Yesterday the Department of Justice announced a settlement in a lawsuit over alleged religious discrimination by the city of Walnut, California. You may have heard about it: The Chung Tai Zen Center of Walnut was denied a permit to build a “Buddhist house of worship” on its own property. The Zen Center ended up moving to Pomona, some 8 miles away.

According to the DOJ press release,

The case arose from the city’s handling and ultimate denial of the Zen Center’s application for a zoning permit to operate a Buddhist house of worship. Under the Walnut code, houses of worship may operate in the area in which the Zen Center wanted to build its facility if granted a conditional use permit. The government’s complaint alleged that, until it denied the Zen Center’s application in January 2008, the city had not rejected any application for a conditional use permit to build, expand or operate a house of worship since at least 1980. The complaint further alleged that the city treated the Zen Center differently than similarly situated religious and non-religious facilities. For example, the complaint alleges that in August 2008, the city approved a conditional use permit for a Catholic church that, when completed, will be larger than the Zen Center’s proposed facility. The complaint also alleges that between 1998 and 2003, the city built a civic center complex two blocks from Zen Center’s former location in Walnut.”

The settlement still has to be approved by a Federal judge. Under the settlement’s terms the City of Walnut is prohibited from engaging in “the inferior treatment of any religious organization that seeks to build a house of worship in compliance with local zoning laws.” City leaders, managers and certain employees must also attend training classes on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), enacted by the United States Congress in 2000.

Chung Tai Monastery Taiwan

I don’t know anything about the Chung Tai Zen sect, other than it’s a Taiwan-based monastic order that supposedly follows traditional Chinese Ch’an. I think I may have been to the center in Walnut once, but it was long ago. I used to visit quite a few Chinese temples in the San Gabriel Valley, but they are a bit of a blur now. Except for Hsi Lai in Hacienda Heights, which happens to be the largest Buddhist temple outside of Asia, so it’s kind of hard to forget.

George H.W. Bush, said something once while running for President in 1987 that I think still reflects the thinking of many Americans:  “No, I don’t know that Atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”

For quite a few of our fellow Americans you could replace Atheists in that sentence with Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, etc. One nation under God, as they, the kind of people who think like this, see him.

Apparently that depraved gunman in the recent massacre in Norway was inspired by one of these types, a far-right anti-Islam activist named Robert Spencer. I don’t know much about Spencer either, except that he seems to be somewhat in the Glenn Beck mode and he collaborates with a woman named Pamela Geller, who has a blog called “Atlas Shrugs” and there is, obviously, some sort of connection to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. According to Salon, “They are now actually fundraising on the fact that they helped inspire a massacre. Or more accurately, they’re begging for money to protect them from the imaginary witch hunt that they claim the liberals will mount.” ThinkProgress reports, “if you donate more than $500 to Atlas Shrugs, they will send you a signed copy of Geller’s book, ‘Stop the Islamization of America: A Practical Guide to the Resistance’.”

If you donate more than $500 to this blog, I will send you a signed copy of relationship guru Paula Yorlegagan’s new book, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”

The world is changing every moment, and is therefore unreal, it has no permanent existence. But though it is constantly changing, it has a something about it which persists and it is therefore to that extent real. I have therefore no objection to calling it real and unreal . . . It has been my experience that I am always true from my point of view, and am often wrong from the point of view of my honest critics. I know that we are both right from our respective points of view. And this knowledge saves me from attributing motives to my opponents or critics. The seven blind men who gave seven different descriptions of the elephant were all right from their respective points of view, and wrong from the point of view of one another, and right and wrong from the point of view of the man who knew the elephant. I very much like this doctrine of the manyness of reality. It is this doctrine that has taught me to judge a Musulman (sic) from his standpoint and a Christian from his. Formerly I used to resent the ignorance of my opponents. Today I can love them because I am gifted with the eye to see myself as others see me and vice versa. I want to take the whole world in the embrace of my love. [This] is the result of the twin doctrine of Satyagraha (“truth force”) and ahimsa (“non-violence”).”

Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1926

It is an acknowledged but underappreciated fact that the modern Buddhist traditions of Japan owe a lot to the Tendai school and its Chinese parent, T’ien-t’ai. As I mentioned in a recent post, it was because of the efforts of Tendai founder, Saicho, that the Buddhist schools in Japan adopted the “bodhisattva precepts” as the basis of ordination. Furthermore, the Zen, Jodo (Pure Land) and Nichiren schools all originated from Tendai, as their founders were originally priests in that tradition.

Meditation as practiced by the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen schools also developed out of the teachings of the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, Chih-i. Today, T’ien-t’ai is often described as a “philosophical school” however this is inaccurate, as it was also very much a meditation school. Buddhist scholar Neal Donner has noted that of thirty-five works by Chih-i which remain extant, about half deal with practice. Indeed,  Chih-i was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce a meditation manual. The fact that Chih-i’s contributions to Buddhist doctrine are such that he deserves to be placed in the same class as the Buddha and Nagarjuna is probably the chief reason that many scholars have tended to emphasize the philosophical aspects of his teachings at the expense of his meditation instruction.

Donner also notes (in The Great Calming and Concentration of Chih-i) that in his early works, Chih-i used the term ch’an (Chinese translation of dhyana or “meditation”) for spiritual practice and later replaced it with chih-kuan:

It is of great interest, however, that while Chih-i used the word ch’an in the earlier work, this was replaced by the word chih-kuan in the MHCK [Moho Chih-kuan] and others of the master’s later opera, so that since that time, it has been the term chih-kuan which has signified religious practice in the T’ien-t’ai (and Tendai) school, while the Ch’an school appropriated for itself the term which Chih-i had already discarded as not being comprehensive enough.

Zazen (Ch. zuo-ch’an), the heart of Ch’an/Zen practice means “seated meditation”, a somewhat generic term. Japanese Zen also uses the terms shikan and shikantaza. Shikan has two referents: it refers to chih-kuan, which is the Chinese translation of samatha-vipasyana (concentration and insight), a term for the traditional method of Buddhist meditation; and it refers to the system of meditation associated with Chih-i and the T’ien-t’ai school: chih-kuan or “stopping and seeing.”

The best explanation of Chih-i’s chih-kuan that I have found is in a footnote to the translation of T’ung Meng Chih-kuan (“Chih-kuan for Beginners”) by Charles Luk (Lu K’uan Yu):

Chih Kuan: samatha-vipasyana. Chih is silencing the active mind and getting rid of discrimination, and kuan is observing, examining, introspecting. When the physical organism is at rest, it is called chih and when the mind is seeing clearly it is kuan. The chief object is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.

Donner makes some even more interesting points in the postscript to his thesis. He remarks on the differences between the Mahayana approach to meditation and that of the other branch, which the Mahayanists gave the derogatory name of Hinayana. The Mahayana understanding of emptiness led their meditation practitioners to recognize the non-duality of concentration and distraction. Hinayana practitioners, on the other hand, quoting the Chinese text Ta-chih-tu-lun, “[try to] exclude distraction and seek concentration, developing thoughts of anger amid dharmas of distraction, and developing thoughts of attachment amid dharmas of concentration.”

Donner further notes a tension in early Mahayana between the dhyana (meditation) approach and the prajna (wisdom) approach. He mentions the threefold division of the Eightfold Path, also known as the “three knowledges”, which is dhyana, prajna and sila (morality or ethics), saying “that dhyana (samadhi) and sila produce prajna – in this case, prajna is understood as an effect or result, though it may also be considered a cause, and then is better understood as ‘intellection,’ ‘gnosis’ or ‘discernment.’

And yet, sila was not truly “Mahayanized” until Saicho founded the Tendai school in Japan.

Chih-i’s meditation teachings some centuries earlier then focused essentially on dhyana and prajna. He was not the first Buddhist to stress the need for balance between the two, however, it is a message he repeats often. The key to understanding Chih-i is through appreciation of his non-dualistic, holistic inclination and his love for harmony and inclusion.

