Sunday, February 23, 2014

Japanese Pilgrimage: "No matter where you go, you can’t lose yourself."

Rinso-in from the garden
Road approaching Rinso-in
Our little group of Mountain Rain pilgrims (seventeen Canadians and me) spent five days at Rinso-in, a 500-year-old family temple in Shizuoka province. Rinso-in, though not a place where tourists generally visit, is very important to those of us who practice Zen within the lineage started by Shunyru Suzuki Roshi, who founded San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960's.

In Japan, temples are passed down from father to son, generally. Suzuki Roshi inherited Rinso-in from another Zen priest, and when he left for America, he left the temple in the care of his son, Hoitsu-san. Now, many, many years later, Hoitsu Suzuki (respectfully called Hojo-sama - "revered abbot"), now in his seventies, his wife Oka-san, his son Shungo-san (also a priest), his daughter-in-law, and his two grandchildren all live at Rinso-in.

For me, our days at Rinso-in were the heart of the pilgrimage, and I mean "heart" in every sense of the word. There was a tremendous sense of heart there, expressed by the whole family. In Zen sometimes we talk about a "family flavor" or "family way" of a particular lineage, and it's always felt to me like the family way of Suzuki Roshi's lineage, at its best, is generous, kind, and humble. Now I found myself in a place where Suzuki Roshi's own family, his actual biological descendants, live and work, and the feeling of that kindness was everywhere there.

Suzuki Roshi's family
I was also amazed by how beautiful and, in a way, how grand, Rinso-in is. All these years, when people said that Suzuki Roshi came from a small rural temple, I had imagined a run-down little place. Instead, everywhere I looked there was a graceful, dignified beauty, from the lines of the tile roofs to the exquisite pond and gardens. Rinso-in is tucked up at the head of a narrow valley, surrounded by steep slopes, and I could see why Suzuki Roshi fell in love with Tassajara when he first saw it. It must have reminded him of home.

Buddha Hall 
Every morning we sat in the old zendo, 300 years old and built to be a training place for monks. The rest of the days we cooked, worked around the temple, went for walks in the surrounding mountains, and spent time with the family. One evening Hojo-sama gave a dharma talk and question and answer for us. I took notes, as Kate McCandless and Michael Newton translated.

Old zendo and abbots chair, Photo by Kwee Downie
The talk filled me with delight and happiness. Afterward I had such a sense of pride - although pride is a funny word to use - in this particular way of Buddhism that somehow I'd been lucky enough to fall into, nearly a quarter century ago. I can't imagine another path that would be more perfect. Of course, every path is perfect, in its own way, but this one, this "family way" is deeply and thoroughly perfect for me. And of course, it has shaped me over these many years, and so perhaps I am thoroughly perfect for it too. I remember my mother used to tell me I was such a good traveler, and I would say, "That's because you've trained me!" Maybe it's like that.

Here is Hoitsu Suzuki's lovely talk, given May 19, 2013. What you can't see is his humor, sweetness, and tremendous gift for mimicry. You'll just have to imagine his impersonation of the big frogs.

Hoitsu Suzuki looking at tiny frogs in the garden. Photo By Kwee Downie
The reason human beings have so much suffering is because we’re so smart. Sometimes we think good things, but often our thoughts confuse us. We have a lot of desires: “I want this, I want that, I want to go here, I want to go there, I want to be this, I want to be that.” Shakyamuni sat down and quieted his whole being, his whole heart. When we do zazen, our heart and our whole life becomes quiet and still. If we continue the way we are we just keep running and running. Buddha asks us to stop and take a look at our lives, how they truly are.

Having desires is not a bad thing in itself; it’s how we relate to those desires. Zazen allows us to harmonize our lives with what is. It’s not a bad thing that we want things; that’s just what’s given to us. We can’t throw it away – it’s part of who we are. Or maybe we can get rid of them – desires – perhaps! [laughing]

It’s the body that does zazen. Sometimes we think, “Oh, I’m not doing zazen,” but it’s the mind that’s not doing zazen. Don’t worry about it. The body is doing zazen. Even when you think of something else, that is also doing zazen. If your body is doing zazen, that’s enough. Even if your mind is thinking things, there is also the “you” who is watching the thoughts. No matter where you go, you can’t lose yourself.

