The following are appreciations by Zen practitioners of the writings of Boshan, a Chinese Zen teacher who lived from 1575-1630. During the period of 2010 to 2013, Jeff Shore translated two groupings of the teacher’s writings, reflecting what Boshan saw as two basic steps we face in practice: Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt and Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse the Doubt. During this period, Jeff led a number of retreats in Europe and the United States and presented his translations, along with his own contemporary commentary, as living words to spur practice on.
Boshan vividly and pithily reveals the delusions we may mistake for authentic Zen practice. He continually breaks us of any trace of grasping, since it may turn even profound and pulsing realization into a lifeless possession. Refusing to let us fall short, he trusts that we will see through our missteps in good faith and honesty. He does not give a path; he takes away – and with nothing to hang onto, our dis-ease is fully bared and focused.
One must write of Boshan’s expressive activity in the present tense because, as you will see below, his encounter with those who seriously undertake practice is very much alive today.
As to Boshan’s writings themselves and Jeff’s comments on them, Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt may be found in Jeff’s book, Zen Classics for the Modern World: Translations of Zen Poems & Prose with Contemporary Commentary (Diane Publishing, 2011) pp. 45 – 73. Both Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt (listed as “Great Doubt: Getting Stuck & Breaking Through the Real Koan”) and Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse the Doubt (in two parts) may be found on this website here.
An Appreciation of Boshan’s Exhortations
As part of his retreat lectures on Boshan’s Exhortations for Those Who Do Rouse The Doubt, I listened as Jeff Shore offered his translation of the Tenth Exhortation, which includes these lines: “Rousing the Doubt when practicing Zen, one accords with Dharma-kaya. Then one feels lightness in body and mind, and no hindrance in any situation. But even if one experiences the unity of reality and appearance, and the whole world seems in harmony for the moment, it is not the ultimate.” These lines gave me great pause. A few moments later, Jeff and Boshan added the disturbing kicker: “Without penetrating the Dharma, you have turned round too soon!”
In good faith, I realized that this perfectly expressed my situation: of a powerful opening choked back into ‘me,’ so that it could not truly and thoroughly come to life and freely express itself come what may. What now, I wondered? Again, I listened to Boshan: forget the red face, there’s no time to waste; simply return to practice with uncompromising honesty and resolve. Boshan, how cutting and how kind he was in this instance – just one of many where this timeless teacher has wielded his sword to chop off my sprouting second head.
- MA, 59, New York City, USA
When I was a young kid of about 7 or 8 years, we had a sunflower competition in our village. The one growing the tallest sunflower was to win some kind of prize. I immediately went to work. My father gave me about 25 sunflower seeds and I put them all in one bucket I had filled with dirt from our garden. I drenched them in water and – just to be sure – put about 3 handfuls of artificial fertilizer on top. Then I put the bucket in the sun and once a day would check it, hoping to see a sign of life. Needless to say, nothing ever grew out of that bucket. I was disappointed and asked my father what had happened: maybe his seeds were bad? Hearing my story he broke out laughing and gave me my first gardening lesson.
This is what Boshan does. His monks were doing exactly the same thing that we now are doing. Whatever may be different: place, time, culture etc., basically we are still cultivating the same garden. We are as human as they were. We want our sunflower to be the tallest and we want it today. Then along comes this ancient master gardener and warns us. Loud and clear, we have no excuse for misunderstanding or misinterpreting his message. He is in our face: “It is not enough to just plough the earth, it is not enough to just throw out some seeds, it is not enough to just water them once, it is not enough to protect the seedlings against the sun. It is not enough to trim the branches, spray against insects, mulch the ground. At every stage we tend to think: OK, now it’s done. We can go sit under a tree, have some tea and wait for the fruit to fall. NO! Even when the first buds appear on the branches, that is all very nice and encouraging but it will not do when we stop there. One night of frost, one shower of hail and the harvest is destroyed.
Boshan may be stern, he may be unrelenting, for some Westerners he may be too Calvinistic when he keeps pointing out our errors and shortcomings. They may have come to do Zen practice in order to rid themselves of these negative voices, and now here’s this old Chinese guy putting his finger right on the sore spots. I can see how that might rub some people the wrong way. Yet, even for those people Boshan offers a valuable entrance to deal with possible obstructions in their Zen practice.
His thundering: “Sick through and through! This is not Zen!” is an invaluable warning we all need to hear, especially when our practice starts to blossom and we think we finally can have some tea.
