211 - Book Review – Kosho Uchiyama's “Opening the Hand of Thought”
212 - La Sabiduría del Juego

When we play wholeheartedly, we engage the world with energy, joy, lightheartedness, and enthusiasm, welcoming challenge and enjoying our activity for its own sake. We rarely have the same attitude toward our work, responsibilities, difficulties, or even our Buddhist practice. What if we did? Chan Master Hongzhi suggests a playful attitude might actually be an enlightened one.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Hongzhi’s “Roam and Play in Samadhi”
The Nature of Samadhi
Roam and Play in Samadhi
Who Has Time for Play if You’re a Bodhisattva?
The Attitude of Play as an Enlightened State of Mind


Recently, I’ve become intrigued by the concept of play and how it relates to our Buddhist practice, and I thought this would be a great topic for this time of year (August, which is summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere). As we enjoy the summer months, our minds, hearts, and practice often take on a lighter feeling. This is not necessarily a time when our formal practice becomes lighter, but it’s common (“formal” meaning practice that has visible or tangible form, such as time in zazen, participating with Sangha, studying, etc.). In the summer we often travel, or our attention is drawn outdoors, our spirits are enlivened by growth, abundance, and recreation. We may be less likely to join Sangha because… well… sitting for a few hours either inside the Dirt Zendo or in front of a screen in the Cloud Zendo – as opposed to taking advantage of the summer – can be less than appealing.

Fortunately, our practice isn’t limited to its formal aspects. Formal practice does provide structure and support, but there is also our formless practice, which is how we turn our minds anytime, anywhere, no matter what’s going on. Everyday life offers some surprisingly rich practice situations sometimes – whether we’re in the midst of a stressful time at work, being with someone as they’re dying, backpacking in the wilderness, learning a new skill, or spending time with family. Or when we’re practicing with less formal structure in the summertime.

Hongzhi’s “Roam and Play in Samadhi”

One of ways we can carry practice with us every moment is to identify a natural koan. I described natural koans in detail in Episode 183 – Natural Koans: Engaging Our Limitations as Dharma Gates, but in essence they are obstacles we encounter in our lives that show us where our spiritual limitations are, and offer us opportunities for insight, growth, and transformation. One way to find a natural koan for yourself is to pay attention to passages in Buddhist texts that intrigue, provoke, inspire, or resonate with you. It’s worth spending some time with a passage that seems to speak about something you don’t yet have access to, but would love to.

Here’s a natural koan passage I’ve been working on, by 12th century Chan master Hongzhi (translation by Taigen Dan Leighton):

“People with the bottom of the bucket fallen out immediately find total trust. So we are told simply to realize mutual response and explore mutual response, then turn around and enter the world. Roam and play in samadhi. Every detail clearly appears before you. Sound and form, echo and shadow, happen instantly without leaving traces. The outside and myself do not dominate each other, only because no perceiving [of objects] comes between us. Only this non-perceiving encloses the empty space of the dharma realm’s majestic ten thousand forms.”[i]

Despite our effort to avoid over-intellectualizing in Zen, it can be extremely valuable to wrestle with and reflect on the meaning of words and phrases in the teachings. That’s what the words are there for! Human beings are verbal creatures – our very minds are formed by our knowledge and use of language. As long we don’t mistake words for the reality they are trying to convey, we can engage them with our all aspects of ourselves – including our minds – without fear of over-intellectualizing our practice.

First, a few basic explanations of phrases in Hongzhi’s passage will be helpful. Not all teaching phrases are original metaphors created by the author of the text, inviting us to poetic speculation about their meaning. Some phrases and imagery are used repeatedly and the tradition develops a common understanding of them.

