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The Buddha’s Five Things to Consider Before Speaking

The Buddha taught there were five things to consider before speaking.[v] Is what you’re about to say:

  1. Factual and true
  2. Helpful, or beneficial
  3. Spoken with kindness and good-will (that is, hoping for the best for all involved)
  4. Endearing (that is, spoken gently, in a way the other person can hear)
  5. Timely (occasionally something true, helpful, and kind will not be endearing, or easy for someone to hear, in which case we think carefully about when to say it)


Will What We Say Be Helpful?

In the last post on right speech, we already discussed the importance of our speech being factual and true. The second point to consider before speaking is whether what we’re about to say is likely to be helpful or beneficial. This doesn’t mean we should never say anything unless we’re sure it’s going to be useful or help someone. The instruction to consider whether something will be helpful or not applies more to things we want to say in the hopes of getting others to change their minds or behavior in some way. We may want to admonish someone, or complain about something they’ve done. We may feel the urge to give advice, or educate someone – overtly, or by telling them about how we think or do things.

If we practice honesty and mindfulness, we’ll discover that many times, when we want to speak in this way, our primary motivation is to build up our own sense of being right, capable, moral, noble, victimized, etc. It seems to be human nature to try get as many people on our side as possible, as if the more people who agree with or admire us, the more legitimate our behavior or positions. Speaking primarily in order to show we’re right doesn’t qualify as “helpful” or “beneficial” speech from the Buddhist point of view.

At other times, of course, we sincerely want to help, or feel the need to point something out. Then the question of whether our speech will actually be helpful becomes critical. Even if we’re right, even if someone would be better off if they took our advice, is it going to be helpful to speak up at this time? Are we instead likely to make someone angry or defensive, and perhaps even less likely to accept or act on what we have to say? Is our speech going to reinforce someone’s sense of inadequacy, perhaps, and encourage them to rely on us for guidance? Is someone ready to hear and accept what we have to say?

Basically, if it seems very unlikely our speech will be helpful or beneficial, no matter our intentions, the Buddha suggests we remain silent. Kind of makes you think about how much less we’d end up saying if we followed the Buddha’s guidelines on speech, doesn’t it?

Are We Speaking with Kindness and Good-Will?

Chances are, if we speak with good-will, it’s more likely someone will be able to hear and accept what we have to say, and will benefit from it. If we maintain a sense of good-will, we’re more likely to be motivated to speak what will be helpful (as opposed to what’s idle or self-serving).

Considering our own attitude while speaking is another useful approach to evaluating our speech. What are we thinking and feeling as we contemplate saying something? Do we have judgments in our mind about the person we’re speaking to – that they’re stupid, weak, pathetic, inferior, deluded, stubborn, etc.? If so, chances are we’re feeling superior to them and our motivation to speak isn’t sincerely about their best interests. If someone has hurt or offended us and we’re speaking up about it, have we already categorized the other person as unreasonable, cruel, selfish, or irredeemable? If so, chances are our speech will be tinged with anger and a desire to hurt the person in return. Sometimes we can remind ourselves of the importance of speaking with good-will, and we’ll be able to extend some warmth, patience, and benefit-of-the-doubt to those we’re speaking to or about.

However, what about when we find our attitude toward others is still less than kind, affectionate, or based in good-will? Sometimes we may still decide it’s important to speak. But at least we can be aware that we’re coming from a biased place, and perhaps speak in a way that minimizes expression of that bias. In addition, it may help to consider the Buddhist premise that each person is doing the best they can and just trying to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Sure, sometimes, due to ignorance, people go about seeking happiness in deluded and harmful ways. But in general, people don’t set out to be evil. They see themselves as good, or at least as trying to be good. Your message will be more likely to get across if your speech in some way appeals to the other person’s better nature.


Will What We Say Be Endearing? If Not, at Least Timely?

As for whether our speech is endearing (that is, pleasant, polite, agreeable, and appealing to people), the Buddha says it’s not right speech if what we say is endearing but fails any one of the other tests. “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.”[x] This is a whole realm of wrong speech we haven’t even covered yet – speech that curries favor while divorced from sincere good-will or truth. This includes flattery, political machinations, divisive tale-bearing, etc.

Apart from manipulative speech, however, it’s interesting to me that the Buddha would ask us to consider whether what we’re going to say is endearing or not. Most of us feel that it’s more important to speak the truth, or speak up when something’s wrong, than it is to be endearing. Still, the Buddha explains his considerations about speaking by saying he “has sympathy for living beings.” He pays attention to how they are going to feel as a result of his words. Frankly, even if we’re convinced we should speak, failing to consider how our words are going to make someone feel shows either self-centeredness or folly. After all, why are we speaking? Do we just want make a point that we’re right, or do we actually want to communicate something to others? If we actually want to communicate, then we’d better think about how our words are likely to be received.

