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Interview with non duality magazine May 2011

Stuart Lachs


Stuart Lachs was born in 1940 and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He attended Brooklyn College, part of the NYC college system, where he received a B.A. and M.S., majoring in mathematics. He worked at Bell Labs in the mathematical physics department for a year and afterward, in the ship design industry for a few years.

He started Zen practice in 1967 in NYC. That Spring he went to San Francisco because he had heard that the San Francisco Zen Center was opening the first American Zen monastery. With luck and the generosity of the Center, he was accepted and attended the first training period of Tassajara, their new monastery.

He returned to NYC and became a member of the Zen Studies Society. He remained a member for about two and a half years and then went to Maine to study with Walter Nowick at what became Moon Spring Hermitage. For many years, he was head monk, head of the Board of Directors, and in charge of new members, instructing them in meditation, zendo protocol, and the ways of the group.

After eleven years he left and returned to NYC. Shortly, he found the Chan Meditation Group under the leadership of Shifu Sheng-yen, a Chinese teacher from Taiwan. He did not become a member of the group at first, though after a few years he was given much responsibility, including the important task of giving private interviews during seven day retreats and running classes when Shifu returned to Taiwan, every other three month period. He eventually became a member. From 1982–1999, he traveled frequently, spending three months in a Korean Monastery (Songgwang Sa), some time in Japan at both a Rinzai and Soto temple, and two stays at Shifu’s monastery in Taiwan. During one of the stays in Taiwan, he did a solitary thirty day retreat. He also visited the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii twice, and spent two months with the London Zen Group as a guest of Morinaga roshi, their Japanese teacher. He stayed at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, Ca. twice for a few months at a time, as well as visiting other places.

In the early/mid 1990’s he became interested in an academic look at Zen, which included institutional history, myth making, and the interaction of Zen and the state. It was an eye opener, as he had seen much over the years that bothered him and did not make sense, but he could not put it all together. He also became interested in the sociology of religion. His articles are the result of years of practicing with Zen groups combined with his academic studies of Chan/Zen as well as the sociology of religion and institutions. Since 1999 he has practiced with a few friends or on his own.

NDM: Can you please tell me about your Hua Tou practice. What this is exactly? How you do this? Is it some kind of meditation?

Stuart Lachs: Hua-tou is a Chinese term that can be translated as “critical phrase”. In Korean, hua-tou is pronounced hwadu and in Japanese as watō. I mention this in case some one has read or heard the term in a Korean or a Japanese context to know we are discussing the same subject.

Yes, hua-tou is a kind of meditation though one should not think it is limited to seated meditation. Hua-tou meditation first became widespread among followers of the important Lin-chi sect Chinese Chan master Ta-hui who was born in 1089 and died in 1163; this period in China is part of the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1280). Ta-hui was a disciple of Yuan-wu who compiled the famous collection of koans titled the Blue Cliff Record which has one hundred cases along with a rather involved commentary on each case. Ta-hui strongly opposed the style of commentary in the Blue Cliff Record as being overly poetic and intellectual. It is in this context of an overly poetic/intellectual literary tradition of comments on koans that Ta-hui promulgated hua-tou meditation. There is a story that Ta-hui was so opposed to this refined discursive style of commentary on koans that he burned his copy or his teacher’s copy of the Blue Cliff Record.  

Hua-tou meditation is a simple method of meditation. Though I say it is simple, there are many variations on the method. Being said to be simple does not mean it is easy. Though these variations in method may at times seem minor, I think in reality they can make a big difference in how the method works for a given person. Above we said that hua-tou means critical phrase. By that I mean it is a short phrase on which to meditate. The hua-tou or critical phrase may have been part of a larger or more involved koan. Hua-tou also means the head of the word or word head. By this is meant the state of mind before the word is spoken, before a thought has arisen.

Without getting into the many meanings of the word koan, let us just take the word as it is understood today. That is, a supposed story taken from Zen literature, often from the collected sayings of a given master, mostly of an interaction between a Zen master and a disciple or more generally another person. The koan supposedly expresses through words or actions the enlightened state of mind of someone who has attained awakening through Zen practice, almost always a Zen master. However, the enlightened state of mind manifested is not immediately discernible by the action or by the semantic content of the words, but rather, we know they are enlightened actions and words, because they were acted or spoken by a Zen master.




Seung Sahn Sunim


What are we talking about? Let us look at a few examples of well known hua-tou:

1. “What is it?”– which is popular with Korean teachers. It supposedly comes from an interaction between the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, Hui-neng (638 – 713) and a disciple. It should also be noted that though Seung Sahn Sunim who was the most well known Korean Zen teacher in America, probably the entire West, actually taught a variation of Japanese Rinzai Zen koan study that his western followers expected. He did not teach hwadu practice which is standard in Korean Zen (Son).

2. “Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?” which is popular with Chinese people who often chant Amitabha Buddha’s name.

3. “Who is dragging this corpse around?”

4. “Who am I?”

5. “What was my original face before my father and mother were born?” This hua-tou or critical phrase is taken from the words of the Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng in the case known as “Not thinking of good or of evil.” It is the 23rd case in the well known koan collection, the Mumonkan.

6. “What is Mu?” Mu is Japanese and Wu is the Chinese for no or not or nothing or empty. This is taken from perhaps the most famous koan case, known as Joshu’s Mu. It goes as follows, “A monk asked Joshu, ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ Joshu replied, ’Mu.” Joshu is the Japanese name of Chao-chou who was a famous Chinese master. This case is often given as the first koan for people going through a Japanese style koan curriculum. This Mu/Wu is not the expected answer as according to Zen teaching all sentient beings have Buddha nature as the monk asking the question certainly would have known. This is the first case in the  Mumonkan.

Perhaps the first aspect to be aware of is that we are the subject of the practice- this body-this mind, not some far away being.

The short answer to how one actually does hua-tou meditation is that one concentrates on the hua-tou by silently repeating it with a questioning or unknowing or investigating or enquiring mind. One focuses at first on the whole hua-tou but once the sense of it is established one concentrates on “Who” or “What” trying to bring the hua-tou to life, to generate doubt. That is the barest description of the method, or at least one way of doing the practice. Please keep in my there are a number of slightly different ways or methods of doing this practice depending on the teacher. 

However, I think we have to back up a bit and place the practice in a larger context to actually understand how to do it in a way that can be meaningful and efficacious. I think to actually do the practice requires the practitioner to be familiar with what is sometimes called the Three Greats. That is, Great Faith, Great Determination, and Great Doubt.

Great Faith: one must believe that the practice can be efficacious. That is, this is a practice that many people have done in the past and that many people do in the present, that it has worked well for them, and that it can work well for me. So one must believe this is a valid and good practice. In this manner, one must also believe in oneself that one can actually do this practice just as others have done in the past and are doing in the present. One must also have faith in themselves and have a certain ego development and strength. If someone thinks that hua-tou was a terrific practice for great practitioners long ago or maybe some people today but I don’t know about me, and I am not so good a practitioner like so and so and on like that, then this person will most likely have trouble here and not get very far into  the method. Importantly, one should believe in their own Buddha nature and that awakening is a birth-right. Every person has/is Buddha nature and has the potential to awaken to it.

Great Determination: one must be determined to see or awaken to their true nature. One must feel it is important and should feel this as a pressing and constant need to solve this problem. Above we said that each person has Buddha nature, that each person is enlightened only we have not realized it ourselves. That we have not awakened to this is our own doing. So this could/should make us angry or unsettled  with ourselves for not realizing our birth-right. We haven’t realized this because we have been distracted by all manner of things in the world: pleasures, career, money, travel, family, sex, fame,...This dissatisfaction with our own state of not knowing can be a force or engine driving our determination and doubt about who we are.