In this passage by Hongzhi, “people with the bottom of the bucket fallen out” are those who have awakened to the true nature of self and reality, referring to the story of the nun Chiyono, who awakened when she was carrying a bucket of water and the bottom fell out.[ii] “Mutual response” is open to some interpretation but evokes the teaching of non-separation – that all things, including us, are dependently co-arisen with everything else. Any action we take is inevitably a response to the universe, and inevitably the universe simultaneously responds. (This is an inadequate intellectual explanation, but there it is.) The “ten thousand forms” is shorthand for manifested phenomena in their infinite number and variety.

The Nature of Samadhi

Finally, there’s the word “samadhi.” In his hefty, intellectual tome “Zen and the Brain,” James Austin says:

“A slippery topic, samadhi. A word so many-sided that it poses major semantic problems. It suffers in translation, as will anyone who tries to tag it with but one meaning. Some render it as ‘concentration,’ others as ‘absorption,’ still others as ‘trance,’ ‘stillness,’ ‘collectiveness,’ etc… The ambiguities date to ancient times. In Sanskrit, samadhi implied a ‘placing together,’ a joining of things in the sense of a union…”[iii]

There are deeper and shallower states of samadhi, but all experiences of it share some common characteristics. You feel:

  • less identified with content of your mind than the space through which the content moves
  • stable, still, and spacious
  • exactly here and now but also timeless and boundless
  • able to experience things in a direct and fresh way, unfiltered by labels, narratives, or your mental map of reality
  • less separate from everything and everyone around you
  • enlivened awareness without self-consciousness
  • a sense of seeing more clearly than usual, as if waking out of a dream

Note that samadhi is not necessarily confined to the meditation cushion. Deeper levels of samadhi do tend to happen when you have either set aside all activity, or are engaging in a singular, all-engaging task without distraction. However, samadhi is not a transcendental meditative trance that leaves you unresponsive to the world. In fact, samadhi makes you much more attentive to, aware of, and ready to respond to the world. When Hongzhi tells us to “roam and play in samadhi,” he’s definitely not telling us to hang out on the meditation seat and play around in blissful meditative states, as if the “space” of samadhi was a disembodied and separate reality you could occupy. After all, he says to “realize mutual response and explore mutual response, then turn around and enter the world.”

Roam and Play in Samadhi

Therefore, when Hongzhi says “in samadhi,” he’s talking about interacting with the real, flesh-and-blood world while in a state of samadhi. This is difficult! It’s hard enough reaching some kind of stillness and sense of non-separation in the depth of meditation, or at peak and special moments in our lives. Walking around in samadhi in everyday life? That’s difficult to even imagine for most of us. And Hongzhi doesn’t just ask us to walk around while making a strenuous effort to maintain samadhi. He asks us to roam and play in samadhi. From this phrase we can learn something not just about how to engage with our lives in an enlightened way, but also about the nature of samadhi itself.

Let’s explore the terms “roam” and “play.”

When we’re roaming, we’re out moving around in the world. We’re exploring and open to encountering whatever we come across. In fact, encountering things is usually part of the motivation for roaming, otherwise we’d just stay home or stick to a familiar track. However, when we roam we have no set destination or fixed purpose. If we were looking for something in particular on our journey, we would be searching, not roaming. Synonyms convey a sense of ease, relaxation, and a lack of hurry or stress, including wander, meander, ramble, saunter, stroll, and rove. You might encounter something unpleasant as you roam, but even as you tried to deal with or escape from it, you wouldn’t nurture a sense that such a thing shouldn’t have happened because it goes contrary to your agenda. You didn’t have an agenda, you were just roaming, so what did you expect? Not all things are pleasant.

playNow, what about play? Play is an energetic activity. It involves enthusiastic engagement with some aspect of life – other living beings, physical objects or terrains, or our own bodies or minds and their capacities. Play generally involves some aspect of challenge, even if it’s easy or lighthearted, otherwise it wouldn’t be play, it would just be doing something pleasant for enjoyment. Meeting the challenges in play, though, have nothing to do with productivity or achieving goals in the ordinary, worldly sense. Humans may take their games – such as professional sports – quite seriously at times, but when that’s the case it’s debatable whether it’s still truly play. Even in professional sports, though, the goals within the game or sport itself achieve absolutely nothing in a material sense. Most of the time we engage in play for its own sake because it’s enjoyable. Synonyms of play include carouse, cavort, clown, dally, frolic, joke, rejoice, revel, delight, and fun.

