DESHIMARU & NISHIJIMA

I received a question by e-mail the other day from a guy who says he has been noticing very strong parallels between the teachings of Taisen Deshimaru, founder of the AZI Buddhist organization in Europe and those of Gudo Nishijima. Both men studied under Kodo Sawaki and they knew each other. So the questioner wanted to know if their fundamental philosophy was, “(a) a perspective that emerged through Nishijima’s and Deshimaru’s discussions as a mutual influence of each other’s thought, (b) was developed independently by Nishijima from his studies of Dogen, and Deshimaru was influenced by that through their frequentation, or (c) was already emphasized by their common teacher Kodo Sawaki and both Deshimaru’s and Nishijima’s teachings showed a characteristic trace of this ‘imprinting’ in their original styles.”

Here’s how I answered, for whatever it’s worth:

I don’t think it’s a matter of them being influenced by each other at all. The reason that what they say sounds similar is simply because it happens to be true. If a scientist in Brazil and a scientist in Switzerland both measure the boiling point of water at 100 degrees Celsius, you don’t assume that they must be influencing each other.

One of the problems with Buddhist philosophy is that it often seems to be just like any other philosophy, meaning it seems to be a set of ideas arrived at by thinking about them. But it isn’t. It’s an understanding arrived at by not thinking about anything. This sounds impossible to most people because we assume that the only way we can understand things is to think about them. But Buddha discovered a completely different kind of understanding.

In order to express that understanding we use the only tools at our disposal, words. But words are not really adequate. This is why face-to-face teaching is a vital part of Buddhist study. There are levels of communication which are simply not available in written form. Trying to learn Buddhism by reading books would be about the same as trying to learn to play soccer by reading a book.

Both Nishijima & Deshimaru studied with Kodo Sawaki. So, obviously he had an influence on their thinking. They also knew and spoke to each other. But it would be a mistake to think that their fundamental philosophical outlook was a matter of listening to and absorbing each others’ ideas.

I’m well aware that this all sounds like a load of mystical baloney to anyone who hasn’t spent at least 20 years sitting on a cushion staring at a wall every single day. Unfortunately, there are no words available to make it seem like an ironclad logical proposition. But, here again, I would make the parallel with the two scientists. To a person who has no understanding of what a thermometer is or how it works, it would seem like pure mysticism that our 2 scientists both described the boiling point of water as being 100 degrees Celsius. To such a person these words would seem utterly meaningless and he might only be amazed that the 2 scientists had somehow chosen the same exact words. To him it would appear that they must be engaged in some kind of psychic communication.

But such elaborate explanations are not really necessary. The facts are as they are and they are available to anyone who cares to look. But looking at these facts is not easy. Our society — meaning all of human society — is based largely upon studiously avoiding the truth that stares us in the face every moment of every day. Stop avoiding looking at the truth and you cannot possibly miss it.

38 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Element
    Element July 26, 2006 at 1:58 pm | |

    Deshimaru and Nishijima

    As far as I can see there is a difference between them concerning the teaching about breathing. Deshimaru, and in the AZI they talk a lot about breathing, Nishijima just says few words about that. The temple I go for practicing sesshins is by the AZI, and once the Master said we should feel/concentrate our breath comes in as far as to our knees… and the energie… ,I don’t know it anymore but it was a lot of talk.

    The parallels I can see are that both have similar theories about the
    nervous system.

  2. katyzen
    katyzen July 26, 2006 at 9:08 pm | |

    I’ll try to keep it simple:
    Reading into too much of anything (books, dharma talk, etc.) can cause one to cling/grasp to that idea. Be careful my friends.

  3. Element
    Element July 27, 2006 at 1:08 am | |

    For me it is important to know the differences between Master Deshimaru/AZI and Master Nishijima, because I practice in a dojo by the AZI, but I like the teachings by Master Nishijima and Brad much more.
    I know I shouldn’t distinguish to much, but personally I sometimes have problems relating to various points in the teaching of Master Deshimaru(his books/AZI). That isn’t always easy.
    I mean if you have a teacher, you should trust him, his teachings as long as…, you know, and not listening to other teachers too much, or?
    I once asked a Master regarding Master Nishijima and his teaching about breathing, and he answered that Master Nishijima would be wrong, but he had no time to tell me why. I know that I shouldn’t mind. Maybe there are other people who have had experiences with the AZI, please write.

