Practice Without Scattering Flowers

walking monks

I’d like to introduce a “case” if you will from our founding ancestor Dogen. This is from the Eihei Koroku, the compendium of his short practice discussions mostly given to the monks living and practicing with him in the temple he founded, in the 13th c. These talks were translated by our guiding teacher Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton, and Rev. Shohaku Okamura.

The talk goes like this:

In ancient times, someone was high up in a tower and saw two monks walking by. Two heavenly beings were sweeping the road and scattered flowers behind the monks. When the monks returned, two demons shouted and spit at the monks, and swept away their footprints. The person observing this finally descended from the tower and asked the two monks what happened.  The two monks said, “When we were going, we were discussing the principles of Buddhas. When we were returning, we were in engaged in random talk. That is the reason.” Realizing this deeply, the two monks were repentant and continued on their way.

Listen, although this story concerns the two monks coarse realms of consciousness, if we examine it minutely, this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.

An ancient said, “Although it was like this, it was exactly because those heavenly beings scattered flowers on the road that the demonic spirits could see the two monks.”

If there had been no road upon which the heavenly beings could scatter flowers, and there was no means for the demonic spirits to observe them, then what could have happened? Great assembly, do you want to clearly understand this? Nobody in previous generations has discussed this, but I will now speak about it:

After a pause Dogen said: Buddhas do not appear in the world by depending on the sixteen especially excellent meditation methods, which generate the spiritual powers. Even when ordinary people with sharp capacity practice these kinds of meditation, the cessation of outflows does not occur. When tathagathas expound the teaching, the cessation of outflows does occur.

A complex talk I think. But I love the immediacy of the image, and so I chose this because when we have a strong image like this I think we can carry it away with us for contemplation later. The image can float up for consideration maybe when it feels applicable.

So in essence, we have a dissection, dissolution, and even involution of our conventional dualistic view. The story can be read as a pretty straightforward morality tale, and that seems like the original intent. Monks talk about Buddha, and angels descend and rejoice in their goodness; when they talk about mundane matters, demons follow them around spitting. So the monks “repent” and likely vow to be more studious and diligent. I think we can all relate to this – we want to be good people, good citizens, and good zen practitioners – even maybe good Buddhists.

But Dogen begins to indicate how this is not the true Zen way, or at least its not a complete understanding. He says about this story, “this is the most important aspect of people’s study of the Way. Why is that so? It is because when even a bit of sentimental thinking arises, external conditions appear before us. If such thoughts do not arise, there can be no particular condition.”

I like this use here of the word “sentimental.” We must remember that in Buddhist psychology, “thoughts” and “feelings” are seen as equal, along with all manner of sensations. Of course, even science shows us that thoughts generate feelings, and vice versa, which concretely shapes our experience of our bodies, and vice versa. We are complex happenings, and these distinctions are all provisional. Our problems often seem to involve getting stuck in the sensations, in the divisions, and in the appearance of external-seeming conditions before our eyes and other sense organs. And especially caught in notions about them being “good” or “bad.”

When Dogen says “if such thoughts do not arise” we might think he means that we should therefore somehow find a way to not think. Many other “Zen” teachers have said as much. You may have noticed this is easier said than done. Our brains think. Dogen nowhere says that they shouldn’t. But he does say that we are not simply our thoughts. There is a fully functioning reality (that we are already uninterruptedly participating in) beyond our mere dualistic, linear thinking.

This reality, he says explicitly, is not found through “meditation”, of any kind (even “the sixteen especially excellent” methods!) Once again we are reminded how our zazen practice is not “meditation.” We are not freed from our “outflows” by anything we can “do or not do.” Someone asked about “outflows,” and this is a good question. I think we can substitute the word “projections,” as used in a modern psychological sense. Like when Carl Jung said that when you fall in “love at first sight,” one should be highly on guard, because what is almost invariably occurring is a massive projection of one’s inner anima or animus (one’s inner psychological male or female counterpart) onto this other person, who is simply acting as a screen for the light of your own “outflow.” That is maybe a helpful way to consider one aspect of this.

