Zen, Dhyana and Art III : Mountains and plum blossom in meditation

June 27, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Scafell Sunburst IScafell Sunburst - Enlightenment on a mountain

Sunburst viewed from Scafell Pike © ॐ www.aumphotos.com 2016


Zen  is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Middle Chinese word (dʑjen; pinyinChán), which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna( ध्यान ), which can be approximately translated as "absorption" or "meditative state"

It is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that was taken from India by Bodhidharma across the Himalayas and developed in China during the Tang dynasty as Chan Buddhism. Bodhidharma and other Buddhists advocated the sutras, chants immersed with deep meaning, which had been developed in India for centuries such as the Lankavatara Sutra; Zen master Hogen advocated the Avatamsaka Sutra.

Mahayana was strongly influenced by Taoism, and developed as a distinguished school of Chinese Buddhism. From China, Chan Buddhism spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan, where it became known as Japanese Zen.

Zen emphasizes rigorous meditation practice, insight into Buddha-nature, and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others. As such, it de-emphasizes mere knowledge of sutras and doctrine and favours direct understanding through seated meditation (zazen; 座禅) and interaction (Dokusan; 独参) with an accomplished teacher (Roshi) .

The teachings of Zen include various sources of Mahayana thought, especially Yogachara, the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras and the Huayan school, with their emphasis on Buddha-nature, totality, and the Bodhisattva-ideal.[8][9] ThePrajñāpāramitā literature and, to a lesser extent, Madhyamaka have also been influential in the shaping of the "paradoxical language" of the Zen-tradition.

The three traditional schools of Zen in contemporary Japan in decreasing size order are the Sōtō (曹洞), Rinzai (臨済), and Ōbaku (黃檗) schools respectively. Nanpo Shōmyō (南浦紹明 (1235–1308)  studied Linji teachings in China before founding the Japanese Otokan lineage, the most influential and only surviving lineage of Rinzai in Japan. In 1215, Dōgen, a younger contemporary of Eisai's, also journeyed to China, where he became a disciple of the Caodong master Tiantong Rujing. After his return, Dōgen established the Sōtō school, the Japanese branch of Caodong.


In the Soto school of Zen, meditation with no objects, anchors, or content, is the primary form of practice. The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. Considerable textual, philosophical, and phenomenological justification of this practice can be found throughout Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō, as for example in the "Principles of Zazen" and the "Universally Recommended Instructions for Zazen". In the Japanese language, this practice is called Shikantaza.


The Koan – Paradoxical stories which illuminate

Particularly in the Rinzai school, zazen is usually associated with the study of koans A kōan, literally "public case", is a paradoxical story or dialogue, describing an interaction between a Zen master and a student. These anecdotes give a demonstration of the master's insight. Koans emphasize the non-conceptional insight that the Buddhist teachings are pointing to. Koans can be used to provoke the "great doubt", and test a student's progress in Zen practice and assist in enlightenment.

Kōan-inquiry may be practiced during zazen (sitting meditation), kinhin (walking meditation), and throughout all the activities of daily life. 


