Zen Confucianism

by Rev. Eric Daishin McCabe


All of the Sinitic cultures – especially Korea, Japan, and Vietnam – have evolved around ways of living and thinking derived in significant measure from [Confucius’] ideas as set down by his disciples and others after his death – ideas that are by no means irrelevant to contemporary social, political, moral, and religious concerns.

 Roger T. Ames and Henay Rosemon, Jr.  The Analects of Confucius:  A Philosophical Translation. P. 2

Table of Contents


I knew nothing about cooking when I came to practice with my teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, so it may be a surprise to learn that much of my fifteen years of direct training (face-to-face) with my teacher took place in the kitchen.  In several culinary encounters Dai-En Roshi encouraged me by saying, “See one and know ten.”  She explained this Zen phrase as meaning that when you look closely at one part of something, you get a good idea of the other parts.  These parts are not separate.  There’s no hiding.  There’s no equivalent of a face lift in Buddhist practice.  What we display in the present moment indicates our practice and everything that precedes it.  When she tasted my soup, for example, she knew the effort that I had made that led up to the soup.  Or when she heard clanging and banging of pots, she knew that my mind was scattered and I was in a hurry.


For years I equated “See one and know ten” with Zen, only later to come across this exact phrase in the Analects of Confucius:

… learning one thing he will know ten...

 Analects of Confucius, 5.9.

As I’ve slowly and reluctantly engaged with the Analects of Confucius over the past decade I have been struck by the many links I’ve found with Zen practice – especially based on the words and practices of my lineage teacher – so much so that I often find Confucianism and Zen indistinguishable, from a theoretical and practical perspective.  I therefore wish to investigate Confucianism more deeply as a means to both better understand the culture out of which Zen is embedded, and to learn from the wisdom found in the Analects and apply it to my own life.  It’s become clear in my studies that Buddhism is not an isolated religion untouched by the confluence of culture.  This may be obvious to some of my peers; however, Confucianism is often assumed to be a highly male-dominated tradition that makes women subservient and makes people follow government decrees without question, and therefore not worthy of investigation.

It may be tempting to assume that one can point to a group of people who live in a certain geographical location and say that they are Confucian.  The problem with this way of thinking is that it’s not quite correct to think about Confucians the way that one might think about Buddhists or Christians.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Harvard Professor of Confucianism Tu Wei Ming said Confucianism is not a religion that you get initiated into.

“Sometimes it’s even wrong to say, ‘I am a Confucian’ in the sense that ‘I am a cultivated person’ or ‘I am a scholar.’ Some other people may recognize you as such, but you don’t make that kind of claim.”

Tu Wei Ming in an interview with Bill Moyers (See the video below)

Yet, Tu Wei Ming does acknowledge that several Asian countries, as well those of Asian ancestry living in other countries including the United States have been deeply influenced by Confucian thinking, so much so that it is a part of the “cultural DNA.”  The purpose of this writing is not to define all of Asia or those with Asian roots based on a few selections from the Analects of Confucius.  That would be insensitive to the great diversity that is Asia, and it would also be taking away voices that are perfectly capable of defining themselves if they wish to.  

Every religion has its dark side, Confucianism notwithstanding.  Patriarchal values that place men at the center and women on the periphery are not confined to any one religion in the modern period.  No doubt the present Chinese government has used, abused and manipulated Confucian teachings about subservience to the government to control the population.  However, I will maintain that this is an abuse of the true function of Confucianism.  The events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 make it painfully clear that the Chinese people have an ancient tradition transmitted by scholars that has functioned to hear the concerns of the people, and like Confucius in his own time, speak truth to power regardless of the consequences to one’s individual self.  It is this aspect of Confucianism that I wish to study and learn from.

There are certain concepts found within the Analects that I feel can illuminate Zen texts, teachings, and some of the ways of thinking that are predominant in Zen and Asian culture.  In the koan stories, for example, there are many references to “heaven and earth.” This concept is often translated by western teachers of Zen as the “myriad things” or “the whole universe” and is not, to my knowledge, explored in depth as to what this simple conjunction of Chinese characters may mean.  If explored more deeply it can give us insight to a whole way of thinking about the universe that might be relevant to our own lives.  It’s not incorrect to say, “heaven and earth is the universe,” but it may render invisible the Chinese worldview where heaven is considered both the glimmering stars above and all of the vastness of space, AND a guiding principle for exemplary humans to divine or connect with and to put into practice so that there may be harmony among nations and integration between humans and the natural world.  In other words, heaven-and-earth is referring to both the cosmos and the activation of morals by human beings to bring order and purpose on earth.

I have found that reading the Analects has offered me another lens through which to interpret and explore Buddhist teachings and to correct my own misperception that there is somehow a “pure” Buddhism untouched by the cultures it’s been transmitted to outside of India.  I want to be careful to acknowledge that what I share here is my own understanding and musings on a deeply spiritual text that I barely understand.  I take full responsibility for any mistakes or insensitivities in this writing.  

I do not write as a scholar nor claim any authority on Confucianism nor on Chinese culture and language.  I am indebted to Jie Shao for assisting me in exploring these concepts in much greater depth.  Jie has read through my entire writing, added much context, and supplied the Chinese characters for the concepts explored.  I’m indebted to Rev. Yuko Wakayama’s suggestions and encouragement.  C. L. has also shared thoughtful feedback that has helped shape this text.  I also want to be sensitive to the fact that this exploration is not so much about trying to understand how Asians or people who have been influenced by Confucianism think, but about how I have been influenced by Confucianism because of its ties to Zen practice and because of the way my Zen teacher taught me.  This writing is about my own struggles to understand those ties and explore its possible relevance for my own life.  It comes from my deep respect for the Confucian tradition.

For over a thousand years until very recently in the history of many east Asian countries, Confucianism had evolved into a profound and comprehensive educational system through which a preschool boy would be trained to be a Confucian scholar.  After over ten years of learning and attending highly selective regional and national tests he could be selected to serve as a minister or an official in the government. Given the fact of the profundity, extensiveness, and great influence of Confucianism in almost all aspects of traditional society for many east Asian countries, it should be noted that it’s not simply about gaining bits of information. 

Although it might seem daunting if not impossible for a person living in our modern time of materialism to fully understand Confucianism, its basic concepts can still be readily categorized since it is a coherent philosophical system. One well-accepted and easy way to completely grasp the essence of Confucianism is through the Five moralities:

Notice Nature

When human societies mirror natural laws harmony with the Earth results.

"I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it. I circle around God, around the primordial tower. I've been circling for thousands of years and I still don't know: am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?"
Notice in this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) how the poet is inspired by the natural world as a means of relating himself to God.

The last four concepts all developed around the central concept of Ren (仁).

The five moralities, usually called “Five Constants (五常)”, are the features that a person and a well-run society should have or cultivate, because these moralities are in alignment with the natural laws of the universe.  In other words, human society here on Earth should act as a microcosm of the Universe (macrocosm) or mirror the natural laws of the universe.  Mirroring these natural laws is the way to bring harmony to the Earth.  The way to mirror the natural laws is through the practice of the Five Constants, for they are aligned with the laws of the universe.  Yet because of human ignorance and lack of education, one is confused about his or her basic good nature (Ren), and society does not reflect the natural laws of the universe.  When the microcosm of human society does not reflect the natural laws of the cosmos, disarray on Earth is the result.

Rather than a lifeless unintelligent universe, the Confucian worldview is one that sees ethics embedded in the natural order of things.  In other words, the universe itself, displays intelligence and morality on all levels, from the smallest atom to spiral galaxies. 

From this perspective, the perennial human question of whether life has meaning can be answered by saying that life IS meaning. 

It may not be immediately obvious how a virtue like Li can be found in the natural order of things, but if we look a little closer we see that the spiral patterns on the shell of a snail, or of a whirl pool can demonstrate that both animate and inanimate beings follow certain natural laws, and that it behooves humans to learn from these patterns or natural Li.

In the case of the virtue of Trustworthiness, the force we call “gravity” exemplifies trust.  Every Olympic diver, for instance, knows that they have to work with this force successfully in order to perform well.  Gravity does not lie, and it will let the diver know how well he or she works with it based on the splash made.

Another example is that of water.  Water freezes at 32 degrees.  Water can’t be bribed to not freeze at 32.  This is an example of the natural world displaying trustworthiness.  We can count on ice to thaw around 32 degrees, consistently.

