Excerpts from „Original Mind –
The Craft of Zen in the West“
Writings by Zentatsu Baker Roshi


An ancient said, “In the eyes it is called seeing, in the ears it’s called hearing – but tell me, what is it called in the eyebrows?” After a long silence, he said, “In sorrow we grieve together, in happiness we rejoice together.”


Zen Buddhism offers us teachings and practices that can transform our life. It can transform our way of being in the world with others and our way of being in the world of phenomena. Although it is not easy to transport fundamentally and subtly different ideas, practices, and experiences across cultural and civilizational divides, it is possible to discover both the similarities and the differences which open worlds to us that are different from our own.

Zen Buddhist practice is one of the most accessible of the interfaces between the West and the East. Even in Japan, Zen is seen both as a universal teaching and as a quintessential expression of Japanese culture.
What makes Zen Buddhist teachings and practices particularly accessible to the West is the Zen concept of an Original Mind – a fundamental, culturally free mind. A mind which functions the same way in any culture, past or present. Of course, once we are born and nurtured, there is no body and no mind entirely free of culture, but we can approach this freedom, we can move in this direction through Zen practice. We can create views and practices which work as antidotes to our particular cultural views and to our accumulated personal experience. Doing so opens us, opens our experience, to things as they actually exist in any mind in any circumstance, or at least proximations of this – dynamically open, if not perfectly open.

‘Original Mind’ is an important and useful view in practicing Zen, particularly as Zen comes into the West as both an individual, personal practice and as an institutional practice and teaching. The ‘view’ that an ‘Original Mind’ is a possibility is an organizational dynamic of Zen teaching, iconically contrasting a ‘true mind’ of Zen practice to the experiential fact of accumulated and sedimented views and experience.

However, looking at ‘Original Mind’ as a dynamic of present-moment practice, it is better termed ‘Originary Mind’, meaning the immediate, moment-by-moment experience of mind as a potentially content-free field-of-mind, a field-of-mind which is experienceable as content-free. It is important to differentiate between ‘original’ and ‘originary’ because ‘original’ has a general meaning of ‘prior, primordial, or innate’. Such an understanding of ‘original’ can create mistaken, misleading views in Zen, because Zen practice emphasizes understanding and viewing the world as a phenomenology of unique moments – the experience of uniqueness on each moment.

What is paramount and crucial is that we can discover, notice, and experience an ‘Originary Mind’: a mind which is continuously renewed by, from, and through circumstances. This ‘Originary Mind’, originating at this moment, can also be experienced and conceptualized as a mind which ‘stays’ as content changes, stays as a field-of-mind within, behind, and as the flow of appearances. These two ways of conceptualizing and experiencing mind – 1) a mind which arises simultaneously with each sensorial and mental appearance, and 2) a field-of-mind as a continuum within which appearances arise – are essential Zen practices.


Because Zen practice has been the entirety of my adult life, this book is in part about how my Western and personal views and my way of functioning have changed and evolved through Zen practice. To put it simply: Zen practice has changed my worldviews, my experienceable immediacy, and my satisfactions.

This book also continues the articulation and exposition of Suzuki-roshi’s, my teacher’s, Zen teaching and practice, at least to the extent that I have been able to embody and continue his understanding and way of being.

My relationship with him continues to be the basis for my life and my practice with others. Thus this description of Zen practice flows first of all from his Zen practice and then as well as from my own practice over the years. My practice has also evolved through and along with the many persons with whom I have practiced and with whom I practice today. This evolving flow of practice from teacher to disciple is the measure and constitution of Zen lineage teachings.

I have tried to make each sentence as experientially clear as I can, for I want each sentence to be part of your path into Zen. Also, I want words to point vertically out of sentences, as well as horizontally (in the syntactical direction of the sentence). For example, I would like the word ‘Buddha’ to point at you.


If I am going to recommend Zen practice, I should tell you why I have practiced now for fifty years. This may help you to be realistic about how practice could affect you. What has been possible for me is probably also possible for you – and, of course, more and different.