We must be willing to spend time and energy in answering or solving this problem of who we really are- what is our true nature. If one thinks “oh well it would be nice to awaken but if I don’t, well that is OK too” then this is not the best attitude for attempting this method of practice. Or if one sits back and waits thinking, “Maybe one day I will be awakened” this too is not the best attitude for hua-tou practice. You have to want to see, be determined to realize your true nature! Now it is also true that this determination often grows as one practices more. As the practice deepens and as one feels closer to tasting awakening yet it is still a step or two ahead of you, and you still don’t know, determination often grows. As determination grows and the practice deepens, at times bodily unease, irritation or even anger enters the process. There is not only an intellectual state of not knowing but bodily sensations also arise. This irritation or even anger can be a driving force to escape from this intellectual state of unknowing. It is important for the practitioner not to be afraid of these states or to stop or pull back. In fact, the practitioner at some point must become ferocious in his determination and cut off all distracting thoughts and keep digging into the hua-tou. There is a strange feeling that can grow of almost being in a trap; one can not stop and back out yet going ahead seems difficult and blocked.

Great Doubt: cultivating doubt is the main and key component of the practice. Doubt is the beginning and end of hua-tou practice.  Hua-tou meditation is entirely based on generating doubt. Though one should have great faith in having Buddha nature, in the belief that there is nothing to gain, that one is really complete, this belief is instrumental in generating doubt because one does not truly know this. Without generating doubt, one is said to be meditating on “dead words” as opposed to meditating on “live words” as when the “doubt sensation” truly arises. As the doubt rises it has the feeling of literally coming alive, it takes on an energy and life of its own, it goes spontaneously while distracting thoughts lose their power and eventually completely disappear. As the doubt sensation grows and becomes more powerful it fills your total being until there is nothing in the world but great doubt accompanied by great energy. It becomes like a speeding locomotive racing down the tracks. If one can stay with this state of only doubt, in time this may break open into the world of Chan.

There is a saying about hua-tou meditation, “small doubt, small awakening, great doubt great awakening, no doubt, no awakening.”

Please keep in mind this is only one method that is suited to some people. I in no way mean that this is a method for everyone or that it is the best method. There are other methods that are better suited to other people. Hopefully, people will find a way to practice that is suited to their disposition and mentality. 


Sri Ramana Maharshi


NDM: The number 4 hua-tou “Who am I?” sounds exactly like an ancient Indian method, atma vicara of Vedanta popularised by Sri Ramana Maharshi.

When one investigates this question, "Who Am I", does one use the process of neti neti, Sanskrit, for not this, not this.

Stuart Lachs: The hua-tou “Who am I?” in name sounds exactly like the method popularized by Ramana Maharshi, but the method is really different. I am only saying this based solely on the method as described in the link you mention above.

The hua-tou method as explained in question 1 begins and ends with raising doubt. No where in the Maharshi method as described in the link above is there any mention of doubt and the cultivating of doubt. Yet, there are certain elements that do overlap.

I would also like to underline here that there are many different ways of working on a hua-tou, so I am giving only one way. So when I say “the hua-tou method” I mean one way of working with a hua-tou, not that this is “the only way.” However, common to every way I have ever heard of, raising or cultivating doubt, that is, raising and then cultivating doubt into great doubt is the key.

“He [Ramanha Maharshi] said that if one can keep one's attention on this inner feeling of 'I', and if one can exclude all other thoughts, then the 'I'-thought will start to subside into the Heart-centre.”


Similarly with the hua-tou method, if one can stay focused on examining or looking into or investigating the hua-tou, thoughts will start to subside and lose their power to drag one along into their drama so to speak. All our thoughts have a sense of “me” as a basis – me thinking of the past or the future or some slight or some anticipated joy and so on. So in a sense though the method is different, as in many forms of meditation a focus on one point can quiet the mind.  Though one does not use the process “neti neti” as such, one should focus on the “Who” with a questioning or unknowing mind and let the other thoughts drop away, but definitely do not follow the thoughts and get into the thought process and create a chain of thoughts and stories. If one does get caught in a chain of thoughts, when one realizes this they should gently drop them and come back to the hua-tou with a gentle and questioning mind. There is however some similarity to “neti neti” in that, especially early on in hua-tou meditation, answers will present themselves and these should all be rejected.

I think this may be a good place to mention that as the mind quiets and wandering thoughts become fewer and those thoughts have less power to gain our attention, we are also losing the sense of the world that we create in our minds and our place in it. That is, we construct the world with our thoughts and make our place in the world this way. So I can think that I will meet my friend next week and run an errand later tonight and go to work in the morning and talk to my wife and so on. This is pretty normal and is who we think we are. It is satisfying in a way as it lets us know in a way who and what we are in the world. It is not however completely satisfying as we are still uncertain of our essential nature and often leaves us with a nagging feeling of uncertainty and doubt of who we really are. It is this nagging undercurrent of doubt that is to be cultivated in the hua-tou method.

As the mind quiets and wondering thoughts cease or lose their power to attract, this can be scary, depending on how strong a sense of self we have and how much the hua-tou has become alive and thoughts have dropped away. This happens at different places in the process with different people. Some people it happens with so quickly that the hua-tou method is not suited to them. It seems these people become too rattled before the doubt has any real power. Others, it happens only well along in the process, but it is some thing that most/many people will have to deal with. We enter a situation where the wondering thoughts have lost their power or ceased, the hua-tou becomes alive and is going by itself, the doubt is rising maybe even rising quickly but we now no longer have the markers mentioned above telling us of our place in the world. All the planning for tomorrow and what we did last week, our ordinary thinking  and so on are gone. Our ordinary ideas of who and what we are – are no longer present or there only in a very faint form. This can be quite scary- the feeling being that you will just go ZAPP!- drop into a black hole and be no more- never to return. It is common I think for most people to stop the process at some point because they are scared. There are many ways to do this: just raising a thought with the idea that you are taking a short break and will continue shortly, or laughing, or thinking some very compassionate thought, or some thought of gratefulness towards some one or situation, or crying for whatever reason and so on. Often these thoughts will be or sound elevated, but in the end their purpose is to stop the fright. Unfortunately it always works, that is, it brings back a sense of the self. However,  it is rare if one will immediately be able to return to the concentrated state they were in when the fright got the best of them.

Another possibility is as the mind guiets down and thoughts lose their power to attract and pretty much stop, then one can enter very pleasurable states, states of calm and a sense of purity or even slip into samadhi. Though often one hears that in Buddhist meditation samadhi is a desired state and pleasurable states are desired, in the context of hua-tou practice we should not let ourselves be side tracked by these pleasures. These pleasurable states and samadhi states can be very enjoyable and captivating.   Though these states show that the mind has settled and is stable, we must not forget that the hua-tou method is based on doubt. Resting in pleasurable or pure  and samadhi states are not a condition of doubt, so they must be avoided.

Another point worth mentioning here is that from moment to moment we do not know what will be next. I think it is important to be comfortable with that thought.  When meditating, if things are not going well, or if you feel tired or agitated or whatever, you should not think this is a waste of time, maybe I’ll stop now and try again later or tomorrow. Just come back to the method, whatever the method. In a flash, that state can change. It is impossible to know what the next moment will be! One can begin being tired or foggy or agitated or feeling sick or ordinary and a moment later the mind will be focused and clear and vice versa.

Though one looks at the “Who” with a questioning mind, one should also want to know- be determined to know, you should be looking for an answer. It is not to know as in XY + Y =124 if Y=6 what is X, that it can be figured out by the rational mind. Early in the process, rational appearing answers will often appear, but they must be rejected. Nevertheless, this is a question that can be resolved and that it is important to solve it. You may even think that it is the hua-tou that will answer you, not you it. You just keep probing deeper and deeper, asking and asking and do not be satisfied until the doubt grows into great doubt and until that doubt consumes all of you until there is nothing but doubt. Ṭa-hui says, ”all at once, annihilate every splendid thing.” If one can stay with this great doubt in time it may finally break open and collapse and open to the world of Chan.

Most importantly, you must put away any thought which waits for or anticipates awakening or a break through to occur. If you hold onto a thought that waits for an awakening, that awakening will never come. You need to put down all thoughts, all logical discriminations, all thoughts of good and evil, love and hate, liking life and fearing death, all thoughts of “I” no matter how subtle that thought may be, of understanding, of views, and of knowledge, all pleasure in stillness or clinging to purity or turning away from disturbance. Everything must be put away until only doubt remains.