Living by these five moralities is rediscovering our innate goodness.  By means of life long education and training, one is in the process of becoming an exemplary or noble person (君子), a sage (圣人), and influences and educates others.  Education begins with one’s own family then extends outward to the state and then to the cosmos.  In short, the five moralities invest life with deep meaning and purpose for those that follow them.

“The path of the great learning is to reveal luminous virtue (i.e. basic good nature); to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence. 大學之道、在明明德、在親民、在止於至善。”

The Great Learning

In general, for those who are already familiar with Buddha’s teachings, an innate link could be readily seen between Confucianism and Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism through these five moralities.


First, Many Buddhist masters link the five moralities to the Five Precepts: out of “Ren”, one avoids killing.  Out of righteousness, one doesn’t steal.  Out of respect for relationships and customs, one does not commit adultery or sexual misconduct.  To maintain or cultivate wisdom, one avoids intoxication. To become trustworthy, one does not lie. 


Second, consider the goal of Buddhism. One starts from a point of enlightening oneself, and then enlightening others, and finally to the state of perfect enlightenment or Buddhahood (自觉,觉他,觉行圆满。)These three steps closely, if not exactly, correspond to the goal of Confucianism. 


Third, another common categorization of Buddhism is through the perspective of foundation, path, and result. In Mahayana Buddhism the foundation or starting point is Buddha nature (佛性) or the nature of mind (心性), i.e. innate or fundamental awareness (本觉), sometimes described as luminosity (明).  Virtue arises from this foundation.  If we look at the starting point of the great learning in Confucianism -“to reveal illuminous virtue (明明德)”,a direct link to the Buddhist concept of Buddha Nature cannot be ignored. 


In terms of the Buddhist “path”, it’s often generalized as the practice of two tenets: “compassion and wisdom”. Compassion corresponds to the central Confucian concept of “Ren” or benevolence.  How is Ren recovered? Confucius’ answer was through “education”.  Education is not referring to knowledge however, but life-long training in improving, cultivating or deepening one’s inner condition.  What is the final result? In Buddhism it is complete perfect enlightenment, with all ignorance eliminated.  In Confucianism it is to “rest in the highest excellence”. 


It is no wonder that Master Tai Hsu (太虛) (8 January 1890 – 17 March 1947) made the famous claim known to most Chinese Buddhists that, “the perfect state of a human (mind) is to achieve Buddhahood (人圓佛即成)”.  It’s also no wonder that, when Buddhism first entered China, the first part of the name of Shakyamuni, “Shakya”, was translated or explained as, “He who has ‘Ren’ (能仁).  There are numerous examples like these that demonstrate the connections between Confucianism and Buddhism. 


Even with such a general introduction we don’t see arbitrary but intrinsic similarities between these two systems. For many Buddhist practitioners in east Asian countries, especially in the past, the three teachings (i.e. Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism) have been seen as melting into each other like water into water.  Practitioners believed that sages in different times and places were talking about the same truth, yet with different languages.  They focused on different aspects of the whole truth.  They used skillful means appropriate to the level of understanding of the listener. 

A common representation of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism symbolized by Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu.

Connection between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism?

In modern times many scholars of religion claim that Chinese Buddhism was influenced by Confucianism and Daoism, or that Chinese Buddhism developed to adapt to a Confucian society. Some take this to mean that Buddhism adapted to cultural elements to better fit the mind of the local people. Others, however, propose that Confucianism and Daoism had been later added to Chinese Buddhism so that Chinese Buddhism lost its authenticity or essence from Buddha and is not “pure.” As a practitioner, I cannot agree with the later conclusion. These three great systems point to the same moon, and thinking they are at odds with each other is a manifestation of one’s own confusion. Moreover, such misleading conclusions call into question the validity of the transmission of Chinese Buddhist teachings and practices as well as the realizations and enlightenment of generations of Chinese Buddhist masters. My intention here, however, is not to argue these points but to share a different perspective, that of a practitioner of the Buddhadharma, and as one who has received the Dharma from my own lineage teachers, and who intends to transmit the Dharma on to future generations of practitioners.

Scholarship vs. Practice

Scholars have found that the idea of a Zen lineage that goes back to the Buddha is something that was added to Chinese forms of Buddhism, and that there is no evidence of such lineages in pre-Chinese Indian forms of Buddhism. I respect this finding. Even though such historical evidence is true and may be shocking to some, it does not invalidate or render inauthentic my devotion to my lineage, nor of the sense of connection that I feel with the historical Buddha. I am spiritually related to those Chinese and Indian ancestors who have transmitted the Dharma – regardless of whether the stories about them are true or not – in the same way that I am genetically related to grey hounds, oak trees, and sharks through shared DNA. In this sense, all beings share a common lineage though we may be on different branches of the family tree. The question to ask is, what work is needed to uncover these lineages and to feel a heart connection?

With this big picture in mind, I’ll continue by focusing on the following three aspects of Confucianism – “Ren” or “Benevolence,” the “Love of Learning,” and “Li” or social customs including ritual, and compare them with the Buddhist notions of “present moment” and “beginner’s mind.”


These three of the five modalities are chosen not because the other two (righteousness and trustworthiness) are irrelevant but because, first, I personally have been thinking more about them, and second, the five are in no way separate. With the central concept of “Ren,” the main idea of “righteousness” can be grasped.  Righteousness proceeds naturally from one who has cultivated Ren and is about how to practice in the real world.  Trustworthiness (信), at its core, regards being loyal to one’s chosen path of “Ren.” It means being true to one’s words. 信 is the second character of my Buddhist name “Daishin,” and it can also mean “confidence” or “faith” in one’s ability to awaken.  In this sense, the remaining two moralities – righteousness and trustworthiness – have been included as well. Thirdly, the important relationship between “Li,” especially the ritual dimension, and “Ren” is often overlooked, especially due to the influence of Protestantism here in the US. For these reasons, these three moralities have been chosen.


In what way has the concept of Ren (仁), “Human-heartedness ” in Confucian thought, influenced or enhanced the practice of Nen (念), “present moment” in Buddhist thought?  What connection might the much cherished, “Beginner’s Mind” espoused by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind have with Confucius’ love of learning?  In what ways do I as a white American practitioner of Buddhism overlook the importance of ritual, Li (禮), as being equally or even more transformative than the development of mindfulness or other “higher states of consciousness” during meditation?


These are questions that arise for me as I open the door to the wisdom found in the Analects of Confucius.  Many western Buddhist teachers are quick to recognize the similarity between Buddhism and Daoism.  While I am deeply aware and appreciative of the common ground between these two systems, as I try to make sense of my 15 years of monastic practice with my teacher, including several 3 month stays in temples in Japan, I have found the Analects of Confucius just as relevant and practical as the Dao De Jing for understanding my experience and for accepting and appreciating Asian and Japanese Buddhist ways of thinking and being in the world. 

Early western philosophical texts on Zen, such as The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts, have been phenomenal in attracting many non-Asians to the practice of meditation, and to the wisdom teachings of Buddhism.  Alan Watts illustrated the common ground gradually discovered in the history of Daoism and Zen as Buddhism was transmitted from India to China.  Watts, however, misleads the common reader into believing that Zen is a tradition of complete self-reliance, well aligned with notions of individualism, independent from a relationship with an actual Buddhist master.  Often pointed to for reference is the Zen koan, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  This completely ignores the fact that Zen is not at all about relying on oneself as it is about understanding our complete interdependence with all beings.  Watts and the beat generation poets’ understanding of Zen continues to shape the way non-Asians understand Buddhism.  Yet these seminal writings, as inspirational as they are, often omit or minimize the part of Zen which shares similarities with Confucianism, such as the ritual component to daily life.  As Professor Dale Wright eloquently writes, 

That Zen life is overwhelmingly a life of ritual would not always have been so obvious to Westerners interested in Zen. Indeed, early attraction to this tradition focused on the many ways in which irreverent antiritual gestures are characteristic of Zen.


Dale Wight. Zen Ritual. Page 3.
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The seemingly irreverent antiritual gestures found in Zen stories are rooted in the deepest respect for the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  Simply mimicking them makes them appear disrespectful.  The only way there can be “antiritual” is if there exists a profound appreciation for ritual.  “Ritual” and “antiritual” are two sides of the same coin.  For many western beginners of Zen, who have no “ritual” practice, or even fear of ritual, the “antiritual” behavior exhibited in some of the koan stories makes no sense.


