Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gutei's One-Finger Zen, Part 7

So what, then, are we to make of this story of Gutei and his One-Finger Zen?

To arrive at an answer, we should go back to the beginning.  Gutei attained enlightenment when Tenryu raised one finger.  I don't know why Tenryu raised the one finger and the stories never tell.  Perhaps he was raising it dramaturgically while making some point while speaking.  Gesticulating.  Perhaps he raised it to silence Gutei's questions and commentary.  Perhaps he was pointing to the heavens, or gesturing "one" to indicate the unity of all things.  

It doesn't matter.  There was one person who attained enlightenment at the sound of a pebble hitting bamboo.  The sound of the pebble didn't "mean" anything - it just was.  There was another who attained enlightenment at the sight of cherry blossoms in a valley.  The cherry blossoms weren't trying to communicate anything - they were just existing as they were.  

Gutei attained enlightenment when Tenryu raised one finger. Because this was an intentional, human action, we want to identify some specific meaning to it, and Tenryu most likely had some reason for raising a finger, but it doesn't matter - the conditions were right for Gutei to awaken, and the finger just happened to be there.

From then on, Gutei used the raised finger to answer all questions.  It wasn't that he had attached any meaning to the gesture other than it being a direct action - the expression of his teacher, which went beyond rational thought and meaning and was just a direct expression of things as they are.  Suchness, if you will. Just be glad that Tenryu wasn't picking his nose when Gutei attained enlightenment.

Gutei's disciple later thought that the gesture had some specific meaning, and when asked what Gutei's teaching was, he mimicked the gesture.  However, the poor fellow was mistaking the method for the lesson. Gutei's teaching wasn't the holding up of one finger - the gesture was just the action that's free from words, that's beyond this or that, that is simply suchness in the present moment.

Gutei disabused him of this delusion.  It's upsetting to think that he literally cut off a finger.  Maybe it was a figurative removal - the cutting away of delusion - not unlike Huike's supposed cutting off of his arm to show that he was free from grasping.  But we should examine why a literal cutting upsets us so much.  One finger is arguably a small price to pay for enlightenment, but perhaps we are still clinging to body-and-mind  and are not yet ready to awaken.  Dogen described awakening as body and mind dropping away, and if we are free of body and mind, we wouldn't much care about a finger.

The attendant attained enlightenment after Gutei had cut off the finger and then raised his own.  But it wasn't these actions that caused the awakening in the attendant - once again, these actions, although extreme, don't "mean" anything in and of themselves other than whatever meaning the mind puts on it.  As Zen Master Dogen explains, the attendant attained enlightenment due to years of practicing with his teacher.  For him, the bamboo, the cherry blossoms, the one finger was this rather dramatic sequence of events.  

But the cutting off of the finger is not the point of the story - it's just something that the mind can get fixated on.  The point of the story is that in buddha-nature, human actions, just like the natural events, are beyond meaning or significance.  The meaning or significance is later applied by the human mind and may differ from person to person.   

After years of practice, Gutei observed Tenryu raise a finger, and at that moment awakened to his true nature.  He observed this action-beyond-meaning his whole life, and thoroughly explored its potentials.  

If you grasp for meaning, watch out!, because there's no account of Gutei's giving away his knife. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Gutei's One-Finger Zen, Part 6

"To work the earth and only to work the earth is thorough exploration.  To pass from once working the earth to once working the sky, to once working the four quarters and eight aspects, is not thorough exploration. Gutei's exploration of Tenryu and attainment of the One-Finger Zen is thorough exploration. Gutei's only raising one finger is thorough exploration." - Zen Master Dogen in Shobogenzo Hensan 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Gutei's One Finger Zen, Part 5

When Gutei was about to die, he said to the assembled monks,"I received this one-finger Zen from Tenryu. I used it all my life and yet could not exhaust it" and then he passed away.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gutei's One-Finger Zen, Part 4

Whenever Gutei was asked questions, he did nothing but raise a finger.

