Think neither good nor evil

This is my first Dharma talk I gave prior to the Hossen ceremony I did at the dojo in Camberwell on the 12th of June 2022. 

The Sixth Patriarch was pursued by the monk Myõ as far as Taiyu Mountain.

The patriarch, seeing Myõ coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, “This robe represents the faith; it should not be fought over. If you want to take it away, take it now.”

Myõ tried to move it, but it was as heavy as a mountain and would not budge. Faltering and trembling, he cried out, “I came for the Dharma, not for the robe. I beg you, please give me your instruction.”

The patriarch said, “Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myõ?”

At these words, Myõ was directly illuminated.…. 

In the Mumonkan, collection of Koans, this is case 23, Think Neither Good Nor Evil. 

2 people are running in the woods, in the mountains. As a lover of running and mountains myself, this Koan inspired me to use it for this talk. Of course, this is the more superficial reason for my choice as there are deeper motivations which I am going to illustrate. So, why the story of the 6th Patriarch Eno and Myõ? Who are they and why are they running? 

Eno was an illiterate woodcutter from the South of China. One day, he heard a monk reciting a passage from the Diamond Sutra. “Without abiding anywhere, let the mind work.” Instantly, Eno saw into the meaning of the verse and had a profound awakening. Eno experienced the original nature of the mind. When the mind doesn’t abide with every arising thought, it is able to work effectively, helping us to function in the world. No fixing on concepts, no fixing on ideas of good and evil, no fixing on the past and the future – as a result, having the clarity to stay in this present moment, here and now, as the moment really requires. Eno asked the monk, “Where can I find out more about this sutra?”

The monk replied, ‘from the Fifth Patriarch Gunin, based in the North of China’. Eno wants to meet Gunin and travels north. ‘Where are you from and what do you hope to accomplish by coming here?’ Gunin asks upon seeing Eno. ‘I come from the South and I come for one reason: to become a Buddha.’ Replies Eno. ‘But if you are from the South, how can you possibly become a Buddha?’ Gunin continues. In those days the South of China was considered backwards and barbarian by people in the North. Hence, Gunin’s remarks. But Eno replied, ‘People might be from the north or the south, but not their Buddha nature. Our bodies can appear to be different and separate from one another but how can our Buddha nature differ?’ Eno clearly saw how concepts such as north, south, backwards, barbarians, etc. are man-made and how in reality we all share the same nature. There is not a fundamental good or bad in being from north, south, east or west. Eno realised how all these concepts, this sense of belonging to South or North ‘distracts’ us into thinking that we are separate from each other. What lays deeper is our truest nature, and, kings, peasants, scholars, the rich or the poor, the educated or the illiterate, you and I have all the same Buddha nature. 

In the conventional way we refer to things, I share the same story with Eno. I, Riccardo, this body, comes from the South of Europe that can arguably be judged as backwards and barbarian compared to the north of Europe. However, these concepts are empty of a fixed independent nature and for that reason, they can’t be trusted when judging people. This is what we refer in Buddhism as emptiness. This doesn’t mean that things do not exist, but that things are empty of a fixed entity, they depend on other things, they are a continuous process. Concepts, ideas and thoughts depend on other concepts, ideas and thoughts. They are just a process in continuous evolution. When we treat them as fixed and absolute, we create the conditions for separation that can easily lead to conflict and suffering. Our Buddha nature is not a separating factor but a uniting one. It makes us all belong to the same reality, that same process which we experience moment after moment, simultaneously here and now, in this precise moment, in this one, in this exact one. 

After he spent some time working in the kitchen in Gunin’s monastery, Eno receives transmission by Gunin himself. The other monks considered this decision a bad decision. How an illiterate person from the south who is not even a monk can carry the Zen flame?  The monks want to re-establish what they thought was good for Zen and they organise a party to bring Eno back. Myõ, an ex-soldier, is the leader of this party. And here we have our pursue in the wood.

The Buddha, in the first Noble Truth, says that life is suffering. He goes on to say in the second Noble Truth that this is caused by our desire to want things different than they are. This can easily be seen in Myõ here. He suffers because he desires things to be different than they are. Myõ allows his mind to abide with his ideas of what he thinks to be good or evil. Myõ is not accepting Eno as the 6th Ancestor, he thinks it is a bad choice and chases him, blindly, as if guided by an inner monster who just wanted things to go his way. 

How many times have I found myself in this situation? How many times have I allowed my mind to abide with ideas or thoughts of what I considered good or evil? I can guarantee you, many! That person works too slowly, it is bad, I wish they could do things faster, the weather is cold, it is very bad, I wish I was in Italy, this climb is steep, very very bad, I wish I didn’t come this way. The list is endless! How about you? Do you happen to allow your mind to abide with ideas of good or evil? How does it make you feel?

The great realisation of the Buddha is in the Third Noble Truth, we can end suffering. Stop wanting things to be different than they are, stop following those cravings and desires, stop holding on to ideas of good or evil, allow space around these elements when they arise in the mind, allow them to arise and pass and suffering will not occur. This is what this Koan sparked in me, seeing for myself, clearly, when I hold on to ideas of good or evil; when I blindly act in accordance to these thoughts. When that holding on stops, reality arises, uncontaminated. With that, a different way to respond to the present moment also becomes clearer. 

