Monday, September 10, 2012

Shuso Notes Week Three: One Continuous Mistake

Detail from painting by Kaz Tanahashi

"Our life is much more fluid and instantaneous than our thoughts can capture."
                                                                   Norman Fischer, Seminar, September 5, 2012.

How could it be the beginning of the third week of the practice period already? A dharma friend mentioned that the whole idea of a practice period is arbitrary, even made up: Norman hits a big staff three times, the shuso accepts her responsibility, eighty people decide they are in a "practice period," and poof, it's a practice period! Makes you wonder how much else in life is like that.

So yes, it's made up, but this made up thing has its own kind of astonishing power. I find myself constantly surprised in this experience of being "shuso," "head student, "whatever that is (and I know what it is less than I did before I started). Surprised by my own responses, surprised by what practice period is like from this vantage point, completely not expecting what happens from one day to another.

That reminds me of a quote from Dogen that always makes me laugh : "Enlightenment is not like your conception of it....What you think one way or another before enlightenment is not a help for enlightenment." In other words, give it up! Your ideas about enlightenment, or anything else, whatever they may be, no matter how exalted or intellectually sophisticated - they're just fantasies, concepts, smoke rings. There are better ways to spend a day than spending even a moment thinking about such a thing.

Maybe Dogen's comment could be amended to, "Life is not like your conception of it...What you think one way or another about life is not a help for life!"

Photo by Michael Hofmann
I was in the Luther Burbank gardens in Santa Rosa yesterday, and saw a fountain there, a large bronze basin suspended about ten feet above a pool of water. The water fills the basin and pours over the edge in a smooth, thin sheet, but with the slightest breeze the sheet of water breaks up into momentary, beautiful patterns in mid-air, moving from one form to another, and then falling into the pool, disappearing into it.

Luther Burbank himself bred hundreds - maybe thousands - of new varieties of plants at the turn of the 20th century. Some of them, like the russet potato and hte Santa Rosa plum, are still being harvested. Others have disappeared completely, absorbed back into wherever it is they came from. Burbank himself, once world-famous, was buried in an unmarked grave in the garden, at his request, and a tree was planted above his body. The tree was a landmark in Santa Rosa for decades, but now even the tree is gone.

This weekend I was in a Asian calligraphy workshop with Kaz Tanahashi, who, if we had "living treasures" in the United States, would be one. At 79 he is still translating the most difficult Japanese Buddhist texts, writing books, creating enormous multicolored calligraphy masterpieces on commission for museums all over the world, traveling, working for peace....there's no one quite like Kaz, anywhere, and I consider it a great gift to study with him once a year.

Painting, "Together" by Kaz Tanahashi (from Brush Mind website)

I am exceedingly clumsy, beginning calligrapher, but I love it. It is so pure and so terrifying! Black ink. White ricepaper. Horsehair brush. The brush is poised above the paper, the mind is collected as best as one can, and then - splat! - the brush lands and moves and whatever it is that you had hoped for generally doesn't happen. It is an exercise in chaos. No amount of intention or concentration can completely control those wayward materials. And there is no erasing, no going back, no fixing or fiddling to make it better. The line shows everything, whatever you might want to hide or avoid - fear, nervousness, a moment of inattention -- or even the faint possibility, if you're exceedingly lucky, of a moment of grace, a little hint of what might happen if a person kept doing this for a few decades.

This constant "failure" really threw me in my first couple of workshops, as kind as Kaz is to all of us who are struggling there. But this time I found the process, and my reaction to it,  both funny and enjoyable. There seems to be a inverse relationship between willfulness and the lines on that stark white paper: the greater the willfulness, the shakier the line. I appreciate a place where I can't make it happen through will alone, and where I can't hide. Or maybe I should say, to be more accurate, that I am learning to appreciate such a place.

Being shuso is like that too, and not only that, but there is no way to avoid being a beginner at being shuso. There are no "experienced" shusos. So here I am, stumbling around with my brush dripping black ink, splattering paper here and there, getting ink on my shoes, definitely trying my best but completely unable to hide my rank beginnerhood. That's what makes shusos so endearing to everyone, and also what makes shusos so terrified. A friend who was shuso, years ago, told me that she too was walking in the hills before being shuso, and thought she heard a lion, and thought, "Oh, maybe it will eat me and I won't have to do this!"

Suzuki Roshi's most famous lines are undoubtedly, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." Yeah, yeah, we say, but who wants to be a beginner? It's embarrassing, stressful, awkward, silly. But then he says, "Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner's mind. It is the secret of Zen practice."


So for anyone in the practice period, or anywhere else, who feels like a beginner, please know that Suzuki Roshi would be very pleased. I'm going to try to remember that too, as I tremblingly sit down to give a dharma talk, or trip over my robes on the way to the altar, or say something stupid or foolish or thoughtless to someone. Practice period begins with a shuso jundo, where the shuso walks around the zendo hunched over and waddling like a duck, in a bowing position, past every person in the practice period. That is actually the shuso's way of asking forgiveness and apologizing, in advance, for all the ten thousand mistakes she or he will make.

Thank goodness Zen really appreciates this. "One continuous mistake" is one famous expression. "Fall down nine times and get up ten" is another.

Florence's "Life"
Falling down and getting up together, day after day, week after week, breath after breath. I know that's an idea about life, and ideas about life may not have much to do with actual life, but it feels like a helpful way to think about practice period. I am very grateful that eighty-four people have bravely and foolishly decided to join up together and fall down together. And I know that this community has so much heart that whatever foolishness I express, they will be able to forgive me and love me anyway (I hope.....) That's what it means to be part of a sangha, the precious jewel of spiritual community.

Falling down. Getting up. Letting that black ink show every tremor. Living, as Kaz says, "miracles of each moment"....what else is there to do?




  1. Our sincere and beautiful shuso: It's not just that we forgive mistakes in advance, we actually do not see mistakes. And, I am not sure there are any mistakes to see or not to see.

  2. Dear Miss Takes:
    Your blog (and especially your "Life" calligraphy) absolutely-relatively-and-intrinsically links you to Dogen's continuous practice tradition.
    We love your splats, your strokes, and your blobs. We love your duck waddle. We love you asking us to begin over and over again.
    Thank you ten thousand times.
    In gassho,
    Miss Terious

  3. I make a mistake. I wish I hadn't. I wish I could take it back. But then someone else finds a moment of grace through a corrective action taken. Would I still like to take back my mistake and rescind that person's experience? Maybe it depends on who I am at that moment.