One day, someone asked his attendant what the master’s teaching was, the boy mimicked his master’s action and raised a finger. When Gutei heard this, he cut off the boy’s finger. 

The boy ran away crying. Gutei called the boy’s name. When the boy turned his head, Gutei raised his finger. 

The boy suddenly became enlightened.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gutei's One-Finger Zen, Part 3

One day Zen Master Dogen instructed,
An ancient has said, “Associating with a good person is like walking through mist and dew; though you will not become drenched, gradually your robes will become damp.”  This means that if you become familiar with a good person, you will become good yourself without being aware of it. 
In ancient times a boy who attended Mater Gutei, without noticing when he was learning or when he was practicing, realized the Way because he had served as a personal attendant to the master who had been practicing for a long time. 
Similarly if you practice zazen for a long time you will suddenly clarify the Great Matter and will know that zazen is the true gate to the buddha-dharma (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 4, Chapter 4).  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Gutei's One-Finger Zen, Part 2

Zen Master Tenryu once visited Gutei in Wu Province.  Gutei welcomed him ceremoniously, and in response to Gutei's questions, Tenryu simply lifted a single finger.  Suddenly, Gutei was greatly enlightened.

Later, whenever anything was asked of him, Gutei just raised one finger.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Gutei's One-Finger Zen, Part 1

Ponder the fact that someone realized the Way by hearing the sound of bamboo; that another clarified the Mind at the sight of peach blossoms. How could it be possible to differentiate smart bamboo trees from dull ones, or deluded ones from enlightened ones? How could there be shallow or deep, wise or stupid among flowers? The flowers bloom every year yet not everyone attains enlightenment by viewing them. Stones often strike bamboo yet not everyone who hears the sound clarifies the Way. Only through the virtue of long study and continuous practice, with the assistance of diligent effort in the Way, does one realize the Way or clarify the Mind. This did not occur because the sound of the bamboo was especially wonderful, nor because the color of the peach blossoms was particularly profound. Although the sound of bamboo is marvelous, it does not sound of itself; it cries out with the help of a piece of tile. Although the color of peach blossoms is beautiful, they do not bloom of themselves; they open with the help of the spring breeze. - Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 4, Chapter 5.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Night Video

Shot from the top of Spain's El Teide, a summit on Tenerife I've actually been atop (circa 1991 or '92).   

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Cheap Laughs

This is offensive.  The normally astute The Daily Show aired an episode last night about a water-rights dispute between the states of Georgia and Tennessee.  I'm all for satire - why else would I be watching The Daily Show? - but correspondent Al Madrigal wasn't able to get past his stereotypes of The South and Southerners.

Dade County Chairman Ted Rumley shows a lot of class, as he calmly tries to remind Madrigal that this is in fact a serious issue.  The gentleman is the Unknown Hinson t-shirt is actually punking Madrigal - Unknown Hinson is an underground comedic musician who lampoons 50s and 60s rockabilly stars as vampires.  The t-shirt and the over-the-top comments are a dead giveaway to those of us in the know that he's putting Madrigal on, but The Daily Show correspondent is either unaware of it or is too fond of the footage he's getting to pass it up. In any event, the joke's on him.  It's not unlike going to Staten Island to cover the recovery from Hurricane Sandy, and relying on an interview of someone in an Insane Clown Posse t-shirt.

There's a lot of humor to be found down here in the American South, and there are a lot of serious challenges and issues as well.  But relying on elitist and frankly outdated stereotypes for cheap laughs is just a lazy way to cover a story.  In short, don't make fun of the South - that's my job.  