Of course, the Buddha makes it clear right speech may sometimes not be endearing. We can easily think of examples where this is the case – when we need to say “no,” or set a boundary with someone, or we need to point out harmful behavior, or say something that’s likely to make someone feel defensive or ashamed no matter how we put it. If we’re motivated by good-will, what we say is factual and true, and we think saying it will be beneficial, then we can say it.

But – and this always warms my heart as a prime example of the Buddha’s wisdom and sympathy for all beings – we should have “a sense of the proper time for saying” what we want to say. Maybe we should bite our tongue and speak to someone in private instead of blurting our message out at the dining room table, surrounded by guests? Maybe we should let our teenage son or daughter cool down after an argument before explaining to them why they need to change their behavior?

All of the different aspects of right speech are, of course, interdependent. Finding the proper time for saying something may determine whether or not it will end up being beneficial. (In fact, the Prince Abhaya sutta says the Buddha looks for the proper time to speak even when what he says is true, beneficial, and endearing![xi]) If we try speak with kindness and good-will, we’ll look for a time to say something that will minimize another person’s potential embarrassment or discomfort. If we limit our speech to what’s really factual and true, it will be more likely to be endearing.


[v] “Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[vi] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[vii] Ibid
[viii] “Vaca Sutta: A Statement” (AN 5.198), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 July 2010,
[ix] AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.); “Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[x] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[xi] Ibid

Right Speech: Refraining from Lying, Divisive or Abusive Speech, and Idle Chatter

The Buddha gave quite a number of teachings on right speech over the course of his 45-year teaching career. Clearly, he taught that paying attention to how you express yourself verbally was considered an essential part of practice. Obviously, our speech has an effect on other people, and unless we’re selfish or deluded, we care about that. On the positive side, our speech can convey love, and it can support or guide others in their own spiritual journey. Alternatively, our speech may trigger defensiveness or anger in others, or demoralize or confuse them. And that’s just the external effects of our speech! What we say aloud has a powerful influence on our own thinking, and can reinforce positive or negative patterns of behavior in us.

Right speech is on of the elements of the Eightfold Path, all of which are typically translated as starting with the word, “right.” The use of this word shouldn’t be taken as a judgmental moral injunction, or a suggestion that if you do something “wrong” in Buddhism you’ll be kicked out or disqualified from Buddhist practice. Instead, “right” has more of an objective meaning here: Basically, what actually works, in the sense of bringing about a positive result? As in, this is the “right” key to open the door. It’s very useful to keep this definition of “right” in mind when practicing right speech, because it points to how it isn’t just about acting in a way that makes you a “good” person, it’s about the most effective, compassionate, and authentic way to communicate and interact with other people.

The four kinds of speech the Buddha said you need to abstain from if you want to practice right speech, namely, lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter.


Abstaining from Lying

It’s probably not surprising that right speech is incompatible with lying. In the Pali Canon sutta called “To Cunda the Silversmith,” the Buddha explains in detail how someone abstains from false speech. “If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward… He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”[ii]

Notably, a number of the Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Canon tend to describe right speech as both “factual” and “true.”[iii] I’d have to know the corresponding Pali terms in order to understand why the Buddha might have used two words to describe speech that isn’t false, but it occurs to me that in our own practice it’s extremely useful to examine whether our speech is both true and factual. For example, it may seem “true” to us at a given moment that someone we’re dealing with is rude and disrespectful. “You’re rude and disrespectful!” we might say. However, this kind of statement strengthens our sense of self-righteousness, triggers negative reactions in others, and isn’t factual. The facts are that someone did something, we didn’t like it, and we’re thinking that the other person’s actions were rude and disrespectful. Our expression will end up being more honest, accurate – and probably easier for people to listen to – if we stick to the facts. The facts can include what we’re thinking and feeling, as long as we report them as our thoughts and feelings and not as some kind of objective truth.


Abstaining from Divisive Speech

Abstaining from divisive speech is also described in “To Cunda the Silversmith.” The Buddha essentially says someone practicing right speech will not use speech to turn people against one another. Many of us commit this transgression of speech with regularity when we want to get people on our side against others. As the Buddhaexplains, it’s tempting to “tell here” something we learned “over there,” in order to affect the attitudes of our listeners. Later, we may “tell there,” what we heard here, and further stoke resentments, judgments, or righteous indignation.

Of course, at times we may need to tell people what’s going on, or verbally process our feelings and responses with others. At times it may be helpful to share our opinions or point out something we think is wrong or harmful. The best way to evaluate whether we are indulging in divisive speech is to be honest with ourselves about our underlying intention. If we try to keep our speech true and factual, and if we’re sincerely keeping in mind what’s best for all involved, maybe it’s okay to venture into potentially divisive speech. At times, however, we just want the gratification of others agreeing with us against some party we resent, look down on, or fear. If we leave a conversation feeling pleased that we’ve just managed to further divide people, we’re probably not practicing right speech according to the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha gives Cunda the Silversmith an even higher ideal regarding someone who abstains from divisive speech. He says, “Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.” So not only are we asked not to gossip, we’re asked to take delight in harmony and friendship between people – even people we don’t agree with or don’t particularly like. Quite a challenge.


