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Reluctant Guru and Spiritual Anarchist - How “Zen” was Krishnamurti?

 Over two weeks we had the opportunity to discuss the very influential 20th century spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti in the Zeninlondon Wednesday evening discussion group. One of our regulars has even listened to Krishnamurti in person when he was still alive in the 1980s. Kirshnamurti’s legacy now lives on through several books and many videos on YouTube, a number of which we looked at during our sessions. As Westerners, we tend to see more or less the same type of wisdom in all kinds of oriental spiritual teachings. It is therefore not surprising to spot several real or apparent similarities between Krishnamurti’s books and lectures and the tradition of Zen Buddhism. Looking at kindred and yet different schools of thought allows us to deepen our understanding of Zen Buddhism by recognising similarities, but also differences. Jiddu Krishnamurti has an amazing biography (Wikipedia, Butler-Bowdon, p. 153). He was born around 1895 in Madras to Brahmin parents. At the age of 15, Krish

Meditation as a Sacrament - Master Dōgen’s Fukan Zazengi

 Master Dōgen’s Fukan Zazengi is probably the best introduction to the practice of Zen meditation that one can find. Written almost 900 years ago in Japan following Dōgen’s study tour to China, it is timelessly concise. Credit to several modern translators and commentators, this text is easily accessible to those seeking to learn about authentic Zen practice in the 21st century. The title Fukan Zazengi - 普勸坐禪儀 – literally means “Universally recommended instructions for zazen” (Sōtō Zen Text Project, p. 69). And it is just that: an almost IKEA-style step-by-step manual on how take the correct posture and practice Zen meditation. Zazen - 坐禪 – means “to sit” ( za - 坐) and “meditation” ( zen - 禪). So, zazen is usually understood as “seated meditation”. The word zen (禪) has been imported as chan into Chinese from the Sanskrit dhyāna where it describes a practice of concentration. Zen is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese chan which eventually become the key term of the Chan or

Fukan Zazengi - Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen

 The Wednesday evening study group has now started to discuss Master Dōgen's Fukan Zazengi . He wrote this short General Instruction for the Practice of Zazen shortly after he returned from China to Japan in around 1228. Fukan Zazengi remains the standard text for teaching Zazen in all groups belonging to the Sōtō family of Zen. It is concise, clear and practical. Any introduction to the practice of zazen you can come across is likely to be a variation of Fukan Zazengi . In the study group we are reading Dōgen's original words. But we are of course also heavily relying on existing translations. Below, I am sharing the excellent translation done by the Sōtō Zen Text Project and published in the booklet Sōtō Zen: An Introduction to Zazen by Sotoshu Shumucho, Tokyo, 2002. The details will be discussed in the study group. And I am planning to publish a summary of those discussions at some point. But for now only one little comment: Dōgen talks about the full- or half-lotus pos

Riding the Turtle of Wisdom - The Themes of the Sandokai

 This is my final piece on the Sandokai. It is the summary of 16 separate blog entries of verse-by-verse and character-by-character discussions of the poem published between 16 June and 5 October 2020. It also reflects the discussions and joy we had in the “Old Street” study group at our Wednesday evening sessions after zazen. Without the support and enthusiasm of regulars of the study group, this series would not have been possible. Although pretty much everything that I can say has been said in the sixteen previous entries, I still feel the need for a summary. I want to gather the various strings picked up when discussing individual verses in one place and present them in an overview of the poem as a whole. As I progressed through the text and the strange characters, my growing understanding of earlier verses naturally informed my approach towards the ones at the end of the poem. And in the same way the later verses sometime opened up a new perspective on the earlier ones. Without wa

Don't palaver away your days and nights - Sandokai, verses 41 to 44

In the last four verses of this seminal poem, Shitou wraps up his message and gives some very clear advice to his audience. He also gives us a hint how we should understand the title and thus the whole poem of Sandokai. The Sotoshu standard translation is as follows: (41) Walking forward is not a matter of far or near, (42) But if you are confused, mountains and rivers block the way. (43) I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, (44) Don’t pass your days and nights in vain. In Chinese, these verses look like this: (41) 進步非近遠 (42) 迷隔山河固 (43) 謹白參玄人 (44) 光陰莫虛度 On its own 進 means “to go forward” and 步 is a “step” or “walk”. Together, they have the compound meaning of “progress”. 非 is the negation “not”. The pair 近遠 means “near” and “far”. Word-by-word we could translate verse forty-one as  “Progress not near far”, or in proper English “Progress [is] not [a question of] near or far.” This is more a less the same what Sotoshu says and also most of the commentators. Shitou continues to

Don't put up your own standards - Sandokai, verses 37 to 40

 After having spoken mysteriously throughout the poem, Shitou finally offers his audience some straight advice. He warns us against setting up standards by ourselves and falling for pretty but misleading teachings that lead as astray. In the Sotoshu standard translation, verse thirty-seven to forty are presented as follows: (37) Hearing the words, understand the meaning; (38) don’t establish standards of your own. (39) Not understanding the way before your eyes, (40) how do you know the path you walk? In Chinese we have: (37) 承言須會宗 (38) 勿自立規矩 (39) 觸目不會道 (40) 運足焉知路 Two out of the five characters that make verse thirty-seven we have seen before. 言 - literally “word” - also appears in verses fifteen and thirty-four where I have suggested the meaning of “teaching''. 宗 we have met in verse twenty-five . Suzuki and Okumura render it as “source”, although none of the consulted online dictionaries support this translation directly. In verse twenty-five I have translated it as “school

Every box its lid, every arrow its tip - Sandokai, verses 33 to 36

In verses thirty-three to thirty-six Shitou picks up a number of topics that he has touched upon in earlier parts of the poem. He once more talks about competing Buddhist teachings and about the pair of ri and ji or “principle” and “phenomena”. For those in his audience who struggle with such abstract ideas, he illustrates his thinking in terms of boxes and arrows. The Sotoshu translation of verses thirty-three to thirty-six is: (33) Each of the myriad things has its merit, (34) Expressed according to function and place. (35) Existing phenomenally, like box and cover joining, (36) According with principle, like arrow points meeting. In Chinese this passage looks like the following: (33) 萬物自有功 (34) 當言用及處 (35) 事存函蓋合 (36) 理應箭鋒拄 萬物 in verse thirty three literally means “ten thousand things”. As a compound it can also mean “all living beings” or simply “everything” which is how it is rendered by the commentators Okumura, Suzuki, Deshimaru and Rech. 自 on its own means “self”, but here it i