  4. Justin
    Justin July 27, 2006 at 1:35 am | |

    Sorry Brad, I think this is a mine-field. A lot of this seems very woolly.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of them being influenced by each other at all. The reason that what they say sounds similar is simply because it happens to be true.

    How has that been confirmed in some way? Otherwise how do you know it is true?

    If a scientist in Brazil and a scientist in Switzerland both measure the boiling point of water at 100 degrees Celsius, you don’t assume that they must be influencing each other.

    Their theories have not been scientifically confirmed. It’s interesting also that the similarities arise not from two independent forms of practice, but from two very closely related lines of one practice.

    One of the problems with Buddhist philosophy is that it often seems to be just like any other philosophy, meaning it seems to be a set of ideas arrived at by thinking about them. But it isn’t. It’s an understanding arrived at by not thinking about anything.

    Buddhist philosophy is just philosophy like any other – concepts, words, logic. However, these philosophies are intended to point to reality, to undermine all clinging to views, including clinging to themselves. Reality itself which is completely silent.

    And theories about what is the best way to practice or about the nervous system are not philosophies but hypotheses about pragmatics and the physical world.

    This sounds impossible to most people because we assume that the only way we can understand things is to think about them. But Buddha discovered a completely different kind of understanding.

    The thoughts and philosophies we might have after this non-thinking are just thoughts and philosophies, they are not ‘the truth’.

    But it would be a mistake to think that their fundamental philosophical outlook was a matter of listening to and absorbing each others’ ideas.

    Yet you seem to have listened to and absorbed Nishijima’s ideas.

    I’m well aware that this all sounds like a load of mystical baloney to anyone who hasn’t spent at least 20 years sitting on a cushion staring at a wall every single day.

    Smacks of exclusive-access-to-truth and revealed-wisdom – mainstays of absolutist religions and cults of various shades – but not Zen which properly understood is ultimately anti-dogmatic and does not present itself as absolute truth.

    Unfortunately, there are no words available to make it seem like an ironclad logical proposition.

    Smacks of retreat-into-ineffability – make a divinely-inspired proclaimation based on an exclusive access to ‘the truth’ then refuse to back it up, citing personal religious authority and ineffability. Christians do this all the time.

    But, here again, I would make the parallel with the two scientists. To a person who has no understanding of what a thermometer is or how it works, it would seem like pure mysticism that our 2 scientists both described the boiling point of water as being 100 degrees Celsius. To such a person these words would seem utterly meaningless and he might only be amazed that the 2 scientists had somehow chosen the same exact words. To him it would appear that they must be engaged in some kind of psychic communication.

    The difference is that the workings of a thermometer is transparent – it can be explained and demonstrated to support a viewpoint. To say that after 20 years of Zazen you will arrive at this understanding does not support your viewpoint nor is there any support for the belief that the new understanding after 20 years of zazen is true.

    After 20 years of zazen I hope to have no attachment to any views.

    The argument might have slightly more weight if there were completely separate people all over the world spontaneously arriving at the same philosophical view, but even that would not show that the view was correct, and that’s not what is happening – two closely-related strands of institutional Soto Zen during the same period of history have similar philosophies. The simple explanation is that they have common cultural roots and were able to influence one another.

    Are you attached to the bricks and mortar of Zen?

    Zen, for me is not attachment to , or defence of any particular view. (My own attachments to ideas I don’t mistake for Zen). It is simply the reality of the present moment. I’m re-reading ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ – it’s nice and simple.

  5. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe July 27, 2006 at 3:32 am | |

    I mean if you have a teacher, you should trust him, his teachings as long as…, you know, and not listening to other teachers too much, or?

