We collect kusen from our teacher John Fraser. Kusen 口宣 means a teaching spoken from the mouth, some kusen are Koan commentary, or about Poetry or Sitting Instructions, the rest are numbered as general Kusen. This page is for all of these types of kusen. These are spoken towards the end of a zazen sitting. Several kusen have references and further information, as well as related videos, on the Latest page.
The first Zen book I ever bought was D T Suzuki’s The Zen Doctrine of No Mind. (I bought it for the title.) It’s an unfortunate title because there isn’t actually a Zen doctrine of no mind. The position which Zen, and buddhism in general takes, is that the mind or the self, as all things, is neither existent or non-existent, but empty.
Nagarjuna described trying to understand emptiness as, ‘like trying to pick up a poisonous snake’ and it’s interesting to speculate why he chose that particular analogy rather than something else; for instance, trying to pick up a partially burning piece of wood.
He possibly chose the snake analogy because his name, or the first part of it, ‘Naga’ refers to the mythical snake beings who were the custodians of the prajnaparamita sutras that the King of the Nagas allegedly gave to Nagarjuna. The prajnaparamita sutras focus on emptiness, compassion and expedient means. Nagarjuna picked up the sutras, not the King.
So how do you pick up a snake? Well obviously you don’t pick it up from the head. But neither do you pick it up from the tail, as it can still bite you. You’re supposed to pick it up from its centre, without hesitation.
You grasp the snake without reaching for it through the blur of the self and you grasp it in its centre.
And why would you pick up a poisonous snake? You don’t pick it up and then carry it about with you for the rest of your life. You pick it up in order to place it where it belongs, so you can forget about it and just live your life.
Likewise, with practice, we cannot grasp it with the head. We cannot grasp practice with the imagined opposite of the head – the objective world. We can only grasp practice through our center; our heart. Grasp and then ungrasp.
The buddha said that the cause of our suffering is ‘clinging’ and ‘grasping’; attachment and aversion.
In order for clinging to be possible, we require a belief in two things: first, a belief in a persisting self; a ‘grasper’ as it were, and second, a belief that the objects of our perception and imagination are persisting and real; something which can be ‘grasped’.
In order to dislodge both of these beliefs, buddhists say that everything is ‘empty’.
In a sense we are prisoners of our evolution – we’re still ‘monkeys’ reaching for imaginary fruit from the tree of illusion. But sometimes we can live differently, without this fundamental duality of ‘grasper’ and ‘thing to be grasped’, or of ‘self’ and ‘world’. That is the function of emptiness.
Emptiness is often represented by the metaphor of a mirror – images in a mirror – but more frequently by the metaphor of a dream. That is to say, our experience is not an illusion; there is not just nothingness, but our experience can’t be grasped.
And precisely because it cannot be grasped, it can be fully lived.
“The Zen masters say it is like the tiger slipping into the forest or the dragon sliding into the sea”Taisen Deshimaru
Stand, with the spine upright but flexible, the back of the neck straight, your head balanced and weightless, the shoulders without tension and your chest open. The tip of your tongue rests gently on your hard palate, just behind your teeth. Be aware of your body being in a dynamic relationship with earth and space and sky. Be aware of your weight dropping down and pushing the earth, and a corresponding upward push from the earth, uncompressing the spine and torso, travelling up the spine and out through the top of the head at the fontanelle (crown chakra). Don’t consciously stretch the back of your neck or intentionally tuck your chin in.
Make a soft fist of the left hand, the thumb inside the fingers, placing it with the lower knuckle of your thumb resting against the sternum and your right hand, palm down, on top of the left. This position of the hands is called isshu 揖手.
Let your gaze be soft and rest on the ground a few yards ahead. Leave space between your elbow and your torso. Lift your elbows so that your forearms are horizontal. Don’t have tension in the arms, so don’t strain your arms to keep horizontal, if this is uncomfortable let your elbows drop. Allow the back to relax and widen.
Breathe in fully and step forward with the right foot, about half the length of the foot, landing first on your heel then rolling the weight gradually forward towards the ball of your foot, feeling a strong connection between the ground and your foot. As you place the heel on the ground, start to breathe out, and in the course of that outbreath, roll the weight from the back of the right foot to the front, so that almost all your weight is on the front of the right foot. All of the back foot remains on the ground, stretching the back leg. Pay attention to the soles of the feet throughout. There is a continual dance and movement of weight: front to back, side to side.
