道 Effortless Action

The coin lost in the river is found in the river.

As mentioned in my first post, I have been working on the kōan quoted above. And when I say “working,” I really mean grasping at straws. But I’m happy to say that I believe I’ve solved it, and ironically it’s not like solving a riddle at all. I sort of knew that going in, but each time I tried to figure out this kōan I couldn’t help but approach it like a riddle.

The first few weeks after starting the kōan, I would repeat it to myself almost daily. During meditation I’d repeat certain parts to myself, maybe focusing on just “coin” with each breath. But as time went on I rarely focused on it, and instead the phrase would randomly drift into my head once a week or so.

I was walking home from work the other day and the kōan just popped into my head. As I noticed my thoughts latching on to the kōan I decided to approach it differently than before. And what’s funny is that I had told myself this every time when thinking about the kōan. However, this time it really was a different approach and I’ll explain why.

Around the holidays I switched from reading Zen material to writings relating to Taoism (The Way of Zen starts by explaining Taoism, and that led me down the rabbit hole of Tao). And one of the most popular works is Tao Te Ching. I started reading Tao Te Ching roughly a month ago, just repeating chapters over and over, mostly after my evening meditation. And to me, Tao Te Ching makes complete sense – it’s bizarre how deep the writing is, yet it’s written so plain and simple. One common theme in Taoism is that of opposing forces, and how life wouldn’t exist without them. For instance, day cannot exists without night, and night cannot exist without day. Many chapters have lines which seem to negate each other, yet their contrast makes the writing beautiful.

So while thinking of this kōan on my walk home, I decided that maybe I should analyze the words in my head like I do when reading Tao Te Ching. The coin lost in the river is found in the river. The coin is both lost and found. And I think at this point I accepted that it’s okay for the coin to be both lost and found, because one can’t exist without the other. So at that I imagined someone losing a coin upstream in the river, while later someone else finding the same coin downstream in the river. And when I pictured this scenario, it blew my mind. I’m not sure I can do it justice in writing here, but I think this kōan can be interpreted as a way to explain life and death. When we die we’re consumed by the earth to feed whatever life springs up after us. Then the next living thing soon dies, while the cycles continues. I’m sure you can stretch this even further, but I wasn’t expecting to have such a deep realization from a silly little kōan.

In short, that was enough to convince myself that I had basically solved the kōan. It probably sounds insane to anyone reading this, but really you should try giving this kōan a shot. Because I am sure that whatever answer you come up with will be vastly different and personal to your own experience. And yes, meditation did help me in solving this kōan. You can’t apply problem-solving skills to this one – it just doesn’t work that way.

In Taoism, there is a concept known as Wu Wei, or effortless action. It means that action is taken using your own intuition, versus complicating things with thought. And my experience with this kōan has helped me realize that there’s no point in worrying or over-thinking things. If we let go and let life take its course, things will naturally happen. However, in letting go we have to accept that the good things will always be accompanied with the bad. But part of being flexible with life means that more opportunities will come.

To practice Wu Wei, according to Taoism, we must be one with our own nature. And to me this means to take breaks from electronics, spending more time enjoying the world around us. Going outside and talking to strangers, not wearing headphones and instead listening to the birds chirping. But even deeper than that, we have to trust that we’re perfect just the way we are. There’s no need to change things to make them better. We can work with what we have, because what we already have is probably all we need in the first place.

It’s hard to share just one excerpt from Tao Te Ching, but keeping Wu Wei in mind, I’ll end with this:

Chapter 10

Can you coax your mind from its wandering

and keep to the original oneness?

Can you let your body become supple as a newborn child’s?

Can you cleanse your inner vision

until you see nothing but the light?

Can you love people and lead them

without imposing your will?

Can you deal with the most vital matters

by letting events take their course?

Can you step back from your own mind

and thus understand all things?

Giving birth and nourishing,

having without possessing,

acting with no expectations,

leadings and not trying to control:

this is the supreme virtue.

Keep practicing. And happy 2018!

