Beyond Words

(Note: this was written for a sangha study group on chapter twelve of John Daido Loori’s book The Zen of Creativity)

A monk asked Yunmen, “What are the words that transcend the Buddha and the Patriarchs?”

Yunmen said, “Rice cake.”

“clouds endless clouds climbing beyond
ask nothing from words on a page”
Ikkyū Sōjun


One of the first things that many people learn about Zen is that it is “a special transmission outside the teachings not depending on written words”.*  This may be followed by the surprise that the history of Zen is filled with so many writings from numerous teachers!

This is one of the paradoxes that sits at the heart of Zen.  As soon as we name something, we miss its essence in trying to fix it into one form.  Yet, as Dainin Katagiri Roshi said, you have to say something!  And where would we be without all the words by Dōgen and the masters who came before or after him?  How would our teachers communicate with us?  Of course, we can learn much by following their example, but words are also quite useful at times!

The answer to this paradox is the notion of the finger pointing at the moon.  While words can never fully capture the true essence of Zen which is ‘just this’ in every moment, they can point us towards it just as the finger is not the moon but can show where it is in the sky.  This is what the poets and priests have been trying to do since the beginning of Zen, and their words express the essence of their understanding and their practice.  It is not for nothing that it remains a common practice for Zen teachers to write a death poem that pierces the great matter of life and death.

It has often been said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a few well-chosen phrases can also point the way beyond form.  As Zen artists, or would-be Zen artists, we look to capture a moment of suchness, and share that with others.  This is the same with words or images.

Just as in sumi-e paintings (the black and white paintings usually drawn in a single breath) what is presented is the bare essence of what is seen.  Similarly, in haiku poetry and other Zen writing, each word counts and we do not try to completely flesh out the image but rather leave space for the writing to breathe.  Zen teacher and writer Natalie Goldberg calls this writing down the bones.

When we write from a Zen perspective, we often do this from personal experience, and based on our sense experience rather than phrase after phrase of conceptual ideas.  Even when ideas need to be communicated, this is usually done in the form of metaphor, such as Dōgen’s heron poem in the examples below which has echoes of Dongshan Lianje’s lines in The Song of Precious Mirror Samadhi:

The dharma of thusness is intimately transmitted by buddhas and ancestors.
Now you have it; preserve it well.
A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon.

Daido Loori Roshi gives a number of wonderful examples of Zen writings in The Zen of Creativity, and I wish to share one or two of my favourites with you in the hope it might provide further inspiration:

Rahai (Bowing)

A snowy heron
on the snowfield
where winter grass is unseen
hides itself
in its own figure.

— Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253)


My huts lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

— Ryōkan (1758-1831)


I came to this mountain
looking for enlightenment.
There was no enlightenment
on the mountain.
Whether laughing or crying
all I hear is an echo
from the other side of the mountain.

— Soen Nakagawa (1907-1984)


Three pencils arranged
Three minutes
Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya,  Dharmakaya

— Jack Kerouac (1922-1967)


*this has often been attribute to Bodhidharma but in modern times is thought to have originated as separate phrases in Tang era China (8th and 9th centuries CE), and first appeared as a quatrain in the Song period (960–1279):

教外別傳    A special [separate] transmission outside the teachings,
不立文字    not depending on written words
直指人心    īndirectly point to the human mind,
見性成佛    see one‘s nature and become Buddha



For anyone who wishes to learn how to write haiku or refine their skills, I have a list of resources here:

This is an article I wrote on Zen and Haiku:


Joyful Gate

This sitting in Zazen is not learning Zen meditation.  It is simply the peaceful and joyful gate of Dharma. It is the practice-and-experience which perfectly realizes the state of bodhi. The Universe is conspicuously realized and restrictions and hindrances never reach it. To grasp this reason is to be like a dragon that has found water, or like a tiger in its mountain stronghold. Remember, the right Dharma is naturally manifesting itself before us, and darkness and distraction have dropped away naturally.