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Kānadaiba's Apparent Synesthesia

In the Shobogenzo, one of the many stories related by Zen Master Dogen is the following, which I find to be particularly interesting:
The venerable Nāgārjuna, while speaking from the Dharma Seat, revealed himself to be so free of any worldly ways that he looked like the orb of the Moon at its full. But all those assembled there merely heard the sounds of the teaching and did not observe the Master’s appearance.  
One amongst them, however, Kānadaiba by name, the son of a town elder, said to those assembled, “Don’t you see his appearance?”  
Those in the assembly said, “What we do not see with our eyes or hear with our ears right now does not exist, for it is not something that we can know with our minds or experience with our bodies.”  
Kānadaiba said, “This is the Venerable One’s manifesting his Buddha Nature, by means of which he shows us how we can know it. By being cloaked in it, his meditative state, which is free of attachments, takes on a form resembling the Moon at its full, for the meaning of ‘Buddha Nature’ is that which is utterly unbounded and radiant.”  
Once Kānadaiba had finished speaking, the orb-like look seemed to disappear. 
If I can re-tell this story for a moment, Nāgārjuna is speaking and then suddenly, one of them, the son of a town elder, gets up and asks "Don't you see his appearance?"  To everyone else, Nāgārjuna still looked perfectly normal, but to Kānadaiba he looked like the orb of the full moon.

Now that's just nutty stuff.  If you or I were at an assembly, and someone suddenly declared that the speaker had changed form and now looked like the orb of the full moon and asked why we couldn't see it, we wouldn't conclude that the speaker had indeed transformed in some way that we couldn't perceive, but that the person who saw "the moon" was just plain nuts.  The headline would read something like, "Local Lunatic Claims Ordinary Speaker Transforms Into Full Moon," if the press even bothered covering his outburst at all.

But Dogen's story doesn't read that way.  In his story, Nāgārjuna does indeed transform into the orb of the full moon, but no one other than Kānadaiba can see it. The only record we have of this startling transformation is Kānadaiba's claim.  To everyone else, Nāgārjuna looked perfectly normal.  This really says something remarkable about  Kānadaiba's powers of persuasion.  The unusual thing in the story as Dogen tells it is not that Nāgārjuna transformed in appearance to the orb of the full moon, but that no one other than Kānadaiba was able to see it.

This story has historical precedents.  Faiths around the world are based on a sole individual claiming to see remarkable things that no one else could perceive, and yet for some reason, everyone eventually accepts the otherwise irrational or supernatural version of the story rather than their own, subjective experience.  There's a story of a man who heard God speak to him from a burning bush.  Another claimed to literally be the son of God.  A man upstate New York claimed to have been visited by angels who presented him with a radical new gospel.  If anyone made similar claims today, they'd be locked up "for observations," yet whole religious traditions are based around just such claims.

For what it's worth, Buddhism doesn't use this account to support any claims of divinity for Nāgārjuna, or for Kānadaiba for that matter.  The point of the story is that Buddha Nature is utterly unbounded and radiant, and that we are more than the bags of skin into which we were born.

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the sensations of one sense organ are perceived by the mind as a different sense, for example, "hearing" colors or "seeing" sounds.  I wonder if Kānadaiba didn't have a form of synesthesia in which concepts, such as the radiance and unbound nature of Buddha Nature, was perceived in his mind as a "sight," in this case, the orb of the full Moon.  To support this conjecture, once Kānadaiba finished speaking and other thoughts presumably entered his mind, the orb-like appearance disappeared.

Synesthesia, hallucinations, and remarkable powers of persuasion may be the one common element of all the world's religions.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ban the NRA!

Yesterday, as you've no doubt heard by now, a gunman walked into the Washington Navy Yard and killed 12 people before being shot himself by D.C. police.

Setting aside the fact that the gunman was a self-proclaimed Buddhist (what kind of Buddhist does this, much less has a six-year record of gun-related brushes with the law?), we have to ask ourselves how this could happen.  The Washington Navy Yard is a military defense installation with armed guards, and  populated by no small number of well-trained and armed naval gunmen.  How could a single gunman cause so much death?

Did the gunman have near-supernatural, Matrix-like skills that allowed him to evade all those armed men?  I doubt it.  It just goes to show the asymmetrical advantage of a surprise ambush, even at a defense installation.