    The best that a teacher can do is point you in roughly the direction and even then that will only help if you can see roughly where he is pointing and even then you will only be able to do that after lots of practice.

    Every teacher will have their own personal philosophy and methods.

    You must recognise them for what they are – one viewpoint and one method, not absolute truth.

    The role of a teacher is to help you to discover for yourself what the truth is.

    Anything which they say that you cannot discover for yourself but must ‘believe’ I would be highly skeptical about.

    When all views have been relinquished what will remain?

  6. Justin
    Justin July 27, 2006 at 3:47 am | |

    When all views have been relinquished what will remain?

    Washing up

  7. oxeye
    oxeye July 27, 2006 at 8:15 am | |

    There is no reason to believe that what you say here isn’t the truth. But, there is no real reason to believe that it is either. It would seem that the two men in question could be influenced by any of the factors involved, a, b ,c or the revealed truth of 20 years of sitting, possibly all to an equal degree. The words of Buddhist teachers are quite different from each other. Getting to the true mind is the point of practice but there seems to be very little that can be said about it, and what is said is often contradictory. Saying that things are both true and false will avoid ordinary dualistic mind but will confuse. Theorizing about the autonomic nervous system or the second law of thermodynamics seems to be about getting caught up in ideas. Ideas are interesting but maybe not that helpful if we consider them to be the truth.

  8. Jinzang
    Jinzang July 27, 2006 at 9:04 am | |

    Reading into too much of anything (books, dharma talk, etc.) can cause one to cling/grasp to that idea. Be careful my friends.

    Reading or not reading is beside the point. What’s important is if you practice and the attitude you bring to practice.

  9. Jinzang
    Jinzang July 27, 2006 at 9:15 am | |

    Smacks of retreat-into-ineffability – make a divinely-inspired proclaimation based on an exclusive access to ‘the truth’ then refuse to back it up, citing personal religious authority and ineffability. Christians do this all the time.

    I think you’re getting too hung up on theory of knowledge. If someone hits you hard on the head, do you have to verify that it hurts? The question isn’t how do we know what Zen says is true. It’s what sort of truth is Zen pointing to if it can be known in this immediate fashion? Zen isn’t a nihilistic retreat into relinquishing all views, nor is it the assertion of some view about how things are. What’s left? That’s the Middle Way.

    Our society — meaning all of human society — is based largely upon studiously avoiding the truth that stares us in the face every moment of every day. Stop avoiding looking at the truth and you cannot possibly miss it.

    Print this out, frame it, and hang it above your computer monitor.

  10. Justin
    Justin July 27, 2006 at 9:35 am | |

    I think you’re getting too hung up on theory of knowledge. If someone hits you hard on the head, do you have to verify that it hurts? The question isn’t how do we know what Zen says is true. It’s what sort of truth is Zen pointing to if it can be known in this immediate fashion? Zen isn’t a nihilistic retreat into relinquishing all views, nor is it the assertion of some view about how things are. What’s left? That’s the Middle Way.

    Theories about good technique or the nervous system are claims about knowledge of the world. Zen is littered with truth-claims which should not be attached to. The point is just attention to ordinary existence rather than attachment to ideas and philosophies. It is difficult to lose such attachments but it is worse to present such beliefs as Zen or as absolute truth. Let’s not get confused.

    Zen and Buddhism are indeed the relinquishing of views – or more precisely relinquishing clinging to views as absolutes and seeing them instead as conventional in nature. There is nothing nihilistic about that. Nihilism is just one such view to be relinquished. What’s left after all views – even the relinquishing of views – are relinquished? The Middle Way? Eventually that should be relinquished too.

  11. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe July 27, 2006 at 11:04 am | |

    “Zen and Buddhism are indeed the relinquishing of views – or more precisely relinquishing clinging to views as absolutes and seeing them instead as conventional in nature. There is nothing nihilistic about that. Nihilism is just one such view to be relinquished. What’s left after all views – even the relinquishing of views – are relinquished? The Middle Way? Eventually that should be relinquished too.”

    I’d agree with this.

    The Middle Way can only exist whilst opposites are perceived as opposites – it provides a guideline.

