Bob Schwartz

Tag: Kosho Uchiyama

Rickroll Zazen

Rickroll Zazen

To understand this, you need to know a little about two things: Zen and the 1980s pop star Rick Astley.

The centerpiece of Zen is zazen, sitting meditation, and the center of that is shikantaza, just sitting. Sitting without mantra or visualization or other objective technique. Just sitting and breathing. If thoughts arise, let them go.

In his great but now out of print Approach to Zen (incorporated into his later, greater and available Opening the Hand of Thought, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi included a very primitive but excellent line drawing to represent how zazen works.  After reading countless explanations, this drawing still says it as well as any other description:

Uchiyama Zazen

You sit. Along the way you think about a. Then you return to just sitting (Z). You think about b. Then you return to just sitting (Z). You think about c, apparently a lovely woman or whatever. Then you return to just sitting (Z). It is both simple and hard.

Rickrolling is a cultural phenomenon surrounding pop star Rick Astley. In 1987, he had a huge hit with the track Never Gonna Give You Up. It was the heyday of MTV, so naturally there was a video.

Sometime around 2007, something happened with the video for Never Gonna Give You Up. It began showing up as a surprise at completely unlikely and inappropriate moments. You would click on something, but instead it would be Rick. Rickrolling continues to this day.

Because of this, Rick Astley remains one of the most recognized 1980s pop music icons, even for people who have no idea who he was. He just released his first album in years. And it was reading about him and that new album that got me started.

You cannot read about Rickrolling, let alone hear the track or view the video, without getting Never Gonna Give You Up stuck in your head. Which is not convenient if the very next thing you are doing is zazen. As a regular practitioner with a complex life, I’ve had to put some very serious things out of mind when I sit. But Rick Astley, for a few minutes, was as stubborn and sticky as it gets.

Above, borrowing from Uchiyama Roshi’s drawing, you will see what Rickroll zazen looks like.

Note: For those who don’t know the video (it has about 250 million views on YouTube) here it is. And no, you are not being Rickrolled.

Homeless Kodo on Religion

Kodo Sawaki

A short while ago I wrote about a new book, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo. I thought it was the last I would say about it.

It is a book best read in bites. I’ve had to resist the temptation after each bite to say, “you’ve gotta taste this” and “you’ve gotta taste this.” This isn’t a blog about Zen (or about anything else in particular, for that matter). And by the time I got through pointing to all the chapters worthy of attention, I would have quoted practically the whole book.

I’ve written before about how religion is both essential in some form and so badly misused and abused. Others have said it much better. Here, Kodo Sawaki, in literary “conversation” with his student Kosho Uchiyama and with Uchiyama’s student Shohaku Okumura, talks about the value of religion, properly defined and understood.


Religion Is Life


How we live our everyday lives has to be the main concern of religion.


On television, it’s permissible to show scenes of explicit sex and crimes, including murder. Big posters of nude women can be posted on the street. Although kids see these TV shows and posters, not many people worry about this. At the same time, it’s illegal to teach religion in public school. To me this is one of the mysteries of twentieth-century Japan.

Maybe people think that “religion” means established sects, superstition, or fanaticism. It’s certainly true that if an innocent child is influenced by one-sided, fixed doctrines, this will lead to great problems. So one might say it’s understandable that the government bans religious education in public schools. On the other hand, if religion means teachings about the most important matter of our lives—how we should live—then we should worry about the next generation, growing up in a society without any religious education, yet constantly confronted with images of sex and violence. If things continue like this, we’ll find young people becoming more and more destructive.

I hope the time will come for religion to be taught in school without indoctrination, but as a lesson about the most important question of life: how to live.


“Religion” is to live out the ever fresh self, which is not deceived by anything.

Religion must not be a system of dogma. Religion is life. Religion has to function as life. Worshiping sutras is not enough. Religion must manifest itself freely and inexhaustibly in all activities of life, everywhere and always.


When the government supported religious institutions and forced people to adopt them, this caused terrible problems. An example is the State Shinto from the Meiji era to the end of World War II. When political power and religious authority are combined, there can be no freedom. I don’t think that’s what Uchiyama Roshi is recommending.

As I mentioned in chapter 2, the Japanese equivalent of the word “religion” is shukyo. This word originally referred to Buddhism: the teaching, or kyo, about fundamental reality, or shu. Sawaki Roshi and Uchiyama Roshi used the word “religion” to mean awakening to reality, rather than a system of belief and worship within a particular tradition.

Uchiyama Roshi thought the most important questions of our life should be taught in schools as the subject “Human Life.” He even wrote a textbook as an example. In that book he remarked:

When the time comes to teach “Human Life” in schools, I think the word “religion” should be eliminated. When we use the word in its traditional meaning . . . a strange atmosphere is created. This is because traditional religions always set up some authority beyond our understanding and force people to believe certain myths and doctrines. And yet in our life as the self that is born and dies naked, fundamentally no such authority and belief are necessary. We just need to straightforwardly see the reality of life as the self and teach how to live based on that reality.

