Zen Talks and Poems

“The vastness lying beyond can only be detected by those who know what real Zen practice is all about,” said Nyogen Senzaki.

Nyogen Senzaki
1 March 2000

“Strangers to this Zendo usually are unable to see anything more than its atmosphere of quietness,” said Nyogen Senzaki. “The vastness lying beyond can only be detected by those who know what real Zen practice is all about.”

A Lecture on Meditation: For Beginners

Quietness is an element in meditation, but merely striving to attain quietness leads nowhere. It is like putting a paper bag over a cat’s head: it will walk backward but will never be able to advance. A cranky old man who scolds children for making noise violates with his loud voice the very quietness he upholds. The same thing happens when one forces himself to enter quietness. It is only when one forgets both the world of noise and the realm of quietness that one is able to enter into the kingdom of true silence. This, however, is not what we are gathered here for, either. Watching movies or resting in the park is just as good as sitting here in this Zendo, if what you want is quietness. Strangers to this Zendo usually are unable to see anything more than its atmosphere of quietness; the vastness lying beyond can only be detected by those who know what real Zen practice is all about.

You should not even for a moment think that you are dwelling in quietness. You are the students of nonthinking—what right have you to enjoy your tranquillity! Just march on bravely, regulating your breath and working on your koan, if you have one. Zen meditation is the most simple method in the world for mind training. Meditation is complicated and difficult only when one becomes more interested in his own opinions and ideas than in disentangling himself from all traces of dualistic thinking. As Nanin once said: “Unless you empty your teacup, I cannot fill it.”

A beginner aims to empty his mind and tries to drive all thoughts away. But aiming and trying are also thoughts! So aiming and trying keep one from one’s goal, of becoming emptiness itself. When you think you are in emptiness, you are not in emptiness. When you think you have discovered your Buddha-nature, you are far away from it. When no thought arises, there is no need to drive thoughts away. When nothing is born, nothing dies. When nothing is good, nothing is bad. What you never had, you will never miss. What you do not see does not disappear. What cannot increase cannot decrease. This is true emptiness. This is samadhi. When you enter into this condition, then you are walking in the Palace of Realization. Never to think—even for a moment—that you are enlightened: This is the ideal of Zen meditation.

As a wanderer in this strange land forty-two years,
I commemorate my teacher each autumn.
Now, on the sixth floor of this hotel,
He gazes at me as severely as ever.
“How is the work, Awkward One?”
He might be saying to me.
“America has Zen all the time. Why, my Teacher,
should I meddle?”

Namo Tasso Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhassa!
(November 2, 1947)


I have been asked to explain what realization is, but if it could be explained it would not be realization. While you are kneading the dough of your thoughts, you cannot enjoy the bread of realization.

Confucius said:

My friends, do you think I was hiding it from you?
No! I would never do such a thing!
It was only that you were unable to see it.

Walking through the forest of many thoughts, just keep on walking until you find yourself cornered in a place that admits neither of advance nor retreat. Here your knowledge will be of no avail. Even your religion will be unable to rescue you. If you are really eager to enter realization, just go straight ahead, holding tenaciously to the question “What is realization?” March on bravely! Surrounded by enemies, use your own sword; in the center of the battlefield, carve out a way for yourself. There will come a time when all of a sudden you will lose hold of your sword and at that moment—behold! You will have gained your true self.

“All sacred books are like poor candles to the sun,” said Kosen, comparing them to his own realization. Jakushitsu once said:

Didn’t I tell you it was there?
You could have found it without any trouble at all.
The south wind is warm;
The sun shines peacefully;
The birds warble their glad songs.
Spring blossoms in every treetop.

Zen is not a puzzle; it cannot be solved by wit. It is a spiritual food for those who want to learn what life is and what our mission is in this world. Mere scholarly pursuits will never lead to realization. Zen is not so much a religion as it is the essence of life itself, the naked truth of the universe, which is none other than the experience of Mind.

He who feels uneasy in his inner life can come to Zen and find clear understanding and real joy. Zen does not propagandize. There is no need. All will come, sooner or later. Some will come from the literary class, along with some deep thinkers. Sorrow and struggle may lead others to Zen. But however you come, however you are led to Zen, you must come with a clear conscience and a pure heart. You must come with a desperate desire to see life as it really is; and must not permit anything to keep you from this, no matter how many blind alleys of religious creeds you may have stumbled into in the past.

