Wednesday, 3 August 2016


No texture in the carpet
No pain in the knees
No flickering candlelight
No scent of sandalwood

Empty cushion

Monday, 1 August 2016

Instructions for Shikantaza

It's hard to give concise, clear instructions for shikantaza. Part of this is because I think we all have to find our own way into shikantaza; to become familiar enough with our own internal worlds that we can arrive at our own understanding of what is meant by hishiryo (non-thinking, as opposed to not thinking).

Koun Franz
Dogen's instructions are found in the text called Fukanzazengi, which translates as something like, "A universal recommendation for the practice of zazen", and it's where the reference to hishiryo comes from. You can find a good translation at the Sotoshu's own website (the Sotoshu is the Soto Zen institution in Japan), another with commentary is at

I've always liked the relative straightforwardness and this text, but the question of "What do you do with your mind during shikantaza" is no more clearly answered here than anywhere. This was all brought to mind today when I came across a set of instructions for shikantaza from Zen teacher Koun Franz which really struck me. They've got some of the straightforwardness of the Fukanzazengi, but also a poetry of the Absolute to them as well that I think highlights the futility of a paint-by-numbers approach to shikantaza.

It starts:
Choose this place.

Whenever you can, sit with others. When you can’t, sit with others. Let others sit with you.

Wear the kashaya [kesa / rakusu]. Just as Buddhas sit in zazen while zazen is the activity of Buddhas, Buddhas wear the kashaya -- the kashaya manifests the shape of a Buddha. Even if there is no robe, just wear it.

Do not put yourself into sitting -- come empty handed. Do not make zazen -- let sitting reveal itself. Do not use zazen for this or that -- sitting is neither means nor end.
...and it finishes:
Zazen is not non-doing; it is not non-thinking. Zazen is a deep, dreamless sleep on fire. It is clutching a boulder to your belly at the bottom of the cool ocean. Roots penetrate and plunge downward into the rough textures of the earth. A cloud dissolves into open sky.
Stirring stuff! Perhaps not ideal instruction for beginners, but for those who've had a sniff of the Way, who are struggling to pin down what this shikantaza thing is, a wonderful flavour of the mundane and the sublime which together make up both shikantaza and every moment.

You can find the whole text at

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Friends along the Way

Last week, I received a wonderful email from Clive Lindley-Jones, who attended the one-day retreat last month. In it, he referred to some of the qualities of the StoneWater sangha that I have long treasured - warmth, openness and kindness.

Keizan Sensei insists on the basic goodness of human beings, and it's been wonderful over the years to see this basic goodness manifesting in the StoneWater group. I always worried slightly that perhaps it was a fluke - that just by chance the few Zen groups I've had any prolonged contact with have all been welcoming and warm: most especially StoneWater, where the sense of sangha, community, friendship is palpable. And as a consequence, I worried too that in starting the Northampton group, my own shortcomings might end up meaning that the group ends up lacking those things.

How self-centered of me! I've been so grateful to the Northampton group for continuing the fluke, for manifesting that basic goodness here, too.

Clive attached an article to his email from Lion's Roar. It's a piece called, "Friends along the Way" by Zoketsu Norman Fischer (a wonderful teacher whose talks and writings are always well worth taking time over), and I want to beg your indulgence and reproduce the opening paragraphs of that article here.

The Quakers with whom I have contact about renting space etc often end their emails, "In Friendship" - and that's how I offer this to you!

Friends along the Way
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Lion's Roar - May 2016

Once the Buddha's disciple Ananda asked him about friendship. Ananda knew that having good and encouraging friends was very important for the path. He even wondered whether having good friends was half the path.

"No, Ananda," the Buddha told him, "having good friends is the whole of the Holy Life."
The Meghiya Sutta is my favourite Pali text about friendship. It tells the story of the eager young monk Meghiya, who wanted to practice meditation alone in an especially peaceful and beautiful mango grove. But Meghiya's meditation was anything but peaceful and beautiful. To his shock, he found his mind a snarl of malicious, lustful and confused thoughts – probably because his practice was too self-involved. When Meghiya rushed back to report his confusing experience, Buddha was not surprised. He took the opportunity t give Meghiya what his must have hoped was a relevant teaching.

"Five things induce release of hear and lasting peace," the Buddha told him. "First, a lovely intimacy with good friends. Second, virtuous conduct. Third, frequent conversation that inspires and encourages practice. Fourth, diligence, energy and enthusiasm for the good. And fifth, insight into impermanence."

Then, for Meghiya's further benefit, and to cement the point, the Buddha goes through the list again, this time preceding each of the other items with the first: "When there is a lovely intimacy between friends, then this is virtuous conduct," et cetera. In other words, friendship is the most important element in the spiritual path. Everything flows naturally from it.