And here the epilogue of this Koan.

Eno is inviting Myõ to be mindful of what is happening in his mind right now, at this very moment. Think neither good nor evilWhat is the original self of Myõ? That must have shown him the original nature of his own mind, beyond the thoughts that were passing through it. Myõ must have noticed how he was holding on to his ideas of good or evil. 

This seemingly natural way of engaging with thoughts resonates with me, a lot. I can have thoughts running through my mind of sunny days being good and rainy ones being bad, I can feed these thoughts, hold on to them and add stories to them, so easily. ‘No sun, no bike, stuck inside, boredom, unfair, I wish I was somewhere else’. Likewise, Myõ was entertaining his thoughts about Eno and his recently obtained transmission, ‘this is bad, unfair, will lead to disasters’. Myõ is not aware of what these thoughts are doing to him. But Eno now wins Myõ’s attention.  Now, think neither good nor evil, what happens to Myõ?  Is it disappearing with these thoughts? Or, does he still exist? Where is his original self? Is this dependent on these thoughts of good or bad or is it beyond that? 

Myõ was directly illuminated and we can realise what Myõ realised ourselves, here and now. What is left of this moment when we let go of those ideas of how this moment should or should not be? Beyond those thoughts that might arise in you about this talk, about these very words you just heard, are they good, are they bad? Pause for a second, what is left?  


This evening, I would like to talk about something I have been exploring during this last festivity period, desire or desires. And of course, exploring desires from the perspective of our practice, to me, does not mean determine what we might consider good or natural desires versus bad and “unnatural” ones, but rather how to use desires in general for our own practice when desires arise, moment to moment. To use desires to clearly see what we really are versus what we are really not. Of course, as a result and in the practice process, we might then become aware of our natural and harmless desires in opposition to those desires that can be the cause of our own suffering and delusion. 

We could say that one of the “promises” of Zen practice is to develop a profound sense of happiness regardless of our external circumstances. Many times, I heard Daizan talking about ‘that happiness that nobody can give you and nobody can take away from you’. So, I feel that this happiness that Daizan is talking about, the happiness that nobody can give us or take away from us, is not the result of satisfying a desire we might have but something else. So, let’s see how desires specifically can “assist” us in entering this unconditioned happiness. 

When considering desires, we might have the tendency to try to discern good desires from bad desires, distinguish what we might clearly see as natural desires from unnatural ones. Natural desires being drinking water when feeling thirsty, eating food when feeling low in energy. And, unnatural desires, perhaps all those desires which we might relate to greed, ego and so on and that, in the long run become unquenchable as we realise that once we have satisfied one desire, another one would arise not long after. However, Zen practice is not about separation and discrimination, we are not really here to judge and determine in a fixed way “good” and “bad”. Through our practice we rather want to be developing a skilful way to respond to what is arising moment to moment, here and now. And desires can become useful for us, first to notice this unquenchable quality in us. Unquenchable quality, perhaps determined by our own attachments to fixed ideas we might have about ourselves and about things in general and second, desires can be useful as we can start using them to develop more skilful ways to respond to what is arising, moment to moment in every present moment, which is after all, all we really have. Let’s see….

I find it very interesting and not coincidental at all, the fact that the word for desire often used in Buddhist texts is Tanha which means desire but also means thirst. I find it interesting because it seems that desire as well as thirst ‘behave’ in exactly the same way. Thirst keeps arising in us after a while we have not drunk something. In the same way, and here I can easily speak about myself, different desires keep arising in me, something that unconsciously seems to tell me that ‘the satisfaction of this desire will bring me happiness, will make me happy!’ As well as thirst, that lasts just for a period of time, another desire, another feeling of thirst, another thana will come. After a while, one can easily see how “dangerous” it can be to be under the impression that whatever desire arises in us must be satisfied. Dangerous because it is never ending, it becomes a constant race after something, it becomes a constant chase after a fixed idea we might have or experience. It is very easy to see that suffering is very much related to this constant wanting or desiring the next thing because of course, what we have is never good enough. So, we easily become anxious to obtain or satisfy what we think is going to quench that thirst. If I don’t satisfy that desire a sense of unsatisfactoriness arises. And this to me is the first important realisation or discovery, wow, there is a constant flow of desires coming through this consciousness, even without me being aware of it, the flow continues. Desires for material things, desire for sensual sensations, desires for things to be different than they are, it can be constant and can really drive me, completely. Because the “problem” with desire isn’t that desires exist, but that they can drive us, that they can control us and make us suffer in the process. 

