The Shit Paper
...Distinguish between clean shit sticks and dirty ones. ...Some shit sticks are lacquered and some are not. Dirty shit sticks go into the stick box. The clean sticks are stored in the stick rack, which is placed near the board that screens the front of the toilet bowl...
(Shôbôgenzô Senjô)
July 2003

last month * * * next month

Your problem
(Adult practice - Part III)

What is this "adult practice" business all about?
First of all, adult practice means to wipe one's own ass. Who wants to practice? Isn't it ourselves who make the decision to come to a place like Antaiji? If that is so, we have to climb by ourselves over all those mountain ranges of doubts and difficulties, which we will run into sooner or later. Of course we need a guide on our journey, especially to warn us against the pitfalls of our own ego, but isn't it strange to expect our teacher to take care of all the aspects of our practice? The student-teacher relationship is different from that of a baby feeding on its mother's breast.
What made me start to write this "adult practice" series was an e-mail I received, the subject being "just for your reference". It contained the words of my older dharma brother, whom I quoted two months ago: "A kindergarten kid trying to study at university."
What he says about his practice here at Antaiji is very typical of the doubts all of us will experience sooner or later, so I want to take the time to quote him in more detail:

"I received instruction in the tradition of Sawaki Kodo Roshi. What I was told was to just shut up and sit. Things like concentrating on the breath or counting the breath are forbidden there, that is why the demons of sleep overcame me, or I was usurped by random thoughts, and even though I was able to calm down my mind at some times, after the sesshin is over every thing would be the same again. Well, I told my self, maybe that's just how it is ..."

"It is a big difference to understand Dogen Zenji's Fukanzazengi as a practical instruction to be used in one's actual daily life, rather than some lofty theory with no relation to one's practice. If you have no special means to make you realize this point clearly, you will never get a grip on your mind. You will be like a kindergarten kid trying to study at university."

"In fact all my friends, those who practiced with me at the same time at Antaiji, finally left for places like H Temple or B Temple, some even went as far as America, and in the end no one stayed. That has nothing to do with the people, it is because they could not get a firm faith in practice there. My teacher still lives in Antaiji, so I visit him from time to time, but still, also when I discuss with my older dharma brothers, we are always asking ourselves why we could not get a firm faith in zazen. That is including myself.
So I started to worry how many years would pass in this way - how much time is being wasted! This is also true for the whole of the Soto school. If your practice is lacking a firm focus point, it is not possible to "just sit". If you are attached to form without being present in this moment, there is no meaning at all. Well, only now that I have understood myself I can say this. The reason why I could get no firm faith in zazen, and that I was not able to practice for such a long time, is because this was not pointed out clearly to me - there was no guidance!"

"The problem is that we do not know exactly what just sitting (shikantaza) is. I think the most important help to let us know is our master."

"I went to S Dojo for 8 days and received instruction from the Roshi. To sum it all up: in only one week I was able experience clearly what Dogen calls in the Fukanzazengi "the manifestation of the true dharma, the stopping of delusion and drowsiness". Without a doubt I wake up to it! It was so different from anything until then, so fresh and moving! So I asked myself deeply: why is this so diffferent, what makes it different from the practice I have done until now? The answer was simple: I was not one with myself in each single moment until then. The problem was that I had not realized how important the present moment is.
Just doing zazen, just eating, what does this "just" mean in the first place? To get a grip on this "just", you have to be clear about each single moment. So I think my basic problem was that nobody taught me a concrete means how to do this. I had never heard about "this one breath". I am really happy that now I know!
"Just", in other words, means this single moment, state before your mind sets in. I think it was really good for my practice and my life in general that now I understood this clearly. My problem now is just to continue with this. That is what I have to do now, and that will be the content of my every day zazen from now on. I will be careful that there are no impurities in any of my actions, I will be polishing my mind and "just doing" things.
This is all, apart from this there is nothing to practice. I believe that I have reached the end, and will just continue with practice."

