The Zen of Spock

KolinahrFollowing the death of Leonard Nimoy I started re-watching some of the old Star Trek episodes and movies. In fact, I’d actually been re-watching the first season of the original Star Trek for a couple of months before he died.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for as long as I can remember. My dad and I used to watch the old reruns together on Saturday evenings when they played on Cleveland’s channel 43. After a while it seemed like we should have seen every one, but we kept seeing episodes we hadn’t seen before. My dad had a running joke about how they must secretly still be making new ones.

lastbattlefieldWhat I liked about Star Trek is that it wasn’t just a fantasy set in outer space. That was Star Wars. Star Trek was almost always about something real. Some of the allegories were really heavy handed. Like the episode in which there’s a race of people who are white on the left side and black on the right side fighting a race who are black on the left side and white on the right side. Oh, and they came from the “Southern part of the galaxy!” It was great to see a show that tried to make a point, even when they got clumsy about it.

Gene Roddenberry, who created the show, often made his alien characters surrogates for people in our own world. Thus the Klingons were pretty obviously patterned on the Soviets, the Romulans were the Chinese communists. I’ve never heard anyone else say this, but I always thought the Borg from the 80s era Star Trek: The Next Generation represented the fears Americans had about the Japanese in those days. Y’know, they all looked and thought the same and they wanted to take over the galaxy with technology.

Roddenberry appears to have been interested in Zen Buddhism. He even got married to Majel “Nurse Chappel” Barrett in Japan in what most biographers refer to as a “Shinto-Buddhist wedding.” I’m not sure exactly what that really was. Shinto weddings are more common in Japan than Buddhist weddings, although every wedding I ever attended over there was a vaguely Christian-ish western style wedding.

Anyhow, Roddenberry’s apparent interest in Zen manifest itself most clearly in the character of Mr. Spock. At first Spock was just an emotionless alien. But as it became necessary to examine the character more closely a more elaborate backstory was created. The people of Spock’s planet Vulcan had once been a savage warlike race who had nearly destroyed themselves. Then a Buddha-like Vulcan called Surak came up with a mystical program of training intended to purge his people of all emotion and focus on pure logic and rationality.

It’s important to note that one major change made to Spock’s character and to the Vulcans in general was that instead of being born without emotions, as is suggested in early episodes of the show, it was later explained that the Vulcans do have emotions. They just go through this process of learning how to transcend them. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we see Spock going through the final stages of this training, called Kolinahr, in which one finally transcends all emotions.

Zen training is not quite the same as Kolinahr. But it does involve learning to deal with our emotions in such a way that our ability to be rational – even logical – is not compromised by our emotional states. Or, at least it’s not compromised quite as often as it was before we started our Zen training.

Gudo Nishijima, my teacher, and his student Mike Cross translated a section of Shobogenzo called ç„¡æƒ…説法 (mujo seppo) as “The Non-Emotional Preaches the Dharma.” You can find it on-line for free in Volume 3 of his Shobogenzo translation (chapter 53, page 155). Most translators render this title in English as something like “The Insentient Preach the Dharma” (Stanford Shobogenzo Translation Project) or “Insentient Beings Speak the Dharma” (Kazuaki Tanahashi) or “The Sermon of Insentient Beings” (Yuuho Yokoi).

The phrase èª¬æ³• (seppo) means something like “preaches (or expounds or explains) the dharma,” but the meaning of ç„¡æƒ… (mujo) is a bit trickier. ç„¡ (mu) means “not” or in this case “non” since it modifies what comes after. But æƒ… (jo) does not mean sentient. It actually means feelings, emotions, affection or love. When you put these two together in the compound ç„¡æƒ… (mujo), it’s usually translated as heartlessness, cruelty or ruthlessness.

Of course Dogen didn’t mean “The Cruel and Ruthless Preach the Dharma,” although I imagine he could have written an essay with that theme too. If you read the actual text (this link is to Carl Bielefeldt’s translation) he’s talking about how all things express the dharma, express the essential truth. It’s sensible, then, to translate 無情 (mujo) as insentient. But what it really means is what Gudo Nsihijima and Mike Cross translated it as; “non-emotional.”

In order to express the truth one needs to be able to transcend emotions. This doesn’t mean we need to become unfeeling or robotic. We feel what we feel. But what usually happens next is that we mix our raw feelings with our sense of self and thus transform feeling into emotion. Emotion is what happens when it’s not just a feeling anymore, it’s my feeling, it’s the feeling that I possess, it’s the feeling that I use to define me. That’s where the problems begin.

As far as I know, neither Gene Roddenberry who created Mr. Spock nor Leonard Nimoy who portrayed him for over half a century ever practiced zazen or seriously studied Zen beyond maybe reading a book by DT Suzuki or Alan Watts. Yet as the character continued to grow and be refined over five decades, everyone involved became more aware that in order for Mr. Spock to be believable, his traits had to be based in reality. So after a while, Spock became less robotic and more Zen-like. I’m not sure Zachary Quinto quite gets it yet, but if he keeps playing the character he will.

Mr. Spock has feelings. He loves Captain Kirk and, outward appearances to the contrary, he clearly loves Doctor McCoy too. He struggles with his feelings because he knows that in order to be a true Vulcan, or a true human since he is half-human, he needs to keep his emotions in check and not let them overwhelm him.

But Mr. Spock is a work of fiction put together by writers and actors who didn’t really understand in practice the character they created. Thus a lot of what we see in Mr. Spock is not very realistic. We accept it because he’s supposed to be from another planet and we don’t really know what his species is like. It is, after all, a species that only exists in our imaginations.

Still, I think it’s interesting to see how this fictional character gets some of its creators’ guesswork about what Zen might be kinda, sorta, almost, just a little bit right.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Nimoy and Mr. Roddenberry.


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93 Responses

Page 1 of 1
  1. Fred
    Fred March 4, 2015 at 11:36 am |


    insentient (comparative more insentient, superlative most insentient)
    1.having no consciousness or animation; not sentient
    2.Insensitive, indifferent

  2. Zafu
    Zafu March 4, 2015 at 11:37 am |

    But Mr. Spock is a work of fiction put together by writers and actors who didn’t really understand in practice the character they created.