Abstaining from Abusive Speech and Idle Chatter

Abusive speech is another thing the Buddha said we needed to avoid. While strong language may be necessary at certain times in order to get our point across, abusive speech is intended to make someone feel lesser, stupid, ashamed, scared, etc. Abusive speech may be aggressive and overt, but it can also be passive aggressive and more subtly cruel or unkind. The tricky thing is that when we lapse into abusive speech, it’s often because we’re angry or defensive, so at the moment of speaking we usually aren’t so aware of our intentions to hurt others (or we feel justified in doing so). Words that aren’t abusive, the Buddha explains to Cunda, are those that are “soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.”

The Buddha also says we should also avoid idle chatter. What does this mean? In the strictest sense, it meant for Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from any speech or conversations that weren’t directly connected with the goal of enlightenment. The idea was that life was short, and aimless conversations – described elsewhere in the Pali Canon as being about politics, gossip, relatives, vehicles, entertainments, even philosophical discussions[iv] – were distractions and a waste of time.

Of course, for those of us who aren’t engaged 24-7 in strict monastic training, conversation can a harmless pleasure and a way to connect with other people – even when, in a certain sense, a particular conversation can’t be said to be literally “useful.” Personally, I think we can examine the nature of our speech in order to know whether or not it’s idle in a negative sense. Are we sincerely enjoying conversation, or social connection, or are we letting our mouths flap without paying any attention to the topics we’re covering, the effects our speech is having on others, how long we’ve been going on, or whether our speech is appropriate to the circumstances?

We could call idle chatter “unmindful” speech – for example, speaking while oblivious, often just to fill the silence, fend off nervousness, impress people, or keep the subject focused on ourselves. When we find ourselves doing this, it helps to shut up for a while, practice mindfulness, and pay more attention to the people we’re talking to. Do they seem bored or uncomfortable? Do they speak up if you leave some space for them to talk? Do you actually have any curiosity about what the other person is thinking or feeling, or do you just want to be heard?

In next week’s post, I’ll cover the Buddha’s teachings on the five things to consider before speaking.

[i] “Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone” (MN 61), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[ii] “Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith” (AN 10.176), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[iii] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,
[iv] “Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” (DN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013,


A Handy Chart for Understanding Absolute and Relative

Zen talks about absolute and relative alot – which each one is, how to wake up to the absolute, and how to reconcile and harmonize the two sides. Sometimes the discussion of relative and absolute can get pretty philosophical and abstract.

To help ground and guide our conversation the other evening, I created a chart describing the relative (ji) and absolute (ri) dimensions of reality. Take a look, and see if some of the terms associated with ji and ri resonate with aspects of your own daily life.

It-with-a-Capital-I: The Zen Version of God

Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God
The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”
A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health
The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I
The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought
How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking
Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable

Zen Buddhism is a non-theistic religious tradition. Many people find such a thing difficult to fathom: How can you have a religion without a God? Isn’t God what religion is about?

Fortunately for those of us who don’t believe in God, it’s possible to have a rich religious tradition without one. Even without a deity, Zen Buddhists get everything else a major religion offers: Traditional spiritual teachings and practices, scriptures and literature collected over the course of millennia, ritual and ceremony, religious community, mythology and iconographic imagery, initiation rites and clergy, and moral guidelines. While some Zen Buddhists do believe in God – and that’s perfectly acceptable in our tradition – Zen isn’t premised on the existence of a deity.

Still, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no God in Zen. While we don’t conceive of, or worship, an omnipotent personification of the Divine, at the heart of our tradition is the teaching that reality itself is luminous, precious, and infused with compassion. We don’t ascribe an agenda, personality, or gender to That-Which-Is-Greater, but we long to live in harmony with It, and personally experience intimacy with It. These longings infuse our spiritual practice with meaning.

In this essay, I’ll cover three related topics:

  • First, I’ll explain why Zen doesn’t usually talk about That-Which-Is-Greater, even though it’s an integral part of Zen teaching. Because Zen is non-theistic, I’ll usually refer to That-Which-Is-Greater by using the terms “the Ineffable” or “It” (emphasized in speech, and written with a capital “I”). Of course, I could also use terms like the sacred, spiritual, or transcendent.
  • Second, I’ll talk about why it’s valuable for people, including Zen Buddhists, to have a worldview that includes a sense of the Ineffable.
  • Finally, I’ll share a Zen teaching on the Ineffable and give you a sense of how Zen practitioners develop a deeper relationship with It.

Why Zen Doesn’t Talk about God

In one of my favorite books, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith writes, “The reality that excites and fulfills the soul’s longing is God by whatsoever name. Because the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature, we do well to follow Rainer Maria Rilke’s suggestion that we think of God as a direction rather than an object.”