I practice Zen because I enjoy it. I also practice for practical reasons and so-called spiritual reasons. The practical reasons are that it has given me a chance to observe, accept, develop, and intervene within my emotional habits and psychological patterns. Just developing a state of mind within which it is possible to observe these patterns helps immensely. Little by little, and sometimes dramatically, it’s possible to change the emphases, associations, and agendas of our patterns. If our mind becomes freer, more open, more flexible, and more integrated in its functioning, then our deepest intentions, feelings, and emotions have a wider field in which to play and evolve — and to change us into the person we feel most satisfied being.

Of course, there are many teachings other than Zen Buddhism that can provide perspective and help. Just getting older and maturing helps. Psychotherapy can help. Psychotherapy has helped me personally – and it has also helped me to understand how to practice Zen in psychotherapeutic ways.


Another reason I practice Zen is because joy returns to ordinary things. Through zazen-meditation, perceiving and thinking return to their roots in appreciation. We often lose touch with such simple things as: ease, rest, caring, gratefulness, the sound of birds, a leaf, a flower, another person, a baby, the shine of water, the sound of rain, the space of the sky, the wideness of this spacious earth. Fernando Pessoa’s poem:

The startling reality of things
Is my discovery every single day.
Every thing is what it is.
And this suffices me.

I find just hearing the wind blow,
Makes life worth living.

While these basic things are always present, they can fade into the background of our experience. Growing-up, I had grown away from much of the joy I knew as a child. But meditation and mindfulness practices brought joy back – first as a taste, then as a presence that has become the basis of living.


What are the spiritual, numinous, religious, and transformative reasons I practice Zen? Through meditation and mindfulness, I have found a relatively unobstructed interior freedom. When it is not there, when I feel obstructed, I know how to make my way back to this interior freedom. Through Zen practice, I have a physical knowledge of the mind of freedom. And I know it is always there, even when I don’t experience it. If I can be alert and patient, I find that obstructions usually precede an increased clarity, openness, and relevant thinking. Then there is the bliss of breath and of a stable field-of-mind.

Another fruit is the experience of coming into an inner order of mind and body, an integration which allows a precise engagement with oneself, with phenomena, and with the gait of the world. Things glow. We know the world in its magical show of momentariness. We feel part of and engaged with the mystery of the world beyond mental and sensorial formations.

There is the satisfaction of a practice, a Way we never reach the end of, yet a Way which always suffices. Each day, each period of zazen-meditation, each breath, each momentary appearance has its own particularity, disclosure, and engagement. Vitality enfolds, holds, and unfolds each moment.

For those of you who have come to know the transformative power of regular sitting-meditation, especially long sittings like sesshins, you will know that there are also the purging, cathartic, illuminative, transformative experiences that arise in and through meditation.

There are things harder to explain. For example, the experience of an inner ease and bliss that doesn’t go away, but which is still renewed in meditation. The experience of an extended body, a body-field, a presence and space of relationships. A tactual, actuating, knowing space that folds out from us and can be folded into us. Dogen, the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen Master, called this the True Human Body. Finally, there is the acceptance, the understanding, that the experience of a Buddha is a real possibility.


The classic question of Chinese Zen Buddhism is: “Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” (India is southwest of China. Bodhidharma is the iconic Indian Zen Patriarch and purported founder of Chan in China. ‘Zen’ is Japanese for the Chinese word ‘Chan’, which comes from the Sanskrit ‘dhyana’, meaning absorption. Chan and Zen are the names for the Buddhist school and the meditative-absorption practice that evolved in China, and later Japan, from Indian Buddhism.)

This question, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?’ has been regularly asked of practitioners – explicitly, implicitly, iconically – throughout the history of Zen Buddhism. It also has been repeatedly presented in koans since the early centuries of Zen in China. While it must have begun as a question that had degrees of personal relevance for early practitioners, eventually it became the classic doctrinal testing question, with a variety of questions, challenges, and alternative worldviews implied in it.

For early practitioners, there would have been questions like: Why are we practicing a foreign teaching in China? What are the relationships of this foreign teaching to traditional Chinese teachings, customs, and practices? Was Bodhidharma on an intentional mission to bring Zen to China, or was he just an itinerant monk? And if his journey was intentional, what was that intention? And if it was, what teachings and practices did he bring to fulfill that intention?