It is a message that has relevance to us today, as we see that some persons feel that Buddhism can be learned primarily from study and acquiring knowledge, while others believe that it is only through meditation that any benefit is realized.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Chih-i’s Chih-kuan for Beginners, as translated by Luk:

The attainment of Nirvana is realizable by many methods whose essentials do not go beyond the practice of chih (samatha) and kuan (vipasyana). Chih is the first step to untie all bonds and kuan is essential to root out delusion. Chih provides nourishment for the preservation of a knowing mind and kuan is the skilful art of promoting spiritual understanding. Chih is the unsurpassed cause of dhyana and kuan begets wisdom, he who achieves both chih and kuan is fully competent to work for the welfare of self and others. Hence, the Lotus Sutra says: ‘The Buddha while dwelling in Mahayana used the transcendental power of the dhyana and wisdom (prajna) which he had realized to liberate living beings from birth and death.’ Therefore, we know that this twin realization is like the two wheels of a cart and the two wings of a bird. Partial practice of them is wrong.

Hence, the sutra says: ‘The practice of dhyana alone, while wisdom is disregarded, causes stupidity and the practice of wisdom alone, while dhyana is disregarded, causes infatuation.’ Although stupidity and infatuation are relatively minor faults which differ from each other, their contribution to recurrent wrong views is identical.

If dhyana and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient; how can it lead to speedy realization of the Supreme Fruit? Thus is why the sutra says: ‘Sravakas [voice-hearers, disciples] cannot perceive the Buddha nature because of their excessive dhyana; Bodhisattvas of the tenth stage do not perceive it clearly because of their excessive wisdom; (and) all Tathagata Buddha perceive it clearly because their dhyana and wisdom are in equal proportion.’

Therefore, chih-kuan is the main gate to the great nirvana, the unsurpassed path of self-cultivation, the index to perfection of all excellent virtues and the true substance of the Supreme Fruit. Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.

When receiving beginners to initiate them to the Path, it is easy to preach the Dharma which is, however, very difficult to practice.

I was tempted to call this post “The Zen of the Zen of Zen.” Several times now, I’ve poked some fun at how people will use the word “Zen” to market almost anything, from marketing itself to tea and online shopping carts, like some of the products on the right. Without a doubt, it trivializes a great spiritual tradition. But that’s capitalism for you. We can trivialize, and sell, anything. Religion especially. By the way, do have your Copper Magnetic Therapy Jesus Bracelet yet?

I’m certainly not the first to notice, or lament, this unfortunate phenomenon. Some years ago John McRae, a well-known Buddhist scholar, in his book Seeing Through Zen, had this to say about it:

It seems that virtually anyone can claim authoritative understanding of Zen, or at least be comfortable in using the word Zen in works totally unrelated to the tradition . . . we may recognize that, in contrast to the usage within East Asian Buddhism, the word Zen has a very different and much more limited range of meaning in contemporary world popular culture.

The popular usage implies that Zen is simply an attitude of undistracted concentration that can be applied to any human endeavor. If you get fully involved in the task at hand, become one with it, and allow yourself to flow according to its natural rhythms, then your performance of that task will improve accordingly . . . I have seen the word Zen used to described home electronics projects and lines of cosmetic products, in which the word is used in the sense of bare-bones simplicity and ease of use; of course, the latter may also include some “oriental” aesthetics sense for all I know.

Now we understand that “Zen” means “meditation.” Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word “Ch’an”, based on the Indian “dhyana” which comes from another Indian word “jhana” which in turn is from the verb “jhayati” meaning “to think closely (upon an object)” [from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter N. Gregory].

But the Zen of Zen lies mainly in the eye of the beholder, since it does mean different things to different people. In general, Zen refers to a sect of Buddhism and “zazen” refers to the approach to meditation they use. In addition to that, there are a whole range of other associations.

While the overuse of the word “Zen” in marketing is pretty dreadful, I suppose there is a positive angle. “Zen” has become such a commonplace word that, hopefully, the strangeness has been taken out of it. There are many people who think that anything to do with Buddhism is very strange indeed. Some of them are convinced that Buddhists are devil-worshipping heretics who are aiding in the destruction of the world. So, anything that helps to deflate that perception must be a good thing.


Zen quotes are real big, too. Almost anything paradoxical or abstruse qualifies as a “Zen quote.” Here are a few actual Zen quotes about Zen:

When other sects speak well of Zen, the first thing that they praise is its poverty.


Life, according to Zen, ought to be lived as a bird flies through the air, or as a fish swims in the water.