– GvO, 54, Netherlands, career counselor
Boshan’s Exhortations, and the accompanying lectures, have been both inspiring and helpful. This key phrase: “In Zen practice, the essential point is to arouse Doubt…” and the following explanations have been just the guidance needed in my own practice. I have seen many of the delusions that Boshan warns of in myself, and unfortunately in much of “western zen.” Thankfully, Boshan also points out the way through these very problems. The preface, written by a lay disciple in 1611, sums it up nicely, stating: “truly a lifeboat for this degenerate age, a direct path for beginner’s mind. Surely beneficial in the present day, it will be a great aid in the future as well.” I believe these words are just as true today.
- AC, 42, UK, IT consultant
Appreciation of Boshan’s Exhortations
What made me look closer at Boshan and in turn at my own practice were two lines almost side by side in the raw material of the retreat transcripts: “being enveloped in the soft glow of a lamp” and “a single saucer lamp in the room.” So close, and yet what a difference.
I started practicing Zen in 2002: doing retreats, sitting daily. Ambitious, focused as with most things I do. During a retreat in winter 2007, it was like freezing up over hours. At one point, when looking at a painting while drinking coffee, this all dissolved. Taking a walk through the park everything seemed without hindrance, and I spent the rest of the retreat “enveloped in the soft glow of a lamp.” No need to quote how Boshan would continue.
2008 I picked up training with Jeff. I knew him from a Zen weekend in 2003. Difficult start. Slowly getting acquainted with this and with myself. Practicing trust, practicing together. In German we have the expression “ausharren.” The dictionary offers “waiting” as a translation, but that doesn’t quite get it, for it somehow implies that you know what you are waiting for. But in this case, you don’t even know that anymore. Maybe Jeff’s “sitting through” or “seeing through” is closer. You fully trust that this is the only thing that you can do, and you know you’re in good company.
Outside it starts to rain and the last cherry blossoms wash down the gutter. When it’s dry again I go for a run in the woods. Shameless birch green, shameless green everywhere. Even Boshan could not make a copy of this.
– CW, 47, German living and working in the Netherlands, systems engineer
Boshan: ‘alive and kicking’
The joint effort of Professors Kinugawa and Shore to translate Boshan’s Exhortations is something I have followed with increasing joy over the past few years. The first time I heard the Exhortations at a retreat in the Netherlands being declared by Jeff Shore (and a declaration it was), it struck like lightning. The acuteness and depth of Boshan at once pulled the rug from under me. The richness of language and the sense of humor made me break out laughing. The encouragement and persuasion in his words made me continue on in practice.
As my practice matured over 15 years, I was bound to run into all kinds of experiences, feelings, images and of course delusions. To make sense of my experiences, communication with others proved important. It is rather easy to get trapped in your own ‘enlightened bubble.’ The zen ego-trip is a real danger. But I can always count on Boshan to pierce my delusional bubble and bring me down to earth.
With the growing realization that Zen is not the simple do-it-yourself-remedy for all of my dis-eases, the need for a ‘significant other’ in my practice became more and more urgent. This touches on a most crucial aspect of the journey: trust. Not just some faith, but Great Trust. Not in some Path, some Doctrine or some Buddha, but simple Trust in someone concrete and real, standing beside you at this moment wherever you are. While hearing or reading Boshan, I feel such a one standing beside me. He is someone who will give me the push if I go astray or push me on if I think I’m already there.
I’ve met many people on my Zen way, but I must admit only a few I’ve come to recognize as reliable mentors. Boshan points out the need to encounter a dharma friend to really confront me. At the onset of my spiritual practice I had nothing else to go on but dead teachers and their surviving words. For me, these narrated texts of long deceased Zen masters have been of vital importance. The Taoist sage Chuang Tzu mocks these words in his story on Duke Hwan as worthless ‘dregs’ of the dead masters of old. However, without these ‘dregs’ I would have missed out on what has proven to be most fertile ground. And really, what could grow without some ‘mud and water’? It is of course a two-sided affair: without seed no growth either. Or in Hakuin’s words: “If there is even a single superior seeker, one who has broken through the barrier, and he chances to glance at these lines, he will feel like someone who has encountered an old friend in a far off land. I humbly and respectfully pass this work along to that patrician of the secret depths. May you penetrate the endless thickets of the thorn and briar forest!”