    Zen masters are the same. Works of fiction put together by religious leaders and followers who don’t really understand in practice the character they created. That’s why, in practice, Zen masters can be sociopaths or whatever else.

    1. Fred
      Fred March 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm |

      The first time your mother dropped you on your head, could be interpreted as an accident. But the next 25 times was no accident.

    2. justlui
      justlui March 4, 2015 at 12:03 pm |

      Zen masters aren’t fictional. You can poke one in the eye, pay their rent, piss one off, or sleep with one. I assure you, they are quite non-fictional.

      Oh wait, how zen are we getting here. Oh there is no zen master! I got you. Yep, all fictional.


      1. Fred
        Fred March 4, 2015 at 12:05 pm |

        Yeah, there are no masters, but there are master baiters.

      2. Zafu
        Zafu March 4, 2015 at 1:15 pm |

        Leonard Nimoy, and other actors, can get poked, pay rent, get pissed off, and have sex (besides with themselves). Does that somehow show that the fictional character of Spock is not a fictional character? No it doesn’t.

        We know how Mr. Spock is “supposed to be.” He’s supposed to be logical.

        We know how a Zen Master is “supposed to be.” They are supposed to be… uh, well, now that I think about it, there are really no expectations at all. They can be an old drunkard letch. They can be a sociopath. They can be rather stupid and neurotic. They can be completely ordinary. They can be charismatic and intelligent. They can be wise or ignorant. It doesn’t really matter. What matter is… that’s right, you guessed it! Meaning.

        A meaningful story, which can be science fiction, doesn’t need to be true to be meaningful.

  3. Fred
    Fred March 4, 2015 at 11:55 am |

    Unfortunately I came across this.

    Mike Cross :

    “I knew this well enough as a teenager, but then in my twenties I temporarily set aside what I knew from experience in favour of what Gudo Nishijima taught me in the way of “true Buddhist theory.” Because I can be incredibly slow on the uptake, it took me many years to work out that Gudo Nishijima, in the primary matter of using or negating reason in Zazen, and pursuing or negating right posture in Zazen, was talking through his arse. But as a result of such painfully slow progress, nowadays I know pretty well when would-be experts on Zen, and on right posture, and on the Alexander Technique, are talking through their arse, expressing their own stupid views which have no basis in reality.”

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 4, 2015 at 1:06 pm |

      Come on Fred, share the love. Post the link, or it didn’t happen. It sounds like a great read 😉

    2. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 4, 2015 at 1:24 pm |

      Fred: “Unfortunately I came across this”

      Shinchan: “Unfortunately I came across Fred’s mama”

      Talking through one’s arse is no mean feat. Truly a distinguishing sign of the great mahasiddhi. I had a long conversation once with Mr Methane. Mr Methane can not only talk through his arse – man, he can play the trombone through it, and imitate the call of several animals – both domestic and feral. Apparently the trick is to learn first to swallow air in great gulps: not easy. Then you have to gradually overcome your urge to burp. Conscious control of the anal sphincter, so that it forms a variable embouchure for doing impersonations and sound effects, is a third and near impossible skill to develop.

      Can the Alexander Technique teach you that, Mike Cross? Huh? Can it?

      1. Shinchan Ohara
        Shinchan Ohara March 4, 2015 at 1:35 pm |

        Apparently (I know a few people who knew him, I didn’t), Philip Kapleau had a really deep voice, that seemed to emanate from his lower abdomen, rather than his face. Years of building up the hara and tanden to blame for that no doubt. Two inches lower, and he could have achieved the same sublime level of mastery as Gudo and Methane.

  4. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 4, 2015 at 1:15 pm |
    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 4, 2015 at 1:28 pm |


  5. Fred
    Fred March 4, 2015 at 1:41 pm |

    Mike Cross:

    “The generally unreliable Chinese translator translated the 4th pāda as 是則泥木人 “he is just a person of clay and wood.” Insofar as “a person of clay and wood,” suggests a non-emotional practitioner who is not particularly bothered by thoughts and feelings, the phrase conveys something of the original sense; it is like those descriptions in Chinese Zen of old drills with black beads for eyes and bamboo pipes for nostrils. But the Chinese translator would have been closer to AÅ›vaghoá¹£a’s original if he had written not 是則, which expresses identity, but rather 如, which expresses likeness.

    What AÅ›vaghoá¹£a as I hear him is suggesting is that the buddha who remains at ease in himself and unstirred acts as though his reason were absent. AÅ›vaghoá¹£a is not saying that in buddha-action reason has ceased to operate; still less is he saying that buddha-action is irrational or unreasonable.”

  6. Fred
    Fred March 4, 2015 at 1:51 pm |

    “Because others are wide-eyed,
    cats and white oxen.

    With his archer’s skill,
    Yi hit the mark at a hundred paces.

    But when arrows meet head-on,
    how could it be a matter of skill?

    The wooden man starts to sing,
    the stone woman gets up dancing.

    It is not reached by feelings or consciousness,
    how could it involve deliberation?”

    Sorry Mike, his reason is absent

  7. Fred
    Fred March 4, 2015 at 2:22 pm |

    Tung-shan Liang-jie (807-869)

    “The archer Yi used his skill
    To hit a target at a hundred paces.
    But when two arrows meet head on
    Does this depend on skill obtained?

    As the wooden man begins to sing
    A stone woman gets up to dance.
    This cannot be reached by feeling, thought,
    So why try to work it out!”

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 4, 2015 at 5:43 pm |

    ‘And if I sound angry, the person I mainly feel anger towards is not Rich, and not even that other great talker through his arse Gudo Nishijima. I feel anger towards the gullible sap in me who bought into a baseless view. At least Jack in Jack & The Beanstalk got some beans for his trouble. All I got was the “true Buddhist theory” of a Zen master who — in the primary matter of sitting — did not know what he was talking about.’

    (Mike Cross, in his blog post linked above)

    I always loved “Jack and the Beanstalk”, because I figured I myself did trade in the family cow for magic beans, in my early twenties.

