30 Questions on Zen Buddhism and Practicing Zazen

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  • John Cloud
    • Apr 2014
    • 51

    30 Questions on Zen Buddhism and Practicing Zazen

    These questions were compiled by Gustav Ericson based on questions he received from a group of people in Sweden who practice Zazen. The answers are by Buddhist priest Gudo Wafu Nishijima .

    1. What is gained in Zazen?

    What we gain in Zazen is the balance of the autonomic nervous system. In the chapter entitled Bendowa in Master Dogen’s book Shobogenzo we can find the words " JijuyoZanmai," which Master Dogen indicates as the criteria of Zazen. The first word "Jijuyo” separates into two parts, one is “Jiju” and the other is “Jiyo.” Therefore “Jijuyo” is a combination between “Jiju” and “Jiyo.” “Jiju” means to receive ourselves and “Jiyo” means to utilize ourselves. Therefore we can interpret that “Jiju” suggests the function of the parasympathetic nervous system, and “Jiyo” suggests the function of the sympathetic nervous system. And the second word “Zanmai” means the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system. Therefore we can understand that the words “ JijuyoZanmai” mean just the balanced state of the autonomic nervous system, which modern psychology and physiology teaches us about today.

    2. What is Master Dogen's "flowers in space"?

    "Flowers in space" is the title of the 43rd chapter in Shobogenzo. In this chapter Master Dogen explains that even though Buddhism insists that both intellectual consideration and sensuous perception are not real entities themselves, he also insists that both intellectual consideration as thesis and concrete sensuous perception as antithesis are useful and necessary, and by utilizing those two fundamental criteria we can understand reality on the basis of dialectic thinking utilizing the philosophy of action as the synthesis.

    3. What is the meaning of Dharma Transmission?

    In Shobogenzo we can find the 16th chapter, which is entitled "The Certificate of Succession." In this chapter Master Dogen describes the ceremony of transmitting Dharma. Therefore "Transmission" means the transmission of Dharma, and “Dharma” means the Buddhist truth, the Universe, a real act at the present moment, and Reality itself. Therefore we can interpret that “Dharma Transmission” is giving the certificate of realizing Dharma from a Buddhist Master to his matured disciple.

    4. What is a Zen Master?

    I guess that the words "Zen Master" may be the translation of the Japanese words "Zen Ji." Zen is the same in the two languages, and “Ji” (or “Shi”) means a teacher. Therefore a Zen Master means a teacher of Zazen. But I think that we should be careful in thinking about the word “Zen”. Because in some kinds of Buddhism we sometimes find the strange fact that the word “Zen” is used to represent a special meaning of something mystical.

    Those kinds of Buddhism use the word “Zen” to represent some kind of mystical but powerful entity. But I wonder whether such a kind of mystical entity really exists in Buddhism or not. And Master Dogen hates such a kind of mysticism so strongly, and so in Shobogenzo he writes his opinion as follows (Book 2, P. 62, L 12.):

    “People who do not learn this truth in practice speak randomly and mistakenly. They randomly call the right-Dharma-eye treasury and the fine mind of nirvana that have been authentically transmitted by the Buddhist patriarchs “the Zen Sect”; they call the ancestral Master “the Zen patriarch”; they call practitioners “Zen students” or “students of dhyana”; and some of them call themselves “the Zen schools.” These are all twigs and leaves rooted in a distorted view. Those who randomly call themselves by the name “Zen Sect,” which has never existed in India in the west or in eastern lands, from the past to the present, are demons out to destroy the Buddha's truth. They are the Buddhist patriarchs’ uninvited enemies.”

    Therefore we should be careful to use the word "Zen."

    5. What is intuition?

    Intuition is a mental ability which has a function to decide a conclusion transcending mental consideration and sensuous perception. When the sympathetic nervous system is stronger, the intellectual consideration works well, and when the parasympathetic nervous system is stronger, the sensuous perception works well, but when the autonomic nervous system is balanced the ability of intuition works well directly.

    6. What is our true original nature?

    Generally speaking, it is usually impossible for us to know our true original nature, because it is just a simple fact at the present moment, and so it is usually impossible for us to grasp it at the present moment.

    7. What is Buddha-nature?

    In chapter 22 of Shobogenzo entitled “Bussho”, or “The Buddha-nature,” Master Dogen describes Buddha-nature as follows (Book 2, P. 6, L. 1.):

    “If you want to know this Buddha-nature, remember, causes and circumstances as real time are just it.”

    Therefore Buddha-nature does never exist in the past and it does never exist in future, but it exists just only at the present moment. So we can think that Buddha-nature is Reality just at the present moment.

