Category Archives: Zen

What is Zen Counseling?

I would define counseling as a process in which one human being helps another to solve a personal problem or discover a direction to solve a troublesome issue. There are many kinds of specialized counseling – relationship counseling, career counseling, psychological counseling, parent-child counseling, teenage counseling, and so on.

In all counseling, it is assumed that the counselor has more experience, more knowledge, more insight about a subject and is therefore in a superior position than the client. One goes to a counselor expecting to receive customized advice or personalized solutions from someone who knows the patterns of such problems and the generic solutions to those. And what does the counselor do? He hears the problems of the client and maps it to some similar problems in his past experiences, searches for an appropriate solution for that and gives that advice to the client.

A canned solution can never solve a unique problem.

But most counselors learn only canned approaches and solutions which they offer to their clients – because those solutions are in vogue, in current fashion or currently acceptable.

But let me ask a question. Can one person help another person just by virtue of being another human being? Without being an expert, without being more experienced in any skill or domain? Is there a quality in which every human being in equally skilled? What is the action that every person can do equally well – in all circumstances, always, in any relationship, in any environment, through any means of communication?

Yes, there is this skill, this ability, this faculty which is equal in all human beings – it is not thinking, it is not talking, it is not walking or acting


Anyone can listen, young or old, fair or dark, male or female, today or tomorrow, 10,000 years in the history or 10,000 years in the future, anyone can listen.

Everything else might be different, the way we speak, the way we think, the language we speak or the content of our thoughts. But the way to listen cannot be different in any age for anyone. Every human being can listen.

And with listening, one human being can help another. Anyone can help anyone without any special skills on knowledge or expertise or experience. The power of listening to solve problems is the most under-appreciated power in human beings. In fact, listening is not considered to be of any significance in daily life. I say that almost all human problems arise because we do not listen enough, and we do not listen deeply.

How does listening help another person?

  1. Listening conveys acceptance: As human beings, we are unique in our thoughts, likes, dislikes, experiences and desires. We want others to accept us as we are. Listening to another shows that you accept the other person as he/she is.
  2. Listening does not judge: Given a person’s problem or situation, if we judge that as good or bad, it puts an end to the discussion. Any judgement is a conclusion and stops further conversation. You don’t feel understood if the person listening to you is constantly judging you. But when you listen attentively without judging then the speaker opens up. He/she starts to trust you and opens up more.
  3. Listening gives space: In today’s world, everyone wants to speak and get his thoughts out there in front of other people. Advertisements, slogans, speeches – everyone seems to be speaking and no one seems to be listening. This suffocates the mind. Mind needs space for creativity, for problem solving. But when there is no space, mind reacts, gets into a survival mode and deteriorates into emotional outbursts. When you listen, it gives space for the other person to look at his own thoughts, to unwind, to untie the knots within.
  4. Listening is compassionate: When you listen, you show an interest in the other person. Since you want to know more, you ask questions, you clarify things. All this displays compassion and empathy towards another.
  5. Listening is freedom: In normal conversation, there seems to be a compulsion to say something, to respond with an answer or a suggestion. But when you are listening you are free. You don’t have to respond to any pressure. Listening is therapeutic. Listening is relaxing.

Zen Counseling is based on this power of listening to help other people solve their problems. It combines listening with the fundamental insights and principles of Zen Buddhism to provide a very potent and very effective way to problem solving.

Zen Buddhism considers every human being to be a Buddha.

A Buddha is an awakened one, one whose mind is awake. An implication of this premise is that for any person who as a problem, the solution to that problem is within his own mind. No external answer will suffice.

Therefore, in Zen Counseling, the first rule for a counselor is to consider the client as a Buddha. And the second rule is not to offer any advice.

The Zen Counselor simply listens in a relaxed manner. As the client talks about his / her problem, the Zen Counselor continues to listen. And in this listening process, in the space that is created, in the acceptance and the non-judgmental atmosphere, the client starts to unravel his problem in his own awareness. As the problem becomes clear, the client will start to see the solution emerge.

The life situation of the client, the experiences of the client and the specific attitude and personality of the client determines the solution.

