Authors & Thought Leaders

John Daishin Buksbazen on the Practice of Zen

Published on March 8, 2017

Article by John Daishin Buksbazen

John Daishin Buksbazen, a Zen Buddhist priest at the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA), visited Bodhi Tree in 2002 to discuss his book Zen Meditation in Plain English. Ordained in 1968, he trained for more than a decade with Taizan Maezumi Roshi while serving as publishing editor of the ZCLA Zen Writing Series, and also as a pastoral counselor. Here, he provides a stable ground for meditation, clarifying the importance of a good teacher and of practicing with others, while laying out steps one can follow to establish a regular meditation practice.

John Daishin Buksbazen (Sensei Daishin)John Daishin Buksbazen’s Story

The London-born John Daishin Buksbazen (Sensei Daishin), author of To Forget the Self [Editor’s Note: This book is now out of print] and Zen Meditation in Plain English, began Zen practice in Philadelphia in 1967, receiving both lay and priest ordination. He later practiced at the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA), where he was in residence until 1979, serving as pastoral counselor and publishing editor of the ZCLA Journal and the Zen Writings Series. In 1999, Buksbazen renewed his priest vows and returned to ZCLA. In 2003, he was empowered as Dharma Holder, and subsequently received Dharma Transmission in June 2008. Co-editor with Roshi Egyoku of the On Zen Practice collection, Buksbazen teaches at both ZCLA and Ocean Moon Sangha in Santa Monica. A licensed psychoanalyst, Buksbazen trains and supervises at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis and also has a private practice in the Santa Monica area. —Justine Amodeo

“It’s not about believing in a code; it’s not about belonging to a club; it’s about coming to terms with what our life is, investigating it thoroughly, and appreciating it.” —John Daishin Buksbazen

The following is an edited version of Buksbazen’s Bodhi Tree Bookstore presentation from 2002.

John Daishin Buksbazen: In about 1968, when I was studying at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Maezumi Roshi asked me to create a program of introductory instruction in Zen practice. He also suggested that I might want to pattern it on the introductory lectures which were originally developed in Japan around 1900 by Daiun Harada Roshi. These lectures appear in the Three Pillars of Zen by Phillip Kapleau Roshi, which is a classic in its own right.

In giving these introductory talks for the better part of a decade, it was challenging to maintain some sense of immediacy while presenting the same material over and over again. I found myself making a vernacular translation into my own rhythms of speaking, and what I fondly imagined to be the rhythms of speech of people who were coming to the Zen Center during the ’70s. That’s how the talks evolved, and eventually, how this book came into being. The talks were first published in 1976 in a book called To Forget the Self, which is now out-of-print. It was a hybrid book containing my text plus a collection of beautiful high-art photographs by John Daido Loori Roshi, who is now the Abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York. [Editor’s note: John Daido Loori Roshi passed away on October 9, 2009 at the age of 78.]

But as I thought about doing this current book, I returned to what I had originally hoped it might be: a book you could stick in your pocket or in your knapsack and take along with you; a book to refer to in an odd moment or so if you felt like browsing, or reviewing part of it. The instruction itself is basically unchanged from the talks given by Harada Roshi. In some sense, over the years I’ve come to feel a real sense of connectedness with him, through my first teacher Maezumi Roshi, as well as through Bernie Tetsugen Glassman Roshi, who was Maezumi Roshi’s senior successor, and through Bernie’s successor, Wendy Egyoku Nakao, who is the present Abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. It’s a connection that seems to go beyond culture and time and place, and it’s in that spirit that I offer this book.

I enlarged this edition of the book by adding some of the questions that are often raised by beginning Zen students. I polled the ZCLA beginning meditation instructors, who provided both recurring questions and some of the accompanying answers. And finally, we included a list of all the Zen centers and instructors in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi, the White Plum.

The Collective Practice of Sesshin

One of the sections of the book is on community, or collective practice, in which I particularly discuss the practice of sesshin (a Zen retreat usually lasting seven days). Now, sesshin comes from two Japanese words, setsu and shin. Setsu means “to collect,” “to bring together,” “to unify” or “to regulate,” and shin, means “heart/mind.” So, sesshin means to unify the heart/mind, and this unification takes place on at least a couple of levels: One level is within the individual; and the other is among a group of people who are practicing together to create an ambience, to enter into a sacred space, that goes beyond the “I/thou” of Martin Buber, and into an altogether different realm, a kind of significant “we.” It includes the diversity of the individual members, and yet with a singleness of mind. Here’s some of the description of sesshin taken from the book:

Most people report that their first sesshin is a most unsettling experience, at least in the beginning.