I am grateful that the words of the Chinese monk Boshan have been passed on to this day. And I am thankful that after hundreds of years these words have been brought to life by an American disciple of the Zen tradition at a retreat in a place as unlikely as a Benedictine nunnery behind the dunes of the Dutch North Sea coast. If I didn’t know it was the result of diligent labor by a long line of dedicated people, I would call it a miracle indeed.
– SvW, 47, Zutphen, Netherlands, career counselor
I have just read again Boshan’s Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt. During reading I could hear Jeff’s expressive presentation. He doesn’t speak like a scholar. I found it refreshing and real, as if for the first time. The warnings are a great reminder that people are facing common problems everywhere, in any tradition and in any time.
To me “The Disease of Quiet Meditation” was a big problem at the beginning. But after deepening my zazen, it dissolved and the circumstances just seemed to help the practice. In “The Disease of Suppression” Zenkei Shibayama’s statement, introduced by Jeff, spoke most directly to me. He says that samadhi in art or no-mind in expert skill has only a superficial resemblance with Zen. He also says that there is no painting Zen, dancing Zen or laboring Zen. These can only be entrances into the real practice, as I always suspected. But after this it was crystal clear.
– BM, 34, Hungary, economist
The first time I met Boshan’s exhortations, it sounded like a fresh “wake up” call. And today he still inspires me. Till then, I was living my life, practicing Zen, without many questions. Suddenly Boshan sent a fresh breeze through me and my habitual attitudes. In the beginning I was struggling with the meaning of “Great Doubt.” Now it’s a daily support in cleaning up and continuing on my way.
After a time I realized that this is the way to deepen my practice, in staying vigilant and awake, integrating Doubt and Trust in my life and my Zen practice.
– KF, 61, Belgium, non-violent communication trainer
I am a Christian and had done some meditation practice before I landed in a sangha in total confusion concerning God and myself. Listening to Jeff’s translation and explanation on Boshan’s text, one phrase struck me again and again: DO NOT TURN IT (EXPERIENCE) INTO SOMETHING! DO NOT BE ATTACHED TO ANY EXPERIENCE! This repeated warning illuminates so many pitfalls I’ve fallen into on my spiritual journey. And how many diseases of practice I am familiar with from self-indulgence in quiet meditation.
As I see it now, first the sangha was like an asylum for me, a place where I did not have to use “religious” speech, which irritated me so much. It was through Boshan’s way of teaching what is NOT Zen that I started to grasp what this stuff is about.
– Sr. RS, 60, Hungary, nun & teacher working with
gypsy children and managing a small spiritual center
In 2010, when I was staying at Jeff’s Hermitage for the second time, he gave me a slip of paper. It said: “Don’t worry about being unable to revive after death – pour your energy into dying while alive!” Signed Boshan/Jeff. This slip of paper, along with Jeff Shore’s translations and commentaries of Boshan’s Exhortations, has guided me, prodded me and inspired me along the Way. “If the life-root is not cut off, your arising-ceasing mind will just continue in samsaric circles.” This and “finish dying” are powerful words I live with moment to moment as my practice matures.
– TS, 67, USA
This Is Not Zen
I came to Zen practice through the Christian tradition, so the “doubt” I needed to resolve was expressing itself in Christian terms. In spite of this background I found that Boshan spoke directly to my practice. I first encountered Boshan’s Exhortations in translation through retreat lectures given by Jeff Shore, after which I would read them again as soon as the retreat transcripts were completed. The first set of lectures on the Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt was helpful, but mostly repeated the help I had been given in person by Jeff over the course of the previous two years. My own doubt had already developed by this point, and the importance of continued focus and the need for a genuine resolution (or break through) was clear.
The instruction given in the Exhortations For Those Who Do Rouse the Doubt, on the other hand, was totally unexpected. Having resolved the doubt I came to practice with, it really seemed like there was nothing left to do with my life but help others who may be struggling as I did. But these later warnings, the seventh and tenth exhortations especially, made it clear that I was deeply mistaken. The seventh exhortation begins by describing the break through, only to reveal it for what it really is:
Rousing the doubt when practicing Zen, one accords with Dharma-kaya. This is what men of old called: “The whole world is the monk’s eye,” “The whole world is one’s luminosity,” “The whole world is within one’s luminosity.”
A line later we see what’s really happening:
But then you grasp that as final and don’t proceed further or with proper guidance. Convincing yourself that this is an entrance gate into satori, you fall into a state where you are not really living nor are you finished dying. Sick through and through, this is not Zen.