At the end of the outbreath, your weight is on the front of the right foot, largely on your big and second toe and the area immediately below that. You are rolling over and activating an energy point on the sole of the foot, bubbling spring, which is slightly below the junction of the big toe and the second toe. To enhance this, it is helpful to slightly splay your toes as you are bringing your weight forward. At the end of the outbreath, roll the right foot slightly back so you are on this point as you breathe in. The leg is slightly bent.
Breathe in from the bubbling spring point, and allow the energy of that in breath to travel up the leg to the base chakra at the perineal area, then up the back to the occipital joint ( the jade pillow area) then in a forward curve through the centre of the brain, to the third eye. At that point, start to breathe out, bring the breath back down the front of the torso, back to the base chakra, then back to bubbling spring and back down into the earth.
As you breathe in, the front leg slightly straightens, but doesn’t lock. The body should be soft, enlivened and responsive throughout. In particular, keep the torso soft and don’t stick the chest out. Keep the hands soft. They are next to the heart for a reason.
At the end of the inbreath, step forward with the back foot and repeat the process.
Move at the pace of your breath, but try to inhale and exhale slowly and fully.
When the bell rings, rotate your hands into shashu 叉手 position so your knuckles are pointing forward, bow forward from the waist and return to your place. Gassho to your zafu and sit in zazen posture, alternate leg on top if you are sitting in a cross legged posture.
One of the most dispiriting things for people starting practice comes from the idea that practice is the gateway to tranquility and peacefulness. Yet when they start it’s as if there’s this crappy person inside their head talking repetitive, bloviating, interpretative nonsense. And always complaining about what’s going on, about not being enlightened, being bored; nonsense really.
As a preliminary, stabilising step it’s important that we get some distance from this crappy person. So we learn equanimity, non-reactivity, mindful awareness and so on. So, as it were, we’re establishing some space around this crappy person.
But the problem is that we’re still within the room of the self. And if we stay with this self centred perspective, we’re likely to see zazen in terms of equanimity or in terms of consciousness. But either way we’re not going to see zazen in terms of connectedness and joy.
So what we require to do is fall out of this room of the self and into the body. And from there we can experience joy, connection, non-duality and so on.
But when we say ‘body’ we don’t mean your picture of the body because then ‘body’ is just another object in your mind. We mean actual alive, vivid embodiment. This vividness can’t be contained within ourselves; it seeps out. So everything (perhaps starting near to us and gradually percolating outwards) loses its picturedness, its conceptuality and acquires vivid embodiment.
And it’s in this context that we need to see the descriptive language of the Mahayana sutras. They are not describing something fantastical but the actual experience of zazen. But with these familiar constraints of mind and self and consciousness and separation cast off.
Our ways of describing Zazen are limitless and should be understood as being both partial and limitless. Because the point of a community of practitioners is that the expression of the dharma is never closed, never completed.
It’s as if your spine is a cascade of pearls. It’s as if your rib cage is like a weightless basket moving in emptiness. It’s as if your heart inside that basket is a great light, extending everywhere.
Mahayana Buddhism has two principal pillars: emptiness and compassion.
Emptiness is primarily a skillful means to cultivate non-attachment rather than an assertion about the fundamental nature of things. There’s no ‘Emptiness’ lying underneath Form. Emptiness is itself empty
Compassion (feeling-with) is intimately connected with non-separation.
When we say emptiness and compassion, we can equally say non-attachment and non-separation. With regard to the first, it’s no accident that the most common metaphor for our human condition used by Buddhists is the dream. In the dream we cannot say that there is nothing. Our experience is vivid and immediate, yet there is no essence to grasp hold of. Living in this way is not attachment, but neither is it detachment, which would be grasping ourselves.
Cultivating this attitude in our own life and in witnessing the lives of others, we can understand that we are all living within a dream. And so we can cultivate non-attachment for ourselves and compassion for all beings.
When we turn to zazen, it’s true that to steady ourselves, to solidify our practice, we cultivate non-attachment to our thoughts and emotions. But the fundamental practice of zazen is not non-attachment: it’s non-separation. And we achieve this by attempting to practise at a level deeper than that of ordinary perception.
