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by Stephen Damon

The master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students but by persons of all ranks and sects. He never quoted sutras nor indulged in scholastic dissertations. Instead, his words were spoken directly from his heart to the hearts of his listeners.

His large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.

“Hey, Zen teacher!” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”

“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.

Proudly the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.

Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”

The priest obeyed.

“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”

The priest proudly stepped over to the right.

You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.”

Before we get into our story, I’d like to say a few words about Bankei.  He was a well known and highly respected Zen teacher, who was posthumously given the title Kokushi, or National Master.  Unlike other masters of the time he did not use classical Chinese or give lengthy commentaries on sutras in his talks.  His talks were attended by women and men, rich and poor, literate and illiterate—everyone.

He said, I won’t tell you that you have to practice such and such, that you have to uphold certain rules or precepts or read certain sutras or other Zen writings, or that you have to do zazen. . . . If you want to recite sutras or do zazen, observe precepts, recite the Nembutsu or the Daimoku, you should do it. If you’re a farmer or a tradesman and you want to work your farm or your business, then go ahead, do it; whatever it is, that will be your personal samadhi. I think that this teaching is especially valuable today as American Zen moves from the monastery to our homes and workplaces.  As Zen practitioners living in the world, we will need to find our “personal Samadhi” outside the monastery gates.

His teaching was very simple.  He directed his students to make contact with Buddha nature, which he called the Unborn or Fu-shō, a birthless, deathless, timeless, spaceless, boundless awareness and aliveness. He told his students, you have received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom.  He told his students “to abide as the unborn,” to “not get born.”  Don’t become anything—not a “me” nor a “Buddhist,” nor “enlightened.”  Buddha Nature has existed from beginningless time, and has no cause. It just is.

The Nichiren priest thought of himself as something.  He had been “born” a teacher and a priest of the best sect of Buddhism and had no need to learn from anyone else. He identified with an “I” that stood out in relief from “others.” He identified himself, not from the point of view of his original nature, but in relationship to external things. We all do this. We are husbands in relation to our wives and mothers in relation to our children.  At work, we are subordinates in relation to our superiors.  But Bankei was an expert in showing people how to make contact with the life that exists before it is defined by relationships to external conditions.  No matter how a person would define himself, Bankei would ask, “what were you before you became [that].” I remember reading that a student once asked Phillip Kapleau if a Jew could be a Zen Buddhist.  Kapleau responded, “What were you before you were a Jew?”

I don’t know about you, but I knew that when Bankei asked the priest to “come up beside me,” he had already won the dharma debate. Bankei used skillful means to trick the priest into responding to his simple request without interference from his previous judgments about Zen. Skillful Means, sometimes translated as tactfulness or ingenuity, is an essential concept in Mahayana Buddhism. It is the practice of transmitting the Dharma in different ways to the diverse variety of practitioners.

 When Bankei said “You see, you are obeying me” the priest was no doubt shocked, and at least for an instant was able to let go of everything with which he had been identified. His ego had been outsmarted! For a moment or two, he wasn’t a Nichiren priest or a wise man or an anything—he just was.  Letting go of all his previous judgments about Zen and Bankei as well as all of his cherished beliefs about himself, he was able to take a seat beside the teacher and listen to the Dharma. 

We all need to have this kind of experience.  We need to be freed from our dreams of self sufficiency so that we can experience the urgency and opportunity of each moment.  But the ego is very good at what it does, and it needs to be outsmarted so that it can let go of the life it has created and rest in the unborn. Sometimes we can do this by putting ourselves into intensive conditions such as Zen sesshins, and sometimes we need a teacher such as Bankei who is adept at using skillful means.




The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance

by Stephen Damon

This morning, I found a poem I had written during my priest training.  My teacher had asked me to write responses to all of Dogen’s fascicles in Moon in a Dew Drop, and I often used verse to express my thoughts. 


A bodhisattva

Travels the four directions

Of the Buddha Way



Freeing all beings

Ending all their delusions

And realizing

Buddha’s Way.


With each breath you take

You illuminate the way

Taught by buddhas

And ancestors.


With just one remark,

A small phrase from a sutra

You plant a seed

For all lifetimes.


Your act of giving

Transforms even an atom

Of dust into gold

Precious jade.


The six perfections

Of the Bodhisattva Way

Practice giving first


Be kind in your speech

Addressing some with praises

Others with pity

All with love.


Practice this method

With everyone you will meet

During this lifetime

And the next.


Follow this teaching

With great care, contemplating

Its power to transform

All beings.


Your actions will help

Sentient beings throughout

Countless lifetimes near

And distant.


Each beneficial

Action you take towards others

Should be done without



Of self and other

Friend, enemy, or stranger.

Act out of oneness

Not twoness.


When you help a tree

The grass will grow, a frightened

Child will sleep through

The cold night.


Sometimes a tree

Is just a tree, other times

It is the blue sky

Above you.




by Stephen Damon

Occasionally, one hears a story—true or made up—that seems to evade the continuous discriminations of the mind and sinks to a deeper part of oneself.  Perhaps the best examples of these are the countless Zen stories depicting Masters challenging their students or questioning the insights of their colleagues, often recorded in koans.  While some of these stories may be based on things that really happened, most are legends designed to have a specific impact on a listener.  But every now and then you will read an actual account of a well-known historical figure. 

Just the other day I came across just such a story about Eihei Dogen, the found of Japanese Soto Zen that I’d like to share with you.  Dogen was a brilliant, gifted Zen Master who thoroughly and carefully studied Buddha’s teachings.  He was one of the most innovative and influential of all Buddhist thinkers, who wrote many incomparable fascicles that have been translated into many languages.  Perhaps his greatest work was the multivolume Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. 