NDM: Do you only ask this question, do this hua-tou when sitting in meditation or all the time?

Stuart Lachs: One should keep or examine the doubt going as much as is possible. But I would like to add a strong caveat with that as most of us live in cities with cars and traffic and other elements that call for alertness. This caveat cannot be stated too strongly. One should NOT investigate their hua-tou when driving a car, when walking in a busy traffic situation or when riding a bicycle or using a dangerous machine or anything like that. I know some one who did not take this caveat seriously and rode her bicycle into the side of a car while looking into her hua-tou. Luckily she did not get hurt too badly, but bad enough. In fact, this woman was lucky she did not get killed. Please- if anyone wants to do this practice- do it wisely.

So yes, if your environment allows it, we should keep investigating the hua-tou as constantly as our situation permits. I have found there is a certain power to the investigation when done during eating or going to the bathroom. Another time that is particularly strong is when going to sleep; to keep investigating the hua-tou while lying in bed going to sleep. It is not uncommon then to wake with the hua-tou running in your mind. At times this has made me feel uneasy, to wake in a state of doubt with the hua-tou running on its own. 

NDM: In your case, when you were doing this hua tou, at some point did anger arise and if so, how did you deal with this anger?

Stuart Lachs: Yes, in my own case I can think of times of anger arising. One  example in my own case was on a group retreat- probably the fifth night of a seven day retreat. At this place the teacher gave a talk each night for about 45 minutes. On this particular night in his talk he mentioned the word “ego” and then kept on talking. About fifteen or so minutes later we began to sit for the night period. As soon as I started to sit the word “ego” popped into my mind and I thought something like, “What a crock of shit that word is.” It doesn’t mean anything- I was literally furious at the word or idea and kept repeating it and silently screaming,” it is bullshit, it is bullshit.” Somehow, I then switched to the hua-tou and all the energy and anger moved over to the hua-tou. I was totally concentrated and energized now on the hua tou- the anger and energy focused in the doubt. Immediately there was nothing but doubt – everything else fell away but this driving – forceful doubt. At some point it just broke open. I stayed in that state for I don’t know how long. At some point the thought appeared, “I have to leave this now.” Just then the bell rang to end the last period of the night. 

On another occasion, I was doing a seven day retreat alone in my apartment. During the afternoon sitting of the fifth or sixth  day things seemed to be quite stable. About an hour or hour and a half into the afternoon some what quickly a driving anger arose into the hua-tou. It was anger at the doubt about the hua-tou. It got progressively stronger and energetic and driving. Everything but doubt was completely gone – there was only raging doubt. I don’t know how long that lasted but some time late in the day it just exploded open.     

NDM: What was the state like, that is, the first example above?  How would you describe it? 

Stuart Lachs: I will say a little, but this happened many years ago so I would not like to go into to much detail. In the Zen tradition these states are not described in detail  and definitely not clung to. I’ve had experiences before this that are essentially completely forgotten.  Clinging to the experience and remembering it is a form of living in the past instead of moving with life. One can also fall into trying to repeat the experience again, recreate it, but that also is trying to relive the past. Some of the experience remains though in most cases, in time it is not what it was. What seemed to remain the most in this case  was a connection to the world - a sense of intimacy or being in the world. However, in some sense it becomes memory. This was a minor experience on the Zen path, though it is important to have direct experiences. Besides having a direct experience of what Zen is about, these experiences are important because they strengthen one’s faith in the tradition- in the practice. After having direct experiences, it is no longer blind faith or faith based on something that seems correct or reasonable or the philosophy or the teachings and stories or something that touches a spot in your psyche, but rather, Chan is now digested some – it is in your bones – it has taken root- you know what it is talking about and pointing at is for real.   

Remember Hakuin, the famous 18th century reviver of Japanese Rinzai Zen is said to have had 15 major experiences and something like 70 minor experience before he “put the rhinoceros to rest.” The Chinese master Ta-hui who is credited with popularizing the hua-t’ou method in 12th century China also had many experiences and was asked to take over a monastery but refused because he still had some doubt about his practice. We should not make too much of small openings or even many openings. The important thing is how well the practice becomes integrated into one’s life and becomes living Zen. All too often we have seen how that has not been the case with Zen in the West over the last 45 years.    

The experience was of emptiness- emptiness of what or who I considered myself to be and emptiness of others and things. At some point it seemed very funny to have taken myself as all that I thought I was- the same was of others. It seemed completely ridiculous or comically foolish that I had done so. It was exactly as the Heart Sutra says, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”  It was also clear that there was nothing to attain, what was the big struggle? This also seemed amusing. It seemed like an ever abiding present- there was no time.  

NDM: Also what happened to it then?  Did you stay in this state after the bell rang or did you leave it?

Stuart Lachs: Yes- it did stay like that after the bell rang although I recognized people and the zendo (meditation hall). It was just that everything felt easy and appeared clear and also a bit funny or amusing. We then had a short closing service which is done at the end of each night. I went to Shifu Sheng Yen who was the teacher and told him I wanted to see him in private. We went into a separate room and he asked me what happened- I told him- he asked me a few questions which I don’t remember now except that they were easy to answer. They were easy to answer because it was clear - there was no figuring – just answering. He confirmed my experience. This is called “seeing the nature” in Sheng Yen’s tradition.

After this, the hua-t’ou lost all its power. It was impossible to raise any sense of doubt, so when I sat I did a kind of shikantaza (just sitting) for some time. I would try the hua-t’ou periodically but I think it was a week or two before any sense of the doubt sensation arose. I am pretty sure that after two weeks I was working on the same hua-t’ou again. I believe this is common in Chinese Chan and Korean Son to stay with the same hua-t’ou after having a Chan/Son experience. The hope is that one will have a deeper experience at a later date. From this perspective one hua-t’ou is as good as another. This is different from Japanese Rinzai Zen and the new Sanbokyodan Zen sect popular in the West where students go through a koan course or curriculum composed of maybe 200 or 300 or more koans as well as other material. However, going through a koan course does not mean some one actually has an awakening while working on each koan. That is definitely not the case.

I would like to add that in the 2nd example above, it was not so much a no-self experience though that was there, as seeing the world as a totally interconnected dynamic web. It was seeing the world of people and objects and emptiness as interconnected and interpenetrating each other. I also remember with this experience that physically much heat and sweat was generated. 

NDM: So when Shifu Sheng Yen confirmed your experience. What would it mean when you have seen the nature so to speak? Or if you have this realization that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”  That there was nothing to attain. Is this considered an awakening? "Enlightenment" in the Hua Tou Chan tradition?

Stuart Lachs By “seen the nature” Shifu Sheng Yen meant that one had a “no-self” experience, which is the experience that I had talked about above.  Instead of just saying that I described it in terms of seeing clearly that form is emptiness and so on. Those ideas came to me quickly after the bell. They seemed funny and amusing because it seemed so simple and very obvious. It also seemed amusing because I had realized that the Heart Sutra was describing things exactly as they appeared to me. It was a joy of recognizing some thing that had always been there but not seen quite so clearly. But to be clear, “seeing the nature” means a no self experience.

Interestingly, some people mistake a “oneness” experience for “seeing the nature.” This is a very big mistake though not uncommon. Oneness is actually a step away from no self, though it is a big step to take. In oneness there is a sense that you are one with the universe. However, no matter how subtle the self may be then, and that can be quite subtle, there is still a self and a universe to be one with. That next and important step of letting go of a subtle self can be very difficult.




NDM: So when you said earlier that these people go through this Zen course with koans. Do you mean to say they can go through this course and answer the questions and but still not be awakened at all?