Uchiyama Roshi’s searching, studying, and practicing were ways to study the “self.” He wasn’t interested in becoming a believer of a traditional religion. In his search for truth, he found some people in the Buddhist tradition who had the same attitude. One was the Buddha, who said, “The self is the only foundation of the self.” Another was Dogen, who said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” Sawaki Roshi emphasized zazen practice as “the self selfing the self.” Throughout his life, Uchiyama Roshi continued to read the Bible as one of the ways to study the self. In his final days, he said, “I am neither a Buddhist nor a Christian. I am just who I am.

The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo
Wisdom Publications

The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo

Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo

Even if you are not interested in Zen or Buddhism, this is your invitation to discover one of the most fascinating and overlooked figures in 20th century religion.

If you are a student of Zen, and think you have a broad overview of Zen in the last century, you may wonder why you’ve never heard of Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965), let alone read any of his work. Up to now, circumstances worked against that. But that has changed with the just-published The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo from Wisdom Publications. You owe it to yourself to fill that gap.

Lineage is an essential element of Zen, a tracing of the conceptual DNA that reaches back to Bodhidharma, who in the 5th or 6th century BCE legendarily brought Buddhism from India to China. Thus begins the story of Chinese Ch’an (later Japanese Zen) Buddhism.

In the modern Western incarnations of Zen, some lineages are well-known. Arguably the most popular of all teachers in the West is Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The first collection of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, remains the bestselling introduction to Zen practice in English. It is clear and captivating, and it captured many, including me years ago.

Maybe not as well-known, but equally important, is the work of Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Published at about the same time as Zen Mind, Uchiyama Roshi’s Approach to Zen lacked the design and print sophistication of Suzuki’s book. Instead of Zen Mind’s colorful cover, calligraphy, and fine typesetting, Approach to Zen is plain brown, with simple illustrations hand-drawn by Uchiyama Roshi.

Approach to Zen

Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover or color, Approach to Zen is an excellent primer on practice and philosophy. It was later expanded into the even more valuable Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice (where happily a few of the original drawings are kept). If you are Zen-curious, you could do no better than starting with the pair of Zen Mind and Opening the Hand of Thought.

Opening the Hand of Thought

Sawaki Roshi was Uchiyama Roshi’s teacher. Uchiyama Roshi’s best-known student is Shohaku Okumura, whose practice includes being one of the premier translators of Zen texts—now including the work of Sawaki Roshi. In this new book, these three teachers, three points on an extraordinary line, come together.

Zen masters often have complex lives, but more than most, Sawaki Roshi’s story defies quick summary. The emblematic thing to know about his life and teaching is that he was an iconoclast. It is conventional for great teachers to take over a temple, so that they can effectively (and perhaps comfortably) transmit their teachings. Sawaki refused that possibility; he was, as a teacher for decades, without a home.

People call me Homeless Kodo, but I don’t think they particularly intend to disparage me. They say “homeless” probably because I never had a temple or owned a house. Anyway, all human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home.

Zen is renowned for straight talk, even when that talk seems to be crooked, wandering around so that the undeniable point remains out of easy reach or reason. In these excerpts, Kodo Sawaki employs the straightest of straight talk—no less philosophically deep than the most puzzling of messages, but as punishing and sometimes sarcastic as a punch in the face.

When people are alone, they’re not so bad. However, when a group forms, paralysis occurs; people become totally foolish and cannot distinguish good from bad. Their minds are numbed by the group. Because of their desire to belong and even to lose themselves, some pay membership fees. Others work on advertising to attract people and intoxicate them for some political, spiritual, or commercial purpose.

I keep some distance from society, not to escape it but to avoid this kind of paralysis. To practice zazen is to become free of this group stupidity.

Some opinions have passed their prime and lost relevance. For instance, when grownups lecture children, they often simply repeat ready-made opinions. They merely say, “Good is good; bad is bad.” When greens go to seed, they become hard and fibrous. They aren’t edible anymore. We should always see things with fresh eyes!

Often people say, “This is valuable!” But what’s really valuable? Nothing. When you die, you have to leave everything behind. Even the national treasures in Kyoto and Nara will sooner or later perish. It’s not a problem even if they all burn down.

Equal to the value of these teachings is the layering of commentary on Sawaki Roshi by his student Uchiyama Roshi and by Uchiyama Roshi’s student Shohaku Okumura. Layered commentary is common not only to Zen, but to many religious and philosophical traditions. Yet this is remarkable for combining erudite exposition about the teachings and Zen with what can only be described as filial respect and affection—that is, love. Though two of the three participants have died, you feel as if you are present for an enlightened three-way conversation among grandfather, father, and son.

You will wish that it would never end. In a sense, it never does or has to. You can take the treasures you find here and incorporate them into your life, your thinking, and, if you are inclined that way, into your practice.

A horse and a cat once discussed the question, “What is happiness?” They couldn’t reach any agreement.