The ritual dimension of Zen shares the common ground of two cultural streams– that which came to China through India in the form of Buddhism and well accepted in a Confucius society, and that which is indigenous to China in the form of Confucianism and approved according to Buddha’s precepts.  I wish to explore a few concepts within the Confucian branch not as a scholar, but as a non-Asian practitioner attempting to better appreciate the resources or underlying assumptions that Asian or Asian-American practitioners of Buddhism may be drawing from.

Ren (仁)and Nen (念)

When I was first introduced to Zen Buddhist meditation, I had little interest in forming a relationship with a teacher or Buddhist community.  My motivation stemmed from episodes of anxiety and despair from which I had no idea how to address.  While I feel differently about this now, the religious tradition with which I was brought up didn’t address my feelings of loneliness and isolation, nor my desire to find deep and meaningful connections with other people, nor of union with God.  But I was not looking to replace that tradition with Buddhism.


My teacher introduced me to the practice of mindful breathing, and after practicing sitting in stillness and silence with a small group of people at the Chapel connected to my University’s church, sitting on round cushions on the floor, I felt better without having done recreational drugs or drinking.  That was good enough for me.  Three years later, after having failed in completing a graduate degree, being forced to resign from my job as an elementary school teacher, not having success on the dating scene, and feeling ineffective at making the world a better place, an opportunity arose for me to study with a Zen teacher.


To my parents’ distress, I moved out of my family’s house in the suburbs of Maryland and got into my newly bought Nissan Sentra which I had purchased with the money I had saved after having taught English for a year in Japan.  I packed the Sentra with all my belongings, which consisted of clothes, books, and music, and moved into Mount Equity Zendo.  My parents were distressed not because I was moving out, I think they wanted me to be on my own, but because I was moving into a Buddhist temple.  They had no frame of reference with which to understand that action, and they were legitimately worried about my mental health.  My father even wanted me to get checked for schizophrenia at one time.

Confucius said, “As for filial and fraternal responsibility, it is, I suspect, the root of ren 仁.”

Analects 1.2

I can assure my readers that in going to live in a Zen temple I was not acting out of a desire to fulfill my filial responsibilities.  If filial piety is at the root of human-heartedness, I was a ways away from it.  I was more motivated by my desire for independence and the wish to be self-sufficient and to carve my own unique path without concern for what my family thought about that.  My guidance, rather, came from this verse:

“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."

(Luke 14:26)

Within Buddhism also is the story of Siddhartha leaving his wife and newborn child behind in order to attain Enlightenment.  There are many examples of “leaving home” within Buddhist lore as a necessary ingredient for Enlightenment.

Taken out of context, this saying of Jesus sounds quite harsh.  Jesus is in effect asking us to get clear about our priorities and to end unhealthy dynamics in our relationships, even if they are family.  The same holds true within Buddhism.  How we view family, however, changes. My teacher, for example, had left her husband and parents behind in order to find her own path, yet returned to the United States after 23 years of living in Japan in order to take care of her mother.  

While I see this differently now too, at the time I began formal training I saw my family as taking second place to my spiritual path.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I should be concerned about what my parents thought until receiving further guidance from my teacher.  I began to think about my parents’ feelings and to consider how to better connect with them.  Until that point, I was more preoccupied with how mindfulness or being present could be applied to relieving my own suffering.  After all, I had success in treating my own feelings of despair.  

“Present moment” is a phrase predominantly associated with Buddhism in Western circles.  The phrase has overshadowed other teachings found within Buddhism, particularly the seemingly more magical elements found in the sutras.  Generally speaking, “present moment” has been defined as awareness of what’s happening inside of you – in body, feelings and thoughts – as well as what’s taking place around you.   This one tool has been well documented as having healing properties for many people suffering from both chronic physical pain as well as mental ailments such as anxiety.   The following video is one such example:

Nen - Present Moment

“Present moment” is “Nen” is Japanese.   The Chinese character for nen is 念. The top half can be translated as “now” and the bottom half as “heart” or “mind.”  A somewhat loose translation of the Chinese character could be “where is your heart or mind right now?”  Or from a more literal perspective, “what is (the nature of) your mind right now?”

The usage of Nen 念 in Chinese and Japanese has a slightly different nuance than the English, “present moment.”  In English there is a sense of an ego directing attention to what is.  There is a sense of an “I” that notices the body, the feelings, or the thoughts.  The Chinese language, however, invites less ego into the process of awareness.  In the Chinese and Japanese languages there are no definite articles.  The subject of a sentence is often left out.  It is understood from the context of a conversation what the subject is.  In the Chinese character Nen 念 lies a sense of magnifying the completeness or union of two aspects, i.e. the mind that is able to be mindful (能念)and what the mind is mindful of (所念).  The emphasis is on leading the student to look back (返观自照) at and find out the nature of the mind, i.e. the unspeakable, amazing experience of non-dualistic awareness that has no differentiation between an observing “self” and the field of awareness  (like water melting into water). This is the realization of the nature of mind, or “no-self”, or emptiness of intrinsic nature (i.e. nonduality). 

In contrast to modern white Americans, Japanese and Chinese (especially prior to the 20th century) have a different context from which to proceed in practice, thanks to over two millennia of the infiltration of Confucian concepts into everyday life.  The “I” is already greatly downplayed even before someone enters the gates of Buddhism.  One such concept that is critical for us to understand if we were not raised in an Asian culture is Ren.

When I first entered Zuioji as a novice there was a set format with which all the new monks introduced themselves.  We gathered in the Buddha Hall where the entire assembly, some 50 monks in all, were seated in silence in front of the altar with its golden lotus flowers, burning candles and incense wafting through the air.  One by one, we approached the assembly, putting our knees to the tatami mat and joining our palms together in gassho.  In our biggest voice we called out, first, the name of the country we came from, then the state in which we resided, then the city, then the name of our home temple followed by the name of our teacher, and finally our last name and our Dharma name.  My first name was omitted.

Everything that preceded my Dharma and family names gave the Japanese sangha information about who I was.  It became clear to me that I was being defined by my nationality even more so than by my individual identity, something I fiercely resisted at first because I was taught by my family and society that my nationality did not describe me as much as my individuality.  I believe this resistance to being labeled as part of a particular group – in this case “American” – is a form of white fragility.  It’s as though I can erase parts of my identity as a white American and rest in my own personal history as if that personal history is divorced from the wider history of my country.

Once I became ensconced in Japanese temple life, I was assigned jobs and put in with a crew of people that focused on that job for a certain period.  At any given time, I could be part of the cooking crew, or the ceremonial crew, the assistant to the teacher, or part of general labor.  The job I was given further defined who I was and what I was to do, and what my responsibilities were to those I worked with.  

It was not that “I”, an individual, was doing “x” job, but that the “I” and “x” were inseparable.  I had a duty to perform and was expected to do my utmost in fulfilling it, as that work is what defined me in that moment.  I cannot express deeply enough how counter this is to the way of thinking that I am accustomed to.  I struggled and continue to struggle deeply with reconciling this difference.  

When the individual is elevated over and above the work that they perform, as is the case in white American culture, one of the byproducts is seeking acknowledgment and praise for one’s work.  While I don’t think Asians are exempt from seeking praise, it’s really pronounced in white culture, so much so that what an individual does becomes more important than what the group that individual belongs to does.  In other words, one’s relationships are greatly downplayed in white culture.

Ren - 仁

Ren (仁)is a Confucian concept that can help non-Asians better understand the magnitude relationships play in one’s life and, consequently, in how to better practice Buddhism, or at the very least to understand where the Buddhist tradition is coming from, and why there may be less emphasis placed on a personal meditation practice among lay and monastic Asian Buddhists.

This emphasis on relationships is not what I expected when I first encountered Zen with my teacher, however. It was about “me” and what meditation practice could do for “me.” What facilitated the shift from “me” to “relationship” is complex, and is ongoing. I was more or less content to remain within a self-improvement model if it hadn’t been for my teacher continually pointing out my own self-absorption. On more than one occasion she taught our sangha that, “Enlightenment is nothing other than serving others.” This teaching removes attempts at self-glorification from the Buddhist path.

The character Ren (仁)has been translated as Human-heartedness or “benevolence” and is comprised of the concept “person” on the left side of the character. The right side is the concept “two.” Literally it means two people. Ren implies that one cannot become fully themselves outside of relationship with others!! Without a relationship, there is no person. Being an individual with an essence is irrelevant or impractical for understanding how to navigate the world. We are constantly in a relationship with others. In early childhood it is with our parents. In adulthood it is with our spouse, children, workplace, or teachers. A human knows what to do or how to act based on knowing who they are interacting with in that moment, and it is in those moments where one’s degree of moral virtue is measured or comes forth.