Freedom, release or relief, from this process – which we desire in order to fulfill our genuine aspiration and vow to experience reality, including other people, on their own terms beyond our self-clinging and desires and projections – is found only in “hearing tathagathas expound the Dharma.” Ok; so what are these tathagathas, and what is the teaching they expound? The word literally means “Thus Come Ones,” or realized beings we call Buddhas. In a real sense, they are our actual teachers and spiritual friends with whom we gather to practice and receive instructions. But in a deeper sense, it is the birdsong outside the window right now, or the traffic on the other side of the building. It is the sensation of the floor beneath us, the cool of the air conditioned air emanating out of the vents. It is our direct undeniable experience of these things, that no one can take away from us. In each of these sensations, we are “thus come.” And all things are similarly “thus come.”

In zazen, we practice “dropping off body and mind.” It’s like pushing in the clutch – the projection machinery continues to perhaps churn, but we choose to not actively engage it. It’s like those old projectors in school where you could turn out the bulb, but the fan kept whirring and the spools kept turning. But our attention is no longer fixed on the magical display that was just being projected. In time, our relationship to the display begins to shift. We don’t cling so much to it. We maybe still laugh or cry, but more for the release and genuine humanness of laughing or crying, hopefully not so much because we are freaking out about the show. But that will happen too, and even that’s ok.



Taigen Dan Leighton at Valley Dragon, July 10, 11, and 13, 2015!

One of our guiding teachers, Taigen Dan Leighton, will be visiting again from Chicago!

There will be three events, including a just added book signing at Bookworks!

Friday, July 10

7 pm:

book-signing and talk for his new book,

Just This Is It:

Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

Bookworks: 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW, Albuquerque 344-8139

Saturday, July 11

12:30-5:30 pm:


Just This Is It:

Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness

Dragonfly Yoga Studio: 1301 Rio Grande Blvd NW #2, ABQ

($50 suggested donation; no one turned away. Kindly RSVP)

Monday, July 13

6:30-8 pm:

zazen and talk

Dragonfly Yoga Studio

Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness


The joy of “suchness”—the absolute and true nature inherent in all appearance—shines through the teachings attributed to Dongshan Liangjie (807–869), the legendary founder of the Caodong lineage of Chan Buddhism (the predecessor of Sōtō Zen). Taigen Dan Leighton looks at the teachings attributed to Dongshan—in his Recorded Sayings and in the numerous koans in which he is featured as a character—to reveal the subtlety and depth of the teaching on the nature of reality that Dongshan expresses. Included are an analysis of the well-known teaching poem “Jewel Mirror Samadhi” and of the understanding of particular and universal expressed in the teaching of the Five Degrees. “The teachings embedded in the stories about Dongshan provide a rich legacy that has been sustained in practice traditions,” says Taigen. “Dongshan’s subtle teachings about engagement with suchness remain vital today for Zen people and are available for all those who wish to find meaning amid the challenges to modern life.”

The day will be interspersed with discussion and periods of zazen (silent meditation.)

Taigen is founder and Senior Dharma Teacher of Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago, and a guiding teacher of Valley Dragon Zen Sangha in Albuquerque. He is a direct heir in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Monastery. Taigen is the author of many books, including a translation of Dogen’s Eihei Koroku, Cultivating the Empty Field, Faces of Compassion, and Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry.”

Location: Dragonfly Yoga, Albuquerque


12:30 Zazen

1:00 – 2:45 Dharma talk and discussion

2:45-3:15 break

3:15 – 5:20 Dharma talk and discussion

5:20 Closing vows

Please contact for reservations.

There is a suggested donation is $50.00, but any donation will be absolutely fine.

Taigen will also be providing an opportunity for dokusan (private practice interviews) to interested practitioners. Please contact if interested.

Calculating the Difference

During World War II, when I visited a coal mine in Kyushu, they allowed me to go into the mine.  Like the miners, I put on a hard hat with a headlamp and went down in an elevator.  For a while, I thought the elevator was going down very fast.  Then I started to feel as if it were going up.  I shone my headlamp on the shaft and realized the elevator was still going down steadily.  When an elevator starts descending with increasing speed, we feel it going down, but once the speed becomes fixed, we feel as if the elevator were rising.  The balance has shifted.  In the ups and downs of life, we’re deceived by the difference in the balance.