This is a good question but the answer is not simple. Most commonly in koan courses the first koan is Joshu’s Mu, but it can be another koan as well. Each lineage has its own curriculum. If some one “passes” the first koan I assume it means or is supposed to mean “seeing the nature.”  This is usually followed by some checking koans or questions. Now it must be understood that a teacher passing a student on a koan is not like weighing a block of cement. If you weigh the block and I weigh the block and five other people weigh the block, everyone will get close to the same weight of course assuming we are using functioning scales. Now with koans, teachers can have a number of reasons to move some one along besides them having a no-self experience. Now I know of one case where I interviewed someone who was pretty much finished with his teacher’s koan course but did not know the difference between oneness and no-self. He could talk well and was confident about being an “older student.”  So at least in this case I would say it is true.

Here is another story, this one about Genpo Merzel roshi years ago when he had a group in Bar Harbor, Maine; this was in the late 1980’s. There was some unease in the group and tension among the members.

The woman instrumental in bringing Genpo to Bar Harbor who had also expressed concern to him about his reputation for womanizing before actually inviting him from California, went to speak with him. She said there was tension and unease in the group and asked, more or less,  “what is going on?” Gempo replied to her that this tension was because he was not passing students so easily on their koans. Well, the real reason for the tension was that Genpo was having a few affairs with woman students, one being his favored student, who he later gave Dharma transmission, that is, made her an independent roshi.  But that aside, the interesting point in terms of the question at hand is that at Gempo’s total discretion he could pass people on their koans easily or with more difficultly. But this is not only Gempo’s discretion; this is the discretion of every Zen teacher doing koans with their students. What “easily” means or on the contrary, with more difficulty means, no one can say. Were some people passed “easily” on their first koan and then moving along through the course.

Here is another example from the early 20th century in Japan. What I said above about koans is not some thing new, or created in the West. The following story was posted on Buddha-l, an academic online list for Buddhist scholars. The email was posted by Prof. Richard Hayes from the University of New Mexico, referencing a talk by Prof. John Maraldo.

“A letter from Nishida [Nishida Kitaro was the founder of the Kyoto School of philosophy] to an unknown recipient (perhaps D.T. Suzuki). [D.T. Suzuki, the popularizer of Zen in the West and Nishida Kitaro were close friends since high school days].

Forgive me for discussing such personal matters, but I think it is useless at present to visit Rōshi and am now concentrating solely on the mu kōan. Perhaps if I concentrate enough in my everyday life, I shall reach some enlightenment. What good is it if Rōshi considers that I have passed a kōan, if I myself am dissatisfied? There are Zen scholars who pass one kōan after another, thereby achieving seniority status. I am not, however, impressed with their behavior or with what they say. What is your opinion?

In another letter he mentions having an interview with Setsumon Rōshi, who was satisfied that he had passed the kōan mu, about which Nishida says "It does not delight me at all."

When asked about Nishida's dissatisfaction with passing the kōan and his disappointment that his kenshō was "not earth-shattering", D.T. Suzuki wrote: ‘Yes, that can happen to a man like Nishida, who has an intellectual and logical mind."

Professor Hayes added and I agree, “Thank heavens for intellectual and logical minds, say I!” Essentially Nishida is saying that he did not see any change for the better in the behavior of people who had gone through a Rinzai koan curriculum course. He is raising the question of what meaning can be placed on being authenticated for going through the koan course if there is no noticeable change in behavior or what one says. It seems he himself did not feel any wiser or enlightened when his roshi was satisfied that he had passed the mu koan. One might say Nishida was disenchanted with at least his roshi when he said, “It does not delight me at all." D.T. Suzuki, ever the idealist, attempted to spin Nishida’s remark away.   

But I know for a fact that people have been told they have had a Zen experience (seen the nature) when they haven’t. In two of these cases the people are official Zen teachers, that is Dharma transmitted teachers. There is no way of knowing how common this is. But this question only applies to groups or lineages that do koans or hua- t’ou practice. The Soto sect of Zen does not really do either koans or hua-tou at least as a main practice. Their main meditation practice is shikantaza (nothing but sitting or just sitting).  So I would hazard a guess to say that there are teachers in Soto lineages with the title roshi/Zen master who have not awakened at least by Rinzai/Sanbokyodan Zen’s understanding of the word. Please do not take this to be dismissive of these teachers; they may in fact be very good teachers and set high standards for their students while being exemplary role models. Whereas people with so called “awakening” may not have digested their experience(s) or the experience(s) may have gone to their heads and caused more problems than anything else.


Genpo Merzel roshi


NDM: On the subject of Zen.  What are your thoughts on this recent statement by Dennis Merzel/Genpo Roshi? 

"I have chosen to disrobe as a Buddhist Priest, and will stop giving Buddhist Precepts or Ordinations, but I will continue teaching Big Mind.  I will spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect. My actions have caused a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, and controversy for my wife, family, and Sangha, and for this I am truly sorry and greatly regret. My behavior was not in alignment with the Buddhist Precepts. I feel disrobing is just a small part of an appropriate response.

I am also resigning as an elder of the White Plum Asanga. My actions should not be viewed as a reflection on the moral fabric of any of the White Plum members."

Stuart Lachs: Well these thoughts sound good, too bad Merzel back tracked on them by still using the title roshi and functioning in this role. One should realize that Genpo’s new problem that is now discussed on many sites over the internet is close to being an exact replay of what happened in Bar Harbor, Maine twenty or so years ago. Also in 1992 there were some Zen teachers who asked Genpo’s teacher Maezumi roshi, to take back Genpo's permission to teach because of his womanizing and money issues, but Maezumi refused to do this. Of course Maezumi had his own problems with woman and alcohol.

Here is the letter written in 1992 by a group of Zen teachers asking Maezumi to halt Genpo from teaching “before he has a chance to cause more suffering.”

One question that appears to me is that Genpo in continuing to teach Big Mind is promising great insights and reaching the same levels as years of more or less standard Zen practice, though in reality, years of training in it-self can promise/guarantee nothing. But I have to ask, what has he realized himself when his behavior appears to mimic many other males with power and money who have had no interest in spiritual or religious training or searching.  That is, they essentially expect and often take special privileges above all others and do all manner of self serving activities and the hell with everyone else. It is all so common place. The fact is that with all the many scandals that have occurred with Zen in America over a 45 year period, not one of these teachers has ever stepped down out of the limelight and quietly worked on themselves in any way for a period of time before taking a lead position again or more so, not taking a lead position again at all.

Here is an update from the Utah News: The Salt Lake Tribune, May 6, 2011.

 “Zen teachers are livid Utah colleague in sex scandal still teaching

  “Whether the buildings sell or not,” Esterman said, “the community can still continue [elsewhere].”

Kanzeon’s future is in question for several reasons, but it’s mostly about money. Merzel said he has been financially supporting the center for years through his Big Mind nonprofit. He now wants to stop teaching traditional Zen and turn his attention fully to Big Mind. Big Mind is an enlightenment process Merzel began teaching 12 years ago. It blends Zen with voice dialogue techniques of psychology. Merzel sees it as a way to bring the essence of Zen to the West in a big way.

Big Mind has grossed millions in recent years by offering exclusive training with Merzel to well-heeled followers. Several dozen people throughout the world have paid $50,000 to spend five days with Merzel and four other students. The suggested donation this year for training at Merzel’s cabin near Solitude Ski Resort and at Big Mind’s monastery on Maui, is $10,000 or $15,000 a person, depending on the session.

Kanzeon, Merzel said, owes Big Mind about $165,000 and Merzel himself $200,000 to $300,000. Those debts would need to be repaid, he said, and the buildings purchased by any group wanting to continue the Zen center.

“I’ve asked the [Kanzeon] board to ask the community of people still with us what they want,” Merzel said. “It seems to me … that if they want those buildings, then they have to come up with the finances for it.” One option, he said, is to rename Kanzeon “Big Heart Center” and focus it on Big Mind.

Merzel said about 100 people have signed their names to a statement saying they want to continue as his students.


Genpo Roshi




Esterman didn’t know how many have dropped out of Kanzeon, which once had about 200 members, as a result of the scandal. Merzel said fewer than a dozen have left.