My Visit to San Francisco Zen Center

Yesterday I woke up early and headed over to the San Francisco Zen Center to attend their free introductory zazen class. This class is open to the public and happens every Saturday morning. No sign-up is necessary and they allow late walk-ins (although this may depend on the teacher). After the class I stayed for the Dharma talk, which was led by Ed Sattizahn.

This was my first visit to any Zen center, so I had no idea what to expect. When I stepped inside the center I was greeted by a man in robes. He bowed and I politely told him I was here for the intro class (I spoke as if I had just entered a library). He pointed me towards the hall and asked me to take my shoes off before entering. I asked him where to place my shoes, and he told me in a joking manner that they put shoes just about anywhere.

I entered the main hall (known as Buddha Hall) and on the floor were several zafus (cushions for meditation). I took one and sat down. Shortly after, another man in robes entered and introduced himself. Actually, the man never gave his name so I’ll just refer to him as John from now on. While most of the students participating sat on zafus, a few sat on regular chairs towards the rear of the hall. John later explained that practicing zazen on a chair is perfectly acceptable.

First of all, I was caught off guard by John’s casual manner of speaking (similar to the first man I spoke to joking about the shoes). He was wearing robes and sitting on a zafu, but he spoke like any regular guy in San Francisco. He explained how visitors to the Zen center are often afraid of doing something wrong or disturbing one of the monks wearing robes. He said this is probably due to the various forms of rituals done around the Zen center. However, the monks, he said, are quite friendly and have no problem talking with visitors (even though they may look serious), and the rituals themselves are only a standard. He explained that while rituals are followed (such as bowing), Zen is a personal practice and people respect whatever personal form you’ve developed. Basically he told us there’s no wrong way to practice Zen and no one at the Zen center will judge you for doing things your own way.


Before starting zazen, it is custom in Sōtō Zen to bow. One bows towards the zafu, then turns around to bow once more away from the zafu. Bowing, from what I understand, is basically a way to show respect to others in the zendo who are also practicing zazen. When bowing, others facing you will bow in return.

Bowing is done in gassho style, meaning hands are held together towards the chin. The body is tilted at a 45 degree angle. This is the same bow that the first man in the lobby did when greeting myself.

So, why should we follow the ritual of bowing? John told us it’s simply a way to prepare our mind for zazen – like a routine. This is just to clear our mind and set the tone before practicing.

Sitting Zazen

John explained that the zazen technique followed in Sōtō Zen was recorded by Eihei Dōgen in Fukanzazengi. Dōgen is the founder of the Sōtō school (Sōtō originated in China and was brought to Japan by Dōgen). We were taught all of the different ways to sit zazen (Lotus, Burmese, seiza, or simply in a chair). We were also told that there’s no better way to sit – whichever is more comfortable.

Here’s an excerpt of Dōgen’s description of zazen from Fukanzazengi:

Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

In short, keep a straight back, don’t lurch forward, and place your tongue on the roof of the mouth to prevent over-salivating. Also – the eyes are kept open.

When sitting, the hands are held in what’s commonly known as “cosmic mudrā.” I believe this technique, or at least the term, was popularized by Shunryu Suzuki who founded SF Zen Center. The left hand is placed on top of the right, while the thumbs are barely touching one another. Touching the thumbs lightly together is done to prevent the mind from wandering. When the mind drifts you may notice that the thumbs have come apart, or maybe you’re pressing them too hard. This is simply a mechanism to keep the mind in check.

Practicing Zazen

We were taught two zazen techniques: counting breaths and Shikantaza.

Counting breaths is simple: count one on inhale, count one on exhale. Count two on inhale, count two on exhale. Repeat until reaching ten. If distracted or lost count, simply start at one.

John told us that most people count breaths for a few years before moving on to Shikantaza. I’m not sure if he was trying to be funny, but his casual tone when saying “a few years” made me laugh.

In contrast, Shikantaza is zazen without counting breaths. This technique is much harder to avoid distracting thoughts as one does not have the anchor of using breath counting. When thoughts arise during Shikantaza, one does not attach to them. Simply let the thought pass and remain in a neutral, empty state. An example of an itchy nose was given. If your nose itches during zazen, don’t analyze the itch. Just let it be an itch and move on. If you think Shikantaza seems easy, give it a shot and tell me what you think.