Zafu and ZabutonIn Zen temples and monasteries, practitioners traditionally sit zazen as a group in a meditation hall, usually referred to as the <em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zendo" target="_blank">zendo</a></em>. The practitioner sits on a cushion called a <em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zafu" target="_blank">zafu</a></em>, which itself is usually placed on top of a low, flat mat called a <em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zabuton" target="_blank">zabuton</a></em>.<br/> Before taking one's seat, and after rising at the end of the period of zazen, a Zen practitioner performs a <em>gassho</em> bow to their seat, and a second bow to fellow practitioners.<br/> The beginning of a period of zazen is traditionally announced by ringing a bell three times (<em>shijosho</em>), and the end of a round by ringing the bell either once or twice (<em>hozensho</em>).<br/> Long periods of zazen may alternate with periods of <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinhin" target="_blank">kinhin</a> (walking meditation)<br/> The posture of zazen is seated, with folded legs and hands, and an erect but settled spine. The hands are folded together into a simple <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mudra" target="_blank">mudra</a> over the belly. In many practices, the practitioner breathes from the <em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dantian" target="_blank">hara</a></em> (the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Center_of_gravity" target="_blank">center of gravity</a> in the belly) and the eyelids are half-lowered, the eyes being neither fully open nor shut so that the practitioner is neither distracted by, nor turning away from, external stimuli.<br/> The legs are folded in one of the standard sitting styles:<br/> <ul> <li><em>Kekkafuza</em> (full-<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotus_position" target="_blank">lotus</a>)</li> <li><em>Hankafuza</em> (half-lotus)</li> <li><em>Burmese</em> (a cross-legged posture in which the ankles are placed together in front of the sitter)</li> <li><em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seiza" target="_blank">Seiza</a></em> (a kneeling posture using a bench or <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zafu" target="_blank">zafu</a>)</li> </ul> <br/> In addition, it is not uncommon for modern practitioners to practice zazen in a chair, often with a wedge or cushion on top of it so that one is sitting on an incline, or by placing a wedge behind the lower back to help maintain the natural curve of the spine. One can sit comfortably, but not too comfortably, so as to avoid falling asleep. While each of these styles is commonly taught today, Master <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogen" target="_blank">Dogen</a> recommended only <em>Kekkafuza</em> and <em>Hankafuza</em>.

Zafu and Zabuton inside Zendo © ॐ www.aumphotos.com 2016


Zazen in the mountains : the significance of Plum Blossom (Baika)

Bodhidharma crossed the Himalayas to take Buddhism from India to China. He recited this poem:


 “ From the first, I came to this land to Transmit the


That I might rescue deluded beings,

And when the Single Blossom opened Its five petals,

The fruit thereof naturally came about of itself  “

The significance of the five petals is a reference to the Gautama Buddha’s five eyes:  two physical eyes, which are the non-worldly eyes of someone who is in meditation, plus the Eye of wise discernment, the Eye of the Dharma, and the Eye of a Buddha.

Similarly, the famous Antaiji temple in northern Kyoto was re-located away from the encroaching city to a remote mountain location in northern Hyugo prefecturein 1976. It was inspired by the very simple, yet deep style of zazen taught by reformer “Homeless Kodo” Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965). Antaiji was very popular with the most serious zazen practitioners from all over Japan and from abroad in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time it was led by Roshi Kosho Uchiyama (d.1996).


More recently,  the Plum mountain monastery in Washington State, in the North Western USA is where John Daido Loorie, the photographer,  was Abbot ( see my article “ Zen and Photography I “) . The plum blossom ( Baika) is beloved by Buddhists as it arrives early, in the winter and is therefore considered a harbinger of Spring. It is thus a metaphor for Shakyamuni Buddha, who was considered the first to bring forth the blossoming of the Dharma.

Master Tendō, an Old Buddha, was the thirtieth Abbot and a most venerable monk of Keitoku-ji Temple on the renowned Mount Tendō in the Keigen district of Great Sung China. Once when speaking to the assembly he said, “Here at Tendō in midwinter have come forth the first lines of a verse.” He then recited the following poem of his:

“ The thorn-like, spike-branched Old Plum Tree

Suddenly bursts forth, first with one or two blossoms,

Then with three, four, five, and finally blossoms beyond


No perfume to take pride in, no fragrance to boast of.

In scattering, they evoke a springtime scene as they are

blown over grass and trees.

The patch-robed monks, to a one, have no sooner shaved

their heads

Than, suddenly, the weather shifts with howling winds

and squalling skies,

Until the whole earth is wrapped in swirling snow.

The Old Plum Tree’s silhouette is barely to be seen,

As the freezing cold seizes their noses and rubs them raw.”


Similarly, another poem alluding to the allegory of blossoming as enlightenment and the whole universe :

“ When Gautama finally lost His deceiving eyes,

There appeared in the snow a single blossom on one

bough of the Old Plum Tree.