After Bodhidharma came to China, the legend is that he sat in meditation facing a wall without speaking for nine years. Thus the question of “Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” includes other questions: Why did he sit facing a wall for nine years? What is the practice of wall-gazing? And what is ‘arriving’? Is wall-gazing sitting the only way to ‘arrive’ at yourself, at your Buddha Nature?

Western practitioners may have similarly fundamental questions – at least they ought to. Why are ‘we’ practicing a foreign religion? A Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Tibetan religion? Are all religions versions of the same Truth? Do Western religions contain the same basic teachings as Buddhism? Are there Western traditions, views, crafts in philosophy, literature, poetry, painting, or science that are the same, or similar to, or that overlap with Buddhist teachings and yogic practices? If that is the case, are Western Buddhists practicing partially, or even to a significant degree, a Western tradition, a Western inheritance as well as an Asian Buddhist inheritance?

Is ‘Western’ Buddhism an idealization of Asian Buddhism?

Are our Western Zen practices true to Asian Zen practices?

Are we using psychology and science as ‘Trojan Horses’ to smuggle Buddhism into the West? And if so, are we thereby inflecting – or diluting, or fundamentally changing – Buddhism with science and psychology?

And then, for me as a practitioner, what really was Suzuki-roshi’s Zen practice? Is my practice true to his? Was Suzuki-roshi’s own understanding and practice true to the Japanese Zen tradition, to the Chinese tradition, to the lineage? Was it true to Dogen’s and Dongshan’s practice and teaching?

What do our centuries of separation from Buddha and Bodhidharma mean? Is the concept and practice of the teachings as a lineage a real connection, a real continuation? What does my separation from Suzuki-roshi mean, now forty years after his death? What conception of time does Bodhidharma sitting for nine years imply? What conception of time is implied by the mind and body of a Buddha being a real possibility for us now?

Why did Suzuki-roshi come from the west? Why are you reading this book?

Has Bodhidharma already come to the west? Are you part of his arrival?

Such exploratory questions (doubtings, wonderings, inspections) should be held in mind, mused over, incubated within the immediacy of the ‘ten-thousand things’, carried in the background and foreground (sometimes) of our meditation practice, and sometimes thought about, until they are no longer questions or until we feel resolutions and even answers. The presence and feel of the ten-thousand things (phenomenal reality) are part of the equipment necessary for thorough, existential questioning.


In the end, Zen Buddhism is a teaching about aliveness: what it is and what it can be. As fifteen centuries ago, the Chinese could develop Chinese Zen Buddhism from Indian Buddhism, so we Westerners will be able to develop a Western Zen Buddhism from Asian Zen Buddhism. We will need to understand and practice, of course, the basic teachings and practices of Buddhism, and let them settle into us and settle into our lived lives. As part of this development, it will be necessary (and beneficial) for practitioners to understand and have a feel, knowingly or unknowingly, for Western philosophical and cultural views which support or contradict the views of Buddhism. Many Western practitioners (mostly without knowing it) have come to, have been prepared for, Buddhism through Western philosophical, psychological, and artistic lineages – perhaps more than through their encounter with Asian teachings and practices. Moreover, the art, philosophy, and psychological-therapeutic practices of the West during the last one or two hundred years have already absorbed a lot of Buddhism and yogic views. Western encounters with Asian teachings, martial arts, yoga, poetry, and the visual arts have often been the catalyst for realizing that Buddhism can be part of our life and being.

At the same time, Buddhism still confronts contemporary practitioners with worldviews, teachings, and crafts of practice which are significantly different from anything commonly present in the West. When practitioners don’t really get a feel for these worldview differences, they easily drift back into the cultural and personal views they grew up with. Then they lose interest in Buddhism or end up being a Buddhist in name only.


Zen is traditionally most fully taught through face-to-face meeting and speaking within a mutual context of practicing meditation and mindfulness. ‘Meeting and speaking’ has been the fundamental and classic context of Zen teaching and its transmission for over fifteen centuries, through at least sixty generations. It is a mutual, institutional, hermeneutical, tralatitious (handed-down) tradition. Except for craft-guilds, some artistic lineages, and word-of-mouth examples in business, science, and academia, ‘handed-down’ traditions are hardly emphasized in the West – especially in comparison to their importance in Asia.