Kate McCandless and Oka-san's ikebana
There was an old teacher, two generations before Tendo Nyojo, Dogen’s teacher in China. Huanxi Zenji. He wrote the poem called “Zazen-shin”, “the acupuncture needle of zazen”. Zazen is the point of the needle. He said, “Your mind is like a pool of water. You can see the bottom and you can see a fish slowly swimming. It is like an endless sky where a bird slowly flies. And that is zazen.”

Koi in a pond at a nunnery in Ohara
Dogen changed the poem a little bit: “The mind is like a clear pool, and is the fish; a fish swims like a fish. The sky is limitless and a bird flies in the sky. A bird flies like a bird.”

Dogen Zenji says, “ If you are doing zazen, you are doing zazen, no matter what you think, just as a fish swims like a fish. You’re doing it like you.”

Just as Huanxi and Dogen said, “ The world before our eyes is vast and clear.” Around us everything is as vast and wide as the whole universe. It’s right here.

Sometimes when I breathe in, it’s not so much that I’m taking air into my body, but the air is passing through me. And bird song passing through me, light passing through me. Sometimes. We have many different experiences during zazen. Just because someone has written down or said in the past that you should feel a certain thing, don’t believe it. Really the only thing to do is sit quietly and settle your posture and breath. When you stabilize your posture, you make your mudra round, your arms round, your face and your breath round – but this is just something I feel, not something you have to do.

Old arhat statue
This is the teaching that came down from Dogen Zenji’s teacher to him, and from him to us. If you look for where your mind is, you notice, “it’s not here, it’s not here,” or, “it’s here, it’s here, it’s here.” You could look at it either way. You have a certain feeling when you do zazen, but it’s not a feeling exactly. No one is special in their accomplishment; we are all the same. If you tried to put your own experience of zazen into words, it would be impossible. Just words.

We really worry about things more than we need to. The trees, the stars, the rivers, the rocks, they don’t worry nearly as much as we do. The Buddha is inviting us, in zazen, to be like the many beings of the world – the trees, the rocks, the waters, the stones – to be in their family. To do zazen is not to be concerned with our desires to become this or become that. If you think you’ll get something out of zazen, some great idea, you’re just being sucked into the world of confusion. Good or bad in zazen is irrelevant.

Tiny frog. Photo by Susan Elbe
I was watching the pond today, and tiny little frogs were coming out and climbing up the mountain. My father loved frogs. There’s a very big kind of frog here in Japan, or maybe a toad, that almost never croaks, and doesn’t move much either. But when a little bug comes flying, it moves fast! (pantomimes a frog catching a bug)

My father was like that big frog. He was put in charge of the monastery when he was about twenty, but he had studied English and he wanted to go study zazen in a place where English was spoken. When the opportunity came, he jumped, just like that frog. “Within the stillness there is sudden movement. In movement there is stillness. Don’t forget your heart-mind.”

It took my father ten hours to prepare an hour talk in English. He must have been very busy, but when you read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, it seems that he was very calm. He must have had a very calm steady heart, even though he was busy.

Shungo-san at Suzuki Roshi's ashes site, surrounded by the memorial stones of the many abbots of Rinso-in, We did a ceremony for Suzuki Roshi here. Photo by Kwee Downey.
Zazen is a good thing. It’s not a matter of being good or bad. There is no one who is good at it and no one who is bad at it.

My father went to Poland with Bill Kwong. Someone asked, “Is it OK if I do zazen as a Christian?” He answered, “So you’re Christian, but when you do zazen you are a zazen person.” Kobo Daishi, who brought Shingon Buddhism from China, didn’t tell people, “Forget about indigenous religion.” He said, “Indigenous religion is very important, and let’s practice Buddhism.” And because of that, Buddhism was able to penetrate and sink into Japanese culture.

Just do zazen. That’s it!