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governing effectively. Confucius replied, “The ruler must rule, the minister minister, the father father, and the son son.”

“Excellent! Exclaimed the Duke. “Indeed, if the ruler does not rule, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, even if there were grain, would I get to eat of it?”

Analects 12.11

The awkward grammar in the phrase, “the son sons” demonstrates the importance in Chinese of the noun being in an active state.  “Soning” sounds strange, but it denotes a duty or responsibility (to the parents), and it naturally de-emphasizes the individual.  When a person clearly understands their duties to other human beings, how to fulfill them, and begins to cultivate virtue, then things go smoothly, according to Confucius.  


Ren further has a two-fold meaning regarding one’s relationships. First, do not treat others the way you do not want to be treated (己所不欲,勿施于人).  In other words, do no harm to others.  The second meaning is the opposite side of the same coin.  Love and benefit others as much as you would love and benefit yourself.  This is the “golden rule”, but, because it’s so easy to understand, its practice is often neglected.  A famous poet once asked a Zen Master about Buddhism.  The Master said, “Do all that is good.  Do not do what is evil. Purify the mind.”  


The poet scoffed at the Master and said, “Even a three-year old knows that.” In other words, isn’t there something more to Zen?  The poet, with a gift of words, was deeply disappointed.  The Zen Master responded, “a three-year-old kid may know it, but an eighty-year-old man can’t do it.”  At this, the poet realized the import of the Zen Master’s teaching and bowed respectfully.


Ren is predicated on an assumption by Confucius that humans are basically good.  This runs counter to the predominant narrative within Christianity and Christian-based societies like the United States that humans are born with Original Sin and in need of saving.  In an early encounter with my teacher, she told the story of an American man training in a Zen temple in Japan.  The man trained assiduously with the Japanese monks for several months after which he desired to become a member of the community.  He asked the head monk, “how do I become a member?”  The monk looked at him weirdly, scratching his head and responded, “How does a cloud become a member of the sky?”


Upon hearing this story my heart relaxed.  Unlike the Christianity I grew up in, I didn’t need to become Buddhist or accept the Buddha in order to be saved.  What I did need to do was to wake up to my inherent nature, something that I already have or am and just don’t see.  This is very different from feeling that I am dependent on an external authority from which I am separated from.


I often feel this point is downplayed or not clearly understood by white Americans practicing the Buddhadharma.  For example, the Buddhist precepts are not external authoritarian rules to follow so you can be saved. We take the precepts to develop or deepen in our hearts the relationship with the Buddha, dharma and sangha, and their representatives-our teachers-so we can achieve enlightenment through the path defined by these precepts within our hearts. It’s like the difference between living with your partner because of love verses marrying them in a formal ceremony.  In the second instance a couple receives support and acknowledgment from the wider community regarding their vows.  One’s feet are held a little closer to the fire, so to speak.  In the same way, in receiving the precepts though a ceremony there is an expectation that you really desire to be in relationship with the three jewels and your teachers and want that publicly known.  If you truly understand the point, you won’t have any hesitation to receive these precepts whenever you are able to apply them afterwards. Only in very specific cases (e.g. pratykabuddha), the practice can also be undertaken seriously without formally receiving precepts, though the practitioner must still follow in their hearts what the precepts require to get enlightenment, just as a couple should live together for the sake of love though they might not get married through a ceremony. 


“Ren” is considered to be part of what it means to be human from the very start of life, however “start” may be defined.  Human nature is good.  As stated in the San Zi Jing (or the Three Character Classic – a house-hold Confucian text read in preschool), “the nature of a person from the beginning is good (人之初,性本善)”.  That’s why “Ren” has been translated as “Human-heartedness” or “benevolence” or may be explained in terms of “the heart of sympathy and empathy (恻隐之心), i.e. not feeling good to see others suffer but feeling good to see others happy”, or in Buddhist terminology, “loving-kindness and compassion.”


If a person truly understands Ren and consciously chooses to practice it in relationships, they honor human life and are committed to constantly improving its quality.  They will have tremendous confidence in living by “Ren,” because it is not meant to achieve something not deserved, but to rediscover one’s own basic good nature. 


Why, then, do we get confused about our “Ren” heart and not act compassionately or even hostile to each other? And how can we rediscover our basic good nature? The answer lies in this saying from the Three Character Classic, “the nature of a person from the beginning is good.” Though we share in this good nature, personalities vary because of differences in ways of thinking. Without (moral) education, there is aberration.  People without (moral) learning don’t realize the meaning of life (人之初, 性本善; 性相近, 习相远。苟不教,性乃迁…人不学,不知义). 


However, a person who sets his or her mind on continuous education and training can be called a real person, or an exemplary noble man (君子).  This dedication to training the mind is how a person can fully recover their basic good nature, i.e. the “Ren” heart.   Rather than seeing others as “bad” or in need of saving from Original Sin, a person with “Ren” sees the unskillful behavior of others as that of an innocent kid who is confused and lost, like a gem not yet revealed, or as a perfect sage in the making. Such a way of seeing further drives home a great sense of compassion in one’s heart.  It then becomes a natural duty of this person to help and educate others to follow the right path and achieve the highest excellence. When a person fully recovers their “Ren”, he or she will have no conflicts with anyone. “A person with Ren has no enemies 仁者无敌”, since their heart is full of love toward everyone equally, and this love extends to everything in the universe. In other words, one’s mind becomes united, or in Buddhist terminology, “one taste and one body” with the whole universe. In such a state, there is no separation between the one who loves and the one being loved; thus such a person becomes love itself and finds the greatest inner peace and happiness. 


A person with “Ren” doesn’t need to control others, even if they are in a position of authority.

From the illustrated "Analects of Confucius," by Tsai Chih Chung.

The Master said, “If people are proper in personal conduct, others will follow suit without need of command. But if they are not proper, even when they command, others will not obey.”

Analects 13.6

Ren becomes activated in relationships when those in leadership roles take full responsibility for their own actions as well as the actions of those they are responsible for, is able to self-reflect on where they have fallen short or where they can improve, is sensitive to how their actions effect those they are responsible for, and makes efforts at continuing to cultivate their own character.


In Asian spaces trusting those in leadership roles is facilitated by the practice of Ren.  In Zen temples in Asia, and many in America, one’s relationship with a teacher is underscored with Ren.  This may be quite a challenge for any modern practitioner to understand given the many publicly recognized abuses of power by Zen teachers.  One’s trust may be shaken in a teacher’s motives.  However, knowing that a majority of teachers are motivated by Ren can help restore this trust.


Lastly, Ren has consequences even for meditating.  With Ren in one’s heart meditation is never a solitary act.  In the meditation hall one sits in relationship to others and is aware of who is leading them, and who they are leading.  One’s physical seat is never arbitrary or random.  Even if one chooses or has the opportunity to sit by oneself, one never sits alone.  Buddha is present.  Or the natural world is present. 

Excellent persons are never isolated. Because of their virtues, people always approach them, so they are sure to have neighbors. (Analects 4.25)

Analects 4.25

Someone is always watching.  The concept of privacy is missing from this way of thinking.


Within the Confucian tradition, the notion of Tian-Tai, or Heaven and Earth (another way of speaking about the entire universe or the natural world) is considered one’s parents.  In other words, the natural world is not simply something to be observed, but, for the exemplary person (one who has cultivated virtue), one’s sense of obligation extends even beyond the realm of human relationships.  Tsai-Chan’s western inscription thus reads:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I find an intimate place in their midst. Therefore, that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.

The Western Inscription as found in "Ecology and Religion" by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker

Rather than “hating” my family, or ending attachment to them, why not try seeing the whole universe as my mother and father, brothers, and sisters?  The idea of filial piety towards one’s parents is not exclusive to immediate family members.  If one is aware of the extent of one’s relationships, then every moment is an opportunity to practice humility or compassion towards someone or something.  This idea of filial piety is further reflected in the following excerpt from a Zen poem (Precious Mirror Samadhi):

[Enlightenment] is not reached by feelings or consciousness.
How could it involve deliberation?

Ministers serve their lords,
Children obey their parents.

Not obeying is not filial,
Failure to serve is no help.

With practice hidden function secretly,
Like a fool, like an idiot.