A smash indeed, but there’s enormous compassion and encouragement behind it. This became clearest to me in the tenth and final exhortation. This final paragraph of the tenth exhortation summarizes the practice for me, revealing the trap I had fallen into, and continues to make clear the path ahead:
In beginning the practice, take great care to rouse this Doubt so that it solidifies into one massive block. When this breaks up on its own, the real one bursts forth and comes to life. Otherwise you only approach the Dharma, then prematurely let go of your Doubt. You’ll never finish dying that way, nor will you fully penetrate. Instead you will waste your life in vain. Even if you continue to practice Zen, it will be in name only and not the real thing. Intending to return to the world to help others – you better encounter a true teacher or a real Dharma friend instead. Such ones are great doctors who can help heal fatal ills and offer whatever is really needed. Never let self-satisfaction keep you from meeting them. If you do, it is because you are attached to your own views. In Zen, there is no sickness worse than that. [my emphasis]
As stern as this warning is, it’s impossible to miss the real finality, the real living completion to which Boshan is pointing. Maybe I didn’t need the warnings from Boshan (and Jeff) after all. Had I really taken a look, I might have seen that a much greater happiness was possible. But who would have thought that the apparent resolution of one’s own initial doubt, and all the joy that springs from it, is just the beginning, just the real doubt, as Boshan put it, bursting forth and coming to life. What happens when this one’s resolved? May all those fortunate enough to practice Zen discover the answer for themselves.
– JV, 42, USA
Boshan, the old rascal, is telling us about the dangers of NOT being able to raise the Great Doubt. Once we HAVE been able to raise it, he keeps warning us about new dangers on the way. Why isn’t he just telling us how to do it right, one might wonder? This in itself raises a doubt that can become a genuine entrance. Boshan does not leave any escape.
One of the most important warnings for me is about the danger of subtle attachments to the Dharmakaya. Knowing I needed to return to the world of differentiation, there was still a lack of integration. There was something in Boshan’s warnings that kept nagging me. To my delight and great relief, it eventually became clear that I was still looking for some kind of (self-)confirmation.
I find myself returning to these wonderful translations of Boshan’s Exhortations again and again. Once our own genuine doubt or longing arises, there can be no more falling into sloth and torpor. The first two warnings for those who don’t arouse the doubt, The Disease of the Intellect and The Disease of Quiet Meditation, point out the most common traps. Boshan’s Exhortations are precious medicine as we work to bring our practice to life. Thank you for your translations, lectures and comments.
– With gasshou and three bows, SS, 47, Germany, Zen nun
I came into contact with Boshan’s Exhortations for Those Who Don’t Arouse the Doubt in the context of a weeklong retreat led by Jeff Shore outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Boshan’s urgent voice spoke to me clearly from 400 years away and across many thousands of miles.
Boshan smacked me across the head, and told me to stop trying to get to the bottom of everyone else’s koan.
“Find your own, and live it,” said Boshan, with Jeff’s help.
– TA, Hastings on Hudson, NY, USA
Ever since my first encounters with Jeff and Boshan, the Exhortations keep on resonating. And for good reason. It’s also inspiring to see all these Appreciations here on the website.
At school, in order to avoid all kinds of obstacles, I nearly perfected the art of cheating. When preparing for the test for my driver’s license, I would find out what the examiners were paying special attention to. “If I just learn what the examiners are looking for,” I reasoned, “I should easily pass.” Very clever, but it doesn’t really help. How long will we be stuck in such naive dreams?
Two tiny holes, the size of my eyes, quickly scratched onto the windscreen of my frozen car in winter. Of course it won’t do. It’s great to get away from the cold and into the car as quickly as possible, but how on earth am I going to really SEE?
Boshan’s Exhortations pull you out of the traffic. He has seen all kinds of smugglers and tricksters, yet he does not pack up and leave us behind. Locking the doors and throwing away the keys, he offers the genuine help that is needed. It doesn’t feel the way we want help to feel, so we want to leave and forget it: “Smartass! who is he to tell me what my life is like?” What about our trust in this practice and its people? How deep is it really? Hard to deny a frozen windscreen when you can’t see what’s in front of your face, let alone what may be coming from behind.
Boshan’s Exhortations are a true gift. Not one that you unpack, smile at, then put away. They are worthy of repeated unwrapping and close examination. These Appreciations, from all over the world, make it even more apparent. It keeps on resonating.
– RP, 27, Germany