During the Christmas break, I happened to see a documentary about the recently died Brazilian football player, Pele. One thing he said during an interview really made me reflect on this desire business. Talking about the period before winning his third World Cup, he said that the moment he and Brazil won that, it was not the prize they won that really stood out in that moment but rather the sense of release. He wanted that so much for many different reasons, that that desire took his sleep away, made him anxious, relationships were difficult, mood quickly changed. All of him was driven by a desire, he was blindly enslaved by this desire. Satisfying that desire was the only thing that would have made him happy, but was it really? When we are trying so hard to satisfy a desire are we not also feeding our own delusions at the same time? Once again, I want to reiterate the fact that our practice is not against desires, as far as I understand it, of course. It is not about sitting as a lemon and try to eliminate all the desires we have. In our practice, in fact, we don’t fight what is, we just want to learn to develop a healthier approach to desires, an approach that undo the attachments, the expectations, the suffering that can arise with strong desires. A desire arises in the present moment, this is the present moment, we are not running away from it, we are not suppressing it, we are not manipulating it, we just remain present and respond to it in the most skilful possible way, a way that hopefully is not conducive to our suffering and the suffering of others. Desire becomes the key that opens the present moment up to us, fullycompletely.

In a moment, we are going to chant the 4 vows, the second one of them is ‘Desires are inexhaustible I vow to put an end to them all.’ Of course, I might easily misinterpret this vow myself, desires are inexhaustible, that is true, but are we really going to put an end to our natural desire to drink water when feeling dry or putting an end to desire for food when feeling low in energy? Perhaps this second vow is rather talking about those desires that make us act in such a way that cause suffering. Can we see these desires that are causing suffering? Can we vow to put an end to them all for the benefit of all sentient beings? I read this vow as not getting pushed by all our desires blindly but rather being skilfully guided by our vow to put an end to these desires that keep feeding delusions. Reminding ourselves to deal with desires skilfully, even the natural ones. Not being totally enslaved by them but rather having the aspiration to understand them, allowing them, being present with them but not controlled in such a way that they will have a negative effect on our wellbeing. 

To conclude, in a moment, we are going to sit. I would recommend to use that time to watch desires coming and going. For the period of your meditation, vow to yourself not to be driven by desires that might arise. If desire to move arises, don’t move. If desire to check the time arises, don’t check it, if you have an itch, don’t scratch, just sit and be one with the itch, be the itch, you are the itch in that moment. Use the itch as the key that opens the door to the reality of the present moment, as it is. Just sit and see what happens. Our training is to learn to be with each moment as it is, letting go of the desires and the aversions that hinder our just being present, being here and now, totally. Desires are unquenchable and just reinforce a certain idea we might have of ourselves. Things are supposed to go the way I want, only then I can be happy. However, when we loosen our attachments to desire, we start loosening that fixed idea we might have of ourselves as being separate from the rest of the universe. We can start seeing what we really are and, eventually, starting developing that sense of happiness which is not dependent on external circumstances, it is not dependent on our quenching all the desires we might experience arising in us. Our practice is to align with ‘that happiness that nobody can give you and nobody can take away from you’ Here, now, simply totally present with how things are right now. Desires can become the key to this alignment. 

Wishing you all the best in exploring your own desires and use them for your own practice towards liberation!

Rinzai Gigen

A few years ago, I went to India for a meditation retreat at the Osho International Meditation Centre and my accommodation happened to be in a building called Rinzai as in the famous Rinzai Gigen founder of the Rinzai school of Zen. Whilst I was there, as part of the meditation practice, I participated in the Osho Evening Meeting where people danced, celebrated life and sat in silent meditation. In between this dancing, celebrating life and meditating, they would stream discourses by Osho and, as it happened, in that very period they played talks in which the Indian mystic Osho spoke about Zen Master Hyakujo. I became so intrigued by all these Zen stories and the paradoxes which they all have that I carried on exploring what Zen was all about. That was basically my first connection with Zen.

Months later, whilst still exploring Zen and trying to find out a little bit more about Rinzai Gigen, I came across a book by an English Zen Master, his name is Daizan Roshi. I read his book and I was caught straight away by its practicality, simplicity and ‘just-do-it’ attitude in it. Also, there was another thing that attracted me there, the fact that Daizan was based in London, not far from where I live, and he was/is running a very active and thriving community in the Rinzai tradition of Zen. It felt like I was closing a circle and I was somehow coming home to something that, perhaps I had been looking for some time. A strong sense of intuitive trust arose in me after meeting a few members of this organisation called Zenways and I joined them, becoming a student of Zen in the Rinzai tradition.

It has to be said that there are 2 major schools of Zen, one is called Sōtō Zen and the second one is called Rinzai Zen. Both these schools, as well as another smaller Zen school called Ōbaku-shū, have been helping people to come out of the entanglement of their own mind, to clearly see their mental delusions and to enable them to embrace reality as it is. It is a mammoth task that can feel at times overwhelmingly impossible. Seeing beyond the filters of our own mind and straight into reality is challenging, especially at the beginning of this journey or training. I am sure that Rinzai Gigen had his own share of difficulties before he managed himself to see through his own delusions and was able to pass on his own ‘discoveries’ to others. However, again I can only guess here, he persevered in his own practice and reached a point in his own development where he could start sharing his discoveries. It is just amazing to think that, more than 1000 years on, his teachings are still available to anyone who wants to follow his path of liberation.

Japanese painting of Linji Yixuan (Jap. Rinzai Gigen).