As Dogen approached his death, instead of entering a deep state of meditation or giving one last teaching to his students, he took out a long sheet of white paper and wrote the Japanese characters for Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, which he hung on a pillar in his sickroom.  Weak from his illness he got out of bed and circumambulated the pillar, chanting, “I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.”  The Triple Treasure had become his center of gravity around which his life revolved.  Everything else—all his fascicles, koans, poems, and monastic teachings—were only commentary.


I find this story so compelling because taking refuge has long been a central part of my Buddhist practice.  I start each day by lighting incense on my altar and reciting the refuge prayer three times as I make full prostrations.  And I end each day by reciting a Tibetan version of the refuge prayer as I fall asleep: I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  By practicing generosity and other far reaching attitudes may I achieve full Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings. Sometimes, as I drift off to sleep I can “hear” the prayer in the background of my consciousness. 

Both the Pali and the Latin for “refuge” implies a return to a safe place or sanctuary. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha all have many levels of meaning from the most immediate and obvious to something that is “beyond” anything that can be named.  

I have sometimes found it very helpful to sit with the idea of taking refuge,  or just returning.  It’s not really a matter of returning somewhere as it is to reverse the usual momentum of one’s life. So, taking refuge is returning not only to something that can be named like “Buddha,” it also can refer to that which cannot be named—the original source of being.  It is returning to one’s self—to one’s sense of “I am.” While I try to start each day by returning to this “place,” I invariably go into exile during the day.  Seeing this inner exile, seeing how I let external influences pull me out of myself, I try to make a “return” before I let go of my day.





In Secret

by Stephen Damon


On the avenue below

Sunset scavenger trucks

Make their morning rounds


Through quiet city streets

Still asleep beneath

A sky of twilight gray.


I am alone, standing

Before an empty altar

In a quiet unlit corner


Of my life. Praying

To you without words

Or gestures, in secret.





Lit Only by Your Light

by Stephen Damon

Like many Zen Buddhists whom I know, I grew up as a Jew. While many of my friends have completely left their “home” religion, I have tried to use my Zen experience to find new expressions of the ancient truths of Judaism. So, this morning while reading a small collection of prayers attributed to the Hassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslove, I remembered a couple of Zen chants that seemed to elucidate similar issues of the spiritual life. Rabbi Nachman said: we should not be “swayed by the approval or disapproval of others,” and Dongshan told us “Just don’t seek from others, or you’ll be far estranged from self….” Rabbi Nachman said, “To look nowhere but within to come to know my true self,” and Sekito Kisen in The Song of the Grass Hut says “Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.”

While all of these words rang true, I needed to find my own words to make their truths mine, which is another way of saying I needed to find the truth that is not theirs or mine; a truth that is not bounded by the personal pronouns often needed to convey the immediacy of an experience.

When I lose my way
Amidst the songs and
Sorrows of the night

When the moon and stars
Are hidden by clouds
I must depend only

On the truth that resides
In the depths of myself
A darkness of being

Lit only by your light.


Let Everything that Breathes

by Stephen Damon

Let Everything that Breathes

In the predawn darkness
He sees a subtle shape
Almost hidden beneath a tree

A redwood carving of St. Francis
Splintered, weathered gray
A crow upon his shoulder.

He listens to a mourning
Dove chanting an Oo-wah-hooo
Of an ancient solitude.

In the distance, a songbird
Calls to his brothers and sisters
Who soon will gather

In every feather of color
And every manner of song
For morning service.

Together, they will make
A joyful noise of praise
And jubilation.



by Stephen Damon

At the beginning of my last shift at the hospice and respite care facility in which I volunteer I was told that we had a new resident who had just been told that she had but a few weeks left. When I walked into her room I recognized many of the signs of impending death. She seemed to be having a hard time falling asleep. She held both of her hands on her eyes and seemed to be trying to close them. So I sat beside her, holding her hand, stroking her head, and saying little things in a soft voice the way I used to do when my daughter was very young and couldn’t fall asleep. After a few minutes it was clear to me that she was very disturbed and couldn’t fall asleep. She had much more serious problems than the inability to fall asleep and yet this seemed to be the only problem causing her distress at the moment.

So I decided to try some Tonglen meditation with her. This practice is a method for connecting with, and alleviating, suffering — ours and the suffering of those around us.
We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting by trying to breathe in their suffering, visualizing it as black smoke. In most meditations we breathe in and out very naturally, trying not to extend or shorten each breath. In this meditation I often breathe in as deeply as I can, trying to take in as much suffering as I can.

In traditional Tibetan practice we are instructed to imagine that the black breath is broken up into small pieces by a granite stone in our heart. I don’t visualize anything in my chest. Instead, I imagine that my “presence of being” breaks the black smoke into smaller pieces of white smoke. Then I exhale the white smoke as deeply as I can towards the person whom I hope to help. I sometimes visualize the person as being swallowed by a mist of white smoke that slowly dissolves as she breathes in. I do this several times, until I feel exhausted. Then I try to sit quietly with the person, synchronizing our breathing as best as I can.

I should say that while I have done this practice with hospice residents several times, I have never noticed any obvious results. But on Friday, after a several rounds, she put down her arms, closed her eyes and fell asleep. I put my hands on her folded hands until her breathing became so deep that I knew she would be sleeping for a while. Seeing this I was filled with a deep longing question that really had no words. I was in front of a mystery and all I could do was be quiet and allow it to enter into myself as deeply as I could.


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