Any solution offered by the Zen Counselor is not going to be effective because it will be colored by his own biases and past experiences or no experiences. Therefore, a Zen Counselor never offers any advice. And that is the power of Zen Counseling.

It is effective in any circumstance, any age, for anyone, young or old, for any problem – career, relationship, finance, goal setting, sometimes even physical pain.

Zen Counseling is the way of the Buddha. It is surprisingly effective in solving problems or helping people find a direction.

Zen Counseling Training

This is a famous zen poem and has been one of my favourites for the many years that I have been studying zen. I really thought I had penetrated to the core of this poem. But that was not true and I realized the true meaning of this poem in the Zen Counselling course I attended during 15 to 18 Aug at the Integral Space, Lower Parel, Mumbai.

The training was organized by Loving Foundation’s Dr Ronak Gandhi, a four times black belt in Zen Archery and who is on a mission to spread love. Zen is not so well known in India and apart from Osho’s followers, not many profess to follow it. There are no zen monasteries to talk about, no zen masters as such, although I remember having been to Bodhi Zendo, a zen monastery near Kodaikanal and met Zen Master Ama Samy, but that’s the exception.

So I was really intrigued with the Zen Counselling course that I came across on Google and instantly felt like I should go there. But I had my reservations. Because I knew I had a deep understanding of zen from my study and practice over 15 years and so had a doubt whether this was true zen. Seeing that the teacher was a Japanese person added to the mystique of the course. After speaking with Dr Ronak, I confirmed my participation.

Kenichi Ishimaru is the founder of Zen Counselling and there are only a few videos with him speaking on You Tube. The thing that caught my attention was the premise of Zen Counselling that every client is a Buddha. And this is a high class understanding, in fact the highest understanding in Zen. So I went for it.

With Dr Ronak Gandhi and Kenichi San and Kyoko

And what a time it was! Those four days with Kenichi San and the 22 fellow students. I solved all my problems, hesitations, mental blocks, diffidence, attitudes towards women and discovered my true way. I learnt more from the live experience of listening to the master, watching his demonstrations and his answers to our questions than in all my readings of zen of the last decade. Kenichi san lives zen and teaches zen. And he does not teach theory because zen is a matter of experience so all the teaching was actually learning through personal experience. 

Standing from left: Rinkal, Kyoko, Aabhas, Alpana, Meghna, Ridhima, Sanjeev, Ashish, Mona, Shruti, Pankti, Reyes, Dixit, Subodh. Sitting from left: Zia, Geet, Gauri, Antara, Kamalika, Reet, Namrita, Aditi

Zen Counselling is the most powerful technique (if one can call it a technique) to solve any problem of any individual. When an individual has a problem, he suffers. When the problem is solved, he is happy and free. But in contrast to other forms of counselling, in Zen Counselling, the counsellor does not give any kind of advice. The premise is very clear and it is non-negotiable – the client’s problem can be solved only by the client. The counsellor can only support with a few intelligent techniques based on listening, being relaxed and asking questions to clarify the problem. In the process of Zen Counselling, the client solves the problem for himself by clarifying it in his own mind with the support of the counsellor. And I have experienced this magic of solving problems without doing anything, in all my practice sessions.

This experience of Zen Counselling has given me the power and confidence to go out and help others. I had reached a conclusion long time back that people are not listening. And therefore, I always hesitated to speak to anyone about zen and my work on Big Picture Zen. But now with all my problems solved, I am free to talk and free to listen.

I have always been a good listener but that was not enough. But the listening approach that I learnt in Zen Counselling was nothing short of magic. And I realized that the way to another person’s heart is through our ears – through listening. There is no value I can place on this skill and technique. This is priceless. This skill is what makes a real loving human being.

To me, this clarified to me many zen stories and also the way Buddha would have helped people, and not just theoretically but now I can also do it. All the disconnected pieces in my mind have now connected into a whole. Now I can truly see with my ears and listen with my eyes.

Ever since I had my awakening experience around 2003, I have been very keen to share it with others and get others to become curious about it and strive for it. But nobody listened. And I had almost given up. I was also thinking upside down about helping others. The reason I was reading all kinds of books on human psychology was to be able to learn how to help others. But that’s not the real way.