The picture above depicts Linji Yixuan, Rinzai Gigen. As already mentioned, he was the originator of the Linji school or Rinzai school. He lived in the years ‘800 basically 1200 years ago and, again, I find it astonishing that his teachings, his methods, his ways to help people seeing into their true nature has somehow reached me. A journey which lasted more than 1000 years. That I find fascinating! How many people Rinzai Gigen had to ‘touch’ in order for his teachings to come down to this generation of people? And, what is the teaching that Rinzai Gigen passed on to future generations of Zen practitioners?

I am sure that each one of the people that have been touched by Rinzai Gigen teachings would have a different answer to this question and obviously I have my own one. Zen practice is to create conditions in which we train our mind to be present with what we are doing, present with how things are. Very easily our mind can get distracted by a thought, by a desire to have things differently than they are, by an inner commentary, by judgements and so on. This split between what is in front of us and the mind going off somewhere else can be somehow closed; the mind can be trained to be on the job at hand. Zen practice, among other things, can train people to close this split, to develop the habit to merge or to become one with the activity we are doing. So, in the Rinzai branch of Zen, there are different kind of trainings that can help people closing the split. That is one thing that I realised very soon. In fact, the community I am part of is called Zenways which one could read as different ways to practice Zen.

Here to follow is a list of the different practices that I have done myself since I became a Rinzai Zen student. Zazen, or sitting meditation is the one which occupied the majority of my time practising. kinhin or walking meditation. Zen calligraphy, Zen running, Samu or working meditation, Koan practice, Sanzen which is a private meeting with a Zen Master or Zen teacher, Haiku which is a form of poetry, chanting, serving meals, all night meditation, Dyad practice, mountain walking retreat, and lots of energetic practices called Naikan. I am sure that I have forgotten something in this list and I will try to speak about all these practices and my experience with them individually in other future posts.

Is that not fascinating? To have a myriad of different ways to practice, to train our mind to see that split which I mentioned above and to close, as best as one can, this split. I personally find it very fascinating as, during my short time spent training with all these different methods, these have shown/still showing me the split, the resistances, the mind tricks and traps that make me suffer, fear, avoid, run from reality and so on. Developing mindfulness and becoming more and more aware of the way I act, react and interact with life is fundamental if I want to, at least try to be my best possible me.

I am not totally sure whether Rinzai Gigen himself started all these practices in his school. Most likely, they have been developed by other Zen Masters along the way. For example, I know that the Naikan practices have been introduced by Hakuin Ekaku who lived much later compared to Rinzai Gigen. However, I somehow feel a strong connection with Rinzai Gigen as I first ‘met’ him in India and I now see him everywhere.


There is a statue of the Buddha in my living room, it is part of a small altar that I set up to remind myself of my practice. A small statue of a laughing Buddha sits next to it to remind myself not to take myself too seriously. It is a decoration and it looks beautiful but, it is mainly a statement I have made to myself about the meditation path I have decided to commit to. The serenity transpiring from the Buddha statue and the laughter shown by the laughing Buddha are very inspiring in my life.

The statue of the Buddha and the laughing Buddha in my living room

When I joined Zenways, little I knew about Buddhism. Now, 3 years after, I can’t really remember what I knew about Buddhism back then. Let me try to remember. One thing I knew was that the Dalai Lama was the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. I remember to have always loved his smile and the fact that this smile appeared to be different from the smile I had seen in other religion leaders. That was, at least, the way I perceived it. I also knew that Buddhism was a very peaceful religion and that I also liked very much because I have never liked certain kind of mindless confrontations. I also knew that Buddhism was very popular in Asia and, in all honesty, I didn’t know of any Buddhist centres in Italy (now I know there are many). However, one thing I knew about Italy and Buddhism is that the most popular Italian football player was/is a Buddhist practitioner, Roberto Baggio. I always admired Roberto Baggio as a football player but never tried to find out why he became a Buddhist. Baggio’s football career was marked by the many physical injuries he had. However, despite the seriousness of the injuries, he always came back to do what he loved the most, playing football. I remember him to say that practising meditation and Buddhism played a major part in all these difficult comebacks he had. Now, Baggio’s perseverance and desire to come back after every time he fell, reminds me of the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi, ya oki” which means “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” I learned myself, in these years of practising meditation, how to allow ‘failures’, hardship and difficulties into my life and my practice and how, in spite of that, to just keep going, just stand up one more time and pick it up once again. Resilience, perseverance and discipline are some of the characteristics that the practice of meditation develops and strengthens. Now, going back to what I knew about Buddhism, when I first met my-then-future-wife, she told me about her connection to Buddhism. First of all, she is from Vietnam which is what we can consider a Buddhist country. Secondly, her grandfather was a Buddhist monk so she had that direct connection to this religion or practice. Despite this connection, we never really got to speak in ‘depth’ about Buddhism. We have always spoken about spirituality and meditation in general but never specifically about Buddhism. So, in other words, when I joined Zenways and I started my journey with Buddhism I started from zero. Well, after all, where else one can start a journey if not from 0 anyway?