Ending Zazen

When ending zazen, we were taught to simply sway the body back and forth lightly. Don’t rush getting up.

Here’s Dōgen again:

When you arise from sitting, move slowly and quietly, calmly and deliberately. Do not rise suddenly or abruptly. In surveying the past, we find that transcendence of both unenlightenment and enlightenment, and dying while either sitting or standing, have all depended entirely on the strength (of zazen).

And that was about everything discussed during class. There was Q&A at the end, followed by a 15 minute break before the Dharma talk.

Dharma Talk

I stayed for the Dharma talk which lasted for an hour. I was hoping to attend the introduction to zendo forms, a class which normally happens every Saturday afternoon. However, the class was cancelled that day in celebration of Buddha’s enlightenment. During this holiday the Zen center holds a one-week sesshin, meditating every day from 9:30am until 5:30pm.

The speaker was Ed Sattizahn, who serves as Abbot of the SF Zen Center. A large group of people gathered in the Buddha Hall (it was crowded), and a camera and microphone was setup for live streaming (just as a side note: most of the events are streamed online – even group zazen sessions).

You can watch a recording of the talk here. I won’t go over all of the content, but Sattizahn did emphasize how Zen is a personal path. This is definitely a reoccurring theme I’ve noticed in Zen teaching (even our zazen teacher said this). Among other things, Sattizahn mentioned a bit about Dōgen and Suzuki. When I have some time I plan to rewatch the recording – I ate a light breakfast that day and was a bit hungry and distracted. After the talk I rushed down the street to grab coffee and a sandwich.


I’d call my first visit to the SF Zen Center a success. I definitely felt welcomed, and no one pestered me to donate money. While the class covered most of what I already knew, I did learn a few new things such as the bowing ritual.

I definitely plan to return and attend the zendo introductory class. In the future I hope to practice zazen at least once a month at the zendo. And who knows, maybe I’ll be a frequent visitor at other SFZC events too.

That’s about all I’ve got for this writeup. I’ve still got a lot on my plate reading-wise. So expect some new content soon relating to Zen teachings and literature. I’ll be visiting family over Christmas and should have some extra free time to read and write.

Until next time, keep practicing.

My First Steps in Zen

When I was suggested to meditate I blew it off as a cliché . I live in California, and of course I’ve heard meditation is great. It’s regarded as the magic bullet to solve all of life’s problems. I didn’t get the hype, yet it was one of those things that I had to try before making a final verdict.

For a month, after being pestered by a friend, I told myself I’d try meditation. After work I’d sit around doing every thing but meditating. It wasn’t until my stress levels hit a peak did I finally cave and sit for ten minutes.

Sitting for ten minutes is a long time when you’re first starting to practice. I had no notion of a “right” way – I just sat cross-legged with my eyes closed. Afterwards I was proud of myself. And it felt strange to be satisfied from something so simple.

I kept sitting every morning and evening for at least ten minutes. I used my phone timer while sitting on the floor of my living room. Eventually I switched to using Insight Timer and tried some guided meditations.

One weekend I visited the Japanese bookstore in Japantown, San Francisco. While browsing, I stumbled across the book Zen Meditation in Plain English. The book is basic, but it was the exact reading I needed at the time. I had started to become interested in Zen, but had no clue where to start. Reading this book taught me how to count breaths during zazen (meditation). I also bought a cushion as pillows and blankets were becoming obnoxious to sit on. At this point I had developed a basic zazen practice with counting breaths (sitting for 20-45 minutes at a time), and wasn’t fidgeting around now that I had a proper cushion to sit on. But I still had no clue what Zen was in general.

A friend suggested I read Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind and I did just that. This book helped answer many of the vague questions I had about Zen, zazen, and where the two fit in with Buddhism. I read it over the course of a month, maybe longer. I’d read a few pages on my commute, before or after my sits, or whenever I became frustrated with my practice. We are used to setting goals and tracking progress in our daily life, but attaching expectation to our zazen practice is the wrong way to go. Zazen is all about keeping an empty mind. And that doesn’t mean blocking out all thoughts. Emptiness is a big theme in Zen and I wouldn’t do it justice to try and explain here. Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind does an excellent job of laying down the fundamentals. However, I do think the book makes more sense if the reader already has a daily practice in place. So if you’re new to meditation, give it a couple of weeks before you start this book.