Without reflecting on his own responsibilty for his practice, my dharma brother goes on to critize the place where he was taking care of for so many years, and the teacher who went to so many pains trying to open his firmly shut eyes. Still, I am happy to hear that he has found his spiritual kindergarten finally and that his mind is at ease. As I said, he is not the only one who has these doubts - we all have them:
"Why is my mind not a ease when I do zazen?"
"Why do I have to bear this pain? And once the pain subsides, I am either dreaming or sleeping!"
"After all this time, how come that I still do not understand what shiantaza is? Why doesn't somebody give me firm faith?"
"Isn't this practice all form and ritual, with no meaning or content?"
"Why can't I seem to get some piece of clear guidance!?"
"And this so called teacher here, isn't he sleeping during zazen too?"
"How many years do I have to spent like this? Isn't it just a waste of time?"
As long as we think like this, we are really wasting our time. The fast ones among us feel these doubts on the first day of sesshin and find themselves sitting on the next bus. Others wake up to the obvious fact that practice does not get us where we want only after seven or eight years. They then blame it on others, get angry and leave. But those who do not leave but stay on will feel these doubts even more intensely - they go on to actually work and live with them. The problem becomes part of their practice, and they learn to deal with it as "their" problem. If you deal with your problem in a mature way, as an adult in the true sense, you will sooner or later become able to hear what your teachers is really teaching you, wake up to the guidance you did not see before. Only an adult can hear the teaching of the patriarchs, not as some lofty theory, but as instruction for everyday life. When you do not see that the problem itself, "your problem", is exactly your practice, you will indeed be like "a kindergarten kid trying to study at university". You are wasting your time. The sutras tell us that "time passes swiftly like an arrow in the air - do not spent your whole life in vain - life and death are a great matter, impermance is swift - etcetera etcetera". Since old times, many of us read these sutras aloud, never even once having the thought that the words might be about our own practice. We end up searching for the solution of our practice somewhere else, we never realize it is in our own practice.

Of course that is true for myself too. Too long were those years of doubts that almost tore my breast into parts. And I don't mean to say that now I finally live in peace and joy, without any problems at all. If I don't take care, I will end up telling myself: "Well, maybe that's just how practice is ..." Needless to say, practice is never "like this" or "like that". We never get a grip on it, because it is our very life in this precise moment. Now, rather than questioning zazen from my own practice, I realize that it is zazen itself that is questioning me in each single moment. When you realize that it is your own practice that puts you into question, and not the other way around, you have to graduate from your spiritual kindergarten. You have become an adult practioner. It is for adults that words like "zazen is the true form of yourself" or "the true teacher is zazen" were spoken.

I want to continue to explore the adult world of practice in this series for another couple of months. The topics I will deal with will include:
What is the real meaning of the word "adult" that I so frequently use?
How can we deal with sleepiness or random thoughts as our own problem, as part of our own practice? And how about pain, dizziness, boredom, desires and attachments, anger, regret, all kinds of delusions, emotions and ignorance?
How to adjust our body, breath and mind?
How to practice not only zazen, but also all of the other aspects of life?
The pitfalls of practice. Looking upon zazen from the outside. Blaming our lowsy practice on others.
Why I came here and how I experienced the difficulties of practice.
The teaching of my late master, Miyaura Shinyu Roshi.

To be continued next month.


This morning, we cleaned the hondo. My job was to wash the outside window frames, sliding and pushing the screens and panels, running the rag along the wooden rails. I reached out to pull a frame back into place, and my fingertips ripped through the rice paper, barely making a sound. Dozens of times have I pulled back window panels, without a thought, without a care, but this time I've torn one. I searched for excuses, like I didn't know they tore so easily, but the truth is, I actually didn't know where my hand was when I grabbed the frame. A moment's inattention, arrogant assumptions, and an inability to see what was happening all caused this tear.

I can see my fingers poking through the rice paper, but I wonder how many other mistakes I have made, bugs squished and people hurt, through my inattention. I have these red spotches on my arm, burns from creosode dripping off a carelessly held brush. But my mind too is spotched, and my memories torn from time to time, with imagined offenses and unneccessary worries. It seems that I think my thoughts and live my life with as much inattention as I clean the hondo.

Life at Antaiji is filled with ritual. Our meals are a series of meticulously performed actions, from when we first lay out our bowls to when we wipe down the emptied table. The first person wipes his place with the towel and turns it upside-down. The second turns it inside-out, and the third flips it over again. Rushing to finish in time with the others, one time I turned the rag inside-out when I should have flipped it. A monk corrected me, but I protested, saying that I performed the ritual correctly, only that I didn't know how many had wiped their spaces before me. He said, "Muho would say you are not doing the ritual properly." Going through the motions was not enough, I had to actually know what was going on. I had to be aware, attentive, conscious of the world around me.

