The Zen Studies Podcast

Episodes on Zen Teachings

78 – The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere

The Ten Oxherding pictures are a Zen teaching, but many Buddhist practitioners are familiar with the experience of trying to motivate yourself to practice without the rewards of explicit, tangible goals or markers of progress. The oxherding pictures describe - rather than prescribe - stages of practice we go through over a lifetime. They can be inspiring and encouraging as long as you don't try too hard to evaluate which stage you're in, or strive to get to the next stage.

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75 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 2

This my second episode on the Sandokai, an ancient teaching poem composed by Chinese Zen master Sekito Kisen (Shitou Xiqian, 700-790). It’s recited daily in Soto Zen temples throughout the world - one of only a handful of Zen or Buddhist scriptures similarly honored. In the first episode I read the whole poem, discussed the “big deal” about absolute and relative (why Zen talks about this topic so much), and started exploring the Sandokai line by line. In this episode I finish up that exploration.

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74 – Sekito Kisen’s Sandokai: The Identity of Relative and Absolute – Part 1

Sandokai is an ancient teaching poem composed by Chinese Zen master Sekito Kisen (Shitou Xiqian, 700-790). It’s recited daily in Soto Zen temples throughout the world. In the next two episodes I’ll explore the meaning of the Sandokai, and why it’s given such a central place in Soto Zen. In this first episode I discuss the “big deal” about absolute and relative (why Zen talks about this topic so much), read you the poem, and then explore it line by line. I only get part way through, so I finish up the exploration in the next episode.

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72 – Taking Care of Our Lives: More About the Karma Relationship Side of Practice

Samadhi power is about cultivating a direct, real-life experience of the nondual aspect of reality, while karma relationship is about taking care of our lives in order to reduce suffering and reflect the truth of the nondual in the midst of the relative. In this episode I focus on karma relationship – why it’s so important, what it involves, and the main Buddhist practices we do to work on our karma.

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69 – The Soto Zen Goal of Goallessness: How to Awaken Without Trying

The goal of Buddhism, including Zen, is to awaken to what’s true, because the truth is liberating. And yet my tradition, Soto Zen, points us toward the “goal of goallessness,” telling us we’ll awaken if only we give up our desire for anything else (including achieving some “goal” called awakening). Our Soto Zen practice is just sitting, without making any effort to influence our meditative experience. In this episode I’ll [TK] explore how the “goal of goallessness” points to the fact that if we willfully try to awaken, we create duality and get in our own way. Fortunately, Zen offers us ways to awaken without trying.

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64 – Shikantaza: Having the Guts to Just Sit and Let Go of Doing Anything

I’ve been sitting zazen for over 20 years, but only recently have I had the guts to really do shikantaza, or “just sitting,” and it feels profoundly liberating. In this kind of zazen, you utterly let go of doing anything except just sitting there. Really. I discuss why beginners are usually taught to count or follow breaths instead of do shikantaza, and why I think this is unfortunate. I also discuss the surprising results of a practice in which you don't try to control your experience in any way.

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57 – Dogen’s Bendowa Part 1: What’s the Big Deal about Zazen?

Zen master Dogen wrote Bendowa in 1231 to introduce his Japanese students to Soto Zen. In a sense, then, it's "Soto Zen in a nutshell." In this episode I introduce the text and the context in which it was written, and talk about how and why Dogen recommends zazen - seated meditation - above all other Buddhist practices. I also talk about how Soto Zen elevates zazen far above a mere method for achieving awakening to enactment of enlightenment itself.

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54 – You Don’t Need to Improve or Get Anything to Fulfill the Buddha Way

You don’t need to improve one iota, change anything about yourself, or obtain anything you don’t already have, in order to fulfill the Buddha Way and directly experience the ultimate goal of Zen. This is because the nature of awakening is wonderfully ironic. It’s not about gaining or experiencing anything you don’t already have. It’s about realizing the indescribable preciousness of exactly the way things are – exactly the way you are – right here and now.

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52 – Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 2

In Soto Zen Buddhism, “Dharma Transmission” is a ritual in which a qualified Zen teacher acknowledges the ability of one of their students to carry on the lineage tradition of Zen. In this episode I give you a sense of the significance of Dharma Transmission in the history and development of Chan and Zen Buddhism, and the ongoing utility of the tradition in terms of teacher authorization.

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51 – Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 1

In Soto Zen Buddhism, “Dharma Transmission” is a ritual in which a qualified Zen teacher acknowledges the ability of one of their students to carry on the lineage tradition of Zen. In this episode I introduce you to the practice, including a description of my own experience of it, the criteria for giving it, the great variability in how it’s viewed and used, and the sense in which it’s about  two individuals mutually recognizing awakened mind in each other.

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46 – Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 5: Birds Fly, Fish Swim, a Zen Master Waves a Fan

In this episode we finish up the Genjokoan, focusing first on the rather long passage comparing our path of practice to the way a fish swims in the water, or a bird flies in the sky. Then I’ll talk about the story at the end of the essay, where a monk asks a Zen master why he uses a fan when the nature of wind permeates everywhere, which is really a question about why we practice if reality ultimately lacks nothing.

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38 – The Two Sides of Practice: Samadhi Power and Karma Relationship

Buddhist practice can be seen as consisting of two sides, and both are essential. The first side is cultivating “samadhi power,” or our ability to perceive – or be awake to – the absolute aspect of reality. We do this through practices including meditation, mindfulness, and studying teachings such as impermanence and emptiness. The second side of our overall practice is working on “karma relationship,” or learning to live our daily lives in an enlightened way. We do this by working with our karma, keeping precepts, honoring relationships, and understanding how the absolute aspect of reality corresponds to the relative aspect. If we neglect either side, our practice can stagnate or go awry.

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32 – The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action

The Zen practice of "not-knowing," or "don't-know mind," is a way of honoring the absolute dimension of our lives - even as we engage in "knowing," as necessary, in the relative dimension. We center ourselves in the here-and-now, and recognize all "knowing" is ultimately an abstraction and not reality itself. It's not a cop-out; it's medicine we apply when we get attached to our opinions, caught in judgment, stressed, or overwhelmed, ironically allowing us be more responsible, responsive, compassionate, and effective.

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8 – It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God

Zen Buddhism is a non-theistic religious tradition. However, it's not entirely correct to say that there is no God in Zen. While we don’t conceive of, or worship, an omnipotent personification of the Divine, at the heart of our tradition is the teaching that reality itself is luminous, precious, and infused with compassion. We don’t ascribe an agenda, personality, or gender to That-Which-Is-Greater, but we long to live in harmony with It, and personally experience intimacy with It. These longings infuse our spiritual practice with meaning.

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