    Wonder why Mike thinks it would be necessary for a Zen master to know what he or she was talking about. Don’t they mostly say what Zen isn’t, and then say the important thing is to keep the back straight, and finally exhort their audience to practice zazen?

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 4, 2015 at 6:26 pm |

      I think it may be an over-simplistic “keep the back straight” that Mike is objecting to.

      I just don’t know. I spent too many years thinking zazen was an exercise in self-torture, that everybody else was somehow transcending the gruesome pain that I felt while keeping my back ramrod stiff, banishing all thought, and forcing my taut hips into something like a half-lotus.

      Mike Cross, and yourself Mark Foote, have been great bodhisattvas for me. Of late, I spend a few minutes when I first sit down doing what you suggest, letting attention go to the area of my sacrum and its movement vis-a-vis the ilia. I also rock back and forward, sideways, and observe the rotation that naturally occurs. Then I think of the basic Alexander Technique instruction, “Let my neck be free…” etc. Once I’ve adjusted and settled in this way, I put my hands in the mudra, and start my zazen. I also use double mats below the cushion at home, or even bed pillows.

      Since I started limbering up in this way, I can sit comfortably in half-lotus for two rounds of 40 minutes, with kinhin between. Not just bearably, actually in comfort… I didn’t even know that was a possibility.

      Thanks Mark (and Mike)

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 4, 2015 at 5:48 pm |

    As far as Spock and Zen, here’s Leonard explaining that he got the “live long and prosper” hand sign from a Jewish temple blessing gesture he once saw:

  10. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara March 4, 2015 at 8:48 pm |

    As far as Spock and Zen, I recall after reading this post that I tried to channel Spock’s mujo as a kid, and messed up my mojo in the process.

    I thought non-emotional and logical-vulcan was a good thing, compared to some of the emotionally volatile, borderline-type fearful and aggressive crap I saw going on round about me. I thought that if I bottled up and hid my feelings, nobody could hurt them. I thought I could figure everything out in the privacy of my own head. It didn’t work out too well. I ended up feeling totally isolated – I became awkward, stiff, bookish, unable to act spontaneously, and not a particularly charming child. By my teens, I was pretty much disconnected from my feelings – which were only ever released as outbursts of over-the-top rage.

    It took years of psychotherapy, followed by years of sitting zen, before I could feel a real feeling without over-reacting or trying to shut it down.

    So, Fuck You Mr Spock! (but RIP Leonard Nimoy)


    More generally, I’m not convinced at all about non-emotional being a virtue in Zen, or in human life. I’ve seen or heard nothing that persuades me that there’s no place for forceful anger or strong grief, or whatever. Can’t these things be the best, most appropriate, compassionate responses in some circumstances? Are they always purely selfish? I really don’t know: but I see a lot of committed zen-sitters who remind me of the repressed unhappy child I used to be.

    1. Zafu
      Zafu March 5, 2015 at 10:13 am |

      I see a lot of committed zen-sitters who remind me of the repressed unhappy child I used to be.

      Well at least they don’t put the blame on a fictional character from a tv series. They probably put the blame on the fictional character of a Zen master.

      1. Shinchan Ohara
        Shinchan Ohara March 6, 2015 at 12:31 pm |

        I also blame my arse for the shape of your face, fictional zafu.

        There. I gratified your masochism. Go jerk off now.

        Only a natural born gimp would name itself after a sitting cushion, and try to troll a zen blog. What is it about zen masters that excites you most, zafu? The robe or the stick?

        1. Zafu
          Zafu March 6, 2015 at 1:47 pm |

          I gratified your masochism.

          You say that like you had a choice.

        2. minkfoot
          minkfoot March 6, 2015 at 2:56 pm |

          Hmm-umh! That’s some powerful masochism!

    2. Fred
      Fred March 5, 2015 at 11:13 am |

      “More generally, I’m not convinced at all about non-emotional being a virtue in Zen, or in human life. I’ve seen or heard nothing that persuades me that there’s no place for forceful anger or strong grief, or whatever. Can’t these things be the best, most appropriate, compassionate responses in some circumstances? Are they always purely selfish? I really don’t know: but I see a lot of committed zen-sitters who remind me of the repressed unhappy child I used to be”

      There’s a difference between repressing it and dropping it.

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 5, 2015 at 1:56 pm |

        The former takes effort and the latter is effortless. According to the story, it took great effort Spock to control his emotions. You seem to be suggesting that emotions are easily controlled by Zen folk. Thanks for the laugh!

      2. Shinchan Ohara
        Shinchan Ohara March 6, 2015 at 3:25 am |

        “There’s a difference between repressing it and dropping it.” (quoth Fred)

        Of course there is. I’m all in favour of dropping emotions, and not repressing them. And I fully support effort to uproot blind passions. I’m just not sure I dig this part of what Brad wrote:

        “We feel what we feel. But what usually happens next is that we mix our raw feelings with our sense of self and thus transform feeling into emotion…”

        Obviously a lot of human suffering arises and persists from making transient emotional states into a part of our self-identity: the ‘I am a depressed person’ story, or whatever. I get that. Maybe I just have a different mental picture of what the word ’emotion’ means from Brad’s.

        I tend to think of ‘feelings’ as phenomena that are just what they are: we can choose to act on them; to acknowledge them without acting; or to ignore them. My conception was that ’emotion’ just means the physical expression of feeling, either in a voluntary or involuntary way?

        … No, I was wrong, and being a pedantic moaner. I retract everything I said above. I just checked the dictionary, and the first definition of ’emotion’ sounds pretty much like what Brad said (definitely sense of self related):

        “emotion: n. A strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others”

  11. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 4, 2015 at 10:06 pm |

    Shinchan, first of all, you made my day.

    Brad and the folks on the comment thread here have actually functioned as a practice community for me, in that I feel invested in the exchange, and it’s been good for me. Sometimes I wonder if it’s all pissing in the wind, so it helps me to hear that your sitting finds more ease with a kick to the vestibular. I get a lot of ease kicking the vestibular; I try to wake up to proprioception, and then fall back asleep with it. It’s just the way I am.