Zen ensō 

After joining Zenways, I started reading books on Buddhism, I watched videos, I went through all of Daizan’s talks and little by little I became more acquainted with the Buddhist practice and philosophy. What became evident from the beginning was the fact that I didn’t have to believe anything in particular; there was not a God to worship and there were not strict rules to follow. I, alone, would take responsibility for my practice and for the way I would conduct my life. I didn’t have to confess my sins, I didn’t have to pray to obtain forgiveness, I didn’t have to rely on someone else to go to heaven or to hell. I was doing this on my own. After a few months, I took the Buddhist precepts which I will talk about in another post. The contrast with Catholicism which is the religion of my youth was very clear. Somehow, in Catholicism the attention goes outwards, towards God. With Buddhism, the attention goes inwards, towards oneself. ‘Turn the light and make it shine inward’, is one of the meditation instructions I heard a few times. Learn about yourself and see whether that learning can make you become a better and more useful person. It became very apparent how Buddhism was not really a religion as one might conventionally think of one. Buddhism is more an exploration into the human conditions, more particularly, the mental conditions. It is an exploration into what conditions us to act, behave, react and move about in our life in the way we do. And, after seeing what conditions us more and more clearly for ourselves, we can start working on developing healthier ways of living peacefully with ourselves and with others. Personally, in these few years of practice, I got to understand why I just shy away from certain situations, why I have prejudices, why I get nervous when exposed to certain people or situations, why I get upset, angry and so on and so forth. Buddhism, for me, has been an exploration into seeing clearly the reality of my own conditions and, into seeing how these conditions can be transformed for my own benefit and for the benefit of all. I really found this very fascinating. My life has been transformed into an experiment where everything becomes a situation to explore. Life like a laboratory where I devote my time to experiment in order to find the best possible me. But how this exploration starts? 

The start is in the first teaching of the Buddha, life is suffering. That sounds a bit harsh and very naturally, I wanted to understand what the Buddha meant by that. After all, my life is what I would consider a happy life; I have all I need to have to live a very decent and satisfying life. So, what is this suffering that the Buddha is talking about? The first thing that the Buddha refers to, in my understanding, is the contrast between how life really is and how the mind would, many times, desire it to be. Talking personally, I can frequently observe a flow of thoughts, ideas, perceptions and so on that are geared towards wanting things to be different from how they really are. Let me explain. For instance, a thought about someone might pop into my head, it follows a story about this person and, as a result, I start acting or reacting towards this person in a certain way. Internally, there are now all the conditions for a certain degree of uneasiness when this person is around. This is the first sign of suffering; I am suffering when confronted by this person because of my prejudices, my ideas about her/him, what I think of her/him. As a result, I now might want this person to act differently, to think differently, to talk to me differently and so on. I suffer or, I am unsatisfied with this person because I want things to be different from how they really are. Now, this imaginary person is just an example to show how this suffering can appear in us and condition our life. In reality, this suffering or sense of unsatisfactoriness can be triggered by many different things such as all kind of life events, workplace matters, ourselves or the way we perceive ourselves and many, many other things. All can create the conditions for this inner turmoil since there is suffering in birth, in death, in illnesses, in marriages and so on and so forth. We can easily end up fighting the reality of everything and, our desire to want things different from they really are is the cause of our suffering. So, what can we do about that? Shall we keep fighting until we get all things the way we want them to be? Shall we always blame other people for our own suffering/unsatisfactoriness or, can we take some responsibility for it? What Buddhism practice can do to help us alleviating or eliminating altogether this suffering? After all, things are not going to change easily the way we want, people are not going to change either, life situations will still happen in the way they are meant to happen. However, in spite of this, the Buddha says that there is a way out of this suffering. 

The Buddha proposes some friendly advises that will help us to develop some qualities which will allow us to alleviate or to eliminate our suffering. That is a good news. We can start seeing for ourselves what a healthy approach to the reality of things is and what is not. In my own experience, I could see that little by little, I was starting to align, at times with effort, to a healthier approach to reality. The mental fight to want things differently was becoming an option I could skip. It has become clear that it is my responsibility to allow this alignment to happen. Anyway, back to the friendly advises the Buddha has for us.

The first of these advises is to have a more skilful way of seeing things as they are, directly, not through the filter of our mind but, see things really. He is prompting us to deliberately observe how our mind can corrupt and condition our view of reality; just spend a few minutes to observe that for yourself with honesty and determination and you will see that very clearly, even after a short while. Observe the ‘monkey mind’. I heard that expression many times. The ‘monkey mind’ is the mind that can’t stay in one place for more than one second, it is the mind that constantly jumps from one thought to another one, from one idea to another one. It is the mind that sees all that is going on within itself and plays around with all that stuff. The Buddha carries on with his friendly advises and asks us to develop the skill of mindfulness. Can we keep observing what is going on in our mind without getting sucked in? Can we just be mindful of that? If we can do that, we can easily see how thoughts are impermanent. We can easily see how they constantly change and, we can easily observe that when left alone, these thoughts just move on. In other words, with practice and patience, we see more and more where the problems lie. Normally, we act or react far too quickly as a consequence of all our thoughts, ideas, emotions which cross the sky of our consciousness. The Buddha is inviting us to slow down, to observe first, to learn a little bit more about our own mental patterns and then, only after some time of observation, do our very best to respond to situations. Taking time to observe what is going on, externally and internally. What emotions, what thoughts, what instincts certain situations are provoking. How wisely can we balance the whole situation so that we do not cause any more suffering for ourselves and for others? What is there in the situation that can teach us a bit more about ourselves and the way our own mind works? Slowing down, taking time to observe, that is for me the first powerful advise I am taking from the Buddha. It is a way to learn to become more skilful in our actions and, we can become more skilful in our actions when we learn how to become more mindful of our own mind and its content. How can I be more skilful when I speak to people? What kind of job should I do which won’t create more suffering for myself and for others? Can I use my energy more skilfully? How more skilfully can I direct my intentions to become a kinder and wiser person? 

