Jakusho Bill Kwong

‘DC: What was his teaching? What did he teach?

BK: I really can’t say, a teaching per se. You can say Dogen said this and this and this, put it in a slot. But Suzuki Roshi it was just like being a real person. Through his real experience of zazen, real zazen, that there’s a great possibility in all of us.

DC: Would you say that he taught to sit zazen?

BK: That was his teaching. That was the main thing. And how you could also be the same as him.’ (from David Chadwick’s Cuke archives)

Effortless Effort

Much as I love reading the New Yorker for learning about new things, intellectual stimulation, and keeping up-to-date with aspects of the news, I was not expecting an article on natural wine to be prompting a blog post.

In it were references to a Gurdjieff community in California (which prompted me to send it on to a friend who had spent time there), and then, at the end, this quote:

“In Zen, they say that the last and the hardest step is to give up the struggle to awaken. Only when you let go of it can you make it—although you don’t want to anymore. It’s a paradox.”

I have not heard that as an exact expression, but it does encapsulate something that has become clearer to me over the years. Norman’s post from yesterday points to this, and  Zenju beautifully summarised a similar notion in one of her books: “It’s not about continuing struggle in order to create a struggle-free life.”

I have material gathered for a talk I would like to give – not the one I will be giving soon – about this, the interplay of effort and non-effort. Yes, as we discussed in my classes on the Bodhisattva Vows, we vow to end desires, but we do need the desire to do that in the first place.

So how to approach this paradox? Or indeed any paradox?

In my years of teaching, I have developed a repertoire of lines that I will trot out when the occasion suits, and I have been known to say that in zen, we eat paradoxes for breakfast. There are a few posts that I came across (searching to see if I had used the above line on here), that illustrate the approach – from Suzuki Roshi, Shohaku Okumura, and Sekkei Harada. Things that we think are different are, on a different level, not.

As so often, Shohaku throws light on this in a most helpful way. This passage from Living By Vow made it very clear to me:

‘The title of this poem, “Sandokai,” is composed of three characters. The first, san (cen in Chinese) means “difference,” “diversity,” “variety.” In this poem it is used as a synonym for ji, which indicates the concrete, phenomenal aspect of our life. The second chararacter, do (tong in Chinese), means “sameness,” “equality,” “commonality.” Here it is used as a synonym of ri, the absolute or ultimate reality of emptiness beyond discrimination. Kai (qi in Chinese) means “promise,” “agreement,” or “tally.” In ancient times when merchants made a contract, they wrote it on a tally (a wooden board), which they then broke into halves. When they actually exchanged goods, they put the two halves of the tally together to confirm th agreement. San-do-kai refers to both aspects of our lives: the concrete, comprised of many specific situations, ideas,  evaluations, and things; and the absolute, based on universality, emptiness, and nondiscrimination. These are like the halves of a tally. These aspects work together as one seamless reality. Hence, “Sandokai” can be translated as the “Merging of Difference and Unity.”‘

At Zen Center we translate Sandokai these days as ‘Harmony of Difference and Equality,’ and as I often say, the different translations can help triangulate a picture for us. The way I see this now, the tally only serves its function when both halves meet. The two parts may seem different to our ordinary eyes, when in reality they are part and parcel. Perhaps, if we let go of the struggle to try to understand how this works, then we will get to experience it in our practice, and in our lives.

The Holy Hallway

Today is the day when Zen Center commemorates the death of Suzuki Roshi, forty-eight years ago now. The story of his dying, and the timing of it (on the first day of the Rohatsu sesshin)  is told often enough. I picture him lying in the room that is now the kaisando, the room that all temples have where the founder is remembered.

But for the time that he lived at City Center, in the last two years of his life, he mainly lived in the suite of rooms in the adjacent hallway. They were created, I believe, for the director of the building when it served as a home for Jewish women. The first room, central on the wing, is now the dokusan room, where the abbot or abbess meets students, which also functions as the spiritual base of the abbot, where he or she signs the official papers during the Mountain Seat ceremony. Doors lead through to a sitting room, then a bathroom and kitchen, a bedroom, and finally a closet.

The closet is the outlier as it is not part of the original design of the building. Julia Morgan had designed the wing with a skylight above the west end to illuminate that end of the wing, and a glass section of the ceiling between the second and third floors (the other wing had windows in the west wall for the same purpose. By modern standards, though, the bedroom door was too far from a fire escape, and so the end of the hallway was blocked off; the elegant cupboard, matching the one at the end of the ground floor, was hidden away, and that end of the wing grew dark.