The NRA and gun-rights advocates still maintain that the solution to the epidemic of gun violence in America is more guns. Public schools, they maintain, could be made safe if we just allowed teachers and custodians to carry guns.

If a gunman can kill 12 people among all the security and arms and training at the Washington Navy Yard, if all of those guns and marksmen there couldn't prevent a dozen deaths, how an we expect Mr. Chips and Joe, the bucket guy, to defend our children?

It's time to wake up and start banning assault rifles, increasing background checks, and cracking down on gun runners.  And to ban the god-damned NRA.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Shortly after September 11, 2001, Kobun was the honored guest at the weekly meeting of the sangha which would become Everyday Dharma Zen Center. After meditation, Kobun asked for questions. 

A visibly distraught young woman asked, "How can I deal with the enormous fear and anger that I feel about what happened?" 

Kobun replied, "Do one kind thing for someone every day."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Cascades

Mount Rainier, seen from 21,000 feet coming into Seattle on August 30, 2013.

Leaving Portland on September 9.  I don't know my Cascades that well, but this one seems to be missing it's top, so I'm going to guess Mt. St. Helens.

 The mountain on the horizon looks to me like Rainier, again, but without the sea of clouds observed on the 30th.  The closer one, then, surrounded by a skirt of clouds, is most likely Mt. Adams.  Another view below.

Other than the first view of Rainier, I'm not sure about any of the other mountains.  If I'm wrong, I would appreciate any corrections.  If I'm right, validation is always appreciated.

Monday, September 09, 2013


It's been fun, but it's time to go home.  Jump Day back to the real life, responsibilities, and Atlanta.  

The saddest moment of the past week was finally taking off my all-access, guaranteed-entry, go-to-the-front-of-the-line, VIP wristband last night.  I felt like a superhero taking off the mask that gave him his powers.

Friday, September 06, 2013


"As the generations pass they grow worse.  A time will come when they have grown so wicked that they will worship power; might will be right to them and reverence for the good will cease to be.  At last, when no man is angry any more at wrongdoing or feels shame in the presence of the miserable, Zeus will destroy them too.  And yet even then something might be done, if only the common people would rise and put down rulers that oppress them."
- Greek myth on the Iron Age

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Don't Ever Change, Portland

"This week, you’ll notice a village of glowing pyramid-shaped structures right off the Burnside Bridge in Northeast Burnside for MusicFestNW and TechFestNW in their Duet installation. Each of the 10 structures relates to a MFNW venue. The pyramids will be synched with the energy from each venue and color and motion around the base of the pyramids will represent each band’s individual style. The peaks will then be reacting to the social media conversations surrounding the festival in real time. Audiences can also interact with the structures by use of their mobile devices" (

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


I'm in Portland now, home of, among other things, Powell's Books, the greatest book store in the explored universe. However, having said that, they didn't have a copy of Tanahashi's new translation of the Shobogenzo, so instead I bought:
  • The Gateless Gate, a new translation and comentary by Koun Yamada
  • The Development, a book of short stories by my literary hero, John Barth
  • Where Men Win Glory, the 2009 biography of Pat Tillman by John Krakauer (Into The Wild)
  • The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, by Erich Fromm because why not?

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


The thing about the Seattle Space Needle is that no matter how many times you see it, you still can't help but take a picture of it. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

Artwork In Seattle

Time away from all of the music for a while to appreciate some of Seattle's cutting-edge arts. This is an exhibit that uses a robotic 3-D printer to construct what appear to be sand castles out of salt.

This machine alternately takes apart and then reassembles a glass bottle.

This tapestry is composed of heat-sensitive fabrics, so that it changes colors as heat is applied to it by electric current.

I would like to say that I sat in mediation and watched this machine draw everything you see below, but that wouldn't be true.  I had bands to hear and places to go.  But I did find that the time I spent watching the machine to be quite meditative and calming, and I wished that I had more time (or one of those printers at home).