    The empty hand grasps the hoe handle, something about the way the placement and weight of the arms and hands engages the ilio-tibial bands, and the placement and weight of the lower legs likewise at the knee; I find my hands and feet, and get my ass kicked.

    Thanks, everybody.

  12. Michel
    Michel March 5, 2015 at 8:14 am |

    I never met Mike Cross in person. But the few exchanges I had with him left me with an annoying feeling, that I finally did not want to meet him. I think he was flustered that Nishijima did not allow him to mix references about the Alexander technique in the translation of the SBGZ, and that his hatred is in the end a bit annoying, just to tell my feeling, although I quite appreciate his translators talents.

    I never had the feeling that Nishijima taught a stiff and unnatural posture. But think (get the feeling) that Mike wanted Godo to bow to him as to someone who knew better, which Gudo would never have done.


  13. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 5, 2015 at 10:16 am |

    Proulx Michel, I think I mentioned that I emailed Mike and asked him if he was aware of Blanke and Mohr’s research; he emailed back that I could ask him a question on his blog.

    This left me feeling slightly irritated. It’s hard to tell if it would actually be a good thing for me to take the time and energy to look into his blog, and ask him if he’s familiar with the research there. Mostly I guess his response indicated to me that he’s not really interested, and his primary concern is keeping things organized around his role as a teacher. Maybe there’s something more at play here, but without a word of explanation from him about why I should ask on his blog instead, I’m left to wonder about his assumptions. Sorry, Mike, if I’ve misunderstood you!

    ‘Of late, I spend a few minutes when I first sit down doing what you suggest, letting attention go to the area of my sacrum and its movement vis-a-vis the ilia. I also rock back and forward, sideways, and observe the rotation that naturally occurs. Then I think of the basic Alexander Technique instruction, “Let my neck be free…” etc.’

    I go for that. The part about “let my neck be free”, I have to try that. In my write about Fuxi’s poem, I put forward Bartilink’s findings about pressure in “the abdominal ball” and support for the lower spine, including his observation that activity in the muscles of the pelvic basin and in the transverse muscles of the abdomen and chest is responsible for the pressure in the “ball”. When I get my kick in the ass (when the gears begin to engage my butt), it seems like there’s occasional activity in the transverse muscles at particular vertebrae, and I get this sensation:

    ‘…it is like a clever turner or a clever turner’s apprentice who, making a long (turn), comprehends “I am making a long (turn)”, or when making a short (turn) comprehends, “I am making a short (turn)”.’

    (MN I 56, Pali Text Society vol. I pg 72)

    I confess I’m thinking of a potter with a potter’s (manual) wheel, and I don’t actually know what a “turner” was in India in Gautama’s day. The sensation I get is that my feet are composing the vessel in the following description, but the vessel is more like clay than bronze, and my hands are working it:

    “…as a skilled bath-attendant or (bath-attendant) apprentice, having sprinkled bath-powder into a bronze vessel, might knead it while repeatedly sprinkling it with water until the ball of lather had taken up moisture, was drenched with moisture, suffused with moisture inside and out but without any oozing. Even so… does (a person) saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of aloofness; there is no part of (the) whole body that is not suffused with the rapture and joy born of aloofness. While (such a person) is thus diligent, ardent, self-resolute, those memories and aspirations that are worldly are got rid of; by getting rid of them, the mind is inwardly settled, calmed, focused, concentrated.”

    (MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)

    So my feet and hands seem to be talking about something, where the level ground and the foaming breakers meet, and then I realize that my dis-ease has ceased. Nevertheless the focus on my hands and feet only includes my neck and head insofar as “no part of (the) whole body …is not suffused with the rapture and joy born of aloofness” (I would say “absorption and ease” rather than “rapture and joy”).

    I’m aware of Yuanwu’s instruction to “bite down here”; I think I need to “let my neck be free” and let my eyebrows be horizontal, my nose vertical, and my lips circular, yet my kick in the ass keeps bringing me back to my senses.

    “… a (person)… enters on and abides in the second meditative state which is devoid of initial thought and discursive thought, is born of concentration and is rapturous and joyful. (Such a person) drenches, saturates, permeates, suffuses this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of concentration; there is no part of (their) whole body that is not suffused with the rapture and joy that are born of concentration. It is like a pool of water with water welling up within it, but which has no inlet for water from the eastern… western… northern… or southern side, and even if the god does not send down showers upon it from time to time, yet the current of cool water having welled up from that pool will drench, saturate, permeate, suffuse this very body with the rapture and joy that are born of concentration.”

    (MN III 92-93, PTS pg 132-134)

  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 5, 2015 at 10:26 am |

    Shinchan Ohara, can I quote your remarks on practice on my blog?

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 5, 2015 at 2:32 pm |

      Yes, sure

      1. Mark Foote
        Mark Foote March 5, 2015 at 2:58 pm |

        thanks, it’s a lot livelier when there are two voices. Yours is clean, mine I will try not to kill with my edits…

  15. sri_barence
    sri_barence March 5, 2015 at 11:03 am |

    On Mr. Spock: In one of the earlier Star Trek movies, he says to his protege, “Logic is only the bleginning of wisdom, Mr Saavik.” I’ve always liked that line. Leonard Nimoy invested the character of Mr Spock with a deep, warm humanity. Apparently as a human, Nimoy enjoyed his life and lived it fully, with love and humour. I will miss him.

    On the sitting posture in Zazen: in the Kwan Um school, of which I am a member, less emphasis is placed on posture, and more on what is called “mind sitting,” or “not-moving mind.” I think this is a healthy attitude towards sitting. Many people find even the half-lotus to be impossible. I’m one of them. My knees are already so worn out that my doctors have told me I may someday require surgery. So I sit in a kind of sloppy variation of the half-lotus. I tend to pay attention to the muscles in my back, neck and arms, and try to release tension when it appears. This has helped me to develop the ability to sit for long periods without pain, while keeping relatively still on the cushion. Last week I did a 6-hour sit (30 sitting/10 walking), without any discomfort at all.
    On “not-moving mind:” If you watch closely, you will see that thoughts, feelings, perceptions come and go by themselves anyway, no matter what you do. Letting this natural process take place, without trying to make something happen, is “not-moving mind.” This is not special; it is just “everyday mind.”
    Or something like that – I’m still working it out for myself. You work it out for yourself.

