‘To practice is not to collect things and put them in your basket, but rather to find something in your sleeve. It’s just that before you study hard, you don’t know what you have in your sleeve.’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)
‘As soon as there’s something considered important, it becomes a nest.’
This line might not strike so deeply, but it reminded me of an exchange at Tassajara, during one of the practice periods I was there with Reb, Tenshin Roshi. As usual, after he gave a talk, people were allowed to ask questions, and one of his ordained students started to say something – I don’t remember the content. I do remember Tenshin Roshi’s response, which I would characterise as insistent: ‘You’re nesting.’
I more or less grasped what he meant by that – that the priest was holding firm to a view when it would be wiser to hold it loosely or let it go. Since then I have heard other stories about Suzuki Roshi responding very differently to similar situations depending on whether he thought the student was being inquisitive or merely stubborn.
Maybe Tenshin Roshi repeated the phrase a few times; it had the effect of stopping the priest in their tracks. A few people raised their voices to express the opinion that Tenshin Roshi had been cruel to the priest, but I didn’t see it that way. It felt clear to me that he knew the priest well enough to use that tactic, and that he wouldn’t have been as firm with me, or one of the other junior students. I also seem to remember that the priest later acknowledged the wisdom of Tenshin Roshi’s response. Sometimes giving, sometimes taking life…
‘In Zen sometimes we say that each one of us is steep like a cliff. No one can scale us. We are completely independent. But when you hear me say so, you should understand the other side too – that we are endlessly interrelated. If you only understand one side of the truth, you can’t hear what I am saying. If you don’t understand Zen words, you don’t understand Zen, you are not yet a Zen student. Zen words are different from usual words. Like a double-edged sword, they cut both ways. You may thin I am only cutting forward, but no, actually I am also cutting backward. Watch out for my stick. Do you understand? Sometimes I scold a disciple – “No!” The other students may thing, “Oh, he has been scolded,” but it is not actually so. Because I cannot scold the one over there, I have to scold the one who is near me. But most people think “Oh, that poor guy is being scolded.” If you think like that you are not a Zen student. If someone is scolded you should listen; you should be alert enough to know who is being scolded. That is how we train.’ (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)
This passage was invoked quite often when I trained at Zen Center, even if I didn’t see it played out that many times by teachers (unless I was just being too dumb to notice). The lesson is a valid one; since Suzuki Roshi is discussing the Harmony of Difference and Equality in his talk, lines from later in the poem serve as a reminder: ‘Hearing the words, understand the meaning,’ or as Dogen says so often, ‘investigate further.’
‘When I first met Suzuki Roshi, I thought, “I want to be like him!” The best teacher for you is someone who inspires you by the wisdom and compassion you see in the teacher as she or he goes about daily life and interacts with the people around her or him.’ (Seeds for a Boundless Life)
I think I have mentioned before that one of the things that made me feel comfortable in my first few months at Zen Center, when I was living a new and unfamiliar life in a new country, was that I could look at the teachers and see heart-warming examples of how I wanted to live and grow old. Blanche was perhaps foremost among those, especially in terms of how she went about her daily life, which as I have always maintained, taught me as much as anything she said from the dharma seat – the miraculous activity talked about the other day.
This is not the first time I have used this picture, but it illustrates the point perfectly. On the morning of the 2012 Mountain Seat ceremony, Blanche busied herself cleaning the main hallway, just because it needed doing, and she was there to do it.
‘The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism, but to study ourselves. It is impossible to study ourselves without some teaching. If you want to know what water is you need science, and the scientist needs a laboratory. In the laboratory there are various ways in which to study what water is. Thus it is possible to know what kind of elements water has, the various forms it takes, and its nature. But it is impossible thereby to know water in itself. It is the same thing with us. We need some teaching, but just by studying the teaching along, it is impossible to know what “I” in myself am. Through the teaching we may understand our human nature. But the teaching is not we ourselves; it is some explanation of ourselves.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
If we think we know water, we still don’t know how a fish sees it, as Dogen always reminds us.
While I am happy to be living away from Zen Center these days, I enjoy returning, because I always run into people I want to talk to. On Monday I walked up to City Center at lunchtime to get a ride to the shuso ceremony at Green Gulch, and had half-a-dozen conversations in the fifteen minutes or so before getting in the car. At the other end it was the same.
It turned out there were a handful of English people present: Simon, my long-time YUZ colleague, Myoyu who lives at Green Gulch, Rebecca from Hebden Bridge, who had been there for several weeks attending practice period and sesshin, Lucy who I know from teaching in England who had come for sesshin, Cath who had been at Tassajara over the summer, and Chand who I hadn’t met before.
Thiemo, the shuso, is originally from Germany; there were also some other German speakers in the assembly, though everyone stuck to English. No-one mentioned – as I had intended to include in my congratulations – that it is hard enough to expound the dharma in your native language, let alone a second one (it was said that Suzuki Roshi was not as compelling to listen to when he spoke in Japanese, and it was the effort he had to make to say things in English that caused his teaching to be so vital).
The quiet inside the zendo was striking to me as we waited for the ceremony to begin, and there were other moments of intense quiet during the questions and answers. My own shuso ceremony, four years ago now, took place a few weeks after the Sandy Hook shootings, and I had expected to get a question or two about it, as I did, though not phrased as I had anticipated. Since Thiemo had chosen case four of the Book of Serenity, about creating a sanctuary, many of the questions revolved around the notion of a sanctuary in these times, and how to respond to the particular suffering that is arising post-election. He handled affairs with a grounded humility that I did refer to in my congratulations, and skillfully invoked not knowing as a response. Perhaps this is how the zen community, even if it seems isolated, and privileged (which was called out during the ceremony as well), can meet this current reality, for ourselves and for those we vow to help: not knowing, together.
The light in Cloud Hall is very low, and not many of my photos turned out. This is the gaggle of the English after the ceremony; I am the blurry one in the middle, which is just fine.
Zazen practice and everyday activity are one thing. We call zazen everyday life, and everyday life zazen. But usually we think, “Now zazen is over, and we will go about our everyday activity.” But this is not the right understanding. They are the same thing. We have nowhere to escape. So in activity there should be calmness, and in calmness there should be activity.’ (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind)
Nowhere to escape might seem like bad news, but it seems to me that trying to escape whatever reality is offering us is usually the cause of suffering, not relief.