The Buddha is inviting us to take some time to see for ourselves what makes us suffer, why life is suffering. And then, very compassionately, it gives us his friendly advises on how to end this suffering. 

It takes practice, it takes time, it takes patience, it takes a certain level of determination and commitment to be a Buddhist. We have to work with our own shit, nobody else can do it for us and that can be, at times, very difficult. Buddhism is an opportunity for growth, it is an opportunity to ‘unbury’ our truest Self that has been buried under layers and layers of social conditionings, it has been buried deep into our habitual mental patters. In fact, the same patterns that have allowed us to survive and to function in life as human species. Our practice, the experiment we go through is one of the paths to find this truer Self again. This Self is still here, it has not gone anywhere. We have just grown used to use a different self, a more egotistical self that doesn’t allow us to see things how they really are and, that make us and others suffer. Buddhism is a practice that prompts us to revert this tendency and encourages us to find once again this forgotten Self. We train ourselves so that we can see It again and then, little by little, we can start acting again as It. 

When I walk in my living room, I always look at the serenity transpiring from the statue of the Buddha and the laughter in the laughing Buddha’s face. They keep inspiring me to remain calm, to be patient and yet rigorous in my own practice. Very importantly, they remind me to keep smiling.


On Tuesday the 7th of December, I went to London, to the Zenways dojo in Camberwell to attend Rohatsu. Rohatsu is a Japanese word which literally means 8th day of the 12th month, 8th of December in other words. This is the day that Buddhists celebrates the day the historical Buddha experienced enlightenment, he realised his true nature and the nature of his own mind. 

In the Zen tradition, that day is celebrated by spending the entire night meditating. So, we started at around 9.30 in the evening of the 7th with a talk by Daizan and we finished the following morning at 6. For the entire night, we alternated 25 minutes of sitting meditation sessions with 10 minutes sessions of walking meditation. We had 2 breaks of 15 minutes when we had matcha tea, I believe. So, why Rohatsu or Bodhi day as it is also called?

Daizan is giving his talk

About 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha sat under a tree, famously known as the Bodhi tree and reached enlightenment or awakening or realisation. He realised why he and other human beings suffer, he awakened to the fact that our own mind plays a big part in this ‘suffering business’. He realised that our own mind wouldn’t allow us to be unconditionally happy. At the same time, he ‘acquired’, during this awakening, the wisdom that allowed him to experience the happiness that is not conditioned or dependent by external conditions; the Buddha became unconditionally happy.

Buddha under the Bodhi tree

After the talk Daizan gave, we ate some rice pudding with the addition of some honey. The reason for that is found again in the experience the original Buddha had himself before he sat under the Bodhi tree prior his awakening. Shakyamuni Buddha for a few years before that he fasted and practiced a very strict self imposed austerity. His body became very weak and, I can only guess here, his mood and his energy became very low. One day, he was noticed by a very compassionate girl called Sujata who gave him a bowl of rice pudding with some honey in it. The Buddha, despite his self imposed austerity, accepted the food and soon his energy and his vitality were restored. Now he had the strength he required to carry on with his practice. He could look forward to the end of his quest, namely, finding out about the nature of all things. Out of this episode in which Sujata gave Shakyamuni Buddha the rice pudding stems the Buddhist doctrine of the Middle Path; the path between extremes, between asceticism and hedonism. I have to mention here that the Buddha, before setting off on his quest was a prince and he had access to all the pleasures that a prince could have. That didn’t give him that unconditional happiness that he was after since he realised that he could still get sick and die as anyone else. That unconditional happiness could not be found in the starvation of his body either as he experienced in those years of self austerity. Starve himself didn’t bring any joy and, on top of that, he must have realised that both body and mind must be nourished if he wanted to reach that state of unconditional happiness he was after.

The rice pudding we had was very sweet. I loved it and felt so grateful for this symbolic and nourishing food my body was receiving. The course was now set, we would just sit with our strongest resolve to reach enlightenment by dawn! 

I forgot to mention that for the night I was Jikijitsu (I will write a post on the Jikijitsu role in the Zen tradition). My role was to keep the timings of the various sitting and walking meditation sessions. To help me with this, I had my wrist watch, two clappers and a little bell called Inkin. The wrist watch, of course, would give me the time, the clappers and the Inkin would signal to the attending people when the various sessions started and finished. My role also included another task which I am going to write about later on. 