    1. Fred
      Fred March 5, 2015 at 11:57 am |

      “Mind-sitting means keeping a not-moving mind in every life situation. How do you keep not-moving mind? In each moment, just don’t cling to your opinion, condition and situation. When you are doing something, just do it. This is everyday Zen”

  16. Jinzang
    Jinzang March 5, 2015 at 6:32 pm |

    I’ve probably told this story before, but it bears repeating. When I was in college, a Japanese Rinzai Zen priest, a Mr. Seikan Hasegawa, came and gave a talk. I remember very little of what he said, except one remark:

    “Some people say Zen is being unmoved even when your house burns down and your wife and child die, but that is not so. In that case, Zen should cry.”

  17. Strong Practice
    Strong Practice March 5, 2015 at 11:22 pm |

    There are some who’ve been doing it for 20 years or more and they are masters. And there are some who’ve been doing it for that same amount of time and have actually gotten worse for the wear. And there are those who’ve been plugging along for that same amount of time (full time) without writing about on a blog or tweeting about it, those who just give it everything they have without any thought of reward. It truly is a gamble, this practice. But those who do it sincerely and wholeheartedly realize that there is no reward. Choose your delusions wisely.

    1. Zafu
      Zafu March 6, 2015 at 10:16 am |

      It doesn’t matter if anyone masters Zen, because no one understands what a Zen master is, just like the writers and actors who created the fictional character of Mr. Spock didn’t really understand in practice the character they created, as Brad points out. It doesn’t matter that no one understands these fictional characters because they have meaning regardless. The reward you speak of is meaning, and there is no gamble in that.

  18. Leah
    Leah March 6, 2015 at 1:05 am |

    I didn’t watch Star Trek; then again, I haven’t had a TV for most of my life so maybe I would have otherwise. But my mom loved it and told me it was a lot deeper than you could see right away. And I can picture that, especially with this description.

    The emotions thing: for me it’s about feeling them and knowing they’re there but not letting them dictate my behavior all the time. It’s fine to feel them–to grieve (my mom died just last year, and of course I should grieve), to be angry, to be wonderfully happy, and all that. It’s normal. But the awareness of them–as I watch my thoughts and emotions that go with them–as I practice sitting is what’s important to me. And when I’m aware of my emotions, I can make choices in my life that are better for me (back to that “better person” thing in previous post).

    But I was thinking about all the different precepts, too. To follow them, seems to me, it’s essential to be aware of the emotions (and thoughts) that drive us.

    1. Zafu
      Zafu March 6, 2015 at 7:40 am |

      A rare sensible post in this so called “playground of idiots.”

      We don’t need religion to simply pay attention. And indeed Zen, and all other religions, are not about being a better person. It’s are about being spoon fed meaning, for those who can’t find it for themselves.

    2. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 6, 2015 at 1:13 pm |

      Most of us experience the loss of a beloved in our lives. we can sympathize with your grief through our own – it’s another thing that binds us all together.

      Religion is too large for any one assertion to apply, and those that try discredit themselves. But perhaps a useful distinction can be made between religions which emphasize identification, with tribal membership based on criteria like belief, and religions which emphasize experiential aspects, such as practice.

      From my pre-teens to mid-adolescence, I identified as a Catholic. In the confessional, the priest advised that the way to deal with anger and lust and the hoard of passions that, St.-Anthony-like, swarmed and tortured the typical youth, was to grimly set one’s teeth and bootstrap oneself into self-control and salvation. Just bear down and do it! Oh, and pray about it. And cold showers!

      Zen attracted me in that it did not demand rationalistic gymnastics to believe the incredible*, but most of all because it offered a plan of action, a yoga, to develop what might be deficient and unsatisfactory.

      Just the very act of observing emotions, taking a step back and being aware of them, reduces the hold they have over us. The effects of mindfulness and concentration further strengthen our ability to disengage action from unhealthy feeling-thoughts, and eventually let the impulses that produce them wither on the vine. Working on oneself this way is easier in the company of fellow practitioners. I’ve met few highly perfected individuals in my life, but it’s far easier living among people who take their own spiritual development seriously, and with some humility and humor, like many Buddhists, Pagans, Sufis . . . even Christians sincerely dedicated to the Gospel. We’re all flawed, thus capable of being forgiven and forgiving.

      Dispassionate, yes; unfeeling, no. We stay moist, we don’t slobber.

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 6, 2015 at 5:12 pm |

        perhaps a useful distinction can be made between religions which emphasize identification, with tribal membership based on criteria like belief, and religions which emphasize experiential aspects, such as practice.
        ~ Minky

        You’ve made the distinction, and to your good credit you’ve not done anything with it.

        Dispassionate, yes; unfeeling, no. We stay moist, we don’t slobber.

        That’s no different than those who you exclude from “we.” Most people are rather dispassionate. Indeed religious people historically have a tendency to foam at the mouth most easily. The deep desire for meaning, and their inability to find it for themselves, leaves them prone manipulation and terrible acts of aggression. Zen is no exception. Look at what happened with Japanese Zen in World War II. A famous quote is from Harada Daiun Sogaku:

        [If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].[1][2]

        You don’t have dispassion, you have belief. Let’s hope you, or anyone around you, never pays the price for that mistake.

    3. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 6, 2015 at 1:15 pm |

      *actually, Zen teaches one not to believe in the obvious, either.

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 6, 2015 at 5:24 pm |

        It teaches emptiness, which is a belief, obviously.

  19. Andy
    Andy March 6, 2015 at 7:20 am |

    Onanerdism Warning!

    I like the contrast between Soviets and Communists up there, Brad. While the (‘Kalinka’ perhaps) Klingons were very obviously modelled for their analogous place in a cold war dynamic (a feature brought to full fruition in the Star Trek VI movie) how they were fleshed out, I find most fascinating.

