Zen in plain words

Realised this morning that, in talking about zen, I should probably try to use everyday English words. In my everyday work, that’s a big part of what I do. But I’ve dodged this at times, because some of the terms used in around zen don’t have a direct translation, or the usual translation is flawed. But that’s not an excuse. There’s something about how zen is communicated in the west that I think can revel a little in the trappings and the exotic of Japanese zen. And I think it probably makes zen a bit less accessible or understandable. I have talked about a slight aversion to wearing Japanese robes for the same sorts of reasons. So to be consistent, I should probably avoid the jargon, too. Even if it means doing a little bit more thinking about the words I use.

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Counting breaths

A busy week or so, and, as can happen, practice dropped off a bit.

Returning to my koan, Gutei Raises a Finger, I could not find a way in. So I thought to myself, I know, I’ll put this to one side for a bit and simply count my out breaths.

I often start sitting this way before moving on to another kind of practice. But today I continued to count breaths for 30 minutes – and it was most effective.

I did this as I’ve always done it, and as most zen teachers seem to teach. Count only the out breaths one up to ten, then begin again. Over and over.

Today, a long-ish session of counting the breaths brought about a wonderful vibrant stillness that I had previously only attained through other methods.

Today I learned the simplest most accessible practice at all can also be deeply effective. If it was the only practice, it would be well worth doing.

So: more counting breaths as a fundamental part of my practice.

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Towards an English zen

At a recent meeting of my sangha, a venerable master visiting our group suggested it was time I got some robes. I didn’t get robes when I took the precepts – it didn’t feel right. And it still doesn’t. I’m not sure it ever will.

This is not to criticise people who do wear robes. I know it’s common among serious zen practitioners in the west – or at least among teachers. But is it necessary? Not for me, I don’t think.

You hear a lot about the need for zen to adapt to new cultures as it enters them. There’s a need to keep the essential core, of course, or it’s not zen any more. But I wonder if, sometimes, we’re too wedded to the trappings and accoutrements that exist, less because they’re fundamental to zen itself, but because of the time and the places that zen tradition developed.

I make an effort to observe the intent of wearing dark, plain, comfortable clothing when I practice. I don’t want to distract others, or myself. I understand the importance of the rakusu as a fundamental item in dedicated practice.

But beyond that – not so much. I love that our jikijitsu uses a phone app rather than a singing bowl to mark time, and that our teacher doesn’t mind one bit. I may yet get one – they’re beautiful objects. But to wear robes feels now, to me, just a little bit false. As much as I love and respect and am interested in Japanese and Eastern cultures, it’s zen practice I’m adopting, not Japenese-ness.

To put it another way, to wear robes in the east is to be like everyone else – to make no statement. Here, it sets one apart – it makes a bold statement. And for me, that doesn’t feel quite right. We’ll see if that changes.

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Послание мира

Note: I’m pinning this post to the top of the page for the time being. New posts will appear below while that’s the case.

Hello, if you’re reading this from Russia. My WordPress stats tell me that the Russian Federation is ninth on the list of top countries my visitors come from. I hope you have enjoyed visiting.

If you can, I would love for you to seek out reliable foreign reporting on the war in Ukraine, and share what you find out with family and friends. Here are some suggestions:

Many thanks.

If we are peaceful,
If we are happy,
We can smile and blossom like a flower.
And everyone in our family,
Our entire society,
Will benefit
From our peace.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

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What’s this Ryūdō nonsense about, anyway?

This post is in case any of my Instagram friends have wondered why my profile says Ryūdō James Holloway these days. It’s because I’m a zen buddhist.

That didn’t happen over the night. But taking the zen precepts did. Well – one morning in Oxford. You don’t need to take the precepts to be a zen buddhist, but it does make it sort of official. You even get a certificate. I did allude to this on Instagram, but you may not have seen it. And I didn’t explain properly. So I’m writing this.