Question: When I’m doing something and thinking about something else, am I having a direct experience?

You can really only do one thing at once; you can really only think one thing at once. It’s really always like that. It might seem like you can think or do more than one thing at once, but you really can’t. It’s OK.

Question: What is the relationship between ceremonies and zazen?

[Quite a bit around the translation of “ceremonies”...perhaps no good Japanese word for it, but he understood when Shungo-san pantomimed hitting a mokugyo]

There is no relationship. Zazen is zazen. Ceremony is ceremony. But there is an expression of gratitude, “Thank for the teachings.” Or when we are doing our jobs. All of that is Zen. This is written in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Why do we do ceremony?

It is all, “Thank you very much.” And also how we help support each other. The natural things we do to express gratitude are all ceremony, like bowing, or saying, “Good morning,” saying, “Thank you.” All are ceremony.

Old arhat statue
Question (my question): What kind of attitude or way of being is most important for a priest?

Shungo-san teaching chanting
[Leaning forward intently] EVERYTHING! But “everything” is very difficult. From the top of your head to the bottom of your feet you are practicing the way of Buddha. There’s no break, no wasting time. You might be angry or suffering, but you always remember your aspiration. This is very hard. But your whole body, even the bottoms of your feet, are dedicated. [The feeling here was sadness, or a strong sense of how hard the path is of a priest is, to live into these vows.] If your mouth is smiling but your eyes are angry, then you are not practicing with your whole body.

 Question: On the han it says, “Don’t waste time.” What does that mean?

Because we can only walk one path at a time, we can’t waste time. There is a much deeper way of understanding this saying, which is seeing deeply into the empty nature of time. Actually, the original text is in Chinese, and there are two ways of reading it. The typical way to read it is: “Don’t waste time.” But the other way is: “There is no time to waste,” which leaves behind our emotional confusion about wasting time. In the Chinese, it is literally, “Waste time not.” Our Zen way of understanding this passage is to look more deeply. What we mean by “path” is not some long road. It’s more like, “this instant,” and then, “this instant.”

Path to the tea house,
Question: Is it enough to practice zazen as a way to cultivate compassion, or are there other ways of developing compassion?

Old arhat statue
Tendo Nyojo said, “Do zazen only with the heart of compassion.” There are people who do zazen who think they are doing it through their own effort and strength, to get something from it, but Dogen’s teacher insisted that we can only do zazen for and with all beings.

When we are looking down in zazen, we are looking down, but not fiercely. We are open, practicing with the heart of compassion, and that’s conveyed to others by our way of being, quiet and gentle. People would always say, “Oh, your father is so kind and gentle and nice.” But we children were afraid of him. He was strict, and would yell at us. So doing lots of zazen doesn’t necessarily make you 100% nice. You will still be human.

Sitting on the tan, sitting on the zafu, becoming a Buddha – there is not one iota of difference.

Dogen Zenji became a monk because he understood that there is no way to escape change, and once you are on that path there is no turning back, and therefore no wasting time. Not that the path is straight: it’s just that there is no other way when you have that determination. Buddha's way is not something that someone can teach you; you have to find the way yourself. Your own path appears before you. It’s not about imitating someone else.

Zen is simple and easy to understand, but when we use words, we end up drifting farther and farther from the heart of Dogen Zenji’s words. Ungan Doyo, the 7th ancestor, came to the 6th ancestor. The 6th ancestor asked, “Where do you come from?” but Ungan Doyo can’t answer. He practiced for eight years, and after eight years all he can say is, “I can’t say. It’s beyond words.”

Tonight I’ve probably told you at least 800 lies. Perhaps!

The next morning Hoitsu said a formal goodbye to the group after zazen. He said he would like to come to Canada and someone said, “But our temple isn’t as nice and big as yours.” He said, “Wherever you sit zazen is a temple as vast as the universe. Like the old story of building a temple with a blade of grass [Book of Serenity, Case ?]. Wherever you sit zazen is a temple, a monastery.”

Mountain Rain with Hojo-sama and Oka-san in front of the Buddha Hall, Photo by Kwee Downie.