In the dojo, there were 10 people but the practice community, or Sangha as it is known also included some 30 people who joined in online. It is so beautiful to feel the energy, the intention and the determination of all these people coming together. Of course, we are meditating alone, we are alone with our own mind, our own challenging thoughts, our own physical pains but, for me at least, the presence of the community is fundamental. In this journey in which we travel alone, we are actually travelling all together, all as one, one as all. 

During my sitting, I was doing my best to contemplate the nature of my mind, the impermanence of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, feelings and so on. Just trying to stay in that neutral place where all is just observed, where nothing is personal but all is just what it is. I remember, at one point towards the end of the night, to hear the sound of an airplane overhead, Camberwell must be on the flying path of one the big London airports, Heathrow I guess. The sound was simply a sound, it was not loud, it was not quite, it was not bothering me, it was not causing any particular reaction in me, it was simply a sound. I know how the mind works normally, I hear a sound, and straight after there is a comment about it, too loud, it is ‘ruining’ the silence, the airplane is a big polluter, or other kind of comments. This time it was just a sound, it was not followed by anything else, it was an empty sound and it was full of soundness at the same time. It was complete as it was, it didn’t need anything else to be what it was already. Then a thought came to my mind and, as for the sound, it was just a thought, it was not good, it was not bad, it was not annoying, pleasant, unpleasant…. it was simply a thought, empty of a fixed and independent entity (the thought depended on many different causes, starting from the mind reflecting it) and yet full and complete as it appeared and vanished. I didn’t have to do anything with it or about it, it just flew into the sky of my consciousness in the same way the plane flew undisturbed in the sky above me just seconds before. Then, all that happened after that had the same quality. Everything was just what it was; all movements, people talking, noises, the traffic on the way home were just what there was in each moment, neither good, nor bad, annoying and so on. That is what we can call no-separation, no-separation from me experiencing the experience and the experience itself, just one thing without any additional commentary. 

Of course, a long night contemplating the mind can really help seeing more clearly into its own nature and the illusions that this can create. The challenging conditions created by a night long meditation, when the body is begging for a bed, can show more clearly the mental patterns and the tendency to not accept the reality of things. Not giving in to my own mind is the initial and essential thing to do if I want to find a different way to interact with and, in life. Gently allowing the mind to take its own course but not giving any energy, allowing things to arise and to pass, just remain present and have the ambition to see what is clearly necessary to do in each moment. That, in my own experience, starts developing another kind of mind, the wisdom mind, the mind that knows without knowing as I like to call it. It knows without knowing because it doesn’t need to have the knowledge of past events, of an encyclopaedia of things to know what the present moment requires. This illuminated mind just prompts one to act with no further thinking, what it is necessary, appears very clearly, no need to ask around. Out of laziness, out of habit, out of fear, out of so many different things, we don’t take the trouble or we are not patient enough to wait for this mind to show what is real and necessary, we, at least me, just jump on board of our personal and conditioned mind and we just act, or don’t act, out of laziness, out of habit, out of fear, out of so many different things. Meditation and mindfulness help us greatly in developing this new approach toward things in general, they, meditation and mindfulness, develop this patience and care that allows the illuminated mind to shine forth and help us to act in a more generous, caring, effective and true way. 

Back to Rohatsu now. The night went on very smoothly, one session of sitting was followed by some walking meditation in a tennis court adjacent to the dojo. We would do 5 laps, around 10 minutes. Outside I felt cold and that helped me to stay awake during the night. At one point, I wore an extra layer since I had a nose bleed and I thought it was caused by the contrast between warm inside and cold outside. In any case, I did like and benefited from the walking. All I was doing, was to try to stay with the sensations I was experiencing; cold, sleepy, tired and so on. I tried my best not to energise any of the thoughts that came to visit. Just open and aware of walking.

Walking in the tennis court

One more responsibility for the Jikijitsu during Rohatsu is to use the Keisaku. This is a flat wooden stick used as a remedy against sleepiness. It was the first time I used it and I didn’t know exactly how to. Initially I thought that I would need to gently tap it on people’s shoulders to keep them awake or to remind them of their initial resolve. However, I found out that you want to strike people with some energy to energise them to keep practicing. There is a specific place on people’s back where the Keisaku is used and, in that place, no injuries are left but the vigour in their bodies is restored. That was for me a very interesting experience because of course, I felt a strong objection towards ‘hurting’ people but then I realised that it was my role in that moment. All was done with compassion and care towards others who just wanted to energise their practice. It was something that went beyond my mental likes and dislikes and it was done with love and compassion, supporting other people in their own practice. 

In my experience with Zen, there have been many of these situations which might appear to be controversial for the ‘conventional mind’. It is unusual to think of striking a person on their back out of love and compassion. However, that is my own understanding of the use of the Keisaku; it is not about me and about what I like or don’t like, it is about being available to others, to support them in their own practice and, if what it takes is to be hit by a flat stick, you don’t argue about that, you just do it. That is what the moment, that is what the path to liberation is requiring; it is this going beyond the intellectual mind, the good and the bad, right or wrong, breaking through the conditions ‘imposed’ by our own minds.

At 6 in the morning, I rang the Inkin and clapped the clappers for the last time. We then gathered together around our breakfast tables and enjoyed some food. There was no signs of sleepiness in myself and I could not see signs of sleepiness in other people either, just the desire to share a very joyous moment. 