Mindfulness has been a powerful and healing practice for many new to Buddhism.  Yet it is limited in its scope.  Buddhism has deep ties with the religion that preceded it in China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.  Confucianism ushers forward an emphasis on cultivating Ren in human relationship as the foundation for practice.  Buddhist practitioners took into consideration the importance of Ren as the Dharma traversed India into China. It’s not that we should let go of family attachments in order to practice but become mindful that our family is really everywhere.

The Love of Learning

Images from Tsai Chih Chung's illustrated "Analects of Confucius."

What does it mean to have the desire to learn something, anything?  Perhaps a better way to think about learning, is what does it feel like to learn.  There were times where I absolutely hated learning.  Competitive swimming was one of those times.  But with the encouragement of family and friends I reluctantly kept at it.  What I found was how difficult it was for me to simply enter the water and get started, but once I was in and moving around, inevitably my mind set shifted.  But usually this took about 10 or 15 minutes of hard effort where I had to deal with all my resistances.  Had it not been for the fact that a coach was watching, and my parents had paid for my spot on the team, I don’t think I would have continued past that 10- or 15-minutes mark.


What is it that changed during those first 15 minutes?  I was able to focus better on my physical body and how I was moving.  My mind took interest in learning better and more efficient ways of moving through water, in finding rhythm with my breathing, and in the clarity that came by letting go of the past day’s events and struggles.  I was discovering how the body adapts to being whisked into a stressful environment and has the ability to change or evolve under stress.


Usually, we think about learning in regard to academic studies.  But learning is far more than what we do with our head.  Confucius was a proponent of mastering what are called “The six arts.”  They included archery, calligraphy, music, ritual, mathematics, and chariot racing.  The physical nature of these arts (aside perhaps from mathematics) demands synchronization of body and mind.  Math requires mental flexibility.  A person could become a well-rounded, compassionate and wise human being by mastering these arts.  One important point here is that wisdom is developed not just by reading a book and taking a pencil and paper test, or by sitting at a computer, but through awareness of and activation of one’s whole body and mind in the learning process.


In general, wisdom is an inseparable part of both the “five moralities” system in Confucianism – benevolence or ren (仁), righteousness or yi (), ritual or li (), wisdom or zhi () and fidelity or xin () – and of the “two tenets”system in Buddhism -compassion and wisdom. As discussed above, in Confucianism, it is through education and (moral) learning that we gradually rediscover our “Ren” heart.  In Buddhism, this comes from understanding our current situation (suffering), the root problem (the causes of suffering), and learning the solution (the path), and achieving the final goal-Buddhahood (cessation of suffering).  Wisdom plays a key role in every aspect of Buddhism. And to achieve Buddhahood is to reach the state of perfect wisdom and compassion. Therefore, the importance of wisdom or learning can never be overlooked as a Buddhist. 


For both beginners and experienced practitioners alike, continually improving upon our wisdom until we reach perfection is the most important thing.  Knowing that we are not at perfection helps us remain modest.  The Zen phrase, “always keep your beginner’s mind,” encompasses the sentiment of the “love of learning.”

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

What does it mean to have a “beginner’s mind?” Suzuki Roshi described this mind as being open, empty, and ready for anything. He tells his students that they should not say that they know what Zen is, and to always keep their beginner’s mind. He calls it the secret of Zen, and of all the arts. This “beginner’s mind” is a relatively new concept for many westerners (though some may have heard a similar saying that, “Smart people learn from everything and everyone, stupid people already have all the answers.”). Becoming an “expert” is deeply valued in American culture because it serves our ego. Yet this desire is synonymous with the ignorance that covers our Buddha nature and deludes us from noticing the right path. Among all mental afflictions, arrogance is the greatest enemy to one’s progression. A Tibetan saying goes, “When Self-pride is as high as a mountain, it will force the water of all virtues to dissipate. 我慢高山,不存德水”
An argument can be made that all cultures emphasize learning. Certainly Western culture owes a lot to the Greek philosophers. The mode of expression of learning and study in Chinese culture can help westerners appreciate our own history and roots.

Once that “expert” label is pasted on to a person (i.e. an “expert” in one’s field) one’s relative degree of power multiplies.  “Beginner’s Mind” flies in the face of the common dictum, “Knowledge equals power,” and has a shocking effect on many westerners whose aims may be to acquire power through knowledge.

[Confucius] on entering the Grand Ancestral Hall asked questions about everything.  Someone remarked:  “Who said this son of a man from the Zou village knows about observing ritual propriety?”

When Confucius heard of this, he said:  “To do so is itself observing ritual propriety.”  (Analects 3.6)

Confucius had a reputation for being an expert at performing ritual.  He is said to have played with the ritual vessels as a youth and mastered the Chinese classics.  Yet, even as a respected teacher he continued to ask questions.  A high degree of curiosity, even if you know something well, is the hallmark of Confucianism.  How unique, then, was Suzuki Roshi’s statement about the beginner’s mind, steeped as he was in a culture deeply shaped by Confucian values around learning?

Confucius said, “Make an earnest commitment to the love of learning and be steadfast to the death in service to the efficacious way. 笃信好学,守死善道” (8.13). And “Among three people, there must be one who can be my teacher 三人行必有我师”.  This “love of learning” is referring not to learning for the sake of gain, nor for the sake of fame and fortune, but to learn for the sake of revealing the truth and recovering the full potential of our mind. Being willing to learn regardless of previous knowledge is what makes a person fully human.

In my lineage of Soto Zen, Noda Daito Roshi was quite strict in expecting his students to learn the Dharma.  He would say, “If you want the Dharma you have to steal it.”  In other words, don’t expect a teacher to simply hand over teachings without putting in significant effort and expressing sincerity of desire for learning how to achieve Enlightenment.  One needs to steal the Dharma like a pick pocket thief.  Watch carefully how a teacher does things, how they act (not just what they say), and copy the way they act.  Copying the physical expressions of the teacher is one way of learning through the body.

It should be noted that these actions happen in a teacher-student relationship rather than relying on one’s own ego-based intellect. When a student carefully chooses a teacher who has qualified virtues according to Buddha’s teachings and shows his/her sincerity to learn by requesting teachings (and the teacher agrees to offer teachings), a teacher-student relationship is born.  The student maintains Beginner’s Mind, relying on and following the teacher’s instruction.  So, although the word “steal” is used here, it shows the sincerity of the student to learn Dharma under the guidance of good lineage teachers rather than making up something by oneself or gaining some sort of knowledge or skill without respect to teachers or faith in a proven path transmitted by the Buddha.

Nowadays, especially in the west, many students go to school with the attitude of a customer shopping for knowledge.  I was that person.  In college I studied various World Religions and was in a place where I could actually “choose” my religion, something my parents or ancestors could not conceive of.  I often say to folks that this window shopping laid the groundwork for me to go deeper into the Dharma.  It served, and still does, as a kind of intellectual foundation.  Without it, I would not have understood what I was getting myself into by becoming a priest.  I needed to have the intellectual knowledge first.  While this was helpful for a time, I had to let go of it to really study, because Dharma goes much deeper than intellectual understanding.  One needs to understand that the greatest obstacle and the root problem of life is clinging to ego.  If study of the Dharma is done with an attitude of gain – intellectual or otherwise – Dharma can be misused to bolster one’s ego.

True study of the Dharma doesn’t end and requires the dropping of one’s ego again and again, until one really sees the pervasiveness of ego clinging in one’s own mind.  It demands a high degree of humility.  Committing to a teacher, for me, meant committing to honestly looking at my own resistance to the Dharma.  I often struggled staying in relationship with my teacher because I was continually reminded of my defense mechanisms and wanted to keep them in place.  Dharma practice doesn’t allow this.  It asks us to let go of these ego defenses.

There were many times I disagreed with my teacher and had to learn to let go of my own opinions to remain in relationship with her.  “Be Teachable” was a sign that sat on her office desk and it was a helpful reminder for me to keep my mind open.  While I no longer live with my teacher and have been given authority to teach others, there is a part of me that wishes I could have remained with her longer than 15 years as a student because the resistance of my ego remains despite years of training.

While I understand the importance of eventually not relying on any teacher, or to put it more correctly, the student and teacher becomes one, which is also a highlight of Zen Buddhism, it sometimes saddens me to hear how eager students are to not be students and to begin teaching soon after they begin working with a teacher, or after they master a koan or two.  Some people may have a mini-Enlightenment experience thinking they have “got it” and are ready to teach. In many cases they remain trapped by their own delusions.  Zen Master Dogen captures this hubris in the “Fukanzazengi” where he writes,

“Suppose you are confident in your understanding and rich in enlightenment, gaining the wisdom that knows at a glance, attaining the way and clarifying the mind, arousing an aspiration to reach for the heavens.  You are playing in the entrance way, but you are still short of the vital path of emancipation.”

