Using Ignorance Wisely–From Spiritual Teachers to Parents or Managers

July 29, 2009

Ta-hui Tsung-kao (1089-1163) was a leading Zen Master of the Sung Dynasty. believed that each teaching must fit the person, time, and place.  His writings remain accessible.

Consider this excerpt from Swampland Flowers (Zen Sourcebook, Addiss et al editors, Hackett, Pg 124)

In the conduct of their daily activities sentient beings have no illumination.  If you go along with their ignorance, they’re happy; if you oppose their ignorance, they become vexed.  Buddhas and bodhisattvas are not this way: they make use of the ignorance, considering this the business of buddhas.  Since sentient beings make ignorance their home, to go against it amounts to breaking up their home; going with it is adapting to where they’re at to influence and guide them.

Here, Ta-hui is addressing the use of ignorance wisely as a tool to liberate beings from their attachments and move them in the direction of direct experience of their original nature.

Rephrasing makes it immediately helpful to improve situations at other levels:

. . . . Making use of ignorance, is the business of parents and managers.  Since people are comfortable with what they know, to go against it rankles them; going with it is adapting to where they’re at to influence and help them grow.


The obvious response to inappropriate action may not be the best.  If you can first recognize what people are thinking and address that, more appropriate actions can follow.

Often teachers, parents, managers impulsively oppose the behavior or ignorance of their students, children or employees, demanding compliance without understanding the situation.   Except in an emergency, that may not be the best action.

Examples of inappropriate, impulsive behavior abound, especially when you begin to look for them. (If this were a book for sale, there would be pages of anecdote examples—but see them for yourself.)

Observing inappropriate responses in situations around you is a good way develop awareness and skillfully use ignorance.

Begin to make the effort to better understand the new situations and then respond, rather than oppose then directly.  It takes some practice, but see for yourself if the results are improved.  (If this were a book for sale, there would be pages of anecdote examples—but who has time for this.)

When this teaching is used skillfully, it is not evident; When not used– a glaring omission.

Offering Zen to Students: Letting the Practice Speak for Itself

July 26, 2009


1. For most new practitioners, commitment grows, usually in an uneven fashion, until the practice takes over and becomes natural or they move on to something else. This introduction presents the practice to students at its best, in a familiar location and without financial costs. The introduction runs over the length of 1 school term, either as a seminar or an after school activity.  Finally, it has strong practice and primary literature components.

2.  There is a significant minority of students who have an interest either in Zen or other forms of meditation.  Some grew up in families with a meditation tradition; these students particularly welcome the opportunity to be taken seriously.  Others have a genuine curiosity.  A third group follows their friends.

3.  The participants are self-selected and 6-12 people are a good number for the starting group; some attrition is expected.  Each meeting lasts for one hour and has both a practice and literature component.  Between meetings, zazen is encouraged but not required.  A reading and some reflective writing is generally given.   An experienced practitioner can facilitate these sessions.  It is also a great opportunity for the facilitator to work with the literature.

Practice Component

1.  Since zazen is the heart of the practice, the instruction on meditation is rigorous with emphasis on posture, breathing, attention, and returning to the breath. In the following weeks, these instructions are summarized at the beginning of most of the sitting periods.  Since cushions are usually not available, chairs are used.

2.  The first sitting period is for 5 minutes.  (For many young people, this length of time seems to be an eternity.)  Each following week, the period is extended several (2-3) minutes, until 25 minutes is reached.  There are two interesting observations.  First, all agree that they can sit the extended period each week.  Second, at the end of the term, there is genuine amazement that they can readily work for an entire period.

3.  At the conclusion of the sitting period, there is a short group discussion period. This open discussion is crucial since questions that have arisen can be raised from an individual’s experience can be immediately addressed for the larger group.  These few minutes, really help to clarify the practice and grow confidence in their sitting practice.  (As an example, questions about sitting with attention, but without judgment or a goal, were frequently raised.)

4.  Near the end of the term, a visit was made to a local Zendo.   A sangha member gave a tour, an opportunity for the students to use cushions, do kin-hin, chant  and be oriented to the etiquette of the space.  This visit also provided an introduction to extend a welcome those who may be interested in practicing there.

Literature Component

1.  Reading assignments were distributed most weeks. The selections were chosen to cover a wide range of content, time, and cultures.  For example:

Sermons (Buddha)

Commentaries  (Bodhidharma, Dogen)

Visual Art  (Oxherding Pictures)

Sutra (Diamond Sutra)

Poetry (Basho)

Koan (Wumen)

Instruction (Mirror of Zen, So Sahn)

Zen Stories (Reps)

2.  The students read the assignments (typically 5-10 pages) during the week.  They selected a section or sentence that had meaning for them and were asked prepare a typewritten one page response (to submit).  These reflections formed the starting point of the literature discussion.

3.  During the literature discussion period, a wide range of topics naturally surfaced.  These included the impermanence, attachment, direction of practice, compassion, wisdom, original nature, form and emptiness, awakening.  These subjects were discussed by the group in no particular order, but by the end of the term, had some familiarity with them.

4. Reading the primary literature gave the students a perspective of the breadth and depth of the practice.  Secondary interpretative sources were not as well received.   It was significant for them to understand that they had the understanding and maturity to work at this level.  This contributed to confidence that they were fully capable of the practice.

Final Comment

The experience is to provide the opportunity to begin a process for each individual.  At the conclusion, some students have continued with a sitting group, a few sought out established zendos, and the majority move on to other experiences.  There is no success or failure, practice manifests in its own individual way.  Additional information can be made available at the contact address in the header.