As someone who spent part of my childhood as a Christian, there’s still part of me that resonates with the word “God” more than with vague terms like “the Ineffable.” In many ways, theistic religions do a better job than Buddhism does of reminding people about the greater, inspiring truth that underlies everything.

However, Zen is very deliberate in its choice not to conceive of a God, or even to describe That-Which-Is-Greater in any terms that will tempt us to form fixed concepts or ideas about It. The basic idea behind this approach is that the function of our mind is to discriminate – to discern that from this, this from that: Food from non-food, safety from danger, self from other, good from bad. The nature of the Ineffable is unity, or oneness; any discrimination takes you further from an experience of It.

Zen takes what theology calls an “apophatic approach” – describing the Divine by stripping away any limiting concepts you may have about It – as opposed to a cataphatic approach, which seeks to point you toward the Divine using positive terminology, such as, “God is love.” Some of us are attracted to an apophatic approach because even beautiful words like Huston Smith’s “the human mind cannot come within light-years of comprehending God’s nature,” inspire us to think that the Ineffable is superior to – and outside of – us. Zen practice starts with shedding our limiting views and avoiding attaching to new ones – whether the view is “It does not exist,” “It exists out there,” or “It exists within me.”

Deciding what approach to take with respect to the Ineffable isn’t just an abstract philosophical issue. It’s really about what works for you. For many human beings, the cataphatic approach speaks more directly to their spiritual experience, or at least it gives them solace and hope. To be honest, even those of us who have chosen the apophatic tradition of Zen sometimes long for some of the inspiration and warmth often found in theistic religions, where That-Which-Is-Greater is described and celebrated on a regular basis.

The Bleakness of a Worldview without “Something Greater”

For a moment, I’m going to set aside discussion of Zen, and return to my hero, Huston Smith. In Why Religion Matters, Smith makes a convincing case that all human beings operate within a worldview of some kind. Even if you don’t think you “believe” in anything, you still have a worldview, and it profoundly affects everything you do.

Smith describes three dominant worldviews:

  • Traditional (typically held by human beings throughout the millennia, from the earliest societies up until increasing reliance on the scientific method),
  • Modern (science through the middle of the 20th century), and
  • Post-modern (since the middle of the 20th century).

In his descriptions of these worldviews, Smith points out that while modernism gave us science, and post-modernism gave us social justice, in many ways the latter two worldviews are very bleak compared to the traditional one.

Here are five comparisons Smith makes between the traditional worldview and the two later, scientific ones:

In the traditional worldview, spirit is fundamental and matter is derivative: Matter, including embodied life, coalesces from a greater ocean of spirit, or is animated by that spirit. In the scientific worldview, the closest thing to spirit – the phenomenon of consciousness – is limited to human brains, which are like tiny islands surrounded by an infinitely large universe devoid of consciousness.

In the traditional worldview, humans are the “less” who have derived from the “more:” Human beings, with all of their talents and flaws, are part of something much larger, and this larger reality is more beautiful and amazing than anything humans can come up with. In the scientific worldview, we are the highest products of evolution. As Smith says, “Nothing in science’s universe is more intelligent than we are.”

In the traditional worldview, there is a happy ending: The happy ending may come at the end of a human life or at the end of an age. In the scientific worldview, Smith says, “Death is the grim reaper of individual lives, and whether things as a whole will end in a freeze or a fry, with a bang or a whimper… is anybody’s guess.”

In the traditional worldview, everything is pervaded with meaning: Life was created by or flows from Perfection and is meaningful throughout. In the scientific worldview, any meaning we find seems subjectively projected (e.g. some people are lucky enough to “find meaning in their lives”).

In the traditional worldview, humans feel at home: Humans belong to their world and play an important role, and, Smith says, “They are made of the same spiritually sentient stuff that the world is made of.” Nothing like this can be derived from the scientific worldview. In fact, given our actions and destructiveness, many of us wonder if humans are scourge on an otherwise beautiful planet.

A Sense of the Ineffable Is Important to Our Mental Health

I included Smith’s comparisons of pre- and post-scientific worldviews not because I am going to formulate a Zen worldview for you (that’s a huge topic and I want to stay focused on the Ineffable). Instead, I brought them up because I wanted to point out how bleak human life can appear once we’ve been converted to the scientific worldview. This conversion, for many of us, means we lose our belief in God, or our sense of the Ineffable. We then become vulnerable to something Victor Frankl called “the existential vacuum.”

Frankl was Jewish and spent years imprisoned in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. He came out of his experience convinced that people were much more likely to survive the kinds of horrors he experienced if they were sustained by a deep sense of meaning in their lives. In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl argues that having a sense of meaning is essential to our mental health, but finding meaning in our lives can be difficult. Unlike animals, our lives are no longer ruled by instinct and we constantly have to make choices. With “the traditions which buttressed [our] behavior… rapidly diminishing,” Frankl says, no instinct tells us what we have to do, no tradition tells us what we ought to do, and sometimes we don’t even know what we want to do. We end up in an existential vacuum, and often end up succumbing to things like anxiety, depression, aggression, or addiction.

