Zen Buddhism offers us teachings and practices that can transform our life, our way of being in the world with others, and our way of being in the world of phenomena.

Zentatsu Baker Roshi


Zentatsu Baker Roshi

Buddhism is rooted in a yogic understanding of the world. Zen is a yogic practice. Yogic views are at the root of East Asian civilization and these views differ significantly from the views of Western civilization. Buddhism is based on the views and practices of prebuddhist, yogic culture, especially those that support a nontheistic understanding of the world.

The fundamental assumption of yogic culture is that all mental phenomena have a physical component and that all sentient physical phenomena have a mental component. There is no human mind without a body and no alive human body without a mind. It is not that there is a body and a mind, there is a bodymind and a mindbody – otherwise there could be no relationship. Thus, all teachings and practices are both physical and mental.

The easiest way to observe something is to hold it still. The physical yoga of Zen is to establish postures through which we can observe the activity of mind: first holding the body still to observe the mind, and then holding the mind still so that it can be better observed, understood, and absorbed physically. Since the mind is slipperier than the body, Zen is practiced first of all through the body. It is simply easier to observe the body – and easier to hold the body still, than the mind.

Knowing the activity of mind, we can develop a yoga of mental postures through which to observe and study the body and the relationship of body and mind. Thus we practice through the body to the mind and through the mind to the body – and to the bodymind and mindbody. In this way the relationships of mind and body are developed.

Knowing the stillness of the body, opens us to knowing the stillness of the mind. The stillness of the body draws out the stillness of the mind. The stillness of both together, allows us to observe and study the activity of mind: perception, feeling, emotion, and thinking – and more subtle movements of mind and body than fall into these named categories. Eventually, through the stillness of the mind, we can know the mind itself, the field of mind itself free of movement or activity (even during activity).

It is a yogic act to take a cold shower in order to change our state of mind, as it is to stretch in the morning to get the sleep out of us—as a cat does. What we do is not much different from a cat, except that we study the changes differently. To observe physical change in ourselves is commonplace, but to observe thoroughly is the root of yoga.

A second assumption of yogic culture is that because everything changes, to work with change itself is the best means to effect change. Change is either integrating, disintegrating, or neutral. Yoga is to use change as an upward bridge. A yogic posture is an upward bridge. Practice is to know the bridge and the movement across it and how to stay on the bridge. Mental and physical postures are yogic when there is a conscious holding or amending of a posture so that we know a movement from a lower or less developed mental, physical, or energetic mode of mind, being, or energy to a higher or more perfecting mental, physical, or energetic mode. Yogic practice is to move consciously from one state to another: for example, from a dull to a clear state, from an energetically blocked state to an open state, or from a place from which we cannot understand to a place from which we can understand.

Yogic practice can be just how we sit, for example, when we wait for a bus or a plane, or sit in the plane or bus, or get in and out of bed. It does not have to be some special meditative or physical state. Any conscious physical state, especially when we bring breathing to it, is a yogic posture. Zen practice is to develop a yogic attitude and sensibility in what we do: in simple things, like how to pass the salt to another person. Or how you are sitting reading this just now. The posture of mind we call mindfulness is yogic because it transforms our relationship to mental and physical change. Zen monasticism is rooted in the yogic potentialities of everyday activity – as well as the practice of meditation.

A third assumption is that something holds, stays in place, in the midst of change and ‘that which holds’ can be discovered. Change is transformative through knowing what holds still. The Sanskrit word ‘dharma’ means ‘what holds’. Buddhism is Dharmism. The word ‘Buddha’ means one who is awake through being awake to what holds. Awake to all things as the Dharma! Enlightenment is to realize the unmoving, inclusive Mind that holds, absorbs, and transfigures change. The unmoving mind is also called in Zen our ‘Original Face’ or ‘Original Mind’. The Isha Upanishad in Sri Aurobindo’s translation describes it as: “One, unmoving, that is swifter than mind, that the gods reach not, for it passes ever in front; that, standing, passes beyond others as they run.”