    8. What is Heaven and Hell?

    Heaven is a human supposition and Hell is also a human supposition. But when our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is just Heaven, and when our autonomic nervous system is not balanced, it is just Hell.

    9. What is life and death?

    When our heart has stopped and if it doesn't move again, the state is called death, and when our heart is moving still without stopping, that state is called life.

    10. What is the meaning of the Buddhist idea of emptiness?

    The true meaning of emptiness in Buddhism has been misunderstood for so many years as nothingness, or void. But if we have understood that Buddhism is a realistic philosophy, it is impossible for us to understand emptiness like that. In Buddhism emptiness is just “as it is.” A cup is a cup. A cup is never more than cup, or a cup is never less than cup.

    11. What is better Zazen and worse Zazen?

    There is no better Zazen, or worse Zazen. What is different from Zazen is wrong, and what is just Zazen is Zazen.

    12. What is the eternal?

    Eternity is just a human idea. But the fact at the present moment is eternal, because it must be recorded as a fact at the present moment, and it can never be erased for ever.

    13. What is the meaning of Master Dogen's " BodaisattvaShishobo”? Could you please comment on the four principles of a Bodaisattva's social relations?

    Chapter 45 of the Shobogenzo is entitled "BODAISATTA-SHISHOBO”, or “Four Elements of a Bodhisattva's Social Relations." These four elements are as follows:

    “First is free giving. Second is kind speech. Third is helpful conduct. Fourth is cooperation.”

    1) Free giving: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is impossible for our stinginess to occur, and if something is not necessary for us to keep, there is no reason for us to refuse giving it to others.

    2) Kind speech: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it is very natural for us to be polite to others, and if others receive our politeness, the others might be happy.

    3) Helpful conduct: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, it will be happy for us to help others, and if others have received our kind help, they will feel very happy.

    4) Cooperation: When our autonomic nervous system is balanced, we are always cooperative in a common job, and what we want to accomplish will be accomplished much faster.

    14. What does it mean that life is only one breath?

    Our life exists always just at the present moment, and the length of the present moment is always the shortest time, and actually thinking the present moment is much more shorter than our one breath. Therefore we can say that our life is always much shorter than the length of our breath.

    15. When should we break the precepts?

    We should never break the precepts at all, but sometimes we can not avoid our mistake. But you shouldn’t worry about the fact that you have broken the Buddhist precepts. Because it is completely impossible for you to return to the past to correct your mistake at all. Therefore the best you can do is just to throw away your mistakes in the past, and to do the best just at the present moment.

    16. Where will you be in 100 years from now?

    When I die in a few years, not so long from now, everything will become nothing including me, and I will take a rest forever.

    17. How can we understand ourselves?

    I think that it is impossible for us to understand ourselves.

    18. What can we understand with words and what can we not understand with words?

    We can understand everything, but at the same time, our understandings can never touch Reality.

    19. Is it possible to teach Zen?

    It is possible for us to teach Zazen, but it is necessary for everyone to practice Zazen by himself or herself.

    20. Does Zazen have a goal?

    Zazen has a goal. The goal of Zazen is to practice Zazen itself.

    21. Where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?

    I think that such kinds of questions might be beyond all human beings' ability.

    22. How can we let go of fame and profit?

    When our autonomic nervous system has become balanced, it seems to be so boring for us to pursue fame and profit and we can find a much more valuable object to pursue, that is the Truth.

    23. Could you please tell me more about the city you were in Manchuria and your time there during the war? What was the name of the city?

    It was called Songo in Japanese at that time, and it was in the north-west district of Manchuria near Amur. It was just a military city for the Japanese army. But at that time fortunately there was no fighting in that district, and so we were just guarding the district.

    24. Could you please tell me more about how it was to return to Japan after the war?

    In June 1945, I was ordered to move to Himeji City in Japan for the purpose of guarding Japan itself, and so I travelled along the eastern coast of Korea in rather dangerous situations, and I met the end of war in Himeji City in Japan.

    25. How can Zazen help us be happy?

    It is just the happiest condition to practice Zazen itself.

    26. How can we practice Zazen in our daily chores?

    Since moving to my new residence, where I am living now, I have begun cooking by myself, and so I have found the fact clearly that even my cooking in my daily life has also the characteristics of action. Therefore my cooking can be also a kind of Buddhist efforts, of course, even though I am practicing Zazen two times a day everyday.

    27. What is truth?

    Reality is the Truth. Therefore the Universe is also the Truth.