 “I’m one of a group of people who feels that Genpo Roshi is an extraordinary teacher,” Esterman said. “I’d like to continue studying with him.”

One might also ask if Merzel could be a bit more generous with the group that has just fallen apart around him because of his selfish actions by offering them something more than sell the building and pay me off or become part of Big Mind. Is Merzel’s idea of renaming Kanzeon Center  “Big Heart Center” a joke? He sounds more like a CEO of XYZ Corporation than someone claiming to be a Zen roshi who after years of Zen training holds himself up as being an exemplar of the Zen tradition by teaching Big Mind, supposedly like Zen only more efficient than Zen.

It is too bad the words of the 10th century famous Chinese teacher Yen–shou seem to be lost these days.

“If the manifesting formations are not yet severed and the defilements and habit-energies persist, or whatever you see leads to passion and whatever you encounter produces impediments, then although you have understood the meaning of the non-arising state, your power (the understanding to affect the course of your daily life) is still insufficient. You should not grasp at that understanding and say, “I have already awakened to the fact that the defilements are void.” He goes on to say, “Hence it should be clear that if words and actions are contradictory, the correctness or incorrectness of one’s practice can be verified. Measure the strength of your faculties; you cannot afford to deceive yourself….You must be absolutely thorough in this.”  

NDM: On Genpo Roshi’s website, it says that he is giving a five day retreat entitled.

"Take five days with the creator and master of Big Mind/Big Heart to go deep into discovering your true self — who you are and who you are not.

Working closely with Genpo Roshi from morning to night, including six hours a day of Big Mind and meals and informal time with him in a small group, can lead you to more liberating insights than years of sitting in meditation.

What makes these five days so powerful is Roshi’s extraordinary ability, honed by 40 years of Zen training, to focus on the exact places where each individual is stuck and then to compassionately turn unhealthy and negative qualities into healthy and positive attributes."

Donation: $5,000.

What are your thoughts on this?  Charging this amount for Buddhist teaching?  Also do you think that five days with Dennis Merzel, or anyone else can lead to more insights than years of sitting in meditation?

Stuart Lachs: One has to ask is this Buddhist teaching or something else. Merzel or Genpo roshi as he likes to call himself, I believe says his teaching is an amalgam of his Zen training and teaching and psychology, though in the above advertisement, Zen is certainly highlighted. He mentions “discovering your true self — who you are and who you are not.” That is what people are paying for.  However, it is not clear to me what he means by this. Psychology and Zen have different ideas or understandings about what this means. What “Who you are” means from a psychological point of view usually means some thing quite different from what that means in Zen, not alone the rest of Buddhism.  Looking at the schedule leaves me to strongly believe these five days with Merzel may be more in the psychology meaning than in the Zen meaning, but I do not really know.

The advertisement seems odd to me as Merzel claims he will “focus on the exact places where each individual is stuck and then to compassionately turn unhealthy and negative qualities into healthy and positive attributes." Well one wonders why if he has this great skill he hasn’t worked it on himself. We have just seen that Merzel seems pretty stuck in his own “unhealthy and negative qualities” for at least a period of twenty years. His latest scandal was pretty much a replay of his play-book from the late 1980’s in Bar Harbor, Maine.

There is a saying, “The business of America is business.” I say all the power to Merzel that he can charge $5,000 for five days and get people to pony up. Whether it is Buddhist teaching or is it Zen however,  is another question. But he is not selling Buddhism or Zen, he is selling “Big Mind/Big Heart” and what that is I don’t really know. His claim is that it is his Zen training that enables him to be so outstanding a teacher. But he never really says it is Zen that he is selling. Of course, he is clouding things over, implying that it is really better than Zen at least in the sense of being many times more efficient. Yes, I think he is a real good salesman.

 In answer to your question “do you think that five days with Dennis Merzel, or anyone else can lead to more insights than years of sitting in meditation?”

Well- yes I do but the question is, “Are we talking about the same kinds of insights? I can easily see that spending five days or less with a talented and insightful person could lead to many worthwhile insights. One has to say that Zen meditation does not really deal with some aspects of people’s psyche, certainly not directly.

I think however, that it is fair to question how deep or profound Merzel’s insights are or is his integrity since he seems to have long standing problems that he has not dealt with well while claiming to “compassionately turn unhealthy and negative qualities into healthy and positive attributes" for others, in a short period of time no less. If, as he claims, it is so easy to do with others, I wonder why he has such a hard time of it with himself. Here is the latest statement by the White Plum Asangha regarding Genpo Roshi.

NDM: What are your thoughts on this clip of Ken Wilber talking about Genpo Roshi?  (video clip to right)

Stuart Lachs: OK- you owe me one for asking me to watch that performance of smooth talking sales hype. It starts out with Wilber describing Genpo, whose partner he happens to be in Big Mind as extraordinary, “deeply deeply decent,” enlightened, but he also assures us that “decent is harder than being enlightened” which implies that Wilber considers himself enlightened and therefore qualified to make such a statement. He adds that Genpo is manifesting the “bodhisattva impulse” whatever this means. It is a big sales pitch for Big Mind and Genpo and  himself. However, Wilber adds, if you want a more traditional way to deepen your realization, I assume he means Zen, with Genpo you can do that too.

Wilber talks of an unbroken lineage of enlightened beings going back to Shakyamuni Buddha as being a straightforward thing, when it is hardly a straightforward thing at all. It is a fabrication plain and simple, entirely a creation of Chan Buddhism in China in the 8th–10th century as their legitimating scheme matching the importance of genealogy in Chinese culture. An unbroken lineage of enlightened beings going back to the Buddha is accepted by virtually no modern Buddhist scholars, though well accepted and promoted by at least one modern day pitch man.  




Ken Wilber


Wilber talks of realizing your true nature equating it with non dual Big Mind and places this in the context of stages, states, and shadows (what he calls the 3 S’s) and highlights giving practices that show how to work with one’s shadows. He says this is “really the fun part” to the laughter of the audience where you see all that “dirty stuff” and so on. Of course we already know how efficient Big Mind shadow works because Genpo the teacher and inventor/discoverer of the process is a prime example of how well it works. Hmmmm. He has at least twenty years of shadows driving his life in repetitive fashion with negative and destructive results. I have to say that either Wilber is blind, being fooled by Genpo, or is acting as an old fashioned carnival barker. Step up and take your choice to describe Wilber’s smooth talking performance.

Near the end of the video, Wilber hits his true stride where he tells us that through Big Mind all those profound meditative states you realize can be applied in your daily life in a “comprehensive fashion.” In the presentation, it seems a given that everyone will attain “profound meditative states.” But more so, through Big Mind training they will be applied in your daily life in a “comprehensive fashion,” and in opposition to older traditions [where these insights fade or are lost,] with Big Mind, the “realization sticks.” Never one to avoid grandiose talk,  Wilber informs us this is the first time in the “history of the known universe” for this to happen. There is some tongue and cheek joking with the audience about this remark, but the message has already been planted to the audience’s delight.

Again, one has to wonder why Genpo, the founder and inventor of the process, has so hard a time applying to his own life, what he or at least his front man, Ken Wilber is promising and selling to others. One also has to wonder how Genpo developed his method if not by working on himself? As it does not appear to work all that well on himself, it raises many more questions about Genpo’s self awareness and integrity.

NDM: What about on Brad Warner's comments below on Genpo Roshis Big Mind?

"There’s a very good reason why Zen teachers for thousands of years have cautioned their students to go very slowly and cautiously along the path. These sudden breakthroughs can seem very thrilling when they happen. People might even pay good money for them. But they can also mess your mind up in a very big way if you go into them unprepared. Yet here’s old loving Genpo making it so you can walk in off the street and have one in a couple hours. That’s like giving random people massive doses of LSD and saying, “Here! It’s fun! Now you’re going to see God and love everyone in the world!”  End of quote.