Saying “I’ve had satori!” is only feeling a difference in the balance.  Saying “I’m deluded!” is feeling another.  To say food tastes delicious or terrible, to be rich or poor, all are just feelings about shifts in the balance.  

In most cases, our ordinary way of thinking only considers differences in the balance.

Human beings put I into everything without knowing it.  We sometimes say “That was really good!”  What is it good for?  It’s just good for me, that’s all.

We usually do things expecting some personal profit.  And if the results turn out different from our hidden agenda, we feel disappointed and exhausted.  

–Kodo Sawaki Roshi

We live our lives immersed in the subjective world of me and mine.  Everything is evaluated in terms of the relative balance of our preferences.  That this is even a framework that could be questioned is beyond most of us before we come to practice.  It’s the water we swim in.  Zazen is the practice, the realization of stepping outside of this framework.  It’s not a preparatory practice that we do so that some time down the road we might be able to have some special experience that allows us to see outside of the framework.  When we sit down, take the posture, and bring our awareness to our breath, body and mind, we immediately set aside this subjective agenda.  It’s not that the agenda disappears.  We notice the thoughts about this balance arising all the time during zazen.  My knee hurts.  I wonder if it would hurt less if I move it just a little bit.  I wonder when the bell is going to ring?  I hope the dharma talk isn’t boring tonight.  I have some acid reflux.  I wish I had taken an antacid before zazen.   

On and on it goes, but because we have made a commitment to just sit in nonreactivity, we don’t act on those impulses.  We notice them and their ceaseless arising, but by not engaging with them, we get some perspective on them, we see how this constant stream of evaluation is entire subjective world.

In his commentary to this passage by Kodo Sawaki, Uchiyama Roshi says about this point:

Good or bad luck is always our main concern.  But in reality, is there good or bad fortune?  There isn’t.  There are only calculations using our expectations as a yardstick. . . it’s human to have expectations, but clinging to them causes suffering.  If we can loosen our grip on expectations and settle down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment, we find unshakeable peace of mind, and a truly stable life unfolds.  Doing zazen is ceasing to be a person always gauging gain and loss and evaluating life according to such calculations.

This idea of settling down on whichever side of the balance we fall at this moment is the key point, I think.  Our practice doesn’t make us into some sort of super-beings who are always grooving on whatever is going on.  But we can come to see that whatever our experience is, is just the side of the balance at this moment.  It may meet our preferences or not, but we can settle into that moment with some ease and spaciousness.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we don’t participate in the relative world.  We still have our jobs and our families, we vote in elections, we have to buy new tires for our car, we have to fix the water heater, we have to make choices all the time.  Even during zazen, when the instruction and the commitment is to not move, we sometimes have to move.  When that moment arises, we don’t beat ourselves up about it, we just move, quietly and efficiently and don’t make a big deal out of it.  Zen isn’t quietism, and we don’t use our spiritual practice to avoid making the hard choices that we face in a normal human life.  Instead, zazen gives us room in which to inhabit our lives without getting so terribly wrapped up in the constant subjective analysis that we usually live with.

This is a subtle practice, and while our words can point to it, it’s not something that we can necessarily grasp with our conscious mind.  As Dogen Zenji wrote in Genjo Koan:

Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be distinctly apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.

We live in a multidimensional world but can only experience the four dimensions of space and time.  The other dimensions can be intuited, but perhaps not directly grasped.

This reminds me of something that Shohaku Okumura taught in a sesshin he led at San Francisco Zen Center many years ago.  He said (and I am paraphrasing here):

When we make a map of the world, we have to use a map projection and because of that, there is always some distortion.  The point of zazen isn’t to throw the map away or to make a better map; instead, the point of zazen is just to sit directly on the Earth.

This is an intuitive practice.  We can talk about it at the edges, we can point to it indirectly, but ultimately, it’s something we have to experience directly.

The great Beat poet Philip Whalen was a Zen priest in our lineage and I recently came across a section of poem that he wrote that evokes some of this sense:

Chaos is an ideal state

None of us has ever experienced it

We are familiar with confusion, muddle and disarray

True disorder is inaccessible to us
–Taisan Joe Galewsky