In Zen, ‘meeting and speaking’ traditionally takes the form of living and practicing with a sangha in a monastic setting for five to ten or more years. ‘Meeting and speaking’ is focused through an apprentice relationship with a teacher, and also, in effect, by an apprentice relationship with the whole sangha. The written and enacted tradition of Zen koan practice, the main bearer of Zen teachings, formalizes ‘meeting and speaking’ as its primary dynamic.

‘Meeting and speaking’ is a regularly scheduled part of Zen monastic life. It is a mutually established attentional field. The hearers (the traditional term) are participants in opening up the teaching during the teaching. (In addition, throughout the day in a Zen monastery, there is a flow of meeting and greeting, often in the form of bowing, which has evolved as an attentional field of shared embodiment and as a way to instill equanimity and compassion.)

During formal oral and aural teaching, the hearers usually sit in meditation posture. Speaking occurs in a field of meditative attention which allows and draws out the teaching. Thus ‘meeting and speaking’ is as much aural as oral. How to listen is a big part of the practice of ‘meeting and speaking’. The hearers are an actuating part of oral teaching: allowing, inspiring, focusing, drawing-in, extending, conditioning, and limiting what is spoken about. The valences, parameters, and potentialities of the field of ‘meeting and speaking’ can be felt by everyone and especially by the speaker. The individual, inner dialogues of the hearers are also variously-sensed, catalytic aspects of the meeting-field.

Silence too then is a palpable part of ‘meeting and speaking’. It’s difficult to write silence (except perhaps in poetry). Silence intended in writing may be difficult to notice in reading. By contrast, in ‘meeting and speaking’, samadhic silence is an available station of body and mind. It may be present as an absorption, an omission, or simply as an openness to possibilities. Of course, every word arises from silence and returns to silence – if the speaker forms language this way. Also oral/aural teaching allows incommensurable and indeterminate aspects of teachings to be sensed and imagined, and allows teachings to be fruitfully juxtaposed fragmentally or paratactically.

Alternatives to and aspects of a teaching can often be felt through their absence or denied presence. The absence might simply be (the convenience of) the time allotted for a lecture running out, or because only some of the hearers are ready for specific teachings, or because the implications of a teaching are sometimes more powerful when only hinted at. They are almost always more effectual when opened up through one’s own inquiry little by little.

Finally, in the palpable silence within and surrounding a lecture, there can sometimes be a parallel, gestural or unvoiced, virtual lecture. Sometimes silence serves as a window. Sometimes as a door. Sometimes as a wall to be peered over. Even in the midst of speech, sometimes silence is what connects. [Some of these observations are from George Steiner’s Language and Silence, Atheneum, p. 21.]

The oral/aural, samadhic, unscripted, non-formulaic Zen tradition of ‘meeting and speaking’ is a mutual pulse of bodily and sensorial presence within sound and silence. It is an attensity (attentional density) which weaves speakers and hearers together in a mutually inward and outward field. Sometimes it is like a flower held up for a moment.


Japanese Zen sometimes turns commonplace words into technical Zen terms. It is a practice of using ordinary words to cue, for the practitioner, non-usual meanings. Suzuki-roshi presents an example of this technical Zen word practice in his commentary on the Sandokai (Branching Streams Flow in Darkness, University of California Press, pg. 153). He says that while ‘koto’ is a common Japanese word for ‘word’, when it is used as a Zen term, it has a much wider meaning. In my words, it means: ‘percepts can be apprehended as units of communication in ways similar to how words are apprehended’. This is a rather awkward, long definition, but I don’t know another way to put it.

Suzuki-roshi says when ‘koto’ is used as a Zen term, it “includes everything we see and hear: words, things, and ideas.” Therefore, in any particular context, and specifically in the practice context of meeting and speaking, ‘koto’ would mean ‘all perceptual units occurring in that context’: the space of the room, the objects of the room (floor, walls, ceiling, furniture), sounds, smells, tastes, colors, tangibles, posture of the hearers, the presence of the participants, the ideas already in one’s head, the ideas that arise during meeting and speaking, etc. ­– all become a site-specific, sensorially-embedded text.

