Excerpts from Baker Roshi’s Forthcoming Book


Japanese Zen sometimes turns commonplace words into technical Zen terms. It is a practice of using ordinary words to cue, for the practitioner, non-usual meanings. Suzuki-roshi presents an example of this technical Zen word practice in his commentary on the Sandokai (Branching Streams Flow in Darkness, University of California Press, pg. 153). He says that while ‘koto’ is a common Japanese word for ‘word’, when it is used as a Zen term, it has a much wider meaning. In my words, it means: ‘percepts can be apprehended as units of communication in ways similar to how words are apprehended’. This is a rather awkward, long definition, but I don’t know another way to put it.

Suzuki-roshi says when ‘koto’ is used as a Zen term, it “includes everything we see and hear: words, things, and ideas.” Therefore, in any particular context, and specifically in the practice context of meeting and speaking, ‘koto’ would mean ‘all perceptual units occurring in that context’: the space of the room, the objects of the room (floor, walls, ceiling, furniture), sounds, smells, tastes, colors, tangibles, posture of the hearers, the presence of the participants, the ideas already in one’s head, the ideas that arise during meeting and speaking, etc. ­– all become a site-specific, sensorially-embedded text.

Thus when ‘koto’ is used as a Zen term, it is a kind of phenomenal-logos. While words are apprehended as usual like words, the concept and the practice of ‘koto’ means that perceptual phenomena, sense-objects, are also apprehended like words. Yogic practices (meditation, mindful-attention, samadhi) generate and open us to a layered, language-like sensorial text which is also a way of listening and a way of being embedded in immediacy. This is the first technical, non-usual meaning of ‘koto’.

A contemporary example of this use of ‘units of communication apprehended in a way similar to how words function experientially’ is Philip Glass’s and Robert Wilson’s opera Einstein on the Beach. While the Zen practice of ‘meeting and speaking’ and this ‘opera’ occupy the same basic conceptual territory represented by the word ‘koto’, they are on nearly opposite ends of a spectrum between Zen’s epistemological investigation of aliveness and a theater exploring the beauty of aliveness in another way.
Although I have listened to Einstein on the Beach many times, I have not seen it, so let me share a few of Guy Dammann’s comments from his review in the Times Literary Supplement of a performance in London on May 18th, 2012. He states that “the intentions conveyed in Einstein on the Beach” are mostly a “collage of images, gestures, and musical figures.” During the opera there is a “beautiful contrast between stillness and movement.” “Things appear about to happen and then don’t.” He finds the opera “holds in itself” a delicate balance couched between “the indissoluble flicker of life that separates mankind’s thoughts and dreams from the particles and waves which comprise them.” And “the levels of concentration demanded by Wilson and Glass of their dancers, actors, and musicians are among the more powerful of the raw ingredients which hold the audience to the spectacle.” Dammann finds that “extraordinary beauty can come from anything so long as it is attended to properly.” And finally that “Wilson and Glass have both, quite rightly, insisted that it should not be filmed for video distribution and that the work should only be experienced as live theater.”

Listening to the CD, inarticulate mutterings are heard simultaneously over sing-song, half conversations, continuously repeated, within the ebb and flow of Glass’s musical repetitions. Parallel to the audio score, unseen to the listener of the CD, clearly articulated but not clearly comprehensible gestures and actions take place. From my listening to the CD, and from what I have heard from persons who have attended the opera, the performance resonates a thoroughgoing meaningfulness. Even when there is no graspable meaning, it is an instantiation of the world itself (“the particles and waves” of allness).

Likewise, ‘meeting and speaking’ is an epistemic Zen practice in which all modalities of a context are considered to be its ingredients. Looking back on my immersion in Suzuki-roshi’s talks, I remember that he sometimes would start to present a teaching and then qualify it or withdraw it, in ways similar to Guy Dammann’s comments on Einstein on the Beach: “that things appear about to happen and then don’t.” And Suzuki-roshi always spoke within a field of stillness and movement, and within the field of shared presence. The hearers, us, were folded into this situated field through the choreographed details of bowing, chanting, sitting together, and through his quiet, paced presence, and the perceptual momentariness of his speaking and of our listening.

Wilson and Glass insist that their opera “should only be experienced as live theater.” Similarly, the basic tradition of ‘meeting and speaking’ does not welcome note-taking. For example, in the early 1960s, Suzuki-roshi would not allow his lectures to be recorded. He said, “Just be present in the lecture.” But when those miniature tape recorders began to appear, it was impossible to stop people from recording. So at some point, we formally began recording his lectures. (Recordings which are now much appreciated.)


There is a second non-usual meaning of ‘koto’ as a Zen term. Since in this world each thing is interdependent with each other thing, all things are equal in their degree of interdependence. To feel that each thing, in this sense, is of equal value is the understanding of Wisdom. But how do we practice this? Dogen says “we place ourselves fully in the midst of immediacy and consider this the entire universe.” This is a Wisdom-Concept that we intentionally bring to each and all circumstances. It affects our understanding and effects our standing in each circumstance. In this measure, each singular thing, each singularity, can be understood as an instantiation, a representative, of all things. While for most of us this is not true practically, it is a true practice. If we continuously hold in mind and act within the inter-independence of the world, it will benefit us and all others. This is a ‘being near’ to allness. It is a kind of alchemy that transforms the ordinary world into Wisdom.

This is the second non-usual, Zen understanding of ‘koto’ which is to accept and understand each appearance, each percept, each word, as an instantiation of all things, and thus as an expression of interpenetrative wisdom and compassion.

Suzuki-roshi says ‘The First Principle’ of Buddhism is that “everything is revealed through everything. Everything is always speaking fluently about this First Principle.” Or as Dogen puts it in “Uji”: “In the entire world there are myriads of things and hundreds of blades of grass and each of these things and each blade of grass is, one by one, the entire world.” (Shobogenzo, “Uji”, tr. Eido Shimano and Charles Vaucher, encre marine 1997, pg. 49).

This is not just philosophy, it is at the center of Zen practice. The ‘Sandokai, The Merging of Difference and Equality’, by the Chinese Zen Ancestor Shitou Xiqian (700-790) emphasizes, “Each of the myriad things has its merit, expressed according to function and place.” And my teacher, Suzuki-roshi, comments: “Myriad things include human beings, mountains and rivers, stars and planets. Each thing has its own function, virtue, and value. This is how we should observe things, how we should treat things, and how we should understand the value of things.” This is the fundamental context of life, “the source of the teaching beyond words.” As Dogen says, “Not a thing in the entire universe is missing from the present time. Observe and meditate on it deeply” (Shobogenzo, pg 51).

In Buddhism, Compassion is of course a feeling for others and for the plight of the world, but compassion is also a practice, a craft, a feeling we articulate and evolve. Firstly, compassion is a daily practice of thankfulness for existence itself: sky, planet, each and every being, our own existence. Secondly, compassion is a continuous, grateful awareness of the innumerable generations that have given us our society, culture, languages, and institutions. In Zen we say, “Don’t forget the sweating horses of the past.” Thirdly, Compassion is an indissoluble feeling for the immediate situation of each person. Fourthly, Compassion is the knowledge that we are existence itself.

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