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During the first time I was living-in as a new Zen student, Tanouye Rotaishi said that I must write with “living words.” Being not that quick on the uptake, I took his words as a challenge and argued: “There are no such things as ‘living words’ – all words have been used before; there’s nothing new,” I replied.

He said nothing; he Just looked at me.

Later that evening, after the day’s formal training was finished, I related this incident to Tajima Sensei, my first martial arts and meditation teacher, who was the person who had introduced me to the Roshi. He shook his head and laughed. “Roshi just gave you your life koan,” he said.

“Oh.” I had completely missed the import of that moment. My “Life Koan.”

Over the course of training, my appreciation of the meaning of “living words” has deepened. It is not what I say or write; at the same time, it is also not not-what I say or write. It does not refer to the words themselves, how they are used, or to the tool or method used to relay them. Rather, “living words” are about the person: Who is speaking the words? Who is wielding the pen? Who is typing on the computer?

In Zen, we focus on whether the person has let go of his or her ego. In Buddhism, this is known as the Great Death. One realizes that the old life is one in which lines discriminate me from you, this from that, up from down, life from death. While differentiation allows us to navigate the everyday world, it also leads us to think of, and treat, the world as real.

From a physics perspective, things exist. But, from a metaphysical point of view, we must question what reality is. Sound waves travel through to our ears, but it is we ourselves who say, “Ah, that is the doorbell” or “The baby is crying.” Likewise, light waves come into our eyes, and minds distinguish the yellow daffodil in the yard or the blue shirt hanging in the closet. In reality, however, neither yellow nor blue exists!

The world we experience is a creation of our minds.

Reality – with a capital “R” – does not make distinctions. All that exists is part of what could be described as the undifferentiated continuum. We experience “things” as they pass through existence and then disappear.

To write or speak from this perspective requires us to realize and experience that we and the universe are one. This is the reality of Life: There is no separation because there is nothing to separate! When we let go of our ego and become empty, then the words we speak or write are truly “living words.”


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