A fourth assumption of yogic culture is that the relationship of mind and body can be cultivated. Mind and body are not separate, nor are they one. They are a relationship that can be cultivated. The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ shares with the English word ‘yoke’ a root, meaning: ‘join, juncture, union, unison’. This is not an assumption of oneness. Unison is not oneness. The practice of yoga is to cultivate both the mindbody and the bodymind and to cultivate and mature their relationship – through mental and physical postures. Buddhism especially emphasizes a yoga of mental postures.

Mental postures are mental and perceptual states that are used (distinguished, held, repeated) as means to observe, study, and transform ourselves. Physical postures are transforming positions and movements of body and breath. All yoga is a combination of mental and physical postures – emphasizing one or the other, or their relationship. Popular yoga in the West emphasizes physical postures and accompanying postures of breath and mind. Buddhist yoga emphasizes mental postures and physical postures as the condition for the development of mental postures.

A fifth assumption of yoga is that the relationship of mind and body can be best cultivated through the breath. It is through breath-practice that mind is physicalized and stabilized, and the body is mentalized and refined.

A sixth assumption is that the world in its smallest and largest aspects is interdependent and interpenetrating. It is through ourselves we know the world, and through the world we know ourselves. We and the world are the same stuff. Each affects and effects the other.

Altogether Buddhist yoga is a practice of articulating and joining: stillness and activity, the components of mind to the wholeness of mind, the components of body to the wholeness of body, and mind and body to each other. Yoga joins consciousness to the source of mind. Yoga joins and relates the minds of waking, dreaming sleep, and nondreaming deep-sleep. It joins the mental, physical, and spiritual dimensions of existence. Yoga is to develop attention until mind and body are uninterruptedly aware. Yoga is to cease the automatic activity of mind. It is to realize onepointedness of consciousness. It is to join our small mind with Big Mind. It is to bring body and mind together with our basic energy. It is to join us to the immediacy of the present. Yoga is to know everything as true and present – both delusion and realization.


Zentatsu Baker Roshi

‘Meeting and speaking’ is a process of planting, cultivating, and harvesting Zen practices and teachings. The mutual presence established during oral teachings can be thought of as the soil of ‘meeting and speaking’. On the surface, there are the flowers and pollen of speaking, which includes the posture and presence of both the teacher and the hearers. Seeds are sown. Transplantings occur. Seeds and roots of previous teachings are watered.

Adept practitioners also gather and sew seeds from all the contexts of living: encounters with others, with teachers, with oneself, and with the flowerings of ‘the ten thousand things’ and ‘the hundred grasses’. Zazen-meditation, the monastic context, and the daily schedule compost and plow the soil.

The field of ‘meeting and speaking’ is an activity during which what can be seeded or transplanted is felt, what is germinating can be felt, what needs watering can be felt, what must be left for later can be felt. All this happens through the mutual engagement with the teachings. The components: presence, posture, energy, attention, non-conceptual openness, silences, pauses, and the sensorial tapestry of immediacy.

Why has ‘meeting and speaking’ within the monastic field of samadhic, mutual engagement been the primary context of realizational Zen Buddhist practice for fifteen centuries? This is a crucial question today, because contemporary Western Zen practice is and will likely remain primarily a lay practice. While it’s clear that there can be ‘lay-adept’ practice and even a non-residential lay-adept sangha rooted in realizational practice and integrated with daily life, the crucial question is: can such a lay-adept sangha fully embody the teachings and practices of Zen? And will such a lay-adept sangha be able to transmit the teachings and practices to successive generations?

My experience of the development of Zen Buddhism in the USA and Europe during the last fifty years has convinced me that a lay-adept sangha benefits from and probably needs a monastic component as part of its overall practice. Even if many members of the larger lay sangha do not participate in the monastic life, if they are part of a spectrum of sangha practice deeply rooted in monastic practice, their practice can mature in relationship to the overall sangha’s practice and its monastic component.