In his book, Frankl quotes Friedrich Nietzche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” I think most of us have a strong sense that this is true. Those of us who no longer hold a traditional worldview may look back at it somewhat wistfully, imaging what it would be like to believe we were part of something larger, our lives were meaningful, and we belonged in this universe. How comforting and strengthening it would be to believe that God or the Great Spirit thoughtfully designed this world and has an overall, benevolent plan! How inspiring to believe He loves us and that our little individual lives actually matter!

The Zen Teaching of It-with-a-Capital-I

However, if we don’t actually believe the traditional worldview, we don’t get to just “go back” to it in order to make ourselves feel better. What can we do? Fortunately, Zen offers us some beautiful teachings about That-Which-Is-Greater, how It pervades our lives with meaning, and how we can directly experience It. To adequately explore these teachings – or even just give you an overview of them – would take much more time than I have right now, but I may devote future essays to the topic. Here I will simply introduce one prime example of a Zen teaching on what I feel is the Zen version of God. (Others may argue this point with me – and I invite you to send me comments because that will be a fascinating conversation. However, I suspect true atheists will see more commonality than differences between theism and the Zen teachings I’m about to describe.)

Many people don’t know it, but the great 12th-century Zen master Dogen frequently taught and wrote on the Ineffable, although he uses many different words and images to point to It. Dogen is certainly not the only person in the Zen tradition to have done this, of course, but I’m focusing on Dogen because he dedicated a whole essay to discussion of the Ineffable in his masterwork, the Shobogenzo. The essay, or chapter, is called Inmo.

According to Dogen translators Gudo Nishijima and Chodo Cross, “Inmo” is a colloquial Chinese word that is used to indicate something when there is no need to explain what it is – like the pronouns “it,” “that,” or “what.” Nishijima and Cross explain that Chinese philosophers would sometimes use the term “inmo” to indicate the ineffable, or that which is beyond words. Subsequently, they say, Buddhist writers used it to indicate reality itself, which can never be fully conveyed by words. For the purposes of this discussion, I consider the best translation of inmo to be “It-with-a-Capital-I,” combining the pronoun-like character of inmo with the tradition of capitalizing English words when they refer to God, or the Divine.

In the essay “Inmo,” Dogen writes [the italicized it is a translation of Inmo]:

“How do we know that it exists? We know it is so because the body and the mind both appear in the Universe, yet neither is ourself. The body, already, is not ‘I.’ Its life moves on through days and months, and we cannot stop it even for an instant… The sincere mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment. Although the state of sincerity does exist, it is not something that lingers in the vicinity of the personal self. Even so, there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind. Once this mind is established, abandoning our former playthings we hope to hear what we have not heard before and we seek to experience what we have not experienced before: this is not solely of our own doing.”

Dogen’s writing is pretty poetic and esoteric, so this takes some unpacking. However, it’s important to realize that Dogen used words to point to what is beyond words, so explaining his writing in straightforward prose often misses the mark. I suggest using explanations of Dogen as doorways into his teachings, but then allowing the teachings evoke things in you the way good poetry does – even if you don’t necessarily understand every line of the poem intellectually.

To explain a little, then: we wonder who we really are, and what our relationship is to the rest of the universe. We discover that we can’t locate who we really are either in our body, or in our mind. Both are constantly changing, and not fully under “our” control. Although we experience undeniable aliveness, it defies lasting identification with the things we consider to be part of our personal self. We realize, after some practice and study, that we are empty of any inherently-existing, enduring, independent self-nature. Instead, we are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions. “We” are nowhere to be found. (This is the Zen teaching of emptiness, or no-self.)

“Even so,” Dogen says, “there is something which, in the limitlessness, establishes the [bodhi-]mind.” In Buddhism, the bodhi-mind is the “mind that seeks enlightenment,” or the part of ourselves that seeks something greater. One day we wake up and ask, “Is this it? Is there something I’m missing? Is there a way to live more fully and compassionately?” The bodhi-mind is established and we set out on our spiritual journey, but Dogen reminds us (italics mine), “this is not solely of our own doing.”

The Seeking Is Not Separate from What Is Sought

Dogen asks us to consider where how this bodhi-mind arises. We are a flow of Being through time, shaped by countless causes and conditions, so what inspires us to look beyond what we think we know? “We” can’t be ultimately located, so who (or what) summons the will to awaken? Dogen suggests the bodhi-mind arises because of Inmo itself, which is not actually separate from us (all the uses of “it” in this passage are translations of inmo):

“Remember, it happens like this because we are people who are it. How do we know that we are people who are it? We know that we are people who are it just from the fact that we want to attain the matter which is it.

Another way of putting this is “we know the Ineffable exists because we seek the Ineffable.” This might seem like circular reasoning, where you state that A is true because B is true, and B is true because A is true, and then walk away as if you actually proved something. However, what we’re trying to do here is describe a real-life relationship rather than formulate an abstract logical statement. Huston Smith addresses this relationship in the following passage (from Why Religion Matters):

“…the finitude of mundane existence cannot satisfy the human heart completely. Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite. This outreach strongly suggests the existence of the something that life reaches for in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.”