Students would benefit greatly from verifying their experience or understanding with a recognized teacher that’s committed to the daily practice and hard work of dissolving self-centeredness. Without systematic learning and following a proven path, how can we recognize an enlightened person in the first place, or how can we claim we understand the essence of the whole scope of Buddhism, not just bits and pieces of knowledge? I was reminded again and again by my teacher that these little insights into our self are but the beginnings of practice, not the end, and they don’t confer on one the right to teach others, as beneficial as insight might appear in the moment or to one’s personal life.

Some teachers in the West (especially those in the Yoga lineages I’m familiar with) encourage not copying anybody and bringing forth your “authentic” self.  While this is an important part of practice, if done too soon and without a solid foundation of correct understanding, ego won’t allow one to truly engage or steep in the Dharma. Even if the student is very careful “authentic” self can easily be displaced by ego.

How does one, though, learn?  I mentioned the importance of environmental stress – being thrown into an environment where the body and mind must be fully engaged in order to adapt to the new surroundings.  Creating such conditions is part of what monastic training is about and why leaving home is a precondition for many to study the Dharma.  In leaving home we are leaving the comforts of the familiar, of the family, of our present understanding of the world, and entering into a place where our old habits no longer serve us.  The body knows how to adapt under stress, and it’s our practice to bow to the body’s wisdom.

Noda Daito Roshi (my grandfather teacher) taught Dai-En Roshi (my teacher) how to put on her Okesa (Buddha robe) and expected her to figure it out in one viewing.  He did not wait around to watch her practice afterward nor give her advice.  He expected that she would put in the effort to figure it out on her own.  Dai-En Roshi stayed up much of the night trying to remember how he showed her because he would not demonstrate it to her again, and she had to be prepared to show her understanding the following morning.  This is an example of being put under stress and learning through one’s whole body.

Aoyama Roshi (Dai-En Roshi’s training teacher) began living Temple life as a young girl.  While attending public school she was given many responsibilities to take care of the monastery, and no extra time to do homework.  Rather than be discouraged, this situation made her more eager to create the time to study.  As a result, she learned how to study while simultaneously engaged in temple responsibilities.  Every moment was seen as an opportunity to do what needed to be done, no excuses.  Years later, as a teacher and the head of two monasteries with a very busy schedule she wrote books while sitting on the train and bus traveling between temples.  She had learned how to optimize the time she had, even under stress.

Expecting the situation or environment to be perfect for learning can actually inhibit learning, study and growth.  The opportunity to learn is always right now if we can see it, regardless of the situation we are in.


This is the kind of attention that Confucius expected of his students:


The Master said, “I do not open the way for students who are not driven with eagerness; I do not supply a vocabulary for students who are not trying desperately to find the language for their ideas.  If on showing students one corner they do not come back to me with the other three, I will not repeat myself.”  (Analects 7.8) 


The student’s understanding will either be verified or disapproved of by the teacher.  This student-teacher encounter may bring up more discussion and lead to a deeper understanding. Dialogues between teacher and student, as found in the Analects of Confucius, is how education was carried out. Coincidentally, dialogue between master and disciple form the backbone of Zen Koan stories and are used as a teaching tool in Zen to illustrate some point of practice.  The Analects, however, preceded the emergence of Koan stories by several centuries, setting a precedence.

The love of learning also has a relational dimension to it.  Learning is not abstract, or done for oneself, by oneself.  Learning is directed toward ways of creating harmony and wellbeing in society at large. In short, learning facilitates the manifestation of Ren in all aspects of life.

The ancients who wished to reveal Luminous Virtue throughout the world, first governed well their own states. Wishing to govern well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first regulated their own behaviors. Wishing to regulate their own behaviors, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.
Confucius; Tamblyn, Nicholas. The Complete Confucius: The Analects, The Doctrine Of The Mean, and The Great Learning with an Introduction by Nicholas Tamblyn (p. 93). Golding Books. Kindle Edition.

It’s important to notice here the inclusion of the subject in the learning process.  While western forms of scholarship often divorce the subject from the object of study, studying the self is inherent to learning for Confucius.  Students of Confucius, for example, studied the six arts (六艺) including ritual (禮), music (樂) archery (射), charioteering (御), calligraphy (書), mathematics (數), as well as learning poetry and other classics of Confucianism, employing the union of body and mind.  In the art of calligraphy, one’s inner heart is said to be expressed in the strokes on the paper.  The practice of calligraphy was and still is today a way to see and improve not just the outer Chinese character written on rice paper, but to cultivate one’s virtue.  Calligraphy is used by many contemporary Japanese Zen masters and lay people to demonstrate their understanding and to instruct their students, and it clearly has its roots in Confucian culture.  


In the case of Buddhist education in ancient India and now also in the present-day Tibetan diaspora, one trains in four major subjects: grammar, logic, crafts (including architecture), and medicine, as well as various forms of art and music.  This is done in addition to study of the sutras and meditation.  The overall goal being to benefit sentient beings.  In modern times, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been promoting the dialogue between science and Buddhism. Thanks to his efforts, there have been 34 Mind & Life research conferences hosted since 1987, drawing numerous world-renowned scientists in physics, neuroscience, psychology, and other disciplines.


Given that the love of learning is deeply embedded in many Asian countries, and preceded the arrival of Buddhism in China, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and Japan, I wonder as a Zen practitioner how this Confucian concept and practice may have contributed to the acceptance of Buddhism, and reinforced or had a mutually enhancing effect on the practice of Beginner’s Mind.

Ritual (禮)

At Zuioji Monastery where I trained in Japan, we were given the opportunity to take a hot bath daily.  It was a delight to sink my body into the hot water at the end of the day, especially during the hardship of the cold winter months.  As a westerner, I would have had no hesitation to simply take my clothes off and dump them into a pile on the floor.  This, however, would be an example not only of deficiency in my Ren heart, but of improper manners.  

The bath was large enough that we entered in groups of four or five monks.  It was expected that we would remain silent and properly fold our robes placing them neatly in baskets and then wash off with soap and water prior to entering the bath.

I’ll never forget how I learned how to remove and fold my robes while standing.  Prior to this experience I could only fold my kimono if I had laid it on the ground.  The process took me several minutes when all was said and done.  On this occasion at the bath, however, I stood next to my senior and watched him surreptitiously out of the corner of my eyes as he removed his kimono, and quietly folded it.  I did my best, without a word, to mirror his exact actions.  While there were no complements offered, I delighted in the fact that I had just absorbed the proper manners for removing my kimono at the bath.  Folding the kimono happened in less than 30 seconds, and I demonstrated a caring heart for the very material that would keep me warm and remind me that I am loved and alive.

Among the five-morality system in Confucianism, Li(禮), i.e. a set of social rules and customs including rituals, is considered a wise way to enact our “Ren” heart within relationships with other people.  It reflects wisdom because in the process of complying with Li, it is or can be seen as a skillful way to develop and sustain relationships with various kinds of people.  Li is said to be the most elegant “distance” in a relationship because it’s the middle way between being neglectful on the one hand and burdensome on the other.  

As shown earlier, the Chinese character “Ren” literally can be translated as “two people.”  Ren implies that one cannot become fully themselves outside of relationship with others.  This was very clear to me at the bath.  Without two people, there is no person.  Being an individual with an essence based on the false self-ego is irrelevant or impractical for understanding how to navigate the world.  We are constantly in relationship with others.  In early childhood it is with our parents.  In adulthood it is with our spouse, children, workplace, or teachers.  A human knows what to do or how to act based on knowing who they are interacting with in that moment, and it is in those moments where one’s degree of moral virtue is measured or comes forth.  

If one is aware of the extent of one’s relationships, then every moment is an opportunity to practice humility or compassion towards someone or something.  This frame of reference is embedded within Asian-based sanghas and it stands in stark contrast to white American and Eurocentric ideas of individualism that have infiltrated Zen as it is transmitted to non-Asian peoples.  Mindfulness, then, is not simply of one’s own body, feelings, mind, or objects of mind but is extended to include one’s social obligations towards family, workplace, society, and the natural world.

Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about governing effectively.  Confucius replied, “The ruler must rule, the minister minister, the father father, and the son son.”

 “Excellent! Exclaimed the Duke.  “Indeed, if the ruler does not rule, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, even if there were grain, would I get to eat of it?”