My zen mind was always against learning things to teach others because the end goal was to drop all knowledge. So how can I help someone drop all knowledge by giving him knowledge of any kind – zen or otherwise? I was caught in this koan for many years.

Zen Counselling opened me up to direct experience and then at last, I reached the point where I had nothing to say anymore. This was like a second satori to me. It became a clear fact not a statement of belief that every person is a Buddha. Now knowledge or no knowledge is no hindrance. Everything is perfect as is.

Sitting quietly doing nothing, the Zen Counselor listens relaxed, the client shares his problem and the solution appears by itself

Seeking For The Truth

Where Can I Find Truth

Lot of people seek for the truth.

But truth is not something that can be seen as some image.

It is not something that can be heard as some sound.

It is not something that can be smelled or tasted.

It is not something that can be touched.

So in what way do people expect to find the truth?

Is it an idea?

Is it some thought that is considered as the truth?

Is it an experience?

Note that in order to be sure that one has found the truth, one must be in a position to recognize it.

How can one recognize the truth if one has never had an experience of it before, when one does not know what it is?

Some say that truth is to be found within

True we can search for it within but what does one expect to find.

When the search begins one does not know what one is searching for & there are many falsities masquerading as the truth. So how does one differentiate ?

What if truth is right there in front of us but we miss it & go on seeking somewhere else ?

These are some questions that every sincere seeker of truth must investigate.  He or she must not accept or discard anything without proper investigation.


Jain Zen – Getting Down from the Elephant

The origin of the Jain religion is in a story that is so Zen-like.

The first Tirthankar of the Jains, Rishabdev, left a major part of his property to his two sons, Bharata and Bahubali, and renounced the world. Bharata had ambitions and he conquered the rest of India and also asked Bahubali to surrender his share. Bahubali had a great ego and he refused and it was decided to settle the matter in a one on one combat.

Bahubali turned out to have the upper hand and right at the moment when he was about to kill Bharata, he realized the futility of it all. He stood at the same place and entered meditation. It is said that he stood there for a year and still did not attain enlightenment. Tribute has been paid to his meditative position through the various Bahubali statues in India, the most famous being the one at Shravanbelagola.

So when one stands in the same position for a year, he will lose his clothes and creepers will grow on him. Bahubali’s sisters got worried and asked their father Rishabdev what to do. He said, nothing can be done unless Bahubali gets off the elephant first. So the sisters went to Bahubali and asked him when he will get off the elephant. Hearing this, Bahubali got instantly enlightened. He is said to be the first person to get enlightened in this cosmic era.

The analogy is apparent to those who understand but the point is that the story is so Zen-like. Zen, as we know it, came much later but the essense of what we call Zen is clearly seen in this story.

The Elusive Zen Journalist

I enjoy reading Zen stories. It is so wonderful to read those interactions between master & student – the innocent question from the student and the crazy answer from the master.

Most of the times there is a question asked by the student, followed by the master’s enigmatic reply. The master’s reply is mysterious only to a non-enlightened student. The reply which takes many forms, not just words but sometimes a whack of a stick or a kick or a loud shout, is always intended to point directly to the mind.

Zen is described by many to be a teaching beyond scriptures & tradition, directly pointing to bare reality.

​So, not surprisingly, many students get enlightened on hearing the master’s reply. Such stories are the most interesting ones. We hope too to get an insight into the master’s response.

Zen Story of Gutei’s Finger

Whenever anyone asked him about Zen, the great master Gutei would quietly raise one finger into the air. A boy in the village began to imitate this behavior. Whenever he heard people talking about Gutei’s teachings, he would interrupt the discussion and raise his finger. Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. When he saw him in the street, he asked the boy and asked him a question. The boy raised his finger as usual. Gutei grabbed his finger and cut it off with a knife. The boy cried and began to run away, but Gutei called out to him. When the boy turned to look, Gutei raised his own finger into the air. At that moment the boy became enlightened.

Zen Story of Dojen’s Enlightenment

One day Master Ju-Ching was scolding another monk for sleeping, and said, “The practice of Zazen (Sitting Meditation) is the dropping away of body and mind. What do you think dozing will accomplish?” Upon hearing these words, Dogen became fully enlightened.

Enlightenment apart, I really wonder who is it that takes the time to write down these stories?