What has now arrived is the growing of thorn-like spurs,

So that all the more I laugh at the spring winds which

send all things flying in disarray. “


Similarly another poem on enlightenment linked to Plum Blossoming that is recited:


“ On this first day of the year I wish you happiness.

All the myriad things arising are fresh and new.

Upon reflection, my great assembly, I submit to you,

The Plum Tree has blossomed early this spring”


Again the allegory of new sprouting as the novitiates and the blossom as enlightenment is within this poem:


“ If a single word accords with the Truth,

It will not change, though myriad generations pass:

Thus, eye-shaped willow buds sprout forth from new


Whereas plum blossoms fill up the older boughs.”


Another poem:

“ Everything is so bright and clear,

No need to seek some phantom in the Flowering Plum,

Spontaneously creating rain and raising clouds in past

and present.

Past and present are rare enough, and what ending will

they have? “


The Meditation Master Hōen once said in verse:


“ The snow-laden north wind sets the valley trees to


Everything is buried deep within, with little complaint,

While on the mountain peak, the bright-spirited plum

stands alone.

Even before the twelfth month’s heavy snows spew forth, I

have the feeling of the yearly ‘greater cold’. “


The senior monk Taigen Fu also expressed his awakening in verse. He had originally been an academic lecturer, focussing on learning only of the ego mind. One day he had been shaken by the chief cook at Mount Kassan. Fu became enlightened and recited :


“ I remember from the days before I had awakened

Whenever I heard the wail of the painted horn, it was like

a cry of grief.

Now, when upon my pillow, I have no idle dreams

And just trust to whatever the Plum Blossom may blow

my way, large or small. “



Koans of mountains

While teaching the Buddha would often refer to the white cow of Snow mountain. On the mountain there were many varieties of grass that would lead to nourishing milk which makes those who drink it thrive better. Similarly the Buddhadharma nourishes the wisdom of those that accept it. Many koans are centred around a mountain journey.

Sunburst from Skiddaw on to Buttermere © ॐ www.aumphotos.com 2016



On the terrace of a small temple high in the mountains, an old Zen Buddhist monk stood next to his much younger disciple while they both contemplated the great Void of misty space out yonder. Referring to the Void, the old monk at one point gently declared: "Ah, my son, one day all of this will be yours."





Yunmen sang:

" The cloud and the moon, both the same.

Valleys and mountains, each different.

Are they one, or are they two?

Wonderful! Splendid! "


Finally, let us contemplate this poem by the Chan hermit Shiwu (1272-1352), also known as Chinghong :


" My hut isn’t quite six feet across

surrounded by pines bamboos and mountains

an old monk hardly has room for himself

much less for a visiting cloud 


Standing outside my pointed-roof hut

who’d guess how spacious it is inside

a galaxy of worlds is there

with room to spare for a zazen cushion


My mind outshines the autumn moon

not that the autumn moon isn’t bright

but once full it fades

no match for my mind

always full and bright

as to what the mind is like

why don’t you tell me? "



© ॐ www.aumphotos.com 2016



  1. Lankavatara Sutra, chapter LXXXII, p.192 Suzuki-translation, p.223/224 in brackets http://lirs.ru/do/lanka_eng/lanka-nondiacritical.htm


  1. Heine (ed.), Steven; Wright (ed.), Dale S. (2007). Zen Ritual : Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. Oxford University Press. p. 223. ISBN 9780198041467.
  2. Maezumi, Hakuyu Taizan; Glassman, Bernie (2002). On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, Mind. Wisdom Publications. pp. 48–49. ISBN 086171315X.
  3. Suzuki, Shunryū (2011). Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Shambhala Publications. p. 8. ISBN 978-159030849-3.
  4. Steven Heine, Shifting Shape, Shaping Text: Philosophy and Folklore in the Fox Kōan (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1999), 41.
  5.  Steven Heine, Dōgen and the Kōan Tradition: A Tale of Two Shōbōgenzō Texts (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 125.


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