Stuart Lachs: I just looked at Merzel’s “Big Mind” website to see what he claims. At least on the home page he does not talk of or use the phrase “sudden breakthroughs” at least as I understand the term. I did not go to any of the many links on the home page. He does mention very positive changes (they notice significant positive changes) in people’s lives manifesting in a short period of time under his teaching and workshops. So from what I see on his home page, there is not the kind of talk that Brad Warner is referring to. But I think that Brad Warner has read more of Genpo’s Big Mind material then I have. I am only commenting on Genpo’s home page and have read next to nothing about Big Mind aside from this.

I find it interesting that Merzel compares his “Big Mind/Big Heart” teaching to meditation by which I assume he means Zen meditation as that is what he is most familiar with. But his view of meditation seems to be a form of meditation largely taken out of a more inclusive Buddhist context. One has to wonder about the quality, depth and context of the Zen meditation that he studied with Maezumi roshi who anointed Dennis Merzel with the honored title, Genpo roshi. This form of meditation did not seem to serve or help his teacher Maezumi greatly, or at least left gaping wholes in his development. Maezumi roshi as is well known by now, unfortunately died while drunk by drowning in a hot tub at his brother’s temple in Japan, after bouts with alcoholism, that is in addition to his problems with women. It also has not served Genpo all that well by his manifesting consistent negative and destructive behavior for a period of over twenty years.

I am not saying that taking Merzel’s Big Mind workshops and courses will not help people. I assume they do because he has attracted a large and loyal following that seem more than willing to pay whatever he asks to be in his presence. I do question his equating what he does, that is, Big Mind with what Zen is doing in following its path. This is especially problematic because both Merzel and his teacher Maezumi have clearly missed some “fundamental”, a word Wilber repeated many times, elements of Zen practice. Perhaps it would be best if Merzel and Wilber just spoke of Merzel’s creation, Big Mind and left comparisons to Zen and other Buddhist traditions out of their presentation.


Brad Warner


NDM: How would you answer to someone who said that that one should not project a "golden shadow" onto a Roshi because they are only human, and doing so will only lead to disappointment?

Stuart Lachs: From what I gather the idea of the “golden shadow” is a Jungian idea. I am not particularly interested in Jung but I do not think one has to be a believer in Jung to reply to your question. My understanding of your question is that if one should project outstanding qualities onto a roshi, who is  really only human, will this only lead to  disappointment?

I think it is first necessary to discuss what the term ”roshi” means. It is a Japanese word that means “old teacher”  or “respected master” used  in the Zen sect of Buddhism as an honorific title. In Japan the term would rarely ever be used by a person under 60 years old. In the USA and probably in Europe, the term is used differently and certainly by younger people. Generally speaking in the Rinzai and the newer Sanbokyodan sects of Zen in the West, a person would be called roshi after finishing their koan curriculum course and receiving Dharma transmission. In the Soto sect of Zen a person is generally given or uses the title roshi after receiving Dharma transmission from their teacher. The term has become synonymous with Zen master.

Without going into a long exposition of Zen history and the development and use of the terms Zen master, Dharma transmission, and unbroken lineage, I believe it is safe to say that the terms roshi and Zen master are commonly presented in a most idealized form. What going through a koan curriculum and receiving Dharma transmission actually means in terms of spiritual attainment is open to question. Genpo Merzel being one example and Eido Shimano another example of many who have completed the koan curriculum of their sect and have received  Dharma transmission who by how they have lived, make this an important question. What receiving Dharma transmission in the Soto sect of Zen means is also open to question. This brings to mind Dick Baker roshi, the only western Dharma transmitted heir of the highly respected Shunryu Suzuki roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center, or Katagiri roshi of the Minneapolis Zen Center. Both Baker roshi and Katagiri roshi led lives that were very questionable, in spite of their honorific titles.

In virtually zero cases does it mean that the person with the title is anything like a Buddha or an advanced bodhisattva. It does not even mean the person is especially spiritually attained at all. Mostly the idea of perfection that people have of the Zen master/roshi come from Zen texts with the stories many of us are so fond of. These texts are presented as actual historical events seemingly recorded by court stenographers as they unfolded. However, in fact almost all these stories are edited and re-edited as the self definition of the Zen tradition changed, just as some people were written into the tradition or out of it for the same reason. These stories really are meant to show how a Zen master should act and sound- they are prescriptive, not descriptive describing actual historical events. In some cases, this editing process has occurred over a period of a few hundred years. These Zen stories however may be used as teaching devises pointing to some aspect of Zen understanding or for inspirational purposes.

However, as in any field, a more experienced person may be able to help a less experienced person. Especially so in meditation, the more experienced person can explain and direct some one to avoid certain pitfalls of the practice or to see there is more to the practice than the less experienced person believes. The more experienced person, say the roshi if you like, can correct misunderstandings,  encourage some one to practice more diligently or act as a role model or to be a living example that what appears as a difficult practice is in fact, possible to do.

That does not mean the more experienced person or roshi or Zen master is a perfected being or even advanced spiritually; it only means they are more experienced. It does not mean they are above question, have digested any great insight so that they live from the absolute and are beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. That kind of talk is what I meant by the above mentioned “idealized form” of understanding.

So I would agree that it is not a good idea to project perfection/golden shadow onto a roshi or anyone else. Just to give you an idea how to a certain extent the title roshi is an institutional necessity in Zen, lets look at some organizations of roshi. There is an organization called the American Zen Teachers Association, AZTA, it  has 130 members, all roshi. There is the  White Plum Asanga lineage that came from Maezumi roshi and his Dharma heirs has 92 teachers. Bernie Glassman was the first president is just one of those Dharma heirs and he has over a dozen heirs and many of them have many heirs, while Dennis Genpo Merzel was the second president of the organization has ten Dharma heirs and some of them have a few Dharma heirs. Then there is the Sanbokyodan lineage of Yasutani roshi who had extreme right leanings throughout his adult life,  that numbers well over a hundred roshi.


Bernie Glassman


The lineage of Suzuki roshi of the San Francisco Zen Center who died in 1972 numbers 70 roshi, almost all of them come through Mel Weitsman, a disciple of Suzuki’s who received Dharma transmission not from Suzuki, but from Suzuki’s son Hoitsu after spending a short time with him in Japan. Hoitsu did not really study with his father Shunryu Suzuki. But rather, it was a standard father-son Dharma transmission given in Soto Zen in Japan to allow the son to inherit the family temple. So having many roshi is an institutional necessity of Zen which means there are many roshi.

To give one final example, Shifu Sheng-yen was fond of describing Zen masters in extremely idealized terms. I thought this was  misleading and causing trouble in American Zen. It was a point of contention between us. One night, in frustration over this issue, during a class I asked him, “You have lived in Japan for five or six years, you have lived in mainland China and you live in Taiwan, have you ever met a single Zen master as enlightened as you are describing virtually all of them now?”  To Sheng –yen’s credit he answered honestly and said, “No, maybe Hsu –yun, but I was really too young to know then.” Hsu-yun (Empty Cloud) was the most famous Chan master in modern day China who died in 1959 at well over a hundred years old. Unfortunately, it did not stop Sheng–yen’s  idealized descriptions of Zen masters.

In a nutshell, if you project perfection or whatever you want to call it onto another human being, or a human being with a title, no matter what the tradition, I think indeed, you are asking to be disappointed. Again, this is not to say that we cannot learn from others, respect others for their actions and understanding and so on, but that is different from projecting perfection.

NDM: What is the "stink of enlightenment" and what are the telling signs if someone has this?

Stuart Lachs: In general I would say the phrase the "stink of enlightenment" refers to having an experience of enlightenment that one clings to, or stays attached to. Instead of digesting the experience however shallow or deep it may be, seeing it as being a step on a long path,  the person comes to identify themselves as being enlightened or having had an enlightenment experience. Enlightenment  in the Zen tradition means having an experience of no-self, or in seeing the emptiness of self and others, or in my view anyway, seeing the inter-relatedness of all things in the universe-really seeing the universe as inter-relatedness itself.

