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27 January 2014

Blog Moved!

Please note the new URL for my blog:

For a variety of reasons, I moved my Zen-blog to a self-hosted wordpress platform. These blogspot-pages will remain on-line for the time being, but no more updates will occur here. I will post any future articles under the new URL

The easiest way to follow my blog on the new wordpress platform is by e-mail subscription, just enter your mail-address here, and you will receive any updates by e-mail (via google feed-burner):

I also link most new blog-posts to my facebook-page:
- following me on facebook is another convenient way of receiving regular updates!

Thank you for reading!

23 January 2014

Painful Bias

In the introduction to my seminars and Sesshin I usually speak about certain misconceptions of Zen which obstruct a healthy and fruitful practise. Beginners, and often even advanced students, bring along a rucksack filled with a painful set of prejudices concerning Zazen, which, if not put down, can cause them a tremendous emotional and physical pain.

The most severe bias I encountered through years of teaching are:
  • Zazen and Zen practise in general is good for nothing!
  • You must stop thinking!
  • You must endure and sit through any pain!
and sometimes
  • You must not question your teacher!
Let me discuss one by one:

Zazen and Zen practise in general is good for nothing? Often one can read in Zen-related texts that Zen has no goal, we must not strive for any effect or outcome through our Zen practise, Zen is good for nothing and so on and so forth. Is it now wrong when I begin Zazen in the hope to change my life, myself for the better? Not at all! Without a strong desire to change, to develop and leave the probably painful cycles of my current life I would most likely not start doing Zen. A regular healthy practise with a qualified teacher will have some very positive effect on your life for sure, and a strong confidence in a positive outcome is necessary to keep up a good practise!

The warning "Zen is good for nothing" addresses the frequent misunderstanding that Zen practise will give you some additional super-magic qualities you can add to your otherwise unchanged life, just another skill providing extra power you can use to boost your career as a martial artist or manager. And of course a few hours or week-ends spent on your pillow will most likely not show any lasting effect, especially if you are distracted from your practise by anticipating and eagerly observing any expected outcome.

You must stop thinking? How should we human beings possibly stop thinking, and why? Without thinking we'd never come to read such a text, not to speak of all the arrangements necessary to participate a seminar. Thinking is essential to maintain our life, and especially starting any new practise comes along with a lot of extra thinking. It would be a horrible misunderstanding for a beginner of Zen to force yourself to stop thinking, and probably get angry about the fruitless effort to do so.

To a "stop thinking" I want to add "all the time!". Our super fast intellectual planning ahead all eventualities mind does not have to run on 100% all the time. During Zazen we may allow ourselves to let it go in a gentle way and leave our thoughts and thinking what they are, just thoughts. Once they come up, we cannot stop them. But we can let them come and go without following them, without allowing them interfere with our concentration on a proper posture and deep breathing

You must endure and sit through any pain? Pain is not the purpose of Zazen, and enduring pain has no benefit. Pain does not allow me to concentrate well, in the worst case it indicates my body is experiencing some damage. My advise for beginners is to avoid pain, and more experienced students to carefully examine it.

When I know myself, my body well I realise it is often not pain, it is just a slightly unpleasant feeling. And when our mind has nothing else to do, we amplify and over-exaggerate it until it becomes mentally unbearable. Ever experienced the pain is gone when the end-of-meditation bell rings? Even before relieving from a painful posture? That was the extra pain we add to our slight physical discomfort. Not to add extra mental pain to our physical pain, by this relieving and enduring the physical pain is meant by "enduring pain". If it really hurts, please change your posture!

You must not question your teacher? All the good teachers I studied with encouraged their students to question a lot. If your teacher does not allow questions, better don't ask ... leave him or her alone and find a new teacher!

Depending on the cultural background of your teacher, of course it is polite to find a proper timing when to ask. Sometimes a beginner is too keen to show off and fire a half understood prejudice at the teacher even before he or she had a chance to begin with the most basic lesson (which might be to make you clean the Dojo). Once you decided to trust your teacher, I recommend a willingness to do without hesitation. And at the same time, while you do, fundamentally questioning your and his or her doing. Why? Why? Why? Not just copy, dig as deep as you can, see if you can get deeper than your teacher's and his teacher's and his teacher's teachers' roots ...

8 January 2014

Praying to that Doll?