Thus when ‘koto’ is used as a Zen term, it is a kind of phenomenal-logos. While words are apprehended as usual like words, the concept and the practice of ‘koto’ means that perceptual phenomena, sense-objects, are also apprehended like words. Yogic practices (meditation, mindful-attention, samadhi) generate and open us to a layered, language-like sensorial text which is also a way of listening and a way of being embedded in immediacy. This is the first technical, non-usual meaning of ‘koto’.

A contemporary example of this use of ‘units of communication apprehended in a way similar to how words function experientially’ is Philip Glass’s and Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach. While the Zen practice of ‘meeting and speaking’ and this ‘opera’ occupy the same basic conceptual territory represented by the word ‘koto’, they are on nearly opposite ends of a spectrum between Zen’s epistemological investigation of aliveness and a theater exploring the beauty of aliveness in another way.
Although I have listened to Einstein on the Beach many times, I have not seen it, so let me share a few of Guy Dammann’s comments from his review in the Times Literary Supplement of a performance in London on May 18th, 2012. He states that “the intentions conveyed in Einstein on the Beach” are mostly a “collage of images, gestures, and musical figures.” During the opera there is a “beautiful contrast between stillness and movement.” “Things appear about to happen and then don’t.” He finds the opera “holds in itself” a delicate balance couched between “the indissoluble flicker of life that separates mankind’s thoughts and dreams from the particles and waves which comprise them.” And “the levels of concentration demanded by Wilson and Glass of their dancers, actors, and musicians are among the more powerful of the raw ingredients which hold the audience to the spectacle.” Dammann finds that “extraordinary beauty can come from anything so long as it is attended to properly.” And finally that “Wilson and Glass have both, quite rightly, insisted that it should not be filmed for video distribution and that the work should only be experienced as live theater.”

Listening to the CD, inarticulate mutterings are heard simultaneously over sing-song, half conversations, continuously repeated, within the ebb and flow of Glass’s musical repetitions. Parallel to the audio score, unseen to the listener of the CD, clearly articulated but not clearly comprehensible gestures and actions take place. From my listening to the CD, and from what I have heard from persons who have attended the opera, the performance resonates a thoroughgoing meaningfulness. Even when there is no graspable meaning, it is an instantiation of the world itself (“the particles and waves” of allness).

Likewise, ‘meeting and speaking’ is an epistemic Zen practice in which all modalities of a context are considered to be its ingredients. Looking back on my immersion in Suzuki-roshi’s talks, I remember that he sometimes would start to present a teaching and then qualify it or withdraw it, in ways similar to Guy Dammann’s comments on Einstein on the Beach: “that things appear about to happen and then don’t.” And Suzuki-roshi always spoke within a field of stillness and movement, and within the field of shared presence. The hearers, us, were folded into this situated field through the choreographed details of bowing, chanting, sitting together, and through his quiet, paced presence, and the perceptual momentariness of his speaking and of our listening.

Wilson and Glass insist that their opera “should only be experienced as live theater.” Similarly, the basic tradition of ‘meeting and speaking’ does not welcome note-taking. For example, in the early 1960s, Suzuki-roshi would not allow his lectures to be recorded. He said, “Just be present in the lecture.” But when those miniature tape recorders began to appear, it was impossible to stop people from recording. So at some point, we formally began recording his lectures. (Recordings which are now much appreciated.)


There is a second non-usual meaning of ‘koto’ as a Zen term. Since in this world each thing is interdependent with each other thing, all things are equal in their degree of interdependence. To feel that each thing, in this sense, is of equal value is the understanding of Wisdom. But how do we practice this? Dogen says “we place ourselves fully in the midst of immediacy and consider this the entire universe.” This is a Wisdom-Concept that we intentionally bring to each and all circumstances. It affects our understanding and effects our standing in each circumstance. In this measure, each singular thing, each singularity, can be understood as an instantiation, a representative, of all things. While for most of us this is not true practically, it is a true practice. If we continuously hold in mind and act within the inter-independence of the world, it will benefit us and all others. This is a ‘being near’ to allness. It is a kind of alchemy that transforms the ordinary world into Wisdom.