Before and after we use the restroom, we bow to the door. When I first arrived, I thought this to be silly, just extra actions that waste time, but then Muho told me a favorite saying of Sawaki Roshi: "You have to wipe your own ass." No one else is going to wipe your ass for you, and if you cannot properly wipe your own ass, then what can you do properly? Thus the ritual focuses our minds, gives our full attention to the task at hand, reminds us that even this moment, using the restroom, is as important as any other. Neither what you have done before or what you will do in the future matters in that room. Imagine the President sitting on the presidential pot, or some couragous general squatting over a hole in the ground, Shakymuni splashing his bottom with water from the river Ganga. No matter what their deeds, they must do what they have to do in that moment.

I found that zazen is no different. I usually think about what I did that day, or that girl I saw that one time. Then I whine to myself about how my knees and back hurt, and I agonize over how long I've been sitting, and how much longer I have to go. In short, I do everything except actually sit zazen. If I wiped my ass in the same way, I'd be a sorry mess. And indeed, in the hondo I am a sorry mess, restless and impatient, with a little tear in the window before me.

A fellow called "pain"

When I was told that I should write something for the "shit paper" I was confused at first. Not that I would be too lazy to write something. It is just that I have spend only six weeks here and haven't experienced much yet. So I doubt that I have anything to relate that micht be of interest or useful for somebody else.

Anyway, as I am told to write anything, I will write about that fellow who has been closest to me since I have come here. His name is "pain".

For the average Middle European pain is unavoidable in a place like Antaiji - in fact it is an everyday affair. Not only during the times of zazen (but especially during those times), all of the time I am painfully aware of my pain.

Not only physically I am in pain. My "psyche " or "ego" also confronts me with pain. I am suffering from an environment alien to me, especially when I was still new here I was missing my family, my girl friend, my friends, the freedom to do what I want whenever I want. I was missing all the luxuries and conveniences of life in Europe.

To live here means to fight with myself. I have to struggle to transcend my own limits.

I do not even know why I am doing all this. Why don't I just get on the next bus and leave for good? There are better ways to spent a six month holiday! I am certainly not a masochist, just in case you thought so - thank you. I think the reason why I am here has something to do with my conviction that only if I let go of egoistic thinking and doing, I will succeed in becoming a selfless person that is truely able to help others.

On the way towards this ideal, which is the ideal of a bodhisattva, pain is necessary and unavoidable. Only when I am in pain I am aware and willing to look for the precise cause of that pain. Thus, I can recognize my faults and change, hopefully in a "positive" direction.

In this respect Antaiji is a great place for me to deepen my practice. Nobody here pushes you to your limits artificially, you don't get beaten to "great death". Antaiji provides the space for you to decide how far you want to go yourself.

Sarah's farewell party on "her" veranda deck. Are these people really in pain?


Zen always seems to have had a reputation for irreverence, especially compared to other religions. This month I have a collection of anecdotes that reflect Antaiji's style of irreverent Zen. The first one features Thomas and the freewheelin' abbot Muho in a discussion straight after sesshin:

Thomas: "So I was thinking, what do I do with this pain?"
Muho: "Just relax, man. Surrender to it."
T: "This f**king pain, what do I do with it?"
M: "Let it be."
T: "This f**king pain, it's so strong. The problem is, I can't concentrate ..."
M: "That's no problem. That's mu."
T: "I can't concentrate, I can't do anything ..."
M: "That's mu, that's not-doing. Perfect."
T: "But the f**king pain ... I know that if I don't move, it's better. If I move, the pain becomes worse. I know this. But anyway, I move!"
T: "See, if I concentrate, I tell myself not to move, and it's OK. But I begin to daydream, I forget about not moving, and while daydreaming, I move, and then I concentrate again, but it's too late, I've already moved!"
M: "There's your problem - don't daydream."
T: "But I can't concentrate because of the f**king pain!!!"

In the second story I was chatting with Marion about Japanese martial arts ...