One thing that happens when you take the precepts is that your teacher gives you your zen name or dharma name. Mine is Ryūdō, which translates to things like dragon way, dragon’s way, way of the dragon. I was a bit hesitant – sounded a bit macho to me. I’ve seen buddhism subverted by your incel-types to justify their toxic brand of masculinity. It felt like something they’d like. So no thanks.

But, of course, I missed the point. In zen, and Eastern tradition generally, dragons are quite different. One way, and maybe the most important for me at the moment, is that the dragon symbolises enlightenment. Power? Not so much. That’s not really even a thing in zen – not that I’ve come across.

Enlightenment is a problematic word too, though. It gives the wrong impression in many ways. It’s not “I understand things better than you do.” It’s more “I understand myself much better than I did before.” So yes – I’m on the road to that – is the idea.

And another wrinkle is that Ryū (the dragon bit) is relevant to my sangha and my lineage. It connects me to my teacher and others she has taught and been taught be at one time or another.

Dharma names are generally aspirational, not descriptive. They’re a koan. My teacher and I discussed my dharma name in advance, which surprised me. I’d wondered about Kyōdō – empty way. It seemed a good match for my surname Holloway. It’s like I’ve been walking around with a dharma name this whole time without realising. But no – I have to earn Kyōdō. Fair do’s.

How, when and where you use a dharma name is anyone’s guess. The people I practice with call me Ryūdō sometimes, but James more often. Everyone else calls me James, and that’s for the best, really. But I put it on Instagram, I think, because zen really helps my creativity. And besides here, Instagram’s where I put creative stuff. Those bits of me are one, now.

Bit pretentious? I worry about that, but I don’t think it should be to share your dharma name. I need to get better at the “bring your whole self” thing. I’ve always compartmentalised, and that can make me unhappy. If I’m embarrassed about it, it would mean I shouldn’t have done it in the first place. I don’t believe that.

You might also have seen Chinese characters on my profile. They say Ryūdō as well. Cultural appropriation? I worry about that too. But I’m practicing zen in the Japanese tradition, and that’s how Chinese characters are used. I’ve still much more to learn about that. How buddhism and zen adapts to different cultures is a fascinating topic. But I’m just going with the flow here.

I was going to talk about about how I fell into this whole zen thing and why I took the precepts, but I’ve gone on long enough. I’ll try to write about those things soon. Thanks for your interest. Have a lovely day.

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an empty room with no doors

This lovely piece over at Lion’s Roar got me thinking about the zazen mind.

Early in my practice, I was perhaps a bit too preoccupied with the idea of emptiness. Or, perhaps, the wrong idea of emptiness.

My teacher likened zazen to sitting under an overpass, allowing thoughts to come and go like the cars overhead. This is still a useful teaching to me. But still, I thought the truly still, empty mind was a thing to strive for. Subconsciously, I ushered thoughts away and locked the door behind them.

But the zazen mind is not like a hermetically sealed room. It is not inert. It is not artificially empty – or forced empty. Rather, it’s like an empty room with open doorways. I am in the room, and others are welcome to come and go. But because there are no distractions, or soft furnishings, or refreshments, there’s no particular reason for them to stay. They leave soon enough of their own accord.

Lately I’ve even come to enjoy the sensation of a thought arising, because I know, when it leaves, there will be a natural effortless emptiness behind it.

The zazen mind isn’t just the empty bits. It’s the comings and the goings, and the quiet bits in between. But it’s in the quiet bits that, sometimes, the walls of the room disappear, and there is just an empty everything – with open doorways.

i am nobody

“I am nobody” can sound quite challenging to Western ears. Either provocative or self-effacing. Or perhaps faux self-effacing. Western thinking is so dependent on the idea of the self that surely no one can really mean it when they say “I am nobody”.

At the risk of sounding dualistic for a moment, in zen it’s the opposite. “I am nobody” is a subtle but profound truth. It’s reassuring. Even joyful. I know that this is part of the answer to the koan “who am I?” And you have to believe it.

I’ve glimpsed the profound and endless nothing behind the final invisible veil. The nothing at the heart of everything. The real nothing inside the false nothing. Now to find my way back to it – more often and more easily. To find it, and enter into it.