Fukan-zazengi (Universal Guide to the Standard Method of Zazen)

Dogen_portraitEihei Dōgen (1200-1253)

Being a Zen Priest with Chronic Illness

confined to bed
I climb the mountains
of my mind

So, I became a Zen priest.  Well, okay, not exactly as the Zen Buddhism Shukke Tokudo (“home-leaving”) ordination is only the beginning of priest training.  But, even given that proviso, the thought of someone who can hardly walk and spends most of the day in bed being a priest of any religion seems pretty unlikely (except, perhaps, one whose primary modes of worship are lying down in a quiet room and leaving offerings of unfinished nutritional supplements).  So how did it happen, and what use is a priest who is mostly housebound? Continue reading “Being a Zen Priest with Chronic Illness”

On Tonglen

My former teacher, Ken McLeod, is a western teacher in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition and has a particular interest in the lojong (mind training) teachings of which tonglen is a part. During one of his two traditional three year retreats he became ill and spent weeks in bed just doing tonglen while the other students were practicing in the dharma hall. As a result this practice became very dear to his heart and he went on to translate several important texts on the subject. It has similarly become dear to me also as I have practiced with illness.

Lojong teachings work on taking the difficult parts of life as the path and using them to transform us.  Tonglen is mentioned is several of the traditional lojong texts including Seven Points of Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. Continue reading “On Tonglen”

One Great Word

Master Setsuo told his students that the Buddha did not utter a single word during 49 years of teaching dharma.  But old buddha Daikaku (Tao Long) declared that one single word contained all of the sutras.  What is that one great word?

I am not great with koans.  As with Master Dogen’s words, they often confuse and obfuscate more than they enlighten for me.  However, the above case seemed to me to have an obvious answer (although I would certainly never declare it to be the correct one!).
Continue reading “One Great Word”


In Zen Buddhism there is not much use of mantras.  We do have chanting, that includes some dharanis (a verse of supposed spiritual power) but they are generally confined to times of ceremony.

Tibetan Buddhism is different.  There, mantras are used on a daily basis for all kinds of reasons such as connecting with a particular bodhisattva or Buddha, healing from illness and sending kindness and compassion into the world.  Some people chant them near constantly, especially the universally popular Avalokiteshvara mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’.  Mantras are carved and painted into stone and left on the side of mountains, drawn on prayer flags and etched into large and small prayer wheels which are rotated to mechanically recite the mantra.

Despite an attraction to mystical ideas, I must admit I don’t generally buy into the idea of magic verses or words with innate spiritual power.  Mantras have become useful to me by their association with certain images or feelings and also by their ability to calm the mind.  This is where I use mantras most, especially during bad periods of illness or acute stress.

Mantras have been used for millennia in eastern meditation as a focus on which to meditate.  The fact that the phrase had a spiritual meaning was believed to help and that has actually been confirmed by modern studies which demonstrate that people who were meditating could achieved a more concentrated state when they focused on words with a known spiritual meaning rather than more everyday phrases (as is typical, I am unable to find the exact citation but can assure you I did read it!).

The Sanskrit word mantra literally means ‘instrument of thought’ (from man to think and tra tool or instrument). I have also heard it translated as ‘mind protector’ but I am unsure of what entymology is offered for that.  In any case, it rings true for me, as mind protection is the reason I use mantras.

During meditation, in Zen at least, we are taught to sit with an openness to all experience, both mental and sensory, and this is the attitude which we also try to take into life in general.  When we are in pain or suffering stress, however, it is all too easy to fixate on that one thing.  I am sure you have all had an experience of being overwhelmed with an anxiety about something – a test, job interview, medical results etc.  Thoughts about the worry circle around in the head.  Likewise, when we are in pain, it can be hard to distract attention from the place in the body which is hurting and constantly checking to see if it has worsened.