Who Has Time for Play if You’re a Bodhisattva?

Some of us find play rather difficult, at least once we become adults. You might define play as participating in something that’s not meant to be taken seriously, and some of us take life very seriously.

I take life very seriously. I take my bodhisattva vows very seriously. I want to take care of the beings and things around me. To let them fall into neglect because I’m spending too much time on enjoyable, unproductive activities for my own pleasure and amusement seems selfish and wasteful. Sure, we all need a little “self-care” now and then, how much of that do I really need to maintain my mental and emotional health? Not that much, really, especially if I have a sense of purpose in my life. Also, I’m not just concerned about taking care of the things and beings I am directly responsible for. As a Mahayana Buddhist I have vowed to free all beings – so it’s never “not my problem.”

The bodhisattva gives him or herself in service. As the beautiful words of Shantideva’s bodhisattva vow states:

May I be the doctor and the medicine, And may I be the nurse
For all sick beings in the world, Until everyone is healed.
May a rain of food and drink descend, To clear away the pain of thirst and hunger
And during the eon of famine, May I myself change into food and drink.
May I become an inexhaustible treasure, For those who are poor and destitute;
May I turn into all things they could need, And may these be placed close beside them.
Without any sense of loss, I shall give up my body and enjoyments
As well as all my virtues, of past, present and future,  For the sake of benefiting all.
By giving up all, sorrow is transcended, And I will realize the sorrowless state.[iv]

The bodhisattva also vows to end all delusions, enter all Dharma gates, and realize the buddha way. In this spirit, there are other teachings where we’re exhorted to practice as if our hair is on fire. In Fukanzazengi, Dogen says:

“You have gained the pivotal opportunity of human form.  Do not pass your days and nights in vain.  You are taking care of the essential activity of the buddha way.  Who would take wasteful delight in the spark from a flint stone?  Form and substance are like dew on the grass, the fortunes of life are like a dart of lightning—emptied in an instant, vanished in a flash.”[v]

Even Hongzhi ends his passage on roaming and playing in samadhi with:

“People with the original face should enact and fully investigate [the field] without neglecting a single fragment.”[vi]

We should really explore, each of us, what all of this means to us. Individually. Within our own heart – not taking anyone else’s word, not comparing ourselves to others. What does the still, small voice within you say? How do you want to spend this precious life?

The Attitude of Play as an Enlightened State of Mind

What does play mean in the context of the bodhisattva vow? Or, if you’re not a Mahayana Buddhist, in the context of your aspiration to awaken? Hongzhi doesn’t mention play in his teaching because he’s concerned that we do enough self-care. He’s not worried that we work too hard and need to spend more time on leisure activities. This teaching is much deeper than that.

The attitude of play is the manifestation of enlightenment – when we carry that attitude into all of our activities, not just the ones we don’t take seriously. In Zen we sometimes speak of how the world is the “bodhisattva’s playground.” (I can’t find the source for that term but I’m not the only Zen teacher who is familiar with it; I suspect it might be a modern expression of the teaching I’m discussing in this episode.) Imagine we worked selflessly and tirelessly on our bodhisattva vows, but with an attitude of play:

  • Throwing all our energy into our activity
  • Enthusiastically engaging with other living beings, things, and situations
  • Willingly seeking and facing challenge as part of the process
  • Immersing ourselves in our activity unconditionally, even if we’re wholeheartedly striving for particular outcomes
  • Sincerely enjoying the entire process as something we engage in for its own sake

What if, as we worked, we also had the attitude of roaming:

  • Relaxed
  • Attentive and curious
  • Moving forward to meet and engage the world
  • Embracing whatever we encounter – pleasant or unpleasant – as part of the journey

I think we can all agree these attitudes of playing and roaming would be far preferable to their opposites!