    28. What are some of your favourite quotes from the Shobogenzo, and why?

    For example, "It is just moment by moment of red mind, upon which we rely solely." (Shobogenzo Book 1, P. 211. L. 1.) The words “red mind” suggest sincere mind, and this is a description of Master Dogen's daily life.

    29. How can a Zen Master help a student?

    A Buddhist Master can help his student by teaching Buddhist philosophy, by guiding the student’s daily life, by practicing Zazen together, and by transmitting Buddhist Dharma.

    30. In your life, how have you noticed that Zazen is actually practically working?

    I have become a little better than before.

    With best wishes

    Gudo Wafu Nishijima
    Dogen Sangha is a Buddhist Group founded in Tokyo by the late Japanese Buddhist priest Gudo Nishijima Master Gudo Wafu Nishijima [1919 -2014] Master Gudo Wafu Nishijima, the founder of Dogen Sangha…

    Gassho _/|\_
  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39485

    Hi John,

    Thank you for this. I recently posted the following when someone asked about Nishijima Roshi's infatuation with the "Autonomic Nervous System", especially in his later years when the above was written ...


    My late, dear Teacher (recently departed, yet always with us) was not a scientist, but he was a former runner (long ago) who found a great stability and balance of body-&-mind in Zazen. He often compared this to the peace and balance he found in his running. In those days, almost nobody in Japan tried to explain Zazen in terms of neurology and physiology, and Roshi was on the cutting edge of doing so. Now, we put monks and meditators in MRI machines, and all this is accepted. Nishijima was way ahead of the curve in speaking in such terms.

    However, Nishijima himself was not a scientist, just a Zazen fellow, so developed some rather personal and a bit simple scientific layman's ideas about what was happening in the body and brain. Nishijima Roshi was very influenced by some of the research on meditation by Dr. Herbert Benson and, earlier, by Karl Menninger. Nishijima came to compare the experience of balance and oneness experienced in running to the sense of peace/balance/wholeness/oneness that is often experienced in Zazen. Nishijima Roshi came to attribute this in significant part to the physiological effect of the sitting posture itself. Here is a sample of Roshi's writing on the subject:

    In Zazen we sit on a cushion on the floor with both legs crossed, and with our lower spine, upper spine, and head held straight vertically. Keeping the spine straight has a direct and immediate effect on the autonomic nervous system that controls many of our body’s functions. Its effects include control of heart rate and force of contraction, constriction and dilatation of blood vessels, contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle in various organs, the ability to focus the eyes and the size of the pupils, and the secretion of hormones from various glands directly into the blood stream.

    The autonomic nervous system is composed of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, our heart rate increases, arteries and veins constrict, the lungs relax, and our pupils dilate; in short, we become tense and alert. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the opposite happens; our heart rate decreases, arteries and veins dilate, the lungs contract, and the pupils constrict. You can see that the two systems prepare the body for an active or passive response sometimes known as the “fight or flight” syndrome. When the effect of the two systems on the organs is in balance, we are neither ready to fight, nor ready to run away; we are in a normal state.

    The parasympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal chord at the base of the spine (the second, third and fourth sacral vertebrae) and through the cranial vertebrae in the neck, whereas the sympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal chord through the middle vertebrae in the back (the T1 to L2 vertebrae). Keeping the spine normally upright, with the head sitting squarely on the top of the vertebral column minimizes the compression of the nerves of these two systems at the points where the nerves emerge through the vertebrae, and ensures an uninterrupted supply of blood, allowing them to function normally. When the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are both working normally, they function in opposition to give us a state of balance of body-and-mind; not too tense, and not too relaxed, not overly optimistic or pessimistic; not too aggressive and not too passive. It is this physical state of balance in the autonomic nervous system that give rise to what we call a balanced body-and-mind.

    In addition to this, sitting in the upright posture, where the force of gravity acts down through the spine onto the pelvis, is a position in which our body’s reflexes can work efficiently to integrate the functioning of the whole body.

    (p 11-12 here)
    http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/upl ... -Zazen.pdf
    Personally I, as do about all Zen folks, believe that a balanced and stable posture does aid in allowing a balanced and stable mind ... as body-mind are intimately connected and whole. I also feel that Nishijima Roshi was decades ahead in realizing that Zazen does have a neuro-physiological component which science is just coming to recognize (through placing those meditating monks in MRI machines and other testing). Much of Roshi's assertions are based on the writings of Karl Menninger, Herbert Benson and others, and have a solid basis. However, I believe that Nishijima Roshi's theories on the marvelous effects of sitting in Lotus Posture itself with a straight spine, and attributing too much to "balance of the autonomic nervous system" ... while having some such basis, and while a balanced posture is certainly important ...were perhaps stretched by him rather too far into areas where there is really no scientific backing, or where scientific data is directly contradicting some of what he says.