Opening up to these experiences, like we do in zazen (Zen meditation) can help to widen experience away from those things but sometimes it can be too hard.  I experience this as an onrushing wave that I just cannot stand up to.  My mind is swept away by it and cannot stay with the openness of experience.  In this situation, I find mantras especially helpful.  They act a bit like a mild analgesic to take the edge off of the pain just enough for it to be bearable, only in this case with our own experience.  Reciting a mantra shuts out the endless repetition of the mind (I am sure you will have heard the finding that most of our thoughts have been thought before and that is probably even more true when we are cycling though worries about a particular situation or painful feeling) and allows a degree of calmness to be felt.  I used a mantra when I was having blood taken just before the needle went in.  Not a massively traumatic experience but still easier with a mantra.  Others report using mantras at the dentist or during medical scans or examinations.  When I am unable to sleep at night due to pain, mantras can be as useful as painkilling medication and at least worth trying beforehand.

So, the question is, which mantra should I recite?  Well, that is entirely up to you.  Through you spiritual practice you may have one already such as Om Mani Padme Hum.  For those who are sick, the Tibetan Medicine Buddha mantra may be appealing:

Tayata Om Bekanze Bekanze Maha Bekanze Radza Samudgate Soha (click for audio)

(May the many sentient beings who are sick, quickly be freed from sickness.
And may all the sicknesses of beings never arise again)

(Yakushi Naori, the Medicine Buddha)

You can also use something such as these lines which are traditionally used in the practice of developing metta (loving kindness):

May I be well
May I be happy
May I be free from suffering

When I practiced mantras in a Tibetan Buddhist context they were often used with an accompanying visualisation such as the particular deity associated with the mantra (the Medicine Buddha in the case of the Medicine Buddha Mantra and so forth).  This I find can enhance the calming effect of a mantra.  Feel free to develop your own visualisations.

In Tibetan Buddhism (also Hinduism and Catholicism) prayer beads are often used to count rounds of mantras.  Not so much in Zen but I imagine this method is also used in other Japanese Buddhist traditions that include mantra recitation as a traditional part of their practice such as Shingon and Pure Land schools.  I must admit that I like prayer beads (malas) as they add something to the practice, a tactile stimuli and additional focus for the mind.  As the internet saying goes, your mileage may vary, but don’t dismiss it out of hand as something esoteric.

So, this was intended to be my personal take on the use of mantras in spiritual practice and difficult times but in no way accurate about how different spiritual traditions themselves see mantras which are generally much more esoteric that my pragmatic stance.  There is much material out there about which is available to anyone wanting it.

The best way to investigate mantras, as ever, is to practice yourself and find where it leads you.  You may find that mantras are not for you, or else that mantra practice becomes a fruitful part of your spiritual life.  Many have and still do. I count myself among them.

My Grass Roof Hermitage

“I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap…
Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.”
Shitou Xiqian

“I have a hut in the wood, none knows it but my Lord; an ash tree this side, a hazel on the other, a great tree on a mound encloses it… The size of my hut, small yet not small, a place of familiar paths; the she-bird in its dress of blackbird colour sings a melodious strain from its gable.”
Irish, 10th Century, author unknown

When I first heard Shitou Xiqian’s poem Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage I immediately identified with its message. Although I do not live in an eighth century hut in China, but rather a ground floor flat in rural England in the third millennium AD, my life is limited to a small space similar to Shitou and the unknown Irish author. For both of them, their hermitage is out of choice. My own confinement is less voluntary. Continue reading “My Grass Roof Hermitage”

Grit in the Lotus, or when Zen is not so pretty

I am currently reading Peter Matthiessen’s collection of his Zen Journals ‘Nine-Headed Dragon River’ and was struck by the description of his wife dying of cancer:

“Under the covers, Ho Ko was already an old woman, her hips and beautiful legs collapsed, black and blue from needles, but she was still lovely when propped up in bed, and she wore her rakusu like a proud child. I watch our friends’ faces admiring the brave, calm, smiling woman in bed. I admired her, too, putting out of my mind those other days when her dying was neither calm nor lovely, those days that no one knew about but the nurses and me.” 1

Continue reading “Grit in the Lotus, or when Zen is not so pretty”