  • Throwing all our energy into our activity ≠ Grudgingly, sense of obligation, lack of interest or energy, autopilot, half-heartedly, resentful, wishing for something else
  • Enthusiastically engaging with other living beings, things, and situations ≠ Withdrawal, stinginess, isolation, fear, anxiety, withholding, sense of inadequacy or not belonging
  • Willingly seeking and facing challenge as part of the process ≠ Aggression, defensiveness, resentment, anxiety
  • Immersing ourselves in our activity unconditionally, even if we’re wholeheartedly striving for particular outcomes ≠ making our participation contingent on success, recognition, or appreciation
  • Sincerely enjoying the entire process as something we engage in for its own sake ≠ resentment when we encounter challenge, feeling like the activity and all the beings and things involved just there to serve a purpose, the goal will bring the ease/happiness we’re looking for
  • Relaxed ≠ stressed
  • Attentive and curious ≠ fixated on our goal or preferences, interpreting everything in terms of our agenda
  • Moving forward to meet and engage the world ≠ holding ourselves back because we don’t see enough reward for self, or not enough chance of achieving what we want
  • Embracing whatever we encounter – pleasant or unpleasant – as part of the journey ≠ anger, resistance, this shouldn’t be

If we are able to bring some of the attitude of play into our everyday activities, not only will our own stress and suffering be decreased, but we will also appreciate our lives much more, be less impatient and reactive, give more unconditionally, and – perhaps most importantly – we’ll be more effective in whatever we do.

Is it possible to cultivate a playful attitude while still living according to our bodhisattva vows? Absolutely. This is what our practice is all about. As it says in the Diamond Sutra:

The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should think this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg of born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they are able to perceive or not perceive or neither perceive nor not perceive, in whatever conceivable realm of being on might conceive of beings, in the realm of unconditioned nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva to whom the conception of a being occurs cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why is that? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who conceives of a being, a life, or a soul.”[vii]

In other words, the bodhisattva wholeheartedly endeavors with love and dedication beyond measure. But she meets reality directly, recognizing her thoughts about the world – like I am making this effort for such-and-such a reason – as being mere ideas, views, and narratives. Our thoughts are our minds trying to make sense of reality for us, and they are extremely useful as we navigate our lives. But ultimately life is fleeting and each moment is precious, and an attitude of playfulness toward everything we encounter is much more consistent with that truth than the habitual, serious self-concern we tend to manifest in many of our activities.

Our practice points us toward realizing and enacting the emptiness or boundarylessness of self. This is not some philosophical idea we need to comprehend, or a transcendent realm we need to achieve, or an obscure teaching we need to accept. Realizing for ourselves what this is in our own, direct experience is what allows us to live as bodhisattva while also maintaining a playful attitude – for the sake of self and other. At the same time, adopting a more playful attitude is a way to gain access to the bodhisattva’s frame of mind, and can give us insight into the boundarylessness of self. We can recognize the importance of this effort when our playful attitude actually makes samadhi more accessible to us. I realize that’s a whole topic I didn’t really get into in this episode, but it’s true. Maybe I’ll go into the matter more deeply in the future!



[i] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000

[ii] https://zenstudiespodcast.com/enlightenment-experience/

[iii] From Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness (1998) by James H. Austin, M.D., reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. See https://tricycle.org/magazine/semantics-samadhi/

[iv] Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva: A Translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1997.

[v] https://www.sotozen.com/eng/practice/sutra/scriptures.html, https://www.sotozen.com/eng/practice/sutra/pdf/03/c01.pdf

[vi] Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000

[vii] Red Pine. Zen Roots: The First Thousand Years. Anacortes WA: Empty Bowl Press, 2020. Alternative translation: http://www.buddhasutra.com/files/diamond_sutra.htm


Photo Credit

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211 - Book Review – Kosho Uchiyama's “Opening the Hand of Thought”
212 - La Sabiduría del Juego