    To me, their metaphorical pulpiness projects fears of the volatile, organised brutality of the feudal within modernity, and with elements of pre-feudal tribalism increasingly layered in. Not just the rumbling Kalinka ka kalinka of militarised, peasant Russians, but this displaced east into the guise of their Asian cousins from within the Ruskie empires: The Klingons sport the more orientalized face of the Hun, Attila – beating his barbaric ways against the doors of The Republic.

    This allowed for the later Klingons to get all beast-with-two-backs (one on the forehead), and some Viking and kamikaze bushido, Black-Panthering of PC asses, until Whorf gets to steal Riker’s gal, followed up by some off-scene Deep Space Nine Inch Nailing thrown in later for another white Venus – albeit one perpetually gestating a Yoda.

    No wonder dual-heritage Voyager, B’Elanna Torres, was so conflicted she hooked up with an all American prodigal son and so remained in perpetual therapy with a weird domestic-abuse-roll-swapping fetish.

    Related to all this id-spreading is the emasculation of certain other signifying characters within the shrink-wrapped tribe of the Federation, in which the mojo gets spread around and denied to others.

    Contemporary Japanese Sulu and white Russian Chekov are two little harmless boys assimilated, yet given leave on occasion, like Spock, to let it all hang out, only to make fools of themselves, before returning that sweaty tribal mojo to Kirk.

    When The Next Generation went PC beige, and they finally, really did it, those maniacs, Kirk’s mojo was supposed to be spread, for some benign friction, between Riker and Picard. This didn’t go quite to plan. Without the No. 1 authority, Riker ended up creeping around like a slimy office letch, picking on Klingon Whorf to boost his boots and keep those stinking, dirty ape, paws off his empath ex; while, in the process, failing to provide an alternative, progressive hero for all those American white boys.

    Shakesperean Picard’s stiff upper – baitingly token French – lip sent the message out that Anglo-Saxon, old world daddies keep it potently and authentically tucked away, thus paving the way for the warm austerity of blue-blood Mommy Janeway (sporting her own emasculated, Apache No.2, whose people had a saying via Dr Phil) and also Deep Space Nine’s smouldering patrician Othello, Captain Sisko (who kinda got Whorf, on that account, and so helped him complete Fed finishing school. I can imagine them going fishing together, in New England).

    After the Picard-Riker hiccup, the Anglo slots went the way of Sulu and Chekov: slimy-limey Tony Blair weeds of Deep Space Nine (Bashir) and Enterprise (Malcolm). The No.2 got to be a junior Dubya, happily pretending, like Scottie, to be an engineering genius, while taking advantage of a Vulcan girl with mental illness and drug problems, thus allowing the Captain to be a sensitive sports fan and Dog owner, via Dr Phil.

    That’s why they obliterated Vulcan.

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 6, 2015 at 7:39 am |

      that’ll be a fair assessment, cap’n

    2. Fred Jr.
      Fred Jr. March 6, 2015 at 7:45 am |


  20. minkfoot
    minkfoot March 6, 2015 at 11:14 am |

    Some people just don’t like furriners, even if they’re half-Merkin. I’ve heard some of the same critiques about Zen people:

    “What Leonard Nimoy’s death revealed,” Continetti wrote, “is that there is a sizable portion of Trek fans, and of nerds in general, that identifies with Spock’s neuroses, his hang-ups, his self-loathing, that are attracted to the cold soulless abstractions through which he views life, who believe in the naïve and ineffective diplomacy in which he so thoughtlessly and recklessly and harmfully engages.”

    1. Zafu
      Zafu March 6, 2015 at 11:36 am |

      Zen folk engage in reckless diplomacy? Wanton self-promotion perhaps, like so many politicians.

  21. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer March 6, 2015 at 11:29 am |

    “Some people just don’t like furriners, even if they’re half-Merkin.”

    That is a funny sentence.


  22. leoboiko
    leoboiko March 6, 2015 at 11:42 am |

    You’re right that the Chinese character 情 means “feeling, emotion”, and that Japanese Mujō 無情 means “unfeeling, ruthless”. However, according to, 情 was also the word that the Chinese Buddhists chose to translate Sanskrit sattva. So perhaps that’s why other translators render 無情 as “Insentient”; they’re trying to go for “beings without sattva”.

  23. minkfoot
    minkfoot March 7, 2015 at 4:54 am |

    Shinchan, do you know why Mara bothers to bedevil the yogi? Indeed, all who try to overcome their ignorance?

    Star Trek provides an answer!

    There’s no arguing with Mara, there’s just seeing through him. Arguing just feeds his joriki.

    1. Fred
      Fred March 7, 2015 at 6:51 am |

      Focusing this joriki by not moving mind.

    2. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 7, 2015 at 11:15 am |

      Thanks minkfoot… that’s wise counsel.

      Although, I come here only slightly for education, and mainly for entertainment. I see few yogins here and no devils: few masters and (as Fred says) many baiters. Sometimes taking the bait, sometimes setting it, sometimes seeing through it.

      It all looks like fun to me… sometimes my own sarcastic bait can be a bit stinky, I hope nobody takes real offence to it.

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 7, 2015 at 11:32 am |

        You take your entertainment so seriously. And why should you not? Ego?

  24. Zafu
    Zafu March 7, 2015 at 8:28 am |

    Religious folk ALWAYS demonize the dissonate voice. They can’t help themselves, it helps to solidify their system of meaning.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 7, 2015 at 12:01 pm |

      Yeah, you keep saying that. What else you got?

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 7, 2015 at 12:51 pm |

        A projector and some sort of adolescent anger, if I’m following your conclusions correctly.

      2. minkfoot
        minkfoot March 7, 2015 at 2:15 pm |

        Pretty dusty mirror there. Maybe you need some Northern advice?

        Projector is spot on, though.

        1. Zafu
          Zafu March 7, 2015 at 3:12 pm |

          No thanks, but it’s sweet of you to offer.