The dialogue in a Zen story is a deeply intimate, intensely personal and mostly private exchange between the student & the master. So for the story to have passed down through the oral tradition, someone has to report it verbatim, for us to enjoy.

Is it the teacher who takes pride in his responses to his students & keeps repeating them to others so as to make stories out of it? I doubt it because if they are real Zen teachers, they would be more concerned about the student getting enlightened than about making a story of it to brag about.

So is it the student who reports his conversation with the teacher & shows off how he got enlightened? Again I doubt it because if the student really attained enlightenment, that would be such a great event, he would have been too out of his mind to cry “Eureka” and run down the street.

So there must be somebody else – the elusive journalist – who eavesdrops on the conversation, sees the changed expression on the face of the student & infers whether he got enlightened & then runs away to share the story with fellow students.

​There were no hidden microphones or voice recorders in those days & obviously neither Zen master nor the student who got enlightened would be interested in making silly stories, then WHO THE HELL NOTED ALL THESE ZEN STORIES? – TAKE IT AS A KOAN TO SOLVE.

Zen Story of Huike’s Enlightenment

Huike and Bodhidharma were climbing up a mountain peak. Bodhidharma asked, “Where are we going?” Huike replied, “Please go right ahead—that’s it.” Bodhidharma retorted, “If you go right ahead, you cannot move a step.” Upon hearing these words, Huike was enlightened.

The Missing Context in Zen Stories

Zen stories are very popular among students of Zen. These stories have been around since the time Bodhidharma went to China.

​Monk asked, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming to China?” Joshu said, “The oak tree in the garden.”

All Zen stories have the same two characters – a student monk and the master – and it contains an interaction between them. The student wants to know “why did Bodhidharma come from the west?” in other words he wants to know the essence of the teaching or the true nature of reality. The Zen master responds & sometimes the student gets enlightened.

​The Zen master’s response is usually mysterious & that is the main reason why Zen stories are so popular. However the Zen master does not intend to be mysterious. He is as direct as one can be in that moment & intends to point to the essence directly.

​Monk asked, “What is Buddha?” Unmon said, “A dry shit-stick”

Over the centuries, as these stories have been retold by students & translators, they have lost their details. The only part that is passed down is about what the student asked & what the master said. The whole context & the situation in which the dialogue took place has gone missing.

​A Zen master helps a particular student at a particular point & it is so very intimate. Everything in that moment is important to the story – what the master was doing when the student asks him, how the student asks, things around the place, time of the day – not just the words.

Monk asked, “What is Buddha?” Tozan said, “Three pounds of flax”

For an astute student, knowing the context of the master’s response can help a lot in understanding what the master is pointing to.

Monk asked, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Joshu said, “Mu”

Joshu did not merely say “Mu”. He shouted at the top of his voice. Mu is a Japanese word that means No.

Have You Found What is Lost?


Finding something that you had lost brings great joy & relief. Even if it is a trivial thing like locating a misplaced TV remote or something significant like getting in touch with a lost friend after decades, there is that unique feeling when you find something you had lost.

Even when we see others finding their lost things, we experience the same joy. It is a universal feeling across nations, cultures & history.

We have enjoyed numerous Bollywood movies based on the “Lost & Found” theme. Manmohan Desai used it in many films & we were never tired of it.

Every time we lose something we feel the same anxiety & every time we find it we feel the same relief. The joy & relief is directly proportional to the time after which you find it multiplied by the value of the thing in your life.

On one occasion, I forgot my laptop bag in the train & I realized it only after reaching home. Imagine the anxiety! l rushed back to the station – a crazy 10 km drive – & was lucky enough to get it back. Imagine the relief!

There is tremendous anguish when you realize you lost something of great value. However, with time you adjust to the loss and come to terms with it. Things like lost keys, lost valuables & lost money can be replaced. If you find them after you got the replacement, the joy is not that much. As life goes on, you will even forget that you had lost something.

Awakening is similar to finding your true self – the original mind – the Tao – that which is, before anything else is. There is joy & relief of tremendous intensity. Because you simultaneously realize that you had forgotten who you are & that you had forgotten it for an infinite time & now you suddenly find it. You were lost in living & dying & have found back that which was never born & can never die. It cannot be put into words.