Without air, a bird’s wings have no function and would never have evolved. Perhaps we can also say that without the Ineffable, a human’s longing to have a sense of something greater would also have no function, and would never have evolved? However, if you’re anything like me – that is, skeptical – you may be wondering whether it’s just wishful thinking to suggest the Ineffable exists because we long for it. Fortunately, Zen doesn’t stop there.

How We Know This Isn’t Just Wishful Thinking

So far, our discussion has been philosophical. Inevitably, purely philosophical discussions about Inmo get convoluted, and unconvincing. This is why Zen masters throughout the centuries have slapped their students on the head with slippers, or uttered apparently non-sequitur phrases that called the student’s attention to the nearest tree or cup of tea. At some point, we have to leave behind our attempts at intellectual understanding in order to pay attention to our direct experience.

We know the Ineffable when we encounter it. We know It in our so-called “hearts,” which can’t be located physically in our bodies but seem to function as sensors attuned to the Ineffable. Our hearts swell when we witness incredible acts of compassion; when we hear stories of individuals who dedicated their lives to a noble cause; when we witness awesome spectacles of nature, listen to beautiful pieces of music, join in hearty laughter with a child, or read good poetry. Personally, I also think we perceive the Ineffable, or It-with-a-Capital-I, whenever we look into another person’s eyes, and that’s why it’s usually too intense to do that for very long.

In these heart moments, it’s like the clouds briefly part and the sun shines through. Or, for a moment, we remember what’s really important, and all of our petty concerns and fears melt away or are at least put into perspective. For a moment, we are relieved of our skepticism and have a child’s open, hopeful, innocent heart. We know love is real and the beauty of this world is beyond comprehension. We have a sense of who we are, what is means to be human, and why life is worth it.

In the scientific worldview, these “heart” experiences are just emotional phenomena we are tempted to overinterpret in order to give our lives a sense of meaning. They’re just little “pros” on the opposite end of the scale from all the “cons” when you evaluate whether life is good or bad. However, what if, instead, there really is a deeper, inspiring reality underneath everything, and our “heart moments” are when get glimpses of it?

There’s no hard, objective evidence to be had for either view, and maybe there never will be – so which view would you rather hold? For myself, I figure the approach that brings ease and happiness to my life is probably closer to reality than the one that makes me feel forlorn, isolated, and depressed. It’s like I have two wooden blocks, one triangular and one square, and I need to slip one of them through a hole I can’t see. The hole is either triangular or square, but I can’t tell which. I clumsily feel around and try one block, then the other. One of them won’t fit through the hole, but the other does. This is like choosing to operate as if there’s a deeper meaning pervading life; it’s not really a matter of what’s true in some abstract sense, and more a matter what actually works.

Developing a Relationship with the Ineffable

Despite my appreciation for Huston Smith’s discussion of worldviews, I hesitate to use the words “view” or “worldview” when talking about Zen. This is because Zen is about shedding all views and experiencing reality directly. It’s not very helpful to adopt and hold on to a view – for example, to read this essay, form a view of the Ineffable, and then try to believe it or live by it. Instead, the emphasis in Zen is on developing your own sense of reality through your direct experience: paying attention to what your own heart senses, not to some nice thoughts you’re having about your experience.

One of the views we need to drop is our sense we are separate from the Ineffable. My descriptions of “heart moments” above were hopefully able to give you a certain sense of Inmo, but they can also leave you with the impression that the Ineffable is “out there,” hidden behind the clouds except at peak moments of experience.

In contrast, Zen teaches that the Ineffable can’t be located, sought, or discovered. Neither is it special, transcendent, better, larger, or bigger. These are all ideas we have, and they get in the way of our realizing the Ineffable quality of this very moment, just as it is. Heart moments aren’t rare glimpses of the Ineffable, they’re moments when we forget our sense of separateness – moments when we get out of our own way and perceive Reality. Once we realize this is the case, once we’re convinced that we’re actually swimming in the Ineffable like a fish swims in water, we can sense It more and more often – even in the mundane situations of everyday life.

Naturally, if the Ineffable is Reality itself, we’d like to hear descriptions of It so we know what to look for and what to expect. What is it like? Are we part of it? Is it boundless, joyous, beautiful, or full of peace? How do we know when we see it? Is it personal, or impersonal? Once you see It, do your problems go away?