Marion: "I'm interested in Kendo."
Joel: "Yeah, me too."
M: "What are the swords they use made from?"
J: "Bamboo."
M: "Only bamboo? That's pretty weak. Why don't they use metal swords?"
J: "Metal swords! Have you ever seen a kendo fight?"
M: " ... I mean, it's just a bit of pain ..."
J: "A bit of pain! It's a matter of life and death!"

Antaiji, situated deep in the mountains, naturally has a fair amount of insects flying around at this time of year. Poor Yoshida seems immensely frightened by them ... one time a bee made its way into the main section of the temple during breakfast, and Yoshida perceived it to be buzzing dangerously close to the table. He was looking up anxiously between every gulp of brown rice ... and then once during zazen, when I was sitting next to Yoshida, he suddenly moved back and forth violently, trying to avoid the vicious 3 centimetre moth heading his way ... but surely the toughest ordeal was when Muho decided that we'd sit outdoor zazen. Yoshida spent the whole two hours in battle mode, using arms and everything to dodge the creatures - at one point I thought he was waving down a helicopter!

During the annual rice planting day, everyone was wearing big boots which made squelching sounds in the mud. At the morning break, Paul admitted that he liked the boots for a very special reason - he could fart and no one would know, because he could use the boots' sound as an excuse. The only problem was, he forgot about the smell ... "now that you mention it," said Hikita-kun, "it sure did stink over in that area." After the break an enormous squelch came from Paul's direction ... "honestly, that was my boots!" he exclaimed. Muho commented, "Sounds like an elephant farting!"

Irrelevant thoughts

I woke up at three thirty, a time when a proper zen monk should be sitting in zazen, but at a laid back temple like Antaiji still well before the wake up bell. I usually do not dream a lot, or at least I do not remember much of a dream except that it might have contained fuzzy bits of things that happened the day before, or pieces of a conversation being digested in my mind. For some reason I had a very clear memory of the dream that morning, and when I woke up early I was wide awake. I had seen myself talking in a philosophy class as a student back in Berlin, about my life and about zen. Maybe out of a lack of something to say, or maybe out of lazyness, I was taking refuge in Wittgenstein's saying that you must be silent about what can not be said. I was also refering to his statement in the same "Tractatus logico-philosophicus", that you "see" the solution of the problem of life in the "vanishing" of the problem. But then, I started to discuss in my dream, aren't statements like these, and basically all of the statements in the "Tractatus" - starting from the proposition that the world is everything that is the case, up to the imperative to shut up at last - all statements about things that can not be said, and therefore we have to be silent about? Wittgenstein makes the point that some "truths" (he does not call them that way, because that would contradict his claim that only what can be said and has sense can be true) show themselves, without us being able to talk about them: "There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical". Among the things that show themself is the logical structure of the world - funnily, most of the talk done in the "Tractatus" is about exactly that structure which we are not supposed to talk about. The rest is about things an analytical philosopher should be silent about in the first place: "the I", "the world", "life", "silence", "the mystical". Isn't Wittgenstein aware of the contradiction? The young Wittgenstein set out to cut the crap of philosphical fake that dominated the penetratingly deep inquieries into the nature of the mind and the universe at his time (and even today!?) - questions like "is the good more identical than beauty" that he and his friends would call metaphysical pseudo problems. But how can Wittgenstein possibly expect to get away himself with metaphysical crap like "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"? In his foreword he claimed for his "Tractatus" that "the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive". But in the "Tractatus" there is no room for "true nonsense". "The thought is the significant proposition" - a thought can not be definitively true and senseless at the same time. A proposition is either true or false or nonsense. Wittgenstein even goes so far to say that tautologies (statements that are always true, like "a = a"), and contradictions (what is always false, like "a = not a"), are not true or false, but nonsense. A proposition that makes sense has to be a proposition that can be true or false. What can not be said can never be a true proposition, according to Wittgenstein. You have to be silent about what can not be said, otherwise you are talking nonsense. But Wittgenstein keeps talking his nonsense throughout the "Tractatus". If the "Tractatus" were really true (in saying that you have to be silent about what can not be said), it must never have been written. If Wittgenstein was right in writing the "Tractatus", on the other hand, the "Tractatus" can not be true. Wittgenstein made the famous remark about Heideggers "Sein und Zeit", saying that Heidegger is trying to run against the borders of language. Wittgenstein must have known, because he did the same. He is like Tarkowski "Stalker", making his way to a forbidden "zone" in which the laws of our ordinary world and logic do not work. He knows that we are not supposed to trespass into that zone, and going there won't solve our questions in the first place, but still he can not help "stalking" truth, talking of silence. Today we know that Wittgensteins concern was not with what can be said, but exactly with that that can not be said, "the ethical" as he would call it. In the "Tractatus" he tried to define the borders of language, which would be the borders of what can be said, physics, and what can not, ethics, from inside language - but he brilliantly failed. Right from the start the "Tracatus" is moving on forbidden ground, beyond the borders of language. That Wittgenstein is still succeeding in communicating something is what draws us to him and what proves him wrong at the same time...