Paradoxically, you also realize that you had never lost anything. Just that, to explain to another, the theme of lost & found can be a metaphor.

It is X Only Because it is Not X

X is a name. It can be a name of a person or thing or event or process. We all use names to identify things and people. But in the process we forget that they are simply names, not the things themselves.

There are different shades of identification. Some identification is stronger than others. One’s own name is the strongest identification. My name is Y but I start believing that I AM Y. Similarly I believe that my friend is A, my wife is B and my dog is D.

Other strong identification is with time. We actually believe that today is 9th of AUgust 2015, Sunday. The fact is that a date is only a convenient means to have order in our activities and planning.

The fact is that the name is not the person or the name is not the thing. We might say Hurricane Katrina, but that is just a name. The hurricane did not have a name. It was nameless all the time. Therefore, the truth is that it was not Hurricane Katrina. In other words, it was Hurricane Katrina only because it was NOT Hurricane Katrina.

This statement must be understood carefully. X is X only because it is NOT X. A name can be given to something which is nameless. If it already had a name, why give it one?

The Hurricane does not say that its name is Katrina. Similarly the dog does not say that its name is D. In the same spirit, even if I say that I am Y, you should not believe me because I am fundamentally nameless. So are you. That is why your name is P or S or K.

So look around you. In actual fact, nothing has a name. Everything is nameless from the beginning – all the chairs, tables, walls, people, are chairs, tables, walls and people only because they are NOT chairs, tables, walls, and people.

It is more true to say that it is not a chair than it is to say that it is a chair. Both statements are true but one is really true and the other is only conventionally true.

So if you can look at things and people as nameless which is not recognizing anything by its name – whether it is a tree, a bird, a flower, the sun and so on, you will attain the original mind, untainted and pure. After all, isn’t this what you want?

Koans – A Zen Practice for Enlightenment


Koan is a technique for awakening by silencing the conceptual mind.

Traditionally there have been two main schools of Japanese Zen Buddhism – the Rinzai School and the Soto School. The main emphasis of the Soto School was on sitting meditation while that of the Rinzai School was on the Koans. The aim of both was essentially the same – enlightenment or awakening.


A Koan is a statement, a dialogue, a story or a question which cannot be understood or answered by logical thinking. In fact, logical thinking is the biggest hindrance in understanding the meaning of the Koan. Some famous koans used by Zen masters are

  • What is the sound of one hand clapping?
  • All the ten thousand things return to the one. Where does the one return to?
  • A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”. Joshu shouted, “Mu”.
  • Shuzan held out his staff and said, “If you call this staff short, you oppose its reality. But if you don’t call it short, you ignore the fact. Now, what do you call it?”


The Zen student requests the Master to give him a koan for practice. The Master understands the specific mental snags in the student and gives him a koan which is most helpful in his practice. He also explains to the student in private what he must do with the koan. The student is instructed to constantly keep the koan in mind and try to grasp its hidden meaning. He has to think of the koan while walking, eating, sweeping, and while doing all the daily activities.

When the student believes he found the answer or when the student meets the Master during the scheduled times, he must explain what he has understood. If the Master finds evidence to believe that the student has really understood, he will certify the enlightenment of the student else he will drive him away asking him to put in more effort into the koan.

Mumon, a great Zen Master, said to his students that they must make their whole body and mind into the koan in order to penetrate it.


Although the koan is a paradoxical statement and appears to be some sort of puzzle; it is not something that can be solved using a mental trick. It cannot be understood in conceptual terms at all. The purpose of the koan is to silence the conceptual mind completely as this is essential for awakening.

A statement that one does not understand makes the mind go on hyper drive. The mind turns and twists the question to find out its meaning and find an answer in one way or another. As long as the student keeps giving conceptual answers, the Master keeps sending him away. Even if the student realizes that there is no conceptual answer and says so, the master might tell him that knowing it is one thing but feeling it in one’s bones is another.

However, with constant practice with a koan, the student’s mind finally falls silent on its own accord and then whatever answer he gives will be spontaneous not based on rational thought. This is the first step to awakening.


The most famous collections of Koans are found in two books – The Blue Cliff Record and The Gateless Gate.