I appreciate the truth and beauty of this teaching more and more as the years go by. To be able to practice with good friends for five, ten, twenty, thirty of forty years is a special joy.  So much comes of it. As you ripen and age, you appreciate the nobility and uniqueness of each friend, the twists and turns of each life, and the gift each day has given you. After a while you begin attending the funerals of your dearest friends, and each loss seems to increase the gravity and preciousness of your own life and makes the remaining friendship even more important.

When long friendships with good people along the path of spiritual practice is a central feature of your life, it is almost impossible – just as the Buddha says – for spiritual qualities conducive to awakening not to ripen. For those on the bodhisattva path, loving and appreciating your friends, even when they are difficult, as they sometimes are, is the path's fullness and completion. Friendship ripens and deepens our capacity for compassion.

Friday, 22 July 2016 group now closed

So that was an interesting experiment - we ran the group for just over a year, and had quite a few people come through the door... but hardly anyone came for more than one visit, and in the end it was just costing too much money with seemingly little effect.

For anyone who did use the group to keep up-to-date with the Zen group, my apologies... I'll be maintaining this website of course, and I hope you'll find everything you need here.

I'm always curious about how best to promote the Zen group... how do you let people know it's there, that it's an option, and about what Zen is... but not come across as some sort of zealot or missionary?! My next plan is to try a Facebook group - the national StoneWater sangha has a Facebook presence at, which has a few hundred 'followers'. For those of you who might be interested in the ongoing saga of promoting a Zen group in a town that doesn't seem too interested in Zen, I'll keep you updated :-)

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Day of Zen - report back

Well, all done now - seems to have been a great success. Not that we had hordes of people attending (perhaps more notice from me might have helped!), but those who came were sincere and committed and we had a wonderful day of practice together.

Thanks to you all - with special thanks to those who brought food for our lunch, or helped out beforehand with planning (especially Simon).

In the end we had to clear out of the venue in a bit of a rush, so I didn't manage to take a photo of the venue or of us... so here's a silly drawing of the space we sat in, in front of the hall's stage curtains!

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Day of Zazen - Update

Just to add some further details about this weekend's zazenkai. As mentioned previously, we'll be at the Collingtree Village Hall, and we'll be running from 9.30am to 4.00pm. The dress is informal (rakusus if you have them, but not robes) - loose, comfortable clothes in dark / neutral (non-distracting) colours. If you have your own stools / cushions / mats, please bring those along, but we do have some equipment for those without their own kit.

Costs - we're asking for £20 for the day, or £15 for concessions (or whatever you can afford). Included is a vegetarian lunch - we don't have much flexibility in food options, if you have specific dietary/medical needs you may want to bring a packed lunch just in case.

To find the venue: point your satnav to NN4 0NE; the village hall is across from the pub (Wooden Walls of Old England - v quaint pub name!). Or... going up the A45 from the M1 junction, take the first exit off at the Hilton Hotel which is only about a quarter of a mile from the M1 roundabout. Pass the Hilton entrance, and about a third of a mile later you get to High Street, Collingtree. Turn right: the village hall is about 50m along on the left. Park anywhere on the street - might be more parking further down the High Street where it becomes Lodge Ave.

If you need help, call me on 07807 753 781... but remember I'll be turning my phone off shortly after 9.30am!

Collingtree Village Hall

Monday, 6 June 2016

Day of Zazen - 25 June

In addition to our new "Second Saturdays" (including this coming Saturday, 11 June), we'll be having our first zazenkai or day of Zen practice later this month: Saturday 25 June. More info on this on Facebook and on

Our practice lives are usually built on daily (mostly!) Zen practice at home with weekly or monthly group practice if we're lucky enough to live close to a group that meets up regularly. This is as it should be - regular practice is our absolute bedrock. However it has always been that practitioners are encouraged to spend some more substantial periods of time in practice, removing ourselves from the busy-ness of our regular lives and purposefully making space for more intense practice.

The schedule of retreats that the StoneWater Zen Sangha run are, of course, ideal for this, especially the two annual retreats at Little Crosby where for 5 or 6 days we adopt a strict monastic timetable and live in community outside of our regular lives.

A half-way house to this commitment is a zazenkai or Zen practice day, a commitment to practice single-mindedly for a day, and I'm really pleased that we're able to offer this opportunity for the first time through SWZ Northampton - hopefully the first of many to come.

I'll say more about zazenkai and deepening our practice in a later post - in the meantime, check your diaries and cancel your trip to the in-laws on June 25!