Usually, Zen refuses to describe the Ineffable for us so we will stay concentrated on our practice, and not chasing after some idea. Still, one of my favorite Zen masters, the 12th-century Chinese monk Hongzhi, is generous enough to give us a few verses to inspire us:

“The place of silent and serene illumination is the heavenly dome in clear autumn, shining brightly without strain, gleaming through both light and shadow. At this juncture the whole is supreme and genuinely arrives. The clear source is enacted with spirit, the axis is wide and the energy lively, everything apparent in the original brightness. The center is manifest and is celebrated…”

One last thing: it may not make any sense intellectually, but even though Zen does not conceive of the Ineffable as being personified, we still believe there is something incredible intimate and personal about it. Dogen writes, “We ourselves are tools which [Inmo] possesses within this Universe in ten directions.” We are not part of the Ineffable in spite of being our personal self, or in addition to being our personal self. There is no Ineffable apart from the myriad manifestations of the universe, including our personal self. Just as the Ineffable shines through a beautiful piece of music, it shines through us.



Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Leighton, Taigen Dan. Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
Nishijima, Gudo, and Chodo Cross. Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Book 2. London: Windbell Publications, 1996.
Smith, Huston. Why Religion Matter: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001.



How Physically Sitting Zazen Keeps the Precepts Perfectly

Parts in bold are from the text of the Bodhisattva Precepts; parts in italics explain how we keep a particular precept during the simple act of zazen.

The Gateway of Contrition

All my past and harmful karma,
Born from beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Through body, speech, and mind,
I now fully avow.

A contrite heart is open to the dharma, and finds the gateway to the precepts clear and unobstructed.  Bearing this in mind, we should sit up straight in the presence of the buddha and make this act of contrition wholeheartedly.While we are sitting zazen, we are not running away, keeping ourselves busy, or distracting ourselves; we let our karma catch up with us.

Taking Refuge

I take refuge in the buddhaThis is what buddhas have done, so this is what we are doing.

I take refuge in the dharmaWhen we stop running away, keeping ourselves busy, or distracting ourselves, the truth becomes clearer; we are opening ourselves up to this possibility by sitting still.

I take refuge in the sanghaWe sit with others, or because others have done so and continue to do so.

The Precepts

Cease from harm – release all self­-attachment. We may not know what the right thing is to do, but we have stopped for a time.

Do only good – take selfless action. – We are engaging the activity of just sitting for the sake of all beings – we are not advancing any of our self-interested causes.

Do good for others – embrace all things and conditions.We give up trying to change anything for a time. Instead, we bear witness. We allow the truth to permeate and change us. We allow wisdom to grow within and inform our future actions.

Do not kill – cultivate and encourage life.We are not trying to get rid of what we don’t want, what we hate, or what we are afraid of.

Do not steal – honor the gift not yet given.We are not grasping after what we want.

Do not misuse sexuality – remain faithful in relationships.We are not doing anything to grasp or avoid intimacy, but instead we make it possible to notice a deeper intimacy with everything.

Do not speak dishonestly – communicate truthfully.We are not speaking, but are perceiving directly. Our truth of the moment is silent.

Do not become intoxicated – polish clarity, dispel delusion. – We are doing without distraction or extra pleasure.

Do not dwell on past mistakes – create wisdom from ignorance.Okay, we may be doing this in our minds. However, in this moment we are not making any mistakes. Over time we become more identified with this body, here and now, which is not defined by past mistakes.

Do not praise self or blame others – maintain modesty, extol virtue. – We are not saying or doing anything to build ourselves up or call attention to the faults of others.

Do not be mean with dharma or wealth – share understanding, give freely of self.Our time of just sitting is completely useless in worldly terms, but it’s still an offering. It’s an offering of listening and looking. It’s an offering of humility and don’t-know mind.

Do not indulge anger – cultivate equanimity.Sitting still is incompatible with anger. Don’t think so? Just try it!

Do not defame the three treasures –  respect the buddha,  unfold the dharma, nourish the sangha.However skeptical we may feel in our minds, our bodies are enacting the buddha way.


Genjokoan #13: If Everything’s Okay, Why Do Anything?

Fan from Pixabay[From the Genjokoan:] [The] Zen Master of Mt. Magu was waving a fan. A monk approached him and asked, “The nature of wind is ever present and permeates everywhere. Why are you waving a fan?” The master said, “You know only that the wind’s nature is ever present—you don’t know that it permeates everywhere.” The monk said, “How does wind permeate everywhere?” The master just continued waving the fan. The monk bowed deeply.

The genuine experience of Buddha Dharma and the vital path that has been correctly transmitted are like this. To say we should not wave a fan because the nature of wind is ever present, and that we should feel the wind even when we don’t wave a fan, is to know neither ever-presence nor the wind’s nature. Since the wind’s nature is ever present, the wind of the Buddha’s family enables us to realize the gold of the great Earth and to transform the [water of] the long river into cream.

The “nature of wind” is buddha-nature, and “waving a fan” is spiritual practice. The essence of the question being discussed here is this: “Zen teaches that everything in the universe is part of one, seamless reality, and this reality when perceived directly is complete, luminous, and precious. Not only that: The universe is complete, luminous, and precious and you’re intimately part of its perfection whether you realize it or not. Realizing it for yourself is nice, but ultimate reality isn’t dependent on your realizing. So we don’t have to do anything, right?”