Compare this to the ancient Chinese Zen poem, Hokyozanmai, or “Precious Mirror Samadhi.”  This poem is recited on even days in Zen training monasteries.  The end of it reads:

Ministers serve their lords, children obey their parents.

Not obeying is not filial, failure to serve is no help.

The awkward grammar in the previous phrase, “the son son’s” demonstrates the importance in Chinese of the noun being in an active state.  “Soning” sounds strange, but it denotes a duty or responsibility (to the parents), such as receiving education first and foremost from one’s family, living up to the expectations of parents, and taking care of mother and father as they age.  On the other hand, the parents have the responsibility to not only love and support their children, but also educate them on how to become a person with a “Ren” heart, and they do this through their own example of how they treat their parents and others.  When a person clearly understands their duties to other human beings and how to fulfill them, he or she naturally de-emphasizes his or her self-ego and begins to cultivate virtue.  It is then that things go smoothly in the family and society, according to Confucius.  This necessitates that all families within a society are aware of the different roles everyone plays, and everyone is on board with carrying out their various duties towards each other.  The above two verses from Confucius’ Analects and Hokyozanmai may appear stiflingly hierarchical to most westerners, yet its purpose is to assist the cultivation of a “Ren” heart.  It is understood that everyone is equal in their basic nature and thus, ideally speaking, love is imparted impartially to all.

On the surface, then, all relationships are hierarchical – those between the ruler and the subject, the parent and the child, and the older sibling and younger sibling.  In a Zen monastery this hierarchy extends to those senior and junior in the practice (age in a Buddhist temple is determined not by birth year but by the number of years since one has taken home-leaving vows), and to teacher and disciple.  Hierarchy makes it clear who plays which roles in our interactions on specific occasions, and usually the person in the upper position is required to have a greater degree of benevolence for the person in the lower position.  The senior is expected to better exemplify the “Ren” heart and other virtues in these interactions.  Despite the clear presence of this hierarchical system, it is ultimately the virtues witnessed within others that determines who one learns from and follows, not the external positions.

The Master said, “If people are proper in personal conduct, others will follow suit without need of command.  But if they are not proper, even when they command, others will not obey.” (Analects 13.6)

As a westerner, I fiercely resisted compliance to the hierarchical relationship with my teacher, and when I trained in one large American Zen temple, I was relieved to discover that the hierarchical relationships between Junior and Senior and Teacher and Student were greatly played down.  I understand the need to do this in American society, yet when I went to train in Japan, I deeply appreciated the hierarchical structure that was firmly and clearly in place.  The structure facilitated full acceptance, even as someone who had been training with a teacher for over six years at that point, that I didn’t know anything.  Surrendering to my role as a rank beginner became utterly clear.  I didn’t know how to be a monk because I was just recently ordained at that time.  My Dharma age was zero.  I was training with monks who were all senior to me.  Having the hierarchy established reminded me of my beginner’s status, and that, even as a seasoned practitioner I had to reinvoke my beginner’s mind.  

Having hierarchy in place helped me to clarify my duties in the sangha.  I treated almost everyone as my senior, and I was constantly in the position of learning from them.  I didn’t have to worry about anything else.  This was also what was expected of me by my older brother monks.  I didn’t need to prove that I was worthy of being there.  I realized this keenly one early morning when I was practicing meditation with all the monks.  The bells were sounding, and each bell was a signal to remind everyone what was happening or supposed to be happening at that time.  Suddenly it became clear to me that everyone was playing their specified role and that interdependence was not a theory but a lived reality right here and now.  If one person did not ring the bell at the specified time, everyone else would be affected.  The reality of inter-dependence is always present, and practice in a monastery helps us live that.  What we do right now matters because it affects everyone else in the web of life.  However, a monastery is uniquely situated to remind us of and mirror that interdependence in a way that life outside the monastery frequently falls short.

One of my teachers said to us that if one person in a group of 10 people is 10 minutes late, then they just stole not 10 minutes from the others but 100 minutes.  This was meant to be encouragement for us to see that our actions have an effect far beyond what we can comprehend.  It’s not just about me being 10 minutes behind.  Hierarchy works well only when everyone, first, takes full responsibility for their own actions rather than requiring more from others, second, is able to self-reflect on where they can improve rather than blaming others, third, is sensitive to how their actions effect those they are responsible for rather than calculating for self-gain or loss, and fourth, makes efforts at continuing to cultivate their own character rather than expecting others to change.   

In Asian spaces understanding and respecting hierarchy is what helps a person know their role with other people.  In temples in Asia, and many in America, knowing this hierarchy and that everyone has a place and a role is crucial.  One’s relationship with the teacher is not that of an equal as many westerners think. They are equal in their basic good nature,“Ren,” or in Buddhist terms, buddha nature, but they are not equal in the roles they take in the teacher-student relationship.  Nor is the relationship equal between a lay person and the monastic sangha (community).  The reason is simply because the monastic sangha, no matter how good or bad each member practices, symbolizes the Jewel of Sangha as an integral part of the Three Jewels. Without monastic sangha, there is no Buddhism. I’m not talking about Buddhism as a religion with an established hierarchical clergy system as many Americans think of the Catholic church.  I’m talking about the VALIDITY of the path to enlightenment taught by the Buddha.  Taking refuge in the Three Jewels not just the two Jewels or one Jewel is what the Buddha taught. As a Buddhist who has faith in Buddha’s teachings on the path to enlightenment, I cannot emphasize more the importance of the monastic community, even though lay people may be more enlightened than monastics.

If a person is in the lower position, their duty is to learn from and follow those above them including listening to their instruction.  If in a higher position, it is to instruct those lower.  This works well when both sides focus on improving their own virtues within, especially when reciprocity – putting oneself in the shoes of the other (i.e. “Ren” or compassion) – is practiced by those in the higher position, and if a significant amount of trust or faith from those in the lower position has been built.

It should also be emphasized that this hierarchical order defined by “Li” in no way negates the ultimate equality of all beings. “People are from the south or the north, but their buddha nature is no different,” said the 6th ancestor of the Chinese Zen lineage, Hui Neng. Therefore, hierarchy is by no means a rigid or fixed frame of reference that aims to restrain a person. As one grows up, he or she continuously changes his or her roles and has different responsibilities to different people on different occasions. He is a son to his parents, a student to his teachers, an employee to his boss, a colleague to his peers, etc., and later he may become a parent to his own kids, a teacher to his students, or a leader to his followers etc. This is a dynamic process. Even within a specific relationship such as with the teacher and student, there exists this sort of ever-changing play, and we can look to the koan stories or our actual experience with teachers to verify this dynamism.
To many westerners who are not familiar with Zen lineage, Master Bodhidharma brought Zen to China, and the 6th ancestor Hui Neng spread it widely through China. He is the central figure that all Zen schools can trace back to, e.g. Japanese Soto (曹洞) Zen, “So”(曹)refers to the “So Creek 曹溪 where Hui Neng resided.

Confucius himself was of course a sage and a great teacher to many people.  He was an expert in the six arts. However, he never felt uncomfortable asking about something he did not know.  He treated those he asked with great modesty and as his own teacher, no matter what their rank – local peasant or small child. 

Confucius said, “Don’t be ashamed to ask someone in a lower position. 不耻下问.” 

Many Zen practitioners are impressed by the “Old Woman” in Koan collections whose wisdom enlightened many.  Yet she was a lay person and often kept anonymous in a male dominated society. Similarly, it is taught that a Buddhist should treat anyone who teaches him or her even four verses of the Dharma as his or her teacher, and respect him or her as one respects Buddha, regardless of the following five characteristics:

  1. How well the teacher practices him or herself, including how well he or she keeps the precepts.
  2. Whether he or she is in a high or low position, e.g., a venerable monk or lay person; from a rich royal family or a poor family, etc. 
  3. How he/she looks.
  4. How his/her voice sounds. 
  5. How good or plain his/her oratorical skills are

This is not to condone amoral behavior such as sexual misconduct.  We look for the actions and words in someone that exemplify virtue and wisdom so that we can improve ourselves.  We recognize our ability to learn valued teachings from anyone – even those that are considered inferior to us by worldly standings – rather than following external positions or forms. 

The great Mipham Rinpoche humbly said, “The precious dharma from my mouth is like a chunk of gold held in the mouth of an old dog. These teachings are so exquisite that I ask for your respect but not for the sake of myself.”  To humbly learn from anyone, even non-Buddhists, regardless of the conditions is the very spirit of the “beginner’s mind.”  In Mahayana Buddhism, a bodhisattva treats everyone as his or her teacher deep down in their heart, including their own students.  This attitude extends to enemies, even if a person has been mistreated by their enemy. 