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 7, 2015 at 11:00 am |
  26. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara March 7, 2015 at 1:27 pm |

    Interesting, Mark Foote.

    One more rambling comment from me, then off to do some work that I’ve been avoiding by reading Zen blogs.

    I guess there will always be a tension between those who advocate pure shikantaza exactly as specified by Dogen, and those who feel that ideas from other traditions can enrich their practice. This might be part of what went on between Mike Cross and Gudo Nishijima, but the controversy goes back way further.

    The Rinzai school’s practice of diaphragmatic breathing in zazen, and focussing on a point two inches below the belly button, came about after Master Hakuin had a nervous breakdown, and sought the advice of a Taoist sage. The sage showed him the technique as a way to accumulate qi in the abdomen, and calm and stabilize respiration. From the Soto school point of view, all that stuff is just medicine or callisthenics – and not real zazen.

    I practised Hakuin-sitting for a few years, and then Dogen-sitting for a few more. My conclusion at this stage: Hakuin-sitting is really good for building up joriki and one-pointedness; Dogen-sitting provides less joriki, but is better for loosening and softening the mind and body, and weakening dualistic perception. Dogen-style suits me more at the moment, but either style might benefit a particular student at a particular time (though I’m neither a teacher nor an expert).

    I definitely don’t want to bring too many outside ideas into my sitting. My sense is that the practices and rituals of Zen are the fruit of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge on how best to use the human body, and that the postures and mudras are archetypes that go back much further than Shakyamuni. I went to the British Museum in London a while back, and saw statues of Assyrian deities, all standing with hands in shashu, as if ready for kinhin. And then there’s King Tut, clutching his Zen master’s stick and fly-whisk, not to mention characters sitting lotus pose in prehistoric art. We may risk losing a great deal of body-wisdom by modifying the practice to accomodate new-fangled ideas like Alexander Technique.

    So while AT and various ideas from kinesiology have helped me to sit in comfort, I try to keep them out of my actual meditation. I see them as just an extension of Dogen’s prescription for preparing for zazen: “rock side to side” and “settle into an immovable sitting posture”

    Last point. I once thought that the shashu mudra used in Zen (left hand covering right fist) signified form and emptiness together as one with no gap. But I read today that shashu (叉手) is literally ‘fork hand’… so maybe it’s better to interpret it as meaning the same as Spock’s forked hand gesture. Maybe. Anyway, live long and prosper, y’all.

    1. Fred
      Fred March 7, 2015 at 2:18 pm |


      “The pace of walking meditation may be slow (several steady steps per each breath) or brisk, almost to the point of jogging.

      The terms consist of the Kanji kin (経 ‘to go through (like the thread in a loom)’, with ‘sÅ«tra’ as a secondary meaning) and hin (è¡Œ ‘walk’). Therefore if taken literally, they mean ‘to walk straight back and forth.’ Although it can be translated loosely as meditative walking or walking meditation. Its meaning is similar to the idiom “walk-the-talk” as its literal meaning includes “walking to religious teachings” or “sutra walking”, because the double meaning of the first character connotes walking the truth that is talked about in the sutras.”

      Any examples of this being done a couple of hours per day?

    2. Zafu
      Zafu March 7, 2015 at 4:17 pm |

      The shashu mudra (left hand covering right fist) is meant only to keep Zen Masta from playing with self. Zen Masta say, “zanzen make me so horny.”

      1. Fred
        Fred March 7, 2015 at 5:41 pm |

        Zazen doesn’t make you horny. Horniness is a biological drive expressed through cultural conditioning.

        Masturbation and masterbaiting occurs in individuals with latent unexpressed adolescent anger issues living in their mom’s basement. Both are forms of sublimation.

        1. Fred
          Fred March 7, 2015 at 5:43 pm |

          It’s just entertainment.

        2. Zafu
          Zafu March 7, 2015 at 5:52 pm |

          Let’s leave Mom out of this, please.

          Horniness is expressed by fucking, or whatever. And look at all those horny Zen Masta’s playing hide the sausage with their students. It must make them horny.

        3. Fred Jr.
          Fred Jr. March 8, 2015 at 6:37 am |

          So when exactly are we going to move out of Grandma’s basement, Dad? And will you *please* buy toilet paper today?

  27. Fred
    Fred March 7, 2015 at 5:48 pm |

    No self upon the fucking absolute can’t be expressed in words. Just live it. If Snafu wants to waste his time here, who gives a shit. Maybe you believe in the Bodhisattva stuff. That’s a fucking illusion too.

  28. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 7, 2015 at 6:22 pm |

    Shinchan Ohara, thanks so much for the Alexander link; that felt good, I’m especially startled and intrigued by “the head forward and up from the top of the neck”- I’d never thought about treating the head’s motion independently from the top of the neck, and it feels good. The other points seemed also right on to me: “letting the neck be free” is a way to relax and more, allowing the hip joints to hammock open from the pelvis is for me associated with the engagement of the ilio-tibial bands on the outside of the hips and consequent side-to-side of the obturators, freeing the shoulders to float on the rib cage also seems novel and relaxing. I may watch the whole video sometime.

    I wrote my riff off of your testimonial (forgive me!) as a note to self, concerning an ease that I have found at times in my sitting and walking lately. In a way, my part boiled down to the last sentence: “I do try to relax the thing that enters into where I am”.

    The emphasis on a single thing, I found that exhilarating.

    Fuxi was a contemporary of Bodhidharma, but not the holder of the robe and bowl. His poetry seems to describe a linear enfoldment in the act of being, and me finding the posture altogether demanding, I appreciate that he would describe the modalities of enfoldment with analogies of such precision as to feeling. A blind man needs a map of the proprioceptive/tactile/kinesthetic territory, to be able to relax and appreciate where he is.

    Or not. Moooo…

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 7, 2015 at 6:38 pm |

      Part of regular DDM teaching is a set of three neck rolls both ways before sitting,

  29. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 7, 2015 at 9:23 pm |

    It’s not about mistaking the finger for the moon. It’s about looking where the finger is pointing and seeing a total eclipse behind a bank of clouds, every time.