    When no opposites are perceived then there can be no middle way since it is only defined in terms of “not this and not that but somewhere in the middle”.

    What will remain is I suspect a wavy line that weaves about a bit; mostly in the middle – more drunken ant than roman road.

  12. zenvolution
    zenvolution July 27, 2006 at 11:13 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. zenvolution
    zenvolution July 27, 2006 at 11:14 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  14. Esmerelda
    Esmerelda July 27, 2006 at 11:19 am | |

    Just when I begin to be sorry Brad turned on the comments or that I cannot resist reading them, someone says something cool and helpful. Thank you Justin.

  15. zenvolution
    zenvolution July 27, 2006 at 11:25 am | |

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  16. gniz
    gniz July 27, 2006 at 11:46 am | |

    Funnily enough, when i first read brad’s newest post, I didn’t find anything particularly flameworthy or objectionable.
    Then I read the comments and I wonder if I’ve lost a step.

    Aaron

  17. gniz
    gniz July 27, 2006 at 11:50 am | |

    “Stop avoiding looking at the truth and you cannot possibly keep reading useless blog posts and comments.”

    Fixed your post.

    -Aaron

  18. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 27, 2006 at 12:05 pm | |

    “The parallels I can see are that both have similar theories about the
    nervous system.”

    I just bought a thick textbook called Zen and the Brain (Im a scientist =p)
    and it validates much of what these zen masters have to say about the nervous system. Its all concrete.

  19. Justin
    Justin July 27, 2006 at 12:42 pm | |

    I just bought a thick textbook called Zen and the Brain (Im a scientist =p)
    and it validates much of what these zen masters have to say about the nervous system. Its all concrete.

    Their hypotheses may well be good ones I don’t know one way or the other. But that’s not the issue. The issue is that they are just hypotheses, beliefs perhaps, rather than absolute religious truths.

    There are a lot of beliefs being sneaked across disguised as unchallengeable ultimate truths. Reality is not a belief, or some knowledge of religious insight. It is mute in a sense. Of course we should respect the experience of Zen masters, but their beliefs are just beliefs, their thoughts are just thoughts and their theories about the nervous system need to be verified scientifically like anyone else’s.

    Zen is not a revealed religion, even if there is a temptation to believe it is.

  20. Justin
    Justin July 27, 2006 at 12:43 pm | |

    Gniz,

    That you have invented the word ‘flameworthy’ speaks volumes about the way you think. ;)

  21. gniz
    gniz July 27, 2006 at 12:48 pm | |

    Justin,

    I suppose I will take your comment as a compliment…though I can’t imagine it is one.

    Either way, I can’t say I find it particularly flameworthy either.

    ;)

  22. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 27, 2006 at 1:10 pm | |

    “their thoughts are just thoughts and their theories about the nervous system need to be verified scientifically like anyone else’s.”

    They have some basis. They weren’t thoughts that just popped out of nowhere. Of course a full scientific investigation hasn’t been carried out.

    However, none of that all matters if you aren’t prepared to practice zazen and investigate for yourself.

  23. Justin
    Justin July 27, 2006 at 1:28 pm | |

    They have some basis. They weren’t thoughts that just popped out of nowhere.

    I think I made it clear that their theories (right or wrong) are based on their extensive experience.

    However, none of that all matters if you aren’t prepared to practice zazen and investigate for yourself.

    Well no amount of zazen allows us (unless there is some advanced level I’m missing out on) to directly observe the physiology of our nervous system. Knowing more about what changes zazen brings about may affect people’s decisions about whether to embark on such a practice in the first place.

  24. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 27, 2006 at 1:38 pm | |

    “Well no amount of zazen allows us (unless there is some advanced level I’m missing out on) to directly observe the physiology of our nervous system. Knowing more about what changes zazen brings about may affect people’s decisions about whether to embark on such a practice in the first place.”

    Yes, you are right.

  25. 6billionghosts
    6billionghosts July 27, 2006 at 7:40 pm | |

    i think that you have definitely improved at expressing yourself with words, brad.