Today is the 8th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, the day on which we celebrate the Buddha experienced his "ah, that's me!" after sitting for seven days under a tree, some 2500 years ago.

When my daughter was little, she once saw me bowing to a small Buddha statue at home and asked "papa, are you praying to that doll?".

I replied that this doll is how we imagine a person might have looked like who lived very long long time ago in far away India. And that this person understood how to live one's life happier, and that he kindly taught it to other people. And those who learned from him carried it further on and on across the continents over many many hundred years, until today where I learned it from my teachers. So, when I bow I am not praying, but saying "thank you" to all these people who helped me to live happier.

My daughter curiously listened, and then, without hesitation, bowed towards me, saying "and you are making my life happier" ... and after thinking for a second, "and now you must bow to me, because I make your life happier!".

Sure, I did ... and for me that's all with bowing to people or statues, saying "thank you!".

4 January 2014

Ghost Stories

Years ago I lived with neighbours who shared their small flat with three huge noisy dogs. There was lots of growling and barking day and night, and even more human voices shouting at the misbehaving pets. One day my neighbours perplexed me by their request to sign a petition against noisy dogs - not their dogs, as I quickly learned, but another new neighbour's dog which occasionally joined their own three dogs' concert.

The Japanese folklore knows many distinct types of ghosts. I remember a language class where we spent more than an hour to distinguish obake (お化け) and yurei (幽霊). In a nutshell, obake are said to be local nasty noisy creatures which are able to perform temporary transformations, something like a poltergeist. The yurei, in contrast, is not fixed to a specific location, but often personally related to some human being, your personal ghost so to say.

Although my childhood days with being scared of ghosts and monsters under the bed are long gone, I like the concept of obake and yurei, especially when transferred into our everyday life experience:

The obake are the conditions (and people) I encounter at certain places, they usually make my life a bit harder. The noisy neighbour, people around a seminar house who do not respect our room and practice, the local baker shop who always sold out my favourite croissant at any time of the day.

The yurei are my very personal demons, I take them with me wherever I go. My aversion against noisy dogs and neighbours, my fantasy about how exactly everyone around me should behave, my craving for certain things and conditions.

Just imagine what happens when my private yurei meet some local obake, we are well on the way towards quarrel, fight and disaster! In the worst case, if my emotional life mainly consists of walking my yurei to engage with some really nasty obake, I might turn into a ghost myself: a gaki (餓鬼) or "hungry ghost". Sitting at a table laid with delicious meals, yet with a throat too thin to swallow enough to fill my big empty stomach and my arms so long that I can reach everything I am craving for, but too long to feed my mouth. A never ending emotional struggle and starvation, neither pleasant for me nor for those around me.

In Zen practice, I find compassion is the most important and most difficult thing to learn. Surrounded by gaki, the typical inhabitants of our modern consume-based society, I meet and get to know my yurei when sitting on my cushion. Knowing them well helps me to enjoy a happier life with obake next door,  and eventually I even have some food left for the gaki.

2 January 2014

Zazen - Cheap and Easy!

Maybe your New Year's resolution was to do something good for yourself, something from which also your family, friends and colleagues might benefit - you decided to give it a try on meditation?

Very good! Let me recommend how to save some money (you can donate for charity, if you are in a spending mood): try Zazen, it is cheap and easy!

A few weeks ago I saw a film which made me think. A world-wide institution (apparently rather popular and quite wealthy) was presented, which offers introduction to meditation: seven hours for about 1200.- Euro. Higher levels and ranks can be acquired, but it might cost you (up to) a few million ...

me, a bit younger
I do agree, the basics of sitting meditation (Zazen) can be learned quickly, actually in much less than seven hours. Continuing this praxis is easier after joining a group and finding a good teacher ... you might be asked to contribute to the group's rent for a room, and maybe your teacher's expenses. Unless you are without a regular income, the required sum will not be a notable fraction of your monthly spendings ... so let me recommend to save your 1200.- and look for a friendly Zazen group with a good teacher nearby, you'll be surprised how cheap a change of your life actually can be!

Don't let you discourage from dramatic stories about Japanese Zen monks' education. These professionals go through (more or less) considerable hardship and pain, much of it designed specifically for young Japanese men who will later take over their father's temple ... most likely not what you are up for!