    As I said, Nishijima was very much influenced by the work of Harvard Professor Herbert Benson ...

    Here is a bit of an interview with Benson, but note that Benson does not particularly attribute the effect to sitting posture or the spine) ...

    Herbert Benson, MD, is the father of modern mind-body medicine. From the late 1960s onward, Dr. Benson’s breakthrough research at Harvard Medical School has demonstrated that the relaxation response, which can be elicited through a variety of methods including meditation, is the physiological counterpoint to the fight-or-flight response and serves as a natural antidote to stress. Numerous markers including metabolic rate, heart rate and blood pressure are increased by stress and decreased by the relaxation response. Benson continues to lead research into its basic physiology and efficacy in counteracting the harmful effects of stress.



    What we found was that when people practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM), there were a set of profound physiologic changes that were opposite to those of stress. Namely, decreased metabolism, decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, and also slower brain waves. These findings were performed at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, in the very laboratory in which Walter B. Cannon had defined the fight-orflight response back in the early 20th century, where he found increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased rate of breathing, increased blood flow to the muscles, and called it “fight-or-flight,” or emergency response. ...

    It is elicited by using two steps. The first is a repetition, which could be a word, a sound, a prayer, a phrase or even a repetitive movement. The second step is, when other thoughts came to mind, you disregard them and come back to the repetition. This would bring forth the same physiologic changes that were brought about by the practice of Transcendental Meditation. The importance of this was that, again, for millennia people have been bringing forth a response opposite to the stress response, that has therapeutic value in disorders caused or exacerbated by stress.

    We recognized the importance of this immediately. We recognized that what we were doing was putting numbers on what people had been doing for thousands of years, be it through yoga, meditation, repetitive prayer, tai chi, qigong, jogging, knitting, crocheting. it didn’t matter. There was one response brought forth by scores of techniques that have a scientific definition for the first time


    The conditions in which the relaxation response is found to be effective include anxiety, mild
    and moderate depression, and excessive anger and hostility. They are all effectively treated by regularly evoking the relaxation response. It’s very important to note that health and well being is akin to a three-legged stool. One leg is pharmaceuticals. The second leg is surgery and other procedures. There has to be a third leg and that leg is self-care. And within that self-care leg we have the relaxation response, nutrition, exercise, the beliefs of the patient, socialization, and also cognitive restructuring. So you see, when we say that the relaxation response is effective in many mental disorders, it does not preclude, nor is it meant to preclude, the simultaneous use of appropriate medications or surgeries


    Is the nervous system the primary means through which the effects of relaxation response are mediated?

    It seems to start with the breaking of the train of everyday thought, as I just pointed out. So it would appear that as a fundamental entry point, it is the nervous system. But the breaking of the train of everyday thought needn’t be a mental effect; it could be a physical effect brought about by, say, jogging. Or knitting or crocheting. Are you with me? Ultimately it’s mediated through and by the nervous system.

    More here ...

    ARCHIVED CONTENT: As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No conten...

    Yes, Roshi may have gone a little hog wild with some of his views sometimes. I miss him.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 05-04-2014, 01:38 AM.


    • John Cloud
      • Apr 2014
      • 51

      Thank you dear teacher Jundo .
      And I am very sorry about your teacher . I know he died recently .
      it's very hard to lose great master such as master Nishijima Roshi .

      Gassho _/|\_


      • Mp

        This is great John, thank you. =)



        • John Cloud
          • Apr 2014
          • 51

          You are very welcome dear Shingen

          Gassho _/|\_


          • Rich
            • Apr 2009
            • 2604

            Thank you for posting these. Appreciate nishijimas direct and simple answers.

            Kind regards. /\
            無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...



            • Myoku
              • Jul 2010
              • 1487

              Originally posted by Rich
              Thank you for posting these. Appreciate nishijimas direct and simple answers.

              Kind regards. /\
              +1, Nishijima Roshi had a wonderful talent to put things simple,


              • alan.r
                • Jan 2012
                • 546

                Originally posted by Myoku
                +1, Nishijima Roshi had a wonderful talent to put things simple,
                Yeah, thank you, John. I agree with the simplicity thing. He's also funny. Or seems funny to me. The interviewers asks what life and death is and Nishijima says, When your heart is beating, that's what we call life. Just so great. Almost like saying, What a question?



                • Myosha
                  • Mar 2013
                  • 2974


                  Wonderful joy and simplicity.

                  Thank you.

                  "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"