Rohatsu Breakfast 


I know every wrinkle on my face, every scar, indentation, valleys and rises as I stared in a mirror for 5 consecutive days.

I went to a Sesshin last month, a meditation retreat in the Zen tradition. During this period of intense practice (meditation practice), one follows a very rigid schedule; sitting meditation, walking meditation, working meditation, eating mindfully, mindful movements, chanting and silence, lots of silence. And, it was from the shadow of this silence that I got to see very clearly what was going on in the mind when I attended the various scheduled activities. I could not distract myself by chatting to someone else but I had to live totally with my own thoughts, feelings, emotions. Resistances, likes, dislikes, wanting to move, scratching, rushing to get some food, not considering others, getting upset because food run out…… In silence, all these things are clearly seen, they are clearly heard like a scream in the dark, one can’t pretend to not have heard it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is also great beauty in spending so much time in silence, especially for a person like me that feels at times inadequate when being around people. I didn’t have to talk, I just had to get on with the various tasks, my own inner stuff and my face reflected in a mirror, not such a bad thing after all.

At the Noddfa centre, around 30 people moved inside the boundaries of the rigid Sesshin schedule, focussed on themselves; noticing their thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes. Noticing without reacting, that is one of the qualities of a mindful mind. Noticing what arises, allowing space without grasping. The more I allow, the more there is a sense of space expanding (well, that’s what it feels like). In the moment I try to grasp a thought, for instance, the same space shuts down around that thought, I am caught, my attention is caught. Is there anything wrong when the attention gets caught? No, nothing is neither wrong or right for that matter but I am limiting myself within claustrophobic boundaries whilst missing out on the actual experience that is unfolding around me. I am holding on to something, not letting go, fixated on a concept or an idea, very intellectual and not really experiential. Of course, there are times when I need to focus on thoughts, I need to analyse or work something out or when I speak to someone and I want to know exactly what to say. However, when meditating we want to allow thoughts to arise without us ‘disturbing’ them. Thoughts are not a problem at all but what we do with them can create the conditions for some potential disharmony with how we deal with situations, people and ourselves too. We all know how one thought leads on to the next one and the next one again in an endless thread that carries us down the spiral of our own creative, corrupted, conditioned, individual story about how things are. This spiralling is what we call the world of separation, our story versus what is out there, the ‘hostile’ world. Rather than experiencing things, we think about them, what we like or don’t like about them, how we can twist them to try to ‘gain’ something, how to avoid or how to have more. Thoughts are gauging the actual experience of life, they are not the experience itself, they are ideas about it. My experience with Zen is that we are practising to break down this illusory wall that separates us from the ‘hostile’ universe. Once the wall is down, there is no separation, we are the universe, there is neither hostility nor no-hostility, we are just what we are. However, why did we stare in a mirror for 5 consecutive days then?

The Mirror Zen Sesshin is based around the practice of sitting and facing yourselves in a mirror. Practice which was developed in a Japanese temple called Tokei-ji in the Kamakura period by female Zen master Kakuzan Shido. Kakuzan Shido would meditate before the mirror to see into her own nature. In the same way, later generations of nuns and us at the Noddfa centre have been meditating on various koans associated to the mirror image and reflections. I can kind of imagine Kakuzan Shido walking towards a mirror; thoughts must have popped into her mind whilst she was getting closer to it. As she got very near to it, she must have clearly seen that those thoughts were not reflected in the mirror, they were reflected by an inner mirror which we commonly call mind. Possibly, she saw the reality that laid in front of her reflected in the mirror and the reality of her own thoughts. Two separate realities. There were thoughts about how she saw things, how she believed things were. Clearly, she realised that the 2 realities were not matching. What was seen by her own eyes was different or corrupted by what her mind was saying. The mind had ideas about what she was seeing and these ideas were clearly subjective, conditioned, dependent by factors such as mood, lightness, darkness and so on and so forth. For that reason, I guess, she carried on with this Mirror Zen practice, she refined it and passed it down to other students. This is my reading of how things went which I am sure is very far from what really inspired Kakuzan Shido.

Is the mirror showing the content of my own mind? Where in the mirror are the thoughts which appear in my mind? Can I see them? These were some of the questions that naturally arose and sustained me during my practice of seeing into my own nature. If thoughts are not in the mirror, where are they coming from? These questions help breaking our logical way of seeing things and open up to a different way of experiencing life in general; not so much an intellectual endeavour but rather an experiential experience, a moment to moment experience, from a philosophical approach to things to a more practical one, from an intellectual way to relate to things, to a more intuitive one.

What did I take home from this retreat? I am not sure that I took home something specific from the retreat. Definitely lots of inspiration to keep practicing and admiration for all of those who practice. Gratitude towards Kakuzan Shido and 22 generations of practitioners after her who kept this specific practice alive. What was apparent in the mirror of my mind were those thoughts of inadequacy that at times take over. Being able to let go of those fears and of that sense of me, personal me, separate me, that illusory sense of separation in general. That is what showed up very strongly at the end of the retreat. So ‘full speed ahead’……