The thoughts in my dream would have continued forever had I not woken up with a clear mind, unable to go back to sleep. When I came back from the toilet my wife was feeding our new born baby on her breast. I told her about the dream. She asked what language it was in. I could not answer. In fact it seems that most of my random thoughts are in Japanese now, but when there are many foreigners at Antaiji, and I have to communicate a lot in English, a large part of the dialog in my brain will be in English too. And then, of course, there are thought fragments in German, my native language, as well. Most of the time I find it easiest to talk about the dharma and practice in a sangha in Japanese. So I write the Japanese version of the shit paper first and later translate it into English, for example. But as this dream was a dream about myself talking back in Berlin University, it should have been in German - or at least that would be logical, but dreams are not always that logical. It could have been in English too. In Japanese, I find it different to think of the vocabulary to express Wittgenstein's paradox. To talk about what can not be said while saying things by keeping silent is such a every day practice in Japan that no one would ever think of it as a paradox or contradiction in the first place. That language breaks the rules of logic seems to be considered the logic of Japanese language itself. But, anyway, thinking about my wife's question in what language I dreamt my dream, I realized that I remembered the dream pretty clearly, but in fact I did not remember any of the words. Does a dream really need words? I remember that back in high school we had to calculate the average number of times an occasions would have to repeat itself until a certain event takes place if the probability for that event to take place in each occasion is 1/n. My immediate response was "Why, n times of course!" Everyone seemed to be surprised at my answer, but what could be more obvious? If you roll a dice the probability that it will be a "1" is one to six. How often do you have to roll the dice on the average to get a "1". Six times of course. It could never be five or seven times on the average. In reality, of course, you might roll a "1" at once, or you might not get a "1" even after ten rolls, but if you keep on rolling the dice eternally, you will get a "1" one out of six times on the average. And the same is true if probability is 1/n. Or at least that is what intuition tells us. Putting it into the language of mathematics is a completely different thing. For this you have to add up the probability to get the event at the first occasion to the probability to get it at the second occasion multiplied by the probability for a second roll, multiplied by two, plus the probability at the third occasion multiplied by the probability for a third roll, multiplied by three, and so on:
(1/n) + 2*(1/n)*(1-1/n) + 3*(1/n)*(1-(1/n)-(1/n)*(1-1/n) + 4*(1/n)*(1-(1/n)-(1/n)*(1-1/n)-(1/n)*(1-(1/n)-(1/n)*(1-1/1n) + .... = x
That x actually equals n needs a proof that is more complicated than expected, although the intuitional proof seemed to be trivial. Now, couldn't it be possible that we dream our dreams like the intuitional proof for mathematical problems. We know exactly what we are dreaming, it is crystal clear, just as the solution to the mathematical problem, but we lack the words, and going through the process of putting the dream into words takes so much more time than the actual dream, and even changes the whole quality of the dream, that I am almost sure that most of the time our dreams, even so eloquent dreams like the one above, do not envolve much words at all. Maybe that is why we can dream whole double feature movies (and philosophy classes) in time intervals of fifteen minutes or so. And what about the random thoughts during zazen? Does not the whole "Shobogenzo" amount to nothing more than the irrelevant thoughts one might have during the first half an hour of zazen, until the pain in the legs starts?

I did not realize I was dreaming again until my alarm clock went off. Time for zazen, time to let thoughts go.