This is not a philosophical question, at least not as it’s presented by Dogen. This is about what really matters in life. It’s about how you should live, how you should live out your aspirations and embody your natural compassion.

Should you work on developing wisdom, insight, and acceptance so you can obtain some measure of peace and happiness no matter what’s going on around you – or even within you? Should you adopt philosophies, viewpoints, and practices that let you “rise above it all,” and maintain perspective and equanimity when life gets tough? Should you let go of your desire for things to be better in the world and in your own life? After all, desire causes suffering, so if you can just accept things as they are, suffering ceases.

Or, should you devote yourself to the practice of the bodhisattva? A bodhisattva vows to save all beings using whatever means she can. Some of her practice involves developing insight and acceptance, but it also involves trying to end greed, hate, and delusion – especially within herself, but also in the world. A bodhisattva strives tirelessly to perfect himself, even knowing that’s an impossible goal. He practices energetic generosity, and engages fully with the world. The bodhisattva path is also an essential part of Zen.

But what is a bodhisattva doing, trying to save beings and aim for perfection when everything is already part of one, seamless reality which is complete, luminous, and precious? Another Zen teaching is emptiness: everything and every being is ultimately empty of inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. Instead, everything is completely interdependent and arises intimately with everything else in the universe. So ultimately there are no separate beings to save, no separate bodhisattva who is fulfilling a vow, and no such thing as perfection.

Oh lord, what’s a person to do? I’ll remind you again: This is not a philosophical quandary. It’s about whether to accept your anger problem or try to fix it. It’s about whether to tap into something eternal so you aren’t overwhelmed by the climate crisis, or whether to devote all of your extra energy to saving the world. It’s about whether you should deeply recognize how someone you love has his own path in life, and how you can’t ultimately prevent him from experiencing suffering, or whether you should do whatever you can to teach, support, and influence this person so they can have a better chance at happiness.

Of course, the Zen answer makes no rational sense. You should do both. You should strive to wake up to the fact that Unified Reality is complete, luminous, and precious, and nothing is lacking. AND you should do everything you can to make the world a better place. In the ancient Buddhist Sutra, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, it’s said:

“Wise Bodhisattvas… reflect on non-production [emptiness],
And yet, while doing so, engender in themselves the great compassion,
Which is, however, free from any notion of a being.
Thereby they practice wisdom, the highest perfection.
But when the notion of suffering and beings leads him to think:
‘Suffering I shall remove, the weal of the world I shall work!’
Beings are then imagined, a self is imagined, –
The practice of wisdom, the highest perfection, is lacking.”
(Translation by Edward Conze)

How does a bodhisattva – how do we – pull this feat off? Helping, but not thinking of helping… working actively in the world but not conceiving of ourselves… this may seem like an ideal that only highly realized beings are capable of.

But this is a wrong understanding of Zen and of our lives. It’s not an amazing feat to devote yourself to benefiting all beings while at the same time embracing the fact that all Reality is ultimately seamless, complete, and luminous. What takes a convoluted maze of words and concepts to describe is simply our lived experience.  You can furrow your brows all day trying to comprehend the significance of the master waving the fan, but if he takes you by surprise and you experience his fan waving directly, Reality is immediately revealed, fresh and intimate.

Think about it this way: I can sit here explaining and explaining, and you can sit there pondering and trying to understand. Or I can get up, come over to you, take your hand, and look into your eyes. You’ll probably be uncomfortable, although also strangely drawn toward this unusual expression of intimacy. For others in the room, the whole thing will seem rather dramatic, maybe weird. Very quickly, everyone will start thinking about how to interpret this scene, wondering what message they’re meant to take away from it.

But there’s no message. For an instant, as I hold your hand and look into your eyes, we break out of our mental constructs and into direct experience. Most of us get shy a moment later when we are confronted like this; our minds scuttle back to what we know, trembling a little before the enormous, bright expanse of reality. The most brilliant human concepts, theories, and philosophies are woefully inadequate for describing and predicting our actual lived experience.

In our actual, lived experience, there is no problem with devoting ourselves wholeheartedly to practice and benefitting all beings even when we know that getting caught up in ideas of perfection, self, benefit, and beings just gets in the way. It’s entirely possible to work for change without becoming attached to the results.

And it’s not just possible, it’s necessary. The complete, luminous universe is only complete and luminous because it includes our effort. How does the nature of wind, or buddha nature, permeate everywhere? Through our waving the fan. Not because we wave a fan, as if there is no wind until we do so (or, no buddha nature until we awaken it through practice). The moment of our fan-waving is a perfect example of the nature of wind permeating everywhere.

The moment when we place our shoes straight, or say a kind word to someone, or vow to release our anger and anxiety, we are enacting universal completeness and luminosity. When we see how this is so, we realize how precious this universe is (the gold of the great earth) and transform our lives (the long river) into something nourishing and delightful.

Click here to read Domyo’s entire series of commentaries on the Genjokoan.