These days it is used as a waiting area for students who are having dokusan or meeting other teachers whose rooms are on the wing (hence its nickname).

After Suzuki Roshi died, his widow, Okusan, continued to live in the suite, and when she returned to Japan, Blanche and Lou moved in there. When I first lived at City Center, I was in rooms on the floor directly above that (where the hallway had equally been shortened, and a little suite of two rooms and a hallway created) known as the tea suite, as it had been used for that over the years. So we had the skylight above, and the glass below. At night we could often hear Lou typing in the closet beneath, quite late into the night.

After Lou died, Blanche continued to live in the suite, but as she grew frail, the rooms were adapated for her decreased mobility. Eventually it was decided that she should keep just the sitting room (as her bedroom), and the bathroom. I was director at the time, and the consensus was that I should move into the other two rooms so as to be in earshot of Blanche if she needed help in the middle of the night – which eventually she did after she broke her hip, and I was on hand when she set off her alarm in the night.

I didn’t really make use of the kitchen, and the closet was still full of Blanche and Lou’s things, but the bedroom was a wonderful space to live in, and was probably as close as I ever felt to being in Suzuki Roshi’s presence…

Kaisando morning of the 4th.jpgThe kaisando with the offerings from the monthly memorial on the 4th.

Flow rehearsal dokusan room Hoitsu jiden 2.jpgLooking for pictures of the dokusan room, I came up with this from rehearsals for the 2014 Mountain Seat ceremony: Fu and Ed are standing by the table where the documents will be signed. Hoitsu, Suzuki Roshi’s son, is sitting in the corner. I have a whole sequence of pictures of him interacting with the Bodhidharma statue on the table, and others of him doing calligraphy at that table.

Suite - kitchen table.jpgThis was the kitchen of the suite – I did enjoy sitting at the table and reading.

Suite - bookcase.jpgSuite - bedroom, bookcase and kitchen.jpgLooking from room to room in the suite.

Suite - bedroom.jpgThe bedroom – the door where my robes are hanging is the door to the closet.

Of The World

My post yesterday prompted a correspondent to ask, ‘What is going on (actually)? Do you have some verbal answer?’ I suggested in reply that they go and look out of the window.

I received in return a description of things seen and things felt: ‘a very “mundane” verbal description of an experience – and yet, ok as it is.’

After this exchange, as I was out on my bike, I remembered that many years ago, when I was still a student, discussing with a good friend the value of traveling the world – not just to see amazing places, but also to promote personal growth – I quoted a line from a Talking Heads song, ‘I look out the window, and I call that education.’

I also thought, while riding, of the stamp that used to appear on books in the Zen Center library, courtesy of Celeste, the librarian who has since died, with the exhortation, ‘Have an Ordinary Day’; and of how Ed Brown, invoking Suzuki Roshi, talked of the ordinary being special and the special being ordinary.

The word ‘mundane’ has a connotation of boring, or perhaps even sense of drudgery attached to it. A sample online definition tell us:

Mundane, from the Latin word mundus, “world,” originally referred to things on earth. Such things were supposed to be uninteresting when compared to the delights of Heaven; hence the word’s present meaning.

And yet: this is what we have; this is where we are. Okay as it is. When we feel that we have to be looking for the supramundane and ignoring or belittling the mundane, we miss the opportunity to practise – or as Dogen would say we miss the moment of practice-realisation. When he says in the Genjo Koan, ‘here is the place; here the way unfolds’, it is easy to look past the fact that he really means right here, right now. Whatever that looks like.

On my ride yesterday, the world looked pretty beautiful. Once I was over the hill from Mill Valley, and descending towards Muir Woods, I was sharing the road with turkey, quail, and, unprecedented for me, two coyotes by the roadside in different places. I rode north along Highway 1 with the blue Pacific as a backdrop. It was wonderfully life-affirming, even the section that had recently burned, with its scorched ground, crisped brown leaves, and traces of pink fire retardant on the asphalt and barriers. And so was riding on 17th St later in the day, with three young people, two on scooters, one on a bike, all ringing their bells as they enjoyed their afternoon excursion. And so was chatting with the cashier at the supermarket, and being flustered by a careless driver soon afterwards.

Every moment counts.