We are able to practice Zen in the West today because it has been maintained, developed, and transmitted within and through a monastic tradition. The Western lay-adept sangha is an unprecedented, historically significant experiment for Buddhism. Monasticism is an institution, a way of doing things over time that has produced results. It is not just about individuals practicing as monks; it is about what develops when monk-practitioners live together for significant lengths of time.

There is always individual practice. In the midst of monastic institutional practice, monks are engaged in their personal, individual practices. Nevertheless, both the monastic and the lay practitioner are also inescapably engaged in institutional practice. It is institutional practice which has given us practices and teachings and the sites where the practices and teachings developed. Institutional practice has created the sites of present-day practice, the sites where we meet other practitioners and where we usually find a teacher. Institutional practice creates societal support for practice and also helps establish a normative, societal identity for practitioners. And there are some teachings, like the twins of equanimity and compassion, and the Six Paramitas, which are most fruitfully developed in the context of monastic practice.

No lay (and hence no non-institutionally structured) Buddhist teaching lineage has ever survived, as far as I know, for more than a generation or two. My recognition of this led me to decide to be ordained as a Zen monk and to help Suzuki-roshi found the Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, and through that a Zen teaching and practice lineage in the West. This recognition is also why I went on to found Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado and the Zen Forest Monastery in Europe.

If we in the West are to develop a lay sangha which will continue to succeed through the centuries, the question which will have to be answered is: Why has the monastic field of samadhic, mutual engagement been the primary context of Zen practice and its transmission for fifteen centuries? Investigating this question is crucial for Western practitioners individually, institutionally, generationally, and societally.

The question asks: Will you practice as a layperson or as a monk? Will you practice with a teacher, with a monastic sangha, with a lay sangha, or simply on your own? And if your decision is to practice on your own, how will you find out what are the teachings, how will you get to know the subtleties of the basic and the advanced teachings which are primarily taught orally, face-to-face, by example, enactment, bodily presence, because the subtleties often cannot be taught any other way? And how will you find ways to establish these teachings and practices within your lay life?

This question also asks – does Western society need monks and Zen lineages? In our contemporary society, a monk is not one of the definitive human beings, nor is monasticism one of the normative ways of life. Thus no intrinsic societal support for Zen monastic life exists in the West. Nor will traditional Western educational institutions, nor institutions modeled on Western educational institutions, be substitutes for monastic institutions. Western educational institutions and their offspring will not be ways in which yogic, Zen Buddhist practices can be transmitted.

In addition, nowadays, lay-life is simply more attractive, more developed and complex, than it was for ordinary persons in Asia during the ages when Buddhism was being developed. Consequently, it is not surprizing that for most Westerners, lay-life is simply more attractive than monastic life.

Perhaps, in the West, the emphasis on the incubation of the teachings within a monastic field of mutual practice will shift primarily to the ideal of the ‘Bodhisattva in everyday life’. This sounds beautiful, but can this ideal be realistically actualized? Can it be taught and passed on to others?

But then, perhaps there is an inner, embryonic logic to Zen practice, and once you start to practice zazen and mindfulness, Zen practice unfolds in your lived-life simply through continuing to practice. Perhaps all the practitioner needs is some initial seeds, and then all will flower from those seeds. Actually, in my experience, this is partly true; however, in essential ways it is not true – even though we do and we have to engage practice through our own experience. Intuition and noticing one’s experience only goes so far, and then even a small discovered or pointed-out teaching or detail of practice can open up next steps. There is even a craft to noticing one’s experience and intuitions.

The knowledge of arithmetic does not expand into modern mathematics even in a person who is extraordinarily gifted. Philosophy does not unfold in each generation in the same way. The piano requires instruction, examples, music. Embryos require parents, society, culture. Zen practice is a craft and requires a community of craftpersons.