You may read all the books in all the libraries in the world; you may write thousands upon thousands of pages of your own thoughts. But if your mind is not thoroughly clear; if your knowledge does not come from the real source—you will never know who you are, you will remain forever a stranger to your true self.

Early in the morning
In the western sky,
One star blinks at me.
I love its green light.


My friends, do you say
You could not sleep last night?
The heat of this late summer bothered you;
You could not find any cooler place.
Why did Bodhidharma come to China?
The question, I know, also bothered you.
Wait until the evening sun colors the mountains
With its gentle ray.
You get more than coolness at that moment.
You meet the blue-eyed monk face to face.

(October 7, 1951; Commemoration of Bodhidharma)

In This Lifetime

I could show you my clenched fist and open it like this—and bid you all good night. Unfortunately, however, educated on this side of the Pacific, you Westerners are somewhat deficient in intuitive matters, and so I am forced to give as a substitute, dualistic explanations, though that’s not at all the way to express Zen.

Man began by assuming that the things about which he wished to learn existed outside of himself. Wondering what that is, he established so-called “science,” which is the study of thatness. Soon, however, he discovered that his science explained only how things are, not what they are, and so man turned inward. Seeking to understand what this is, he established psychology and epistemology. Together these constitute the study of thisness. But, paradoxically enough, when the mind itself thus became an object of study, it ceased being this and became that. The experience of true thisness had been rendered impossible by the very nature of man’s science (which can only understand thatness).

Of course Zen monks in China and Japan do not traffic at all in thisness or thatness. Somehow they manage to live quite happily and peacefully, for all that! Do you want to know the trick? They dwell in the region of what is known as suchness. Here is a story:

One day Seppo, a Chinese Zen master, went to the forest to cut down some trees. His disciple Chosei accompanied him.

“Don’t stop until your ax cuts the very center of the tree,” said the teacher.

“I have cut it off!” answered the disciple.

Seppo said: “The old masters transmitted the teaching to their disciples from heart to heart. How is it in your own case?”

Chosei threw his ax to the ground and said, “Transmitted!”

The teacher suddenly took his walking stick and struck his beloved disciple.

See how intimate these two woodcutters are! Monks are by nature co-workers, whether meditating in a Zendo or laboring out of doors. Priests, on the other hand, are just like actors, cooperating beautifully onstage, but once offstage, fighting together like cats in the green room. This is why Buddha prescribed that a monk’s life should be as simple as possible, and used his own life as the model. The two monks in this story are true followers of Buddha. Together they carry the lamp of Dharma, the wisdom of suchness. No doubt about it!

The teacher said: “Don’t stop until your ax cuts the very center of the tree.” He was an expert woodsman as well as Zen master. Many Americans are currently seeking Truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various Oriental teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching halfheartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them. Such people should stay in church where they belong, praying to the Supreme Being so that It will do their work for them. Zen wants nothing to do with such mollycoddles!

Chosei had caught the sparkle of Zen before his teacher had even finished, and so he said, “I have cut it off!” He was such a quick worker that he thought, acted and spoke at the same moment. This is realization in this lifetime.

Seppo was pleased and said: “The old masters transmitted the teaching to their disciples from heart to heart. How is it in your own case?” Chosei threw his ax to the ground—now that should have been enough! I can’t figure out why this upstart had to spoil everything by adding, “Transmitted!” The teacher’s blow came in no time, and Chosei certainly deserved it. Man is destined to fall at the very moment he thinks he has attained the summit. Those who declare themselves as having attained something are not genuine Zen students. We say in Japan, “The mouth is the cause of all troubles.” It sure is! When it takes in too much, it causes indigestion; when it speaks out too much, it hurts even a friend’s feelings. Basho once wrote a haiku on this; here is an English translation:

When I say a word
Oh my lips shiver
In the cold wind of autumn.

Someone wrote a poem about this woodcutters’ story; I will read it for you and so close my speech.

Chosei had a good ax.
It was sharp enough
To cut a stump in two
With a single stroke.
Seppo made his big stick
A whetstone to sharpen it even more.

Thank you.

Have a Cup of Tea

One time long ago in China there was a white-haired priest famous for his greeting. As students would arrive for Zazen he would say to them, “Have a cup of tea.” When an old monk would come to his room, the greeting would be the same. Often strangers would stroll by the temple gate, and after asking them to come in and seating them on tatami near the Buddha, he would have a cup of tea with them. Eventually his young assistant grew weary of the repetition of “Have a cup of tea” night and day, and so said to the priest: “Why do you have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again?” Looking into the young man’s eyes the old priest replied: “Have a cup of tea.”