We’re not simply sitting quietly in our familiar world – we are sitting within a new world which is vivid, immediate and momentary. And within which there is no separation between this person and all beings.
The Gateless Gate, Case Three: Chu-Chih raises one finger
Whenever Chu-Chih (J: Gutei) was asked a question, he simply raised one finger. One day a visitor asked Chu-Chih’s attendant what his master preached. The boy raised a finger. Hearing of this, Chu-Chih cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. As the boy ran from the room, Chu-Chih called to him. When the boy turned his head Chu-Chih raised a finger. The boy was suddenly enlightened.
When Chu-Chih was about to die he said to his assembled monks, “I received this one finger Zen from T’ien-lung. I used it all my life but never used it up.”
This is a koan story that is greatly commented on in the Rinzai tradition and the focus of that commentary is usually suchness. When we make a gesture such as raising our finger, we’re not doing it in a symbolic or representative way – it’s just natural. It’s a complete expression of our present state. That perspective is part of a wider discussion within the Zen tradition about the uses and dangers of language.
However, the key to understanding this story is understanding the background detail. Which, given this case also appears as case 19 in the Blue Cliff Record, is available to us. In that background detail, we’re told that prior to his enlightenment, Chu-Chih assiduously practised zazen by himself. One day he was visited by a nun who demanded of him that he say something appropriate but he was unable to do so. And so the nun left. The name of that nun was True Encounter.
Chu-Chih was upset by this. He intended to go and find a master but he heard a voice saying that, in fact, a master would come to him. And several days later that’s exactly what happened. Chu-Chih related the story to this person who in response simply held up one finger. And that resulted in Chu-Chih becoming enlightened.
In his subsequent teaching, was Chu-Chih holding up his own finger? Or was he holding up his master’s finger? And what are we to make of him simply teaching in this one way?
In the incident in question why was it that in this situation the boy was enlightened, but on previous occasions when he witnessed the teaching he was not? And whose finger this time was Chu-Chih holding up? Was it his finger? The boy’s finger? His master’s finger? Or all three? Or something else? Classical Chinese leaves all these interpretations open.
I think this is a teaching about interdependence. So when we lift our finger, or an eyebrow, or our heart – then we are also lifting the fabric of the whole universe – all being, all space, all time – because we’re part of that fabric. The severed finger (whether or not Chu-Chih is holding that finger up and that’s what causes the boy to become enlightened) similarly is not separate from this fabric of being. And is always communicating and expressing: severed or unsevered.
Nothing is severed.
For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.
Most contemporary discourse on meditation talks about it in terms of consciousness: what’s going on in our mind; our thoughts; the intrusiveness and nature of those thoughts; all that sort of stuff. And behind that – but not very far behind – is the idea that meditation has a purpose, which is self development. That idea is wrong.
When asked why Buddhism, throughout its history, has insisted on meditation in the cross-legged position they usually say something like, “Well that was just the position that was comfortable for people in classical India.” Except, it would have been equally comfortable for people then to have meditated standing up, or leaning against a tree, or lying down, or sitting in their easy chair, or whatever.
We’ve no reason to think that the cross-legged position was universally comfortable for people. Because if it was, we wouldn’t have meditation instructions by Dogen, for example, which clearly make allowances for people who are incapable of sitting in the full lotus position.
It’s very illuminating to look at the full lotus position as a yoga posture. And if you’ve seen anyone do that, it’s plainly a dynamic posture. The practitioner requires to sit with a tilt on the pelvis, pushing the buttocks out. They’re clearly sitting on their sit bones and they have to get their knees on the ground. And once they manage to do all that, it’s a very dynamic posture: their base chakra (the perineum) is open and in contact with the ground. And there’s a stretch of the whole body between the base chakra and the crown chakra (the fontanelle, at the crown of the head). It feels as if there’s a push coming from the earth, uncompressing the spine, pushing the head upwards.
The only difference between the yoga posture and the customary meditation position is that meditators place a cushion under the pelvis, which makes the posture easier.
It’s also worth noting that in Tantric practices (like the microcosmic orbit in Chinese Tantra) again the cross-legged position is used. The purpose is different: to circulate energy up the back energy channel, then down the front channel. Although it may be of some significance that Bodhidharma, as well as being the founder of Chinese Zen is also (probably apocryphally) the founder of Chinese Tantra, as well as Kung Fu.