The practitioner understands that whoever they are interacting with is helping them reduce their ego-based ignorance, improve their wisdom, pull or push them to their utmost potential, and ultimately lead them directly to Buddhahood.  Confucius said in the Book of Rites, “To teach is to learn.教学相长”. In many cases in Buddhism, a person is both teacher and student to the other. Right after Hui Neng was ordained by master Ying Zong (印宗), the abbot of Dharma Nature Temple in Guangzhou, master Ying Zong paid homage to Hui Neng and invited him to give teachings to the sangha of the temple. 

There are stories of a few great practitioners in Buddhism, great Bodhisattvas, who appeared as lay people in their lifetime, such as Vimalakirti.  These great beings gave teachings to the monastic sangha and received respect from all of them. Yet when they were not offering teachings, they naturally bowed to any monastic they met including novice monks, as a sign of their sincere faith in the Three Jewels. Those who understand this action see no conflict between the ultimate equality of all beings and the relative roles each of us play.  On the surface these roles, however, might appear as simply reinforcing a hierarchical system. When we are not aware of our biases, we may either unconsciously comply with rigid rules for the sake of feeling comfortable or outrightly reject them for the sake of not conforming to a rule that seems unreasonable to us personally. This is a kind of laziness, in both cases, that needs to be overcome, especially when we are deeply deluded by a dualistic mind. 

When we understand how the concept of “Li” defines hierarchical relationships, how should we then implement it to nourish our “Ren” heart? It is through rituals or ceremonies and through concrete practices in our daily life, such as folding a kimono properly. “Ceremony,” my teacher once said, “is more important than zazen (meditation).  You can skip zazen, but never skip ceremony.”  Yet my habitual tendency was just the reverse.  I can skip over ceremony, but never zazen.  Why is it that my teacher considered ceremony higher than meditation?  Why do I continue to resist that teaching?

Professor, author, and Zen teacher Taigen Leighton writes beautifully about zazen as a ritual that reenacts the Buddha’s Enlightenment.  Zazen meditation is not simply done to gain a psychological experience or special insight, but is the physical embodiment of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree at the moment of his Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment of the Buddha is sealed in one’s own body the moment that body sits down with upright posture, eyes half open, and the hands conform to the Buddha mudra.

Ego wants to comprehend that event, but in practicing zazen we are connecting to something beyond mere psychological understanding.  Ritualizing meditation in this way, the practitioner has permission to disengage from petty thoughts of gain and loss and to enter the Buddha’s heart-mind in the present moment, and become Buddha, or to become fully oneself.

In the same spirit, life in a temple is infused with rituals from the moment one wakes in the morning, to the moment one enters sleep at night.  All the activities of daily living – washing the face, eating, cleaning the dishes, chanting sutras, cleaning the floor, doing laundry, taking a bath, drinking tea, listening to the Dharma – are done in a ritualistic manner.  Practice is the conforming of one’s own body and mind to the monastic schedule, and in so doing, Enlightenment is manifest.  As in zazen, there is no special experience to be had outside the mundane activity of everyday life.

For many Americans, however, ritualizing all aspects of life is seen as a kind of meaningless or hollow religious practice that can’t be verified empirically as having effects, and one that lacks the expression of one’s true feelings.  As Wright says,

When modern Protestants formulated their devastating critique of ritual as a way of engaging in religious practice, their intention, primarily was to challenge the link between ritual and magic – the view that if you do the ritual then, magically or in recompense, the gods or angels will do something favorable for you.  In formulating this now obvious critique, however, they failed to see all the ways in which ritual action is linked to understanding – how bodily movement and mental state are tied together.

For Confucius, Li (禮)or ceremony, is what keeps harmony throughout society.  Ames in his interpretation of  The Analects of Confucius, describes Li as

All formal conduct, from table manners to patterns of greeting and leave-taking, to graduations, weddings, funerals, from gestures of deference to ancestral sacrifices… (page 51)

So, it is not just in the monastery that one lives a ritualized life, but in everyday ordinary society outside the temple, whether one is Buddhist or not.  Doing ritual correctly requires discipline and the ongoing refinement of one’s mindfulness to details.  Li is the glue that keeps society together:

Through self-discipline and observing ritual propriety Li (禮)one develops “Ren.”  If for a day one were able to accomplish this, the whole world would defer to this model of “Ren.”  To have “Ren” is self-motivated – how could it be forced by others?” (Analects 12.1)

According to Confucianism, if everyone were to live their own life in an exemplary manner, which includes the proper observance of Li, then harmony will prevail in the state.  Each person becomes their own master, not relying on others for support, yet acknowledging that one does not exist by oneself.  

I remember receiving an approving smile from a senior Japanese priest after sharing that I could feel the presence of the 16 Arhats during a ceremony that commemorated them.  My root teacher would say that doing ceremony is allowing the Buddha to enter the space.  Lighting candles, offering incense, water, food, and flowers are all preparations that acknowledge the presence of Buddha, but not in a superstitious or paranormal way.  Like with the Confucian arts, acknowledging the presence of the Buddha or ancestors in a ritualized space is a way to develop humility and virtue, and thus to bring harmony to all one’s relationships, including those relationships that are no longer physically present.

From this perspective, meditation is never a solitary act.  In the meditation hall one sits according to rank as a sign of their maturity and proper observation of the precepts.  Nothing is arbitrary or random.  Even if one chooses or can sit by oneself, one never sits alone.  Buddha is present.  Or the natural world is present.  Someone is always watching. Your own mind is always watching.  The concept of privacy is missing from this way of thinking.  It is replaced with the idea of “having self-discipline even when being alone 慎独.” 

 An exemplary person keeps self-disciple when being alone (故君子慎其独也) (Liji, The Book of Rites)

It is when the Li are not done with respect or sincerity that the government falls apart.  Everyone in society, not just monks or heads of state, are responsible for doing their utmost in observing Li.  Asians coming to Buddhist temples to practice, then, are not making a huge leap in the observance of the daily rituals making up the monastic schedule.  Westerners, on the other hand, especially those without an appreciation or understanding of the importance of ritual, may find themselves confused by, or even suspicious of the ritualistic elements of Buddhism, preferring to focus on their own individual meditation practice or state of mind.

One caveat to the importance placed on ritual is that there are strains of Soto Zen Buddhism both in Japan and the United States that are critical of what can be considered meaningless ritual, and of zazen that is “just” sitting.  There is a complacency that can enter meditation practice if one with experience is not careful.  While Soto Zen emphasizes that we are already Buddha, Zen Master Dogen also encourages his students to put effort into realizing this fact for oneself.  It’s not enough to know intellectually that by conforming oneself to rituals, including zazen, that one will be in harmony with the Buddha Way.  Experiencing every moment with the whole body and mind, and the whole body and mind dropped off is the hallmark of Soto Zen.


The cultivation of moral virtue through practices like ren, li, and the love of learning, Confucius firmly believed, would establishes political and social order in the chaotic times in which he lived.  His ideas have been embraced with varying degrees of success within the family, society, and political spheres of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam over the course of two millennia, and have had a deep influence on shaping the way Buddhism is practiced today in those countries, as well as right here in the United States.  

“Never cease cultivating” was written on the kyosaku (wake up stick) by the former Abbot, Narasaki Ikko Roshi, of Zuioji Monastery in Japan.  This kyosaku once graced the altar of my teacher’s temple in central Pennsylvania, where I trained.  I saw it at the start of almost every day for fifteen years and was continually reminded to, one, never stop learning, two, keep my mind open to the suffering of others – including sentient beings other than humans, and, three, manifest compassion through proper comportment in ritual activities done throughout the day.  While Mount Equity Zendo no longer is, the words, “never cease cultivating,” continue to resonate in my heart.  Is this saying, “Never Cease Cultivating” an influence from Confucianism?  Is it Zen?  Does it matter?

In the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) there was the phrase “the three traditions are one,” referring to the commonalities between Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.  Like a three-legged stool, these three traditions share a common ground. Zen Master Dogen, however, was highly critical of this understanding of the three traditions, calling into question everything I’ve written thus far.  In his Shoho-Jisso he scolds my endeavors saying:

They say that three things (Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism) are identical.  Or they say that these three teachings are like the three legs of a tripod kettle, and if one of them is missing, the kettle will be overturned.

This is outrageous foolishness that cannot be compared with anything.

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field


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