we are invited to more than just trying zazen, beyond trying to listen as I speak. Without evaluation about trying and not trying to listen…just hear. Hear the sound as just this, and the words as just that. The word, “truth,” isn’t required either. We could say, “Those who hear this even once” gain blessings without end. Hearing this, we gain blessings without a beginning as well.

Take these words in the plainest way possible. Hear sounds, see what you see before you, no more is required on this day of zazen. See for yourself if gratitude arises for the desirable and the undesirable that cannot be disentangled from this one life. It’s this simple message that is the whole of our zazen.

Much more, those who turn about

and bear witness to self-nature,

self-nature that is no-nature,

go far beyond mere doctrine.

We can’t throw a stick in a Zen text without hitting phrases like “no nature” and “no self.” It sounds mysterious, doesn’t it? How about when you’re spicing your cooking and taking the taste all across your tongue – is there one who is tasting? How about when reaching for a child crying – is there one reaching? We take this into the dojo as well when there is only mu left, or only the jet engine.

Coming back to the first phrase – “Much more, those who turn about,” Hakuin doesn’t say who turns, or what to turn away from or towards. Robert Aitken in Morning Star talks about zazen to purify the mind, and then says:

But what is it that turns you about? I suggest that we tend to be self-centered in our attitude toward kensho, and to regard it entirely as the culmination of a human process. We view this process in a psychological way, as though Buddha-nature were coterminous with human nature, and our task is simply to deepen ourselves to the point where we are in touch with our pure essence. Then at that point we are able to acknowledge all kinds of new and interesting things about the universe.

Robert Aitken, The Morning Star, (page 201).

Our minds are talented at seeing patterns, recognizing cause and effect, and addressing our essential needs. Aitken acknowledges these tendencies as he gestures away from self-centeredness. In the next paragraph he writes:

What’s missing from this mechanical view of Zen practice? The morning star.

Robert Aitken, The Morning Star, (page 201).

The morning star called to Buddha; the caw of a crow called to Ikkyu. Both are here today.

Hearing all this with our pattern-matching minds we can’t help but see a distinction between pure and defiled. That distinction appears in The Lotus Sutra as well. I’ll read another passage from it, starting with two sentences I read Tuesday and continue from there:

“The rich father [in the story] represents you,” [Mahakashyapa said to the Buddha], “and we are all like your children. You have been saying all along that we are your children.

“O World Honored One, we have experienced all sorts of afflictions amid birth and death, due to the three forms of suffering.

Deluded and ignorant, we have felt joy in being attached to the lesser teachings. Now you have made us think again and clear away the filth of doctrinal sophistries.

Cleary, J.C, The Lotus Sutra, chapter 4

The Lotus Sutra does not shy from expressing that there is a distinction to be made in understanding that which is delusion and filth to be cleared away. Aitken and The Lotus Sutra do not stop with this perception, and neither should we. Look more deeply, and doing so is zazen, different than study, and different than formulation of a proof or argument. In fact, Watson’s translation of the same passage in The Lotus Sutra renders the final line like this:

But today the World-Honored One causes us to ponder carefully, to cast aside such doctrines, the filth of frivolous debate.


Cleary, J.C, The Lotus Sutra, chapter 4

The time to clear doctrinal sophistries does not need to wait until using the bathroom and the start of the next period. Likewise, there may be times for debate, but zazen now is the release of frivolous debate now. Shall we debate whether there is purity, the clearing to reach purity, and a conflict between the recognition of the nonexistence of purity, defilement, and the practice of clearing of defilement? I think not.

Is there a difference between father and son? To deny it would be to deny the obvious differences biology. Are ice and water the same? To deny it is to deny the molecular structure of water and of ice.

What does this mean in my life and yours? The metaphors are easy. Reciting “Song of Zazen,” and reading The Lotus Sutra are inspirational and not yet embracing the words in Seattle, and in your city. I say this with complete trust that you know what it is to drop frivolous debate in walking from bedroom to living room, in feeding the cat, and when calling to offer condolences. You know frivolous debate when lying in bed reviewing the challenges and stresses of the coming day.

Remembering the opening lines of Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen”:

All beings by nature are Buddha,

as ice by nature is water.


Apart from water there is no ice;

apart from beings, no Buddha.

Which is ice and which is water? Don’t bite the hook – that’s more frivolous debate.

When I was young, my good friend and neighbor Henry had a dice game called WFF’N Proof, in which one would throw dice and use the characters on the dice faces shown to create valid statements using the rules of logical inference. If A, then B. B. Therefore what? At any stage the opposing player could challenge the logical validity of the statement. Henry was brilliant at this. It was geeky, I confess, but maybe not so different from what we can do while lying in bed, sometimes to “ponder carefully,” and sometimes engaging in the “filth of frivolous debate.” If bringing attention, we know the difference between frivolous and productive. Both can include fear or excitement, so those feelings don’t necessarily distinguish frivolous and productive. Only one is in concert, fully working with ourselves, others, and the world.

To call one “pure” and the other “defiled” can miss the humanity and reinforce debate, and can foster a forceful attempt to solve and fix.

We can take pleasure in today’s success, and disappointment in today’s failure, and still perceive the same world in the moment before and the moment after. Success and failure were always present and still are. In Zazen sometimes we can see ourselves as just ourselves, and sometimes visibility is obscured by clouds of our concepts of self and other, success and failure. We beings can see a child, the light of the moon, we can feel the pain of the world through one body, and can have our empathy obscured by clouds.

The next passages of “Song of Zazen” offer us Hakuin’s expression of the softening of our grip on debate, solving, and fixing:

Here effect and cause are the same;

the Way is neither two nor three.

With form that is no-form,

going and coming we are never astray;

with thought that is no-thought,

singing and dancing are the voice of the Law.

Our logical minds may want to declare as invalid, statements such as, “form that is no form,” and “thought that is no thought.” The invalidity is the point, it is the invitation to turn about. The invalidity is a call to see something not describable with debate and not decipherable with the rules of logic. Take in these passages anyway. Hold them and hold them still.

With form that is no form, cross your legs and breathe. With thought that is no thought, listen and speak.

Boundless and free is the sky of Samadhi!

Bright the full moon of wisdom!

Truly, is anything missing now?

Nirvana is right here, before our eyes;

this very place is the Lotus Land;

this very body, the Buddha.

Bathe in these words – Whatever crime, climate crisis, sickness, and war, this very place is the Lotus Land. Whatever your body condition is today, this very body, the Buddha. Whatever the world experience is today, this very body, the Buddha.

Earlier in the sutra, Hakuin describes how we wander from dark path to dark path, ending with a question – one that comes from our own lips and in our own words when on such paths – when shall we be freed from birth and death? Without warning, he then turns about; “Oh, the zazen of the Mahayana! To this the highest praise!” He leaves no separation between dark paths, zazen, and self-nature that is no nature.

This too is zazen, turning from both understanding of and resolution of the problem, whatever it might be. Turning from self and from no self. What’s left? Who is left?

National Master Bukkoku wrote in a verse,

Do not suppose the light appears after the clouds lift;

The pale morning moon was in the sky from the first.

Mumon Roshi, Yamada. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Roshi on Zen Practice (p. 69). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.

I’ll end with one final quote from Yamada Roshi:

Life that flows as freely as water—it is this to which we give the name Buddha.


Mumon Roshi, Yamada. Hakuin’s Song of Zazen: Yamada Mumon Roshi on Zen Practice (p. 70). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.