The marginalisation of the body in contemporary discourse about meditation is, I think, mistaken. And if that’s so, we’re obliged to look at meditation, not primarily through the lens of consciousness, but as a dynamic interplay between the alive whole body, the dynamic breath and wide and vivid awareness. And within all that, somewhere, is the mind – but it’s no longer of central importance.
And accordingly, whether the mind is busy or quiet, agitated or peaceful, is no longer the most important thing going on in our practice. Put the body in the correct position and it is – we are – naturally activated. The push which rises up, uncompressing our spine, is not something which we’re determining with our will. It’s not something which we’re creating with our voluntary muscles. It’s just something which, as it were, we’re a witness to.
But not a bystander.
Dogen described zazen as ‘dropping off body and mind’. We can assume that both are dropped off at the same time. I’ve often described this as being a letting go of our habitual sense of self, opening into wide spacious awareness. But we can also consider dropping off body and mind in a sequential way.
Our sense of self is often something like: “I am this mental consciousness located in the brain, which is distinct from the body.” Few people now would explicitly say this, but it doesn’t matter, as it describes how most of us act. Anyway, the idea is obviously dualistic and disembodied.
So we can first drop off the mind by dropping the mind into the body. And we’re only able to do that to the extent that the body is dynamic, alive and joyful. Which is why we place such an emphasis on the posture, because if our posture is right then our body is naturally expressing itself.
So there’s naturally an upward movement of our spine – we don’t require to will it. There’s a natural dropping down of our weight. We’re in a dynamic relationship with heaven and earth.
If we can re-embody our mind, we have our sense of ourselves as this dynamic body (similar to what a baby might experience). And once we’ve done that, then we can drop off the body, because the body experienced in this non conceptual way isn’t separate from everything else.
We let go of a sharp distinction between this body and the greater body of all being. And that’s easy to do because it’s obvious in our actual experience: there isn’t a clear boundary.
In Chapter three of the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells the story of a foolish king who has a stubborn doctor as his personal physician. This doctor only prescribes milk products as medicine, whatever the illness.
One day, a wise doctor arrives in the kingdom. This doctor has eight different remedies for illness but he hides his knowledge and apprentices himself to the stubborn doctor and thus gains access to the king.
He convinces the king that the stubborn doctor is no good. The king expels the stubborn doctor from the kingdom and makes the wise doctor his physician instead.
The king asks the wise doctor what he would like by way of recompense. The wise doctor says that he would like nothing for himself but he would like the king to make an order saying that the remedy of milk products for illness is absolutely prohibited throughout the kingdom. The king makes the order.
Sometime later the king becomes ill and the wise doctor prescribes milk as the appropriate remedy.
The king is baffled and furious and asks the wise doctor why he is prescribing milk in view of the milk prohibition. The wise doctor says, in effect, “it all depends on the particular circumstances.”
The narrow purpose of this story is to set up an argument later on in the sutra about buddha nature, but the wider purpose is to say something important about teaching.
The wise doctor is obviously the Buddha. The eight different remedies refer to the noble eightfold path and the milk products remedy which the stubborn doctor always prescribes we can take to be the various doctrines of the self. Just as milk products might look different from each other, but all rely on milk, the doctrines of the various non Buddhist schools may look very different, but they all rely on the assumption of an underlying self. The outlawing of the milk remedy we can equate with the buddha’s teachings on no-self, emptiness and impermanence.
The metaphor of the Buddha as a wise doctor is also the last of the famous parables of the Lotus Sutra and, arguably, the most important.
We normally think of any spiritual tradition as involving the acceptance of our set of beliefs which we then apply to our lives, regardless of whether the effect is good or bad. The beliefs of that tradition form the structure of our lives. But Buddhism is not like this. It isn’t a system of beliefs about the world. It’s a compassionate strategy to attend effectively to human suffering.
When we try to deal with the sickness of suffering of each being, we can’t unthinkingly prescribe the same doctrinal remedy, because what is medicine for one person may be poison for another. Ideas of no self and how that is expressed might be either very helpful or very harmful for someone whom at this moment is borderline psychotic, for example. It all depends. That’s why “skilful means” is emphasised so much.
If we read the Pali sutras, two things are evident. One is the Buddha’s refusal to answer abstract questions, such as whether the universe is permanent or impermanent, what happens after death, and so forth. The second is that he is attending to the person in front of him, not simply recapitulating what he has already said.