After reading Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, I was lost as to where to go next. Besides picking at some well-known sutras, I had no decent reading material to continue learning. So I focused my efforts towards daily zazen. Some times it’s best to take a break from absorbing knowledge and apply what you’ve learned. I focused on emptiness, counting my breaths, and going about my daily life outside of zazen. Then after two weeks or so, without much effort, I stumbled across the next book.

Luckily my local used bookstore has a decent Zen section, and while browsing recently I found a copy of Taking the Path of Zen. Actually, I picked this up yesterday and I’ve almost finished the entire book. However, I can already tell it will become a great reference. Similar to Zen Meditation in Plain English, the author describes the basics of zazen and how to practice. But this book provides so much more detail. The reader learns about different breathing methods, what kōans are and how to practice them, and the relationship between a student and teacher at Zen centers. Personally I feel like it’s almost time for myself to find a teacher. I believe this book was exactly what I needed in preparation for my first visit to a Zen center. The author writes about how to find a Rōshi and what a Rōshi might ask potential students when interviewing. There’s also plenty of detail on the traditions followed within the zendo, including dress and bowing.

I am not sure what attracted me to Zen, or why I chose zazen-style meditation over others. Currently I have been reading about the differences between the Sōtō and Rinzai schools. Whatever school of teaching I later prefer is a personal decision, and that seems to be perfectly fine within Zen. In Taking the Path of Zen, Robert Aitken writes:

It is essential at the beginning of practice to acknowledge that the path is personal and intimate. It is no good to examine it from a distance as if it were someone else’s. You must walk it for yourself. In this spirit, you invest yourself in your practice, confident of your heritage, and train earnestly side by side with your sisters and brothers. It is this engagement that brings peace and realization.

I’ve now been practicing daily for over two months. I’ve experimented a bit in my zazen, but mostly sticking with breath counting. However, I did recently start working on the following kōan:

The coin lost in the river is found in the river

Kōans are typically worked on by students with feedback from a teacher. While I currently have no teacher, I am interested in kōan training and do think it still may be beneficial to work on one myself. Of course working on the kōan will take longer without guidance. If you’re interested in kōans, Taking the Path of Zen writes about them, and Pacific Zen describes how to work on the coin kōan.

So that’s where I’m currently at in my Zen path. I hope this is helpful for anyone new to meditation and slightly interested in Zen. I do plan on writing up more about other books I am reading. If you’re wondering, I have noticed benefits from meditating. But I am trying to treat zazen as something I just do every day and not get attached to how it makes me feel. Finally, I’m happy to answer any questions, or at least points towards reading where answers may be found.

Until next time, keep practicing.

About Fog Sutra

The learning curve for Zen feels quite steep – at least that’s been my experience so far.

There are many sutras to read and many Zen masters to quote. Zen is supposedly simple to follow as it focuses primarily on meditation (zazen), but from a beginner’s perspective the amount of reading required can be overwhelming.

In response, I hope to provide a resource for others beginning their Zen and/or meditation journey. I also hope that my writing encourages others to continue their practice. That’s at least one of the reasons I’ve started writing: to track my own progress in hopes of self-encouragement.

So what should you, the reader, expect from Fog Sutra?

  1. Progress reports on my daily meditation practice.
  2. Writings on how I got started with meditation and how I currently practice.
  3. Excerpts and thoughts on various reading materials (books, sutras, various Zen writings – I like to read anything and everything).
  4. Possible topics on other Zen communities (e.g. reddit, online forums, and encounters with local Zen centers and groups).

The next few posts should describe my beginnings with meditation, how I currently practice, and what got me interested in Zen of all things. I would also like to state up front: I am not an expert. I am still a beginner. And the reader should expect some mistakes here and there. However, I am completely open to ideas, suggestions, and criticism. And if I learn something along the way which negates a previous idea, I will publish an update.

Until next time, keep practicing.