D.T. Suzuki

Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. If your practice makes you worse, it is ridiculous. I think that if you try to do zazen once a week, that will make you busy enough. Do not be too interested in Zen. When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest.

Shunryu Suzuki

The essence of Zen is awakening. That is why one does not talk about Zen, one experiences it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: How do you feel about the Westernization of Zen Buddhism?

A: It’ll take a few centuries. At the moment, there are many wonderful intentions all mixed in, but there are some needed corrections. The first needed correction is not to call it Zen Buddhism, but to call it Buddhism, and to say the Zen practice within Buddhism, because that’s what it really is. Zen is just a practice within the marvelous ocean of Buddhist philosophy and practices that is so rich and so sophisticated. From there, we have things which we can give to Buddhism. We already have begun to give much more power to women. We’ve begun to make it a lay practice, a family practice, rather than a purely monastic practice. And we’ve moved towards engagement and action in terms of social issues, in a way that historical Buddhism did not do so much, although to give them credit, there is social activism in contemporary Japanese Buddhism, too, particularly on nuclear power and nuclear war issues. Buddhists are the leaders in the peace movement in Japan, and have been ever since World War II. But the truly non-dualist, non-discriminating, openhearted, playful style of Buddhism will take a while.

Gary Snyder (in conversation with John Suiter)

The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.

Robert M. Pirsig

My friendly neighborhood thrift shop has a nice used book section. Six huge bookcases full, which is quite a lot I think for that kind of store. And dirt cheap. Hardback books almost brand new go for $3.50 and paperbacks for 50 cents.  I’ve found some first editions that I wanted to collect in there, and quite a few old paperbacks mysteries. You might get some better deals on Amazon but I doubt it and anyway who wants to wait the two weeks it usually takes to ship? Besides, browsing online is just not the same experience.

One great thing about this thrift shop is there is constant turn over and you can go in a couple of times a week and find new things. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to go to a shop not looking for anything in particular, just browsing, and then find something wonderful, or at long last, that book you have been looking for.

The other day I bought a neat little book called A Chinese Garden of Serenity, Reflections of a Zen Buddhist. This slim volume (a mere 60 pages) was translated by Chao Tze-chiang and published in 1959.

The text is a translation of Epigrams from the Ming Dynasty ‘Discourses on Vegetable Roots’. The original author was Hung Tzu-Ch’eng,  or Hong Zicheng, (1572-1620), a Chinese philosopher about whom virtually nothing is known. Even though there have been a number of other translations, most notably by Thomas Cleary in 1990, and Robert Aitken and Daniel W. Y. Kwok in 2006, the work was new to me.

It’s a collection of yulus or ‘recorded sayings’ based on “The Three Teachings” (Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism), and there are some real gems.

Here are a few:

In every human heart, there is a Book of Truth, bound with worn-out strings and torn bamboo-papers. In every human heart, there is also a Symphony of Nature, drowned out by sensual song and voluptuous dance. A man must sweep away all externals and search his inner being in order to experience joy.

Natural scenery – such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond, the hazy gleams among the grass, the expressions of blossoms under the moon, or the graceful manners of willows in the wind, all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half real and half unreal – is most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

Since the Void is not void, a fond illusion of life is not true, and a bitter disillusionment of life is also not true. Let us ask Shakyamuni what to do. Since to live in the world is to retreat from the world, an indulgence in desires is a suffering, and a suppression of desires is also a suffering. So we must in good faith hold on to our integrity.

Whether time is long or short, and whether space is broad or narrow, depend upon the mind. Those whose minds are at leisure can feel one day as long as a millennium, and those whose thought is expansive can perceive a small house to be as spacious as the universe.

Human feelings are frail; the ways of the world are rugged. When a man cannot go forward, he should know how to take a step backward; but when he can go on, he ought to have the grace of yielding a little.

Virtue is the master of talent; talent is the servant of virtue. If one has talent and no virtue, one is like a family without a patriarch in which a servant may act as he pleases. How then can there be no mischief like that of an elf?

When a man is at peace, he ought to be alert as if he were in trouble; so he can forestall an unforeseen contingency. And when he is in trouble, he ought to be a calm as if he were in peace; thus he can bring to an end his crisis.