And don't be bedazzled by a shiny spiritual leader (or the Zen-specific black robed grim ascetic master look-alike). What shines on the surface (and may it be a shaved head) might lack content, a teacher who fulfils the neophyte's prejudice about how a real master should look like, talk and behave, is more likely than not a fake. Trust your intuition and life experience to check out carefully if what is being offered is actually doing good for you!

Two films I highly recommend to watch: the one about the aforementioned institution, and one about a fake guru: David Wants to fly and Kumare. And just in case you want to see a real Zen teacher in action, have a look at the short video about my former teacher I made a few years ago (this one is available for free on youtube).

24 December 2013

Have a Coup of Tea!

"have some tea"
When I was a young Aikido teacher, we were running four beginner's classes each year at my Dojo.

The first day of a new class always was particularly interesting: some of the new students were shy and seemed to prefer hiding in a corner, nervous of what might be expected from them and anxious to do nothing "wrong".
Others wanted to make clear to everyone their martial arts background by performing kata or exercises on the tatami before the class started, wearing colourful belts reflecting prior grades in Judo or Karate.
The intellectual sort gave uninvited lectures about the philosophical background of Aikido to interested listeners even before setting a foot on the tatami for the first time in their life.
And my more advanced students (including last quarter's beginners) tried hard to make sure not to be mixed up with the newcomers ... everyone was busy to be seen and recognized by the others and by the teacher.

After class, all of us sweating together for 90 minutes, we joined for a coup of tea. By then, usually everyone was happy and relaxed, no sign of tension, no more insecurity and no more showing off. We all shared the same tea, sitting on the same floor, and it did not matter any longer who brought which package of wisdom or insecurity into the Dojo.
 Once two monks visited Joshu, the famous Zen master. He asked them both:
“Have you ever been here before?”
One monk said "yes". Joshu said,
“Have some tea.”
The other monk answered "no". Joshu said,
“Have some tea.”
Joshu’s attendant monk wondered about his master’s answer and asked him,
“Why do you say, ‘Have some tea’ to a spiritually advanced monk and then say, ‘Have some tea’, to a monk who has still no understanding?” Joshu replies,
“Have some tea!”
Advanced student, experienced guest or beginner ... please all enjoy a coup of tea!

11 December 2013

What the Buddha said (or maybe not)

Actually, I don't care much. Who knows what he really said, the oldest written records still existing today were compiled hundreds of years after he passed away. Most likely, even calling him "Buddha" is a much later invention... said that, exploring ideas and ways of thinking can be a joyful activity, and the ideas of someone we still talk about 2500 years after he lived his life might well be interesting.

From a Zen point of view it should be noted that we must not put too much hope and expectations into such an endeavour: when I have a problem (or I am my problem), and someone explains it to me and tells me it can be understood and there is a cure and how the cure looks like and I listen and understand and nod my head ... the problem is still there. It does not simply vanish by understanding, by reasoning ... I cannot think essential problems away like I solve a mathematical question. All the words and thinking (of course including these words) can only point to a certain praxis, a way of living, by this making our thoughts and problems superfluous once we become familiar with the praxis. If we stick to words of wisdom, if we collect ways of thinking like books in a shelf and use them as tools for arguing this or that way, we miss the essential point.

O.k., after this note of warning, let me point you to the lectures and writings of a former monk and Buddhist scholar, who is kind enough to share his insights and enormous wisdom (and never forgets to remember the delighted listener or reader of the importance of practise), John Peacock.

A good starting point might be his six talks available via the webpage of the Insight Meditation Center:

Buddhism Before the Theravada

which are continued by:

The Buddha’s Teaching on Loving-Kindness: A Mature Path to Awakening

If you prefer reading, thes two articles by John Peacock published via the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies are an excellent primer:

Mindfulness & the Cognitive Process, Part I
Mindfulness & the Cognitive Process, Part II

During our Sesshin we recite the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra), and I often interpret a few essential lines during the Dharma talks. Usually, I introduce this by pointing out that it is a mission impossible to give a detailed explanation of the short text, line by line, in just thirty minutes. A series of 16 talks (a bit more than six hours) by John Peacock concerning the Heart Sutra can be found here:

The Heart Sutra – John Peacock – Dharmagiri S.Africa 2011

It took me three days to go through all the material listed above just once, though maybe even a couple of months might well not be sufficient time to read and listen thoroughly ... so I hope these links won't distract you too much from your practise, but instead serve as an inspiration and motivation to continue!