After the Buddha’s death, there were attempts, with the Abidharma literature, to make his teaching into a coherent philosophy. It was in reaction to this that Nagarjuna emphasised Emptiness and said that Buddhism was the relinquishing of views (ie systems).
Aside from the wise doctor, the other metaphor often used for the Buddha is that of the father, which, I think, emphasises the feelingness rather than the thinkingness of Buddhism. The father, like the doctor, is concerned with care, not belief. But each exemplifies different facets of care: compassion, and love.
In zazen we talk a great deal about the body but what do we mean by ‘body’?
If you ask someone in the West to point to their body, they’re very likely to point to their torso. They’re unlikely to point to their head. Which is unfortunate, because as soon as you state it, it’s obvious: our head is part of our body.
I find that the easiest way to start to enliven the body is through the sensory awareness that we have here: the feeling of our tongue in our mouth; the tension around our eyes; the weight of our jaw; the awareness of the air in our nostrils.
All of that is readily accessible to us in an immediate way that sensory information elsewhere in the body very often isn’t. So if we have a holistic sense of the body as including the head and all the sensory awareness there, then we can see how that sensory awareness can – as it were – gradually seep downwards. To our throat, our torso; all of us, animating and enlivening the whole body.
There’s an additional benefit. We habitually (in the West at least) identify the head with the mind and with the self, so the mind/body split has a physical counterpart and reinforcement in the head/body split. Reintegrating the head with the rest of the body starts to undo that primary, unconscious split, relocating the mind within the body, and hence changing our sense of both.
And when we do this, our sense of both ‘mind’ and ‘body’ can change. Our mind is no longer necessarily just located within our head. Our body is no longer an object just located in space. And that starts to undo the self/world split which, in my view at least, is essential.
Turning to the breath, everyone is familiar with the instruction that when we feel distracted, we should give our attention to our breath.
Why is the breath so fundamental to meditation? Perhaps because it is immediate and difficult to objectify, or straightforwardly conceptualise. We cannot help but notice that when our breath changes, our state changes.
We often talk about being aware of the breath as if the breath and the body are two separate facets of experience. But if we pay careful attention we’ll see that our experience of the breath and our experience of the movement within us (when we take an in-breath, for example) is the one movement. And we can focus on the breath or we can focus on the body which is moving, or alternate. But it’s essentially two aspects of the one experience. It is not like wind blowing through the stiff rock of a cave. It is like two beings dancing.
We are not picturing the body from an imaginary, external vantage point. We place our attention whenever we can immediately feel, and gradually widen and deepen that, from the ‘inside’.
Additionally, if we can sit in the correct posture, our body is progressively enlivened without conscious effort. If our pelvis is in the right position, our weight dropping down through our sit bones, then we experience an uplift that often feels as if the back of our neck is being stretched and our head is moving upwards. I experience the uplift as originating somewhere in my upper thoracic spine, but you may experience it differently. The key is to experience it, not force it.
That feeling of uplift is the source of a terrible instruction about tucking your chin in and stretching the back of the neck. It’s terrible because there’s an attempted duplication of something which needs to be non-forced and automatic. If you are sitting correctly, your chin will naturally be slightly tucked in, but you can’t will it, anymore than you can create a joke by forced laughter.
Your sit bone isn’t a single point, it’s three dimensional, like – say – the elbow, and it’s helpful if you can experience that three dimensionality, that front and back, by touch and movement. And that illustrates a more general point about balance: it is an exquisite aliveness, not a forced absence of movement. We are subtly wobbling around the point of balance, like a tightrope walker.
When you’re sitting correctly – correctly for you – you’ll also experience a relaxing and widening of the back of the head, specifically around the occipital point, what the Chinese call the Jade Pillow.
Correct posture also manifests a dynamic relationship with the ground.
Your weight is dropping down into the ground and the ground is pushing up, like two hands pushing gently together. There is something similar, although more subtle, happening with the space around and above us.
When we sit, we are in a dynamic and connected relationship with the environment: through the ground; through the air; through the breath. All of this breaks down the self/world dualism for the benefit of both: the body is no longer spatially imprisoned and disconnected from the world, the world is no longer “out there”, waiting to be done-to, but immediate and alive.
Zazen is not the practice of the self. It is the effort of all beings expressed through this person.