Zen monks are unique people—fanciful and bizarre, spontaneous action comes naturally to them. They are full of whimsy and surprise. Though conventional people consider them eccentric and strange, they sail on through, oblivious to the world’s opinions and judgments, like ships keeping an even keel on high seas. I am one of these strange monks; I too like to say, “Have a cup of tea.”

Once you have lifted your cup, turn it twice and bow. Something happens in the taking of tea that is more than tea and more than politeness. Two can turn to one and the taste be filled with wonder.

One day at dusk an American tourist dropped some coins into a box at the entrance to a Japanese Buddhist shrine. After pulling the cord, to which a bell was attached, she bowed before the Buddha. A priest came out from the shadows and, bowing in turn, beckoned to her. As she went toward him he said, “This is the first time I have ever seen a tourist bow. Won’t you come in and have a cup of tea?” They sat together on tatami behind the huge bronze Buddha. He lit some incense and a candle, and placing them on a low table close by, began to talk. He had been to America ten years before. He wondered how life was there now. With television and highways, all of that speed and power, he wondered what effect such things were having on the individual citizen. Speaking with affection of Whitman, Thoreau and James, remarking how Zen they were, he said: “American youth will learn from them.” Then in silence he whisked the tea—young leaves from old trees grown in the shade, old leaves from young trees grown in the sun. The sun had gone down; dark shadows moved across the paper door. As his guest prepared to leave, he placed a bundle in the palm of her hand. Prayer beads. His own. “These beads are old. I am old. Please take them to America and keep them near you.” She looked up at him and bowed.

Yes, it is the taste that matters—the flavor of the moment, of people and places. When I make a cup of tea for a guest, I become a servant; when my guest receives the cup with naturalness and ease, he becomes the host. This is the taste of tea and the essence of ceremony.

Most Zen monks are indifferent to formal skills, styles and techniques. They prefer to improvise, in accordance with place, mood and people. Once a friend of mine—a monk from another temple—took five Zen students to the country, where they walked in the woods, rode bicycles, swam and danced in the moonlight. When the air became chilly and darkness descended, they lit lanterns and retired to a rustic shelter. In a cluster of pines, facing a walled-in garden, they picnicked around a low wooden table next to a burning stove. When the water began to boil it sounded like a soft breeze coming through a pine forest. The night was shadowy and still. My friend the priest turned to his hostess and asked her to bring him the largest bowl she had. She went to the kitchen and returned with a vegetable dish made of clay in the shape of a giant cup. Sitting at the head of the table, my friend looked out into the night, smiled a quiet smile to the guests—most of whom had been trained in ceremonial tea; one was even a teacher from Tokyo—and bowed. “I will now present a most presumptuous bowl of tea,” he said. With precise gestures and a gentle elegance he folded paper napkins and placed one in front of each person. The student next to him picked up her sandwich, breaking the bread into small pieces which she passed around the table. With a simple but courtly grace the priest picked up a tin spoon and scooped out seven portions of powdered green tea. Then he poured boiling water into the bowl, whisked it until a jade-green froth appeared on the surface. He turned the bowl twice, putting the most beautiful side away from himself and toward his guests—some of whom were old, some young, some Eastern, some Western, some Jewish, some Buddhist and some Christian. Each in his turn took the bread and ate. Each one drank from the same cup. Then the priest began to chant, the soft tones of his voice flowing through the very bloodstreams of the assembled guests. At that moment, everybody was nobody. Like the table. Like the bowl and sky. A sip of Zen. A sip of tea. Or was it wine and a wafer?


Nyogen Senzaki was the first great Zen master to live and teach in the United States. Trained in both the Zen and Shingon traditions, he worked at mostly menial jobs for the first 17 years after his arrival in 1905, giving occasional Zen talks when he could afford to hire a hall. In 1931, he established the Mentorgarden Zendo in Los Angeles; from 1942-1945, he was interned as an enemy alien. Nyogen Senzaki died in 1958. These talks and poems are from Namu Dai Bosa: A Transmission of Zen Buddhism in America, by Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Nakagawa and Eido Shimano. ©1976 by The Zen Studies Society.