    1. Fred
      Fred March 8, 2015 at 7:09 am |

      “I do try to relax the thing that enters into where I am”.

      “The emphasis on a single thing, I found that exhilarating.

      Fuxi was a contemporary of Bodhidharma, but not the holder of the robe and bowl.”

      Fuxi didn’t need to hold the bowl and robe; he was holding the hoe handle with an empty hand. Where I is, is where it isn’t; a momentary perturbation in the field.

  30. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 8, 2015 at 11:16 am |

    when I don’t look, moonlight everywhere.

  31. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 8, 2015 at 11:50 am |

    “When you arrive at last at towering up like a wall miles high, you will finally know that there aren’t so many things.”

    (“Zen Letters: Teachings of Yuanwu”, trans. Cleary & Cleary, pg 83)

    “The Ultimate Path is without difficulty;
    Speech is to the point, words are to the point.
    In one there are many kinds,
    In two there is no duality.

    Though there aren’t so many things, when the sun rises over the horizon and the moon goes down, and when the mountains beyond the ballustrade deepen, the waters go cold. When you get here, speech is indeed to the point, words are indeed to the point; everything is the Path and all things are completely real.”

    (commentary on the 2nd case, Blue Cliff Record, trans. Cleary & Cleary pg 14)

    “The place where even a needle cannot enter, I leave aside for now; but tell me, what’s it like when the foamy waves are flooding the skies? To test, I cite this: look!


    A monk asked Hsiang Lin, ‘What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West?’

    Hsiang Lin said, ‘Sitting for a long time becomes toilsome.'”

    (Ibid, 17th case, pg 110)

    Needles and things!

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 8, 2015 at 1:49 pm |

      If you need a needle, I have a cloth for you, but you’ll have to find the iron for yourself.

      It’s a marvelous universe, with dogs and maggots and heaven full of Maitreyas.

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote March 8, 2015 at 12:24 pm |

    I made a correction to my piece:

    “…as consciousness of a part arises, the saturation of the sense of gravity throughout the body increases”

    “…as consciousness arises from a part, the saturation of the sense of gravity throughout the body increases.”

    Shinchan O, speaking of knees and empty hands:

    1. Shinchan Ohara
      Shinchan Ohara March 8, 2015 at 1:55 pm |

      Them ancients had GOOD posture. Plumbline from the pineal… even in half seiza

    2. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 8, 2015 at 1:58 pm |

      “Tight”? I suppose so, being goddesses, though I can’t personally say.

      After sitting, one of the things I do for reentry is a forward bend, before undoing my legs, touching forehead to floor. I can feel a marvelous relaxation on either side of my sacrum.

      Also, if there’s anything hinkey about my back that day, doing that stretch after an hour of balanced sitting usually pops out any misalignments

  33. justlui
    justlui March 8, 2015 at 1:10 pm |

    Fred be like, “you’re lost in your illusion. I am selfless. Here’s a koan, but don’t point out that I don’t get koans, or I will turn into a 5 year old”.

    Zafu be like “I just want to piss off everyone because I am bored”.

    Mark Foote be like a zen man.

    Shinchan be like “I practice”.

    Justlui be like “fuck all, I’m a dick who hates religion but loves zen”

    Minkfoot be like “Beard”

    Brad be like “money, y’all?’

    Yep, nothing new here. . . *yawn*

  34. Zafu
    Zafu March 8, 2015 at 2:19 pm |

    Mark Foote be like a zen man.

    Juslui be like naïve.

    1. justlui
      justlui March 8, 2015 at 8:16 pm |

      Nah man, I like his posts! They are balanced among all these crazies.

      I get the feeling that you are done learning and have it all figured out. Must be awesome, zafu.

  35. Fred
    Fred March 8, 2015 at 2:29 pm |

    Fred be like, “you’re lost in your illusion. I am selfless. Here’s a koan, but don’t point out that I don’t get koans, or I will turn into a 5 year old”.

    1. justlui
      justlui March 8, 2015 at 8:14 pm |

      Haha well played, Fred. I was totally picking on you. I’m a troll for that, sorry man. You’re actually one of my favorite reads on here as it seems you are versed in zen writing and poetry. I’m mean and for sure find myself funnier than I am. Peace man.

      Haha, Zafu, I am soooooo naive. I will take that. You though, holy fuck what is your mission on this blog. It’s ridiculous.

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 9, 2015 at 8:34 am |

        Seems I struck a nerve. Sorry.

  36. Shinchan Ohara
    Shinchan Ohara March 8, 2015 at 3:45 pm |

    justlui is right. It is getting dull here. Quick! Somebody invent a sex scandal involving Grace S.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 8, 2015 at 4:42 pm |

      Grace Schireson is standing right behind Gretchen Taihaku Priest at her abbatial installation. Taihaku-san is the seated person in Oriental red under-robes. Over on the right side, behind the last row, you can almost make out a guy in a beret and grey beard. Coincidence? Make of it what you will.

  37. Zafu
    Zafu March 8, 2015 at 4:38 pm |

    My fav Star Trek episode is “The Way to Eden” ( ). It’s about a group of religious goofballs (they called them hippies in the 60′) who hijack the enterprize and take it to the nirvana planet. The planet turns out to be poisonous, of course. Anyway, it’s a good episode cuz the the hippies think Spock is cool and they think Kirk is a douchebag.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot March 8, 2015 at 4:47 pm |

      Too bad they picked the lamest stereotypes for the hippies. But *everybody* was making fun of us, usually without knowing we were making fun of them!

      1. Zafu
        Zafu March 10, 2015 at 8:56 am |

        No, I’m pretty sure everyone realized the level of immaturity.

  38. The Gap | Zen Heathen March 10, 2015 at 7:56 am |
  39. SheenaSharp
    SheenaSharp March 21, 2015 at 8:04 pm |

    I always heard that gene Roddenberry was a humanist. 😉

    One of the insight from Pema Chodron is that emotions are things
    They are not bad or good. I find the notion of holding your seat useful
    And the most powerful thing learned, do far.

Comments are closed.