So with the “stink of enlightenment” in a sense the opposite occurs. The person has a fixed view of themselves, seeing themselves as an enlightened being, as special, as separate and most likely above others. The person with this stink, forgets or inverts the realization and makes it a point of attachment – being fixed – forgetting key parts of the Heart Sutra: the emptiness of all being  and things as well as  “there is no wisdom or any attainment.” Often the person with this attachment to their attainment, or identifying themselves as being greatly enlightened or wise, expects and often demands special treatment and privileges that do not apply to the rest of humanity.  

On one hand it shows that the person has made some progress, even much progress, had some insight, but I think unless this stink is dealt with and gotten over, it can become ingrained. The attachment to the world is really strong and quite hard to put to rest, what is referred to in Buddhism as “habit energy.” Now because of having some realizations a person may in fact gain some power. This person may promote him/herself more  rather than seeing the need for more diligent practice. They can use and manipulate the world more easily to suit themselves. It can be a tricky situation. In this case, the attachment to their attainment and with that, themselves, is really unfortunate and becomes more difficult to get rid of. I think one sees this in the behavior of a number of people in teaching situations, though definitely not limited to this situation. They may be able to give good and inspiring talks, direct people in their meditation practice, but their activity becomes self serving, often acting as if the rules that apply to other people do not apply to them. We often see in these cases, this behavior continues for long periods of time becoming repetitive and even more self serving and self aggrandizing. As we have seen all too often, in  time it explodes in scandal. But that by no means always happens.   

The easiest sign for recognizing this stink is when the person is quick to inform you that they are enlightened or had such and such an experience with the implication of their specialness. But those are the easy cases. In other cases there is some arrogance, a kind of calling to be the center of attraction, to be the main focus, a sense of being attached to their ego, pride in their realization, don’t do what I do, but do what I tell you. There is a lack of humbleness, compassion and giving.  But in fact, it can be hard to smell the “stink of enlightenment,”  this is especially so when the person is in an authority role wherein institutional mythology provides a convenient  cover for the smell.  As an example, years ago I heard a Zen teacher give a talk shortly after he had finished a solo seven day retreat. He began by saying, “If you want to know where I am now, read Ramana Maharshi.” As most of you know Maharshi was considered by many to be the greatest saint/practitioner in modern day India. So this teacher, at least to my ear, clearly had a very inflated view of his attainment that he openly identified with. From the public interactions with his students that followed this remark, it seemed like many of his students not only bought this teacher’s self description, but also encouraged it, while denigrating themselves.

Another case I heard was a teacher in the Tibetan tradition who often spoke of his higher attainments and teachings that he wanted to give to his followers, but that his followers were not ready to hear yet. This too, like the case above had the stink of enlightenment to it for me. It is not surprising that people in this condition want to be leaders of groups. It is also not surprising that when things go wrong they do not readily step down from their leadership position, even for a short time.

NDM: Going back to Hua tou and doubt.  Buddha said that doubt is like wondering around in the desert without food or water, being surrounded by bandits and then loosing ones life. Doubt is also listed as one of the five hindrances to meditation.

What are the differences with the doubt you were referring to in hua-tou and the doubt Buddha was talking about in the five hindrances?

Stuart Lachs: I think we should keep in mind that though we are questioning the word “doubt”, we are looking at the word as used in two very different contexts. As part of the five hindrances, the term doubt comes from early Buddhism some times called “Main Stream Buddhism” in India or Sri Lanka, most likely from some time before the common era. The five hindrances are the five hindrances to meditation. The first four being sensual desire, anger or ill will, sloth or torpor, restlessness and/or worry, with doubt being the fifth hindrance. These five qualities are listed as qualities to be aware of as hindrances to meditation. In this context doubt is basically a skeptical doubt that one does not believe in or accept Buddhist teachings, or thinking meditating, sitting here doing nothing is a waste of time. It refers to not trusting the teachings and the teachers so naturally this would be a big hindrance to one’s meditation practice.

Hua-tou meditation arose in China in the 12 th century in China with the Chan master Ta-hui (1089 – 1163). Ta-hui was looking to develop a method of practice to allow his followers to directly and instantly see or realize their true nature or Buddha nature. He lived at a time when there was a highly refined tradition of commentary and poetics in relation to well known encounters/cases/koans of earlier Chan masters. By and large Ta-hui’s followers were also well educated, the literati who had passed the difficult state exams and held state office and ran the country. He also had many followers who were in the sangha, that is, fully ordained monks and nuns.

Ta-hui’s doubt was in the context of the Three Greats, that is

1.     Great faith

2.     Great determination or energy

3.     Great doubt

as mentioned in an earlier answer above.

Great faith means one has great faith in the Buddhist teachings, faith in the hua-tou method as a fine method and as a method that could work for oneself as it had worked well for countless others, faith in your own Buddha nature, and importantly faith in oneself as being able to do this practice.

Great determination or energy means one really wants to know who they are- what is their true nature or Buddha nature. It also means one is willing to put in the time and energy – the work to discover who they really are. In fact, mostly this determination will grow or needs to grow as one enters this method of practice.

Great doubt is now viewed in the context of the above two greats: faith and determination. So we have great faith in the Buddhist teachings, in our own Buddha nature, in the teachings that we have as a birth right the ability or right to see the true nature of the world and ourselves. Not only do we have faith but are determined to realize this Buddhist or Chan/Zen truth. However, we do not really know who we are, what Buddha nature means, what is our original nature, what precisely are the earlier Chan masters talking about. What does all this talk really mean- what do our texts really mean? We don’t know! So in this method this unknowing is focused through a hua-tou: what is my original face before my mother and father were born, who is dragging this corpse around, what is it, who am I, who is repeating the Buddha’s name, what  is Mu,….One picks one hua-tou and focuses on it - examining it  with a questioning and unknowing mind. In a sense, many doubts become compressed or collapse into one doubt- the hua-tou.

Cultivating the doubt sensation is not limited to sitting in seated meditation, though seated meditation is a time where one can concentrate well and expend uninterrupted time and energy, hence is important. Through this process one hopes to make the hua-tou  come alive – become a live word – for the doubt to grow until there is nothing but doubt.  From this situation the doubt can break open and one can see their true or Buddha nature.

So the difference in the meaning of “doubt” in the two contexts discussed here are diametrically opposed. As part of the Five Hindrances, doubt is an impediment to meditation, an undermining force that upsets meditation, where as with the hua–tou meditation method doubt, set in the context of the Three greats is an energizer, a driving force propelling one deeper into meditation and forward to realize their Buddha nature.     

NDM: In Theravada Buddhism they speak of the 10 fetters. Number 3 is Silabbata Paramasa which means "adherence to wrongful rites, rituals and ceremonies". The Buddha said that neither the repetition of holy scriptures, nor the repetition of prayers, penances, hymns, charms, mantras, incantations and invocations can bring us the real happiness of Nirvana.  Instead the Buddha emphasized the importance of making individual effort in order to achieve our spiritual goals. He likened it to a man wanting to cross a river; sitting down and praying will not suffice, but he must make the effort to build a raft or a bridge.

What are your thoughts on this concerning Mahāyāna or Vajrayāna Buddhism and some of their rituals and so on? 

Stuart Lachs: I think the first thing is to keep in mind is that these sayings are attributed to the Buddha. We should also keep in mind, what the Buddhist historian Peter Skilling wrote in a 2009 article that “the term Theravada is rare in Pali literature and that for nearly a millennium was rarely used in vernacular inscriptions, chronicles or other premodern texts of Southeast Asia.” What we today know as Theravada Buddhism was only one of roughly twenty six other sects of early Buddhism.  They were originally called Sthaviras or the Elders. However, there were seventeen other sects called Sthaviras, but only the Theravada group survived.  

We are not even 100% sure what language the Buddha spoke, it was definitely not Pali as there was no Pali at the time the Buddha lived, and we are consequently even less certain what he actually said. Also, the canonical texts where these sayings are taken from often also contain other statements that are outright contradictory, and that consequently make any statement as to a what one should actually do ambiguous. Then we also must keep in mind that the Buddha was in a time, place and setting where there were competing religions and competing religious practitioners. In the paragraph you cite, it is “wrongful” rites, rituals, and ceremonies that are signaled out. What does “wrongful” mean here? This implies there are correct rites, rituals and ceremonies, what are they?