First of all, once the sesshin has formally begun, no one speaks or even makes eye contact with anyone else.…

… Gradually, however, once the familiar conventions are set aside, a subtle sense of relatedness in the midst of the silence begins to manifest, a deepened appreciation of shared purpose and experience quite independent of the more familiar patterns of everyday social give-and-take.…

… For the first three days of sesshin, especially, the physical adjustment is also frequently quite rigorous. The muscles of the body, used to very different patterns of activity and repose, must now accommodate themselves to lengthy periods of immobility and the stress of maintaining zazen many hours each day more than they are used to normally.… By the third or fourth day, the body has greatly adjusted to the physical stresses … so that there is a real feeling of having gotten over the hump.…

… At this point, sesshin may become very closely integrated into oneself, so that there is no separation between the demands of the sesshin schedule and one’s own personal needs and rhythms.…

… As we sit together, each of us uniquely ourself, we can also appreciate our common humanity, our membership in a community that is vastly bigger and more inclusive than our differences.…

… In a way, it’s even misleading to speak of sitting alone or together. No matter how many people are sitting in the room, there is still only that great reality with each sitter at its exact center. In that sense, since each one is the whole universe, each one is always alone. The “whole universe” is always alone, literally “all one,” since it includes everything and everyone throughout space and time. There is nothing outside of it to keep it—to keep you—company.…

… A final word of encouragement: Whatever happens in your life and practice, just take note of it and keep going on that long and gentle walk.… Remember who you are, and keep on going. And forget about that, and keep on going.

Working with Zen Practice as a Psychotherapist

Question: As a psychotherapist, how do you meld Eastern and Western thought together?

John Daishin Buksbazen: I’ve been steeped in both therapy and Zen practice for such a long time that I can no longer really tell them apart. So, when I’m working with people, I try to speak a language that they can relate to, and to address what they are bringing me. One way or the other, we’re talking about everyday life—the give and take, the loss, the struggle, the anxiety and the uncertainty. These are things that we all share.

Question: Could you say something about how you make use of yourself, and tune in to yourself when you’re with a patient or a client?

Buksbazen: There is a mistaken idea that both psychotherapy and meditation are primarily mental practices, but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. I think of both disciplines as physical; the body-mind connection is really no connection at all, since the body-mind is actually one thing. Even if you pronounce it “bodhi-mind” (that’s a little Buddhist in-joke). When we deal with people, we always respond physically. Sometimes we’re grossly aware of it. If somebody’s really pissing us off, we find ourselves with clenched fists and a rapid heart rate; or if we’re intimidated or anxious about some encounter, we may find ourselves with shaky knees, a dry mouth and sweaty palms. Or, on subtler levels, we may just somehow feel the quality of that contact. We are physical beings and not just disembodied mentalities. Emotional exchanges between people have their correlates in human physiology, biochemistry and neural-electrical responses, as our current research in neuropsychology continues to demonstrate. So, we must realize that there is no way to have an encounter with another being—whether you’re making love, or meeting someone for the first time and shaking hands—without it being a physical experience. And there is no way to have that physical experience without it being either reminiscent of something you’ve experienced, or suggestive of something that is yet to come. All of those reactions make use of the individual’s awareness to the responses of the body-mind.

sun coming through window onto tableThe Three Pillars of Zen

Question: What does belief mean in Zen?

Buksbazen: We say that there are three essential ingredients to Zen practice. One is great questioning. In The Three Pillars of Zen, it’s expressed as great doubt, but I don’t think that quite carries the meaning that’s intended, because it’s not a matter of skepticism. Skepticism is fine in itself, but here we mean great questioning, great curiosity, or the will to know, to learn. And the second ingredient is translated as great faith. Faith isn’t something that people have; it’s a verb; it’s what we do. So, this faith is a fundamental belief in the relevance of that great curiosity, that great questioning, that radical wanting to know, and a sense of trust in one’s own heart and mind that this inquiry, once begun, can never really end.

In the course of practice, you may or may not have experiences of various sorts. Some of them are pleasant, some are not pleasant, and some may simply be weird. None of those are terribly important, but you may have the experience of coming to a kind of intimacy with yourself, and knowing. This is what T.S. Eliot spoke about in his Four Quartets: to return home, to go back to where we came from, and to know that place for the first time. I think that is the kind of belief you were asking about. It has nothing to do with doctrine or dogma. We have Zen students and practitioners who are avowedly secular, atheists; we have rabbis, and Jesuit priests, as well as Buddhists. It’s not about believing in a code; it’s not about belonging to a club; it’s about coming to terms with what our life is, investigating it thoroughly, and appreciating it. And finally, the third essential ingredient is great determination, which means not giving up. Or if you do give up for a moment, get back on the horse again as soon as you can, even with a sore butt.

The Practice of Sitting Meditation

Question: Zen seems to be focused on the practice of meditation. Do you study the Four Noble Truths (Buddha’s teaching on the problem of suffering and its solution)?