Suzuki Roshi

‘Anyway we should listen to the birds singing; listen to the insects singing; if you are aware of your exhaling and inhaling (where the inhaling come from, where your exhaling goes) if you feel the heart beat one after another, then you will understand what is going on in this world actually.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Issho Fujita

‘There is no other need to reach a certain state of mind as a goal or to attain a special experience. Therefore we are freed from anxiety and frustration which comes from seeking for a special state of mind and experience which we have not yet attained and are able to peacefully rest in the here-and-now as it is, nothing special. There can be no competition or ranking based on what is achieved because there is no fixed attainment target. All those human struggles are totally suspended in zazen. That is why zazen is called the “dharma gate of joyful ease”.’

Issho lived at Zen Center for a few years while I was there, and was a wonderful presence and inspiring teacher. I was reminded recently about his enthusiastic participation in various skits (which I probably have photographic evidence of) – and to me that sums up his manifestation of the essential ease-of-being of a great teacher. His writings are mostly to be found in the Soto Zen journal; someone passed me a 200-page collection of these articles, which I started reading while I was in England.

The first few pieces set out the difference between zazen and shuzen, which might seem a bit esoteric, but which can be summed up in the paragraph above. He points out that Dogen was at pains to establish this difference, and it is no surprise that there is a quote from the Fukanzazengi to illustrate this, but I also noted the phrase ‘a special state of mind’, which immediately made me think of the opening of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindand Suzuki Roshi’s adherence to, and exposition of, Dogen’s views.

Suzuki Roshi

‘“Emptiness is form” is rather difficult to understand.  The empti­ness which is the absolute goal we will attain, which is enlightenment itself, is form.  So whatever you do is enlightenment itself.  This is rather difficult to understand, or to accept, because you think emptiness is some unusual thing.  Something unusual is something very common.  This is rather difficult to understand, especially when you practice zazen.  Even though your practice is not perfect, that is enlightenment.  This statement is very difficult to accept.  “No, my practice is not perfect.”  But when we under­stand form is emptiness, and emptiness is form, back and forth in this way, and form is form, and emptiness is emptiness, when emptiness comes, everything is emptiness, and when form comes, form is form, and we accept things as it is.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archive)

Suzuki Roshi

‘We should be, you know, not only able to– being able to talk about– about practice, we should experience, you know– we must have full experience– better experience of our practice. And for– for someone, you know, it is necessary to have– to put confidence in your big mind which is always with you. And you should be able to appreciate things, you know, as a expression of the big mind. In short, you must have some faith in big mind, which I explained.

It is– actually, if you understand what I said now, it is actually more than faith, you know. It is ultimate truth which you cannot reject. Whether it is, you know, difficult to practice in that– whether it is easier or difficult to understand or to practice it literally, you– this is the absolute truth which you must accept. And you must have anyway strong confidence in your big mind which is always with you, which you will find wherever you go. I think this is– if you, you know, have strong confidence, at– I think you are already, in its true sense, Buddhist even though you don’t attain enlightenment.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi Archives)

Suzuki Roshi

‘Without losing, you know, ourselves in city life, you know, to help others– how to help others is the point. We should be– whatever we do we should be Buddhist. To be Buddhist should not be just to practice zazen in calm nice building like a hermit [laughs]. That is not our way. Mahayana bodhisattva way is to– wherever we are, without losing our practice and help others is our way.’ (from the Suzuki Roshi archive)

Suzuki Roshi

‘The most important point is for us to exist in right place in right way. If we exist in right place in right way, everything exists in right place in right way. But usually without being aware of this point we try to change something else where it exists. That is wrong. Even though you try to do something you cannot organize your life. But when you do things in the right way at right time everything else will be organized. When the boss is sleeping, everyone is sleeping. When the boss do something right, everyone will do every thing right, at the right time. That is the secret of Buddhism.

So your posture should not be leaned over backward. You should be straight. You should not be this way or the other way. You should be straight. Our spine should be vertical. This is not just form. It express the key point of Buddhism. If you understand the key point — if you want to understand, truly, really, actually we should practice this practice. Those forms is not the means of obtaining right state of mind. To take this posture itself is our purpose or practice. It is not some means of obtaining some special state of mind. When you have this posture you have right state of mind. So there is no need to obtain some special state of mind. This point is also very important. ‘ (from the Suzuki Roshi archives)

The talk that this comes from was edited to become the opening chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and as I have written before, I often refer to both the point that it makes, and the significance of it being placed at the beginning of the book. If we don’t know how to sit, we can’t know how to practice.