I can see where this remark may be a criticism or slap at the Brahmanical tradition where there is much ritual and where who has the right to perform rituals are important, though performing rituals is not the full extent of their practice. There are also other places where Brahmanical ritual is ethicized, meaning that the “real sacrifice” is redefined as not the Brahmanical sacrifice, but the offering to the Sangha.

I think we have to keep in mind that there is a polemical element in these canonical texts. We also have to realize that what the texts say may not be what Buddhist monks and nuns and lay followers were actually doing.

I think in early Indian/Sri Lankan Buddhist monasticism the vinaya is periodically repeated as well as the repetition of set formulas are repeated at fixed times of the year, like the beginning of the rain season retreat. I assume these are not what is meant by “wrongful” repetitions. Of course, individual effort is called for. In the above paragraph there seems to be a denigrating of charms, mantras, …elements we may refer to as magic. Yet these canonical texts are filled with stories of the power of the Buddha’s magic. There is also much stated in the canonical texts that appear to be ideals rather than what people actually were doing from the earliest times. So it is common to think from reading  the Pali vinaya that Buddhist monks and nuns did not have money (gold and silver) or property, but that is not true, as modern scholarship has clearly shown.

But I can also interpret Silabbata Paramasa as clinging to any Buddhist practice or any part of the eight-fold path with incorrect mind or incorrect motives. Even maintaining a very strict practice of sila which means morality can be done with a clinging mind, a self aggrandizing mind, an unreflective mind, and so forth. So Silabbata Paramasa has much to do with having a correct attitude.

I will not comment on Vajrayana practices at all as I do not know very much about them. I will stick to Mahayana, at least some sections of it of which I am familiar. In Mahayana, particularly Chan/Zen of which I am most familiar and less familiar with Pure Land Buddhism there is repetition or chanting of sutras, some of which have mantras attached to them, dharanis, and repeating the Buddha’s name and Bodhisattva’s names. In Zen, aside from meditation for which it is known, there are religious services: morning and evening services, a mid-day service and services before and after meals among others. All these services are part of creating a mindfulness of what one is doing as well as creating a religious mind or consciousness that through repetition make Buddhist teachings part of one’s mind- really taken into one’s life. So with the meal offering we are made aware of the work and suffering of other people and beings in order for us just to eat and to stay alive and hence to be able practice.

In a sense services and rituals, etc. are a reminder of Buddhist teachings and especially in these times a counter to the endless advertising and sense inundation of popular culture. For instance the Heart Sutra is chanted a number of times each day in Chan monasteries and temples and often at home by lay people. This Sutra is a condensed form of the vast Prajnaparamita Sutras and literature which are teachings on emptiness (sunyata). Yet the sutra ends with a dharani, an incantation/spell: Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha. Though the sutra is a condensed form of the teachings on emptiness it ends with a dharani which, at least for westerners, adds an emotional connection to the chanting and teachings.   

These services and recitations, repeating vows,  bowing… also bring forth emotional and somatic elements which if nothing else brings the teachings into our being and mind; they become part of us. It also makes what seems like  purely mental teachings more connected to the human realm of suffering sentient beings and to emotional elements of being a human.

Now of course in all this individual effort is called for. Whether one does hua-tou practice as described above or other Zen practices such as silent illumination or shikantaza, koan study Japanese style, or some form of breadth watching or other methods,  individual effort is always emphasized.  All require an equal amount of individual effort.   Taking part in services, chanting sutras and dharani and doing bows, repeating vows, doing repentance practices,  along with meditation are all part of Chan/Zen practice that support and help one along the path. Are they necessary, I would say for many if not most people, “yes,” but maybe not for everyone. Are they helpful, I would also say “yes” for most people. I feel doing these practices was helpful for me too.

NDM: What are your thoughts on Theravada type one pointed meditations like the jhanas? Samatha/samadhi Have you ever practiced this sort of meditation?

Stuart Lachs: I have not practiced this sort of meditation. I have however talked to people who have done much jhana meditation. For whatever reasons, I have not been attracted to what appears to me to be detailed maps of the stages of meditation and to seemingly knowing precisely where on the journey one was. I have been more attracted to Far Eastern Buddhism where at least the forms I have been exposed to do not go into that kind of specific detail. There is more a sense of an endless journey.

I have a few thoughts on Theravada type meditation. Clearly this type of meditation is attractive to many people which is terrific. It is wonderful that there are a range of styles and methods of meditation and practice to suit the mentalities of different people.  I have met some people who have practiced the Theravada way seriously for long times and I have been very impressed with them. I assume much of what impresses me about them comes from their long term practice.

I have also met some people doing Theravada type practice who make claims to being on some such stage, but just being with them seems to indicate that they have attained a lot less than they think they have. For instance some years ago I lived at a Buddhist center where one fellow claimed to be a step or two or three away from Buddhahood. It seemed a bit odd to me to make a claim like that, especially so since this fellow seemed quite lazy, did the least amount of work or less that was expected of people staying at this center, and seemed to be just looking for an easy life. But he said that there were 25 or 26 steps along the way to Buddhahood and he was just near completing them. I think this fellow had spent a few years at a monastery in Sri Lanka.

I have spoken with some people who make claims for being on rather high levels yet when they attempted hua-tou meditation became frightened or very uneasy as all the mental markers we identify ourselves with and place ourselves in the world with fall away. I would have thought that would not happen from the way they described the level of practice (jhana stage) they were on.

A question I have about having so clear a road map is that at least some people knowing the particulars of a given stage, will imagine that they are in that stage as they meditate. Meditation is inherently tricky so I think imagining a clearly spelled out road map may be a problem. I have brought this up with a Theravada style jhana practitioner I know and though he did not convince me 100% with his answer, he gave it in so open and non-confrontational a manner while recognizing the question as real, that his way of replying was indeed really impressive. I would like to add that this person had no title representing high standing as part of a large institution. It was his replies and behavior that was so impressive with no outer accoutrements such as robes or titles representing authority and legitimacy. So again, I think Theravada style jhana practice is a terrific practice for people whose mentality and disposition it matches.  


Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra).


NDM: What is the purpose of keeping the eyes open in Zen meditation?  Was this eyes open meditation a Chinese/Japanese invention of some kind?

Stuart Lachs: I do not know who invented eyes open meditation. I thought this was common or the standard though many years ago while visiting a Kirphal Singh meditation center I noticed people meditated with their eyes closed and in what appeared to me at the time to be odd postures such as leaning against a wall or sitting with a blanket over their head and body. 

 My understanding of keeping the eyes open in Zen meditation is to keep wondering thoughts to a minimum. But eyes open does not mean wide open. In Zen meditation, the eyes are kept half open looking down at a forty-five degree angle without focusing. The same is done during the walking meditation period known as kinhin in Japanese.

I think the whole discussions of posture and what to do with one’s eyes and so forth are at least partially cultural. I have seen photos of Ramana Maharshi and in none of those photos is he attempting to sit or look like a Zen figure in perfect full lotus posture.

I have meditated with many people whose posture was far from perfect according to some people’s idea yet they at the least had much samadhi power and could sit for hours without moving. I think many of us have seen pictures or have actually been with real people in the Tibetan or Indian traditions sitting with meditation straps as acting support to hold them up during long meditation periods, some thing not done in Zen.

I am not saying that posture may not be important as I know there are many theories about energy channels and such and have felt differences with myself. However, it seems there are also many people who do fine using varied postures or postures that deviate from some theory. Too, meditation is not totally a physical exercise. I find it fascinating that people manage to do quite well at meditation practicing in a wide variety of postures and methods in spite of the many theories. I think the point is to find a style or method of practice that is suited to who you are. It does not matter that some one else thinks a place or teacher is terrific or not so good, though talking with others can be helpful. I think it is important to trust your instincts or feelings when going to a place to practice.

 I welcome comments or questions to the above interview.

See Stuart Lachs interview Part one