Buksbazen: You might say that our primary practice, traditionally, has always been sitting meditation. But when you practice Zen, you quickly find that it involves a great deal more than that. It is also a tradition that has been passed on for 2,500 years from the Buddha, and takes in all of the Buddha’s teachings. In this country, in the 21st century, Zen has entered a new phase in which there is an enhanced emphasis on social activism. This is not something that has been commonly attributed to Zen in the past, although other forms of Buddhism have practiced it for centuries. So, this is a dynamic, living stream of practice and thought, and it continues to evolve.

The Zen practice of sitting meditation is one of the eight-fold paths—right mindfulness—but we study the classic texts as well. We’re not anti-intellectual and we don’t disdain knowing the teachings of the ancestors. But we do say that the practice of sitting meditation provides the most immediate access to the teachings. And we say this: that a person who knows the teachings but doesn’t practice and a person who practices but doesn’t know the teachings—they’re both handicapped. The person who knows the teaching but doesn’t practice is like someone who may be able to see things clearly, but without the physical coordination or strength to do much about it. On the other hand, a person who practices without knowing the teachings is like a person with a very nicely developed body, who is unfortunately blind. So, obviously, the good thing is to do both.

Meditation and the Cause of Suffering

Question: What would you say is the connection between actual zazen meditation practice and the issue of suffering and the cause of suffering?

Buksbazen: The connection is that there is no separation between the two. When we practice sitting meditation, we begin to set aside some of the normal dichotomization of our experience, which means that we begin to experience things more directly and more intimately. Bernie Glassman Roshi, the founder of the Peacemaker Community, put it rather interestingly. He said, “You know, I walk down the street and I see somebody really suffering, maybe a homeless person. And it’s like, if I cut my hand, I don’t say, ‘Gee, I cut my hand, I wonder if I could do anything about it; I wonder if I should? What are the pros and cons?’” He says, “No, you don’t think like that. If your hand’s cut, you take care of it.” When you see something going on that you can do something about, you reach out and connect, automatically or intuitively, because it’s your body, it’s your spirit that’s being oppressed. There is no dichotomy, and no separation.

The Three Fundamental Aspects of Life

Question: Could you say something about the three aspects that are basic to all Buddhists, how these relate to the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Noble path, and how Zen practice addresses this?

Buksbazen: Buddhism teaches three fundamental aspects of life: suffering, non-self and impermanence. These are some of the most basic teachings. Buddha said, “Look, when you get right down to it, we either have what we want and then lose it, which is a bummer, or we don’t have what we want and that’s a bummer. We get old, we get sick, we die, and those are all bummers.” Now this is where people start getting the idea that Buddhism is a pessimistic religion. Man, what a bummer. A lot of suffering, right? And what makes that suffering happen? Well, it’s the notion that we don’t want it to be the way it is. If your attitude in any given moment is that you know how things should be, and then things don’t turn out that way, that creates suffering. If you want to hang on to something that you appreciate or that you enjoy or value greatly, and you want it not to change, that’s a setup for disappointment. More suffering.

So, Buddha came up with a formulation called the Four Noble Truths. Suffering is the first noble truth—the fact of suffering. Everybody in this room suffers. Nobody gets out of this alive, because sooner or later, we die. There’s no way around that. So then, given the fact that being born is a setup for suffering, and given that the basic root of all suffering is the fact that we don’t want things to be the way they are—which means they’re always changing and we can’t hang on to a damn thing and can’t avoid the unpleasantnesses of old age, sickness and death—what to do? And that’s the third Noble Truth—that, in fact, there is a response, there is a way through this. There is a way of redeeming this suffering. And again, it’s nothing supernatural or woo-woo. It’s just a program; it’s not a 12-step program, it’s an eight-step program.

Now, if you work the program, it’ll change your mind. So, what’s the program? It consists of things like right conduct, right speech, right mindfulness, right thought and right livelihood, and there’s a vast body of Buddhist literature defining what the “right” means. But basically, the best rule-of-thumb definition I’ve come up with is this: “Right” is whatever gets you to fully appreciate what your life is. It is where you get a deep hit of what it really means to be a human being, walking this Earth.

Zen Meditation in Plain English

By John Daishin Buksbazen, Foreword by Peter Matthiessen (Wisdom Publications)

In straightforward language, Zen Meditation in Plain English reveals the true heart of Zen: the simple practice of attending to our breath and thereby awakening to our life. As John Daishin Buksbazen writes, “Zen is a way of clearly seeing who we are and what our life is, and a way of life based on that clear vision.” Divided into three sections—Buddhas, Sitting and Community—this highly accessible introduction to Zen philosophy and practice provides all the essentials for the beginning student. In addition, Buksbazen offers valuable advice on frequently asked questions, such as “Should I try to make my mind blank?” or “What do I do with my feelings/emotions?” along with practical exercises to help you develop a comfortable sitting posture.


Author photo: Steve Baker

Published on: March 8, 2017

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