  26. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe July 27, 2006 at 11:13 pm | |

    DM:
    I have Zen and the Brain and also the sequel (Zen Reflections). I have read it and Gudo Nishijima’s theory on the ANS.

    It is true (and proven) that attention and regulation of the breath introduces a relaxation response into the ANS so that it tends towards a more balanced state but that is all.

    It is tentative at best to move beyond that to the extent that Gudo Nishijima has.

    The brain is influenced by and influences whe whole balance of the ANS (between excitation and relaxation) but it is a complex interaction.

    I think it is possible that several processes are happening at the same time but that to say one of these causes the other is pushing the science to far.

    To reiterate: The only hard science (that I recall) is that control or monitoring of the breath does have an impact on the ANS and induces a relaxation response.

  27. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 28, 2006 at 1:25 am | |

    Maybe there is some intuition involved on Gudo Nishijimas part.
    We never know.

  28. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe July 28, 2006 at 2:50 am | |

    “Maybe there is some intuition involved on Gudo Nishijimas part.
    We never know. “

    There might well be. But the science that he quotes to defend the position is just wrong AFAIC.

    To quote his latest posting:
    “…sympathetic nervous system, which is the cause of intellectual thoughts, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the cause of sense perceptions…”

    The above is just wrong.

    “Because the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system is a momentary state, if we have lost the balance for some reason in our daily life, it is necessary for us to practice Zazen as soon as possible to recover the balanced state at once”

    The ANS is always in a dynamic state of balance. At any momement either the SNS or PNS will be more active. It is rare for the two to be equally matched.

    The only reason that the ANS has to go out of balance is if it is in response to prolonged stressors – such as stress or drugs.

  29. Drunken Monkey
    Drunken Monkey July 28, 2006 at 1:18 pm | |

    Well done Mr Doe. I have to congratulate you for winning the award of mr know-it-all of the year.

    You might want to consult Gudo Nishijima about his use of the words “Autonomic system” and what it means to him. I know he is right, but perhaps his knowledge could be better translated.

  30. zenvolution
    zenvolution July 28, 2006 at 3:30 pm | |

    I know he is right . . .

    Well done monkey. I have to congratulate you for winning the award of mr know-it-all of the year.

  31. Jinzang
    Jinzang July 28, 2006 at 6:47 pm | |

    I wrote what I think about the scientific study of meditation several months ago in Brad’s Brain.

  32. MikeDoe
    MikeDoe July 29, 2006 at 12:45 am | |

    dm:
    You are free to believe whatever you wish but please do not confuse science with belief.

    Beliefs by their nature cannot be tested and proven/disproven. Science by its nature is about proving/disproving an idea until a more accurate idea comes along.

    What I say is not important. You can go and do your own research into the science of the ANS and the Brain and find out for yourself. That is the difference.

  33. Zen Daily
    Zen Daily July 29, 2006 at 3:27 pm | |

    I agree with your thought process but also believe that certain books can contain a whole world of knowledge. So in turn you can’t have one withouth the other just like the balance of the yin and the yang. You need the physical aspect to truly learn the teaching but also the knowledge and history in the books to fully understand the teachings.

  34. Dan
    Dan July 31, 2006 at 12:34 pm | |

    zen daily,
    it’s true, there’s some story about a novie monk asking an elder about how, if zen is supposed to be a special teaching that is outside the sutras, why are their words written about it? he replies that if there weren’t words written about it then the novice monk would never have found out that zen was a special teaching outside the sutras….. does that even make sense? i’m not sure i’ve phrased it very well. i’ll try and find the passage from this book i have somewhere called ‘buddhist scripture’

  35. Anonymous
    Anonymous January 4, 2007 at 11:21 pm | |

    Institute For Skin Sciences Release: Doctor Reveals The Skin Plays A Vital Role In

    cheap viagra uk

    We offer free prescription and delivery worldwide VIAGRA

  36. Anonymous
    Anonymous March 2, 2007 at 12:49 am | |

    Where did you find it? Interesting read »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.