This is the second non-usual, Zen understanding of ‘koto’ which is to accept and understand each appearance, each percept, each word, as an instantiation of all things, and thus as an expression of interpenetrative wisdom and compassion.

Suzuki-roshi says ‘The First Principle’ of Buddhism is that “everything is revealed through everything. Everything is always speaking fluently about this First Principle.” Or as Dogen puts it in “Uji”: “In the entire world there are myriads of things and hundreds of blades of grass and each of these things and each blade of grass is, one by one, the entire world.” (Shobogenzo, “Uji”, tr. Eido Shimano and Charles Vaucher, encre marine 1997, pg. 49).

This is not just philosophy, it is at the center of Zen practice. The ‘Sandokai, The Merging of Difference and Equality’, by the Chinese Zen Ancestor Shitou Xiqian (700-790) emphasizes, “Each of the myriad things has its merit, expressed according to function and place.” And my teacher, Suzuki-roshi, comments: “Myriad things include human beings, mountains and rivers, stars and planets. Each thing has its own function, virtue, and value. This is how we should observe things, how we should treat things, and how we should understand the value of things.” This is the fundamental context of life, “the source of the teaching beyond words.” As Dogen says, “Not a thing in the entire universe is missing from the present time. Observe and meditate on it deeply” (Shobogenzo, pg 51).

In Buddhism, Compassion is of course a feeling for others and for the plight of the world, but compassion is also a practice, a craft, a feeling we articulate and evolve. Firstly, compassion is a daily practice of thankfulness for existence itself: sky, planet, each and every being, our own existence. Secondly, compassion is a continuous, grateful awareness of the innumerable generations that have given us our society, culture, languages, and institutions. In Zen we say, “Don’t forget the sweating horses of the past.” Thirdly, Compassion is an indissoluble feeling for the immediate situation of each person. Fourthly, Compassion is the knowledge that we are existence itself.


‘Meeting and speaking’ is a process of planting, cultivating, and harvesting Zen practices and teachings. The mutual presence established during oral teachings can be thought of as the soil of ‘meeting and speaking’. On the surface, there are the flowers and pollen of speaking, which includes the posture and presence of both the teacher and the hearers. Seeds are sown. Transplantings occur. Seeds and roots of previous teachings are watered.

Adept practitioners also gather and sew seeds from all the contexts of living: encounters with others, with teachers, with oneself, and with the flowerings of ‘the ten thousand things’ and ‘the hundred grasses’. Zazen-meditation, the monastic context, and the daily schedule compost and plow the soil.

The field of ‘meeting and speaking’ is an activity during which what can be seeded or transplanted is felt, what is germinating can be felt, what needs watering can be felt, what must be left for later can be felt. All this happens through the mutual engagement with the teachings. The components: presence, posture, energy, attention, non-conceptual openness, silences, pauses, and the sensorial tapestry of immediacy (exemplified by the word ‘koto’).


Why has ‘meeting and speaking’ within the monastic field of samadhic, mutual engagement been the primary context of realizational Zen Buddhist practice for fifteen centuries? This is a crucial question today, because contemporary Western Zen practice is and will likely remain primarily a lay practice. While it’s clear that there can be ‘lay-adept’ practice and even a non-residential lay-adept sangha rooted in realizational practice and integrated with daily life, the crucial question is: can such a lay-adept sangha fully embody the teachings and practices of Zen? And will such a lay-adept sangha be able to transmit the teachings and practices to successive generations?

My experience of the development of Zen Buddhism in the USA and Europe during the last fifty years has convinced me that a lay-adept sangha benefits from and probably needs a monastic component as part of its overall practice. Even if many members of the larger lay sangha do not participate in the monastic life, if they are part of a spectrum of sangha practice deeply rooted in monastic practice, their practice can mature in relationship to the overall sangha’s practice and its monastic component.

We are able to practice Zen in the West today because it has been maintained, developed, and transmitted within and through a monastic tradition. The Western lay-adept sangha is an unprecedented, historically significant experiment for Buddhism. Monasticism is an institution, a way of doing things over time that has produced results. It is not just about individuals practicing as monks; it is about what develops when monk-practitioners live together for significant lengths of time.

