Posted inHenry's Messages

Making the Buddha but Forgetting the Soul

March 14, 2015

Let’s not overlook this: meeting the world, opening to beauty, living out of love rather than rigidity – this is the “soul” we might forget if we are too focused on practice on the cushion, and on the insights and experiences Zen can open up. Let’s not make Buddha but forget the soul.


The last time I was in Germany I had the good fortune to open up an old issue of Kyosho, the magazine of the Sanbo Kyodan, and find folded within it three yellowed typed pages. They turned out to be the text for a speech given by Koun Yamada Roshi at the inauguration of the Ring of Bone Zendo in California. He addressed both Gary Snyder and Robert Aitken in the talk, and it was an interesting snapshot of Zen’s history in America.

He also quoted an old Japanese saying: “Making the Buddha and forgetting the soul.” I’d like to look at this proverb in two ways.

First, on the day of the speech Koun Roshi used it to make the point that just because a fine zendo had now been built and inaugurated, that did not mean the work was over. “It’s not enough for the zendo merely to be ‘living’,” he said. “A ‘true Zen spirit’ must now be breathed into it. It is important, in other words, for the living breath of Zen to be pulsing away in this zendo.”

A fine building is not enough. Indeed, if the true Dharma is flowing, facilities are hardly needed. A profound Zen training can be undergone in very inadequate circumstances. Yasutani Roshi used to teach people in his small family apartment in a Tokyo suburb, where dokusan had to be held on top of a board placed over the bathtub in the bathroom.

Here at Mountain Cloud we have a remarkable and beautiful zendo. Yet in a sense the center has languished for over quarter of a century – a quiet, peaceful and lovely backwater, without true Zen being able to take root here. This is not to belittle the great achievements of various people who kept the place alive. It is really remarkable that it never withered, but continued to stay open for sitting. But the fact is, when its founding teacher Philip Kapleau was obliged to leave in 1986, things were never going to be the same. In his speech Koun Roshi went on to say that a zendo must have “a central figure.”

But things are changing now at Mountain Cloud. The center has a chance of finding an entirely new kind of life, and my own hope is that everyone involved in the center will join in the great project of bringing it back to its true purpose, which is to be a home for the real spirit of Zen.

My deep desire is to see Mountain Cloud become what I am sure it was originally founded to be: a flourishing place of peace, joy and love, for all human beings who have the good fortune to find it. A place where individuals can find hope, and the path to peace; a place whose goodwill fosters an ever-deepening sense of community, brotherhood and sisterhood, among those who are blessed to be able to sit together as a group here; and a place whose deep and ever more powerful practice of the Dharma will emanate out into the wider community in both tangible and intangible ways.

To this end, I would like to make a plea: please help us. Help us either with your sitting practice by coming to sit with us, if possible. This is of course the most important help of all. Or if you have a skill or resource you might share, please consider offering whatever time or help you comfortably can (and no more). If you are not involved in the current activities of the center, please come and check out what we’re doing. You might be pleasantly surprised by the changing feel of the old adobe walls. If you have historical connections with the center but are either unwilling or unable to join us in our practice, then please by all means wish us well as the ship resumes its voyage. Burn a stick of incense and perhaps say a prayer on our behalf.

In addition, any financial support will surely not be unwelcome: we have many ongoing maintenance costs, as well as plans in the medium term for developing and improving our facilities (about which more later).

Some people have expressed the sense that Mountain Cloud is actually being reborn. The rebirth of a center is an exciting thing to behold, and still more to be part of. But it’s a tender, fragile time too. So please wish us well. Or better yet, come and join in the great venture we are pursuing.

The second meaning of the proverb that I would like to explore, different yet profoundly related, is this:

in our practice we come to discover that we ourselves are Buddha. Our very substance is none other than the substance of the whole universe.

What is that substance? “Indeed it has no form, much less a name,” as Daio Kokushi said.

To discover this clearly, to experience it with utter intimacy, is what we call the “second fruit of Zen.” It may engender a radical humility and gratitude, and great peace and joy; and from these compassion naturally flows. But actually Zen does not stop there. The best harvest of all comes with the “third fruit”: actualising what we have come to discover through Zen training in our everyday lives. It is here that the energy, love and devotion to helping others that arise from the core of Zen experience can start to be manifested in our every moment and each encounter. This is the real soul of Zen – when our hearts are engaged in everything we do.

Whatever else our practice may bring, it surely creates more space in which to open our hearts and love the people around us, as well as the things we come into contact with. Let’s not overlook this: meeting the world, opening to beauty, living out of love rather than rigidity – this is the “soul” we might forget if we are too focused on practice on the cushion, and on the insights and experiences Zen can open up. Let’s not make Buddha but forget the soul.

As Yamada Koun went on to say in his inauguration speech for the Ring of Bone zendo: “It is my sincere wish that you will all now do your best to furnish these facilities with a soul.” May we all try to do the same thing not just for our center, but for the lives around us and the world we all share.


By Henry Shukman, from our Newsletter archives.

Image, New Zealand, by Holgerheinze0, CC0 Public Domain,

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