November 9, 2012

Direct Transmission

Update 3/13/13: Please note that Dharma Heritage has removed from their site the video that this post was written about. I hope you'll still find the other materials useful.

Great souls communicate their gifts to humanity in three ways:

Through their concepts.
Through their conduct.
Through their contour.

Their concepts are powerful ideas expressed in words. Their conduct is how they deal with real-life situations and challenges. Their contour is their energy—how they are able to express the flow of nature/spirit/space/no self/true self through their movements, gestures, gaze and voice quality.

Powerful concepts inform us but can also inspire us. Admirable conduct inspires us but can also inform us. Likewise for the contour of energy that envelops that content—you can be both energized and educated by it.

The concepts and conduct of great souls can be passed down through the written word. But what about their contour? Learning from the teacher’s energy is highly valued in some traditions (most conspicuously Zen and certain forms of Hinduism). In the Japanese language, this is referred to as ishindenshin (transmission of consciousness by consciousness).

In pre-modern times, there was little one could do to preserve the energy contour of an enlightened being. The closest one might come would be realistic portraits or statues that capture some of those dynamic qualities. Indeed, I have heard it said (but I can’t remember by whom; maybe one of you knows) that the first appearance of realistic portrayal of human form in East Asia was driven by the desire to preserve the essence of meditation masters. (Another way was to mummify.)

But now things are completely different because you can get videos of great souls and learn directly from their dynamic essence. Below you’ll find a link to one such video. It’s actually a sizzle reel to promote a longer feature length movie that I sincerely hope eventually gets made. The video is short but it still packs a punch. It contains several vignettes with Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the Zen master who has so profoundly influenced the way I teach. Interspersed with these are interviews with Leonard Cohen and others talking about Roshi. If you’re sensitive to such things, you should be able to “cop a vibe” from how Roshi effortlessly rides on the flow of expansion and contraction. In the video Roshi mostly talks about “where things go to when they vanish.” Two of Leonard Cohen’s songs are played in the background: “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” and “Love Itself.”

Here’s the link: (3/13/13: link no longer works; please see the update at the top of this post)

And here are some resources that might help enhance your appreciation of it.

I talk about “where things go” here and here.

I talk about expansion and contraction here and here.

Leonard's "Love Itself" is a description of dissolving into “Flow and Gone.” I talk about it and play it (with Leonard’s personal permission!) here:

The lyrics can be found here.

The Ballad of the Absent Mare is Leonard’s contemporary reworking of the Ten Ox Herding pictures. (Ox is replaced by mare; herding boy is replaced by cowboy.) Check out my talk about the Ox Herding pictures here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (sorry about the technical quality on these videos. They were the first Youtube videos we shot ).

You may have heard about how blows from sticks are used to spur Zen students forward. You’ll see that briefly in the Dharma Heritage video. The stick is called a keisaku. For fun, check out this hilarious clip of my colleague Soryu using a keisaku to whack the crap out of me.

Roshi is, at this writing, 105 years old. Here are some photos of me interviewing him for CBS on his 100th birthday. (Thanks to Dan B. Wood of the Christian Science Monitor and Stephanie Nash for these photos, and as always to Har-Prakash Khalsa for the Expand-Contract Youtube channel and videos.)


  1. Excellent. Roshi's gestures are incredible and speak as loudly as his words, if not more. Thank you Shinzen for this post.

  2. I agree. There's something so paper-thin about Roshi, and yet something so substantial about his movements all at once.

  3. 105! Incredible! He looks like a million bucks!

  4. Any comments Shinzen on recent posts on the web about Joshu Sasaki?

  5. I hear 100 is the new 60. Awesome as always Shinzen.


  7. Shinzen, this is a difficult topic but I must reiterate the request made in the Nov 26th comment asking for your comments on the Joshu Sasaki situation. Because you have made such significant positive statements about Sasaki (you refer in at least one video to his extremely high level of attainment), you must realize we who place value in your teaching are looking for your views. The following questions and more are raised:

    1. Are the reported behaviors -- and they seem to have gone beyond mere allegations -- an indication that your earlier assessment of his attainments was wrong?
    2. Even if that's the case -- even if he wasn't almost or completely an arahat -- he presumably was still very advanced in training. So how did he succumb (to harming people)?
    3. Or weren't his actions harmful at all? (I find that well nigh preposterous, but I'm willing to listen to arguments otherwise.)
    4. Assuming that, arahat or not, he *is* still highly advanced, how are we to view the common view that sexual misconduct is a serious impediment to progress? By the looks of things, it seems one can indeed be involved in a lot of sexual misconduct and still manage to reach a high level of progress. Is that incorrect?
    5. How are you personally handling this? It must be painful. Is your own training helping you?

    I completely understand if you simply decide to stay quiet on this due to your closeness to Sasaki. But there is a real danger that your teachings, which I believe are hugely valued, may be undermined unless you provide some kind of explanation. And that would be tragic. Questions such as the ones I've outline aren't there because I or anyone else is asking them. They simply arise out of the collision between the three components of: your endorsement of Sasaki, our respect for you, and his reported actions.

    respectfully, and with sympathy at this time,

  8. Hi Robert,

    Sorry if I seem to be dragging my feet on this. But actually I've been working on it for several months. As you know, my style is to avoid speaking about things unless I have a high degree of confidence in what I'm saying. Ever since the scandal broke, I have been involved in research and thinking. I've contacted students that I had sent to Sasaki. I've also been talking to psychotherapists in the Buddhist community whose opinions I respect. In addition, I've been interacting with one of the three people on the witnessing committee.

    People have been giving me all sorts of advice as to the degree to which and manner in which I should get involved in this whole thing. The questions that you raise are legitimate and definitely require an answer. Others who have contacted me have asked more or less identical questions. So the upshot is that I'm pretty close to a comprehensive and definitive statement.which will address your questions and everyone else who has directly contacted me. I'll post it as a new blog.

    All the best,

    1. Has this blog posted? I'm a recent student of Roshi's and I have been struggling immensely with the scandal. I have a deep kind of love for Roshi. However the culture of his organization at large, that he created, is terrible. This is all from my personal experience within the last five years. I would really appreciate your perspective.

  9. The links to the video and other materials are not working! Please fix.

    1. Unfortunately, the video that this post was written about has been removed from the site where it used to reside. I hope you find the other materials useful. (All the other links work fine for me.)

      All best,
      Emily Barrett
      (Admin assistent to Shinzen)

  10. Robert, thank you for asking this difficult and important question. And Shinzen, thank you for your own inquiry and commitment to respond.
    I note that we will hear from Shinzen along with several others on this very issue and the broader topic at the Buddhist Geeks conference in August. See the “Getting a Handle on Scandal” panel, facilitated by Diane Musho Hamilton with panelists, Shinzen Young, Sofia Diaz, Kenneth Folk and Michael Zimmerman:

  11. A video described as the "Joshu Sasaki Portrait Movie" is listed as entry 46 in the Sasaki Archive, and a copy is available there:
    It looks like that is the one you were talking about here, so it is once again available.

  12. Hi Shinzen! I found the video of Joshu Sasaki Roshi that's mentioned in this post. It's on YouTube:

  13. Did Shinzen ever made his view known regarding post-scandal Joshu Sasaki Roshi? I can't find the blog post he mentions in the reply above. I truly hope he didn't choose to remain silent regarding this.

    1. I do address the issue, albeit briefly, in my new book The Science of Enlightenment.


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