February Haiku

my favorite tea bowl

lost to a sage who once said

it’s okay to break form

mostly gulping

it was a splendid night

of sitting zazen

no water this time

for those poor hungry ghosts

too much thinking

eyes struck a turkey

looking through the window

the mind gobbles

somewhere a coconut

is being hit outside

time to sit zazen

the Tao echoes

all around the zendo

white bean soup

Setting Intention

In Zen practice it’s important to set an intention. One way to do that is by keeping an altar with whatever items you see fit. The first intention is to keep the altar pristine. It can also be good to place flowers that reflect the season. That energy spills out into the rest of the home.

Yesterday I decided to clean and reorganize my garage. The first reaction I had was that the task was too much and I could not decide where to start. A while back I had started an altar on the top shelf of a toolbox where junk had accumulated. I decided to start with cleaning the altar and from there the garage practically cleaned itself!

My take is that when I have intention set, the rest comes naturally and almost without effort. What’s more is that the intention doesn’t need to be conveyed in words. And from there I try to carry it with me during the day.

haiku and such 2

fog hugging mountain

the two are not separate

drizzling rain

sound and silence

not one without the other

I walk to the ridge

nothing but fog

somewhere an ocean

nothing to be done

wait for something to arise

bottle of sake

beautiful flowers

at empty office buildings

no one to see

gust of wind

knocked over the pot of mint

or maybe a cat

haiku and such

who am I

which part of me

is unsatisfied

spring fog is here

warm afternoons and cool air

no track of time

conditioned mind

its vision narrow

look through awareness

mix of emotions

watching preferences arise

I’ll take the green tea

stone thrown in pond

water reverberates

birds fly, flowers fall

a candle flickers

our true self is right here

light casts a shadow

looking deeply into

the mirror of samadhi

I vow to polish

laughing with delusions

being with others

opening new doors

cleaning the zendo

birds singing dharma

time to go home

the han sounds funny

a friend points to the center

sound of wood rings clear

dolphins passed us in winter

we watched from the shore

no coincidence

returning to office

meeting with other buddhas

please have some tea

life is a painting

both dreadful and wonderful

who is the artist?

eating clam chowder

before sitting zazen

doan, ring the bell

Thinking, Not Thinking

While thinking of thinking,

And thinking of not thinking,

It’s simple to forget the I.

For only a moment,

A moment of moments,

Truth has no place to hide.

No “I” to wonder the meaning of this,

The moment is gone and the next one appears.

This is just this,

It’s all it is,

But it’s simple to forget.

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.