There is always individual practice. In the midst of monastic institutional practice, monks are engaged in their personal, individual practices. Nevertheless, both the monastic and the lay practitioner are also inescapably engaged in institutional practice. It is institutional practice which has given us practices and teachings and the sites where the practices and teachings developed. Institutional practice has created the sites of present-day practice, the sites where we meet other practitioners and where we usually find a teacher. Institutional practice creates societal support for practice and also helps establish a normative, societal identity for practitioners. And there are some teachings, like the twins of equanimity and compassion, and the Six Paramitas, which are most fruitfully developed in the context of monastic practice.

No lay (and hence no non-institutionally structured) Buddhist teaching lineage has ever survived, as far as I know, for more than a generation or two. My recognition of this led me to decide to be ordained as a Zen monk and to help Suzuki-roshi found the Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, and through that a Zen teaching and practice lineage in the West. This recognition is also why I went on to found Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado and the Zen Forest Monastery in Europe.

If we in the West are to develop a lay sangha which will continue to succeed through the centuries, the question which will have to be answered is: Why has the monastic field of samadhic, mutual engagement been the primary context of Zen practice and its transmission for fifteen centuries? Investigating this question is crucial for Western practitioners individually, institutionally, generationally, and societally.

The question asks: Will you practice as a layperson or as a monk? Will you practice with a teacher, with a monastic sangha, with a lay sangha, or simply on your own? And if your decision is to practice on your own, how will you find out what are the teachings, how will you get to know the subtleties of the basic and the advanced teachings which are primarily taught orally, face-to-face, by example, enactment, bodily presence, because the subtleties often cannot be taught any other way? And how will you find ways to establish these teachings and practices within your lay life?

This question also asks – does Western society need monks and Zen lineages? In our contemporary society, a monk is not one of the definitive human beings, nor is monasticism one of the normative ways of life. Thus no intrinsic societal support for Zen monastic life exists in the West. Nor will traditional Western educational institutions, nor institutions modeled on Western educational institutions, be substitutes for monastic institutions. Western educational institutions and their offspring will not be ways in which yogic, Zen Buddhist practices can be transmitted.

In addition, nowadays, lay-life is simply more attractive, more developed and complex, than it was for ordinary persons in Asia during the ages when Buddhism was being developed. Consequently, it is not surprizing that for most Westerners, lay-life is simply more attractive than monastic life.

Perhaps, in the West, the emphasis on the incubation of the teachings within a monastic field of mutual practice will shift primarily to the ideal of the ‘Bodhisattva in everyday life’. This sounds beautiful, but can this ideal be realistically actualized? Can it be taught and passed on to others?

But then, perhaps there is an inner, embryonic logic to Zen practice, and once you start to practice zazen and mindfulness, Zen practice unfolds in your lived-life simply through continuing to practice. Perhaps all the practitioner needs is some initial seeds, and then all will flower from those seeds. Actually, in my experience, this is partly true; however, in essential ways it is not true – even though we do and we have to engage practice through our own experience. Intuition and noticing one’s experience only goes so far, and then even a small discovered or pointed-out teaching or detail of practice can open up next steps. There is even a craft to noticing one’s experience and intuitions.

The knowledge of arithmetic does not expand into modern mathematics even in a person who is extraordinarily gifted. Philosophy does not unfold in each generation in the same way. The piano requires instruction, examples, music. Embryos require parents, society, culture. Zen practice is a craft and requires a community of craftpersons.


I am writing this text, raising these questions, but how much of my experience of fifty years in the gardens of meeting and speaking can I actually transplant into this writing? I will transplant as much as I can, and I hope you can transplant some into the gardens of your practice.

I can plant some teachings and practices into the soil of writing. But the soil of reading is not composted like the soil of meeting and speaking. Yet any text is composted by personal experience and also can be composted by personal Buddhist practice. A text can be plowed by reading at an embodying pace. And if teachings from the text are implanted in the activity of daily life, then the teachings can germinate. Even the dormancy some seeds require can be found in how we hold the teachings in daily life.

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